Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bandmaster Robert William Sweeney's Story

By Sean Sweeney

On board the ill-fated SS St Lawrence was my Great Grandfather, Robert SWEENEY, and his family - wife Agnes, and three young children, George, Agnes, and baby Kate - with the 2nd Bn 3rd Buffs. The Buffs had embarked from Dublin, on 4 October, 1876, where they had been garrisoned between Ireland and England since 1866, and where my Grandfather George William Sweeney was born 1868.

Robert William Sweeney, the son of illiterate Irish/Scots was born 'in the Regiment', in Stirling Castle Barracks, on 15 February, 1835, where his father William was a private in the 79th Highlanders Depot Companies. William was 19yrs a private, and discharged to Pension in 1846, having enlisted at age 16.

Robert was the third generation to serve in the British Army, when he enlisted into the 79th Cameron Highlanders at Bellturbet, Ireland on 29 May, 1846, at the age of 11 years, giving his age as 14, and was one of five brothers and two brothers-in-law to serve in the same regiment.

His first overseas posting was with the Regiment in Canada, as a Band Boy. He and his younger brother John then went with the Regiment to the Crimean War, in 1854, as 'bugler/drummers', where Robert was wounded at the Alma, and present at Balaklava and Sebastopol, also taking part in the successful expedition to Kertch and Yenikali with the Highland Brigade.

He was briefly nursed at Scutari, and in later life he mentioned his memories of Florence Nightingale, although he did not say if she had anything to do with his nursing.
His brother John was invalided out of The Crimea, from Balaklava, and died at Fort George on 20th April 1855.

My Great Grandmother Agnes's brother, John Brown, was a trumpeter with the 17th Lancers, and was present at the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, and subsequently wounded.

He was posted with the 17th Lancers to Natal in 1879, and was present with them at Ulundi, later transferring to the 79th Q O Cameron Highlanders, and eventually retiring as a Lieut Colonel, having been present at, and awarded campaign medals, for Crimea, Indian Mutiny, Zulu War, Egypt and Sudan.

At the end of The Crimean War, now a Lance Corporal, Robert having shown promise as a musician was enrolled into the newly created Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, on 3 March, 1857, where he successfully completed the first ever 'pupils' class held. He subsequently graduated as BandMaster, and when appointed to the 2nd Bn 3rd (East Kent) Regiment of Foot, 'The Buffs', on 25 August, 1860, was the youngest BandMaster in the British Army, at the age of 25yrs.

Robert served with the Buffs in Malta, Gibraltar, the West Indies, and Ireland. He told his family a tale that while at Gibraltar with the Buffs, he took wine with the ill-fated Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian and his Empress wife Charlotte (Carlota) on their way to Mexico on the Austrian Naval Frigate SMS 'Novara'. It is possible that the Buffs Band entertained the Emperor. It's believed that Queen Victoria had given orders for Maximillian to be accorded a Royal Salute by the Garrison when passing through the Straits of Gibraltar.

Robert later served in The Cape of Good Hope, and Natal. The only reference passed down is that the family arrived in Natal in 1878, and Robert remembered sleeping at The Old Fort on the night of their arrival in Durban.

He finally retired to pension with his family in Pietermaritzburg, (confirmed 'Horse Guards' on 25h February, 1879), at the end of his 'Second Period of Limited Engagement', having served over 32 years in the British Army, and been awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct silver medal, together with his'Crimea, and South Africa campaign medals.

The Military Board members of Robert's Discharge hearing in December 1878, were from the ill-fated 1st Bn 24th Regiment: Capt W E Mostyn, Lieut E O Anstey, and Lieut J P Daly - all killed by the Zulu at Isandhlwana in January 1879.

Robert's brothers Donald and James served with the 79th Cameron Highlanders at The Indian Mutiny, where James was invalided out, and subsequently died as a result.
Nephew Richard Sweeney of the 1st Bn Q.O. Cameron Highlanders was killed in action at The Aisne on 14 September, 1914, part of 'The Old Contemptibles' of the British Expeditionary Force.

Richard is remembered on the 'La Ferte Sous Jouarre' memorial for those brave heroes of the BEF who have no known grave.

In his retirement, Robert William Sweeney taught music and entertained the boys at Maritzburg College, the first of five generations to date to be involved with the school. He also directed the band of the Natal Royal Rifles. Robert William Sweeney died at Pietermaritzburg on the 14 September, 1922, at the grand old age of 87, having lived a lie about his birthdate and age for a good proportion of them! My Grandfather, George William Sweeney was College dux in 1885, and Captain of cricket, and captained a Natal XI v W.W. Read's England XI. He taught at College before graduating BA LLB, and eventually becoming Under Secretary in the Natal Government, before Union.

My Grandmother Alice Jex (Chapman) was a descendant of 1820 settlers John Lake and Sarah Griffin.Great Great Grandson of Robert William Sweeney, Lieut Alistair Sweeney (BA), of the Royal New Zealand Army is currently the 7th generation Sweeney to have served Queen (or King) and Country.

© Sean Sweeney




Very moving story. All that remain of the wreck (in 8 meters of water) are two boilers, a propeller and shaft. Andrew

Mole said...

Thanks for your informative comment, Andrew.