I first discovered this song when rounding out the information I had on my great great grandfather William Reader. Born at Staplehurst, Kent in 1822, he enlisted in the 96th Regiment of Foot in December 1842 and with in six months has been shipped out to Van Diemen’s Land on garrison duty.
The song above is the version arranged and sung by John Tams for the TV Series Sharpe, set during the Napoleonic Wars. It is based on the song by George Farquhar used in his play The Recruiting Officer (1706). While Tams’ version points to the soldier’s longing for home and the possibility of death, Farquhar’s original highlights an escape for domestic responsibility and the possibility of a rise in status. Although ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ was the regimental march of the 38th Regiment of Foot, it was popular with all British soldiers in the 18th and early 19th century. No doubt William would have known it.
William was stationed at Launceston but early in 1845 he and another private of the 96th, William Morton, while under the influence stole from a house a cap, three pairs of stockings and some lace (Heaven knows why!) and so William entered the convict system. His sentence served and after a short period chasing gold in Victoria, he finally settled in the New Norfolk region of Tasmania. New Norfolk is Tasmania’s hop growing area and, for a young man from Kent, must have brought some sense of home. William married twice and fathered fifteen children, twelve of whom grew to adulthood. His children were named after his siblings back in Kent which adds to the sense I have that he was a man who, to some degree, longed for what was left behind.
Towards the end of 1845 the 96th regiment departed Van Diemen’s Land in to take their part in the Maori Wars. Who knows what would have become of William had he kept on the straight and narrow?
Below is my favourite version of the song.