Sergeant Major Matthew Clay Born 6th March 1796 – Died 5th June 1873
by Bob Ricketts
Local historian and reenactor Rory Butcher honouring Matthew Clay, on the 205th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo
Private Matthew Clay was one of the few heroic defenders who held the strategically important walled farm of Chateau Hougoumont at Quatre-Bras on the battlefield of Waterloo against repeated attacks by French troops. He kept a unique pocket-book record of his battlefield experiences, which he had published as a book in 1853. He continued to serve with the Scots Guards until 1833, when he resigned to become a Sergeant Major in the Bedfordshire Militia, based at Bedford, until 1852. Sadly, he died in penury, having had to sell many of his possessions simply to pay his rent. When he died in 1873, thousands of townspeople paid their respects and a striking memorial stone was erected from public subscriptions. He is also commemorated in his birthplace of Blidworth, Nottinghamshire.
Matthew Clay was born on the 6th March 1796 in Blidworth, Nottinghamshire, the eldest son of Matthew and Sarah (Gilbert) Clay. He began his working life as an apprentice framework knitter and completed his apprenticeship. Textile manufacture was an important trade in Blidworth, but rapidly advancing mechanisation and factory production were under-cutting ways and de-skilling workers, triggering unrest, the formation of the Luddite movement in Nottingham and culminating in a region-wide rebellion from 1811 to 1816. Matthew decided to abandon his craft and join the Army, aged 18. He enlisted in the Third Regiment of Foot Guard, the Third Scots Fusiliers Regiment in London on the 6th December 1813. On enlistment, he was described as 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and light-coloured hair.
Matthew served first with the 2nd Battalion commanded by Lt.-Colonel Master in Holland and France from 1814 to 1816. He was captured and imprisoned, but only for a couple of weeks, being set free when Paris was liberated. Subsequently he fought at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815. He was the only soldier at Waterloo to write a diary in a small pocket account book (now held by Bedfordshire Archives Service reference Z1081), providing a detailed account of the hand-to-hand fighting and the defence of Chateau Hougoumont. He published this record in Bedford in 1853:
“A Narrative of The Battles of Quatre-Bras And Waterloo; With the Defence of Hougoumont”
After a brief introduction, Matthew provides an evocative account of his engagement with the fighting and the confusion, chaos and subsequent carnage which ensued:
“I being the[n] in the Light Company of the 3rd Foot Guards, was with the Coldstream Company under Lt.-Colonel MacDonnell as light infantry of the Second Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sir John Byng. It was early on the morning of the 16th June 1815 we marched from a chateau situated on the environs of the park of Enghien, from whence having marched some miles, we halted near Braine-le-Comte for a considerable time, owing to some arrangements that were being made relative to our future movements, (as we supposed amongst ourselves) we marched on without knowing anything as to our destination, until we arrived in sight of Nivelles, where we ascended a field on our left, took off our knapsacks, and sent out watering parties), expecting to remain there for the night; we could then hear distinctly the retort of cannon fire, the meaning of which we were no longer at a loss to find out. Having now received the order to march with all speed – we proceeded accordingly, leaving our watering parties to join us on our way. We marched through the town before mentioned and were joined by our watering party – the man belonging to our mess having been fortunate enough to obtain a little table beer for us instead of water, was most gladly received by us; we then marched hastily on, the sound of cannon and musketry became more distinct and being nearer at hand (we also met with some wounded) as we approached the field of action our two light companies led off into the field on the left, and the 1st Foot Guards entered the wood Boscu on the right of the road…”
We [the two light companies commanded by Lt.-Colonel MacDonnell] now loaded our muskets and very hastily advanced up the rising ground in the open field; (the shot from the enemy now whizzing amongst us) we quickly advanced the summit and bringing our left shoulders forward, the enemy retiring before us. We had now arrived near to a building against the walls of which the shots from the guns of the enemy (intended for us) were freely rebounding being just within the range of their guns, our skilful commander led us through an enclosed yard (where several bodies of the enemy’s cavalry lay, slain previous to our arrival) also an adjoining garden a short distance to our right which concealed our advance from the enemy’s view, and passing singly through a gap in the hedge, we immediately formed in the field into which we had entered, and were at the same time joined by our light guns (which had been ; our movements now for a time were brought round the outside of the enclosure through which we had passed) they immediately opened their fire upon the enemy who hastened their retreat and we at the same time, after having advanced some considerable distance through the rye (that was trampled down) and passed over numerous bodies of the slain.”
We continued pursuing the enemy over the slain which were thickly spread around us: by this time our commander found it necessary to form us into a square to oppose the enemy cavalry, who were constantly menacing us on our advance, our square being compactly formed and prepared to receive cavalry, their cavalry now bearing off, the enemy’s artillery would alternately annoy us with their shells which were skilfully directed, but equally skilfully avoided, through the tact of our commander: our movements now for a time were performed in square (for the reason above stated) being drawn compactly together, the officers being in the centre, I had frequent opportunities of observing the keen watchfulness of our commander, he being mounted on his charger, could, undoubtedly from his elevated position distinctly see the preparation of the enemy for the renewal of attack on us by the united force of the infantry, cavalry and artillery; being foiled by the timely movements of our square.”
Clay describes the misery of sleeping in an open field in a thunderstorm, and the elation of dining on one of the farm’s pigs which had been roasted. His company were then ordered to march to Hougoumont, “known to us as the farm house. Passing through the gates and round the upper corner of the building, our company led into a long and narrow kitchen garden, which was extended under cover of a close hedge, next to a corn field, through which the skirmishers of the enemy were advancing to the attack. We remained in a kneeling position under this cover, but annoyed by a most galling fire from our opponents guns to the left of our position so near to us indeed the spreading of their small shots rarely escaped contact with our knapsacks, accoutrements, even the heels of our shoes (whilst kneeling) were struck by them.”
“The enemy’s artillery having forced the upper gates [of the farm], a party of them rushed in who were as quickly driven back… The upper gates being again made secure, a man (killed in this action of the name Philpot) and myself and myself were posted under the archway for its defence, the enemy’s artillery still continuing their fire, at length a round shot burst them open; things intended for firewood were speedily scattered in all directions, the enemy not having succeeded in gaining an entry, the gates were again secured although much shattered. After this we were posted to defend a breach made in the walls of the building it being up stairs and above the gateway, the shattered fragments of the wall being mixed up with the bodies of our dead countrymen, who were cut down whilst defending their post.”
The French attacks gradually abated and the surviving defenders were cheered by the arrival of Prussian reinforcements. Matthew’s ordeal at Waterloo had come to an end.
Matthew returned with his brigade to London and was promoted to corporal on the 21st March 1818. He was further promoted to the 1st Pay and Drill Sergeant of the Scots Fusiliers Guards on the 14th February 1822, teaching drill to the Duke of Cambridge and the Marquess of Abercon. He served abroad again in Portugal between January 1827 and April 1828 during the Carlist Wars. He resigned from the Army in 1833 to join the Bedfordshire Militia. On his discharge he was awarded a small service pension.
Matthew married Joanna Cornish on the 27th February 1822 at Stoke Dameral in Devon. They had twelve children, but only three survived. His first-born, Selina Anne was born in London on the 18th July 1825; Frederick York was born on the 27th January 1827 at Devonprt; Matthew born in London on 17th April 1833. Albert, born in 1840 in Bedford, followed his father into the Army, serving until his retirement. Charles, born in 1839 married and spent most of his life as a railway signalman. His youngest son committed suicide in Kirkee, India.
On his voluntary discharge from the Army, Matthew became Sergeant-Major of the Bedfordshire Militia, based in Bedford. He held this position until 1852. In 1853, drawing on the notes from his pocketbook, Matthew published his account of his experiences at Waterloo (see the extracts above) and published by F. Thompson, printer, Bedford.
In his later years, Matthew struggled to subsist on his meagre service pension, which he supplemented by teaching drill. He denied himself necessities to keep his ailing wife alive without asking for charity. He had to sell his possessions to pay the rent on his small cottage. His plight was eventually noticed by General Codrington, whose letters to The Times raised £100. Unfortunately this came too late for Matthew, who died on the 5th June 1873, aged 78, He was recognised in death, if not in life, and given a hero’s funeral. Thousands of people paid their respects. On top of his coffin lay his sword (now in a London museum with his medals) and a ring of laurel (during his life he worn a sprig of laurel to remember the battle of Waterloo. The funds raised by General Codrington were used to purchase and erect an impressive memorial stone. Grave Ref: H8.243
Memorial to Sergeant-Major Matthew Clay in Foster Hill Road Cemetery
The memorial stone reads:
TRIBUTE OF RESPECT
THE MEMORY OF
SERGEANT-MAJOR MATTHEW CLAY
HAS BEEN ERECTED
BY MANY INHABITANTS OF
WHERE, DURING FORTY YEARS,
HE SO LIVED AS
TO WIN AND RETAIN
THE ESTEEM OF HIS FELLOW-TOWNSMEN.
HE WAS ONE OF
THE INVINCIBLE DEFENDERS
THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
A STATELY VETERAN :
DIGNIFIED AND MODEST :
NOT LESS CONSCIENTIOUS THAN BRAVE.”
The east side reads:
“SERGEANT MATTHEW CLAY
SERVED, WITH HIGH CHARACTER,
FROM 1813 UNTIL 1833, IN
THE THIRD (SCOTS FUSILIERS) REGIMENT
FROM 1833 UNTIL 1852
AS SERGEANT-MAJOR OF
THE BEDFORDSHIRE MILITIA
BORN IN THE PARISH OF BLIDWORTH,
COUNTY OF NOTTINGHAM;
DIED, AT BEDFORD, ON THE
5TH OF JUNE, 1873,
IN HIS 78TH YEAR.”
The memorial was crafted in Portland Stone, inscribed by S. Jarvis of Midland Road.
Matthew’s life is also commemorated in a plaque at his birthplace of Blidworth. It was unveiled on the 13th November 2011 at a Remembrance Day ceremony at the war memorial in Main Street. The plaque shows a picture of Matthew in his Scots Guards uniform and the following words: “Sergeant Major Matthew Clay. Matthew Clay was born in Blidworth in 1796. Matthew along with the Light Company was ordered to defend the Chateau Hougoumont a strategic location within the battlefield of Waterloo. During the whole day of the battle the French repeatedly tried to take the farm as they knew if they held the farm they would win the battle. Matthew’s company fought a close quarter battle for almost 16 hours and held their positions, a remarkable feat by any standard.”
M. Clay, “A Narrative of The Battles of Quatre-Bras And Waterloo; With the Defence of Hougoumont”, 1853, reprinted with an introduction by G. Glover, www.garethglovercollection.com
C. Clay, “Sergeant Major Matthew Clay His tree, his roots, branches and me” www.blidworthhistoricalsociety.co.uk
Photographs courtesy of Colin Woolf
October 01, 2023
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