The Battle of Waterloo was hard fought, and hard won by the Allied Forces. In the aftermath, as night fell, the men who were still able to answered the roll call of their names. The women travelling in the train of the army listened for news, desperately wanting to hear their loved ones listed as living.
One such woman was young Mrs Tolmie: daughter of a corporal in the Royal North British Dragoons (the Scots Greys), she had travelled with the army, working as a nurse in Portugal and tending to the sick and injured. One man, whose life she had saved, married her in between battles. That man was Adam Tolmie, either a trooper in the same regiment as her father by the time of Waterloo or an infantryman in the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot. As the Scots Greys did not see action in Portugal during the Peninsular War, if Eliza was in Portugal and her father was serving in the Scots Greys, she had travelled independently: the Scots Greys were sent to Belgium following Napoléon Bonaparte’s escape from Elba in the February of 1815.
Later that year Eliza had followed her menfolk to Waterloo, a valiant effort as she was by this time heavily pregnant. The two men fought in the action at Quatre Bras on the 16th June, where her father, Corporal Woods, a veteran of the armed service, was thrown from his horse and trampled under the charge (but survived relatively unscathed) and her husband had his left shoulder ripped open by an enemy bayonet. Eliza spent the evening dressing her husband’s wound by the light of the campfire.
And so the army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, progressed to the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815. As night fell on the battlefield Eliza, fearing she was both an orphan and a widow, took a lamp and set out to look for the two men, determined to bury them if they were dead or tend to them if they lived.
The majority of the wounded had already been taken off the field, but the dead still lay there. Eliza called out the names of her husband and father as she went, hoping for an answer in return. She passed a platoon of armed French grenadiers nestled in a hovel and forming a guard of honour to a dead general, but they let Eliza pass unmolested. Eliza searched throughout the night and by dawn had found the field where the Scottish regiments had fought, and where nearly 1,200 men had died. She began to recognise faces; finally a young drummer boy who had regained consciousness on the field told her that her husband and father had been on the front line, about 300m distant. Eliza hurried to the spot he pointed out.
There she found the body of her father who had been killed by shrapnel, but her husband, although he was badly injured, still clung to life. With the help of two other women she managed to move him to Mont Saint Jean where his wounds could be cleaned and bandaged and there, as a result of the stresses of the night, Eliza went into labour and gave birth to a daughter who was named Margaret. One version has the Duke of Wellington himself passing by shortly after the birth and, taking the babe in his arms, he kissed her forehead and told his staff officers, “Gentlemen, this is the child of Waterloo!”.
Adam Tolmie did recover, and he returned to his native Scotland shortly afterwards, having done with the army. The family settled first in Cockpen and then in Lasswade, Midlothian, where a further seven children were born to the couple (Jane 1817, Andrew 1819, James 1822, Eliza 1824, Isabella 1826, Mary Ann 1828 and William Edward in 1831).
On the 3rd June 1834, at Ceres in Fife, Margaret Tolmie (whose home parish was given as Lasswade) married James Thomson, a tailor from Ceres. Margaret, who was widowed between 1851 and 1861, followed in her mother’s footsteps and worked as a nurse, surviving in her old age on ‘private means’. By 1881 Margaret was living in Pathhead in Fife and, on the 22nd October 1901, she died there at 11 Commercial Street, aged 86 years, of old age and a fractured thigh. Her unmarried daughter Eliza, who had lived with her mother in her later years, had been present at the death.
The death certificate of Margaret Thomson, née Tolmie, names her parents as Adam Tolmie, a contractor, and his wife Eliza née Wood. Margaret’s death was reported as far away as New Zealand.
BORN ON THE FIELD OF WATERLOO.
Kirkcaldy has just lost one of its prideful possessions in the death of rare old Margaret Tolmie. She had the unique distinction of having been born on the famous field of Waterloo on the day following the historic battle, her mother having been a daughter of a corporal in the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) and her father a trooper in the same regiment. With other “daughters of the regiment” Margaret’s mother sallied out from Brussels to seek for the living among the dead, though the wounded had already been removed. “Home they brought her warrior dead;” but “Meg’s” mother would not have it so. She searched and searched. And at last she found him, buried beneath a heap of dead. He still lived, and helped by two other women she bore him to a place of succour. But the excitement of the day overcame her, and on the red field of Waterloo the baby “Meg” was born. Truly, Kirkcaldy had cause to be proud of Margaret Tolmie.
(New Zealand Herald, Volume XXXVIII, issue 11848, 28th December 1901, page 2)
Kirkcaldy is some distance away from Pathhead – could this be a clue as to where her parents originated from? Or is it referencing her marriage at Ceres in Fife, where she lived for many years?
Researching Margaret’s life has, however, raised many questions for which we have not found the answers, and we are hoping that someone reading this might be able to fill in the gaps for us. Most sources do not name Margaret’s parents, merely giving the story of her birth. In some, Margaret’s mother is also a Margaret, saying that the daughter was named for the mother, but one source references some French tourists talking to Margaret in her old age, and in that her mother is named as Kate Maborlan, not Eliza Woods. As Eliza is named as her mother on the official record of her death, we have chosen to go with that, but it is possible that her mother did not survive the battlefield birth in 1815, and that Adam Tolmie swiftly remarried and Eliza is therefore Margaret’s stepmother.
And if anyone more experienced than us in tracing military records could locate either Adam Tolmie or Corporal Woods or Wood we would be delighted to hear from you. We have drawn a total blank in trying to find any mention at all which fits the known facts, although Woods is a very common name and Tolmie could easily have been mistranscribed for something else.
So, over to our readers . . .
Dundee Courier, 6th November 1901
Also see our previous blog post: Two ‘Waterloo Children’.