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Robert Drew – Soldier

‘Dabchicks’ have roamed far and wide from Aldbourne in search of their calling or inclination. One of those found
himself on the remote but important island of St. Helena. He was Robert Drew (sometimes Drewe). Robert was one of two Robert Drews born in Aldbourne in early 1790, so he was either the son of William and Mary Drew or of Robert and Elizabeth Drew. Probably as a teenager, he joined the Army and served in the 20th Regiment of Foot. He saw service in the first Peninsula War (1807-1814) which took place in Portugal and Spain against Napoleon’s attempt to create an empire.

After Napoleon’s defeat, Robert’s Regiment served briefly in New Orleans in America before being sent to the remote mid-Atlantic Island of St. Helena where the 20th Foot reinforced the existing garrison of nearly 3000 soldiers. At that time, St. Helena was considered an important strategic island. The 20th Foot arrived there in early April 1819 and by that time St. Helena had a famous ‘visitor’, the defeated Napoleon Bonaparte who had been exiled there since October 1815. Napoleon was held in a reasonably comfortable house under the surveillance of the garrison. He died of stomach cancer in May 1821 and Robert, being over six foot tall, was one of eight soldiers chosen to carry Napoleon’s coffin to its resting place in a quiet valley chosen by Napoleon. There were four ‘nested’ coffins one of tin, one of lead and two of mahogany, so it must have been quite a test for Robert and the others to carry it!

Some years later, Robert left the Army. He returned to Aldbourne and received an Army pension via the Chelsea
Hospital in London which did (and still does) administer Army pensions. His untimely death at the relatively early age of 50 is graphically and generously described in the following Devizes and Wilts Gazette newspaper account published 7 May 1840 of the inquest (which would have been held at The Crown) in Aldbourne on 2 May 1840.

‘Mr Whitmarsh [Coroner] held an inquest on Saturday at Aldbourne on the body of Robert Drewe, fifty years of age. [The]
Deceased who had for some time been in a delicate state of health, being desirous of going to Hungerford to receive his pay [pension], procured a donkey-cart and went there on Thursday [? 30 April]. He received his pay but on his return home felt much worse and when near Chilton, he died in the cart. Verdict: Died by the Visitation of God. [The] Deceased was an excellent and deserving soldier. He was a native of Aldbourne, had served in the 20th Regiment of Foot for nearly 30 years and was for some time at St. Helena. He was tall and remarkably handsome and was selected as one of the six (?) tallest men of his Regiment to carry on their shoulders the corpse of Napoleon to his last earthly abode’.

Thus Robert came to a rather sad end. He was buried in St. Michael’s graveyard on 3 May 1840. Robert Drew, soldier, once lived in Aldbourne.