MP of the Month: the untimely death of James Platt, MP for Oldham (1823-57)

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

On this day in 1857, a shocking and tragic accident took place on the moors above Ashway Gap, near Saddleworth. One of Oldham’s recently elected Liberal MPs, James Platt, was shot dead by his close friend and relative, Josiah Radcliffe, the mayor of Oldham. Radcliffe’s gun had discharged accidentally after he stumbled while they were out with a shooting party on the moors, hitting Platt in the lower leg. The ‘innocent cause of the calamity’, Radcliffe was ‘beside himself with grief’ and ‘took Mr Platt round the neck and bewailed his fate in the most heart-rending tears’. Platt was carried to his family’s newly constructed summer residence nearby, where doctors were hurriedly summoned, but died just over an hour later, having suffered extensive blood loss. His family declined the suggestion of a public monument, but commemorated him with a memorial cross on the moors.

Josiah Radcliffe, mayor of Oldham (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Josiah Radcliffe, mayor of Oldham (c) Gallery Oldham; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just five months earlier, Radcliffe had presided as returning officer at Platt’s election as MP for his native borough. With his older brother John, Platt was a partner in the largest machine-making firm in the world, Platt Bros. & Co., which manufactured machinery for the textile industry in Britain and overseas. His engineering and marketing ability helped the business, founded by their father Henry in partnership with Elijah Hibbert, to flourish. The Platts bought out the Hibberts’ interest in the firm in 1854.

Alongside their business interests, the Platts took a leading role in the campaign for the rapidly expanding industrial town of Oldham to be incorporated as a municipal borough. When their efforts bore fruit in 1849, James Platt was elected to Oldham’s first town council. Although he was defeated in 1852, he was re-elected as a councillor in 1853 and chosen as an alderman in 1856. Renowned for his local benevolence, he took a particular interest in educational causes, believing that ‘ignorance is … the parent and perpetuation of error and misery’. From 1848 until his death he served as president of the Oldham Lyceum, founded in 1840 as a mutual improvement society for working men.

As with many of the MPs we have researched, Platt’s civic service acted as a springboard for a parliamentary career. In 1856, supporters of William Johnson Fox, one of Oldham’s sitting Liberal MPs, approached John and James Platt to ask if either would be Fox’s running-mate at the next general election; while John declined, James accepted. Divisions among the local party meant that he and Fox faced a rival radical candidate, John Morgan Cobbett. During the contest in March 1857, Platt emphasised his local credentials and expressed support for the extension of education, the ballot, shorter parliaments, the redistribution of seats, universal suffrage, disestablishment of the Church and the admission of Jews to Parliament. When it became apparent during the polling that Platt would take the second seat behind Cobbett and ahead of Fox, he mooted retiring in Fox’s favour, but this was not pursued.

Platt’s untimely death produced a flurry of tributes. The Manchester Examiner and Times praised him as ‘a rising man’, whose opinion was sought by the government, and claimed that ‘it was the general feeling in the House that Mr. Platt would one day distinguish himself greatly’. This picture of him as a promising parliamentarian appears to have been justified. Although Platt made only three contributions to debate during his brief spell in the Commons, he demonstrated his commitment to advocating the needs of industrial Lancashire. His first speech, 29 June 1857, emphasised the benefits for manufacturing in assisting the development of art in Britain. Earlier that month he had attended the annual dinner of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Platt was involved with the Cotton Supply Association, a Manchester-based organisation which aimed to reduce British dependence on the supply of American cotton by promoting cultivation elsewhere. This prompted him to speak knowledgeably on the advantages of encouraging railway construction in India, in order to cut the costs of transporting cotton from that country, 17 July 1857. His final contribution, 10 Aug. 1857, reflected his long-standing interest in the provision of public parks in northern towns.

Memorial cross to James Platt at Ashway Gap

Memorial cross to James Platt at Ashway Gap

Platt’s death left Oldham to mourn the loss of ‘a kind friend, a good neighbour, a beneficent townsman, an honest representative’. His seat was filled by his former running-mate, William Fox, but the Platt family’s parliamentary connection with Oldham was renewed in 1865 when John Platt was elected, serving as MP until his death from typhoid in 1872.

Further reading

  • D. Farnie, ‘Platt family’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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A rather pale copy of the original: John Morgan Cobbett (1800-1877)

As we continue our research on the 1832-68 Commons project, one theme we are exploring is the importance of family connections in an MP’s parliamentary career. Long-standing family ties to an area could assist a candidate in securing election for a particular constituency. Family networks could also be significant within Parliament, providing bonds with fellow MPs or links to members of the Lords. We have already blogged about MPs who were brothers and about the six members of the Fitzwilliam dynasty who sat in our period. John Morgan Cobbett, our MP of the Month, was influenced not only by his famous father, the Radical journalist and MP, William Cobbett, but also by his future wife’s father, John Fielden.

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Cobbett’s political reputation has been overshadowed by that of his father: one of William Cobbett’s biographers describes his sons as ‘rather pale copies of the original’. William Cobbett was elected for Oldham in 1832 and sat until his death in 1835. His fellow Radical MP for Oldham was John Fielden, renowned for his unceasing efforts to secure a ten hour working day for women and young people in textile factories. In 1851 John Cobbett married Fielden’s daughter, Mary, although he was known to be Fielden’s prospective son-in-law for several years beforehand.

William Cobbett exerted a major influence on John’s early political career. Asked in 1833 to recommend a candidate for a by-election at Coventry, William suggested his son, apparently without consulting him first. However, John was taken ill en route to the constituency, and, nominated in his absence, polled only 89 votes. In 1835 Chichester’s Radicals asked William’s advice on a candidate. Seizing this opportunity to stand, John was endorsed by William in glowing terms. Describing himself as a Radical Reformer, he advocated a very similar political platform to his father, wishing to repeal the poor law, malt duty and newspaper stamp duty; abolish the standing army; revise the pension list; remove church rates; and introduce the secret ballot, triennial Parliaments and an extended franchise. He polled a distant third.

John Morgan Cobbett; copyright Parliamentary Archives

John Morgan Cobbett; copyright Parliamentary Archives

Following William’s death in June 1835, John attempted to fill his shoes at Oldham. Making a clear bid for his father’s political inheritance, John’s election address declared that ‘there are no political principles on which I differ from him’. He was backed by Fielden, who became ‘something of a surrogate father’, but there were grumbles among Oldham’s Radicals about ‘hereditary succession’ deciding the representation. John’s staunch Anglicanism lost him support from disillusioned Nonconformists, who rallied behind Feargus O’Connor (the future Chartist leader). Although O’Connor withdrew from the poll early on, these divisions allowed a narrow Conservative victory.

After another unsuccessful contest at Chichester, Cobbett in 1847 became Fielden’s running-mate at Oldham, where the latter’s insistence that ‘unless Mr. Cobbett is elected with me, I will not sit’ provoked charges of dictation. Cobbett’s lack of support for Dissenting demands such as disestablishment prompted two rival Radicals to enter the field, although only William Johnson Fox went to the poll. Fox and the lone Conservative, John Duncuft, defeated Cobbett and ousted Fielden after 15 years as Oldham’s MP. These events provoked bitter recriminations among Oldham’s Radicals, and one local observer remembered Cobbett as ‘that terrible “incubus” … who darkened the prospects of real Reformers for a long period’.

At the 1852 election, Cobbett stood again for Oldham, advocating universal suffrage, annual parliaments and the ballot, and arguing for restrictions on the hours during which factory machinery could operate, to safeguard the ten hour day for which Fielden had fought so hard. He topped the poll in a tacit although unofficial alliance with the Conservative Duncuft, defeating Fox, and was re-elected in 1857 and 1859.

John Fielden, by George Hayter (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Fielden, by George Hayter (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Fielden had died in 1849, and Cobbett assumed his mantle at Westminster, where the factory question occupied much of his attention. He was keen to pass legislation to prevent evasion of the ten hour day (by means such as using two shifts of child labour). He wished to extend limitations on working hours to other industries such as bleaching and dyeing, and sat on several committees relating to working-class employment conditions. His personal legislative achievement was an Act passed in 1860 to pay salaries rather than fees to coroners, which would prevent cost-cutting local magistrates from discouraging the holding of inquests.

In other respects, Cobbett abandoned the political legacy of his father and father-in-law, gradually drifting away from Liberalism to the Conservative party. His vote for the limited measure of parliamentary reform proposed by the Derby ministry in 1859 led to him being declared ‘utterly unfit to represent radical Oldham’. Like his father, he opposed the malt duty, defending the working-man’s right to his beer, which by the 1860s put him closer to many Conservatives than to the Liberals. The Preston Chronicle described him in 1865 as ‘a sort of hybrid politician’. At that year’s election, when he was defeated, he campaigned jointly with the Conservative candidate, although he did not officially adopt the Conservative label until 1868. He was lauded by Disraeli in 1872 as an ‘invaluable’ parliamentarian. Re-elected for Oldham at a by-election that June, he sat until his death in 1877. In contrast with his father’s vociferous Radicalism, John Cobbett’s shifting political stance led his opponents to depict him as a political chameleon.

The full biography of John Morgan Cobbett can be found on our preview site.

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Congratulations to Martin Spychal, Pollard prize runner-up

We would like to congratulate Martin Spychal, who holds an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament, on being runner up in the Pollard Prize for the best paper given at an IHR seminar by a postgraduate student or  researcher within one year of completing the PhD. His doctoral research is on ‘Parliamentary boundaries and reform in England, 1830–1868’.

He gave his paper, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act, to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. It will be published in Historical Research, but in the meantime, you can read a summary on the History of Parliament blog.

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Job opportunity on our project: Research assistant / Research fellow

The History of Parliament has a vacancy for a research assistant / research fellow on its 1832-1945 House of Commons project. The successful candidate will have a PhD (or be close to completing one) in a relevant area of history or a related field and will join a small team of professional historians writing articles for the 1832-68 volumes and undertaking research on the period after 1832.

Further particulars are available here and an application form can be downloaded here.

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MP of the Month: the remarkable rise of William Schaw Lindsay

In the Persian Gulf in 1839, William Schaw Lindsay, captain of the merchant ship Olive Branch, was attacked by a sabre-wielding pirate, whom he promptly shot dead. If this brief encounter was almost unbelievably spectacular, Lindsay’s rise from a destitute orphan to a merchant prince was no less remarkable. Born in Ayr, Scotland, in 1815, he lost his parents at an early age, and ran off to Liverpool to seek employment before his sixteenth birthday. Beginning as a cabin boy, he rose swiftly to the rank of captain and only narrowly escaped death during a shipwreck in which he broke both of his legs and an arm. After short spell as a ship fitter in Hartlepool, he founded the shipbroking firm W. S. Lindsay and Co. in 1849 and rapidly amassed 220 vessels in his fleet, making him one of the largest shipowners in the world.

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

Lindsay’s parliamentary career was less spectacular. His activities inside the walls of the Victorian Commons never reached the dramatic heights of his adventures in the Persian Gulf. Yet, as MP for Tynemouth (1854-59) and then Sunderland (1859-65), Lindsay’s parliamentary path intertwined in surprising ways with a number of significant political events.

Shortly after his election for Tynemouth as an ‘independent’ Liberal, Lindsay played an active part in the Administrative Reform Association, founded in 1855 as a reaction to the perceived aristocratic mismanagement of the Crimean War. As his ships were under charter to the British government during the conflict, he had first-hand experience of what he believed to be ‘official indolence and inefficiency’ and in the Commons he vociferously criticised the government’s capabilities. His outspokenness, though, often exasperated his parliamentary colleagues, one of whom accused him of meddling ‘with matters which he does not understand’.

Willis's Rooms, Westminster

Willis’s Rooms, Westminster

It was Lindsay’s actions during the summer of 1859, however, that briefly made him a pariah among Westminster Liberals. At the Willis’s Rooms meeting of 6 June that year, which witnessed the official birth of the Liberal party, Lindsay was one of a few dissenting voices who spoke out against the newly-united party’s co-ordinated attack on the Conservative ministry’s reform bill. In the preceding days he had acted as an intermediary between the Conservative Disraeli and John Arthur Roebuck, a prominent Liberal on the verge of crossing the floor of the Commons to join the Tories. According to a fellow MP, his subsequent declaration of support in the Commons for the reform bill drew ‘rapturous cheers from the Tories’ and ‘dealt several damaging blows to the Liberal leaders’.

Lindsay’s outspoken support for the Confederate states also courted controversy. He had travelled widely in North America before the Civil War and on his return he announced to the Commons his intention of moving a resolution to recognise the Southern states, which he believed ‘must become an independent nation’. Alongside Roebuck, he subsequently met privately with Napoleon III in an effort to draw the French emperor into pressing Britain to recognise the Confederate government, a contentious mission that earned them a strong rebuke in the Commons from Palmerston, the Prime Minister. Although his parliamentary efforts came to nothing, his private actions had an impact on a personal level: in 1862 he sheltered families of the Confederate diplomats who were removed, as contraband of war, from the British mail packet the Trent, in his Shepperton home.

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Lindsay’s parliamentary career ended prematurely in 1864, when he became paralysed and lost the use of his legs. Thereafter he focused his energies on writing, producing anonymous accounts of his experiences at sea and publishing his authoritative four-volume History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce (1874-6). He died at Shepperton Manor in August 1877.

Lindsay’s diary, held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, provides an unrivalled insight into the Administrative Reform Association, while his correspondence, also at Greenwich, paints a vivid portrait of a man who responded both politically and personally to the American Civil War. His outspokenness in the Commons chamber, meanwhile, serves as a useful reminder that, even by the 1860s, some politicians continued to defy national party labels. While his heroism on the high seas and meteoric rise from orphan to captain of industry understandably captures the imagination, his brief but colourful parliamentary career provides a useful, alternative thread with which to trace key developments in the life of the Victorian Commons.

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The Palace of Westminster: the balance between the traditional and the practical

In this week’s blog Rebekah Moore, one of our AHRC collaborative PhD students, recalls an earlier debate about the cost and location of the UK’s Parliamentary buildings …

Last week, a report examining the necessary repairs and alterations to the Palace of Westminster suggested that if MPs and Lords remained in the Palace, the repairs would cost £5.7 billion over the course of thirty-two years. However, if the building was vacated, the cost would be reduced to £3.5 billion over six years. This has prompted debate over whether parliament should vacate its ancient home for a more practical building, better suited to the demands of modern parliamentary business.

The 'Black Hole of Calcutta' Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

The Black Hole of Calcutta Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

These debates mirror those that took place between 1830 and 1834, when MPs discussed whether the Reformed parliament should move to a more suitable location. Following the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs, yet the floor of the House of Commons could only seat 300. The cramped conditions led one commentator to remark that the House of Commons was reminiscent of ‘the second edition of the Black hole of Calcutta’.

The inconvenience of the Commons chamber led to two Select Committee inquiries, in 1831 and 1833 to discuss potential improvements to the House of Commons. In 1833, twenty-two plans were submitted, with suggestions about where a new House could be constructed. Many of these proposals suggested alterations to the existing Commons chamber. However, the parliamentary estate was increasingly cramped, and there were no opportunities to expand the House of Commons without significant disruption and expense.

By the 1830s, Westminster was an increasingly inconvenient location for parliament. The proximity of the river to the ancient Palace posed a risk of flooding, and MPs were forced to endure the stench of the Thames. In addition, Westminster was home to some of the worst slums of London. In 1832, a cholera epidemic claimed around 22,000 lives across England and Wales, with Westminster being one of the areas worst affected.

Both Hyde Park and St James’ Park were suggested as alternative locations for the new Houses of Parliament. There were several advantages to these sites. There was sufficient space to construct a building that contained all the requirements for modern parliamentary business. Also, both sites were close to Buckingham Palace, which was nearing completion. This provided increased convenience when the monarch was required for the State Opening of Parliament at the start of each session. Despite attracting support from radical MPs, however, alternative sites for parliament were never seriously considered.

The debate was briefly reignited by the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in October 1834. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, William IV offered Buckingham Palace for the use of parliament, hoping to dispose of a residence he disliked. However, Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, was ‘unwilling to be the Minister who should advise your Majesty, upon his responsibility, to remove the Houses of Parliament from their ancient and established place of assembly at Westminster’.

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The attachment to the site of the Palace of Westminster remained throughout the 1830s. The Palace provided a link with the past, supporting a narrative of political progress. It evoked the memories of great parliamentarians, such as Charles James Fox and William Pitt the younger, whose political rivalry was associated with one of the great ages of parliamentary oratory. After the political upheaval of Catholic emancipation (1829), followed by the 1832 Reform Act, the Palace of Westminster also provided an important symbol of stability and continuity. As a result, despite the extensive damage caused by the fire of 1834, parliament continued to meet in temporary accommodation constructed within the ruins of the Old Palace until the occupation of the New Palace of Westminster in 1852.

In 1835, a Select Committee published a list of requirements for the New Palace. Whilst most detailed the architectural requirements, it also stipulated that the new building should be constructed on the traditional site, effectively ending discussions about the location of the Houses of Parliament. The victor of the architectural competition was Charles Barry with his gothic palatial design, which has now been used by parliamentarians for over 150 years. The current debates on how to deal with the growing strain placed on this nineteenth century building by the demands of a twenty-first century Parliament have clear echoes of the debates on parliamentary accommodation in the 1830s.

Further reading:

Andrea Fredericksen, ‘Parliament’s Genius Loci: The politics of place after the 1834 fire’, in Christine and Jacqueline Riding (eds.) The Houses of Parliament. History, Art Architecture (2000).

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Waterloo: The Irish Dimension

As we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Britain’s epoch-making victory at Waterloo, we examine the contribution made by Irish soldiers who fought in the battle, and in particular the men who later sat in the reformed Parliament for Irish seats.

While only three Irish regiments fought at the battle, recent research has demonstrated that as many as one in three of the soldiers in some of the British regiments that participated were Irish-born. Indeed Wellington was himself born in Dublin, and three of his brigade commanders were also Irishmen.

Of the eight Irish MPs known to have served in the battle, four had aristocratic backgrounds. Lord Arthur Moyses Hill (1792-1860), was the second son of the marquess of Downshire, and served as an aide-de-camp to Wellington during the battle. He sat as a Conservative for County Down, 1817-36.

George Lionel Dawson Damer (1788-1856), third son of the 1st earl of Portarlington, a major with the 1st Dragoon Guards, was an assistant quarter-master-general to the Prince of Orange during the Waterloo campaign, in which he was wounded. One of ‘the Regency dandies’ of the Prince Regent’s social circle, he married Mary ‘Minnie’ Seymour, the adopted daughter of the prince’s unlawful wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1835 he was elected as a Conservative for his family’s borough of Portarlington, for which he sat until 1847, serving as comptroller of the household under Peel’s ministry, 1841-6, before representing Dorchester until 1852.

Another Irish aristocrat to fight was William Browne (1791-1876), a younger son of the 1st earl of Kenmare. A lieutenant in the 52nd Foot, Browne had fought at the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1814, and took part in his regiment’s famous charge on the flank of the Imperial Guard, in which he was severely wounded. A supporter of Catholic emancipation, he was elected for County Kerry in 1830 and backed the first reform bill before being forced out by the Repeal party in 1831. He sat again for his native county as a Liberal in the 1841 Parliament, and then retired to life as ‘an inconspicuous country gentleman’.

Standish O’Grady (1792-1848) served as a lieutenant with the 7th Hussars at Waterloo, where he demonstrated his skills by leading his regiment in a successful rear guard action against the French cavalry during the army’s withdrawal from Quatre Bras. He sat as a Whig for County Limerick on three separate occasions between 1820 and 1835, and is the only one of these eight MPs to leave a substantial record of his involvement in the battle, his letters to his father, whom he succeeded as 2nd Viscount Guillamore in 1840, being preserved in the archives of the National Army Museum.

Sir James Charles Chatterton

Four commoners also fought in the battle. James Charles Chatterton (1794-1874), who had the longest army career of this group of MPs, was decorated for his services in Portugal, Spain, Flanders and France, and fought at the battle with the 12th, or Prince of Wales’s light dragoons. He was returned as a Conservative for Cork in 1835, only to be unseated on petition, but sat again from 1849 to 1852, when he carried ‘the great banner’ at Wellington’s funeral. Having succeeded to the family’s baronetcy in 1855, he was made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath in 1862 and was promoted to the rank of general in 1866.

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Irish veteran who served longest at Westminster was William Verner (1782-1871), another experienced soldier who had served with distinction in the Peninsula campaign. Like O’Grady, he was an officer of the 7th Hussars and was wounded in the head at Waterloo, where he was given the field rank of major, and subsequently served on Wellington’s staff. One of Ireland’s leading Orangemen, he entered politics in 1820 and sat as a staunch Conservative for his native county of Armagh from 1832 until he retired aged 85 in 1868. He was created a baronet in 1846.

William Henry Watson (1796-1860) was an Englishman who fought at the battle but went on to represent an Irish constituency. After his father had been killed on active service in 1811 he was ‘left an orphan in the establishment at Sandhurst’, and entered the army aged 15. He served in the Peninsula with the 1st Royal Dragoons before exchanging into the 6th Inniskillen Dragoons shortly before the battle and entered Paris with the allied army. The following year he left the service to pursue a highly successful legal career and represented Kinsale as a Liberal from 1841-7. Returning to parliament as MP for Hull in 1854, he criticised the ‘scandalous’ system under which ‘nepotism and patronage’ rather than merit determined the composition of the army’s officer corps. He was knighted and became a judge in 1856.

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (1785-1849) the son of a Cork flour merchant, also joined the army aged 15 and in 1809 served on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition. Like Chatterton, he fought with the 12th light dragoons in many of the major battles of Wellington’s Peninsula campaign. Although he was only a junior captain at Waterloo he assumed command of his regiment after all of its senior officers had been killed. Given command of the regiment in 1827, he was elected for Kinsale in 1832 as a supporter of the Whig ministry. Not finding politics to his taste, however, he retired in 1835 to resume his military career, and regularly attended the annual Waterloo dinners given by Wellington to the officers he had commanded.

The political views of the MPs considered here ranged widely, but on 18 June 1815 they were united in a common cause which ushered in almost a century of relative peace in Europe.

For more on MPs who fought at Waterloo, see our editor Philip Salmon’s post on the main History of Parliament blog:

Further reading:

  • J. & D. Bromley, Wellington’s Men Remembered. A Register of Memorials to Soldiers Who Fought in the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, vols. 1 (2011) & 2 (2015).
  • P. Molloy, ‘Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815’, (MA thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011).
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