Scottish 90th Foot (Scottish Rifles) Officer's Sword, Dated 1879, Major William Henry Vicars
Slightly curved, single fullered blade with spear point, three-bar guard with quillon, wire-bound shagreen grip, smooth steel backstrap with raised chequered thumb rest and integral chequered oval pommel. No leather washer. Brown leather scabbard with steel throat and chape pieces. Blade length 32¾ inches, 38 inches overall.
The blade is etched at the forte on one side with a six-pointed star surrounding a brass proof slug with ‘H W’, the owner’s initials ‘WHV’ within a cartouche, the crown and cypher of Queen Victoria and foliate motifs. It is etched on the other side with the manufacturer and retailer’s name ‘Henry Wilkinson Pall Mall London’ beneath the badge of the Prince of Wales and ‘By Appointment’ within a scroll, as well as the same crown and cypher and foliate motifs. The spine of the blade is stamped with the serial number 23119: Wilkinson’s records show that this sword was sold to W. H. Vicars on the 29th May 1879.
This pattern of sword is very unusual. In the period up to 1881 officers of the Highland infantry regiments carried the traditionally-styled Scottish broadsword with basket hilt, while Lowland regiments carried the British 1845 Pattern infantry officer’s sword. However, within that broad picture there was a great degree of variation in practice. In 1881 the Lowland regiments adopted Scottish dress and began carrying the broadsword, now with interchangeable hilts – but with the notable exception of the newly created Cameronians, aka Scottish Rifles, who adopted the 1845 Rifles pattern sword instead.
This sword is an example of a regimental variation that existed before the standardization of 1881 – a sword which uses the 1822 Pattern Light Cavalry Officer’s three-bar hilt, but with a chequered pommel, together with a light single-fullered sabre blade from the Royal Artillery pattern. This is a known variation which is noted in Swords of the British Army by Robson, but he writes that it was peculiar to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders – if that’s true, this example proves that it was also carried by the 90th Foot (Perthshire Volunteers), before that regiment was amalgamated with the 26th Foot to form the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
See p187, Plate 180, Swords of the British Army (Revised Edition): the sword pictured is identical in form to this one, also made by Wilkinson, and has the serial number 23390, meaning it was also made in 1879 very soon after this one. It may be that this pattern was so unusual that it was only manufactured by Wilkinson: only a handful of officers would have ever ordered it.
Willliam Henry Vicars was born in 1858 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. He was the eldest son of retired Lieutenant-Colonel William Henry Vicars of the 61st Regiment (South Gloucestershire) - a career soldier who served in the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-9, including Chillianwallah, Gujrat and the Siege of Delhi.
The younger William was educated at Uppingham School, leaving in 1876. He joined the Kildare Rifles Militia in February 1878, reaching the rank of Lieutenant, then gained a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the 90th Foot (Perthshire Volunteers) on 2nd July 1879. At the time he joined the 90th it was engaged in the closing phase of the Zulu War, including the conclusive Battle of Ulundi on the 4th July. He purchased his sword on the 7th July, and in October went to join his regiment which had been sent from South Africa to India. He would certainly have been the new boy, surrounded by veterans of two years of warfare with Xhosa and Zulus.
The 90th amalgamated with the 26th Foot (Cameronians) in 1881 to become the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) and William was promoted to Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion during the transition. He remained with them, based in Bengal, until October 1890 when he transferred to the York and Lancaster Regiment, promoted to Captain in the move. He retired from the service in September 1891 and went on the Reserve List.
William returned to military service during the Boer War. He departed on the HMS Assaye on the 28th February 1900 and joined the General Staff as a Special Service Officer. He served as Adjutant at the Artillery & Cavalry Depot at Maitland Camp, a large encampment about six miles from Cape Town, which was both a rest camp for returning troops and a staging ground for newly disembarked troops, particularly cavalry. It hosted as many as 3,000 soldiers, along with 30-35,000 animals for which there was a full veterinary hospital.
He was later posted as a Commandant graded as a Deputy-Assistant Adjutant-General in June 1900, on the British lines of communication – an extremely large and complex system which incorporated telegraphs, telephones, heliographs, lamps, signal flags and carrier pigeons. It was a favoured tactic of the Boers to sabotage British communications lines and then attack repair parties, or tap the lines to gain intelligence. William took part in operations in the Transvaal in April and May 1902 attached to the 3rd Battalion Essex Regiment, and was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four clasps – for the Cape Colony, Transvaal, Orange Free State and South Africa 1902. He retired again after the end of hostilities in October 1902, still on the Reserve List, and was promoted to Major for his service in South Africa.
During this period William returned to India and worked as a ‘Political Agent’ in the Indian Political Service. On the outbreak of WW1 he returned to England and enlisted with the 12th Provisional Battalion, Royal Scots in August 1914, at the age of 56. He was wounded, and awarded the Silver War Badge. He relinquished his commission with the Royal Scots in November 1915 due to ill health and was attached to the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment). He was appointed to the Labour Corps, a common appointment for wounded officers, from October 1917 until August 1918, when he was appointed to a term as an Inspector of Fire Services, lasting until May 1919. In 1920 he is reported as being an ‘Officer’s Friend’ for the Ministry of Pensions, i.e. an ex-soldier with knowledge of administration who advised and assisted retired officers or their dependants with their pensions.
His brother Arthur Vicars, a noted expert on Irish heraldry who became Ulster King of Arms, was murdered in 1921 by the IRA. William fully retired in 1939, and died in 1942 aged 84. He is buried in St Peter’s Church, Leckhampton.
The blade is brightly polished with a few spots of dark patination and some spots of pitting along the spine. It has been sharpened. The metal parts of the hilt have some patination. The wire binding of the grip is all present and tight, a patch of shagreen of the grip has been lost on one side next to the pommel. The fittings of the scabbard appear to have been nickel-plated - much of this has been lost, with patination to the exposed steel. The leather of the scabbard is good, flexible with all its stitching intact and only a few dents and scrapes to the surface.