Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Day in the Victorian Army

The following is an adaptation from an undated magazine article in Strand Magazine. The regiment in question is not named so for the purposes of this article let us call them the 2nd Battalion Rutlandshires.

Life in Victorian times was a tough undertaking, many men 'escaped' into the Army which was only marginally better in conditions and attitude. Christmas Day occurs every year and so Christmas Day 1879 dawned for the 2nd Btn Rutlandshires. Every season has its own sense of importance but preparations for this day of days takes a special turn in attitude and feeling. The officer class and enlisted men largely drop their class differences and become soldiers in barracks at Christmas. The General Return Of the Army in Victorian times shows some 223,000 enlisted men and many of these saw service in foreign lands for up to 20 years or so.
Differences between the officers and men were relaxed to a certain extent and preparations were underway for Dec 25th. Christmas Day in the Army was characteristically an organised affair with nothing left to chance. An air of solemnity was observed in the traditions of this day. Each man had a heavy burden of individual responsibility. Large quantities of both liquid and solid refreshments were procured, a great change from the Spartan diet usually endured by the men at this time.

The officers added to the fund with game and many a bottle to fuel the festive gatherings. The canteen funds swelled as this day approached. Barrels of ale, stout and porter appeared along with wine but little or no spirits. These supplies were taken in charge by the Colour Sergeant of each company and kept under lock and key until lunch on the 25th. As the great day loomed closer, the men were seen undertaking many a festive activity - stoning raisins for the puddings, divesting goose, duck and turkey of feathers, fashioning festoons of coloured paper and wreaths of holly. Men were detailed to act as messengers between the cookhouse and men's barracks, the cooks having risen at an unseemly hour to make good the food to be served later in the day. At 6am reveille sounded on the barrack square by the duty bugler: Christmas Day had arrived!

Even before the last note had died away in the frosty air, the barracks of some 700 men were already a hive of activity, lights twinkling from many windows, scores of men moving along dimly lit passages to perform their necessary ablutions, once completed the rooms swept clean and dusted, beds made up as laid down in standing orders (I love that line). No drill today but Army Sunday routine observed. Once breakfast is over Church Parade takes over. 'Fall In' occurs at 10.30 am, many a soldier, though, being fortunate to have leave with families elsewhere. Today there are 350 men attending the Garrison Church, once everyone is inside the Chaplain commences the service. Being a former soldier himself he knows that a long service would not be the thing and delivers a more cheerful sermon than is usual.

On conclusion of the service the men are marched back to their barracks and dismissed, during their absence 'cook's mates' have been busy getting the food ready, tables decorated, ceilings and walls gaily garnished with festive decorations. Much liquid of a beer nature is seen in every room. At 20 minutes to one the peal of the bugler playing 'Come to the cookhouse doors me lads' can be heard and the designated orderlies rush to the cookhouse to receive from their company cooks the food allocated to each mess. A batch of helpers is carving and serving up the now eagerly sought-after food. Food is taken to those on duty, and at one o'clock the bugle sounds again and the men sit down to start the feast.

Junior NCOs act as waiters to their comrades; cheerful demands for more turkey and duck ring out amongst the popping of corks and consumption of ale, beer barrels rapidly emptying. In comes the Company Colour Sergeant and calls 'Attention!', his keen ears having heard the clink of sword and spur on concrete floor: this heralds the visit of the Colonel, his adjutant and duty officer of the day. The Colonel wishes the men a Happy Christmas and turns to leave, this is the cue the Colour Sergeant was waiting for, as was the Colonel, knowing the procedure from past Christmases in the barracks.

'Beg pardon, sir, the men would like to drink your health'. 'Thank you, Colour Sergeant'. 'Sherry or port, sir?' - advancing to the two black bottles put aside for this very purpose, trying to recall what each one contained. 'Whatever comes first, Colour Sergeant,' retorts the Col. 'Just a little though, if you please', knowing he and his party will go through this more than once today. 'A Company Attention!' bellows the Colour Sergeant in a stentorian voice, 'I propose the good health and long life of the Colonel and all the officers. Pte Jones, keep your hands off that plum duff for half a minute.' Many heartfelt epithets are sounded, the Colonel is well loved by his men and his reply follows:

'Men of A Company 2nd Rutlandshires, I am much gratified at the honour you have bestowed on me, enjoy yourselves and have a very happy Christmas.' At this point he picks up his sword and leaves with his party to the next Company where this is repeated once again. A great deal of toasting and well wishing continues throughout the day. Pte Jones tucks into his plum duff barely looking at the falling snow which appeared as if on cue. The Colonel retires to his quarters as do the officers and Sergeants to celebrate the Festive Day in their own manner. Much smoking and merriment ensue from the men, singers are encouraged to exercise their talents and problems are forgotten. At nightfall some of the men get into walking out dress and pursue the taverns of the town, the barracks now largely deserted. At 9:30 pm a roll call is taken and three quarters of an hour later the duty bugler plays 'Lights Out' on a crisp and white barrack square, thus proclaiming the official end to Christmas Day 1879.

My good wishes to everyone and a worry-free Christmas to all, 
Graham Mason, AZW Researcher

Sunday, December 14, 2014

New book on SS Waratah

South African author Andrew van Rensburg’s new volume Waratah Revisited: The True Story of a Ship's Mysterious Disappearance is now available online through Amazon.

From the book jacket:

Waratah mystery solved!
'The crowds dispersed slowly as the new ship
disappeared around a bend in the river. For most,
this would be their last view of a ship destined to
vanish into history'.
'Sawyer’s ticket was booked through to Cape
Town, but nothing could induce him stay on the
Waratah a moment longer'.
'Late into the night and overwhelmed with
frustration McLaughlin ranted about setting fire
to the Waratah'.
'There was no other explanation for the
unyielding advance of the large steamer'.
'Something of great significance was unfolding
off the Wild Coast'.
'Circumstances on the Waratah had taken a turn
for the worse within the last few hours and the
great liner trembled and rolled’
'The Waratah and her souls were abandoned at

The author gets right down to the nitty-gritty offering various theories - including his own - for the Waratah’s hitherto inexplicable disappearance. Contemporary material such as the Board of Trade Inquiry as well as more recent data are presented and compared.

If you are a Waratah Watcher you can’t do better than buy a copy for Christmas.

Copies will also be on sale soon at Adams bookstore, Durban..

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Recent UK dedications for Rorke's Drift men

Pte. J. Manley 'A' Coy 2nd Btn 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment, present at the Defence of Rorke's Drift (Section C-C4 grave 89 Nottingham)

Pte. D. Lewis (James Owen) 'B' Coy 2nd Btn 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment, present at the Defence of Rorke's Drift (Bethel Cemetery)

Graham Mason, Tim Needham

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Looking for Lumley (Anglo Zulu War) Descendant in Natal

Mole is seeking David Moon of Pietermaritszburg, descendant of Lumley, regarding Zulu War ancestor. Please make contact via this blog.  Thank you.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tracing a Military Man 6

Map showing the Thrre Towns, including Stevenston

It’s easy enough, through Census records, to track Finlay Gibson’s career subsequent to his settling in Stevenston, Ayrshire. 

He appears not to have remained part of his sister’s household for long, meeting and marrying Annie Bell on 20 May, 1881, and setting up his establishment elsewhere. Being an employee at the Dynamite Factory, Finlay and his family qualified for quarters in Nobels Villas in Dynamite Road. Not as cheerless as nearby Ardeer Square, the Villas did not offer any great heights of luxury but they were a secure roof over the Gibsons’ heads and convenient for work at the dinnamit.  Bill Cunningham's potted history of Nobels Villas and the conditions in which people lived there.

By 1891 Finlay and Annie Gibson née Bell are listed residing there with five children, all born in Stevenston: Ann, aged 8, Catherine, 6, Mary, 5, Margaret, 4, and William, 2. The birthplace of Finlay’s wife Annie is given as Canada (West) and her age as 32 – 16 years younger than her husband – a considerable disparity.

Finlay is described as a British Subject and his occupation given as Gatekeeper.

Annie Bell’s parents were Samuel Bell and Catherine Thomson Ross. Both were English by birth, but Samuel Bell’s father, another Samuel, had been born in Scotland.  How Annie came to be born in Canada is another story. 

The Gibsons were still at Nobels Villas in 1901, when Finlay, aged 60, was working as ‘Cartridge Foreman’. His daughters, Ann, at 18, and Maggie, 15, were also employed at the dinnamit. Kate (Catherine) was a draper’s assistant and young William was in school.

Annie Bell Gibson, my grandmother,
daughter of Finlay Gibson and Annie Bell

Chimneys of Stevenston

Girls employed as cartridge makers

For readers with an interest in the background, much more about the Dynamite Factory and Stevenston and its environs can be found on the informative Threetowners’ site.

Stevenston historian John Millar's book on the Ardeer Factory is an enthralling in-depth look at this topic. [In the Shadlow of the Dynamite: Ardeer]

Ardeer Square:

Bridgend, ,Stevenston

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Souvenir Saturday: Umzinto School Cadets 1897

Umzinto School Cadets 1897
Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, Natal

Standing L to R:
Thomas Bruce Bremner, Baldwin W Pennington, Alecie E Schreiber, Guy Metcalfe, George Whitfield, Alexander Langlands, Ernest J Smith (7th from left), Lynn Pennington, Joshua Charles (Jock) Landers,  Reginald Metcalfe

Seated in front L to R:
Bernard Schreiber, Norman Fletcher, Keith Stewart, Sam Woods, Douglas Crocker,  Cecil Stewart,  Harold Thomas Landers

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day 2014

They shall grow not old, 
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.  

L Binyon

A group of black South Africans on the Western Front. These men had contracted to work in the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC). In general the native police and NCOs were recruited from tribal chiefs or high-status native families. Some 20,000 South Africans worked in the SANLC during the war. They were not meant to be in combat zones, but there were inevitable deaths when the docks or transport lines on which they worked were bombed. 

The greatest tragedy was the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi on February 21, 1917, when 617 members of the SANLC were drowned in the English Channel.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tracing a Military Man 5

William Gibson’s military records show that he emerged unscathed at the end of his twenty-year stint in the army. This might indicate that he did not serve at the hotspots of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, at least, though there were, of course, other engagements during that conflict – many of them less well-known to posterity.

Here, regimental records, combined with William’s own service documents, provide a useful timeline. If it is not known precisely which company of his battalion the ancestor was in it is difficult to be precise about where he was and when. A general picture, however, can be obtained.

Apparently, William did not arrive in Natal until after the two famous battles mentioned above were over. His unit, 2/4th Foot (King’s Own Royal Regiment) had been stationed at North Camp, Aldershot, in the first week of December 1878, when orders were received to proceed to Natal on active service. Perhaps this came as a welcome break for William who had been at Aldershot since August 1877; now he would see a part of the world he hadn’t visited before.. The change from cold winter weather in England to the blazing heat of the plains of Natal and Zululand would have been a culture shock for the troops.

Durban harbour from the Bluff during the Anglo-Zulu War

Various companies were embarked in the transports Dunrobin Castle and the Teuton, sailing for Cape Town and Durban. The united companies were marched to Pietermaritzburg from Durban – about a fifty-mile hike in full kit -  and here they heard the devastating news of Isandlwana and the subsequent heroic defending action at Rorke’s Drift.

Those desperate engagements might have been too much excitement for William’s taste. There was, however, plenty more to come.

Several companies of William’s battalion were marched to Helpmekaar, and from thence to Utrecht and Greytown. Other reinforcements still garrisoned in Cape Town were brought up the coast in the African, a privately owned mailship, and later marched from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and onward up-country. Their route was swarming with the enemy, who kept mainly out of sight. Three companies, with Major Blake and Capt Moore, were surrounded by a Zulu impi but were not attacked. The battalion was distributed over a wide area, including the Utrecht district, Luneberg etc and on 28 March were involved in the battle at Inhlobana Hill. Some 2nd/4th casualties were incurred at Kambula.

Shortly before William had left Aldershot he had been promoted Sergeant on 25 November 1878. This step-up lasted only until 11 May 1880 when William misbehaved again (details not given), was sent back to Preston in England and subsequent to a trial he was reduced to the rank of Private on 2 June 1880. He forfeited 1d pay.

It was the end of the Zulu War for William as well as the end of his army career: he took his discharge on 17 August 1880, while his battalion went on to distinguish themselves in further action during the closing stages of the conflict.

William Gibson's Discharge Papers

William Gibson was certainly not cut in the heroic mould but was one of those hundreds of ordinary British soldiers who fought ‘Victoria’s little wars’, more out of necessity and circumstance than any feelings of patriotism or duty. Perhaps this makes their contribution all the more laudable. Despite the odds and any personal fears, they were prepared to ‘Stand To’ in the face of a warlike foe which was fiercely defending the Zulu homeland. William was finally able to retire peacefully to Ayrshire together with his brother and their sister’s family. After the vicissitudes of his twenty years’ service he would have been entitled to draw his army pension. I believe he had earned it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Souvenir Saturday: Anglo-Zulu War group photo includes Chard of Rorke's Drift

Lt John Rouse Merriott Chard, VC, one of the heroes of Rorke's Drift,
with other officers of the Royal Engineers. Chard is wearing his decoration.

Read The Anglo-Zulu War in Soldiers' Letters by Frank Emery at

Chard Medal Group