Sebastopol to Dagenham

The Crimean War (1853-1856) began due to religious differences. Fought between Russia and the allied powers, including Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, hostilities quickly intensified because of the threat to British and French rights and privileges in the Middle East.

Battles at Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman resulted in the loss of many lives between September and November 1854. A harsh winter for the allied soldiers followed when the Russians took the advantage and entrenched at the heavily fortified port of Sebastopol.

Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe, of the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment, arrived at Sebastopol in the summer of 1855. On the voyage aboard the S.S. Andes from Malta to Constantinople, he began writing about his experiences to his parents and siblings living at Dagenham Vicarage. He kept up this correspondence until his return home on the H.M.S. London in 1856.

‘Sebastopol appears to be a succession of forts which the Russians are strengthening every day. A great number of the men are sick of the whole concern. No one looks forward to another winter out here with any degree of satisfaction’.

2016 marks the 160th anniversary of the end of the Crimean War. In this exhibition we commemorate the controversial conflict that shaped modern Europe through the eyes of a young man from Dagenham.

‘My dearest mother…’

Thomas Basil Fanshawe (1829-1905), known as Basil, was the second son of the Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe, vicar of Dagenham and his wife Catherine. The family owned Parsloes Manor but lived at the vicarage in Dagenham Village.

In his letters from the Crimea, Basil refers to his parents affectionately as ‘the gov’r’ and ‘the missus’. Basil’s mother was his most avid correspondent. In return he frequently sent her long letters describing camp life, his experiences of being under fire in the trenches, his impressions of his fellow officers and how he spent his leisure time.

Basil also regularly wrote to his siblings, John, Helen and Dick, as well as his brother-in-law, Edward Denison. Receiving news from home was very important to him and he relied on his ‘dearest mother’ to remind the rest of their extended family to write.

Catherine in turn circulated her letters amongst her other children and painstakingly copied their letters in her own hand so that she would have a complete collection. These letters were later bound together and are now an important part of the Fanshawe Collection held at the Barking and Dagenham Archives and Local Studies Centre.

The Journey of a Letter

Great efforts were taken to enable British soldiers to keep in contact with their families during the Crimean War. At the beginning of the conflict, the army were reliant on French packet ships to transport the mail to mainland Europe.

A British post office was eventually set up in Constantinople in 1854. This was followed by two more, most notably, at Scutari, near Constantinople, which served the staff and patients of the military hospital administered by Florence Nightingale.

Basil frequently signs off his letter in haste, rushing to make the regimental post collection. The letters then began their journey, from the soldiers’ quarters through to Constantinople, where as many as seven sorters were on hand to get the letters back to Great Britain.

Basil’s letters would have taken a week to arrive at the Bull Inn, which served as the first post office in Dagenham. From there his ‘epistles’, as he referred to them, would have been taken the short distance to the vicarage by local postmaster George Kettle.

A Truly Modern War

Warfare became mechanised for the first time during the conflict in the Crimea. Military forces used mass-produced rifles, exploding shells, sea mines and armoured coastal assault vessels with long-range cannons.

Opposing infantry forces no longer lined up in formation to be cut down by cavalry or artillery as they had in the war against Napoleon. Basil describes how he and his men were forced to take refuge in the trenches:

‘You ask me what I think of active service? If the trenches come under that denomination, where you have to remain close under the parapet with round shot and shell coming over you, and not certain of your life for a moment together, unable to do anything in way of retaliation – I tell you plainly I detest it’.

Technological innovation stretched beyond the battlefield. Textile designers produced warm garments and named them after Lord Cardigan. Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, captured all aspects of camp life and military routine, as well as portraits of officers.

Meanwhile the electric telegraph enabled news to travel across the continent in hours, not weeks. Media coverage made war more immediate for those back at home and in turn greatly influenced public opinion across Great Britain.

First Rate Entertainment

Allied officers made the most of their leisure time and the entertainments on offer behind the lines at Sebastopol. Basil was able to compose his letters, explore the surrounding landscape and socialise with his fellow officers, particularly after the siege ended in September 1855.

A camp theatre arranged by ‘The Rifles’ seemed to be one of the most popular ventures, noted for putting on a great performance for General Sir William Codrington, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Light Division.

Off the back of this success, Basil’s regiment took steps towards setting up a glee club. Popular at the events for his fine singing voice was Richard Bayliff, a family friend from Dagenham.

Many officers enjoyed the hospitality of Mary Seacole at her British Hotel. Basil recounts in a letter to his mother how a group of seven men dined there one evening, and then undertook a race from Balaklava back to their camp at Sebastopol.

‘Last night a party of seven of us dined at a Mrs Seacole’s, near Balaclava, who keeps a sort of eating house, it was by no means a comfortable place to dine but the dinner itself was good and the mulled claret after, first rate.’

These entertainments not only prevented boredom but also brought some civility into the harsh and chaotic world of the young officers serving in the Crimea.

The Lady with the Lamp

Soldiers endured dreadful conditions in the Crimea. The lack of adequate equipment and medical supplies was reported by William Howard Russell, a correspondent for The Times. The public outcry that followed provoked the nursing expedition led by Florence Nightingale.

Miss Nightingale, appointed by Sidney Herbert, the Minister of War, took over the management of the barrack hospital at Scutari. Her efforts to improve the hospital earned her the everlasting affection of the common soldier, who fondly referred to her as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’.

Basil was taken ill shortly after his arrival at Sebastopol. His illness, which he describes as a ‘bilious attack’, resulted in him being taken to Scutari. He describes the ‘unhealthy situation’ of the hospital, the ‘horrid smell from the drains’ and how he was glad to get away to continue his convalescence at Therepia.

Despite the tireless work of Miss Nightingale and her nurses, 25,000 British troops died during the conflict most because of disease rather than their wounds. On her return to Britain, Miss Nightingale instigated a Royal Commission into Military Hospitals, which led to far reaching reforms in the years that followed the Crimean War.

Fish and Fowl

Growing up close to the Dagenham Marshes, Basil developed an enthusiasm for the sporting life, nature and the environment. This passion flows through his letters from Sebastopol.

His letters vividly describe a picturesque land of rivers and valleys home to a great variety of fish, fowl, flora and fauna:

‘The valleys are very pretty here… After you cross the last river you have an immense plain for about ten miles to the Alma. We saw lots of foxes, some partridges and bustards on this plain’ 

He becomes particularly animated on finding bustards, a type of wild bird, which were extinct at this time in the United Kingdom. He also details his joy at finding rare species of plant for the fernery his mother was creating back home at the Vicarage – a pastime that became popular during the Victorian Era.

Basil undoubtedly finds great solace in the natural landscape during his time in the Crimea. It separates him from the horrors of modern warfare and the tedium of military routine, whilst at the same time enabling him to connect with his family in Dagenham.

The Social Network

Basil comes across in his letters as amiable, socially confident and at ease in the company of his fellow officers and the men that he served alongside.

Typical of young men of his class, Basil built a circle of friends and contacts whilst boarding at Shrewsbury School. Having enlisted in the 33rd Regiment at sixteen, he continued to widen his social network in the ten years leading up to his service in the Crimea.

Basil is often invited to dine in the mess of other regiments. In turn he sends reports of meeting various cousins, friends and acquaintances. His letters also bring news of men with connections to the family from Dagenham Village.

‘Pretyman, Elis, Trent and I dine together on Tuesday, we intend to have a capital dinner, turtle soup, fish, game, saddle of mutton and champagne, mulled port…’

Meanwhile on the rare occasions he mentions the ordinary soldiers in his company he praises their good behaviour and hard work. In doing so he conveys an understanding of, and compassion for, the hardships that these men suffered during the hard winter at Sebastopol.

The Forgotten War

Following a major assault by the British and allied troops in 1855, the Russians evacuated the fortresses of Sebastopol. The war ended soon after this with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in the spring of 1856.

Basil’s last letter is sent on his journey home from onboard the H.M.S. London in June 1856. It is clear that he and his men are keen to return to Britain. He writes:

‘I hope if lucky in the wind, we may reach home about the middle of July… To the exception of the man overboard the night before last and who we fished up again, we have had no excitement’.

The Crimean War ultimately saw the collapse of the Vienna Settlement, the system that had enabled Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia to cooperate and maintain peace for three decades. Ultimately the big powers of Europe were unable to re-establish this balance and returned to war in 1914.

Today the war is mostly remembered for the mismanagement of the British Army, the disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the efforts of Florence Nightingale. Valence House Museum hopes that the letters of Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe will cause you to reconsider the conflict that has become known as ‘The Forgotten War’.