family stories
Castle Forbes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland by Gilbert Scott
Castle Forbes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

It was a family story passed down to each generation and could have been made into a movie. In the days when the world needed more heroes my great grandfather quietly told the story of his survival from the Crimean War.

My great grandfather John Cobban was born sometime between 1823 and 1828 when he was christened at Keig in Aberdeenshire, named after his father who was a tenant farmer on a 6,000 acre estate beside the River Don. He worked at the Forbes Estate until he left Scotland to join the 93rd Southern Highlanders and fight in the Crimean War. The war between the Russian and Ottoman empires started in October 1853. In 1854 Britain and France joined the alliance to stop Russia’s expansion into Romania and protect the rights of the Christians in the Holy Land.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Battle of Balaclava and the courage of a young nurse called Florence Nightingale inspired many books and movies. I was proud to have a link to the Crimean War.

During the Charge of the Light Brigade my great grandfather was wounded in the head and left to die on the battlefield. It was customary then for the British to shoot mortally wounded soldiers on the battlefield so they died quickly and without pain. My great grandfather, with help from other wounded soldiers, escaped the “execution” and walked to a local hospital where a metal plate was inserted to cover the hole in his head.

After several months he was discharged, caught a ship to Australia and headed for the goldfields. It was as far away from Scotland as anyone could go.

He didn’t write to his family who thought he was dead and buried somewhere in Crimea.

The gold rush brought thousands of immigrants to Australia from Britain, Ireland and Scotland. One of them was a man from Aberdeenshire who recognized my great grandfather and wrote to his parents to give them the news their son was alive. They did not welcome the news because he had not written to them, was a deserter from the British Army and as an only son had left Scotland when his duty was to care for his parents in their old age. Several months later someone notified the British authorities that he was working in the goldfields. He was arrested, placed in irons and put on a ship for Britain to be tried for desertion.

As the ship was leaving port, the prisoners were allowed on deck without their ankle chains. Seizing the opportunity my great grandfather jumped overboard and swam to the shore where he disappeared into the forest. He changed his name from Cobban to Cobden, left the goldfields, accompanied by a young girl named Mary Jane, and became a farmer on a small piece of land. John and Mary Jane were not married until after their first four children were born, they were afraid the British authorities could still find him. It was many years before he told the story to his children, and it was after his death in 1895 that my great grandmother wrote to his sister in Scotland to give her the news.

A local historian had recorded some of the story in a book and referred to him as a “British soldier from the Crimean War.” I thought his story should be told more widely and not just lost as a small part of history. But I needed more information about his life in Scotland, where he was hospitalized, how he caught the ship to Australia, where and when he escaped from the British and what he did in the goldfields.

Parish births/deaths/marriages and census records in Scotland were surprisingly easy to access and I confirmed my great grandfather’s christening in Keig, and the names of his parents and two sisters. They were all listed in the 1851 Census as residents of Keig. When the census was taken ten years later my great grandfather was not listed with the family. This supported the story he had left Scotland to fight in the Crimean War but a search of the records for the 93rd Southern Highlanders didn’t produce his name. I shifted my focus to ship arrivals in Australia.

The Battle of Balaclava was fought in October 1854 so allowing for a long period in hospital I thought my great grandfather could have arrived in Australia sometime in 1855 or 1856. Shipping arrival records for that period were checked with no result so I looked for possible departure ports near Crimea where he may have started his incredible journey.

The Battle of Balaclava was fought near Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, a long way from the normal shipping route to Australia. There obviously was another story behind how he made his way from Crimea to Australia that could explain why his arrival was later than 1855 or 1856.

I needed to do more research so turned to the relatives who told me the story and asked if there any letters or diaries that may provide a clue to our ancestor’s arrival date. One told me she had some old letters written to my great grandmother by his sister in Keig.

The letters said my great grandfather was living in Keig during the Crimean War and was never a soldier. They also talked about his sudden departure, with two friends named Laing who “were responsible for the trouble” and he would have “felt the weight of the law” if he had stayed in Keig. My story of a brave soldier from the Crimean War was unraveling and I should have stopped the research and let his story continue as part of history.

I returned to checking ship arrivals and passenger manifests for different ports, scrolling through hundreds of microfilm records.

On April 27, 1858 the sailing ship Essex arrived from Gravesend near London with a 23 year old passenger named John Cobden accompanied by a John Laing (24) and Jesse Laing (21). Their nationalities were listed as “English” and professions as “merchants.” Their ages, nationalities, professions and my great grandfather’s name had been changed before they caught the ship from Britain, confirming the reason they had “suddenly” left Scotland. I returned to the library to search records and newspaper stories from the goldfields after 1858.

My great grandfather didn’t find gold but I found a story that said: A smart capture was made…on January 8, 1865 (when) John Cobden, a horse-stealer wanted by the police was chased and caught…ingloriously hiding under a bed. He was obstreperous at first, but on being handcuffed became as gentle as a lamb. A later story described his trial for theft and sale of the horses and the police hunt for over six months before he was apprehended, tried and sentenced to jail for four years hard labor. He served three years before returning to the goldfields.

Search of the jail records confirmed that the inmate was my great grandfather from Scotland. He was not a soldier from the Crimean War, he was a horse thief. Now I have to tell my grandchildren their great-great-grandfather was not a hero, just a story teller too. I could tell them that he worked at Castle Forbes on lands that were granted to Sir Alexander Forbes in 1411 for his part in the defeat of Donald of the Isles at the battle of Harlaw and give them the link: Castle-Forbes.com.

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Image: Castle Forbes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland by Gilbert Scott via Wikipedia.org and used under a Creative Commons license.
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.