‘Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done’: the aftermath of the ‘Clerkenwell outrage’ of 1867

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At about a quarter to four in the afternoon of Friday 13 December 1867 a bomb went off in London. A barrel of gunpowder, hidden under tarpaulin, positioned next to the wall of Clerkenwell house of detention , exploded blowing a large hole in the prison wall. The bomb also destroyed a row of houses opposite killing a dozen of more occupants, sending at least one mad, and precipitating the premature births of up to 40 babies, half of whom subsequently died. In all at least a further 120 people were injured by the blast, and 15 were disabled for life.1

The incident, which was known by contemporaries as the ‘Clerkenwell Outrage’ is often considered the first serious act in the Irish Republican war against the British state. The bombers’ intention was to affect a prison break – rescuing comrades that had been captured in London earlier that year. In that respect they failed and six people were eventually put on trial for the ‘outrage’, charged with murder. On 26 May 1868 Michael Barrett was executed, the last man to be publically hanged in England, even though there was considerable doubt as to his guilt.

The problem the authorities had was in finding reliable witnesses who would testify. They had someone who turned Queen’s evidence (in other words agreed to inform on his colleagues in return for his own life) but doubts were raised as to the reliability of testimony secured in that way. The wife of Charles Page had given evidence in court in April 1868 and what happened in the days following the trial give us a sense of the difficulties the police and prosecution had in convicting those responsible for the bombing.

Charles Page was locking up his pawnbroker’s shop at 1 Pulteney Court on a Saturday night. He was chatting to his neighbour Mrs Cook when a voice cried out: ‘Let him have it!” A man rushed up to him and punched him in the eye, without any provocation. The police arrived and arrested the man, who appeared before the Marlborough Street Police court magistrate on the following Monday morning.

Here the defendant, who gave his name as James Cosgrove, offered an alternative explanation for his actions that night. He said he had seen Page abusing the woman and had intervened to defend her. Cosgrove was able to produce several witnesses that supported his version of events but Mrs Cook took the stand to swear she was the only woman present and confirm Page’s account.

PS Page of C Division said he ‘had no doubt whatsoever that the assault arose out of the Clerkenwell outrage’. He added that:

ever since the complainant’s wife had given evidence both husband and wife had been subject to such annoyance by persons in the neighbourhood that it had been found necessary to place an extra constable in the court for their protection’.

Cosgrove, he insisted, was ‘connected with the class of persons who committed the outrage’, meaning presumably, that Cosgrove was an Irishman or part of London’s large ethnic Irish community.

Mr Mansfield had heard all he needed to convict Cosgrove of violent assault. In normal circumstances I suspect he would have handed down a small fine of perhaps a few shillings with a week or two in goal for non-payment.  But these were not ‘normal circumstances’, London was still feeling the effects of the tragedy that left so many dead. The Queen had issued a letter of condolence and £10,000 had been raised to help the victims rebuild their homes.

This was a big moment in London’s history, its first real brush with terrorism. So Cosgrove was fined the huge sum of £4 18plus costs and warned he’d go to prison for two months if he didn’t pay. A woman who had made a scene in the court and had shouted abuse at Mrs Cook (no doubt calling her a liar) was bound over to keep the peace as well.

I pick these stories fairly randomly: the only link I have to today is the date. So it is a coincidence, but a sad one, that I find myself writing about Republican terrorism (or freedom fighting if you prefer) on the morning that news of Lyra McKee’s murder in Derry last night is reported.  The 29 year-old journalist was shot and later died of her wounds while she was covering an outbreak of rioting in the Creggan area of Londonderry. The ‘troubles’ were supposedly ended by the Good Friday Agreement but tensions in Northern Ireland are never far from the surface.  One local politician, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan tweeted:

Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done. The thoughts and prayers of our city are with the young woman’s family and friends, may she rest in peace.’

That sentiment could equally well apply to those killed or injured by the Clerkenwell bomb, and indeed to Michael Barrett who most likely was hanged in error for it. Now, more than ever it seems, we need our politicians to dampen down on the rhetoric of division, and stop playing politics with people’s lives and economic futures.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 19, 1868]

1. K.R.M. Short, The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain, (Gill & Macmillan, 1979), pp.8-10

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

‘Chops, kidneys and the Queen’: An unusual magic lantern show advertises a butcher’s wares

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Advert for a magic lantern. c.1885

Have you ever stood and watched the rolling advertisement we now get in some underground and other railway stations? These have moved beyond the static poster advertising a new film, holiday destination or fashion retailer, and catch our attention with moving images. On some escalators you can watch the same advert appear and disappear before your eyes as to ascend or descend the stairway.

If you had assumed this is another example of the innovative and all pervading reach of modern marketing – think again! As with so many things the Victorians were at over a hundred years ago.

In early April 1891 William Harris appeared before the chief magistrate for London at Bow Street Police court. Mr Harris, a prominent butcher, was charged with causing an obstruction on the pavement opposite his shop on the Strand. The butcher was a colourful and flamboyant character and brought his three sons (simply known as “no. 1, No. 2, and No. 3”) into court dressed in ‘white slops, etc, to resemble miniature pork butchers’. He had also hired a defense attorney, Mr Wildey Wright, to represent him.

Chief Inspector Willis of the local police said that at around 9 o’clock on the 28 March last a crowd of around 50 people had gathered across the Strand from Harris’ butcher’s shop and they were staring at his roof. The crowd had become so large that passers-by had to step out into the road to avoid it. Those standing on the street were watching a magic lantern display that Harris had installed above his premises as advertising.

As a constable tried to move the crowd on CI Willis watched as the display passed though several images of the Queen and other members of the royal family followed by cuts of meat and sausages, and then back to scenes from politics and public life.

The inspector agreed that there was ‘nothing objectionable’ about the images shown it was just that people were entranced by it and stood watching, thus blocking the passage of the street. It was a Bank Holiday, he explained, and the crowds were bigger than they normally were. This suggests that the butcher regularly used a magic lantern show to advertise his ‘chops and kidneys’.

Sir John Bridge, the magistrate, said Harris was a ‘very good Englishman and a good neighbour no doubt, and very fond of pigs; but there seemed to be some evidence of obstruction’. The defense lawyer said his client would certainly withdraw the images of the Queen and politicians of the day if that is what his neighbours demanded but he had invested a lot of money in the display.

The justice decided to suspend judgment for a month to take some soundings from local people and the police. Mr Harris meanwhile (to rising laughter in the courtroom) promised he would only show pictures of his meat products in future, and not Her Majesty or her cabinet.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 10, 1891]

Health & Safety in Victorian Bow: I can’t believe it IS butter

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A lot has been made in recent years about the contents of foodstuffs and the laws we have in place to protect consumers. Restrictions of what went into food and drink, along with attempts to police illegal practices, are part and parcel of the growth of the state in the Victorian period. Quite simply the Hanoverian state was not large enough or as a closely controlled from the centre as Britain became in the 1800s following its victory over Napoleonic France. From the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign her governments oversaw a tremendous increase in bureaucratic systems aimed at monitoring and controlling all aspects of daily life.

Today we might complain about ‘health and safety gone mad’ but this process is not a new one, it started in the 1800s and we can see it in things like the Factory Acts, legislation to determine the width of streets, the building of houses, the amount of hours children could work, and the amount of adulteration allowing in the production of foodstuffs.

So whether it was chalk in bread (to make it whiter), water in milk (to make it go further) or the sale of meat that was off, the Victorians led where we have followed in trying to protect the consumer from physical harm and from being ‘ripped off’. Today one of the key battles over our future relationship with Europe revolves around arguments over who can best protect our current regulations on food safety.

In April 1894 Frederick Lock and Edgar Simmonds were summoned to appear before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court.  The summons were issued on behalf of the Bow Sanitary Authority and their officer was in court to press charges against the two men who kept shops in the district.  The sanitary officer had visited each man’s premises and reported that both were selling butter from large tubs kept behind their counters.

Now we buy butter from supermarkets and it comes pre measured, wrapped, and in chilled cabinet. In the late nineteenth century it was sold loose and by weight, so you bought exactly what you needed. This was a age before modern refrigeration and you simply couldn’t keep things cold and fresh easily at home. Nor did most families in East London have the money to waste food or to purchase any more than they needed. It was quite common for housewives to buy a pennyworth of this or that, a twist of tea, or, say, a rasher of bacon.

When the officer entered first Lock and then Simmonds’ shops he asked for a ‘half-pound of that’, pointing at the butter in the tubs. There were no labels on the wooded tubs but, he said, it was widely understood that they contained butter. However, when he took the ‘butter’ and had it analyzed it was found to be adulterated in each case with ‘foreign fats’ (i.e. substances other than butter). Lock’s butter only contained 40% pure butter while Simmonds was better with  53%. Both men had allegedly contrived the law surrounding legislation which is why the officer had brought the prosecution.

Instead of butter, the officer stated, the retailers were selling their customers ‘margarine’ a cheaper, less ‘pure’ substance. Neither man denied selling margarine however, and said that they’d never labeled the tubs as butter anyway. There was no deception involved, they argued, and Mr Bushby (the magistrate) was minded to agree. This seemed like an overeager ‘heath and safety’ officer who hadn’t appreciated how small shopkeepers like this operated in the district.

Nevertheless there was a clear breach of the law even if it was perhaps not intended to defraud or deceive. Mr Bushby fined each of the 10and awarded costs (of 126d) to the sanitary officer. Both would have to ensure that in future their labeling was clear so that they didn’t attract the wrong sort of attention from the inspectors.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1894]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

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I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

From Kennington Common in 1848 to the People’s Vote in 2019; 171 years of democracy in action

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A nation divided against itself, unhappy with its political masters; tens of thousands of people marching though the capital with banners held aloft; a petition signed by thousands of ordinary people which the Prime Minster chooses to ignore. We’ve been here before haven’t we, in 1842 with Chartism. In May of that year a 100,000 people (Maybe 150,000) turned out to accompany a petition supporting the Charter on its way to Parliament. This was a ‘good-humoured and “teetotal”’ procession but later that year, and subsequently, things turned ugly as the Victorian state not only rejected the six demands of the people but deployed the police and military to guard against insurrection.1

By March 1848 Chartism was in decline but radical revolution was very much in the air in continental Europe. 1848 was the ‘year of revolutions’  and in March 1848 London witnessed large gatherings of Chartists in places with long histories of popular protest (like Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green) and a mass demonstration on Kennington Common later that spring, on 10 April. kenningtoncommon-standardThis drew another 150,000 people (right) but the authorities made sure it didn’t go anywhere: troops were stationed throughout the capital at hot spots and no one was allowed to cross the Thames to march on Parliament.

The Charter demanded the following reforms, all but one of which have been achieved today:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  3. Annual parliamentary elections
  4. Equal representation
  5. Payment of members of parliament
  6. Vote by secret ballot

I doubt anyone (especially Brenda) wants to see annual general elections but in 1848 the government was not inclined to grant any of the Chartists’ demands. The 1832 Great Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle class but the idea of making it universal was not properly contemplated until the 1860s when Disraeli took his ‘leap in the dark’ and enfranchised very many more working class men.

The 1848 petition was claimed to have 5m signatures but it reality it had fewer than 2m and some of these were faked (it was apparently signed very many times by Queen Victoria). This undermined the Chartists just as much as the violence that some Chartists deployed (in the Newport Rising of 1839 for example) hardened some hearts against them and divided the leadership.

Yesterday (23 March 2019), 171 years after 1848 something like a 1,000,000 people marched through central London and tried to squeeze into Parliament Square. There was no violence and it was all very good humoured.032319-london-brexit-march-01

The police presence on the ground was minimal (the police have other ways to watch crowds these days, evidenced by the helicopters that circled overhead and the ubiquitous CCTV). People came from all over Britain not just from ‘Remoaning’ London, and they brought their children and pets with them.

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There was a carnival, pro-European, feel to the march albeit with a lot of deep felt anger and frustration at the cavalier attitude of the ruling party (and indeed the opposition in Parliament). This was a protest with a very similar purpose to that of the Chartists in that both wanted to see a shift in power from the executive to the people, and both would argue that they were not being listened to.

The petition to revoke Article 50 had passed 4.5m signatures by teatime Saturday (as most of the marchers were making their way home) and the woman that had posted it was hiding in Cyprus after receiving death threats for having the audacity to call for a democratic vote by the people. Today the government doesn’t need to send in the troops to break up demonstrations or have the secret service infiltrate political groups, there are enough trolls and anti-democratic keyboard warriors to do their dirty work for them.

Everything we have achieved as a people in terms of winning concession from our royal or our political masters has been achieved through protest and campaigning. The rich and powerful did not (and will not) give up their privileges easily but we the people are many and they are few, and ultimately they recognize this and bow to pressure when they have to.

From the Peterloo massacre and the first mass movement for electoral reform, through the Chartists to the Suffragettes and beyond this country has a proud history of social protest aimed at holding our rulers to account. A lot has been said recently about what democracy is and what it means to be democratic. Understandably the present occupant of 10 Downing Street believes she is democratically obliged to deliver the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 in the referendum.

At what point however, did anyone sign up to a democracy in which we were are only asked for our opinion once?

1.Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), p.365

One man stands up for London’s poorest and lands himself in court

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On Sunday my copy of Haille Rubenhold’s book on the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ arrived in the post. By the end of yesterday I’d consumed just under half of it, fitting it in around marking and my other work duties. I will write a full review of it at the end of this week but so far it is a captivating piece of popular social history.

She starts by contrasting the celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 with the encampment of hundreds of homeless people in Trafalgar Square and ‘Bloody Sunday’ when dozens were injured (and one or two or more killed) when the policing of demonstrations against unemployment ended in violence. The underlying theme of her book (or the theme I most identify with) is the problem of homerless and poverty in the capital of the world’s greatest empire.

The word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary in 1888 and that reflected the reality that Britain, and Europe, was suffering from one of those periodic slumps (or ‘depressions’) that have always affected the lives of the poorest disproportionally to their richer neighbours. In the 1880s this resulted in demonstrations, in rough sleeping (in the Square and the capital’s parks, and anywhere suitable), and in political rhetoric.

John Benham Parker was a journalist, or at least some of the time he was. He described himself as an auctioneer and surveyor so perhaps his journalism, like his political activism, was a new or a part-time thing in his life. In March 1889 he was in Trafalgar Square to listen to the speeches made as thousands gathered to protest about the lack of work. As he left he drew a crowd of around 150 men and boys away with him.

Parker stopped outside St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and raised his arms, beckoning his followers to gather round him. He told that he would ‘represent them’, be their voice, tell their stories to those that needed to listen. As he warmed to his theme he was cut short by the approach of Inspector Burke of the Metropolitan Police. Burke and his men had been trying to clear the square of demonstrators (albeit in a more gentle way than they had in November 1887).

EPSON scanner imageIn 1887 the new head of the Met, Sir Charles Warren (pictured left with Mr Punch) , had attempted to ban meetings in Trafalgar Square and it was his heavy-handed approach to protest that had led to the violence there. By March 1889 Warren was a footnote in police history, having resigned in November 1888 soon after (but not apparently connected to) the killing of Mary Kelly by the Whitechapel murderer.

Inspector Burke requested, politely, that Parker move along as he was ‘causing great disorder and obstruction’. The auctioneer turned activist refused, and when the policeman insisted shouted: ‘I will not go; I shall do as I like’. He continued to address the crowd, telling them they had every right to be there, every right to protest. The inspector ordered his men to arrest him and he was led away to be processed before a magistrate in the morning.

At Marlborough Street Poice court Parker explained that he had no desire to break the law and had no knowledge that the police had been trying to clear protestors from Trafalgar Square (which seems somewhat unlikely). He just wanted to draw the attention of the government to the problem of unemployment which ‘seemed to be puzzling all nations at present’.

Mr Hannay had some sympathy with him and was prepared to accept he had acted in good faith. The question of the right to protest in Trafalgar Square was still under discussion, he said,  but regardless of the outcome of that debate there was certainly no right to assemble in the streets adjoining the square. That had been established by a recent test case (Rack v. Holmes) sent from the Worship Street Police court. Parker had broken the law by obstructing the highway but since it was his first offence and because he didn’t expect him to repeat it, Mr Hannay ordered him to pay a ‘nominal’ fine of 10sor go to prison for a week.

It was a sensible judgment, one aimed at diffusing political tensions while maintaining the rule of law. Rubenhold is right to highlight the problem of homelessness and poverty in late nineteenth-century London, it is something we need to remember and it was at the core of my own work from 2010, London’s Shadows, which dealt with the Trafalgar Square episode. I am continually ashamed, as an Englishman, that 130 years from 1889 we still have rough sleepers, unemployment and poverty in London while the wealthy (and not just the Queen) live lives of the most opulent luxury.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 05, 1889]

My new book on the ‘Ripper’ murders, co-authored with Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in the summer. 

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]