John Dickens 1846-1927                                         


Marriage of John Dickens and Elizabeth Palmer   -  July 1871 - Nottinghill

John left home in January 1865 to join the Royal Artillery as a recruit at No.4 Depot at Woolwich, in the east end of London. He was eighteen and a half years old and he was to remain in the Artillery for thirty six years until retiring as a Quartermaster and Honorary Captain in 1901. 

In February 1865, he was posted to No.3 Depot, Royal Artillery at Warley (Essex) as a Driver; he was promoted to Gunner in January 1866. He was joined at Warley in July 1865 by Gunner Henry Bowman, a young recruit from Wainfleet, Lincolnshire. They overlapped at Warley for only a few months but they probably became well acquainted. Their military paths crossed twenty years later when both were attached to Coastal Artillery units at Plymouth. The friendship continued in retirement in Lincolnshire. John and his family settled at Ingoldmells, on the coast, close to Wainfleet, the small town where Henry and his wife had grown up, and to which they finally returned.

In June 1866, John left the Artillery Depot at Warley, and was posted to Gosport as a gunner in a Garrison Artillery unit, 7th Battery, 12th Brigade RA.This was a significant step, which largely determined the pattern of his future army career. As one military authority wrote:

'The history of the coast Artillery must largely be one of lonely garrisons, vegetating for years in distant ports and a pattern of changes in organisation, methods, armaments and fortifications and very rarely the roar of smoke and battle and sudden death.'

Active service seldom came the way of coast gunners and consequently opportunities for honours and promotion tended to be much more limited than for the Field Artillery. John remained for his whole service life working in static coastal units. He was never involved in any campaign and never fired a gun against the enemy. In this, he was by no means alone since such was the British superiority at sea, that the coastal artillery never fired one single shot in anger from 1815 to the end of the nineteenth century!

In 1868, John moved from Gosport to the Island of Jersey with 7/12 Battery and remained there till 1870. He was promoted to bombardier. In mid-1870, the Battery moved to Portsmouth and John was promoted to Corporal. He was stationed at Portsmouth in 1871 at the time of the national Census. On Census night, April 2-3, he was at the Gun Wharf Barracks. By accident, or design, a short distance away, his future wife, ELIZABETH PALMER, 19, was living and working as a domestic servant at a large house overlooking the sea-front occupied by a retired naval officer and his family.

Elizabeth Palmer was the daughter of Abraham Palmer and Elizabeth (Rich). Abraham was a shoe-maker, Sexton, and Parish Clerk who lived at Highbridge, Somerset, where Elizabeth had been born on 12 December 1851. Where and when Elizabeth first met John Dickens is uncertain but, in Portsmouth, the extensive and fashionable Southsea seafront common, situated near to Gun Wharf barracks and to the house on Auckland Road where Elizabeth lived, provided a likely setting for their first meeting and subsequent 'walking out.'

In any event, their courtship could not have been a long one since the couple was married on 1 July 1871 in Notting Hill, London, at the Church of St. James, Norland, just a year after John's arrival in Portsmouth.

Their wedding certificate contains some interesting information and a few untruths. Elizabeth, a spinster, was only 19 years old, but her age on the certificate was given as 20. This was still 'under-age' for a legal marriage if made without parental consent (which did not appear to have been forthcoming). John, a bachelor, entered his rank or profession as 'gasfitter'. This was, at best,disingenuous, since at that time, he was a Corporal in the 12th Brigade, RA, stationed at Portsmouth. The witnesses were Charles Pearce, the husband of John's elder sister Dinah (Charity) and their daughter Keziah Ann Pearce, both hailing from Feltham.

The most plausible reason for the choice of a London church for the wedding, rather than one in Somerset, is that Elizabeth's father, Abraham, the Sexton, was less than enthusiastic that his under-age daughter should marry a soldier so precipitately. In fact, the Church chosen in London was close to where Elizabeth's older married sister, Maria Craig, lived in Notting Hill. If this was a clandestine marriage, Elizabeth and Maria may well have colluded over the choice of its venue.

The couple seem to have neglected to tell the Army they had married because a year later the whole operation was repeated in Pembroke Dock, Wales, where Elizabeth was now living and where part of 12th Brigade was stationed. This time the marriage ceremony, held on 15 August 1872, was at the Pembroke Register Office.

Again, the certificate suggests a certain economy with the truth on the part of John and Elizabeth. It was blithely stated that he was a bachelor and she a spinster! John's age, 25, was correctly stated, as was his rank of Corporal, Royal Artillery; his place of residence given as the Defencible Barracks, Pembroke Dock. Elizabeth still claimed to be a year older than she was and entered her occupation as 'dressmaker'. She was said to be living at Maker Street, Pembroke Dock. One of the witnesses, Martha Rees, was a cousin of Elizabeth's from Somerset. A curious feature of the Pembroke marriage was that this time, John was not actually stationed at Pembroke Dock. He was attached, and had been, since the previous autumn, to the 2nd Division Depot Brigade, RA which was based in Plymouth and Devonport.

The Army only took the couple onto the Married establishment of 12th Brigade RA on 29 July 1873, two years after the first marriage ceremony in London and seven months after the birth of their first child, Charles. In the meantime, John was promoted to Sergeant on 1 July 1873; he was still stationed at Plymouth and Devonport, on attachment, with mainly administrative duties. His pay was 3s per day.



Fort Picklecombe, Cornwall

 John's Family and Career


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