Thomas Alexander was born in the autumn of 1838, in the parish of St. Peters, Colchester, Essex. He worked as a brick
maker until attesting for the 50th (Queen’s Own) Royal West Kent Regiment at Colchester on the 21st January 1857. The
regiment was known as the dirty half hundred due to cheap dye once used on their uniforms, which were issued during the
Peninsula campaign. The cuffs of the tunic were dyed black, which ran when the men perspired and smeared their faces
when they wiped their brow. He was 5’ 6 ¾” inches tall, with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair. His training
was completed on the 15th May 1857 and Private 119 Thomas Alexander joined his regiment.
On the 30th June 1857 the regiment sailed for Ceylon. They acted as a garrison for the island and potential
reinforcements for the troops fighting on the mainland during the Indian mutiny. They were never required to participate
and settled down to garrison duties, with detachments at Colombo, Trincomalee and Kandy.
Thomas Alexander seemed to have show a strong dislike for discipline, as his name appeared 15 times in the defaulter’s
book, which culminated on the 28th December 1861 with a sentence of a week’s imprisonment. It is not known which offense
he committed for this sentence to be imposed by his commanding officer. The regiment remained at this station for 6
years until an outbreak of fighting with the Maoris, required the 50th to embark for New Zealand. They arrived at
Auckland on the 15th November 1863.
On the 22nd February 1864 the 50th took part in the storming of a heavily fortified fort held by the Maoris at Rangiawhia.
The enemy’s works could only be approached by a narrow road, hemmed in on either side by high ferns, through which it was
impossible for the men to advance in line. The whole regiment was advanced in a column of four at the double over some 400
yards under concentrated fire from the enemy. A small storming party of 20 men under Lieutenant White broke cover to
draw the fire of the Maoris, while a storming party consisting of number 1 and 10 companies commanded by Captains
Johnson and Thompson broke into the fort, closely followed by the rest of the regiment. The dense dust cloud raised
by the men undoubtedly saved many from the fire of the enemy. The Maoris broke and fled into the forest.
It is not known if Thomas Alexander took part in this assault because he was now suffering from Ophthalmia, later called
Opthalmitis. This is an inflammation of the eye which affects the mucous membrane. If untreated the condition may become
chronic. The problem was most frequent where a number of people were crowded together, and so was common infection in
barracks. The causes were exposure to heat and glare or high winds driving dust into the eyes.
On the 17th March 1864 a regimental board met to verify the discharge of Thomas Alexander. A medical report confirmed
that the condition had originated from exposure whilst on guard duty. It further confirmed that the disability permanently
incapacitated him from the active duties of a soldier. Strangely, his character and conduct after reference to the
defaulters book and parole testimony, was described as good.
Thomas Alexander returned to England and entered the large military hospital at Netley. He was finally discharged on the
30th August 1864 with the intention to reside at St Peter’s parish, Colchester.
In the autumn of 1865 he married Martha Green at Colchester. She was aged 24 and originally came from West Mersea,
near Colchester, Essex. The following year their first child, named Thomas, was born. He was followed by another son,
named Charles, in 1867.
It then appears that the family moved to the parish of Mile End or Myland, Colchester, because a daughter called Alice was
born there in 1870 and then William in 1872. He was followed by Emma in 1874, Eliza in 1875, Phoebe in 1877, Walter in
1878 and Elizabeth in 1880.
By 1881 Thomas was employed by the council and working as a scavenger, which was an old term for a person who maintained
the roads. He was living in a house in Clay Lane. His two eldest sons were both agricultural labourers. In 1883 a further
daughter called Eva was born.
Thomas’s two elder sons had found better jobs, being an under game keeper and a market gardener. Thomas must have also
have made the decision to become a market gardener. By 1891 his fortunes had certainly changed as he was recorded on
the census as now living by his own account. He also had a house in Mill road, Colchester. In the 1901 census, he was shown
as being a market gardener and still living in Mill road. By 1911 he had retired from market gardening and was living in
yet another house in Mill Road with his wife, daughter and a grandchild.
On the 1st March 1914 his wife Martha died and was buried at St. Michael’s Church, Colchester.(pictured below)
By the time of Thomas’s death on the 12th October 1917, he had 11 grandchildren, 5 of whom were serving in the army.
Incredibly, they all managed to survive the First World War. His passing was recorded by an obituary in the local paper:-
“The death of our army veteran – Mr Thomas Alexander, by his upright life, must have enjoyed the respect and regard of
everyone who knew him. But he was more than an ordinary parishioner; for he took his part, at a critical time, in Empire
building. Having joined the army in 1857, he went to India, when the mutiny was raging, and stayed there till 1863. From
there he was ordered, with his regiment, to New Zealand, to take part on one of those little Maori wars which so often
occurred from 1843 to 1869, when they ceased. From here he was invalided home through an affection of the eyes. He
leaves a family of 11 and has 11 grandchildren”.
Thomas Alexander was buried in the graveyard of St Michael’s parish church, just a little to the left of the main pathway.
Attending the funeral was his son Walter and 3 grandsons.
Thomas received the New Zealand medal for his short service during the war. The medal was sanctioned on the 1st March
1869 and awarded to those who had fought in New Zealand in the two Maori wars of 1845-1847 and 1860-1866. The medal
is one of the most complicated produced as there were 29 different reverse types – one undated and the others showing
different dates when the recipient served. The dates did not indicate the years that the recipient took part in active
service, but rather the years that he actually served in the country. The ribbon is blue, with a central orange-red stripe.
It is assumed that as Thomas never completed a full year’s service in New Zealand, that is the probable reason why he
received an undated medal.
|Officers of the 50th Regiment, |
photograph taken at Trincomalee
in 1863, just prior to their
departure to New Zealand.
New Zealand Medal (undated) issued to
(about 4,400 medals issued)