Sunday, November 11, 2018

Book review. "Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly"

When I first came to Australia in the early 1970s, it may seem surprising that I’d never heard of Ned Kelly. Only after I’d been enlightened by native-born Australians, visited displays devoted to him in museums, read a few books, watched some movies and TV shows and ultimately visited places like Euroa, Beechworth and Glenrowan in what is known as “Kelly Country” in North-East Victoria and Southern New South Wales, did I come to know more about this most famous of bushrangers.

All of what I learned led me to accept the history that Ned was a Robin Hood sort of figure, that he was, like that other Wild Colonial Boy of the song, a bit of a romantic rogue who “robbed the rich and helped the poor” and his “proud young heart” defended the downtrodden and marginalised. He wrote letters and advocated a form of colonial Irish independence from English imperialism. Plus, above all, he fought valiantly against a corrupt and evil police force, that the infamous shoot-out at Stringybark Creek was forced on him, that he killed only because he had to. Even his actions in shooting a dying policeman was seen as some form of mercy killing.

Then came a day when my family members were away skiing at Mount Buller and I chose to stay in the town of Mansfield where I wandered idly about, coming across this memorial to the policemen killed by the Kelly Gang at Stringybark Creek.

I pondered on the fact that the three named policemen killed by Kelly were all Irish-born, not English. It dawned on me right then there might be a lot more to be revealed about the legend than was generally known.

This led me to search for alternative points of view on Ned Kelly and find out whether I had been duped for some reason. There wasn’t much to be found. This was in the days before historic documents or newspapers became widely available on the Internet, but I was fortunate to hear some stories from those whose ancestors had been victims and had suffered cruelly at Kelly’s hands: horses and property stolen, women threatened, children terrified, homes trashed and even burned to the ground.

I learned that Kelly didn’t rob the rich English and give to the poor Irish; he robbed the poor Irish and then laughed at them, that he was no Robin Hood, but a self-serving narcissist, a violent and unstable criminal. Due to the pro-Ned lobby and massive myth machine, most of these people tended to keep their knowledge and opinions on Kelly to themselves.

Recently, I read and reviewed Mrs Kelly, a somewhat overwrought tome by Grantlee Kieza  about Ned’s mother. While I did have some sympathy for the woman, throughout that book her son came across as a very nasty piece of work and I sensed there might be a change in how people would evaluate the real Ned Kelly.

I am now pleased to have read Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly by Leo Kennedy, the great-grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy who, together with his two companions, was outgunned and subjected to horrific and sadistic treatment by Kelly at Stringybark Creek, yet has come to be belittled and denigrated by a veritably army of Kelly supporters, fanatics and fantasists for nigh on 140 years.

The facts in the book come from a wide variety of sources: official documents and family histories, from police and eye-witness reports of the time, nearly all of them greatly at odds with the myth. Kennedy explains how the legend started and, once it did, how it has been almost impossible to stop, even up to the present day.

When he was a young boy, Ned Kelly was never mentioned in the family and when Leo Kennedy came home from school one day asking questions about the famous bushranger, his father had to relent and explain the history, how Leo’s great-grandfather was murdered by Ned and how his great-grandmother Bridget had to suffer and bring up five children alone, to endure the lies that followed, how the lies became the truth. He writes:

“…  As writers, historians, and film and TV directors have taken on the story of Ned Kelly, sanitising and glorifying thievery and murder, Ned Kelly has morphed from anti-hero to hero and back again. His crimes are excused or removed from the story. Worse, some hold him up as a role model, an icon. A loveable larrikin or Robin Hood figure. Some even deny the murders at Stringybark Creek …”

He further writes about the families who were hurt - Kelly descendants as well as those of the policemen - as the myth warped and grew tentacles, seemingly with no place for any dissenting view. Leo Kennedy states that the level of “distortion is breathtaking” and continues to expand in websites and blogs, Wikipedia, even “the Australian Government’s own website is loaded with errors”.

Even in Ireland, the misinformation persists, with some Irish academics going so far as adopting Ned as some kind of hero for his anti-English attitudes. 
 “The truth is the Kelly Gang were not the ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ figures invented by writers years later; they were not in a battle against the English overlords. Most Irish wanted to assimilate and settle in to their new home and get on with their lives. Irish Catholic sentiment at the time chimed with the general populace: good riddance to the Kelly Gang.”
There will be some individuals who are none too happy with the publication of this book. Many depend on the mystique of Kelly for their survival, especially tourism operators and souvenir sellers, but also diverse industries such as clothiers, wineries and even letter-box and garden furniture manufacturers. One famous artist in particular established his career with his images of Ned Kelly, being Sidney NolanThere is nothing to be gained in exposing the truth if it means you have a lot to lose. Nobody wants a money-making legend messed with.

From where I now sit, I can look across the road to where one of my neighbours has a fairly large statue of Ned Kelly in full armour with rifle in pride of place on his front step. I doubt this neighbour is ever likely to read this book as he’s most likely a “true believer” but it is galling to know there many similar crass statues in thousands of gardens across the country, that few people give any deep or serious thought to what they represent. 

Numerous versions available should you want one 

The book is a long-needed tribute to those honest and hard-working policemen whose names are on the Mansfield Police Memorial and who faced up to the Kelly Gang with little training and support, under-resourced (they even had to buy their own guns) but were determined to do their duty and help their community, and bring the criminals to justice. For their sacrifice and the ongoing wrongful indignities their families were subjected to, they deserve to be admired by every Australian, instead of dismissed and ignored.

In an era when history is constantly subject to revisionism, it is now time to set the story straight on Ned Kelly.

(The content fully deserves five stars, although the narrative does have some editing issues and grammatical errors, but it is hoped these will be corrected in future editions.)

Time to completely recycle Ned!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Learn it, but never play the retreat". A teenage hero of the Boer War

On 2 February 1950, an elderly man died at the Waverley War Memorial Hospital in Sydney, Australia. The relevant newspaper funeral notices described him as a Boer War veteran but nothing else. There was no mention of his wife although apparently he was survived by three children - Nora, Eileen and John - and some relatives connected with Fiji. To the uninitiated, the life of John Francis Dunne was just another routine passing.

What may not have been known about him is that when he was in his mid-teens he was a world-wide celebrity, almost a cult figure. At the age of 15, he had met Queen Victoria and his image appeared in newspapers, magazines, in comics and children’s books, on pennants, badges, buttons and cigarette cards and all other types of memorabilia. He toured and appeared on stage in re-enactments, including a play called During the Siege in which he had the role of a dispatch carrier. There was a music hall ditty written about him and his image was reproduced in commemorative decorative figurines. 

Dunne had been born on the Isle of Man on 22 January, 1884, the son of a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  He followed in his father's footsteps and joined the regiment at the age of fourteen. Much later, as an adult, he served as a ship’s steward mostly on the Montoro, a vessel that regularly sailed between Australia, various South Pacific ports and New Guinea. He’d also owned a bar in Fiji at some time.

Montoro carried cargo and passengers (from shipspotting)

After his early encounter with fame, Dunne had slipped into anonymity and it took an erroneous report of his death in Melbourne in the newspapers in 1933 that forced him back into the limelight in order to set the record straight, that he was very much alive and was the real “Bugler Dunne of Colenso”. Apparently quite a number of individuals had tried to pass themselves off as the Bugle Boy in order to cash in on his fame, or gain medals, including one of them who was “a professional juggler and sword swallower”!

Brisbane resident, Mrs Grace Marguerite Gallwey (nee Phillips) who had served as a nurse during the Boer War, met the ship’s steward and verified that he was in fact one and the same as the 15 year old bugler whom she had treated nearly 35 years earlier in South Africa and in England. She remembered him clearly, that she helped him buy new feathers for his hat in Southampton and that she accompanied him when he met Queen Victoria at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, where the Queen gave Dunne a new bugle to replace the one he had lost during the battle.

Shortly before he died, Dunne talked to a reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, telling his story (reproduced here from the newspaper image below) 
'John Francis Dunne, boy-bugler hero of the Boer War battle of Colenso, was this week admitted to a Sydney hospital. He is now 65 years old.  [He turned 66 just days after the article was published.]   For years school history books have told of the bravery in battle of the 15-years-old bugler, and how Queen Victoria rewarded him with a silver bugle.  Boer War veterans often speak of his gallantry.  Yesterday, lying in his hospital bed, silver-haired and bespectacled, Mr. Dunne recalled the campaign.  Colenso was a bitter, bloody battle,” Mr. Dunne said.  It was December 15, 1899. We were fighting to cross the Tugela River and relieve Ladysmith, and the Boers were giving us a slathering.  I was just 15 at the time - I had enlisted as a boy bugler in the 1st Dublin Fusiliers a little over a year before, the day I turned 14.   I got the order to sound the advance - never play the retreat in the British Army, you know. Learn it, but never play it.  As I played the advance I began to charge with the officers at the head of the men, when a Boer bullet went through my right arm and hurled my bugle from me  Simultaneously a piece of shell struck my chest.  I staggered to my feet, picked up my bugle with my left arm, and finished sounding the advance.  The other buglers along the lines picked it up and sounded the call also and the troops moved forward.  We crossed the river with heavy casualties, but took Ladysmith.”  Mr. Dunne said he was carried from the battlefront on a stretcher, and was invalided to a hospital in England.  Queen Victoria sent for me when I recovered, he said. I was taken to the Isle of Wight in the Royal Yacht to see her.  She was very kind to me, and presented me with the bugle.”  Mr. Dunne said the bugle was stolen from him while he was in the Army in England three years later.'

From Soldiers of the Queen, image W V Amey, c. 1900
Another Amey view, different headgear

Carried through the streets of Portsmouth - possibly the man on the right is his father. 

The Bugle Boy meets the Queen, Australian War Memorial

A rare intact figurine currently for sale on Ebay
Commemorative pin

Dunne was discharged as medically unfit on 17 March, 1902. For his service in South Africa he received the Queen's South Africa Medal with the clasp Relief of Ladysmith and a £5 war gratuity. Apparently he had been offered the enormous sum of £3,000 by Madame Tussaud's for the bugle, but he declined the offer, only to have it stolen.

Details of his time after that are sketchy. His military records contain a letter saying that he transferred to Australia on 23 April 1907, his only address care of the G.P.O. Sydney, but in what capacity is unknown. 

The photo below with his wife and children taken c. 1915 shows him wearing what looks like a ship's steward uniform. There is also a passenger list showing Dunne, aged 30, sailing from England to Australia on the SS Borda early in 1914, with wife Hilda E., aged 21, daughter Nora Ivi aged 2 and son John Francis aged 3 months. Dunne gives his occupation as a Clerk. The same family appears, but is crossed out, on an earlier ship passenger list. Perhaps they missed the sailing for some reason. Interestingly, this list further qualifies Dunne's occupation as a Shipping Clerk. From genealogical searches, his wife was born Hilda Kruckow in New South Wales and she had Italian heritage, but it seems that they were later divorced, which may explain why she does not appear in the funeral notices.

In a Fiji Islands Directory dated 1921, Dunne's name is listed as a resident of Levuka.

In 1922, Dunne was mugged in Sydney and again lost a number of valuable items, as per this report in the NSW Police Gazette. 

The ailing veteran tells his story. 
From TROVE, National Library of Australia

Cigarette card c. 1900, National Portrait Gallery
It would be fascinating to find out what happened to that stolen bugle. Perhaps it is in some private collection, but if it ever resurfaces, with its plaque intact, it should be instantly recognisable from its description in this extract from the Illustrated London News, 24 February 1900:
'Bugler Dunne had his visit to Osborne on Monday, crossing the Solent from Southsea in the charge of Lieutenant Knox. A boy of fifteen, dressed in khaki, he was ushered by Sir John McNeil into a small room, where sat her Majesty near a table. He stood and bowed a little nervously; then the Queen told him to step forward, asked him about his wound and whether he liked the Army - which he said he did - and finally presented him with a bugle to take the place of that which he lost by the Tugela River. The new instrument is silver-mounted; it has a green bugle-cord, the green dear to a boy whose father was born in County Tipperary; and a silver plate attached to it bears the inscription: 
"Presented to Bugler John Francis Dunne, 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, by Queen Victoria, to replace the bugle lost by him on the field of battle at Colenso, on the 10th December, 1899 when he was wounded".'
From Illustrated London News, 23 February 1900

This website carries a number of images of Dunne, including some recollections of a descendant and bisque figurines of the Bugle Boy, but some of the facts are at odds with elsewhere, e.g. it says he met the Queen at Windsor not the Isle of Wight, etc.

Image of John Dunne, wife and two children, c. 1915, Museum Isle of Man

Find-a-Grave link

Bugler Dunne

Bugler Dunne, Bugler Dunne, you are missing all the fun,
And another chap is bugling where the battle's being won.
Don't you hear the ringing cheers of the Dublin Fusiliers,
Bugler Dunne?

Yet you sing, yet you sing, though your arm is in a sling,
And your little bone is broken where the bullet left a sting,
And you show a bloody scar. Guess you dunno' where you are,
Bugler Dunne.

Yes I do, yes I do, for I've got a bugle new,
And it's shining all with silver, and its sound is good and true.
Left the old one in the river, and I'll go back there, no never -
Least not for you.

But I'll go back for the Queen, the finest lady that I've seen -
Yes, I've seen her, she's a nailer - and I say just what I mean.
She's a heart that's warm and true for the lads in red and blue.
God save the Queen!

(origins of this jingoistic ditty unknown)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

'Nothing Without the Cross' - the link between a lost manor house in Tunbridge Wells and Point Henry near Geelong Australia

When strolling through an English park recently, I stumbled on an interesting and perhaps little-known link between a lost manor house in Tunbridge Wells and a historic place in Victoria, Australia - a place that I have driven past many times without giving it a second thought.

Many mid-19th Century emigrants from Britain and elsewhere would have first set foot on the Australian continent at Point Henry which is on Corio Bay, an arm of Port Phillip Bay.

At the time, access to the main settlement at Geelong was difficult due to a sand bar that restricted many ships entering the port and most of the larger vessels had no choice but to offload their passengers and cargoes at Point Henry. In later years, channels were cut in the sandbar which enabled Geelong to develop into a major port.

Once ashore, the new arrivals would have had to get themselves to Geelong by whatever means they could. If they had money, they would have been able to hire smaller boats to ferry them across the bay, or horses and carts or wagons to haul them overland with their belongings. If they were poor people, they would have had no option but to walk, carrying whatever they could, trudging through six miles of scrubby bush bordered in places by salty or marshy ground.

Breezy Day at Point Henry, Walter Withers, 1900, National Gallery Victoria

The foreshore as it is today, the You Yang hills in the distance

How the Point got its name has been debated, although a timeline available from the Bellarine Historical Society notes that in September 1836, Lieut. H R Henry of the survey vessel HMS Rattlesnake allegedly named it after himself, but “… the brig which was in the area 3 months earlier is considered the more credible source.” This vessel was the Henry, owned by a man called Henry Reed.

The Geelong Historical Society erected this plaque in 1951 at Point Henry.


Henry Reed (1806-1880) was a canny and dynamic, yet profoundly religious, Yorkshire businessman and philanthropist who became influential in many areas of trade and settlement in the early years of colonial Australia.

Henry Reed in later life

Henry was the son of a Doncaster postmaster who died when he was just five years old. This left the family in dire straits and Henry's mother took in washing to support the family and to pay for the children's elementary education. At thirteen, Henry became a merchant’s apprentice and at the age of twenty was given a letter of introduction to a trader in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). After arriving in Hobart in 1827, he walked all the way across the island to Launceston, a distance of some 120 miles.

While working in a store in Launceston, he made friends with one John Batman and was a witness at his marriage. He would later give Batman a loan to help with his enterprise in establishing the future city of Melbourne.

Henry went into business for himself as a general merchant and then moved into shipping, sealing and whaling, banking, and was even briefly a politician. The Henry was one of the first vessels he owned. He established a whaling station at Portland Bay, and often commanded his own ships on their voyages, with the Henry investigating the viability of harbours in South Australia which would help with the establishment of that colony as well.

Henry’s strong religious principles remained at the forefront of his activities: *

"With all his business ventures Reed found time for practical religion. By faith a Wesleyan and a fervent evangelist, he had ready sympathy for all unfortunates. At Port Phillip he spent some time up country with Aboriginals in hope of saving them from a fate like that of the Tasmanian tribes. He was reputed to have preached the first sermon on the site of Melbourne, his congregation being Henry and John Batman, William Buckley, and three Sydney Aboriginals. To encourage the opening of a mission at the new settlement he offered £20 and annual subscriptions. At Launceston in November 1837 he had himself locked one night in the cells with condemned criminals who were to be executed next morning."

Even on his return to England in 1847, where he lived for the next 26 years, he continued to be deeply involved in philanthropic causes:-
"... He became associated with General Booth and helped him with money and advice in the difficult formative years of the Salvation Army. Generous gifts were also made to other evangelical work such as the China Inland Mission and the East London Christian Mission. He helped to establish places of worship in the East End and schools on Bow Common …
And ...
… he undertook many preaching engagements throughout the north of England and, dismayed by the widespread poverty he encountered, devoted himself to providing homes and assisting the poor with food and other necessities. In his native Doncaster he bought ten cottages for free occupation by aged Christians and arranged to pay all the rates and repair bills."

Another of his passions was building, including warehouses for his businesses and houses for his ever-increasing family. (Henry married twice and had at least sixteen children.) 

Macquarie House was one of Launceston's earliest buildings that still stands today. Read about it here.

Macquarie House built for Henry Reed in 1820s

Another of his earlier houses built in 1859 also still stands today at Queenscliffe, on the Bellarine Peninsula near to where ships passed through the Heads of Port Phillip Bay on their way to Point Henry. Generations of Port Phillip pilots have called this modest six-roomed house home. 

Rosefeld, Queenscliffe, 1859
Victorian Heritage Register

On his return to England, Henry built a number of imposing houses for his family, including Dunorlan Harrogate but it was at another Dunorlan at Royal Tunbridge Wells, where he would create the most lavish and grandest of them all. Its keystone displayed his family crest, a wheatsheaf with the motto “Nothing Without the Cross”.

The earlier Dunorlan Harrogate as it is today,
now apartments
Dunorlan Tunbridge Wells
 contemporary drawn image c. 1860s
(Photos, if any, impossible to find)

This new Dunorlan would have everything that any self-made Victorian entrepreneur should aspire to: a collection of rare or exotic trees, stretches of open meadows and a series of terraces that led down to a private lake complete with cascade created out of that peculiarly unique Victorian invention, pulhamite rock.

Grecian statues lined an avenue planted with cedars that led from a fountain to a folly in the style of a Grecian temple. The estate even had a spring to rival the famous Chalybeate Spring in The Pantiles of Tunbridge Wells.

Fountain and cedar-lined avenue leading to Grecian Folly,
Dunorlan House at rear c. 1860s

Dunorlan today
remains of terrace walls just visible on the slope

Dunorlan today
the cedar avenue

However, in spite of the huge amount of time and money invested in Dunorlan, Henry was dissatisfied and did not live there for long. (There are suggestions that conflicts with local Christians over the message such opulence was sending to the local community might have had something to do with it.)

Less than 10 years after its completion, Dunorlan was put up for sale. The house was bought by a Canadian banking family but eventually it was requisitioned in 1941 as part of the War effort. Apparently soldiers who were billeted there used the statues along the cedar avenue for target practice and left nothing but a few pedestals. In 1946, the building caught fire and although efforts were made to restore it, the local authorities had it demolished in 1957. New houses were built in its place and the rest of Dunorlan Park was given to the public for everyone to enjoy.

In 1873, Henry Reed had returned to Tasmania where he continued to combine his evangelism with creating more grand homes for his family. The estate of Mount Pleasant near Launceston and Mountain Villa on Wesley Dale. Mount Pleasant was said to be the finest house in Northern Tasmania.

Mountain Villa, Wesley Dale,
 National Trust Tasmania

Mount Pleasant, Launceston,
National Trust Tasmania

Henry did not slow down, however. In 1875 he helped in the establishment of the New Guinea Mission, buying for it a steam launch named the Henry Reed. He bought and demolished a hotel and a skittle alley in Launceston and built a new chapel on the site. This would later become the Henry Reed Memorial Church, now the Baptist Gateway Church. 

Henry Reed Memorial Church c. 1884

Shortly before his death in 1880, Henry wrote to a friend: 
'I have been so much accustomed to put my whole heart into anything I have engaged in, and to do it in the best possible way, and never to be satisfied with anything but decided success whether in spiritual or temporal things, that it troubles me much when I see things half done or carelessly done, but I must ask the Lord to help me in old age to look over and pass by many things.'

As for Point Henry, it has long been an ugly blot on the landscape, being the site of the Alcoa Aluminium smelter, which is now closed and there are long-term plans for the whole area of Point Henry to be redeveloped and rehabilitated with new housing and tourist attractions. Churches are unlikely to feature in our secular age, but perhaps Henry Reed would approve of the energy and vision it will require to take to bring to fruition.

Extracts from entry for Henry Reed in the ADB

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.