The Battle of Waterloo was fought in modern-day Belgium in 1815 and captivated the public consciousness for generations. The event was immediately recognised as a turning point in history. It was the last stand of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The British-led victors were commanded by the Duke of Wellington who became an instant rock star. Then there was Waterloo George. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
Anyone who had anything to do with the Battle of Waterloo was revered as a celebrity. This was certainly the case in faraway Australia, in Queensland and the city of Ipswich.
Captain Henry Miller in 1824 was the first commandant of the Moreton Bay penal colony and so effectively was the founder of Brisbane and Queensland itself. His brother was mayor of Derry in Ireland on five occasions. But it was always noted that Captain Miller was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo.
Then there was Colonel Charles Gray who in 1853 was the first police magistrate in Ipswich. He was also the first Usher of the Black Rod in the Queensland Legislative Council, and the Queensland Parliament’s first librarian. He was famous for his compassion and consideration for others. There’s a street named after him in Ipswich. But first and foremost, Colonel Gray was another veteran of the Battle of Waterloo.
And then there was Waterloo George.
George was christened George Winfield when he was born in Exeter in Devon in England in 1785. As a boy, he joined the British Army and served as an enlisted man across the empire and in the Peninsular War, earning the same medals and clasps as both Captain Miller and Colonel Gray. At the Battle of Waterloo, George lost an arm and eye to a cannon ball. He was given an army pension and at sixty-nine years of age went to Queensland in the Australian colonies in 1854.
But when George arrived, his army pension was inexplicably stopped. It was possible that when George left the mother country that the authorities in England simply assumed that he had passed away. And so handicapped by the loss of an arm and an eye, he was forced to wander the streets of the colony looking for work. That’s when he got the name of Waterloo George.
He plied his trade travelling between Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba. He was often arrested for vagrancy and drunkenness and was regularly before the courts in Brisbane and Toowoomba – but never in Ipswich.
It seems that the compassion of another veteran of the Battle of Waterloo – the police magistrate Colonel Gray – had a profound effect on the Ipswich community, and so Waterloo George was let be.
However, he did spend his fair share of time in the Benevolent Asylum at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island. He never liked it there, and in fact in 1877 declared that he’d “sooner die under a gum tree than go back to the Asylum.”
But in 1881, Waterloo George met his Waterloo.
That’s when a very curious coincidence occurred at the Brisbane police court. Two old Waterloo veterans were brought up on a charge of drunkenness – one was Waterloo George. The other was a Frenchman who had fought on the other side.
This was sixty-six years almost to the day since the famous battle and was the first time the two men had met. The court’s decision was that Waterloo George was sent back to his despised Dunwich Asylum. He passed away there two years later in 1883 at ninety-eight years of age.
The world and the city of Ipswich continued to have a fascination with the Battle of Waterloo.
Ipswich’s Queensland Times newspaper in 1892 reported the death in England of the last known survivor of Waterloo. He was one-hundred-and-one years old and it was said always delighted to chat about the great battle.
Ten years later in 1902, the newspaper reported the one hundredth birthday of a woman in Belgium who as a young girl ran away from her home on the morning of the battle to see what was going on.
She fell asleep in the woods but was woken by a troop of cavalry headed by a man of short stature. “He was riding slowly on as in a dream, looking straight ahead and paying no heed to what went on about him,” she recalled. It was, the girl learned afterwards, Napoleon.
But let’s not forget old Waterloo George. He fought for us in a battle that changed history but was denied his gum tree under which to die. We should remember Waterloo George now just as we do the other rock stars.
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Duke of Wellington at Waterloo 1815 – National Army Museum UK
Colonel Charles George Gary – Jubilee History of Ipswich 1910 p58
Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, Stradbroke Island 1881-1889 – National Library of Australia