The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Sunstroke and the Empire

John and Annie Wildgoose with sons Fred, Harry and Bert
(Date questionable, where's Walter?)

After several months' concentration on the World War I portion of Walter's story, I've recently shifted to the earliest part of his life and the accident that shifted the family's fortunes. Walter's father John Wildgoose was a sergeant in the 2nd Dragoon Guards (known at the "Queen's Bays"). At some point in 1892-93, John brought the family to Sialkot (also spelled "Sialket") in the Punjab region of India, where he was stationed. The family consisted of father John, mother Annie, sons Fred, Harry, Bert, Walter, and daughter Annie. I'm not clear of the exact date the family went to India, but I do know that baby Annie was born in England in 1892 and baptized in Sialket. Walter, born in Canterbury in 1890, would've been 2-3 years old.

I know nothing of how the Wildgoose family lived their lives while in India. Alas, most of the books and diaries of the time were written by the upper- and commissioned officer-classes and give little insight into the lives of the non-commissioned officers and their families. I did learn a bit of trivia from Walter's son Ron about how the officers' wives differentiated themselves from the wives of the lower ranks. All women wore the distinctive pith-helmets (for sun protection) often seen in old movies and sweeping-saga-Jewel-in-the-Crown movies, but only the officers' wives were allowed the flowing scarves banding the helmet. Hmm.

It is a constant frustration to me that working class and poor people's stories are left out of history because they didn't have the wherewithal (or the education) to leave a written record. So their stories are told - if they are told at all - by more leisured-class observers. Certainly, the Wildgoose family wasn't illiterate, but I suspect time and energy wasn't available to leave behind detailed accounts of their lives. I think that's why Walter felt it so important to write down his story - and it is a true reflection of the ordinary people that held the British Empire together for so long. Much more research is needed to piece together what life for the Wildgoose family was like in the Punjab.

At any rate, sometime during 1896-97 John suffered severe sunstroke that paralyzed his left arm and leg. He was invalided out of the army - a career military man - and the family sent back to England. John is sent to live the rest of his days at the Firvale Workhouse Infirmary in Sheffield (he had family there) and mother Annie and Fred go to Folkstone to live with Annie's mother. Harry, Bert, and little Walter are sent to the Sheffield Children's Home (a part of the workhouse and on the workhouse grounds). I have conflicting accounts of what happened to little Annie. Walter's letters say that she was in a girls' home in Whitley Bay and that he didn't see her again until 1915. But my Wildgoose genealogy resource says little Annie was in another of the Sheffield Children's Homes, not on the workhouse grounds. Another hmmm.

But the point is that for medical and financial reasons the family was split up, a devastating event however you look at it.

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posted by MaryB @ 10:25 AM  


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