Joseph Cawthorne, or ‘John the Pieman’, was a well-known character of mid-nineteenth century Sunderland – more especially for the way in which he would sell his goods. When a customer approached, they were required to put a penny down on a tin lid and ask: “Heads or tails?” If John guessed right, he took the penny and gave them no pie; but if he guessed wrong, they got their penny back and a pie into the bargain. “I am the only man in Sunderland who fought at Waterloo,” he would claim – a boast sustained by medals he occasionally wore on his breast which proved him to be a veteran of the great battle, and of the Peninsular War.
Cawthorne, it seems, was born on 29th August 1790, at Newark-on-Trent. At 14 he was apprenticed to a canvas weaver, but was hardly out of his apprenticeship when he joined the Montgomeryshire Militia, and thereafter the first battalion of the Rifle Brigade. In the Peninsular War he fought at Vittoria, the Pyrenees, and Toulouse, among others, during which time he was wounded once.
At Waterloo in 1815, he was wounded again, this time more severely. After returning to England, he continued in the service of his country until his discharge in about 1819. He got no pension, and for some unknown reason eventually found himself in Sunderland, where he took up his living as a pieman. In his late 60s, efforts were made to get him a small pension, and sixpence a day was awarded; which was increased to 9d in 1863, and in 1866 to a shilling a day. The old man died in 1869, aged 78.