From the distant viewpoint of a century later the end of the 19th century is often seen as a period of political and industrial calm, but in fact the 1880's saw the rise of wide-spread strikes and unrest, largely on the subjects of pay and conditions. Two such strikes, which have gone down into the history books are the Bryant and May's 'Match Girls' strike of 1888 and the 'Dockers' Tanner' strike of 1889. 1890 saw a massive strike by London Post Office workers, and even the threat of industrial action by the Metropolitan Police.
In this volatile situation the final step towards revolution was predicted by many when the 2nd Grenadier Guards 'refused duty' in July 1890. The term 'mutiny' was never used, and it was a most respectful disobedience, but it caused great unease in many quarters who feared the worst.
First reported in the evening papers of 7th July, 1890, the news broke nationally in The Times the following day, that the 2nd Grenadier Guards had 'refused duty' at Wellington Barracks, London, in consequence of excessive guard duties and inspections, in addition to their normal duties.
The dissatisfaction of the men seems to have started with the appointment in 1889 to the command of the battalion of the magnificently named Col. Mackgill-Crichton-Maitland, who would appear to have been determined to bring his battalion to the peak of smartness, but to have had little idea of handling men.
The flashpoint of the Monday's demonstration seems to have been the detailing of the battalion to move to Pirbright on the Monday, to be used in the drill training of Militia and Volunteer officers. This always entailed a considerable amount of preparation of their uniforms by the men, who would normally have been warned on Saturday. However, owing to a breakdown in command (the adjutant resigned over this failure) the men were not informed of the journey until Sunday afternoon, some as they came off guard duty and others on their return from week-end leave. This seems to have brought to the boil the men's simmering discontent, and when, at 8.30 on Monday morning, the bugle sounded the 'Fall-In', only a few men fell in. It was later stated that the young and unattached men insisted that the married men, and the long-service men (nearing their pensions?) should obey the bugle.
Col. Maitland went to the barrack rooms, and is said to have been "disrespectfully received". The company officers then spoke to the men, urging them to parade, even if they dressed as they pleased, a suggestion which was quietly obeyed, thus reducing a possible charge of 'failing to obey a lawful command' (i.e. mutiny) to that of 'failing to appear on parade properly dressed'. It is reported than when Col. Maitland addressed the men, threatening to send in the Scots Guards, "murmurs were heard that those men would be found to be with the Grenadiers". On being confined to barracks indefinitely, some of the men threatened to break out, but this confinement order was repealed the next day, the 9th, possibly to help to defuse the situation.
The War Office seems to have been in an agitated state, for, having ordered the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to London from Portsmouth, this order was countermanded (although the Inniskillings were to be held in immediate readiness for further orders), the Yorkshire Regiment (the old 19th Foot, and later the Green Howards) being sent instead. The men of the Grenadiers were told that this measure was being taken solely to ease their own guard duties, "a statement received somewhat dubiously by some of the Grenadiers".
They would have felt justified in their doubts if they had known that the Yorkshires, on entraining at Gosport for London, had sent on, ahead of the battalion, the Band, armed with rifles, and the regiment's ammunition. The regiment arrived at London just after midnight, and settled into Wellington Barracks to carry out their guard duties.
Matters having quietened down, the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, ordered a court of inquiry into the whole disturbance, this court first sitting on the 9th July, and carrying on until the 15th. It decided to order the courts martial of six men, selecting, at the C-in-C's suggestion, the longest-serving private of each company. (The two companies serving at Kensington were not involved in the disturbances). The beauty of this ploy was that in any future disobedience the oldest soldier, knowing that he would be held responsible, would try to quell any illegal action, and that if he disassociated himself from the protest the next senior man would become liable for punishment, and so on down the list of seniority.
While the courts-martial continued (the men were found guilty; details are given below) the question of punishment for the battalion as a whole was considered. The worst disgrace for a Guards regiment was to be sent abroad in peacetime, as opposed to going to a seat of war, and several stations were mooted, including South Africa, Aden or, ultimate horror, Ireland.
In the London Gazette of 22nd July Col. Maitland is shown as "retiring on half pay", his place in command of the 2nd Grenadier Guards being taken Col the Hon. H. Eaton (later to succeed his brother as 3rd Lord Cheylesmore). The former Adjutant, Lt. the Hon. W.D. Murray also resigned, his place being taken by Lt A. H. O. Lloyd. Another casualty of the affair was a sergeant who was in the process of receiving a (Q/M's?) commission, and who had reached the stage of being ordered to hand in his NCO's uniform. When it was found that he had been his company's orderly sergeant at the time of the disturbance his commission was instantly cancelled.
On the 21st the Duke of Cambridge reviewed the whole battalion, and delivered a violent tongue-lashing to the officer, the N.C.O's and the men, before dismissing the parade, for it to prepare for embarkation the following day, to Bermuda.
The journey started at 5.30 am on the 22nd, when the battalion marched to Victoria Station, and travelled to Chatham, where it embarked on the trooper Tamar, which cast off at 2.30 pm. As a further act of spite the porter ration for the men was stopped during the voyage to Bermuda, a deprivation worsened by the fact that the crew and the Royal Marines on board naturally continued to receive their rum ration.
The whole matter continued to rumble on in the correspondence columns of The Times, where an assortment of retired officers (mostly titled) while admitting that the men had been hard done by, blamed the short service system, which failed to inculcate regimental loyalty into the young soldiers. One of these writers, General Baron de Ros, also regretted the abolition of flogging. He obviously felt that a touch of the cat would have sorted things out smartly.
By the 6th of August several MP's presented ot the Secretary of War a petition praying that favourable consideration might be given to the case of the imprisoned Guardsmen, this petition having been signed by about 50,000 inhabitants of the Metropolis. One wonders by whom, and how, this petition had been organised. It certainly demonstrates the strength of popular feeling, and may explain why the jailed men, although sentenced to between 18 months and two years' imprisonment, were, in fact, released on the 23rd November 1890, after only four months' servitude. Of the six men, only one was discharged with ignominy, the others returning to the battalion and finishing their periods of engagement.
The fate of Col. Maitland is ironic, in that he was promoted to command of an army district, the stings in the tail of this announcement being that he was given No. 101 District, in the most distant part of south-west Ireland, at Tralee. Thus he received promotion, but was denied the opportunity of causing any further trouble. As for the battalion, it returned quietly to England on the 28th July 1891, although its sentence of banishment had been for two years.
The general feeling on this affair is summed up by one of the writers in 'The Times' of 22nd July, who wrote, "The whole of this unfortunate military scandal has been caused by one man, who, notwithstanding his zeal and capacity, apparently did not know how to deal with men."
The reports in The Times, on which this article is largely based, give the impression of having been written by an officer of the Grenadier Guards, largely in sympathy with the men's complaints, and one wonders if there was another Lt Churchill supplementing his Army pay by writing for the newspapers.
The Times, July - August, 1890
Public Record Office, Soldiers' Documents, WO 97
Reproduced from Soldiers of the Queen, Issue 95