Mary Ann Harris (nee Neeme) 1862-1947
My great-great-grandfather, William Neame was baptised on 13th September 1818, at the church of St Martin-in-Kent, the eldest son of William Henry Neame and his wife Hannah. William Henry had married Hannah (or Ann) Pattison on or after 18th August 1816 at Holy Cross Church in Canterbury, Kent. The application for a licence to marry was issued on 17th August 1816 for the marriage of William Henry Neame of Herne, a servant, bachelor, and Ann Pattison of Holy Cross, Canterbury, aged 20, father William Pattison of Wingham, Kent, husbandman. William’s baptism was followed by a further seven children, three boys and four girls. Most of them continued to work on the land and lived out their lives in and around the village of Herne, a mile or two inland from Herne Bay. There were Neames still living in the village as recently as the 1970’s.
Not so our William Neame who, for whatever reason, decided to join the Army. He was first attested at Rochester, Kent, on 19th July 1837 to the 51st Foot of the King’s Own Light Infantry, (later to become the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry). It was at this point that the spelling of his name changed from Neame to Neeme, a common enough occurrence at a time when most of the population could not write and those in authority had to guess at the spelling of names.
Based first of all in Chatham, on the 23rd March 1839 Private 1084 Neeme embarked on the prison ship ‘Egyptian’ en route for Van Diemen’s Land as Tasmania was then called. He must have wondered if he’d ever see England’s shores again, especially as conditions on the ship for the soldiers were probably little better than the convicts they were accompanying. He must have felt fear and anxiety when he learned that his regiment was to serve, among other duties, as guards in the penal colony of Port Arthur on the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula over-looking the treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean.
The voyage took some five months, finally disembarking on 23rd August 1839. Access to the settlement of Port Arthur, other than by sea, was by way of a narrow strip of land called Eaglehawk Neck. This was guarded by 18 dogs, chained a mere yard or so apart. It would have taken a courageous man indeed (and there were those who attempted it) to brave the dogs. It is almost certain that William Neeme would have taken his turn at guarding this strip of land and slept in the small barracks that still stands there. The colony was under strict military rule and discipline was rigidly enforced. The soldiers’ barracks had few comforts with iron bedsteads and straw paillasses, renewed only yearly. Like the colony of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land was dependant upon the generosity of the Colonial Office in London and supply ships arriving.
On 21st August 1840, Private Neeme, along with two captains, four subalterns, one assistant surgeon, six sergeants, eight corporals and 123 other privates were detached from Van Diemen’s Land and embarked for Swan River and King George’s Town, Western Australia. Duties would have involved enforcing military rule, safeguarding settlers and keeping the peace between settlers and convicts. These detachments were spent in various parts of Western Australia, sometimes for as little as one month, occasionally for longer periods.
In January 1843, during a period when the military rule was ousted by the civil authorities, Private Neeme and three other men were charged with larceny from a dwelling house. It was alleged that on 25th October 1842, the four men broke into a premises at Guildford (a settlement approximately 20 kms upstream from Perth) and stole £59. However, on the day of the trial, a material witness failed to appear, Private Neeme and the others pleaded not guilty and were acquitted. In July 1843, Private Neeme was again in trouble, this time with the military. He was found guilty of disobeying orders by a Detachment Court Martial and sentenced to 30 days hard labour.
After 8 years in the Colonies, Private Neeme embarked with the third division of his regiment consisting of those who had remained in Van Diemen’s Land and those who had been on detachment in Western Australia, on the ship ’Java’ and sailed from Swan River, Western Australia, on 15th March, arriving in Calcutta, India, on 23rd April. Between 1847 and 1854, the 51st Foot served in India, for which Private Neeme received the India General Service Medal. From 1847 to 1849 the regiment was garrisoned at Bangladore, India, and although there were various detachments in the area, including Madras, this was a relatively peaceful time in the East Indies.
During his time in Madras, he became involved with a native woman from Poonamallee, named Mary Anne (colloquially described as a ‘bedwarmer’). Such relationships tacitly encouraged by the authorities as a way of cutting down on sexual diseases through frequenting brothels. A child of this relationship, William Henry Neeme, was born on 4th October 1851 and baptised on 16th November 1851, in Poonamallee. Sadly the child died on 7th November 1853, aged 2 years and 1 month, as a result of a scalding, and was buried on the same day.
In 1852 the regiment was called into action again for what was called the Second Burma War. Conditions during this campaign were particularly arduous and the regiment was decimated considerably by cholera and dysentery. It may have been these factors that undermined William Neeme’s health and led to his eventual discharge.
In August 1854, the regiment was stationed at Salford Barracks, in Manchester, England. From 1-29 November, William was on furlough, no doubt hard earned and long anticipated. After presumably a short courtship, still a bachelor at 36, he married Mary Jane Maher, from Tipperary, Ireland, at Manchester Collegiate Church (later Cathedral) on 25th December 1854. This would be a mass wedding ceremony with all fees waived and was usually held on a ‘holiday’ so that the poor of the city might take advantage. It may be that the war threatening in the Crimea precipitated the regiment’s return to Britain and the subsequent hasty marriage.
The 51st Foot and William Neeme embarked for the Crimea in 1855. However, after the fall of Sebastopol, the regiment was never sent there; instead it spent a year in Malta. In 1856, William Neeme was discharged on the grounds of general debility, thought to be due to his long years in a tropical climate. He had by then been promoted to corporal and his character and conduct were considered to have been very good, despite the earlier aberrations in his behaviour. He had in fact received three good conduct badges and consequent increases in pay. On his discharge, he was described as being 5ft 8ins tall, of a fresh complexion, with hazel eyes and fair hair, a description which varies from a later one.
William and Mary Jane’s first child, another William, wasn’t born until 1857, probably due to William senior’s extended stay in Malta, and the child was baptised on 16 April 1857, again at Manchester Collegiate Church, this time at a mass baptism. There followed another four children; Jane born about 1859; Eliza born about 1860; my great-grandmother, Mary Ann, born 27 September 1862; and Catherine, known about only because of a later census entry and Mary Jane Neeme’s death certificate. In civilian life, he worked as a short maker’s porter and a general labourer.
William Neeme was admitted to Prestwich Asylum as a ‘pauper patient’ (transferred from the workhouse hospital) on 22 December 1873, patient number 3175. His physical description was given as tall, thin, haggard looking, with brown hair and greyish green eyes. His medical notes show that he was suffering from delusions, including one that he was going to heaven in a hot air balloon with French ladies! Latterly, he was acquisitive, taking anything he could lay his hands on, and putting on two or three pairs of trousers. He died on 6th March 1874 and although a post mortem was carried out, with a diagnosis of brain disease, general paralysis and convulsions, the description of his symptoms would seem to suggest a brain tumour. He was 56 years old.
Even with the hardships endured by William Neeme during his years in the Army and in Salford afterwards, bringing up a young family, he would have fared better than his family on the land. His father, William Henry Neame, listed as a widowed pauper in the 1871 census records, died in April 1876, an inmate in the Blean (Kent) Workhouse.