The best way to uncover a bit of history, a genealogy, an event or a person's deeds is to go to the original source.

Over time, as stories are passed on, sometimes the facts become distorted or reinvented.

That is why, when researching a collection of military medals awarded to Colour Sergeant Thomas McMillan, his Regimental Account Book and other documents that accompanied the medals told almost all that we know of him.

Bound in oiled paper with the back cover missing, the account book contains detailed service and payment records, including a clothing account, savings bank account, details of next-of-kin, wounds received, medals awarded, promotions, marriage and children and postings.

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McMillan enlisted in the 18th Regiment of Foot (Royal Irish) on 30 May, 1859 at Milecross in County Down, Ireland, at the age of 18 years and nought months. His date of birth is not given, but it is obvious that he was born in May 1841.

Born in the Parish of Comber, also in County Down, he is recorded as being five feet five inches tall, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair. He worked as a labourer. His religion is listed as Episcopalian. This was later changed to Church of England in Thomas's handwriting.

Thomas McMillan's Regimental Account Book. A bare bones book with an oiled paper cover. Photo / Supplied
Thomas McMillan's Regimental Account Book. A bare bones book with an oiled paper cover. Photo / Supplied

Reference cards in the Museum and Whanganui District Library give very little information about Thomas. They list his two wives and only two sons. There is also a reference to him being in the Honour Guard at the wedding of Queen Victoria. Impossible! The Queen was married in 1840, when Thomas was not yet born.

His account book lists all his children and when and where they were born – all eight of them:
Eva Matilda b. 11 Apr 1865 in New Zealand
Elizabeth b. 20 Aug 1867 in New Zealand
William b. 07 Nov 1871 in Devonport, England
Thomas Charles b. 04 May 1874 in Portsmouth, England
Gertrude Amelia b. 12 Jul 1876 in Colchester, England
Florence Otaki b. 13 Nov 1878 at sea
Mary Agatha b. 09 Jan 1881 in Wellington
Robert b. 18 Jun 1883 in Wellington

In his book, Thomas had recorded his marriage to Marion on 23 April 1862, in England. In New Zealand, she was known as Mary. Her death on 16 September 1895, aged 51, was quickly followed by Thomas's second marriage to Mary Jane Morgan, daughter of John Morgan, a labourer, in January 1896 in the Roman Catholic Church.

Thomas's promotion had come swiftly after enlistment. He was made Corporal in December 1860 and Sergeant in October 1861. Then Colour Sergeant on 1 August 1862, just over three months after his marriage to Marion.

On 1 April 1863, he embarked, with his wife, for New Zealand to serve in his Battalion. They started their family and Thomas was paid regularly, depositing savings occasionally.

As Colour Sergeant, the senior non commissioned officer in a Company, he was responsible for carrying his Battalion colours, leading and encouraging troops in battle. Reaching the rank of Colour Sergeant was prestigious, granted mostly to sergeants who had displayed courage in battle.

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He saw active service in the second New Zealand War, from 1863 to 1866, being present at battles and skirmishes at Shepherd's Bush in Pukekohe in 1863, Kihikihi in Waikato in 1863, Ōrākau in Waikato in 1864, Nukumaru north of Whanganui in early 1865 and Te Pūtahi pa in Taranaki, also in 1865.

Inside Thomas McMillan's Regimental Account Book. With a treasure trove of information written on its pages. Photo/Supplied
Inside Thomas McMillan's Regimental Account Book. With a treasure trove of information written on its pages. Photo/Supplied

His battle service was recorded, not in his account book, but in a letter of recommendation for an Army annuity in 1887, written by the officer commanding the 2/18th Royal Irish Regiment.

This officer added that after early promotion, McMillan had served as Acting Sergeant Major and Quartermaster and was "highly commended by General officers in the several occasions of the … correct manner in which the books of his Company was [sic] kept".
More primary sources. The CO would have consulted Regimental records to make his recommendation. The letter also came with the medals and account book.

Three medals were awarded to Thomas McMillan: the Silver Medal for Long Service, the Good Conduct Medal and the New Zealand War Medal.

In 1871, the account book records the McMillan family was stationed in Devonport in England, moving to Aldershot in 1873, Gosport in 1874, Camp Shorncliffe in Kent in 1875 and Colchester in 1876.

Off to Ireland next, in Fermoy in 1877 and Dungarvan in 1878, where Thomas requested a discharge after 19 years and 103 days of service, all written down in the discharge certificate issued by the Adjutant General in Dublin in September 1878. Another original source.

Thomas, with Mary and children, sailed back to New Zealand on the Otaki, arriving in November 1878 including a new baby named Florence Otaki, born at sea.

From here, documentation of his life is sketchy. Two more children were born in Wellington. He seems to have joined the Militia there, attaining the rank of Sergeant Major.

In 1884, he was transferred from the Militia to the Volunteers in Whanganui and Marton, where he was Drill Instructor and Magazine Keeper, keeping his rank of Sergeant Major. This information came from Militia records held at Archives New Zealand.

From here, his life story was confined to occasional references, such as his first wife's death and marriages of his children, in the Whanganui newspapers.

Does anyone have a photograph of him so we can see what he looks like?
Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.