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Out of Time: Nottingham's John Shaw and the Battle of Waterloo

16 June 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

It was the most famous battle in human history, helping to shape Europe as we know it today and finally ending Napoleon’s dreams of a French Empire. While the Battle of Waterloo ensured that names like Bonaparte and Wellington would be forever etched into history, it was the exploits of one man from Nottingham that caught the public’s attention more than any other on that day in 1815. With 18 June marking the battle’s 206th anniversary, we take a look at the extraordinary life and death of Cossall-born John Shaw…

Battles are strange things. Even with the best laid plans, they’re confusing, chaotic and tumultuous – a dozen soldiers fighting on either side can experience their events in a dozen different ways and, in a sense, they’re all correct. And the Battle of Waterloo, arguably the most famous battle in history and the final decisive engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, was no different. Over 150,000 men fighting over a front of two to three miles for six hours doesn’t tie itself into a neat, compact narrative. Rather, the day is broken down in a series of moments – acts of incredible bravery and tactical genius, moments of hope and triumph and tragedy. The fate of Europe hung in the balance of that series of moments on 18 June 1815.

John Shaw’s childhood could not have been easy. Born on a farm between Cossall and Wollaton in 1789, he worked as an apprentice to a joiner and wheelwright at the age of thirteen, before working as a carpenter at the Wollaton Estate. Labouring from such a young age would have hardened a man to the elements and, according to Thomas Bailey’s Annals of Nottinghamshire, Shaw was a man of incredible strength and stature. 

The late eighteenth century was an age where boxing was considered among the noblest pursuits and, given his upbringing and physical prowess, Shaw soon found himself learning the art of pugilism. In his early teens he was fighting men much older and bigger than himself, and quickly developed a reputation for being handy with his fists. 

When the 1807 Goose Fair came to Nottingham, Shaw enrolled to join the fight against Napoleon as a member of the Life Guards. Boxing was encouraged, and his skills improved to an extent that he soon became known around the country as an exceptional pugilist. “His height, weight, length and strength were of so valuable a nature,” writes William Knollys in Shaw: The Life of a Guardsman, “that, united with a heart which knew no fear, they rendered him a truly formidable antagonist.”

While Shaw was developing a reputation as a boxer, Europe was being plunged back into the war it had been fighting for over decades. After his disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon had been forced to abdicate in 1814, consigned for a life in exile on the Isle of Elba. But within a year he had escaped and, despite being in failing health, was willing to risk it all for one final roll of the dice for a European conquest. 

After riding the wave of the French Revolution, the lowborn man from Corsica had taken Europe by the neck and changed the continent like none other before him. Sweeping away the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, he carved out an empire dominated by liberal reforms that threatened the remaining monarchies like Britain’s. Policies of meritocracy, equality before the law, religious toleration, modern secular education were transforming Europe into a new world. Despite his defeat on the Peninsular and devastating failure in Russia, Napoleon’s return from exile meant that Britain and the rest of Europe had to act swiftly to stop him.

He killed as many as nine Frenchmen in single combat, cleaving one unfortunate man’s head clean in half as if it were an apple, and snapping his sword in the breastplate of another

Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia all mobilised armies in a bid to crush Napoleon before his campaign could begin. Knowing that his only chance of success lay with defeating his adversaries one at a time, Napoleon – one of history’s most brilliant military tacticians – launched an offensive with a force of 300,000 men. He initially scattered the Prussian forces before they could join up with Wellington’s army, and Napoleon found himself in a promising position. The battle for the soul of Europe would come down to one definitive battle in the heartland of Belgium: Waterloo.

John Shaw and his Life Guards had been dispatched from London to form part of Wellington’s 68,000-strong force. An eclectic array of German, Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Hanoverian and English soldiers had been patched together as a last line of defense against Napoleon, who would have an open door into Britain if they failed.  

The battle played out as a bloody chess match between the defensive, stoic Wellington and the unflinching mastery of Napoleon. As the rain fell hard on 17 June, it’s hard to know what John Shaw would have been thinking on the eve of his first battle. All accounts paint a picture of a man blessed with outrageous bravery, but with so much was at stake, he must have known that fighting would be fierce and unrelenting. If Shaw had felt fear, he didn’t show it when the time came. 

Amid the confusion, it was unclear whether they were winning or losing – a common theme that ran throughout the day’s events. Knollys suggests that “in the whole history of cavalry, there probably has never been so obstinately maintained a struggle between two bodies of horsemen” as the resultant clash. Lord Somerset, who was present, later said “the blows of the sabres on the cuirasses sounded like braziers at work.” It’s not known exactly how John Shaw died, but several accounts offer a picture of the remarkable events that led to his untimely demise.


Coming up against a unit of French cuirassiers, adversaries squared off in bouts of individual combat – his boxing training had made his sword arm as strong as iron, and Shaw soon fell into his element. Some accounts suggest he killed as many as nine Frenchmen in single combat, cleaving one unfortunate man’s head clean in half as if it were an apple, and snapping his sword in the breastplate of another before continuing to fight using his helmet as a weapon. His size made him a natural target for the enemy, who continued to attack him relentlessly in what Alessandro Barbero would describe as a “brief and exceedingly violent” clash. Eventually, the numbers proved too great, and Shaw was unhorsed – either by sword or by a musket ball fired from distance. Terribly mauled and bleeding profusely from countless wounds, he found his way to the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte – the site of the day’s most ferocious fighting – where, propped against a wall, he bled to death. 

With the battle won by the narrowest of margins, Shaw was buried in the grounds of that farmhouse. However, it wasn’t to be his final resting place, as word of his heroic exploits began to spread, someone excavated his grave, removed his skull and put it on display in London. A plaster cast was made by his comrades, which can still be seen in the Household Cavalry Museum. 

While the exhumed skull adds a particularly grizzly final chapter to the story of John Shaw, it’s important to consider the act of exhuming his body in the context of the day. His exploits had caused a nationwide fascination. Here was a lowborn labourer from Nottingham whose bravery in the face of the enemy had seen his name on the lips of prince and commoner alike. 25 years after the battle, his story was still being celebrated on the stage. As Knollys says, “By all classes his wondrous deeds of daring are proudly remembered, and by those of his own position in life the name of the gallant Guardsman has been at least as much associated with the battle of Waterloo as that of Wellington himself. Indeed, in many popular panoramas of the great battle, it is the Corporal, not the Field Marshall, who is the most conspicuous figure. “

It’s an odd caveat that, unlike the rest of Britain, who celebrated wildly in the knowledge that the monster that had threatened Europe for a generation had finally been defeated – Nottingham marked the victory at Waterloo with a more understated, humble gun salute. Maybe Napoleon’s meritocratic revolution would have been more warmly welcomed here, given our city’s own history of independence and rebellion…

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