A deserter has a change of heart after Isandlwana

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A police constable was on his beat one evening in the Borough, Southwark, when a man came up to him and asked to be arrested. It was a fairly unusual request and so the officer asked him what he’d done.

‘Take me to the station-house’, the man replied, ‘and I’ll tell you’.

The pair set off and when they reached the police station the man gave his name as George Gwilliam, aged 33. He said that wanted to surrender his liberty as a deserter from the Queen’s colours. Desertion was an offence that was prosecuted by the military courts and rewards were payable to those that brought in or gave evidence against absconders.

First of all, however, the desk sergeant had to establish whether Gwilliam was telling the truth. Fortunately all deserters reported to the police were listed in the Police Gazette (formally known as the Hue and Cry) which had been published in London since 1772. It had been the brainchild of Sir John Fielding, one of the Fielding brothers who had founded the Bow Street ‘runners’ in the mid 1750s.

While the Gazette fell under the editorial control of the Bow Street office it was a ‘national’ paper, printed by and for the Home Office. By 1879 (when Gwilliam handed himself in at Southwark) it was still being edited by John Alexander, Bow Street’s chief clerk. It finally passed over to the Met in 1883.

The sergeant at Southwark nick was able to trace George Gwilliam finding that he was listed as having deserted from the 6th Dragoons on 16 June 1874, meaning he’d been AWOL for four years and eight months. So why hand himself in now? The story Gwilliam gave was that he’d heard the regiment were being posted to Africa and he wanted to join them.

The Southwark magistrate, Mr Partridge, was willing to indulge him and so told the officer of the court to notify the dragoons and have George transferred to the house of the correction in the meantime until he was required by his regiment.

The 6th(Iniskilling) Dragoons were one of the most celebrated cavalry units in the British Army, famously involved in the charge of Union Brigade at Waterloo and that of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava (rather than the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade in the same battle). The regiment saw action in South Africa in the ‘Boer War’ but Gwilliam would have probably have been too old by then, since he was 33 in 1879. In 1879 it was deployed to fight in what became known as the Anglo-Zulu war and, if he went, that is where our reformed deserter would have seen service.

Gwilliam may have been reacting to the heavy defeat of British forces at Isandlwana (on 22 January 1879) and the heroic defensive action at Rorke’s Drift (22-23/1/1879) where no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses were won. The British eventually won the war and the conflict has spawned two movies, the best of which is Zulu (1964) featuring a young Michael Caine.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 13, 1879]

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