John William Mills was born on 12th July 1790 in Dedham, Essex to Munson and Jane Mills (nee Wilby). He was baptised in the local parish church at Dedham on the 19th December of the same year. His siblings were Jane, James, Thomas, Sarah and Mary.

It is interesting to note that only the name 'John' is recorded on John's baptism record for Dedham. Throughout his life, official records conflict over the presence and spelling of his middle name, sometimes not recording one, sometimes recording it is 'William' and others recording it as 'Wilby' - his mother's maiden name.

Early Life[]

Nothing is known of John’s early life, but family legend speaks of him serving with a troop of Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The family story states that he did not fight, but had the responsibility of looking after the horses (which means he could have been what is called a 'driver' who had care of the horse teams pulling the guns).

The medal roll for the Battle of Waterloo indicates that there were a number of men at the battle by the name of ‘John Mills’ (spelt in various ways). No birth information is provided in these records, so it is impossible to determine if our John is one of them.

There is a John Mills, age 19, who joined the 20th Foot Soldiers on 1st April 1809 that could also potentially be him. This man was described as a labourer born in Ardleigh in Essex, who was 5 foot 9 and a half inches tall, with a swarthy complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes.

We have evidence that John was calling himself a veterinarian from 1841 onwards. Because of the lack of evidence prior to this date, it is not known when he started in the veterinarian field or if he was genuinely qualified. According to Waterloo researcher David Milner, if John had been a qualified vet at the time of Waterloo, he would have held commissioned rank. I am of the theory that our John did not have commissioned rank as I do not believe he was a vet at this stage. The family story of him being a driver is more likely and his experiences in the war may have been impetus for him becoming a vet (albeit an unqualified one, as many were in the 19th century). There are two candidates recorded in the list of Waterloo soldiers who meets this criteria-

  • Driver John Mills of Royal Horse and Foot Artillery, Lt Colonel Gardiner's E Troop
  • Driver John Mills of Royal Artillery Drivers, Major N. Turner's A Troop

I have evidence of a John Mills, royal artillery driver, from Little Bromley in Essex enlisting at Woolwich on the 26th September 1815. I this is him, this is after the Battle of Waterloo which was fought in June. This John Mills was described as 5 foot one and half inches, with fair complexion, black hair and black eyes. He was described as a labourer and was discharged on 28th May 1816.

1st Marriage[]

John firstly married Sarah Bird, daughter of Robert and Sarah Bird (nee Crosby), who had originated in Tendring in Essex. They were married in Tendring on the 8th May 1823, with John's being recorded as from the parish of Great Horkesley. They were married by licence, and both parties signed the marriage record. Witnesses to the marriage were Edmund Almond and John Verez, and Sarah's sister, Hannah Bird.

John would have been approximately 33 years old at the time, which is considerably old for a first marriage of the period. His wife was approximately 31 years of age. It is interesting to note that the certificate does not record the status (widowed or bachelor/spinster) of either party.

John and Sarah would have 3 children together, William Munson, George, and Augustine Herbert. All were born in Nayland between 1824 and 1827.

John’s wife Sarah died when she was only 37 years old on the 31st August 1829 in Nayland, Suffolk. Her cause of death is unknown at this time, and she was buried in Nayland on 5/9/1829.

2nd Marriage[]

John would marry for a second time at Great Tey, Essex on 16th March 1837 to Sarah Polley.

John would have 3 children with Sarah Polley, as he did with his first wife. Their names were Walter John Polley, Coburg and Victoria, all born between 1830 and 1838 in Nayland. Walter was born some 7 years before his parents were married.


In the 1841 census, the family are recorded at Bear Street in Nayland. John is recorded as 50 years old and a veterinary surgeon. Wife Sarah is aged 40, and children William (a shipwrights apprentice), George, Walter, Victoria and Coburg are all living with them. Son Herbert is recorded as an apprentice tailor with William and Lavana Martin in Crouch Street in Colchester, just across the border in Essex.

The title “veterinary surgeon” was first adopted by the founders of the Royal Veterinary College in 1791 to distinguish its new class of scientifically trained diploma holders from farriers. Until 1891, the national census grouped vets with farriers, implying considerable overlap between their roles (similarly, directory lists of blacksmiths and farriers directed the reader to “see also veterinary surgeons”). We have no evidence at this stage to say that John was a formally qualified vet, or simply a farrier (as his father had been) carrying out some of the ‘overlapping’ duties.

Death of 2nd wife[]

John’s second wife Sarah died on the 2nd January 1842 in Nayland and was buried at Chapple in Essex. Her cause of death is currently unknown, but can be determined by obtaining a death certificate. Twins Victoria and Coburg were only 3 years old at the time. This must have been a particularly difficult time for the family, considering what eldest son William did within a week of her death.

In January 1842, John’s eldest son William (aged 17) ran away to join the army. Family legend states that his parents objected to him joining the military, but their reasons are not given. So he enrolled under his two Christian names ‘William Munson’ on the 10th January 1842 with the 3rd Regiment of Light Dragoons. This was within a week of his step-mother’s death and it is likely to have been devastating on the family. He volunteered into the 9th Lancers in the May following and went out to India. He was at the Battle of the Sobraon on 10/2/1846, the Battle of Chilianwalla on 13/1/1849, and the Battle of Goograt on 21/2/1849.

3rd Marriage[]

John married for a third time on 2nd March 1848 to Rebecca Hall (nee Bennett), who had been born in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The marriage occurred at Stoke by Nayland in Suffolk. This time, there were no children from the marriage. The marriage was witnessed by Sarah Brigland and the same witness John had for his first marriage, Edmund Almond. Census records for 1841 and 1851 indicate that this Edmund Almond was a fellow publican and veternarian.

In the 1851 census, the couple are recorded at Bear Street in Nayland, with children Walter, Coburg and Victoria. Walter (aged 20) has taken on the profession of his father and is listed as a veterinary surgeon. The three eldest children had left the household at this time – son William with the army in India, son George (a carpenter) lodging in Lambeth in London, and Herbert is in Colchester, Essex. Son George would marry in London in 1852 and move to Australia between 1852 and 1856.

Bear Street, Nayland. The contributor of this photo is Robert Edwards.

Court Appearance[]

The Essex Standard newspaper of 23rd April 1852 reports that John (recorded as 'John Wilby Mills') sued a man named John Cloe 5 pounds for the sale of a horse. According to the article, John Cloe never paid for the horse and sold it off. Our John was awarded the 5 pounds in the judgment.

1861 census[]

In the 1861 census, John is still living at Bear Street, Nayland, with wife Rebecca, and children Coburg (aged 22) and Victoria (aged 22). Son Coburg has taken on the profession of his father and is now a veterinary surgeon, while son Walter (who was a vet in the last census) is now an innkeeper at the Rose Crown Inn in Greater Horkesley in Essex.

1865 Post Office Directory[]

In the 1865 Post Office Directory for Nayland, both John and his son Coburg are listed as veterinary surgeons. John's name is recorded as 'John Wilby' Mills.


John died on the 2nd October 1865 in Nayland. A death certificate has not been obtained at this stage as a matching entry for this death in the official death records has not yet been located. The National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations 1861-1941) confirms the death however, when on the 4th May 1866, wife Rebecca proved his will at Bury St Edmunds. John left effects under the amount of 200 pounds. He was buried at Nayland on 6th October 1865.


Name Birth Death
Children of John and Sarah Mills (nee Bird)

William Munson 4/2/1824
Nayland, Suffolk
Norwood, South Australia

George 23/12/1825
Nayland, Suffolk
Goodwood, South Australia

Augustine Herbert J 20/3/1827
Nayland, Suffolk
Christchurch, Oxford
Name Birth Death
Children of John and Sarah Mills (nee Polley)

Walter John Polley 28/12/1830
Nayland, Suffolk
buried Hadleigh, Suffolk

Coburg 7/11/1838
Nayland, Suffolk
buried Nayland, Suffolk

Victoria 7/11/1838
Nayland, Suffolk
buried Nayland, Suffolk


  • IGI
  • Parish registers
  • Free BMD
  • Battle of Waterloo Medal Roll
  • UK Census for 1841, 1851 and 1861
  • National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1861-1841
  • Information from Jo Carr
  • Information from Jo Stevens
  • Photo of Bear Street, Nayland copyright of Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license