Where Arsenal Football Club started (1 picture) and a bit of historical trivia about Woolwich, Sir Alexander Dickson and his second wife

Last week while in London, England, I made a trip to Woolwich, mainly to see Firepower, the museum of the Royal Artillery.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find, not just a museum, but the original historic site with some of the old buildings still intact and some sympathetic new development underway. This visit tied in with some of my just-for-fun historical research. I will bore you with that in a minute but first let me get the football part out of the way.

If you follow English football (soccer to those of us who are North Americans) you will know that Arsenal is a team with a big following. Not being much of a fan, I hadn’t really ever thought about how they got their name.

The answer is pretty obvious, if you visit Woolwich. The team was born at the Royal Arsenal. Today there is a little monument and plaque to commemorate and explain the history.



That’s it for the sports report.

As to the other historical associations, I warn you that this is inevitably going to be a long-winded account so brace yourself.

In another blog, family-history-stories.blogspot.com, I occasionally trace historical stories that interest me (and possibly no one else in the world). One of the occasional themes there is to look at the lives of the past inhabitants of Charles Street, which runs off of Berkeley Square.

The house at 51 Charles Street is associated with Woolwich in two different but related ways.

A man named Evelyn Medows inherited the house from his uncle. This wasn’t his uncle the Duke of Kingston, who disinherited him in, leading to the scandal involving the Duke’s bigamous wife, but another uncle. Evelyn Medows married Harriet Maria Norie, a spinster who was considerably younger. One of her brothers, John William Norie (J. W. Norie) was a noted hydrographer. Some of the nautical maps produced by his firm are still in use today, about 200 years later. And I have read that the icon from his office building, a little wooden carving of a sailor (The Little Midshipman) is now on display in the museum of Charles Dickens’ house.

It is so very easy to digress.

Evelyn died, Harriet Maria stayed in the house, which I think Evelyn bequeathed to her for life (need to check that).

In due course, she married a second time, to Sir Alexander Dickson. He was a widower who had a large family with his first wife, Eularia (what he called her) or Eulalia (what the rest of the world may have called her). Eularia was Spanish, and I am guessing Sir Alexander met her in the course of his military career while stationed in Spain.

Sir Alexander Dickson is A Big Deal. He was the Duke of Wellington’s most respected gunner and as such rose through the ranks on merit. He distinguished himself in the Peninsular Wars, and was active in many campaigns during a long career. At the end, he was Master Gunner of St James’s Park, the ceremonial head of the Royal Artillery.

At Apsley House (the former residence of the Duke of Wellington) there are three large group paintings of the Duke entertaining men from his glory days. Sir Alexander is labelled in the painting in the entrance hall (all the people in the painting are identified by name in a nearby diagram). He had his spectacles on, which is typical of the portraits I’ve seen of him. By these spectacles and a general resemblance, I believe he can also be identified as sitting quite close to the Duke in another of the group pictures, which features heroes of Waterloo.

In his lifetime, Sir Alexander was much respected and highly decorated. His son, Sir Collingwood Dickson, was the first artillery man to receive a Victoria Cross. After Sir Collingwood’s death, the soldiers raised money to build a monument to the two Dicksons, and for years this stood at Woolwich, though it has been moved relatively recently.

In the Medals Room at Firepower, there is a prominent display about Sir Alexander, including his medals and some portraits. Only one shows him with no spectacles, when he was fairly young.

One of the many medals is the KCTS: Knight Commander of the Tower and Sword. This decoration comes from Portugal and presumably was awarded after the Peninsular Wars.

After Sir Alexander’s death, Harriet Maria stayed on in the house at 51 Charles Street (it being her house). She inherited nothing from Sir Alexander. He hadn’t changed his will after his first wife died, and on paper, had left everything to her. It could have been rather complicated, but Harriet Maria renounced any claim to his estate and apparently lived on whatever she had inherited from Evelyn Medows.

Harriet Maria later married for a third time, to Sir John Campbell, also a holder of the KCTS and a widower. His father, William Campbell, had been appointed Commissioner of the Navy in 1780 and died within a few years. When Sir John was young, the family lived at Chatham Dockyards.

The Woolwich site is where both Dickson lived, trained, and worked and where I believe Sir John also trained. I suspect Sir John had more connections to Woolwich than I have so far discovered. The big difference between history’s view of the two men is that Sir Alexander is today commemorated as a war hero, while Sir John is forgotten. I believe this is because in the civil war in Portugal which followed the Peninsular Wars by about 10 years, he backed the losing side.

Sir John was a prisoner of war in Portugal for a couple of years. In the House of Lords, there was a debate about whether England should intervene to try and secure his release and return home. The argument was made that as he had gone to fight of his own accord, and not in the service of England, he should be left on his own to get back. When he did finally make it home, he was a widower with a daughter. His young Portuguese wife and little son had died before Sir John went off to the Portuguese War of Two Brothers, as the civil war was known.

One of the ironies of Sir John’s story is that he would never have become so intimately involved with Portuguese affairs had it not been for his service to the English army. When the Peninsular Wars ended, Sir John remained in Portugal for a long time, training the Portuguese army, but as far as I know, this was at least in part a service to England. Had he been given a different assignment after the war, his connection to Portugal would have been significantly less, and his life would probably have turned out much differently.

Among the many unanswered questions in my mind is, how is it that Harriet Maria became the wife of these particular men? I can only speculate.


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    February 16, 2012 at 1:00 am

    update: Sir John was born at Chatham, not Woolwich. That’s where his father was stationed and worked his way up as a naval administrator. I have revised the post to reflect the fact that Sir John was definitely connected with Chatham dockyards, but that I need to do more research to find the extent of his attachment to Woolwich.

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