Home > Family History > Social History: George Olliffe – Victorian army bandsman, British India

Social History: George Olliffe – Victorian army bandsman, British India

Just 100 years ago in 1912, my Grandfather was one year away from the end of 12 years with the Colours and his discharge from 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (The Tigers).

This is Part 2 of his story …

I have looked up the 1901 and 1911 UK Census documents and found that my Grandfather is listed in both archives as part of the British army records of the day. 

1901 Census – at Glen Parva Barracks, Leicestershire

In the 1901 census, Grandad was at Glen Parva Barracks (Headquarters, 17th Regimental District), nr Leicester. On the night of Sunday 31st March 1901, he is listed (pg 12, Line 5) as George W Oliffe (note spelling) of Acton, London, (London then crossed out, Mdx added), Single, Age 16, Private, Leicestershire Regiment.

1911 Census – at Talavera Barracks, Aldershot, Hampshire

In the 1911 census, Grandad was based at Talavera Barracks (Part area 11C), Wellington Lines, Aldershot, nr Farnham. On the night of Sunday 2nd April 1911, he is listed (pg 7, Line 27) as George Oliffe of Acton Middlesex, Single, Age 26, Private, 1st Leicestershire Regiment, Occupation Musician. The commanding officer is recorded as Major General H M Lawson, GB.

The Leicestershire Regiment was formed as the county regiment on 1 July 1881. It had first been raised as the 17th Foot in 1688. The regimental depot was at Glen Parva, and the regiment consisted of: The 1st and 2nd Battalions (formerly the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 17th Foot), 3rd (Militia) Battalion (formerly the Leicestershire Militia) and 1st Leicestershire Rifle Volunteer Corps, redesignated as the 1st Volunteer Battalion in 1883.

Prior to 1881, the 17th Regiment of Foot did not have a depot in Leicestershire. Under the prevailing brigade system, regiments shared a brigade depot. However, with the army reforms of that year, the 17th became the Leicestershire Regiment and the 27th Brigade depot was abolished. The army was reorganised along territorial lines and each county regiment was to have its own depot. That of the Leicestershire Regiment was the newly built Glen Parva barracks near South Wigston. 

1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment deployment:

1899 South Africa (heavily involved in the Boer War)
1902 India: Madras
1904 India: Belgaum
1906 England: Shorncliffe, Kent
1910 England: Aldershot, Hampshire
1912 Ireland: Fermoy

I recently located Grandad’s Long Service Attestation in the National Archives at Kew. He signed up for 12 years, not the 21 years my father had previously suggested. His army record is fascinating and runs to four pages (I have the A3 photocopies of all four). I also found a George Olliffe (right spelling, wrong person) b. 1856 in Stow-on-the-Wold, who joined the Grenadier Guards!

1901 Long Service Attestation

British Army Service Records (also available on www.findmypast.co.uk)

1760 – 1915 (Held at National Archives, Kew)

Record Number – WO97 5621 5 (Chelsea Hospital)

Front page

Oliffe (note spelling) George William (not James as per his later marriage certificate).

Born: 1885 Acton, Middlesex (a Birth Certificate records his actual birth date as 11th November 1883)

Attestation: 4th February 1901

Soldier Record Number: 6050

Grandad joined the Leicestershire Regiment (the Tigers) at Hounslow Recruiting Office. It’s clear that he was previously from the Brentford District Schools (Percy School) at the time of joining. He stayed for 12 years ‘with the Colours’, spending almost a third of his service in India. He left the Army on 5th February 1913 (as a ‘time expired’ soldier, so was not called up for WW1).

The second page of the army record is telling and records his description:

Age: 15 years, 11 months

Height: 5 feet

Weight: 93 lbs (just 6 ½ stone which seems shockingly underweight?)

Chest: 31 / 32 inches

Complexion: Medium

Eyes: Blue

Hair: Brown

Religion: Church of England

Next of Kin: Father, William Oliffe. Brentford Union

This section of distinguishing marks also concerned me – does this record instances of workhouse abuse?

Tattooed on both forearms

Scars: back of right hand, knee, back of head, left elbow, right buttock, front of chest

Page three – ‘Statement of Services’ of 6050 George William Oliffe (italics mine)

Posted to Leicester Depot on 5th February 1901 (for recruit training)

Attained 3rd class Certificate of Education 16th April 1901

Granted 1st Good Conduct Badge 4th February 1903

Attained 18 years old on 4th March 1903 (date and age possibly suspect?)

Granted Messing Allowance (Bandsman) 4th March 1903

Transferred to India 6th March 1903 (probably to Fort George, Madras)

Appointed Bandsman 1st November 1903

Elected Service Pay 1st April 1904

Granted pay as a 1st Class soldier 4th March 1905

(1st Bn transferred from Madras to Belgaum on 16th January 1905)

Granted 2nd Good Conduct Badge 4th February 1906

Advanced to Senior Private 1st March 1906

(Left India on HMT Dongola Thursday 17th October 1906 (see details below)

(Arrived England 9th November 1906 in ‘cold and very wet weather’)

Serving with ‘C’ Company, 1st Bn in 1909

(In the UK – at Shorncliffe, Kent and Aldershot, Hants – through to February 1913)

Discharged on the termination of his first period of engagement 3rd February 1913

Signed by: R.S Dyer-Bennett Lt for Captain Adjt Leicester Regs.

Footnote: ‘Troopship HMT Dongola was built for the P & O Shipping Company by Barclay, Curle and Coy in Glasgow. She was launched on 14th September 1905 and saw service on the company’s Far East services. From 1906 she was taken up for seasonal trooping by the War Office between England, India and Hong Kong. In 1915 she was requisitioned and used as a hospital ship at Gallipoli. She was sold for scrapping to T W Ward Ltd of Barrow in Furness, in June 1926′.

The fourth page – the dates of Grandad’s military service:

Home:  4/2/1901 to 5/3/1903 –  2 years in UK (presumably Glen Parva Barracks, Leicestershire)

India:     6/3/1903 to 9/11/1906 – 3 ¾ years in India (at Madras and Belgaum, south of Goa)

Home:  10/11/1906 to 3/2/1913 – 6 ¼ years in UK (first Shorncliffe, Kent and then Aldershot)

BELGAUM, a town and district of British India, in the southern division of Bombay. The town is situated nearly 2500 ft. above sea-level; it has a station on the Southern Mahratta railway, 245 m. S. of Poona. It has an ancient fortress, dating apparently from 1519, covering about I 00 acres, and surrounded by a ditch; within it are two interesting Jain temples. Belgaum contains a cantonment which is the headquarters of a brigade in the 6th division of the western army corps. It is also a considerable centre of trade and of cotton weaving. There are cotton mills. Pop. (1901) 36,878.

Grandad joined the British army in the same year that Field Marshall Frederick, 1st Earl Roberts 1832-1914 (author of 41 Years in India: 2 vols) became the last Commander-in-Chief of the Forces. During Grandad’s time in the army, British power in India was at its height and as an Army Bandsman – a clarinetist – he would have been at the centre of its pomp and ceremony.

The regimental music of the Leicestershire Regiment, which my Grandfather would have played can be heard here.

To my mind, the British Army seems to have been the making of Grandad. Essentially he escaped to another world, but one which he presumably understood well; yet another institution as it so obviously was. Perhaps he simply swapped one set of known rules for another?

The garrisoning of India and the Colonies was a priority for the British Imperial army. Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The Absent-minded Beggar (1899); a jingoistic poem about the role of the ordinary soldier in defending the Empire. Grandad came into the army in this same late Victorian period. My Father remembers him reminiscing happily about India; he obviously enjoyed his experience and talked about ‘having a servant and keeping a monkey’.

Barnes in History of Regiments and Uniforms of the British Army (Peacetime soldiering, p223) records something very similar:

In India, the private solder of the period lived a Gentleman’s life. He had native servants to do all the dirty work and could even get the ‘nappy’ with his little lamp and portable kit to come and shave him whilst he lay in bed. Various pets were kept. Barracks were spacious, the country itself was full of interest with fishing and shooting for all who desired it and there was sport, dances and the social life. From this period came the Hindustani words: Cushy, Blighty, Chit and Roti’.

Grandad’s Sporting Record 1907 – 1911

(Source: Green Tiger Journal)

The Green Tiger Journal contains many references to Pte. Oliffe playing Cricket and Hockey for the Regiment.

Playing Cricket for the Regiment in 1907 and 1909

P40: ‘The cricket season has now commenced, though no regimental match has yet been played. On the 11th May the Band (Lewis 21, Hinch 20) beat a local team, Holy Trinity Church, by an innings and 34 runs, 95 to 21 and 40, Oliffe performing the hat-trick’.

Played 27th May Shorncliffe, Kent – win for the Regiment by 19 runs: Pte. Oliffe. B Bush 6

Played 31st May Shorncliffe – match abandoned due to heavy rain: Pte. Oliffe, not out 5

Played 10th June Shorncliffe – met their first reverse at hands of Royal Scots: Pte. Oliffe, not out 1

1st Royal Scots: Capt. Drysdale, c Challenor, b Oliffe 1

Played 14th June Shorncliffe – win by Leicestershire Regt by 8 wickets:

Ptes.Wilkes,Daft and Oliffe did not bat

Played 17th June Folkestone – lost by 4 wickets:

Pte. Oliffe, c Payne, b Goodsell 2

A.C. Edwards, c Nott, b Oliffe 31

Capt. A. I. Paine, c Oliffe, b Green 52

Played 26th June Shorncliffe – the Regimental team were beaten by 80 runs:

Pte. Oliffe c. Tawney, b Audsley 0

May 8th 1909 Played at Folkestone, won by 80 runs: Pte. Oliffe (batted last) not out 6

May 12th Played on Garrison Ground v 11th Hussars, won by 120 runs: Pte. Oliffe 2 for 7, did not bat

May 13th Played on Garrison Ground v 5th Battn K.R.R., won by 76 runs and 3 wickets:

Oliffe took 4 wickets for 37, did not bat

May 21st Played on Garrison Ground v N. Staffordshire Regt, won by 186 runs: Pte. Oliffe, not out 7

Playing Hockey for the Regiment in 1909 and 1911

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, March 1st) Leicestershire Regt v Bedfordshire Regt

‘We started by pressing, and a good deal of loose play in front of the Bedfords’ goal resulted in shots from Oliffe and Cunningham which just went wide … our forwards were constantly pressing. The home team was: Daft, goal; Capt. Challenor and Nott, backs; Gandy, Richardson and Brookes, half-backs; Capt Creagh, Pepper, Cunningham, Lieut. Yalland, and Oliffe, forwards’.

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, November 20th) Leicestershire Regt 2 v Bedfordshire Regt 0

Bdsmn. Daft; Capt. E. L Challenor and Corpl. Nott; Lance-Corpl Brooks, Sergt. Richardson, and Capt. F. Le M. Gruchy; Lieut. E. S. Tidswell, Lieut. T. Prain, Sergt. Cunningham, Sergt. Pepper, Bdsmn. Oliffe.

Army Hockey Tournament (Aldershot, December 14th) Leicestershire Regt 5 v Lancs. Regt 2

Reserve: Pte. Oliffe

Reading Grandads’ army record and these numerous sporting entries in the Green Tiger Journals, I have the sense that his life significantly improved and that he never looked back. He spent 12 years in the army and whilst not rising in the ranks, (he remained a private to the end), kept his head down and was awarded several ‘Good Conduct’ badges. He had joined just after the Boer War (1899-1902) ended and when he left the army in 1913, aged 28 (or was he possibly 30?), he was a ‘time-expired’ solder and as such legitimately avoided being called up for the Great War.

I only wish that I’d had the chance to have heard more about his experiences from him when I was growing up in the 60’s. He died in 1969. My memories consist mainly of an elderly, blind man in a dark suit wearing spectacles. He was clearly so much more than that!

He’d had quite a life, not all of it pleasant but he had obviously made the most of the hand he’d been dealt.

George (and Ethel) Olliffe are buried in the Backwalls cemetery at Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire.

Footnote: For a very good history of the 17th Foot and the Leicestershire Regiment, I recommend the following volume: http://www.naval-military-press.com/history-of-the-services-of-the-17th-the-leicestershire-regiment.html The period of my Grandfather’s service is covered between p224-234.

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  1. August 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Superb record Eddie. My grandfather was regular soldier during same period. Those experiences were significant influences on us all I feel.

  2. Kate Swaffer
    September 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Excellent work Eddie.
    I also share Oliffe ancestry which I am currently researching. (Sadly being female I do not share this surname, yet without this family I do not exist)!
    I am writing to ask if your great grandfather William is a descendant perchance of the Rev James Oliffe 1780-1860 born ( forgive me if I get these places wrong, as an Australian foreigner not yet having visited the UK, I am uneducated & ignorant of the geography)
    Born in ?Bander, cork
    Died in ? Comber, Down
    Yours sincerely, Kate

    • October 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      Hello Kate – Sorry to be such a while with this reply. I am afraid I do not know the answer to your question. My grandfather’s father, William is a bit of a mystery to us. Because he was in the workhouse, records are hard to find as many were destroyed from this period. Nice to have contact with you though.

    • Shawn
      September 29, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Kate, My Olliffe Ancestors also came for Bandon, Cork, Ireland. Have you managed to learn any more about your ancestor James Oliffe?

  1. September 17, 2012 at 7:26 pm
  2. June 10, 2014 at 7:18 pm
  3. July 27, 2015 at 8:18 pm

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