Thursday, November 9, 2017

Life and Times of Charles Algernon Parsons

If you were to ask the average person who was Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, you would probably get a blank stare. If you also asked what was his connection to the tragic liner Titanic, you might receive a more interested response. And if you asked a student of engineering, then hopefully you would be met with instant recognition.

Sir Charles A. Parsons, by William H. Orpen, 1922 (Science Museum)

Parsons was the inventor of the steam turbine that would totally revolutionise electricity generation in the world's power stations as well as marine propulsion. From 1899 onwards, steam turbines would be fitted into naval warships as well as many famous passenger liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and that most memorable of all, Titanic.

But it is the Turbinia that came to be uniquely associated with Parsons and its speed created a major sensation in 1897 during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Review at Spithead.

Parsons had trouble interesting investors in his new invention so in an audacious plan to show what his little vessel was capable of, he purposely "gatecrashed" the Review. Turbinia dashed out and raced past the line of some 165 ships. Another boat was sent out to catch her, but Turbinia easily outran the pursuer and it was almost swamped in her wake. The crowd, including Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was astonished. Parsons had decisively proved the abilities of his steam turbine engine. 

For any afficianado or keen student of engineering inventions, Turbinia itself can still be seen today at The Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Turbinia speeding through the review at Spithead

In this connection, I am delighted to announce that my cousin, Eddie Kirton, a committee member of the North East Coast Joint Branch of The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology and The Royal Institution of Marine Architects  - and who has extensive knowledge about Charles A. Parsons and Turbinia  - will be giving a talk entitled:

The Life and Times of Charles Algernon Parsons

and all interested parties are welcome to attend. (Further contact information here.)

Like many a strong-minded genius, before and since, Parsons' diffident personality meant he had great trouble with being a public figure and his family relationships were complex. 

As an example, Eddie has scoured all the known Parsons family and scientific archives to try and track even one adult image of his only son, Algernon, who was killed in World War I, but none has been found. It seems highly possible that all existing family photographs of him may have been destroyed by his sister Rachel in 1933 when she had the family home cleared of its contents after her mother's death.

Lady Katherine Parsons was a formidable woman in her own right, a suffragette and champion of women in engineering. Rachel, also a brilliant engineer, but profligate and unstable, had a tragic end, bludgeoned to death by a disgruntled stable-hand to whom she owed money. (She will be explored in greater detail in an upcoming post on my companion blog on women, The History Bucket.)

Eddie's talk will touch on these fascinating aspects of  Parsons' life as well and one doesn't have to be an engineer to enjoy learning about this extraordinary man to whom the world owes so much.

Ireland has just launched a 15 Euro coin celebrating Sir Charles A. Parsons.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Farewell to Paradise

NOTE: All stories in this series on those who are buried at Paradise Cemetery in Zimbabwe can be followed via the links highlighted in blue below.

This now concludes my exploration into the stories of of the men who were buried at Paradise Cemetery in Marandellas, Rhodesia (now Marondera, Zimbabwe) during the Boer War era.

It has been an enlightening and often moving experience to now know something of the personal histories of those whose graves I stood beside so many years ago. (See my initial post here.)

While I havent solved the puzzle of exactly how many individuals in total lie in Paradise, I have clarified the whereabouts of some. There may well be others who have slipped through the cracks of officialdom, non-combatants attached to the army services and whose details are missing altogether. 

A most useful discovery in trying to resolve the last of the British Imperial Yeomanry men buried in Paradise, has been this book Rhodesia - and After: Being the Story of the 17th and 18th Battalions of Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa written by Sharrad H. Gilbert, published in 1901, and now available online in digitized format.

It is worth reading Gilbert’s straightforward and sobering account of what the British and Empire contingents had to endure as part of the Rhodesian Field Force, of how some of the strongest and fittest men, like New Zealander Rough Rider, John Saxon, were the first ones to fall victim to “the malarial mists” and “steaming swamps” of Mozambique and left to die en route in remote and primitive conditions.

Line of mounted troops of the 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen Contingent, marching from Umtali to Marandellas.
(Australian War Memorial)

Assuming Gilbert’s personal reporting is often more reliable than the official records, it is now possible to eliminate many men from the archival lists and confirm they do not lie at Paradise Cemetery, in spite of the fact that their service records with the National Archives in the UK, the UK Register of Soldiers Effects, various other Anglo Boer War returns, plus numerous newspaper reports of the time all suggesting that they do!

Apart from instances of incompetence, another feasible reason for so much confusion may be that the military staff reporting on the deaths from the base at Marandellas were under stress and also suffering from exhaustion or fevers themselves and in no fit state to be checking particulars.

It is also highly likely that most of the families concerned were never aware of the mistakes in places of burial; that few of them ever had the chance to make the pilgrimage to Africa to pay tribute to their lost loved ones or, if they did, they would not know of the errors that were compounded by the good intentions of groups like the Guild of Loyal Women, as shown to be the case with Paradise.

Gilbert’s book also confirms the two men with the surname of Shaw, George Frederick and Albert Edward, were buried at Bamboo Creek and Umtali respectively in spite of many mentions of Marandellas but, having investigated their stories in some depth, I shall not delete them from my earlier post as along with the sad story of John Saxon are good examples of such mistakes.

(Navy and Army Illustrated,  21 April 1900)

Bamboo Creek
 (Navy and Army Illustrated,  21 April 1900)

As Gilbert also refers to his visit to the sixteen graves at the Mashonaland Rebellion cemetery a few miles away at Ruzawi, this may help to explain why the number “sixteen” was mentioned by the Australian visitor of 1933 who could have confused the two cemeteries.

As the ZimFieldGuide website states, there is a marker at Paradise that definitely doesn’t belong there and should be at Ruzawi. It is for Trooper James Hastie Stoddart of the Umtali Rifles who was killed in action during the Rebellion in 1897. He was the son of James Hastie Stoddart, once the Chief Editor of the Glasgow Herald. Another forgotten story of a young man going out to far-flung places to fight for “Queen and Country” and paying the ultimate price.

The only possible way of determining for sure how many individuals lie in unmarked graves at Paradise Cemetery would involve archaeology with a geophysical survey and that is never going to happen unless some future Zimbabwe government becomes more tolerant of its white colonial history and permits such investigation.

Even if such a scenario did eventuate, the results would be unlikely to offer much in the way of academic value. Men who never saw action because they died of illness, accident or suicide rarely, if ever, warrant quite the same attention as battlefield heroes. There is no excitement or historical glory-of-war glamour attached to them. 

The current commemoration of the centenary of World War I has reignited considerable interest in the stories of men and women from all over the British Empire who served and died in that War. There have been numerous respectful services and the tender restoration of graves and memorials, pilgrimages by thousands of descendants too young to have known their ancestors, church services and huge poppy displays, plus more than a touch of dewy-eyed sentimentality over a generation stamped with sacrifice and nobility.

Patriotic Postcard, Boer War (State Library of Victoria)

Contrast all of this with those Sons of the Empire who did likewise just a few years earlier and travelled to Southern Africa to serve during the Anglo Boer War. Even if it was an unpopular war at the time, it is still sad that there is not the same dignity awarded to its memorials in countries where the action took place. While some may see the destruction of war graves as a natural reaction of indigenous populations against what they see as evidence of colonialism, the reality is that it has more to do with ignorance and vandalism in the hunt for items of value including metal crosses or goods thought to be buried with the bodies.  

So perhaps it is best that those graves that lie scattered and lost along the route taken by the Rhodesian Field Force in 1900 from Beira to Marandellas and beyond and via obscure places like Bamboo Creek and Iron Mine Hill have no markers to identify those who have long been beyond the cares of this world. 

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling in his poem about that great Empire figure himself, Cecil John Rhodes, who was buried within “... the granite of the ancient North” just a few years after the Boer War, they also lie at peace in the same “... great spaces washed with sun ...” 

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

A Boer War Burial (Australian War Memorial)

Here are some casualty statistics for the whole of the (2nd) Boer War 1899-1902 from the Forces War Records site, as compiled from the various official sources, including those used for this project:

7,894 killed
13,250 died of disease
934 missing
22,828 wounded

This is by no means reliable and the site does state that there are differing reports on the exact split of the casualties, although all agree, however, that disease was the main cause of death”.

Those men that I have discovered in this small research project who went mad and committed suicide, or died in accidents, or from neglect, exposure and exhaustion, are presumably all just lumped together under the deaths from disease. 

Anyone undertaking family or historical research into the Boer War should treat all such statistics, and especially all the official records mentioned, with a great deal of caution.

An unknown Yeomanry trooper and sick horse (Imperial War Museum)

It is worth remembering also that more than 300,000 horses died during the Boer War.
Just like their riders, they had little immunity against the terrible scourges of Africa.

* Research into the sole woman buried at Paradise, Gertrude Margaret McLaren, revealed she was aged 49 when she died at Paradise Estate on 20 October 1935 of heart disease. She was born in the Cape Colony, South Africa. Her husband was one of the several doctors listed as her medical practitioners on her death certificate. He was Thomas Dick McLaren, who had been born in Edinburgh and immigrated to Southern Rhodesia where he seems to have worked in various towns and on mines as the Government-appointed resident doctor. He also saw service during World War I, reaching the rank of Captain and his record card indicates he served in the hospital services at Malta. He died at Gatooma in 1938 aged 64. Gertrude's death certificate shows she had two daughters, but his death certificate shows four children, so possibly Gertrude was a second wife, but evidence as to the marriages has not as yet been found. It is assumed the property called Paradise Estate belonged to the McLarens during the 1930s and would have included, or been adjacent to, the Cemetery.

If anyone reading this knows more of the McLaren family, please do contact me.

[Update: Since writing the above, a reader has advised me that Gertrude's daughter, Helen, wrote a memoir about her youth at the Paradise Estate. It is entitled "A Rhodesian Childhood", copyright 1980, and was published in UK in 2008 by Sandeman Press.]

Copyright ZimFieldGuide

All posts in this series on Digging the Dust

With special acknowledgement and thanks to ZimFieldGuideSabretache and to Robin Droogleever whose book That Ragged Mob has been an invaluable resource in re-discovering some of these lost men of Empire.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

He was only nineteen

NOTE: All stories in this series on those who are buried at Paradise Cemetery in Zimbabwe can be followed via the links highlighted in blue below.

And so to the last and perhaps most poignant of the burials at Paradise Cemetery that date to the Boer War era.

George William Norton Stevens was born in Suffolk in 1881, the only son of Dr George Stevens and his wife Harriett Earl Stevens (nee Cowdell). He received his education at Epsom College and also planned to be a medical practitioner and, while in training at the Charing Cross Hospital, he volunteered with the Royal Army Medical Corps for the war in South Africa. His family home at Prospect House, Norton, Suffolk is now a Grade II British Listed Building.  

Several of the official records state he died "of exhaustion", which is rather vague, and hints at overwork possibly being a factor. In the following two letters to his sister as reproduced in the Bury Free Press, it seems his illness began with a sore throat and in those pre-antibiotic days all too easily developed into a major infection. 

London Evening Standard12 September 1900
STEVENS - On July 28, at Marandellas Camp, Rhodesia, S. Africa, George William Norton Stevens, Rhodesian Field Force Hospital, son of George and Harriett Earl Stevens of Norton, Bury St. Edmunds, aged 19, of the Charing-cross Hospital, London, W.C.

Copyright ZimFieldGuide
Bury Free Press
8 September 1900



We regret to learn that the death has taken place in Rhodesia, of the only son of Dr. Stevens, of Norton, who went out on active service. We give below two letters which have been received by Miss Stevens, of Norton, from two of his comrades, who speak in the highest terms of his work with the forces. The receipt of these letters was the only intimation which the relatives received of his death, as they did not even know he was ill. We are quite sure that the sympathy of the whole locality, and of all who knew the deceased, will go out to his parents and relatives in their great trial and the altogether irreparable loss which they have sustained. The letters referred to are as follows:-

R.A.M.C. Rhodesian Field Force,

Marandellas, Mashonaland,

1st August, 1900.
Dear Madam, - No doubt by the time this letter reaches you you will have heard of the sad news about your dear brother, who passed peacefully away on the 28th of July. He had been ill for about five days, and up to the third day we all had hopes that he would pull through, when he took a turn for the worse and became very weak. Although he was unable to speak during the last two days of his life, he was able to write down on a piece of paper what he wanted. I do not think he had much pain, the end came peacefully about 12 o’clock on the 28th, when he passed away in his sleep; so peaceful was the end. We all feel for you and his people in your great loss. He had endeared himself to all who he came in contact with in the discharge of his duties or otherwise, which duties were always faithfully and conscientiously performed. He was buried here on the 30th with full military honours, the Surgeon Captain reading the beautiful burial service of the Church. Around the grave were grouped detachments from every regiment in the camp, men who came on their own accord to render that last tribute of friendship and respect which he had won for himself whilst in the service of his Queen and country. A monument will be erected over his grave by us. To you and to his people I tender my sincere sympathy. You have lost a loving brother and I have lost a comrade good and true, and I pray that He who orders all things for the best will comfort you in your sorrow and bring us all nearer Him, and that the day is not far distant when we shall be reunited with those we have loved and lost for a while.
I beg to remain, madam, yours faithfully,



Marandellas Camp,


Aug. 1, 1900,

335 Liverpool Road

Islington, London, W.
Dear Miss Stevens, - As I joined on the same date, and came out to South Africa as hospital assistant with your brother, I am sure you will excuse me for thus writing you. All through the voyage out, the stay at Cape Town, and subsequent stay here, we were great friends, and in fact he was greatly liked by all the hospital staff and patients, especially latterly, when he took the post of dispenser. It is, therefore, with great regret that I have to be the writer of bad news. The dear fellow fell ill on July 23rd with a sore throat, which gradually grew worse, and in spite of all the attention all here could give, which I assure you we gave, and to the infinite grief of all, sank weaker and weaker till at 12 o’clock midnight on the 28th he passed peacefully away to his heavenly home. I cannot express the grief of all here at the loss of so good a friend, and all wish me to condole with you in such a terrible bereavement, and wish me to express their sympathy with his relations.He was buried with due honours on the 30th, and we are seeing that a cross with inscription is mounted, as showing our regard for a dear departed friend.His death was due to tonsillitis. Having to write this bad news, I hope you will rest assured that we all did what lay in our power for your dear brother, and accept our deepest sympathy for your great loss.
I remain,

Yours very sincerely,


Entry for George from UK Register of Soldiers Effects

George was only nineteen years of age when he died - a life with so much promise to do good and help humanity cut short - just as would happen over and over again in all the subsequent wars of the 20th Century.

Even as I stood beside his grave all those years ago and wondered who he was (see my initial blog post here), young soldiers aged nineteen were dying only a few miles away as another protracted war raged around us. That was the Rhodesian Bush War - or the Second Chimurenga - another African conflict that has slipped into the byways of history even though there are still many alive today who served in it and have been left to carry its scars with little sympathy from the world at large.

This song by the Australian band Redgum is about another unpopular war in Asia that ran parallel to the Bush War during the 1970s. This was the Vietnam War when other young men were conscripted and sent to fight and die on foreign soil. "I was Only Nineteen".  Its strong anti-war message remains relevant.

George William Norton Stevens is commemorated in the Chapel at his old school Epsom College on a plaque that was unveiled by Winston Churchill in 1903. There is also a beautiful stained glass window dedicated to former students who died during the Boer War.

His name also appears on the Bury St Edmunds Boer War Memorial, at St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield, London, and although his name is missing from the online listing, he should also be at the RAMC Boer War Memorial, Aldershot.

Bury St. Edmunds Boer War Memorial

All posts in this series on Digging the Dust

With special acknowledgement and thanks to ZimFieldGuideSabretache and to Robin Droogleever whose book That Ragged Mob has been an invaluable resource in re-discovering some of these lost men of Empire.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brothers and others

NOTE: All stories in this series on those who are buried at Paradise Cemetery in Zimbabwe can be followed via the links highlighted in blue below.

Thomas George Bertram Armstrong (112544) of the 61st Company of the Imperial Yeomanry has quite a bit in common with Captain H.C.W. Hamilton (read about him here) as he also hailed from Ireland and his father was also a churchman, being The Reverend Robert Armstrong, A.M. This is his parents' marriage notice from the Belfast Newsletter, 29 June, 1876: 
ARMSTRONG-FISHBOURNE. June 27 at St. Stephen’s Church, Dublin, by the Rev. Theodore J. Cooper, A.B., the Rev. Robert Armstrong, A.M., Rector of Stradbally, Queen’s County, to Charlotte Elizabeth, fourth daughter of the late William Fishbourne, Esq., J.P. Font Hill, Carlow.
Their son, Thomas George Bertram, was born on 8 November 1879 at Stradbally, Athy, Queens, Ireland. He was the eldest of eight children, three of whom, according to a public family tree on Ancestry, immigrated to the United States and another brother died aged only 22 in Western Australia.

T.G.B. Armstrong. From ZimFieldGuide

The Rev. Robert Armstrong’s name appears in various Irish newspapers in connection with marriages that he performed, usually between members of the military and the Cosby family of Stradbally Hall, Queen’s County. In 1896 he was appointed to the chancellorship of the Cathedral of St. Lazarian.

Nothing else can be found at this stage about young Thomas George Bertram. His service record can be located the National Archives of the UK, but is not available to view freely online. He joined the 61st (South Irish Horse - Dublin) Company of volunteers that was raised on 7 March, 1900 and served with the 17th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry.

He died at Marandellas on 7 August 1900 at just 20 from either meningitis or dysentery and his burial at Paradise is consistent across all the records. Sadly, no record of his name on any Irish Boer War memorials can be found and it is not known if his family had any plaque erected in his memory although a sibling who died in infancy is recorded in the Stradbally graveyard.

Trooper Sidney Edward Davis (4701) of the 50th (2nd Hampshire) Company, 17th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry apparently died of "blood poisoning" on 26 July 1900, although some sources state "disease". 

He was born in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, in December 1879, and christened at Holy Trinity, Hawley, on 4 January 1880, so thus also only 20 when he died. 
His father Thomas Davis was a blacksmith, his mother Sarah was nee Pullen. In the 1881 Census return they lived at the "Blacksmith's Shop" and one year old Sidney had three elder sisters and one brother, George. In the 1911 Census Return, Thomas Davis, aged nearly 70 was still practising his trade.

Hartley Wintney c. 1908 when Sidney's father was still the local blacksmith

Noticing that George was close in age to Sidney, I found that he, too, had joined the 50th Company of the 17th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry with a similar service number that suggests they enlisted at the same time. He was Corporal George William Davis (4712) who returned safely from the war, becoming a blacksmith like his father and living at Blackwater, Hampshire, with his wife as per the 1911 Census Return. 

Being part of the same Field Force, it is hoped George was with his younger brother when he died. To have a member of the family near to him at the end would surely have been a comfort to poor Sidney that few others like him would have had.

His grave marker has a major error in the date - 1906 instead of 1900 - and given the general disorder connected with burials at Paradise, the placement may also be incorrect.

Trooper S.E. Davis. From ZimFieldGuide

Next is Trooper Albert Edward Shaw (15507) of the 75th Sharpshooters Company, 18th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry. He has a service record with the National Archives in the UK which again is unavailable digitally and finding the correct man via the usual online sources or via Ancestry or FindMyPast is proving elusive without exact age as there are too many men with the same name. Being a Sharpshooter, a rural background is likely. 

He died on 19 June 1900 and from the not always reliable UK Soldiers' Effects records the only clue is that he was married, his widow's name Helen (could be Ellen), but with no address given for her again difficult to find more about him. 

This shows death at Umtali, not Marandellas

There is no marker for Albert Edward Shaw either and it doesn't help he has been confused with another Shaw who, although in a different company, was also part of the same Battalion, also a Sharpshooter, and is either buried at Bamboo Creek or also in Marandellas, as per newspaper reports. 

Trooper George Frederick Shaw (12249) of the 67th Sharpshooters came from Ayrshire, Scotland, one of ten children of Charles George Shaw and Flora Campbell Whiteside. Their youngest son, he was born 24 June 1876 and died on 29 May 1900 (the National Archives erroneously have 1901).

G.F. Shaw died at Bamboo Creek according to this.

The family tree does not show any brother called Albert Edward Shaw, but given they were both Sharpshooters and, as with the Davis brothers above, perhaps some cousin connection is possible, although there are no newspaper articles that mention the death of Albert Edward Shaw as does this one about George Frederick Shaw:

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald 8 June 1900.
It is with deep regret that we notice the announcement of the death of Mr. George F. Shaw - youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. C.G. Shaw, Ayr - which took place at Marandellas, South Africa, on the 29th May.
To the people of Cumnock, Mr. George’s personality was perhaps not so familiar as it was to the farmers of this and some of the neighbouring parishes. By them he was heartily esteemed for his frank and courteous nature. He was a young man of great promise, and his death, coming to him in his 24th year, must be a sad blow to his universally respected parents, for whom the deepest sympathy is being expressed.
It might be mentioned that young Mr. Shaw was one of the gallant Ayrshire civilians who volunteered for active service in South Africa. He joined the City Imperial Yeomanry, and it was with that regiment he went out
Here is a link to an image of C.G. Shaw, Clerk to the Ayrshire Council, and a former factor to the Marquis of Bute at Dumfries. The local newspapers also carry reports two elder brothers of George Frederick also joined the war, being James Edward Shaw and Phillip Armstrong Shaw. Their records are beyond the scope of this project, but it is presumed they survived.

Albert Edward Shaw and George Frederick Shaw are recorded next to one another on the Boer War Memorial in St. Martin's-in-the-Fields in London.

All posts in this series on Digging the Dust

With special acknowledgement and thanks to ZimFieldGuideSabretache and to Robin Droogleever whose book That Ragged Mob has been an invaluable resource in re-discovering some of these lost men of Empire.