On Sunday May 12th local historian Mike Guilfoyle of Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries led a guided walk round the cemetary. In two hours he demonstrated an extraordinary amount of detailed knowledge of the people buried there. I can’t begin to do justice to it. However, to record the event I decided to mention a few of the interesting characters that were conjured up, metaphorically speaking. This article is going to be the first of a series of mini-portraits.
Elizabeth Watkins is recorded as a Waterloo veteran on her grave. This seems odd initially, not only because she was a woman, but also because her year of death is recorded as 1905. As the battle of Waterloo took place in 1815, and she was ninety-five when she died, this would have made her five years old when the battle took place.
In fact women were not such a rarity at Waterloo. On the French side there were the cantinières. These women were employed to serve in canteens for the French Army. However, they were often so close to the battle that they could be victims of enemy fire just like the soldiers. Although they were not soldiers, they were armed in case they found themselves caught up in the battle. There is also evidence that women covertly fought on the French side. Some of the dead found after the battle included women in uniform. There were even cases of women who officially served as female soldiers for Napoleon, like Marie-Thérèse Figueur
On the British side there is no evidence of female fighters. However it was common for women to go out to the site of the battle with their husbands. For some of them, being near the scene of the battle was easier than worrying helplessly at home. This was before the time of professional nursing. So the women would stay in a designated camps and act as nurses.
Elizabeth’s father, Daniel Gale, had been pressed into the army shortly before the battle. He served for the 95th Regiment of Foot. His wife and daughter went out to Brussels to be near him in the women’s camp. Elizabeth cut up lint during the battle. She saw many dead, “and some stirring incidents of the battle” as she reported in an interview with Morning Post newspaper at the age of 93.
Fortunately for Elizabeth, her father was not among the dead by the end. It is strange to imagine what a five year old girl would have made of the event. We only know her story thanks to John Luke of Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries. A few years ago John found the gravestone pictured above. He then carried out research which has uncovered someone who could be both the youngest and oldest ever veteran of Waterloo.