Alexander Somerville was a private soldier who served in the Scots Greys from December 1831 during a period when there was much unrest amongst the rural population. The Greys along with other cavalry units were acting as an aid to the civil power to prevent disturbances and riots by political activists who had no confidence in Parliament where the Reform Bill was being hotly debated. Some soldiers sympathised with the activists and were reluctant to fight against demonstrators. Alexander Somerville was one of these soldiers but he was more literate than most and was able to articulate his opinions. Like others in the working class, soldiers were not allowed to vote so he expressed his views in a letter, as did other soldiers. What prompted this was the rejection of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords in Oct 1831, and the eruption of the Bristol Riots. The Greys were at Birmingham and trouble was expected. There were doubts that the army could be relied on to fight against the rioters, a factor that influenced politicians so that the Bill was passed in May 1832. The Duke of Wellington, however, denied that the army would support the rioters and this denial was read by Somerville in the Weekly Distpatch. He wrote his letter to the Dispatch refuting the Duke’s denial saying that the Scots Greys would not act as the ‘tools of a tyrant’.
His letter was anonymous but the officers of the regiment knew that Somerville was the author, and he was court-martialled by Major Charles Wyndham who was commanding the regiment in the absence of Lord Arthur Hill. Somerville was sentenced to 200 lashes of the cat-o-nine-tails, although they stopped at a hundred. This did not prevent him from writing more public letters to newspapers and he became famous as a martyr to the cause. A court of inquiry was set up to investigate the matter and Wyndham was reprimanded for inflicting the punishment. This did not affect his career as he went on to command the regiment from 1837 to 1841. Somerville was allowed to purchase his discharge, aided by money raised from supporters, and managed to work as a journalist.
Alexander Somerville was born in Lammermuir on 15 Mar 1811. His formative years were in the Berwickshire and Dunbar areas. He came from a very poor farming family and had little prospect of improving his lot.This prompted him to join the army. He wrote a book detailing his early life and his recruitment and service in the regiment: Autobiography of a Working Man. He was persuaded to join the Anti-Corn Law League in 1842 by Richard Cobden but later fell out with him over Cobden’s pacifism. He and his family emigrated to Canada in 1858 but his wife died shortly afterwards. He continued to work as a journalist but made little money. He lived in woodshed in abject poverty and died on 17 June 1885, survived by his only child.
Regimental Details | Soldiers