British Soldier John Ward Wins Back His Pocketbook

"The Soldier's Return," George Morland. (National Museums of Liverpool)

We expect writers for the Journal of the American Revolution to use primary sources—things written as close as possible to the time of the events that they describe. Sometimes even primary sources contain inaccuracies that can be spotted and resolved only by cross-referencing other primary sources. One example lies in the records of a criminal trial held in April 1779 at the sessions house of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London and of Middlesex, known as the Old Bailey.[1]

The defendant was John Ward, who had just been discharged from the British army in America and had come to the London area to go before the army’s pension examining board that sat at Chelsea Hospital. This was a common path for soldiers who had ended their careers. If a man served in the army for so long that he was no longer able to earn a living in another line of work, or if he had incurred a disability through military service, the government awarded him a pension. But he had to appear in person before the examining board, a group of army officers who determined that his circumstances did, in fact, qualify him for a pension.[2]

The trial proceedings identify Ward as “a soldier in General Burgoyne’s regiment” who had “been lately discharged on coming home from America.” General John Burgoyne, who in 1779 was already famous for the failed campaign he had led in America in 1777. Like many British general officers, Burgoyne was also the commanding officer of an army regiment; Burgoyne’s regiment was the 16th Light Dragoons, which had, in early 1779, just returned to England from service in America. A search of the regiment’s muster rolls, however, reveals no man named John Ward.[3]

Fortunately, the trial proceedings contain enough evidence to resolve the discrepancy. An innkeeper testified that “John Ward, with several others belonging to the 74th regiment of foot” stayed with him in March 1779 after returning from America. The pension examining board kept records of everyone who appeared before them, which reveal that nine men of the 74th Regiment, including John Ward, stood before the board on June 17, 1779.[4]

The admission book shows that Ward was Irish, a Belfast native born in 1725 who had spent over seventeen years in the army and been wounded in the arm during that long career. He probably enlisted before or during the Seven Years War, and then was discharged when peace brought reductions in the size of the army. Part way through the American Revolution he answered the call for volunteers to join a new regiment authorized in December 1777 and raised largely in the Scottish county of Argyll: the 74th Regiment of Foot, sometimes called the Argyll Highlanders. Like many new-raised regiments, its ranks were filled by a mix of new recruits and experienced veterans; men like Ward, with prior military experience, insured that the corps would quickly be ready for the demands of foreign service in spite of being newly created.

The regiment recruited throughout the first half of 1778, and sailed for Nova Scotia that August. Once in Halifax, Ward’s age and injuries apparently caught up with him; he may have been wounded somehow during his brief time in the 74th Regiment, or had a lingering disability from a wound received in the past. Before the regiment went to a war zone, he and a few others from the 74th were “invalided”—discharged because they were not deemed capable of the rigors of wartime service. On February 16, 1779 he and the other invalids, still in Halifax, embarked on the warship Iris for the journey home.[5]

When Ward disembarked from Iris in Portsmouth on March 20, he probably thought he had fought his last fight. He and his comrades set off for London, where they arrived on March 25. They took rooms for the night at an inn called Sign of the Angel in Chapel-street, Westminster. There, according to Ward “we laid down our knapsacks, and drank pretty heartily.”[6]

Lodging in the same place was John Close, a soldier in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards, soldiers serving in the London area to protect the Royal family and their properties. Close ate and drank with the newly-arrived veterans, and said he was an Irishman like Ward. The next morning, Ward and his comrades went to the War Office and received billets for quarters in Chelsea, where they would go before the pension board. Returning to the tavern, they met up again with Close, who accompanied them to Chelsea that afternoon.

After finding their quarters in Chelsea, Ward and Close went to a local tavern, ate, and drank some beer. Ward drew out his leather pocketbook which contained about two months’ pay that he had received when he was discharged, and paid the bill. He then left Close and returned to the previous night’s tavern where he wanted to spend some money because the owner had given him a free meal the night before. Close arrived later on. Some time and two pots of beer later, Close agreed to walk Ward, now somewhat tipsy, back to Chelsea.

Along the way, Close pulled Ward off the road. In the darkness he grabbed Ward’s lame arm, which had no strength due to its wound, leaving Ward unable to effectively resist. Close reached into Ward’s breast pocket and took the pocketbook full of cash that he had seen earlier that day. Ward, with the coolness of a veteran soldier, asked for the pocketbook back. But he did not to pursue or cry out when Close went off into the night. He knew where Close lived, knew he could identify him, realized that he might leave town if he feared pursuit, and recognized that his own lameness and inebriated state rendered him unable to best Close in a confrontation. Ward knew his best chance at recovering the pocketbook was to remain calm.

John Close returned to his own quarters at the Sign of the Angel early the next morning, and went to his room to prepare for his duties as a soldier that day. Soon after, John Ward and several of his comrades arrived and told the tavern owner what Close had done. The owner summoned Close, who denied the charge, but while Close talked with his accusers the tavern owner went to his room and found the pocket book hidden in a closet.

John Close was brought to trial at the Old Bailey the following week, on April 4, 1779. John Ward told his story and described exactly how much money was in the pocketbook. The tavern keeper from Sign of the Angel testified, as did the keepers of two other taverns where Close had spent money freely on the night of the theft. The pocketbook was shown to the court.

Close offered only a brief defense, claiming that Ward had given him money but offering no explanation of how he came to possess the pocketbook. He called on his sergeant as a character witness, but the sergeant said only that Close had been in the regiment for a year, and that he knew nothing else of him. This was no defense at all, and the court found Close guilty of theft. He was sentenced to “navigation,” a year of hard labor dredging the Thames River to improve its navigability.

The court records do not state whether John Ward recovered all of his money, but he did finally go before the examining board on June 17 and received a pension.[7]


[1]Trial of John Close,

[2]For details on British army pensions during this era, see Don N. Hagist, Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers who fought the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2020), 244-248.

[3]Muster rolls, 16th Light Dragoons, WO 12/1246, The National Archives, Kew, UK (TNA).

[4]“Examinations of Invalid Soldiers,” June 17, 1779, Pension Admission Book, WO 116/7, TNA. There is no obvious explanation for the statement that Ward was in “Burgoyne’s regiment”; there is no apparent connection between General Burgoyne and the 74th Regiment, or any indication that men were transferred from Burgoyne’s regiment to the 74th.

[5]Muster books, HMS Iris, ADM 36/10046, TNA.

[6]This and all subsequent information is from the Trial of John Close, unless otherwise stated.

[7]The trial record of John Ward’s testimony includes the sentence, “I came home in the Hallifax.” This incorrect ship name is easy to reconcile, given that Irisbrought Ward from Halifax, Nova Scotia; apparently the court recorder understood Ward incorrectly.

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