Like many pub stories, John Norman's amusing thoughts in July's Newsletter on the origins of the Duke of York pub in Woodbridge Road may perhaps owe more to someone's lively imagination than to history. The interesting 'Ipswich Icons' article in the East Anglian Daily Times that he quotes is rather harsh on the poor old Duke of York. There are other Dukes of York who might have been the one in the nursery rhyme but as the article says, George III's second son, Frederick (1763-1827), seems the most likely. He became Colonel of the Lifeguards in 1782 at the age of 19 and, with a little help from his father, shot rapidly up the higher ranks of the Army to be made a full General in 1793 at the start of the French Revolutionary War. An abortive Flanders campaign that he led in 1793-5 may have been the reason for the rhyme, but it caused him to make a massive reform of the incompetent and corrupt Army when made its Commander-in-Chief in 1795.
In the words of Sir John Fortescue in his massive History of the British Army, published in 1930, "[he did] more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history". This included setting up Sandhurst as the first officers' training college and organising the defences of England against a possible French invasion. This may actually be the truth behind the rhyme if the troops quartered in the various barracks along the east and south coasts were sent out on route marches, 'there and back', to keep them fit and occupied while they waited for the invasion that never came? It seems possible that this was part of the Duke's training programme to shake-up the army and make it able to face Napoleon's formidable troops. Perhaps a military historian can enlighten us.
A large number of pubs were named after him; a survey in 1864 listed 32 called Duke of York in London alone, many of them linked to troops who had fought in the Peninsula War. The other local pub with that name, as John Norman mentions, was on the Ipswich Road in Woodbridge, where it meets Barrack Road - a rather similar situation to that in Ipswich. By 1836 both pub and barracks had disappeared according to the tithe map records. There the site is shown as a field, called Duke of York Piece. In recent years it was wholly transformed from a garage and service station into a pub once more, initially called The Seal. The hand of history then reached out nearly two hundred years and it was renamed the Duke of York, claiming to be 'on the very hill up which the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men'. Duke Frederick's name lives on.
In his day it was nationally famous, not just for a nursery rhyme with political overtones. His downfall had come in 1809 when his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke - a fetching courtesan - started selling commissions in the Army. In a complicated scenario she had to face a House of Commons committee and claimed that the Duke was complicit in the sales, which she admitted carrying out.
A twelve-day enquiry acquitted him but he felt bound in honour to resign, put under pressure by the parliamentary opposition and a crushing cartoon by Cruikshank published two days earlier. In those days personal honour ranked as more important than it often seems today. Two years later, it was all found to have been a put-up job with a false accuser. The Duke of York was exonerated and reinstated as Commander-in-Chief. On his death in 1827, the whole army agreed to forgo a day's pay to meet the cost of the Duke of York Column which now stands in London at the junction of Lower Regent Street and The Mall.