J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Blanket the British Army Left Behind

Today is Evacuation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1776 when the British military left Boston.

Back in 2013, Patrick Browne wrote on his blog Historical Digression about something the British left behind, an artifact now at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society:
A number of British regiments were camped upon Boston Common. When they departed, they left all manner of gear strewn across that open space. We can imagine curious Bostonians picking through the debris when the British were gone. Frugal Yankees, they must have scavenged a good number of useful items.

One such Bostonian was William Hickling [1742-1790], a merchant, roughly 30 years old. He was a patriot who had been out and about on the fateful night of the Boston Massacre back in 1770, though, according to the deposition of Richard Palmes, Hickling went home before the real trouble began. Hickling had been, according to family tradition, rather more active during the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as evidenced by the tea leaves that were found in his shoes the following morning.
According to his will, quoted here, Hickling was officially a distiller, but he sold other things besides rum. His father was also a distiller named William Hickling (1704-1774), and he had a son and a nephew of the same name, so there’s opportunity for a lot of confusion.

The name of William Hickling doesn’t appear on most lists of men involved in the Tea Party, even the expansive roster in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves. The family tradition that he helped to destroy the tea was nonetheless in print by 1900.

Other sources do show William Hickling as a participant in Boston’s pre-Revolutionary politics. But which William Hickling attended the Sons of Liberty dinner in Dorchester in 1769? Which was renting rooms to Pvt. James Hartigan and his new wife Elizabeth in 1770? Which was a member of the North End Caucus in 1772? I’ll play the odds and say that Palmes encountered the younger William Hickling (and his brother John) on 5 Mar 1770, and that the younger William was also the caucus member, but I won’t hazard a guess about the other questions.

The William Hickling born in 1742 was almost certainly the man who joined the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in 1764 and served as paymaster of Col. John Brooks’s Continental Army regiment in 1777 and 1778.

But back to the spring of 1776 and Patrick Browne’s essay:
Foraging across Boston Common, Hickling probably picked up a number of things. One of them was the white woolen blanket of a British soldier. The “standard issue” blanket, bearing the royal symbol of the King’s Arrow and the initials “GR” for George Rex (or King George) eventually made its way to Duxbury, Massachusetts after William’s death when his widow moved in with her daughter [Sarah] and son-in-law, bringing a number of Hickling family objects with her. The son-in-law was Captain Gershom Bradford, a Duxbury master mariner. Fast forward to 1968, Gershom Bradford’s house, along with a vast number of family belongings, was donated to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society by the captain’s great-grandsons.
It sounds like the blanket didn’t come with a provenance, not like the tea story. But it certainly appears to be a standard-issue British army blanket.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing the history of colonial Boston. Being from Tewksbury, Ma. I enjoy reading all of the events leading up to the revolution and learning details about our Founding Fathers. I hope to attend one of your speaking engagements this year. All the best. Tom

Mike said...

There's a Hickling mentioned in a logbook from Castle Island in 1783. I wonder if that's one of the William Hicklings you mentioned. It's on page 21 here: http://colonialnorthamerica.library.harvard.edu/spotlight/cna/catalog/hou02518c00172-METS

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link.

There were other Hicklings in Boston, so we’d have to do more research to figure out if the younger William Hickling still had some sort of military capacity in 1783. (His namesake father had died by that point, simplifying things a bit.)

J. L. Bell said...

And here we go. From the Medford Historical Society Papers, W. K. Watkins’s 1906 article on the engineer Lemuel Cox: “In 1785 it was found necessary, for the safety of the people to find some place, other than the common jails, for the confinement of persons convicted of larceny and other crimes. Castle Island in Boston Harbor was selected, it then being owned by the state. Here was a garrison (of which the governor of the state was the captain) stationed under an officer, usually of the rank of major (as a lieutenant), with a gunner, surgeon and chaplain and a detail of privates. The gunner was William Hickling, brother-in-law of Lemuel Cox.” So the gunner mentioned in previous diary entry was probably Hickling.

Mike said...

The lieutenant was Samuel Treat, who also is the one who kept that journal. It's pretty mundane - mostly accounts of weather and ships coming and going. A few somewhat interesting bits include mention of the storm that killed James Otis, a woman named Sally who made a few overnight visits to Col. Burbeck, and an account of a powder magazine on Dorchester Heights being broken into.

By the way, I recently got The Road To Concord - it's a great book!