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The Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924)
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Captain Benjamin Crowther
Confederate rebel

It is not often that light illuminates the lives of boys who were in the Hibernian School during the first half of the 19th Century. When it does, we are rewarded with a rich seam of gold that leaves us holding our breath in admiration. Such is the case of Benjamin Crowther, a son of John Crowther of the 53rd Foot (The Shropshire Regiment) who enlisted in 1803 and served throughout the Great War with France (1793-1815).

Born in December 1830, Benjamin was admitted to the Hibernian School with an older brother, Jonathan, in about 1837. We have no record of the year of admission, for many RHMS documents were destroyed in the London Blitz of 1940. A record, however, exists of the return of the Crowther brothers to their mother in September 1839.

Although he was in the school barely two years before being removed back into the care of a parent or parents, the Hibernian experience had a lasting effect on this remarkable fellow who learned to read and write and, with the benefit of familiarity with the King James Bible, virtually taught himself all he needed to know to give him a chance in life. He was also taught the four rules of arithmetic. At age 18, he was appointed a deputy county court clerk in Kentucky. By 1854 he had married and with his bride settled to raise a family in Independence, Missouri, where he formed a business partnership as a Commissioner of Deeds. In 1854, an influx of settlers to Jackson County, Missouri, from Kentucky meant that having a Kentucky Commissioner of Deeds at the county seat of Independence was a good business and Crowther prospered. From what Benjamin Crowther's descendent, James Crowther has gleamed from the position description of a 'Kentucky Commissioner of Deeds' is that a commissioner was a combination of an "out of state" notary public with "Western Union" of the time. Such commissioners could "wire" funds and process legal instruments to the courts and businesses in Kentucky from where ever they were located. James Crowther has not located a Wylie who ever lived in Independence; he suspects that Wylie was the partner who remained in Kentucky handling that end of their business.

Benjamin Crowther joined the Confederate army in October 1862 as his regiment's chief bugler after the outbreak of the American Civil (1861-1865) and reached the commissioned rank of captain serving on the staff of General Joseph Orwell (Jo) Shelby, who commanded the famed unit of Missouri cavalry.


Benjamin Crowther's business card for the Crowther and Wylie
partnership formed in Independence, Missouri

Mr Howard R. Clarke, whose forebear was admitted to the Hibernian school in 1849, and is writing a history of the Hibernian Society (1765-1924), has provided a sketch of life in the School during the 1830s. His contribution to the background of Benjamin Crowther during the period, which he describes as 'the dismal years' is deeply appreciated. Mr Clarke wrote:

I understand that Peter Gobble … provided … evidence that Benjamin was removed from the register of the Hibernian School in September 1839 but that there is no date for his admission. It was most unusual for soldiers' children to be admitted to the School before they had reached 7 years of age, so if Benjamin was born in December 1830 he would have been unlikely to have been admitted before December 1837 and therefore spent less than two years at the Hibernian School before he was removed by his family. Peter thinks that Benjamin's father was still alive when he was admitted - but the interesting question was whether the father John Crowther was still in the Army in 53rd Foot in 1837.
    The Hibernian School was established by the Hibernian Society for Soldiers' children in Dublin in 1765 and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1769. The School building in Phoenix Park was opened in March 1770. A second Royal Carter was granted in 1808 and this specified the conditions and preferences that were to be exercised in the admission of soldiers' children (girls were also admitted).The children had to be the children of soldiers of the line; "in actual service, or of soldiers' deceased, or reduced or removed to foreign service" and preference for admission was given: first to orphans; second to those whose fathers who had been killed or died on foreign service; third to those who had lost their mothers and their fathers were overseas and whose fathers were serving overseas and fourth to those whose fathers were ordered on foreign service, or whose parents had other children to support.
    It is possible that John Crowther may have left the Army (i.e. having been reduced) before Benjamin had was admitted to the Hibernian School. My own great-grand father was born in 1840 and admitted to the Hibernian School in 1849 but his father, who was deceased, had been invalided out of the 22nd regiment on a pension after 25 years service in 1839.
    It is important to find out more about the John Crowther's military career and when he left the Army or died because this may explain how Benjamin managed to gain admission to the Hibernian School in the particularly difficult circumstances in late 1837 or early 1838.
    The 1830s was the most dismal decade in the history of the Hibernian Military School during the 19th C and is one for which very few official records survive. The previous 30 years had been a period of prosperity for the institution and the Hibernian Society for Soldier's children had been generously supported by the House of Commons at Westminster as a deserving Irish educational charity. The Governors (who were mainly Army men with some Anglican clergy and a few Protestant civilians) managed to maintain an annual establishment of at the School some 400 boys and 200 girls, who were well cared for and educated by the standards of the day.
    In 1832 the funding for the Society was transferred from the Irish Civil Estimates to the UK Military Estimates and was included in the War Office vote in the House of Commons together with all the other votes for Army services. Unfortunately this was at a time of severe retrenchment in military expenditure and the sums voted for the Hibernian Society were drastically reduced. In consequence the numbers of children at the School fell to 300 in 1834 and were probably as low as 135 in 1835.The School was threatened with closure and admissions were usually restricted to complete orphans (first preference under the Charter), and in some years there were no admissions. The situation improved slightly in the late 1830's and admissions were extended to children with only one parent alive (second and third preference under the Charter) and in 1838 to children with two parents alive and whose fathers were serving abroad. The funded establishment did not revert to 300 children (220 boys and 80 girls) until the financial year 1839 - the year in which Benjamin left Phoenix Park.
    Therefore Benjamin was extremely fortunate in gaining admission to the Hibernian School. The School at that time was a Protestant institution: it admitted Roman Catholics but all the children irrespective of their parents' religious denomination were raised as Anglicans. There however is some evidence that the Governors gave preference to the admission of Protestants and that this preference increased when admission were reduced because of retrenchment. Do you know if John Crowther was a Protestant? Having first enlisted in the Army at Bradford in 1803 he was very unlikely to have been a Roman Catholic.
    There was no formal public inspection or a formal report on the Hibernian School in the 1830's, but from the recollections of staff who were appointed in the early 1840s, the conditions had deteriorated and the School had become moribund. It was under the control of redundant or half-pay Army officers who viewed their posts as sinecures and the day to day control and education of the boys was in the far from tender hands of old soldiers. These later recollections provide a depressing picture of children who were neglected and ill-educated and, in the case of the boys subject to some violence in the classroom. (I have the graphic recollections if you are interested).
    Benjamin's time at the Hibernian School was unlikely to have been the best years of his life, but conditions were no worse than those at many other residential institutions at the time - and certainly with regard to the provision of regular meals, clothing and shelter- better than for most children of similar social class and family circumstances. There was no national system of or law in Ireland until 1838 and the Report of the Irish Poor Law Commissioners on the conditions in the country in that year paint a grim picture of misery amongst the labouring classes amidst a back ground of rural unrest.
    Many soldiers' families would have settled for a place at the Hibernian School - so it is interesting that Peter says he was withdrawn in 1839 - which was well before the normal age for discharge (14 years). Once again we need to go to back to John Crowther. Let us assume that John was discharged from the Army (perhaps with a pension) or died around 1839 and that he had married an Irish Catholic (which was very common). Benjamin's mother(and father if alive) may have returned to the family in Ireland and Benjamin was removed from the Hibernian School to prevent him being raised as a Protestant. This was by no means uncommon and a considerable number of children were removed by their families before the usual age for discharge throughout this period.
    The 53rd Foot subsequently became the Kings Own Shropshire Light Infantry (since amalgamated in what in today's Army List is called The Rifles). There is a regimental museum in Shrewsbury, England, which may hold the marriage and baptism records of the 53rd.    

Jonathan and Benjamin Crowther were at the school barely two years before they were withdrawn into the care of their mother. Their names are listed in one of the few extant discharge registers. Jonathan Crowther appears on page 167 of the register with a petition 39 notation. Benjamin's entry follows on the same page against petition 40. That Jonathan's name appears first suggests he was the elder of the two.

Extract from NA document WO143-27 Discharge register
recording date of discharge and father's regiment, 53rd Foot

There is some suggestion, unconfirmed, that the brothers had a sister, in which case she might have been admitted to the girls side of the institution. (In 1835, the Hibernian School was still admitting girls although this practice was discontinued in the 1840s following a decision of the Board of Governors.)
    In 1837, the year of admission of the Crowther brothers to the Hibernian School, the 53rd Foot was more than likely on station in Ireland from where it received orders to move overseas. It is evident that the family was not among those permitted to accompany the regiment to its foreign station. Families leaving with regiments on foreign assignment were restricted to five per company of the battalion, chosen by lot. The Crowther family was one of the unlucky ones made to remain in Ireland and to fend for themselves. Mrs Crowther, however, was fortunate in finding a safe haven for the two boys in the Hibernian School. The petitions for entry would have to have been signed by the officer commanding the 53rd Foot.
    Time spent under the care of the Army could mean a world of difference to the future lives of children fortunate to gain entry. They had food, shelter and a rudimentary education, which stood them in good stead for the rest of their lives. Ford and shelter may be taken as a given. Provision of an elementary education was a benefit most children mid-nineteenth Century Ireland could not experience. Under a monitorial system of teaching, the boys of the Hibernian School were taught to read, write and understand the four elements of mathematics. (Girls were taught reading and writing, but not arithmetic.) Latin, Greek and other classical subjects were unheard of, but this lack was more than counter-balanced by the emphasis placed on study of the bible.
    The Hibernian School having been created by the Protestant elite of Ireland, the Protestant Ascendancy as it was known, a condition of admission to the School was that children were brought up in the Protestant faith and taught the Protestant catechism. More important from the point of view of learning the English language was their reading the King James Bible. Whatever the merits or arguments regarding the religious study, the strong and powerful language of the King James Bible is unsurpassed English literature. The children of the Hibernian Military School, both girls and boys, would have been the beneficiaries of as sound an education as was possible at that time. Although Benjamin was a Hibernian student for little more than two years, he received two years of elementary education. In 1841, at age eleven, he received a copy of the King James Bible at Sunday school in England, which suggests that he had the benefit of additional education, probably in the regimental school, but he certainly attended Sunday school where he obtained further education. Nothing else explains his scholarship later life, his rise to commissioned rank in the Confederate Army and appointment as Assistant Adjutant General to Confederate Major General J.O. Shelby, who attacked and captured the U.S. Federal gunboat USS Queen City and who lead two major raiding expeditions into Missouri.
    The outcome of the American Civil War and Captain Crowther's part in it is not a matter for discussion in this account of the ex-Hib's life. Nevertheless, along with many of his comrades in the Confederate Army, he followed his commander's example, refused to surrender and moved with his family to Mexico rather than accept defeat. Crowther's departure with his family to sanctuary in Mexico is of significance to his story.
    To quote his descendent, Lt. Col. (Rtd) James B. Crowther, historian's branded Benjamin Crowther an 'unreconstructed rebel'. Yet his efforts to establish himself as a business agent, his astute observations of Mexico for commercial and economic development, correspondence with the Smithsonian Institute, and unrelenting efforts to establish his citizenship as a British subject have secured him a place in the annals of post-American Civil War history.
    With permission of James B. Crowther, two of Benjamin Crowther's letters addressed to Sir Peter Campbell Scarlett, CB, British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Mexico, in an effort to establish his citizenship as a British subject.

Calle de Nuevo Mexico No 4
23rd February 1866

The Honorable
P. Campbell Scarlett, C.B.


Having called upon Mr. Chabot Her Britannic Majesty's Consul at San Luis Potosi, about 12th December last, I was present when he received a communication from your office in regard to my application dated Monterey (sic), July last, and that Earl Russell had laid down the rule of Law to be, as near as I can remember, "that Her Majesty's Government would not grant protection to applicants unless they could produce a Baptismal certificate, British Passport or some other satisfactory evidence showing that the applicant was a British Subject" and also alluded to my having been in the Military Service of the Confederate States of America.
    In reply, I have the honour to state in answer to the first requirement. I remember upon the information of my mother, that being in a dying state of health from whooping cough at the tender age of eight days, I was unable to be taken to the Parish Church to receive baptism there, and therefore received private Baptism at my father's residence, consequently there is no public or private record of that act in existence, neither is my mother, or any other relative in existence by whom I could prove the same fact known to me at this time, that I am aware of.
    In answer to the second requirement, I have to state, that I have no Passport from any British authority, having left England in the early part of 1848, that I was unconscious then until now, that the Law of England required of her subjects leaving there for the United States, should first obtain a passport, nor was it ever required of me to be produced by the United States Authorities on my arrival, or at any other time; - I have met with many other Englishmen in Monterey (sic) and elsewhere who left England and Canada, both before and since that time, and they all state that such law or requirements were wholly unknown to them except where the party leaving, went to the Continent of Europe, or as the Representative of the British Government to any other Government.
    In answer to the third requirement "some other satisfactory evidence" I have to state, that for want of sufficient information to form even a bare opinion what would be "satisfactory evidence" - I am wholly unable to conform to it, perhaps I may here state that I have in my possession a copy of "King James Translation of the Holy Bible," which I received as stated on the lid of the same by the handwriting of the Clergyman who awarded it as a "Sunday School Premium January 17th 1841" this is the only relic tangible evidence I possess, this side of the Atlantic of my British origin, but whether this would be received in evidence as being satisfactory - I cannot presume.
    In answer to my having been identified with the Confederate States Army, I would state that, I entered that Service from a choice of two and the least of all human evils.
    I had the honor to serve first as a private soldier in that Army west of the Mississippi and lastly as Captain and Assist. Adjutt Gen. on the staff of Maj Genl. Jo. O Shelby, during which time my Command was no means idle.
    On this subject I have not only no regrets, but conceived it then as I would now, under the same circumstances, to be my solemn duty I owed to Almighty God, my British origin, the pious mother who have me birth, my wife, children and property, - forcibly to destroy a wicked, cowardly, fanatical vandal horde, who knew more practically the art of houseburning (sic), robbery and cold blooded murder, than they did of the art of war, human gallantry or maintaining any form of Government free from being an armed mob.
    If under all these circumstance, I am no longer a British Subject, I desire to know the fact at an early day to the end that I may be free to select a nationality for myself and children.
    Owning to business demands requiring my presence at Cordova, to leave this city in three or four days I shall in the mean time await your answer, and if possible would be pleased to hear from you addressed as above, otherwise at Cordova, with considerations of esteem.

I am Sir,
very respectfully Your Obt. Servant
/signed/ Benj Crowther

Calle De Nuevo Mexico No 4
City of Mexico 26th February 1866

The Honorable
P. Campbell Scarlett, C.B.


I am duly in receipt of your valued favour of the 24th Instant, contents of which are duly noted. I omitted to mention in my last, that my Father served in the 53rd Regiment of foot, somewhere about the years 1809 to 12 his name was John Crowther, of Halifax, Yorkshire, England, and my Uncle Thomas Knowles, served in the Royal Navy on board His Britannic Majesty's Ship or Sloop of War "Wizard," and about the same years, sooner or later. - I have no doubt that a reference to the Muster Rolls, Military and Naval records of those dates will substantiate these facts, I mention these circumstances on account of difficulties I labour under from the fact, that I have not heard from my family relations in England for nearly seven years and previous to that date my family relations there, were nearly extinct.
    I n answer to your last query whether I was ever enrolled a citizen or naturalized? I presume I was, like many other British Subjects and after, or according to the following manner, from the first stages of the war in conformity with Her Majesty's Proclamation enjoying neutrality and non-interference with the belligerent powers, I abstained for months having anything to do in taking any part with either in their hostile acts pro or con - soon after, Governor C.G. Jackson, the lawful Governor of the State of Missouri, (the State in which I lived) had in exercise of the authority vested in him issued his proclamation about the end of the year 1861, "declaring that all allegiance or service to the Federal Government or duty of whatever nature or kind was for ever absolved, void of no effect whatever, and prohibited service to the Federal Government by any citizen, alien or resident of said State." Sometime after this - while the State was occupied by troops of both Governments, the Federal troops, or a portion of them employed by detachment to scour the country, visit every dwelling and "arrest or compel every male inhabitant between the ages of 18 and 40 years to report in person at a certain Military Posts (established for the purpose) to take the oath of allegiance to the United States Government (so called) and to perform such duties as might be prescribed to him by the military authorities," no provisions was made exempting aliens, citizens or Subjects of other nations, but notwithstanding this - I did not obey the notice served upon me; I was then notified by another military detachment and informed the officer in command of my British Nationality, and that I owed no allegiance to the Federal Government, thereupon said officer informed me, "that I could do as I pleased," but if I did not obey the notice in less than 48 hours my farm dwelling would be reduced to ashes." this (sic) also was the fate of other British Subjects in the vicinity and my near neighbours and I may add of thousands throughout the States, - who like myself, were hundreds of miles from the locality of any British Consul to whom they could report and obtain protection, the mails being closely examined, and any report or communications in writing would only be succeeded with immediate execution, or perpetual imprisonment and probably death from starvation or disease while in prison - from this there was but one alternative of escape - simply to take the oath and make as early an exit from the country to save one's life as circumstances would permit and to regard the oath thus forcibly administered as possessing no more virtue or vitality, than the extent of its convenience and the intrinsic value of the paper it was written on, - not being as fortunate as other British Subjects, my near neighbors, who succeeded in making their escape to Canada and other British Possessions and seeing no escape from military service in the Federal Army, - which, I knew was against every sense of Justice and right - as a dernier resort and the least of two evils being thus compelled to take the oath to save my life I entered the military service of the Confederate States and remained in it until it's (sic) disbanding 26th May 1865.
    My case in it's (sic) singularity and history is very far from being an isolated one, there are not only hundreds but thousands of others exactly similar, that have not yet and probably never will come to the knowledge of Her Majesty's Government, from death killed in battle, disease, starvation, and at last death in prisons - compared to which, the "black Hole in Calcutta" was a comfortable parlour.
    In order that Her Majesty's Government may not be wholly ignorant of some of the incidents of the late war deeply affecting it's (sic) interests, honour and dignity - I desire to inform you - that at 4.20 A.M. on the morning of the 24 June 1864, at the town of Clarendon, White River, State of Arkansas upon the capture of the Federal Iron clad Steamer, Gunboat "Queen City" (in exactly ten minutes engagement) of Nine Guns by the Confederate State forces under then Brig Gen Jo. O Shelby and to which I belonged. Of the surviving marines United States Navy, expecting that either the war would soon close, or that they might meet with some favourable opportunity to escape to British soil," - these are facts by no means few, or of rare occurrence, I have met with thousands similar cases of surrendered captured prisoners British Subjects in the Federal ranks, who had been similarly decoyed and forcibly kidnapped into their service and as far as I could ascertain from credible sources Mr. W. H. Seward, Secretary of State at Washington was Chief in Command directing and superintending personally all Kidnapping Corps and operations through the secret service branch of the Federal Government. - In all these cases of prisoners (captured by Gen Shelby's forces) Her Majesty's Subjects, being fully satisfied of the genuine truth of their stories, that they had been made the victims of Yankee Knavery and villany (sic). - I never failed to exercise my influence in their behalf and to secure the safety of their lives to the utmost of my ability and authority, and finally obtained for them a safe, speedy parole and being set at liberty - guarded to the enemies lines under a flag of truce - and while prisoners often shared with them my scanty rations of beef and corn bread, being the best that our Officer or men had, during the last three years of war. - In conclusion I have been thus explicit in order that Her Majesty's Government may have something of a practical view of outrages and indignities perpetrated upon her own soil, and the parties so acting as above Agents were undoubtedly promoting at same time, every scheme and wild raphsody (sic) of Fenianism having W. H. Seward for patron, Protector and safe guard, from his arrogant boastful toast at Richmond in April last in public and having direct reference or insinuation to the Head quarters of Fenianism "That England might consider herself safe, so long as Canada did not desire to be a part of the United States" - I cannot but express my regret that the Confederate States were not successful in their struggle for "a separate existence," which was the true sentiment of the great mass of the Southern people, more than it was to maintain slavery, and the disastrous failure, is no less prejudicial to the welfare of both England and France.
With considerations of esteem

I am Sir
Very respectfully Your Obet. Servant
/signed/ Benj. Crowther

This site is indebted to Lt. Col (retd) James B Crowther of San Antonio, Texas, for bringing his forebear and g-g-grandfather to our attention and providing copies of his letters for publication.

Table of Contents - Royal Hibernian Military School
1769 Petition
1806 Pay and Allowances
1806 Weekly Governor's Report
1806 Time Table
1819 Charter
1819 Diet
1819 Staff Duties
1819 General Regulations
1844 Return of Religions
1849 S.S. Pemberton Orphans
1856 School Inspector Gleig
1857 China
1873 Religion
1900 Review at Phoenix Park
1918 Lost Boys
1919 Roll of Honour
1919 Recollections
1919 Lives of the Hibernians
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
1922 Last cricket match
1924 A soldier's orphan's story
1924 Last roll call
1924 Laying up the colours
1924 The final era
1937 A military misfit NEW
1969 The bicentenary reunion
1994 Capt. Harry Bloomer MBE
2001 IGS No.25 History
2004 Newsletter
2005 The last known Hibernian
2007 Sources of Hibernian documents

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World War I letters and Reports
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Wellington on Waterloo
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