Frank Bourne- a modest hero

Frank Edward Bourne was perhaps an unlikely man to become a national hero, and to star, albeit posthumously in a blockbuster film. Born on 24 April 1853 to James, a labourer who took work wherever he could find it, and his wife Harriet, he was their eighth child and grew up in Balcombe, in Sussex (population in 1872, 880). Somehow, his mother managed to find space in their cottage to take in foster children. Frank must have gone to school, because as an adult he could read and write and helped his illiterate colleagues with their correspondence.

Life in Balcombe would not have offered anything other than a labourer’s life, and when he was eighteen, Frank joined the 24th Regiment of Foot at Reigate. He was paid six shillings a day, most of which was withheld for messing and washing. He was very quickly promoted  corporal and then sergeant and just after he was sent to South Africa in February 1878, he was promoted Colour Sergeant. He was still only twenty-four: privately, his men called him ’The Kid’ or sometimes ‘Boy Bourne’.

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Frank Bourne as a young man

In January 1879 the regiment, now the South Wales Borderers, was sent to Pietermaritzburg under the command of Lord Chelmsford. Thirteen companies, including Frank’s own ‘B’ company crossed the Buffalo River into Zulu country on 11 January. While the rest of the men carried on to engage the enemy, ‘B’ company was left behind at a mission post to guard the hospital stores. The mission was called Rorke’s Drift.

Frank’s ‘B’ Company

Chelmsford’s five-thousand-strong force was humiliatingly defeated by the Zulus at Isandlwana. The enemy then turned their attention to the mission. ‘B’ company, believing themselves to be safe, had done nothing to fortify the place. They made do with what they had – sacks of mealie ( Indian corn) and biscuit tins. They had about 150 fighting men plus some hospital patients.

One depiction of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift

The battle started at 4.30pm when the mission was attacked by between three and four thousand Zulu warriors. The attack continued all night. The Zulus departed the next morning shortly before the arrival of Lord Chelmsford’s relief column. Remarkably, only seventeen men of ‘B’ company had been lost. Of the survivors, eleven were awarded the Victoria Cross and four, of whom Frank was one, the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The battle was headline news for months, every snippet of information being fed by the press to a public greedy for detail (and it has been suggested that the government encouraged this appetite, to gloss over the disastrous events at Isandlwana). The number of Zulus in the attack crept up to six thousand. One woman, an artist, wanted to paint the scene for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition and had a miniature Rorke’s Drift built in her garden. Dozens of pictures have since been painted, the battle was  even turned into a war game and Rorke’s Drift into a tourist attraction.

A Rorke’s Drift war game set-up

That the battle is well-known to so many today is in part due to the 1964 film Zulu. Frank was played by Nigel Green, incongruously nearly a foot taller than the historical figure (Frank was only 5 feet 6 inches tall; Green was 6 feet 5 inches) and much older (Green was forty at the time compared to Frank’s twenty-four).

Nigel Green as Frank in ‘Zulu’. He is wearing an Indian Mutiny medal, from 1857, when Frank was four years old. 

For Frank, though, the aftermath was business as usual. As well as his DCM, which came with an annuity of £10, he was offered a commission, but turned it down as he could not afford the expense involved. He was sent to India and served in that country and Burma for the next fifteen years. On 27 September 1882, he married, in St Thomas’s Cathedral, Bombay (Mumbai), Eliza Mary Fincham. She had been born in Harwich, the daughter of a mariner.

St Thomas’s Cathedral, Mumbai – a splendid setting for a wedding

Their first son, Percy, was born hundreds of miles from Bombay, in Secunderabad, in 1883. The next son, Sydney, came into the world in Burma. At daughter, Beatrice was born on Boxing Day 1889 at Ranikhet, a hill station in Northern India.

The next year, Frank decided to take his commission, twelve years after it was offered. He was sent home, and his next child, another daughter, was born in Berkshire. Then, in May 1893, he was made adjutant of the School of Musketry in Hythe. It must have been a relief, to his wife at least, to have somewhere to call home.

The School of Musketry, Hythe, now demolished

The fourteen years in Hythe passed peacefully. Another daughter was born; Frank was promoted captain; his son Percy joined the Royal Navy Pay Office; Frank was promoted major and his son Sydney got a place at Christ’s Hospital School in London.

Frank in later life in a captain’s uniform

In 1907 Frank retired from the army. He seems, during his stay in Hythe, to have been modest about his South African adventure: the local press reported his role at Rorke’s Drift as part of a tribute when he left. He was also presented with a large oil painting of the battle, which he kept afterwards in his study.

He and Eliza retired to Beckenham, where he became assistant secretary of the National Miniature Rifle Club. ‘Miniature rifles’ were what is now called small bore rifles and their recreational use at small ranges had been encouraged after the Boer War in order, it was hoped, to produce a body of men who in the event of war would already be skilled marksmen.

Frank’s retirement did not last long. When war broke out in 1914, he went to the War Office and offered himself for active service but was told he was too old. Instead, he was sent to Dublin to run the new School of Musketry there. During this time he was responsible for training over 10,000 British and Irish marksmen and was rewarded at the end of hostilities with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and an OBE.

He went back to Beckenham and miniature rifles. Both his sons had served in, and survived, the war. Percy became a Commander in the Pay Service and Sydney a stockbroker in Newcastle. There was sadness when his second daughter, Constance, died in Beckenham in 1922 and his wife Eliza in 1931.

Frank moved in with his eldest daughter. Beatrice, who was married to an architect and ran a tea room in Dorking. He died on VE Day, 8 May 1945, the last survivor of the action  at Rorke’s Drift.

Frank’s grave in Beckenham cemetery. He is buried with Eliza and Constance

After his death, a blue plaque was put on Frank’s house in Beckenham

In 1936, Frank had given an interview to the BBC about his experiences at Rorke’s Drift. The original recording is not extant, but it was transcribed and can be read here:

http://www.rorkesdriftvc.com/defenders/tran.htm

 

 

Thomas Head Raddall, Father and Son

 

Thomas Head Raddall, senior and…                                                 Thomas Head Raddall, junior

Thomas Head Raddall senior was born in Hampshire on 6 December 1876, the only son of another Thomas, a draper’s assistant, and his wife Eleanor. He had four sisters.

His father seems to have had a nervous breakdown, attributed to alcohol abuse. The family left Hampshire and moved to West Ham. Young Thomas worked as a cashier in an office near St Paul’s Cathedral, where he ate his lunchtime sandwich each day until when he was just fourteen or fifteen, he enlisted in the Royal Marines as a drummer boy and was sent to the Royal Marines depot at Deal. He stayed there until just before his eighteenth birthday and during this time he met Ellen Marion Gifford (Nellie) of nearby Eastry, who was to become his wife.

The Royal Marines depot at Deal, now private housing

He then enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division on 18 October 1892 and saw service in the Far East from 1896 to 1900, cruising between Hong Kong, Weihaiwei in the north-east of China and Kobe and Nagasaki in Japan. Back in the UK, he married his Nellie on 23 September 1900 at Eastry. Their first child, a daughter, was born in Deal ten months later.

Thomas had been promoted and now applied for a post at the quaintly-named School of Musketry in Hythe. In fact, it now trained men in the use of modern rifles and machine guns. Thomas was himself a first-class marksman and he got the job and the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant Instructor. It was in the married quarters of the School that Nellie gave birth to a son, named Thomas Head Raddall for his father. The birth took place on Friday 13 November 1903, but Nellie, obviously a superstitious woman, always told her son he was born on 14 November. He was baptised at St Leonard’s church.

The School of Musketry in Hythe, since demolished

Young Thomas later remembered Hythe as a ‘sleepy watering place’. He learned to walk in the School’s Barrack square and attended the National School in the town, where in the library he became entranced by the stories of Fenimore Cooper with his Indians and Leatherstockings. Encouraged by his music-loving father, he went to piano lessons with ‘a little, ape-faced man’ who whacked his fingers with an ivory baton when he made a mistake.

Thomas senior, meanwhile, was realising that the School of Musketry, Hythe, the British army and Great Britain itself had little more to offer him and his family. The high spot of his time in the town had been his membership of the British rifle team at the London Olympics of 1908. He was full of ideas and wanted more opportunity for his children. When he was thirty-five, in 1913, he applied for a post in Canada as a firearms instructor for the militia and was successful. In May  that year, the little family – there was now another daughter – sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Hythe was very civilised compared to the small wooden house without electricity in which they now lived.

War broke out in Europe the next year. Thomas senior enlisted on 22 September 1914. and got a commission in the Winnipeg Rifles. He was sent to France in 1915 but managed to stop in Hythe on the way to catch up with old friends. He was shot in the arm at Ypres and was the first wounded soldier to return to Nova Scotia but was soon back in France and in 1916 was promoted Captain. Wounded in 1917, he fought at Passchendaele, now as a major; by August 1918, he was a Lieutenant-Colonel.

He was killed on 9 August 1918 by machine-gun fire, in a wheat field while leading his men in an attempt to capture Hatchet Wood near Amiens. During his war, he had been mentioned in dispatches three times and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was buried in what was to become the Manitoba Cemetery, Caix and commemorated on the war memorial in Hythe.

Thomas’s name on the Hythe War Memorial

Nellie and her children meanwhile had narrowly escaped death in Nova Scotia when a French ship full of explosives blew up in Halifax harbour, destroying large parts of the town. Young Thomas’s school was temporarily the town mortuary for some of the two thousand people killed.

A street in Halifax after the explosion

Thomas senior’s death left his widow in worsened financial circumstances. Her only income was his army pension and since the explosion, everything necessary for life had rocketed in price. Thomas and his older sister had to leave school and get jobs. Thomas failed to get his first choice of work as a trainee reporter and took a training course to enable him to work as a wireless officer on merchant ships. He passed the course and started his career as a ‘sparks’ on the ss War Karma in 1919.

His mother, meanwhile, had gone back to Kent with her daughters, where she hoped her limited income would go further. They settled at Kingsdown, near Dover, but things did not work out. Many of her old friends had moved on, often the men had been killed in the war, and Kingsdown was so quiet that Ellen feared that the marriage and employment prospects for her daughters were limited. In 1921 they went back to Canada. The girls took typing and shorthand classes and got jobs in the city of Halifax.

Kingsdown in the 19th century

At nineteen, Thomas decided to leave the sea, went to business school and took a job as a book-keeper in a paper mill in Liverpool (Nova Scotia). While working there, he met and in 1927 married Edith Freeman. The next year their first child was stillborn.

In 1931, Thomas started writing. His first efforts, commissioned by his employer, were a series of small books on the history of Nova Scotia. These included advertising for the paper industry. Encouraged by their reception, he started writing short stories, which were also well received and gave him enough extra income to buy his house in 1935, by which time he had a small son and daughter.

At the outbreak of war, he tried to join up, but was told his wireless operating skills were out-dated, though he was commissioned as a reservist. He had now published his first novel, His Majesty’s Yankees and in 1943 signed a contract with Doubleday Doran for a second, Roger Sudden.

Thereafter, there was no looking back. He quit his job and became a full-time writer at forty. He was prolific and best known for his meticulously researched historical fiction. He received Governor General’s Awards for three of his books, The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek (1943), Halifax, Warden of the North (1948) and The Path of Destiny (1957) and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1971.

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The three prize-winning books by Thomas Head Raddall

In 1991 he endowed the he Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award to provide ‘the gift of time and peace of mind’ so essential to the creation of new work and which he himself had lacked in his early writing days. His family continues to support the award.

Thomas died on 1 April 1994. He was so esteemed in Canada that an exact replica of his study, furnished with his possessions, is on view at the Thomas Raddall Research Centre and his correspondence is housed at the Dalhousie University Archives.

The Cobays Part 1 – A Lincolnshire Lad

As the seventeen-year-old George Cobay left his Lincolnshire village on a cold February day in 1833, could he, an illiterate labourer, have imagined that he would live into the next century, that he would become Speaker of the Cinque Ports, that three of his sons would be mayors of Hythe, that two of them would have businesses in London’s exclusive Bond Street or that he himself would die full of honours and that a Baronet would send a wreath to his funeral? Probably not. What he clearly had though was a desire to see more of the world than Claypole (population 593) could offer.

George was born on 3 October 1815 in Claypole. He started his working life as a labourer, but when he was seventeen he joined the army, making his mark on his attestation papers – he could not write. He served in the 19th Regiment of Foot, where he rose in 1843 to the rank of Sergeant and his character and conduct were judged to be excellent. Judging by his later career, he must also have learned to write. He spent over ten years abroad, in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and North America before being discharged as unfit after twenty-one years in 1854. He was then thirty-nine and was diagnosed as having ‘chronic rheumatism originating and caused by length of service and constitutional infirmity’. George was five feet six inches tall, with hazel eyes and a sallow complexion.

Presumably some of his service in the United Kingdom was in Ireland, because by the time he was twenty-four he was married to Hannah, a Co. Cork woman. She travelled with him on his postings. Her eight children were born in Dublin, Malta, Canada, Cephalonia, at sea in the Mediterranean, Winchester and the last in Hythe, where the family settled immediately George left the army.

Why Hythe? The link is the new School of Musketry in the town. Colonel Hay, the first Commanding Officer, who arrived in the town in June 1853, was himself from the 19th Regiment. He had already appointed that August the first instructor, Sergeant MacKay of the 19th Foot and it looks as George had come to his notice, too, as a man of intelligence and initiative. At any rate, George took the civilian post of mess master at the School.

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By 1861 he had acquired the licence of the Swan Hotel in the High Street. It was a large coaching inn and likely to profit from the large numbers of officers and NCOs visiting the town. It was also conveniently situated near the Town Hall and could provide dinners and banquets for civic functions.

He prospered, becoming as well as a landlord,  a landowner. He acquired a parcel of land off Donkey Street on the Romney Marsh and started to call himself a grazier rather than an innkeeper. In 1877 he was able to give Hythe Cricket Club his land next to Ladies Walk in the town. That was the year that Hannah died, aged only fifty-six.

Six of her eight children had survived to adulthood, though two infant daughters, Mary, born in Malta and Maria, born in Quebec, did not. She had seen the eldest three, Margaret, George and John married. The three younger sons, Henry, William and Robert, were well on the way to becoming successful business men, and she had become a grandmother.

George had also become a Town Councillor  in the 1860s, retiring in 1898, and a JP – he was still on the bench only four months before his death.  He was mayor of Hythe in 1881 and 1882 and Speaker of the Cinque Ports in 1882. He was, according to the local newspaper, greatly respected in these roles as well as in private life. His illness was reported in the papers in early August 1900. Until then, he had been in robust good health and enjoyed taking long walks. The chronic rheumatism of his army days seems to have been cured by Hythe’s sea air. His funeral was a grand affair at St Leonard’s church, attended by the great and good of Hythe, and graced by a wreath from the town’s MP, Edward Sassoon, Bart.

The grave of Robert and Hannah Cobay and of their three unmarried sons, Henry, William and Robert. The inscription reads:

In/affectionate/remembrance/of/Hannah the beloved wife of/George Cobay/who died 27th June 1877/aged 56 years
Also of George Cobay/husband of the above/who died 12th August 1900/in his 85th year
Also of Henry Thomas Cobay/son of the above/who died 30th November 1903/in his 50th year
Also of their sons/William Richard Cobay/died 26th March 1920, in his 68th year
And/ Robert Cobay/died 9th May 1924 in his 67th year

  • With thanks for further information to David Saunders

To be continued…