Samuel Godley was born in July of 1778 in Whitwell, Derbyshire. Whitwell was a humble community of farmers, tailors and servants. Before joining the army, Samuel Godley was apprenticed to his father, the village cordwainer. At the turn of the century, the threat of war loomed, inspiring great recruitment fairs in the North of England. Desperate measures were sometimes taken to conscript soldiers. ‘Taking of the king’s shilling’ became a popular way of tricking drunk young men into joining the army – upon finding a shilling at the bottom of their tankard it was said that they had accepted their first day’s pay! Samuel Godley enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of Lifeguards on 2 January 1804.
The Household Cavalry was charged with the duty to protect the monarch, an important task when the latter was not well liked and likened to Louis XVI because of his extravagant tastes and frivolous use of the country’s coffers. Samuel Godley stood guard at grand events like the Prince Regent’s Fete in Carlton House in 1811.
As the Peninsular Wars waged on, the British forces became so stretched that in 1812 the Lifeguards were sent to join the Duke of Wellington’s armies. After six months of ceremonial duties in Lisbon, the Household Cavalry regiments were marched to the Battle of Toulouse, fighting a totally unnecessary battle – Napoleon had already been captured!
Peace in Europe did not last – Napoleon quickly escaped exile in Elba and after gathering unprecedented support, the Congress of Vienna once again declared war against the Emperor. The 2nd Regiment of Life Guards fought under the command of the Earl of Uxbridge at the Battle of Maida and the Battle of Ligny before arriving at Waterloo. Here, they took part in the famous charge of the British Heavy Cavalry before suffering heavy losses at the hands of the French lancers and cuirassiers. Samuel Godley is remembered for showing great bravery and daring in this charge – he was knocked from his horse and fractured his skull, but continued to fight, slaying his enemy, capturing his horse and going on to slay more Frenchmen. Sgt Major Thomas Playford reported:“A normal individual would have been slain outright or at the very least been left totally incapacitated!
After the Battle of Waterloo, the 2nd Regiment of Lifeguards returned to London. Civil unrest was growing as cities grew and unpopular taxes such as the Corn Laws were levied to cover debts accrued during the war. Besides protecting the self-indulgent and much-despised King George IV he Lifeguards were required to keep peace in London, patrolling Mayfair and Belgravia.
“Troublesome thoughts cannot always be avoided, and I was sometimes inclined to ask myself whether, in upholding the Corn Laws by sword, I was not supporting might against right?” – Sgt Major Playford
Despite his injuries Samuel Godley served with the 2nd Lifeguards until 1822 when he was discharged from the army “in consequence of severe wound of the head of the Battle of Waterloo affecting his brain periodically and weakness of sight”. He became an out pensioner at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and worked in the Baker Street Bazaar, a horse bazaar close to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and just a stone’s throw from Dorset Square, the first location of Lord’s Cricket Ground.
On 16 January, 1832, he was “observed by several persons suddenly to stagger, and before assistance could be rendered him, to fall to the ground. Aid was quickly procured and he was conveyed to the St. Mary-la-bonne Infirmary; surgical aid was however of no avail, as he had ceased to exist some moments before it could be procured.” He was buried in St. John’s Wood Burial Ground in the historical parish of Mary-Le-Bone.
The reports of his bravery in newspapers across the country and Major Playford’s memoir brought him acclaim, and the Lifeguards gathered together funds to provide an unusually grand memorial for Samuel Godley.
Sgt Major Thomas Playford designed the device on his tombstone and describes Godley’s feat of bravery in his memoir. This memoir is the only primary account we have of Samuel Godley at the Battle of Waterloo. Samuel Godley still rests in St John’s Wood Burial Ground.