Over the 19th century many families lived in Burns Cottage, running the house as a pub. Of some families we know little – names and dates, and not much more. Others, however, have been full of such characters that they have left their mark on history. One of these characters, the head of the last family to reside in the cottage, lived an eventful life that has been recorded by many historians. This man, Thomas Morley, has been described by historian Tom Quinn, who stated that ‘Morley was not just addicted to war, he was also addicted to the idea that he was a great man.‘
War shaped much of Morley’s life as he spent many years as a soldier. Born around 1831 in Nottingham, he joined the 17th Lancers as a young adult and fought in the Crimean War, surviving the charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaclava in 1854. This event quickly became famous, catching the public emotion, as the men were ordered to charge towards a line of Russian guns with an extremely high fatality rate. Thomas Morley recorded his own experiences in a book he wrote in 1896, The Cause of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In this account he describes the loss of life stating that, ‘I am only certain of the figures for my own regiment. The 17th Lancers went into the engagement 145 and came out 45 mounted. Every officer of my squadron was killed or wounded.’
Morley became quickly aggrieved that his heroics in this battle went unrewarded and he is famed for writing continual letters, from 1857 to 1896, to the Queen and military officials asking for his actions to be honoured by a Victoria’s Cross. In order to substantiate his claim, he accrued accounts of fellow soldiers, such as this one from J.W Wightman:
‘We heard the familiar voice of Corporal Morley, of our regiment, a great, rough, bellowing man from Nottingham. He had lost his lance hat, and his long hair was flying out in the wind as he roared, ‘Coom ’ere! coom ’ere! Fall in, lads, fall in!’
Despite his disappointment in his post war treatment and his consequent early retirement from the 17th lancers, Morley voluntarily fought in the American Civil War for the Union side. During the war he became a prisoner inside the infamous Libby prison, an experience he recounted afterwards for the Washington Post:
‘During the time I was prisoner of war, General Cesnola saw me compelled to be vaccinated. The matter turned out bad, my left side and arm swelled to such a degree that I was compelled to lie on the floor for months, my brother officers believing I should die.”
Morley survived his experience though, and after the war he moved to Ayrshire where he was employed as drill troop sergeant in the Ayrshire Yeomanry, and lived at the Auchengree Foundry with his wife Katherine and his children. It is not until the late seventies that Morley took on the lease of Burns Cottage (a photo of the cottage in his time can be seen here) where he lived with his new (and much younger!) wife and his children, two of which were born in the cottage. His war experiences are very much revealed in the names he gave his children, Cesnolia and Cesnola after a Brigadier General from the Civil War, and Balaclava from the Crimean War!
Following their time at the cottage, Thomas Morley returned the States where he worked in the War Department housed at Ford’s Theatre. Three of his children were born in Washington DC and, sadly, 17 year old Cesnola died there in 1890. Another family tragedy occurred in 1893 when Thomas Morley himself was injured in the collapse of Ford’s Theatre and was, from then on, unable to work. The family returned to Britian in 1897 and Thomas Morley lived with his family in Nottingham until his death in Nottingham City Asylum in 1906.
The descriptions we have of him seem to suggest a strong, brave, stern man with a distinct northern English accent and with perhaps a tendency to self publicise and to wax lyrical about his military achievements and lack of official recognition. Of what happened to his children, little has yet been researched, though of Balaclava Morley we know that he decided to live in the U.S.A, where he died in Gardena, Los Angeles, in 1978.