Profile - John Shipp’s Unusual Military Career
Born in the village of Saxmundham in Suffolk in 1784, John Shipp was soon orphaned. In 1795 the parish orphanage sent him to work as an indentured servant. His master being quite brutal, two years later Shipp ran away and enlisted as an officer’s servant in the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment of Foot, then stationed in the Channel Islands. In 1800 the regiment went to South Africa, where it campaigned against the “Kaffirs” (the Xhosa) until 1803, when it went to India. In 1805, Shipp took part in Viscount Gerard Lake’s campaign against Mahrattas, in modern Rajastan. By then a sergeant in the grenadier company, Shipp took part in the storming of Deig (December 24, 1804) and in the three attacks that finally resulted in the storming of Bhurtpore (January–February 1805), each time as a member of the forlorn hope that led the assault.
Severely wounded during the final attack on Bhurtpore, Shipp’s outstanding courage caught the eye of Lord Lake, who made him an ensign (second lieutenant) in the 65th Foot. Just a few weeks later Shipp was promoted to lieutenant in the 76th Foot. In 1806 the regiment returned to England. Although Shipp had done well in the field, he was not a good manager, and by 1808 had to sell his commission for £250 (today perhaps £175,000) to avoid debtor’s prison. This naturally left him broke and without a source of income, so he shortly enlisted as a private in the 24th Light Dragoons, which soon went to India, where by 1812 he had risen to regimental sergeant-major. In May 1815, having once again distinguished himself (this time in single combat with an enemy general during the Gurkha War) Shipp was once again appointed an ensign, this time in the 87th Foot, newly arrived in India.
Shipp went on to serve in the a number of other campaigns, and was apparently an excellent officer, rising to lieutenant in 1821. But off the field, his inability to manage money continued. While garrisoned at Calcutta in 1822 he was involved in some highly unprofitable horse racing deals, apparently being swindled by a superior officer. Shipp let this be known, and was promptly charged with insubordination. Tried by court martial in 1823, he was sentenced to be discharged from the army, but given a reprieve because of “past services and wounds, and the high character that he had borne as an officer and a gentleman.”
Shipp sold out of the army in late 1825 and was granted a pension of £50 by the East India Company. He settled in Middlesex and began to write about his military experiences. His Memoirs of the Extraordinary Military Career of John Shipp: Late a Lieut. in His Majesty's 87Th Regiment
, first published in 1829 and reissued several times later, was highly successful. He followed it up with Flogging and its Substitute: A Voice from the Ranks (London: 1831), an indictment of the brutal treatment meted out the British soldiers, which prompted many demands for reform.
While in retirement, Shipp served as Superintendent of the Liverpool night watch, and later as master of the Liverpool Workhouse. He died in 1834, a prosperous, well-respected citizen, and the only man in the history of the British Army to have twice secured a promotion from the ranks.