Home Page

4219 Sapper
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 2000.

Unless noted otherwise, the information provided in this narrative was taken from the service papers of William Varley, WO97, and appropriate medal rolls [1].

Early Life

William Varley was born in the parish of Manchester, near the town of Manchester, in the County of Lancaster in March of 1836. As a young man, William worked as a Bricklayer.

Physical Description

The only description of William Varley given in his service papers is contained in his Description on Discharge. In 1864, at the age of 28 years and 6 months, he was described as being 5 feet 5-3/4 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and sandy coloured hair.

Enlistment and Training

William Varley enlisted in the Royal Sappers and Miners at Yately, Aldershot, Hampshire on the 13th of March 1856 [2]. He was 20 years old at the time of his enlistment. He was determined to be medically fit to serve and passed the preliminary military examination usually administered by the Recruiting Officer [3]. His civil occupation as a bricklayer was probably considered a useful trade for service in the Royal Sappers and Miners.

Varley swore the Oath of Attestation and his enlistment was duly approved. He was assigned Regimental Number 4219 and the rank of Private. Following these administrative actions, Varley reported for his basic training as an engineer soldier [4].

Assignments and Campaign Service

Sapper Varley served in India during the Sepoy Rebellion. Since his service papers are incomplete, it is not know which company he served with during the Mutiny. His name appears on the medal roll that awarded the Indian Mutiny medal to men of the 4th, 11th, 21st and 23rd Companies. For his service in India he was only entitled to the medal with the clasp [LUCKNOW]. The 4th, 11th, and 21st Companies arrived in India in November of 1857. The 23rd Company had arrived in August of 1857 and its men were entitled to the clasp [RELIEF OF LUCKNOW].

Sapper Varley probably was with one of the three companies that arrived in November. His company served with the troops under Sir Colin Campbell who took part in the final operations between November 1857 and March 1858 that resulted in the capture of Lucknow.

The Indian Mutiny, 1857-58

Promotions, Conduct and Education

Promotions: Varley entered the Army as a Private and had his rank converted to that of Sapper when the Royal Sappers and Miners merged with the Royal Engineers in 1856. He did not receive any promotions during his period of service with the Colours.

Conduct: Sapper Varley was in possession of two Good Conduct badges at the time of his discharge. These badges were awarded as indicated below:

Award [5]

Date of Award

Good Conduct Pay at 1.d per day

1 March 1860

Good Conduct Pay at 2.d per day

13 March 1864

At the time of his discharge, Varley’s conduct was rated as "Very Good." His name had never been entered in the Regimental Defaulter’s Book and he had never been tried by court martial.

Education: Varley’s service papers do not indicate that he received any specialized training or certificates of education while in the Army.

Medical Information

Sapper William Varley was given a medical examination on the 14th of August 1864 at Fort Pitt. The medical assessment was made by J.B. Cockburn, MD, a surgeon serving with the Royal Engineers. He was diagnosed with chronic liver disease. Cockburn opined that Varley’s disease was caused by military service in Mauritius and India. Varley was considered to be ineligible to rejoin the Forces. His disability was not considered to be due to vice or misconduct. The disease was attributed to exposure and overexertion during the operations of the Indian Mutiny. The doctor stated that Varley could not tolerate pressure from the belts (of his load bearing equipment), that he was very weak and unfit for any exertion. According to Doctor Cockburn, Varley’s constitution was completely broken. It was also his opinion that Varley’s disability would interfere considerably with his ability of earn a living.

The opinion of the Inspecting Medical Officer was completed at Chatham, Kent on the 22nd of August 1864. Varley was found to be permanently incapacitated for duties of a soldier.

Marriage and Personal Information

The 1881 British Census indicates that William Varley and his wife Ellen lived at 44 Cloudesley Road in Islington, London, Middlesex when the census was taken. Both William and Ellen were 44 years of age at the time. William was employed as a Bricklayer.

Ellen had been born in Wickam, Kent. It appears that she gave birth to both a son and a daughter. The Varley’s son, William, was 15 years old at the time of the census. He had been born in Clerkenwell, Middlesex. William was a Plumber’s Labourer and was living with his parents in 1881. The census return shows that a Francis Varley, aged 19 years, was also living at Cloudesley Road in 1881. Francis was a Mason’s Labourer and his relation to the Varleys was listed as "son in law." Francis Varley was born at Spike Island, Ireland.

The entry for Francis Varley is strange for two reasons. First of all, as a son-in-law it is unusual that his surname should also be Varley. This would indicate that William and Ellen Varley’s daughter married a man whose surname was also Varley. Secondly, while the census shows that Francis Varley is residing with his in-laws, there is no entry in the census regarding the Varley’s daughter; that is, Francis’s wife. It is possible that the Varley’s daughter was deceased. It is also possible that the entry in the census could be in error.


A Discharge Board convened at Chatham on the 25th of August 1864 to consider Varley’s discharge on medical grounds. The board was convened by authority of Horse Guards, dated the 21st of August 1864. The board consisted of the following officers:

Board President: Lieutenant Colonel J.F.M. Browne, CB, R.E.

Board Member: Captain H.W. Hichens, R.E.

Board Member: Captain W.A. Frankland, R.E.

On the 7th of September 1864, Sapper Varley was declared unfit for further service by Major General R. Walpole, Inspecting General, the War Office. His discharge was approved by the Deputy Adjutant General, Royal Engineers at Horse Guards. Varley was finally discharged at Chatham on the 13th of September 1864. His total service at home and abroad at the time of his discharge was as shown in the table below:

Location of Service

Period of Service

Home Service

4 years and 21 days


1 year and 300 days

East Indies (India)

2 years and 210 days

Total Service

8 years and 166 days

Sapper Varley was finally discharged at Chatham on the 13th of September 1864. He total service on the date of his discharge was reckoned at 8 years and 185 days. Varley indicated that his intended place of residence after discharge was to be 39 Easton Street (Exmouth Street), Clerkenwell, London.

The callousness of the British Army in the Victorian period is exemplified by Varley’s discharge without any compensation for his service connected disability. The Army essentially used him up during the Indian Mutiny and then threw him away when he could no longer serve because of his disabilities. Doctor Cockburn’s statements that Varley’s "constitution was completely broken" and that Varley’s "disability would interfere considerably with his ability of earn a living" is made so matter-of-factly in the service papers, that one wonders if there was any compassion for this soldier who was about to be put back on the streets without a job. Varley apparently fooled them all. The 1881 census returns show that William Varley was working at his old trade as a Bricklayer in London. Apparently his medical conditions was not as debilitating as described by Doctor Cockburn.


1. Soldier’s Papers consisting of the Proceedings of a Regimental Discharge Board including:

a. Detailed Statement of Services

b. Medical Report

c. Description on Discharge

2. Roll of Officers and Men of the 4th, 11th, 21st, and 23rd Companies of Royal Engineers Who Have Been Employed in the Suppression of the Mutiny in India.

3. GRIERSON, J.M. Scarlet Into Khaki: The British Army on the Eve of the Boer War. Greenhill Books, London, 1988.

4. SKELLEY, A.R. The Victorian Army at Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1977.

5. 1881 British Census. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family History Library Film 1341050, Public Record Office Reference RG11, Piece 0228, Folio 4, Page 1. Copyright 1999 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.


[1] Varley’s service papers were obtained from the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey by Judith Farrington of London in 1999.

[2] See Periods of Enlistment for The Corps of Royal Engineers.

[3] See Age and Physical Requirements for Soldiers in the British Army (Victorian Period).

[4] See Engineer Recruit Training.

[5] Each award of Good Conduct pay amounted to an additional one penny per day in pay to the soldier