The Drummer Boy Post

The Dead Drummer - from an early twentieth century edition of the Ingoldsby legends

Way over Salisbury Plain, at the very far corner of the parish of Market Lavington there stands The Drummer Boy Post. This is just a sign post at a place where three tracks meet. What are tracks now were once the main roads and the Drummer Boy Post stands where the main road from Devizes via Redhorn Hill met the similar road via Lavington Hill to combine and go past The Bustard Inn on the way to Salisbury. It is hard, now, to imagine major roads over this desolate and oft times deserted section of the artillery training ranges. The post is all that remains of what was always an isolated route. However, it had become derelict by the mid 1950s with just one arm remaining.

The derelict post on a misty day in the miud 1950s gives an idea of the loneliness of Salisbury Plain - a photo at Market Lavington Museum

Local enthusiasts persuaded the military authorities to restore it in 1958 and it is still there today.

The post restored in 1958

But why is it called ‘The Drummer Boy Post’? The answer is that it is the setting for Richard Barham’s Ingoldsby Legend, ‘The Dead Drummer Boy’ which begins

OH, Salisbury Plain is bleak and bare,—
At least so I’ve heard many people declare,
For I fairly confess I never was there;—
Not a shrub nor a tree, Nor a bush can you see:
No hedges, no ditches, no gates, no stiles,
Much less a house, or a cottage for miles;—
—It’s a very sad thing to be caught in the rain
When night’s coming on upon Salisbury Plain.

It continues later on, mentioning the fork in the ways.

Louder, and louder Than mortal gunpowder,
The heav’nly artillery kept crashing and roaring,
The lightning kept flashing, the rain too kept pouring,
While they, helter-skelter, In vain sought for shelter
From what I have heard term’d, “a regular pelter;”
But the deuce of a screen Could be anywhere seen,
Or an object except that on one of the rises,
An old way-post show’d Where the Lavington road
Branch’d off to the left from the one to Devizes;
And thither the footsteps of Waters seem’d tending,
Though a doubt might exist of the course he was bending,
To a landsman, at least, who, wherever he goes,
Is content, for the most part to follow his nose;—
While Harry kept “backing And filling”—and “tacking,”—
Two nautical terms which, I’ll wager a guinea, are
Meant to imply What you, Reader, and I
Would call going zig-zag, and not rectilinear.

Lost on the downs, the two sailors take fright. One of them thinks he sees a drummer boy by the post.

—“Hillo, messmate, what cheer? How queer you do steer!”
Cried Bill, whose short legs kept him still in the rear,
“Why, what’s in the wind, Bo?—what is it you fear?”
For he saw in a moment that something was frightening
His shipmate much more than the thunder and lightning.

“Fear?” stammer’d out Waters, “why, HIM!—don’t you see
What faces that Drummer-boy’s making at me?”
—How he dodges me so Wherever I go?—
What is it he wants with me, Bill,—do you know?”

“What Drummer-boy, Harry?” cries Bill in surprise,
(With a brief explanation, that ended in “eyes,”)
“What Drummer-boy, Waters?—the coast is all clear,
We haven’t got never no Drummer-boy here!”
—“Why, there?—don’t you see How he’s following me?
Now this way, now that way, and won’t let me be!
Keep him off, Bill—look here— Don’t let him come near!
Only see how the blood-drops his features besmear!

What, the dead come to life again!—Bless me!—Oh dear!”
Bill remark’d in reply, “This is all very queer—
What, a Drummer-boy—bloody, too—eh!—well, I never—
I can’t see no Drummer-boy here whatsumdever!”
“Not see him!—why there;—look!—he’s close by the post—
Hark!—hark!—how he drums at me now!—he’s a Ghost!”


The vision of the dead drummer - an illustration from the Ingoldsby Legends



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4 Responses to “The Drummer Boy Post”

  1. Matt Says:

    I’ve been reading T J Northey’s Popular History of Old and New Sarum. Northey treats the story as being based on fact:

    “The facts connected with this tragedy, the revelation
    of which created a great stir at the time, were briefly as
    follows : On the 15th June, 1786, Jarvis (or Gervase)
    Matcham, a sailor, and a shipmate, named Sheppard, who
    had been paid off from the man-of-war Sampson, at
    Plymouth, were making their way homeward on foot. In
    the course of their journey they had to cross Salisbury
    Plain, and when they arrived near the Woodyates Inn, a
    thunderstorm, which appears to have been terrific in its
    character, overtook them…..

    The details of his confession are entirely different to those set forth in “Ingoldsby Legends” were to this effect:

    Seven years previously Matcham joined a regiment that was stationed near Huntingdon, and shortly afterwards he was walking with a drummer, named Jones, about seventeen years of age, and the son of a sergeant attached to the regiment. Matcham, who had been drinking, quarrelled with Jones, whom he knocked down and murdered, afterwards robbing him of six guineas in gold, with which Jones had been entrusted by his father. He left the body lying by the side of the road, and hurried away to London, where for a time he found employment at Tower Wharf; he afterwards became a sailor, and in that capacity visited several foreign countries. The image of the murdered youth had always haunted him. Wherever he went he could find no peace of mind night or day, and so desired to give himself up to justice and end his terrors by death. On arrival at Salisbury, Matcham, accompanied by Sheppard, went before the mayor and surrendered as a murderer. It was thought by some that Matcham was merely suffering from hallucinations brought on by drinking ; but on enquiries being made in Huntingdonshire, it transpired that a murder such as Matcham said he was guilty of was actually committed seven years before. On the evidence adduced, added to his own confession, he was afterwards found guilty and hanged. ”

    Do you know if that’s all true?
    The book is at

    • marketlavingtonmuseum Says:

      My understanding is that the murder actually took place at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire. I hadn’t found the information you have which all sounds plausible.

      The legend of the Dead Drummer is a good tale with a basis in fact. Salisbury Plain is, of course a very desolate place. It makes a perfect setting for the whole tale but clearly that was not where the murder took place.

  2. Richard Meredith Says:

    Sorry, folks but the story is definitively based on a real murder that took place in Alconbury. Matcham was tried and hanged at Huntingdon Assizes. The Courtroom is still here!

    • marketlavingtonmuseum Says:

      We totally agree with you – but for some reason the legend was written with a Lavington connection. I have used the legend as part of a talk and emphasise the truth as well as the story.

      Thanks for reading the blog and for making contact.



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