Research Subjects: Biographies

Andrew Douglas White, Australia's only Waterloo Veteran

By Steve Brown

The Duke of Wellington had a distinguished retinue at Waterloo. It included a prince, two foreign counts, three foreign barons, three peers and at least eleven Sirs. But also on the Duke’s staff, albeit in a minor capacity, was a young man who had two unique qualities. Firstly, he was almost certainly the only member of His Grace’s staff to have been born a bastard to a convict mother – god forbid! And he was without doubt the only Australian on the battlefield.

His name was Andrew Douglas White, and he was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on that fateful day. Andrew was born in Sydney Cove in February 1793, when in the infant colony of New South Wales was just over five years old.

His father was naval surgeon John White (born c1756), who had joined the Royal Navy on 26 June 1778 as third surgeon's mate aboard HMS Wasp. His naval service took him as far as the West Indies and India, during which time he acquired a surgeon’s certificate. In October 1786 he was appointed chief surgeon of the expedition to establish a convict settlement at Botany Bay. The so-called First Fleet of 1788 contained 778 convicts aboard eleven ships, many in poor health from long imprisonment; thanks to the efforts of John White and his staff, there were only thirty-four deaths on board during the eight month voyage. Reaching dry land at Botany Bay did not secure him peace however, as outbreaks of scurvy and dysentery were his first problems in the new colony. A hospital was built within a year and the incidence of sickness greatly decreased. With more time on his hands, White, a keen amateur naturalist, accompanied Governor Arthur Phillip on two journeys of exploration. He fought a duel with his third assistant, William Balmain on 12 August 1788 in which, according to one account, both were slightly wounded; Balmain obviously survived as there is a Sydney inner-city suburb named after him.

The arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790 with 500 dying or seriously ill convicts tested White and his staff to their limit; despite the lack of medicines, White and his assistants nursed more than half of them back to health. The arrival of the Third Fleet in stages between July and September 1791 heralded even more strenuous times; about 600 newly-arrived convicts were under medical treatment and incapable of work. In 1792 some 436 convicts died. By this time Doctor White had had enough, and in December 1792 he applied for leave to England. About the same time, control of the colony passed to Major Francis Grose, who took over from the departed Captain Arthur Philips. Grose was notorious for doling out land grants to fellow officers and other favourites, and White received 100 acres at present-day Petersham which he named Hamond Hill Farm.

White's application for leave was eventually granted and on 17 December 1794 he sailed on HMS Daedalus, reaching reached London in July 1795. He eventually became reluctant to return to New South Wales. Faced with the alternative of doing so or of resigning his appointment, he chose to resign in August 1796. He served aboard various merchant ships for three years, and then was surgeon at Sheerness Navy Yard until 1803 and at Chatham Yard from 1803 until he was superannuated in 1820 at the age of 63.

John White married in about 1800 and had three children who outlived him: Richard Hamond White, a naval lieutenant; Clara Christiana, who became the second wife of Ralph Bernal MP; and Augusta Catherine Anne, who married Lieutenant (later Lieutenant-General) Henry Sandham RE. John White spent his last years at Brighton, dying at Worthing on 20 February 1832 aged 75, leaving an estate valued at £12,000.

But it is a fourth child, Andrew Douglass (Douglas), born to White by convict Rachel Turner in Sydney on 23 September 1793 who is of interest to this story. Rachel Turner was born in about 1760, was convicted at Middlesex Gaol and sentenced to seven years transportation from the Old Bailey on 12 December 1787. She sailed aboard the Lady Juliana in June 1789 and arrived in Sydney Cove on the Second Fleet in June 1790, and served as Doctor White’s housekeeper in 1792. Andrew was baptised in Sydney on 3 November 1793, and sailed with his father to England in late 1794, aged fifteen months. He was brought up in England by a sister of his father’s friend Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse, was educated there and later joined the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant on 1 July 1812. He was promoted to first lieutenant on 21 July 1813 and seemingly went out to Flanders in late 1813 as part of the British force under Lieutenant-General Thomas Graham.

He remained on the continent in 1814, and served as the junior officer on the Royal Engineer staff at Waterloo, a surprisingly young group for a branch of service with a reputation for slow promotion. The Commanding Royal Engineer was Lieutenant-Colonel James Carmichael Smyth, a 35 year old Londoner with experience in the Peninsula and at the Cape of Good Hope. His two subordinates were 29 year old East Anglian Captain Sir George Hoste and brigade-major Captain John Oldfield, a 26 year old Sussex man. The second captains were Frank Stanney and Alexander Thompson, the former a 25 year old Londoner with Peninsula experience and the later a Scot of the same age. The first lieutenants were John William Pringle, a 24 year old Scot who was wounded at Waterloo and had served in the Peninsula; Marcus Anton Waters, a 24 year old Dubliner; Francis Bond Head, 22 and from Kent; Francis Yarde Gilbert, a 21 year old Cornishman; the adjutant John Sperling, aged 21 from Surrey, who had been at Bergen-Op-Zoom; and finally White himself, 21 and from New South Wales.

In early 1815, Wellington ordered Carmichael-Smyth to prepare a map of the area south of Brussels. It was partly drawn by Lieutenant Sperling. When Wellington called for the map in June 1815 it was not complete so the original sketches were rushed from Brussels by Lieutenant Waters. Wellington marked on the map where he wished his troops to be deployed and passed the map to Quartermaster-General Sir William Howe de Lancey, who was wounded on the battlefield whilst carrying the map; however brigade-major Captain Oldfield saved the map and wrote its history on it.

Lieutenant Andrew Douglas White survived the battle unscathed and returned to England to receive his Waterloo medal in 1816. Meanwhile half a world away, his mother Rachel had married wealthy farmer and philanthropist Thomas Moore in Sydney in January 1797, but did not have any more children.

Andrew White returned to Sydney late in 1822 where he was reunited with his mother after nearly thirty years. He returned to England in July 1824 and was promoted to second captain in the Royal Engineers on 6 December 1826. He was placed on half-pay on 6 October 1831 and returned to Australia in 1833. He married Mary Anne MacKenzie (a niece of Lieutenant-Colonel John Piper C.B., 4th Foot) at St John’s, Parramatta in June 1835 and died on 24th November, 1837 of unknown causes. There were no children of the marriage.

No local newspaper lamented the passing of Australia’s only Waterloo veteran. Nonetheless Andrew Douglas White is generally recognised as Australia's first decorated soldier and first returned serviceman. His mother treasured the Waterloo medal of her only son until her own death a year later.

Select Bibliography

C. Wilcox. Red Coat Dreaming. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

H. S. Gladstone, Thomas Watling (Dumfries, 1938); J. White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, ed A. H. Chisholm (Syd, 1962)

W. B. Alexander, ‘White's journal’, Emu, 23 (1923-24), 24 (1924-25)

J. Macpherson, ‘Surgeon-General John White’, University of Sydney Medical Journal, 21 (1928)

D. Anderson, ‘John White: Surgeon-General to the First Fleet’, Medical Journal of Australia, 11 Feb 1933, pp 183-87


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011

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