A fine old County Regiment and its Museum

On the 18th March members of the Civic Society enjoyed an excellent presentation by Sarah Elson, Curator of the Staffordshire Regimental Museum at Whittington, on the history of the Regiment and plans for the refurbishment of the museum.

Her listeners were fascinated by her explanation of the regimental history of the South Staffordshire and North Staffordshire Regiments, which extend back to 1705 when the 38th Regiment of Foot was raised here in Lichfield by Lillingstone. Both the South Staffordshire and the North Staffordshire Regiments (the latter was raised as a Regiment of Foot later in the 18th Century) emerged from the 1881 'Cardwell' army reforms. The beginnings of the regimental system date from that time - as indeed does Whittington Barracks. Such was the intense rivalry between the two regiments that Whittington Barracks, which housed both, duplicated many facilities even down to having two guard rooms!

Sarah painted a frightening picture of army life before the Cardwell Reforms. Regiments of Foot were raised by wealthy aristocrats and landowners on payment of s sum of money to them by the King. Not surprisingly much of the money stayed with the individual who had raised the Regiment, very little found its way as wages into the pockets of the soldiers. The consequence was an ill-equipped rag-bag army of individuals, many of whom had been pressed to serve.

Both Regiments have seen service in the four corners of the globe. Sarah took us briefly through the Regiments' exploits in the American War of Independence, the Peninsular Wars, the Indian Mutiny and in the Far East. They were present at the relief of Khartoum and fought in the Zulu Wars. Both the North and South Staffords fought in World War I, winning 7 VCs between them. In World War II the North Staffords were present at Dunkirk, and fought in North Africa and at Anzio. The South Staffords found themselves fighting in Burma and were also involved in the abortive Arnhem airborne landings - where they won 2 VCs.

Amalgamation came in 1959 when the new Staffordshire Regiment (the Prince of Wales' Own) was created. After many years of separate existence it has not come as a surprise that this amalgamation was not without its problems. Old loyalties die hard. The North Staffords had always recruited from the area north of the A5 road in Staffordshire, principally in the Potteries; whilst the South Staffords' recruiting grounds lie to the south of the A5, principally in the Black Country. Even to this day, we are told, those loyalties persist.

Finally Sarah brought us up to date with the plans for re-opening the refurbished museum. Established in 1969 the museum, which many of you will know, is a small building which has always been somewhat cramped. Sarah explained to us that its layout was now viewed as being very traditional, with many objects displayed in conventional display cases. There was no attempt to bring the museum alive by injecting the essential human interest behind the objects. The museum has now been totally refurbished and the display cases re-designed with that aim in mind. This, it is believed, will make the museum more relevant to visitors; whether for the reminiscences of old soldiers or for visitors such as school children who wish to understand more about the human background of the Regiments.

Indeed, the museum is now spreading beyond its existing building. Besides the military equipment ranged outside work is progressing on a World War I trench and a true-to-life "No man's land".

Sarah's presentation was a fitting prelude to the re-opening of the museum which is scheduled for the first weekend in May. Thereafter the museum should be open on each weekend throughout the year.

Roger Hockney
March 1999