The Lady with the Bottle


Much has been written about Florence Nightingale, “The Lady With The Lamp”, and her sterling work, establishing nursing for British soldiers during the Crimean War and laying the foundations for the nursing profession. But she was not the first woman whose selflessness and courage made her a legend, even if that woman is generally forgotten, two hundred or so years after her she ministered to Britain’s troops abroad.

I was researching the Peninsular War of 1808-1814 after watching a television dramatisation of one of Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe” books. The blood, thunder and romance of Richard Sharpe and his band of riflemen provide a good read and a pleasant way of passing a couple of hours in front of the TV but I wanted to learn more.

There are history books galore for those who want to research in depth but I was interested in the human side of the conflict and the part played by civilians. Those were the days when all armies were accompanied by camp followers; consisting mainly of tricksters, women of ill repute and mobile makeshift taverns, all with the intention of relieving the poor bloody soldier of his meagre and hard-earned pay.

Not all civilian accompanists fell into that category - some were of the highest respectability. Evangelical missions strove to provide the licentious soldiery with spiritual comfort; Bibles, prayer books and uplifting tracts were despatched from Britain by the thousand. Some were appreciated but most ended up abandoned or, at best, used to start campfires.

An obscure book from the 1830s that I chanced upon in the central county library archives gave me an insight into two of the unsung heroes of British determination under conditions of extreme adversity. The Reverend Peter Butler had lived an uneventful life with his wife Mary in their Sussex rectory ever since the living had been granted to him by a relative on the moneyed side of his family.

Peter Butler had entered the Church, as was the lot of many youngest sons of gentlefolk, in the manner typical of the times, without excessive religious zeal, more with the intent of setting an example to the labouring classes among his parishioners. His cousin Mary, a handsome rather than beautiful young woman some six year his junior, had brought five hundred pounds as her marriage portion and the newlyweds were delighted with their new home, the six bedroom rectory of Lower Barcombe.

Despite their best efforts, the couple remained childless, something of a stigma in the social climate of the time. Thus five of the rectory’s bedrooms remained silent, devoid of the sounds of childish laughter and tears that should have filled them.

In those days when the parson ranked below the squire but above the doctor, a clergyman’s family could expect a comfortable standard of living. The outbreak of war with France in the 1790s had resulted in the loss of some comforts at Lower Barcombe Rectory, namely brandy and tobacco. The Reverend Butler and his wife regarded the situation as intolerable, especially the excise duties which were imposed on those “essential” commodities.

Their circumstances did not permit them to do much entertaining but it was incumbent upon them, having the room to do so, to accommodate one of Peter’s many cousins, a young naval lieutenant, while he was awaiting assignment to another ship. One evening after dinner, much as it broke his heart, Peter offered brandy and a pipe to his guest, apologising for the small measure of his offering.

His cousin accepted, remarking that it was a pity, particularly as there were ample supplies of brandy and ‘baccy in Spain, where his last ship had recently been landing troops and supplies for Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army. It was damnable luck that the old “Steadfast” had been damaged beyond repair by one of Boney’s men-o’-war but the day had been saved by the opportune arrival of a flotilla of British frigates.

The crippled ship dropped slowly below the waves but her crew, at least those who had survived the action, were saved. Peter’s cousin found himself on dry land, carrying the disgrace of the sailor who has lost his ship, albeit through no fault of his own.

Peter was not unaware of the activities of those who ran the gauntlet of the excise men to land brandy, tobacco, wine and other luxuries from France. He had purchased supplies of doubtful provenance on a few occasions but had so far resisted the temptation to do business directly with the smugglers. If things didn’t improve, then the situation might change.

At meetings of the Lower Barcombe Ladies’ Relief Committee, the matter of providing comforts for the troops was a regular item on the agenda. Some were busy knitting socks, others arranging the printing of uplifting tracts. Not one of those well-meaning women had the first idea what would really appeal to the average infantryman, cavalryman or sapper. However, an idea was forming in Mary’s mind.

The Butlers’ lives changed with the arrival of a curate, another cousin from a distressed branch of the family. Peter and Mary were growing tired of their restricted circle of acquaintances and longed for some excitement. They had accepted their childless status long ago, now it was time to change the situation to their advantage.

One evening, as they drank the last of their brandy and Peter gathered the few remaining strands of tobacco into his clay pipe, they formulated the plan that was to change their lives beyond recognition.


In those days before passports, visas and official interference, travellers could make their way abroad unimpeded, even to those countries with whom their nations were at war. Thus, after months of preparation and with their curate in charge of the parish, the Reverend and Mrs Butler departed the shores of their homeland, not knowing whether they would see them again.

A wretched journey across the Bay of Biscay found the couple seriously doubting the venture but calmer waters restored their faith, in all senses of the word. By the time they reached Corunna their resolve knew no bounds and they were impatient to commence their mission.

The British army authorities cared little for the do-gooders who daily presented themselves at army headquarters, requesting permission to minister to the troops. A weary subaltern signed a letter authorising the Butler Mission for Spiritual Refreshment to accompany Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army.

A pair of enclosed wagons was purchased with teams of horses to pull them. One wagon would have to serve as a mobile home for the Butlers; the other would accommodate the refreshments that the Reverend and Mrs Butler would dispense to deserving cases. They swiftly set about procuring supplies that would fill the second wagon. Socks, comforters, Bibles and religious tracts took up only a little of the available space.

In the days and months to come, the sight of Pa and Ma Butler (as they came to be known) and their wagons would cheer the hard-pressed soldiery as they rolled into view. For though clothing and religious articles were available for those who wanted them, the Butler Mission’s cheer was of a more cordial nature.

Peter Butler’s offering was the strong, dry wine of Jerez while his wife favoured the fiery brandy of that region. This she mixed with coffee, having exhausted their meagre supply of tea within the first few weeks of their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula.

Their bravery matched that of the troops and they were often to be found in the thick of the fighting, administering refreshment to those who had fallen in battle. Their mission extended to Britain’s Spanish and Portuguese allies but stopped short of the French wounded. For them, Christian charity meant no more than a sponge of water to moisten the lips of the wounded and dying.

Wellesley himself came to hear of the Butler’s mission and summoned them for an audience at his camp. A shrewd general who knew how to get the best out of his men, he commanded the Butlers to ensure that no drunkenness resulted from their ministrations. The withering look from Mary was sufficient to satisfy any worries he might have had on that score. Wellesley even arranged for a two-man escort to accompany the mission on its work, standing sentry against those who would administer to themselves.

So it continued, until the funds they had brought with them were almost spent. For a while, money had arrived from the Lower Barcombe Ladies’ Relief Committee, until word of the nature of the Butlers’ refreshment reached home and their cordials became misunderstood. From then on, they knew their days as missionaries were numbered.

It was with a heavy heart that, early in 1811, Peter and Mary Butler bade farewell to the troops who had benefited from the mission’s bounty. They made their way to Corunna, sold their equipage and boarded a troopship bound for Portsmouth with a letter of commendation from Sir Arthur Wellesley. It was a fortuitous time to be going home; Mary was surprised and pleased to find herself with child.

Their exploits found fame no further than the bounds of Lower Barcombe and they returned to parish life a little under eighteen months after leaving it. Peter Butler died from influenza in his fifty-sixth year; Mary outlived him, accompanied by their only child - a daughter - until she followed him at the age of seventy-three.

Old soldiers of the Peninsular Wars kept the Butlers’ memory alive as long as they told yarns of their war service. The British spoke of Pa and Ma Butler or “The Lady With The Bottle” but in Spain, they fondly remembered Tio Pepe and Tia Maria.

© Brian Smith 2002

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