Folkestone’s John Bathurst – The First Black Rifleman?

A chance discovery whilst researching references to the 95th Rifles in archive newspaper records in May 2017 uncovered evidence of the first known black Rifleman.


John Bathurst, a bandsman attached to the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Rifles, is featured in Kentish newspaper reports of a trial for murder in July 1815 and is recorded both as a ‘black man’ and a ‘man of colour’ by eyewitnesses to the assault. Piecing together reports from the Kentish Gazette and the Kentish Weekly Post, fragments of Bathurst’s story have come to light.


In the early hours of the morning of Thursday June 29th 1815 William Dorman’s body was found lying in the street at Folkestone harbour. Thomas Kemp, passing by at 1am, then carried the deceased man into the British Lion public house. An inquest was held in the afternoon before Mayor and Coroner Henry Butcher, in which a verdict of wilful murder was reached. The following Tuesday, George Dixon and John Bayley of the Royal Artillery and bandsman John Bathurst, of the 95th and described as ‘a man of colour’ by eyewitnesses, were all arrested and held in Folkestone Gaol pending trial. Dorman was buried at the church graveyard at Orlestone, near Ashford, on the 2nd July, leaving a wife and Sarah, his ten year old daughter.


George Dixon disappears from the trial records at this time, presumably an alibi must have been found, but on the 11th July Bayley and Bathurst were transferred to Maidstone Gaol to await trial. The hearing took place on the 25th July at the Kent Assizes and three witnesses were found alongside Thomas Kemp. Francis Payne, who worked in the British Lion, William Shaw, a sailor, and Ann Steady, a witness who observed some of what happened from her window.


Kemp, whilst walking the streets, testified that he had seen soldiers and sailors quarrelling in the road at 1am. Payne stated that John Bathurst had then burst into the pub and asked if any of the 95th were in there, he replied that they were but in the dancing room at the back. Bathurst went there and ordered “95th turn out!” Some sort of scuffle took place and he and Bayley went back out into the streets. Shaw then saw Bathurst trying to fashion some sort of weapon as a staff and quickly retreated back into the pub.


Kemp was talking to Dorman at the time and saw a large group of sailors running down the street pursued by a group of soldiers. Dorman ran off with the sailors to get away and up a yard. Kemp shortly followed him and found Dorman lying on the ground with a rifleman kicking him and shouting at him. However, he could not positively identify any other men surrounding Dorman’s body. This was also witnessed by Ann Steady from her bedroom window and saw soldiers beating Dorman, although she could not positively identify ‘the black man’ as being one of them. A quarter of an hour later and Bathurst returned to the pub, covered in dirt, stating “I have done for three of them.” It was almost certainly this statement that prompted his arrest.


Following the evidence, Mr Justice le Blanc addressed the jury and emphasised that Bathurst and Bayley should be acquitted as they could not be positively identified as the murderers. The jury concurred and the charges were dropped. It appeared that poor Dorman had been caught up with the street brawl, and made the mistake of running with the sailors, when the riflemen cornered him they may have failed to realise he was a civilian. The murder remained unsolved.


What do we know about John Bathurst?

Unfortunately, very little concrete information has been identified. We know that he was 32 years old at the time and he features in the 3rd Battalion Muster Rolls for Shorncliffe dated 24th December 1814 listed as a Private. He was clearly still stationed there the following July when the assault and trial took place. Unfortunately, attempts to find any records of his birth or death have been without success, implying a non-native origin, but his surname very strongly points at a Jamaican ancestry.


The name of Bathurst appears in Jamaican records very soon after the initial settlement of the island -by the English from 1658-70. The Bathursts soon became important figures of the community and estate owners, especially around the town of St. Mary. ‘Colonel’ Richard Bathurst, colonel being a local title for his role in the Jamaican Militia, owned Orange River estate, covering 4000 acres and established major sugarcane plantations. The Colonel was beset with financial problems on his estate, was forced to sell his land in 1749, return to England the following year and on his death in 1756 left the remains of his estate assets to his son, Doctor Richard Bathurst. The doctor, detesting slavery, had already left the islands for England in 1738. He was a good friend of the famous writer Doctor Samuel Johnson and gave his father’s ex-slave manservant, Francis Barber, to Johnson to work in his household.


Exactly how bandsman John Bathurst was related to the Bathurst plantations we will probably never know, but it was common practice for slaves granted their freedom to adopt the surname of their family owners. As John was born in 1783, or thereabouts, a good thirty-four years since the closure of the Bathurst plantations, it is highly probable that he was a descendant of a former slave family. Five companies of the 3rd Battalion of the 95th departed for America in September 1814 and took part in the action at New Orleans before returning to England the following April. Although the transports stopped at Jamaica en-route to America, this can be discounted as John’s method of arrival as he features in the Shorncliffe Rolls for December with three companies that stayed behind.


Black soldiers were not unknown in the army of the time, some regiments had employed them as officers’ servants and bandsmen from the 1750s. By the early nineteenth century at least 41 out of 103 infantry regiments were known to have members who had originated in the West Indies. Others came from Africa, North America and elsewhere. By the time of the Napoleonic wars, black soldiers tended to be utilised as bandsmen, frequently drummers, and in a ceremonial role although they were also given military training. A small number were known to have received the Waterloo Medal although John Bathurst was not amongst them.


We will never know if John Bathurst was truly the first black rifleman, as he almost certainly served with others from the West Indies, but he is the first case that we can confirm.

by Phil Eyden

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