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Mike Vouri: Tootle-loo: Bugler Hughes and the Last Post for George Bazalgette on San Juan Island

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Captain George Bazalgette must have jumped out of his chair when he heard the bugle call to Christmas dinner at American Camp.

Every bugler had his signature, and the style was unmistakable. That was his bugler, George Hughes. The same George Hughes who had deserted his Royal Marine detachment on the north end of San Juan Island more than five years before. Without giving himself away to his counterpart, Captain Thomas Grey, Bazalgette probably dispatched one of his subordinates to verify his suspicions.


  A 19th-century Royal Navy bugle very much like the one Bugler George Hughes played while serving at English Camp. (National Maritime Museum of Great Britain)

Sure enough, it was Hughes. Bazalgette rode back to English Camp, presumably on his thoroughbred “Jerry,” without saying a word. The joint military occupation, then in its seventh year, had presented a delicate balance for the leaders of both camps as they dealt with bad behavior and the various and sundry challenges pertaining to jurisdiction. Miscreants almost always claimed to be American if arrested by Bazalgette’s men, and British if they were detained by American soldiers.

Bazalgette had been working with Grey for more than a year and though they had enjoyed a positive relationship, he was more than aware of the American’s reactionary tendencies. Only weeks before, Grey, a native of Ireland, had expelled the entire Indian-Hawaiian community from Kanaka Bay after one of his soldiers had been “carried off” by two Indians led by “Peter,” a known resident of that community. (1.) He had also been engaged in a running battle with Washington Territory officials who did not recognize the joint military occupation. This served to encourage no end of whisky sellers, smugglers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes and unscrupulous businessmen.

Desertions were not all that unusual on the frontier, and marines and soldiers lured by gold on the mainland or fed up with the isolation had taken “French Leave” from both camps. They often returned when they grew hungry. That Hughes would turn up in the uniform of the contending nation to perform the same function was so bizarre that it kicked off an international incident that reverberated at the highest levels of both governments.

It would cost Bazalgette his job and stain his career, which had thus far demonstrated the upward mobility one might expect from the son of colonial executive. Commissioned at 18 in 1847, he had served alternately on sea duty and at Plymouth until August 1857 when he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion in China. While in China he participated in the blockade of Canton River, and led troops in fights on White Cloud Mountain and the assault and capture of Nantow. He was promoted to captain in August 1858 and had volunteered for duty at Vancouver island, embarking in November 1858.

George Hughes was listed as a bugler on the British mustering and victualing rolls. A native of the East Stonehouse neighborhood of Plymouth, Hughes was only 14 when he enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1851. He trained in the Plymouth dockyard not far from where he was raised with a sister and older brother. As a musician he would have been trained as a drummer, which was the primary signaling device for crews aboard ship and on land until the bugle rose to the fore in the mid-1850s. (Both instruments were still in use on San Juan; a visitor to English Camp reported being drummed to dinner as late as 1863.) As with most of the initial San Juan detachment, Hughes was part of the China battalions that were shipped from Canton to Vancouver Island on stormy seas aboard H.M.S. Tribune.

Hughes did not desert along with 40 other sailors and marines on the ship’s arrival in Esquimalt Bay in February 1859. Indeed, he does not disappear from the rolls until May 22, 1861. Perhaps he was disgruntled that he did not receive “colonial pay” for performing work beyond his normal duties. The China marines had volunteered to receive such pay and it had come in drips and drabs, and only for those performing labors that benefited settlement.

On his return to the Royal Marine Camp on Boxing Day, Bazalgette agonized over what he should do in a letter to his superior, Royal Navy Captain Radulphus Bryce Oldfield, senior naval officer at Esquimalt in command of H.M.S. Malacca. “I have reason to believe that should I demand this man be handed over to me it will be refused by Captain Grey,” Bazalgette wrote. “I therefore have the honor to request that you will be pleased to give me your directions as to any actions in this manner.”

The Royal Marine garrison during Captain George Bazalgette’s tour as commander.

The letter was dispatched on the 28th to Oldfield, who was then in New Westminster on the mainland. As it turned out, he was overly optimistic about the approach to Grey. The Irishman had joined the Army as a private in 1837, rose to a lieutenancy during the Mexican-American War and was discharged. He then reenlisted and clawed up the ranks again, finishing the Civil War as a brevet (honorary) lieutenant colonel with the permanent rank of captain in the 2nd Artillery. He was dogged, direct and sensitive about his authority.

“The only course open to you is to claim of the United States Commandant Captain Grey the delivery of the deserter George Hughes,” Oldfield wrote on the 29th. “I conceive no objection will be raised to the acceding and complying with your request by Captain Grey.” Of course it was regrettable “...that so long a lapse of time as five years has occurred since George Hughes deserted. At the same time it lessens not the offence, nor does it give him the right of protection by the United States or other foreign powers.”

Because of the “cordial relations” between the camps, Oldfield could not “…conceive that any difficulty can or will be raised.”

Bazalgette forged ahead. That very day he sent his request to Grey, concluding: “...I now request that you will cause this deserter to be handed over to me, as I have done on former occasions with deserters from your camp. Trusting you will see the justice of this request.”

In a letter written the next day, Gray turned him down, pointing out that he was aware of no such agreement pertaining to return of deserters or if such a thing had ever occurred. The tone of the letter reinforced Bazalgette’s sense of dread.

“Not recognizing that you have any legitimate grounds for requesting this soldier to be turned over to you as a Deserter, I therefore decline to comply with your request,” he stated. “I am not aware of your having returned to this command a deserter, therefore no one would regret the interruption of the ‘good understanding which has always existed between the two camps’ more than I should and I cannot but express my surprise at your anticipating in the case of Hughes any such result.”

Grey acknowledged that a bugler named George Hughes was indeed in his command. But his man had an extensive American military history that began in 1862 with the 1st Washington Territorial Infantry, which had been formed during the Civil War. He had joined the U.S. Army regulars in January 1866, been assigned to the 2nd Artillery in March and had reported for duty with Battery I on San Juan Island in June.

In reply, Bazalgette expressed disappointment, but also pointed out that in his request “... the term ‘your Camp’ was intended as strictly speaking of the United States camp, not your command. The occurrence happened during the command of Major Bissell.” He also made it clear that he was washing his hands of the whole matter and bucking it up to his commanding officer “...to be settled by higher authority.”

Despite his irritation over Bazalgette’s demands, Grey continued to abide by the spirit of the joint occupation agreement by writing another, entirely upbeat letter that same day thanking the Englishman for seeking his opinion on the matter of a British whisky seller. The response not only reveals Grey’s mercurial nature, but also underscores the importance each nation placed on maintaining the peace on San Juan. Tensions were rising between the two nations in the post-war period over the Alabama Claims (2.) and other issues, including Fenian raids from the U.S. into Canada and fishing rights in the Grand Banks.


  American, c. 1867-68, around the time Captain Thomas Grey was in command. The two officers quarters at far left still stand. 

Oldfield stopped off at San Juan aboard the steam gunboat H.M.S. Sparrowhawk on his return to Esquimalt on January 4 for a face-to-face with Bazalgette. The 40 year-old naval officer had made a name for himself chasing slave pirates off the coast of Africa, a far cry from the diplomatic perils involved with fractious Yankees. (3.) He left San Juan the following morning, then dispatched the ship back to San Juan on the 6th to pick up Bazalgette, presumably to consult in earnest on an appeal to an American “higher authority.”

That was Major General Henry Halleck, only recently arrived on the West Coast after serving as chief of staff to U.S. Army commander General Ulysses S. Grant. An advanced-level communication would normally have come from Pacific Station commander Rear Admiral J.F. Hastings, which indicates that the admiral was at sea and Oldfield, as senior naval officer, was in charge. He was in over his head on this matter.

We were unable to located an image of Captain Radulphus Oldfied, a key player in the Bugler Hughes controversy of 1867, but that’s his ship, H.M.S. Malacca, a 17-gun steam corvette, in the rear of photo at Esquimalt Bay on Vancouver Island. That’s him waving on the stern (just kidding). 

Oldfield wrote Halleck that it was unfortunate Bazalgette had to seek Hughes’ return, but as “San Juan is but a small occupancy, the distance of the two Camps apart is but 12 miles,” having the bugler at large demonstrating there was life after desertion was contrary to good order and discipline for both camps. Too bad the island was not bigger, he added. He closed with an appeal to Halleck’s sense of equity and justice, qualities that anyone who had ever served with him in the Union Army knew had gone wanting. (4.)

“Placing the case clearly and plainly before you I doubt not but that you will act in perfect amity and good faith and exercise your authority in retaining the very desirable relationship that has hitherto existed and I sincerely hope and trust will,” Oldfield entreated.

(Left) The Department of the Pacific commander in 1867 was Major General Henry Halleck. He ordered Bugler George Hughes, who deserted from English Camp and ended up in the American ranks, off San Juan Island. But he did not endear himself to the British by later calling them a “flaccid race.”

(Right) Richard Temple-Grenville, the Third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos and Lord President of Britain’s Privy Council, came down like a ton of bricks on Captain George Bazalgette over the Bugler Hughes controversy on San Juan Island. His pugnacious qualities were captured in a contemporary London political cartoon.

In a January 21 reply, Halleck, whose nickname was “Old Brains,” promised that the case would be examined as soon as Major General Frederick Steele, commander of the District of the Columbia, returned to Washington Territory. Meanwhile, Grey would be directed not to enlist anyone on San Juan Island, nor was he to allow into his camp any deserter from the Royal Marines. It was not the solution Bazalgette and Oldfield had sought, but at least Halleck had refrained from calling the British a “flaccid race” as he would do in a year’s time.

Two months later the irritant was removed when Musician Hughes was ordered by telegraph to Fort Steilacoom. Tensions had been relieved and the occupation should have continued on as normal. However, the correspondence continued to move up the bureaucratic ladders. The exchanges between officers at all levels had been relatively cordial throughout, but this aspect was lost in translation by telegraph and message pouch.

While Musician Hughes was packing his bags, Richard Temple-Grenville, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos and Lord President of the Privy Council, had this to say on March 22:

“On this allegation, without rendering any proof of the identity or of the desertion Captain Bazalgette demanded not enquiry or investigation, which would have enabled him to send home a full report for consideration by Her Majesty’s Government, but the surrender of an enlisted soldier of the United States Army.”

The Duke went on to point out that so far during the joint military occupation the two sides “with mutual good feeling” had exchanged stragglers and those attempting to desert. But the “...demand for the delivery to a foreign power of a regularly enrolled soldier of several years service as a very different matter.” By British law, Bazalgette would have rejected any similar demand. The Duke closed by ordering the Admiralty to send instructions to Bazalgette “...as they may deem fit to prevent reoccurrence of any similar proceedings.”

The Admiralty’s response the following day was typical. Rather than counseling Bazalgette to do a better job of requesting the return of a deserter—as in “never ask Oldfield for advice again”—they employed the blunt instrument of termination of command. They then rubbed salt in the wound: “My Lords desire you will take an early opportunity of affecting this relief by an officer now on the station until the arrival of the officer from England, and that you will also relieve either or both of the subalterns if you think it desirable.”

In other words, get him out of there. Pacific Station commander, Rear Admiral J.F. Hastings, finally returned and rose to Bazalgette’s defense by identifying the real culprit:

“I consider it necessary to Inform their Lordships that Captain Bazalgette’s claim for the restitution of the deserters was made by the authority of Captain Oldfield of H.M.S. Malacca, Senior Officer at Vancouver.”

Written on May 12, his response was too late. More than a month before, Captain William Addis Delacombe and First Lieutenant A.A Beadon had been ordered to replace Bazalgette and Lieutenant Sparshott. Sidestepping the desertion controversy, the official justification given was that Bazalgette and Sparshott had been absent from Royal Marine headquarters since 1851...the same year 14 year-old George Hughes enlisted.

Delacombe and Beadon and their military attendants were to travel to Vancouver via Panama by the Mail packet by April 17. Delacombe would pick up the tab for his wife and four children. A whole new chapter would enfold at English Camp.

George Bazalgette is on the left in this photo taken while he was enjoying some time off in Victoria.

What happened to George Bazalgette? We know that he hung around the greater Victoria area for a couple of months, probably hoping that if he was not restored to his command by then, the navy would find something else for him to do. Bazalgette eventually departed in early July, steaming first to San Francisco and then to Panama City, where he caught a train across the isthmus to Colon. Ordinarily, transiting government personnel steamed direct from there to England, but Bazalgette decided to stop over in New York City. When he later applied for reimbursement of his travel expenses, the Admiralty slapped his hand again and repaid him only for the direct fare from Panama.

The captain reported to Headquarters in Plymouth for three years before being assigned to the humdrum of recruiting duty in Exeter. The one bright spot was taking the time out, on the eve of his new assignment, to marry Louisa Seville in Marylebone, London. The big city was now the Bazalgette family home and the place where his cousin, Joseph Bazalgette, had designed the city’s new sewage system in the wake of the Great Stink of 1858. George was 41, Louisa 24. Bazalgette put two more years into coaxing youngsters such as George Hughes into the service until he finally called it quits in 1872 and retired with the honorary rank of major. The Bazalgettes returned to London where they lived until George’s death in 1885.

Louise Bazalgette, widow of the first English Camp commander, George, was a pioneer motorist and the first woman to drive in an endurance event in 1890s England.

There were no children, but that did not mean Louisa, now called Louise, was idle. After George’s death, she moved a few doors down in Dorset Square, where she ran a boarding house. By the 1890s, she had become a passionate automobile owner, pioneer and promoter. She is notable for driving her Benz in the “Emancipation Run of 1896,” a long-distance event designed to convince the authorities that there was no need for a spotter to walk in front of an automobile during operation. Her average speed was 12 m.p.h. She later topped that by being the only woman to drive in the “Thousand Mile Trial of 1900.” These feats alone ensured her place in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She never remarried and died in 1918.

Among the other key players in the Hughes affair was Thomas Grey, who passed away only two years after his retirement in 1870. Radulphus Oldfield thrived, as you would expect, becoming a Companion of the Order of Bath and aid-de-camp to the Queen. George Hughes faded from notoriety not long after the incident.

George Bazalgette had deported himself well on the battlefield, and did an exemplary job during the first half of the joint military occupation. He then made the wrong decision based on bad advice that cost him his career. But that enabled him to meet Louisa Seville, and that, by all appearances, was an unqualified success. His memory lives on in signage and literature associated with San Juan Island National Historical Park.


1. Peter never turned up, which is why Grey expelled the entire Kanaka Bay clan on December 1, citing not only their insolence, but their “...exceedingly bad habits of intemperance, thievery and the harbouring (sic) of thieves.” According to Grey, the source of these behaviors was none other than Paul K. Hubbs, Jr., the former American Deputy Collector of Customs, “...under whose protection the Indians had been living and certainly they were adept scholars of a very immoral and bad master.” The community was eventually restored and functioned as a fishing village well into the 20th Century until it was supplanted by Europeans.

2. Throughout the American Civil War, British shipyards and brokers had been providing commerce raiders to the Confederate Navy, which decimated the U.S. merchant and whaling fleets. The most famous and successful of these was the CSS Alabama. The United States wanted restitution and Britain had thus far refused to pay. The issue became known as the “Alabama Claims” and was not settled until the Treaty of Washington of 1871.

3. Radulphus Oldfield came from a distinguished military family with aristocratic antecedents. His father, John, was a British Army general and all three of his brothers were army officers, the youngest, Richard, was the colonel-commandant of the Royal Artillery. A grandfather and uncle were Royal Marines. The uncle, Major Thomas Oldfield, was a legendary officer killed while serving under Lord Nelson at Acre. Bazalgette would have been well acquainted with Thomas’s deeds. Radulphus assisted and corresponded with Dr. David Livingstone while chasing slave pirates near the mouth of the Zambezi River.

4. The “Old Brains” sobriquet stems from Halleck’s gifts as a military theorist. But he could not practice what he preached and unlike Grant, dithered in the face of the enemy. Sodden with jealousy, Halleck did all he could to undermine Grant’s commands in Union Army’s Western theater until President Abraham Lincoln promoted him out of Grant’s hair. When Grant assumed command of the entire Union Army he retained “Old Brains” in Washington to push paper, while he commanded from the field. After the war, the ever-scheming Halleck became expendable. There was no better place for him than 3,000 miles away.

For Further Reading

Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island and Images of America: The Pig War all by Mike Vouri; and The Disputed Islands Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: The San Juan Archipelago, 1850-1874 by Boyd Pratt.

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.  

Last modified onMonday, 05 October 2020 03:12

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