Historical Fiction

Empire Discovered


This book will launch on Mar 1, 2021. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒

Joe Rutherford, a young shipbuilder from Jarrow, in the northeast of England, is unusual among his peers. He was fortunate to attend school long enough to learn to read, and becomes an inspiring teller of stories about the current war in southern Africa; stories he has gleaned from the British press. Soon, despite the opposition of their loved ones, he and his friends decide to join the British Army, and set out on an adventure they couldn’t possibly have expected from the newspaper reports Joe has been relaying to them.

Shipped out to join the existing forces after only minimal training, they soon encounter the harsh and terrifying reality of war; the atrocities on both sides, the loss of friends and comrades, and the desperation of holding on to friendships, relationships and romance in the light of what may be a very short life ahead of them. They discover the struggles and atrocities of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in South Africa and the exotic realities of British India.

Unsure of what may happen from one day to the next, the friends cling tightly to each other, to hope, and to new friends and loves they meet along the way…

1. Storm clouds gather over South Africa


Tyneside was never quiet at the turn of the twentieth century. Collieries, factories and shipyards on both sides of the River Tyne in North East England thrummed to the tune of tools and machinery day and night. Miners were blasting and extracting coal from deep below the surface, then hauling it from the pits to the waiting ships and rail cars. The steel mills were rolling steel plates for ships’ hulls, then cutting and hammering them into their designated shapes. The constant rat-tat of scores of striking riveters joined the plates into place. Steam locomotives, weapons and plate glass too were taking shape in the Tyneside factories. Roaring furnaces billowed smoke into the skies above this bustling district, while factories hurried to fulfil their orders to support Queen Victoria’s imperial ambitions.

Tens of thousands of workers, the majority Geordies [1], filled the streets of Tyneside towns such as Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, Tynemouth, Wallsend and Jarrow twice a day between long and hard-working shifts. None complained too much. They were the lucky ones to be working and earning an income. They emerged from their homes and walked to the pits and yards. And as severe as the work conditions were, they toiled the long hours and collected their modest payment every Saturday.

Besides the factories, the thousands of terrace houses of the families of workers belched a steady flow of yellow-grey smoke into the skies above Tyneside. That night the fog had moved in, muting the rumbling machines and trapping the smoke in its wet grip. One seldom saw a bright sky or a brilliant sun, never mind stars or even the moon in the industrial areas of Britain. The air wasn’t clean enough for unobscured sight, and a muted yellow orb glowed in the sky. But nobody there seemed to mind. They knew of nothing else. And they contented themselves with putting food on the table for their families and little else.

        “Cheer up, laddies,” called Joe to his marras [2] over the din, “only ten hours before we finish yet another working day.”

        “Aye, Joe,” replied Mike, “and another six days until pub night.”

        “Aye,” laughed Billy, “but my granda has always said hard labour and avoiding the ale is better for a working lad.”

        “Well, they’ve blessed us then,” called out Jack. “But we work hard and don’t have enough ale.”

        They were far from alone. Joe and his marras were heading to work in the shipyards with several thousand other working Jarrow men; they shared the same routes every morning and evening at the change of shifts. These men provided the muscle to expand the wealth of the British Empire six days a week.

        “Look at that gadgie[3] over there,” called out Billy. “What’s a soldier doing here?”

        “That’s Danny’s brother-in-law,” replied Joe. “He’s home on a visit and walking Danny to work. Let’s move over to them.”

The year 1899 had been a peaceful one in Britain and throughout the British Empire, with only a few exceptions. There were always uncooperative groups not happy with being occupied by a foreign power. And sometimes they expressed their dissatisfaction in violent ways. The British had been building their Empire through discovery and conquest for a few hundred years. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Great Britain added 10 million square miles of territory and 400 million people to the Empire. Under Queen Victoria’s rule, the realm had experienced unprecedented expansion and had accumulated unrivalled wealth. And yet, despite isolated pockets of resistance, Britain’s imperial nineteenth century was a period known as the “Pax Britannica”. It was an era of relative peace between the dominant powers of the world, during which the British Empire became the foremost global power and adopted the role of a worldwide police force. The mighty British Army and the most powerful navy in the world enforced this unique role.

“Aalreet, Danny,” called out Joe, “what’s Patrick doing here?”

“Keeping my brother-in-law out of mischief,” replied Patrick on Danny’s behalf. “My sister Susan asked me to watch over him, haha.”

 “Not that I need watching over,” replied Danny, “Patrick is a country lad and needs to see what real working men do.”

“Aye, well, you are a smart-looking fellow in that outfit,” commented Joe. “Where have you been?”

“India,” replied Patrick, “with the 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and proud of it. Home on leave from Poona.”

“Howay man! Now that’s what I want to do,” replied Joe, “travel, see the world, serve our Queen and country.”

“Aye, me too,” added Mike. “Good luck to you, soldier. My name is Mike O’Brien, and one of these days we’ll be joining you.”

“I thank yee. And I’m sure you’ll be most welcome,” called out Patrick as he and Danny moved off in a different direction, “We’ve heard war is soon to start in South Africa. Why not join the fight?”

“I prefer his clobber to ours,” commented Mike.

“Aye, a British Army uniform is fine clobber,” replied Joe.

“What does he mean, a war in South Africa?” asked Billy.

“Aye, I’ve read that,” replied Joe. “The Dutch farmers, or Boers as they call them, are preparing to fight the British Army.”

“Are they mad?” yelled Mike, “Nobody can beat our army.”

The British military forces recruited their officers from the educated British upper and middle classes. They sourced the rank and file, the nameless sailors and soldiers, from the working classes and the unemployed. As sailors, they crewed the mighty ships of the Royal Navy. As soldiers, they mounted the gangplanks of the vessels that took them from English shores to the farthest reaches of the empire. They raised these forces from throughout the British Isles, from various backgrounds and both rural and urban environments.

Joseph Irwin Rutherford, the son of Irish immigrants and a shipyard worker, was eager to join the army in October 1899, as were most of his marras. He was an example of the working-class upbringing of those who entered the lower ranks of the British Army of the day. On the 24th of November 1881, Joe was born in a town called Felling, between Gateshead and Jarrow, on the south side of the River Tyne in County Durham, North East England. He was a slight but sturdy, good-looking, youthful Geordie man of Irish descent, 5 foot 5 ½ inches tall, with black hair and a thick walrus-style moustache typical of most men in England then. Despite the harsh world in which he had grown up, he had permanent good humour and was a passionate raconteur.

“Aye, I’m just a working bloke on Tyneside,” said Joe to his father and brothers at their local pub, “but I’ve been keeping up with what’s happening out there in the British Empire. I enjoy reading of the exploits of the brave men of the British Army, and I should be with them. But I can’t right now. My family says they still need me here.”

“Aye, that we do,” said Joe’s father, Thomas. “Why do you need to read? You’re a working laddie, as you say, and you need your arms and hands, not your head.”

“Leave him, Da,” pleaded Joe’s elder brother, William. “One of us should know what’s happening in the wider world.”

Joe and his family were the product of two consequential circumstances that had started in the early eighteenth century and reached their climaxes in the mid-nineteenth century in Great Britain: the Irish famine and migrations, known as the Irish Catastrophe, and the great British Industrial Revolution.

During the Irish Catastrophe between 1845 and 1849, one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland. [4] The island's population fell by between 20% and 25%. [5] A census taken in 1841 recorded a population of 8,175,124. The census in 1851 after the famine counted 6,552,385, a drop of over 1.5 million in 10 years. [6] Of those emigrating, the majority travelled the scant distance across the Irish Sea to England and Scotland. Others went abroad to Canada, the U.S.A. or Australasia in search of a better life.

The Industrial Revolution was fuelling rapid growth in specific regions of Britain, including the North East, and County Durham in particular. County Durham included industrialised Gateshead, Jarrow, South Shields and Sunderland. On the other side of the Tyne were the industrial powerhouses of Newcastle upon Tyne, Wallsend and North Shields in County Northumberland. Rapid growth in the region was occurring through the surge in coal mining, producing the fuel needed for the steam engines of the machines, railways and modern steam-powered ships driving the Empire’s expansion. They furnished the means to transport goods from the industrial centres or the colonies to wherever needed. Coal was the only fuel of the nineteenth-century industrial world, leading to a twentyfold increase in coal production. By 1848, British coal production was a full two-thirds of the world’s total. By the 1850s, the North East was the leading coal-producing centre in the world, with Newcastle, Jarrow and Gateshead the heartland of that industry. The number of miners doubled between 1840 and 1880. The mines used most of the working population of County Durham in the mid-nineteenth century, with many pit villages founded throughout the County. Remaining workers were in such budding heavy industries as shipbuilding.

Joe’s family was typical of the immigrant families of Tyneside. His father, Thomas James Rutherford, was born in 1849 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland. His mother, Susannah Irwin, born in 1850, came from County Armagh. They married in July 1869 in Cookstown and soon emigrated. On their arrival in County Durham, Thomas found a job in the pits, since miners were in demand. In 1871, Thomas and Susannah were living at 171 Heworth Lane in Felling, with their one-year-old first child, William. After William came George, Mary Ann, Margaret, Sarah Jane, Joseph Irwin, Thomas James, Susannah Balance, Eleanor and Elizabeth. Joe grew up as an Irish child in this sizeable family within an Irish immigrant community and had an Irish accent. But he and the other Irish-descended children of Tyneside assimilated the local Geordie dialect of Tyneside through their intermingling with the Geordie children at school.

As with most working-class people in the second half of the nineteenth century, Joe’s family lived in a rented terraced house, a so-called ‘two up, two down’, or two bedrooms upstairs and two reception rooms downstairs. There was no bathroom. They bathed once a month in big metal tubs in the kitchen or backyard. The outside lavatory was at the bottom of the yard - more convenient than the shared toilets of more impoverished urban families, but inconvenient enough in winter.

The poverty-ridden areas of England were far, far worse. Hideous slums, acres full, crannies of obscure misery, comprised an enormous part of the cities of Britain. In once-grand houses, thirty or more lodgers might have lived in a single room. Many people couldn’t afford the rents demanded, so they sublet space in their rented rooms to lodgers to cover the shortfall, the tenants paying between tuppence and fourpence a day. [7]

 “Aye, we were well off compared to other marras,” Joe pointed out to his family many years later. “I went to school long enough to learn to read and write and add and subtract numbers,” commented Joe on his childhood. “My teachers said I was doing well, and I liked it. But we had to leave school and look for jobs from the age of ten to support the family. I ended up in the mines working as a coal miner with other children. They hired us to remove coal from the tightest passages as hurriers. This job was one of the toughest for anybody, let alone a child, to carry out. They equipped us hurriers with a wide leather gurl belt[8] with a swivel chain attached. After harnessing yourself into this, you attached the free end of the chain to a sledge. Then, you made your way through the tightest passages of the mine. They were so small no full-grown man could fit, so they used us, boys. Or, I worked at the major coal face, watching out for myself among the older miners as these tough men threw the chunks and slabs of coal into my sledge. Then I scrambled and crawled my way back to the surface, pulling my load many times during a 12-hour shift. If I was lucky, I might get an even younger child to act as my thruster, pushing the sledge while I pulled. And danger waits around every corner in that horrible work – quakes, rock falls, explosions. When I got home knackered, I could do nothing but sleep. But when two of my closest marras died in rock falls, I realised life as a coal miner could be short. So I looked for other, safer, work.”

Along with coal mining, shipbuilding had long been one of the region's most important industries. By 1890, Britain built ninety per cent of the world's ships, dominating the world's shipping markets. The shipbuilders along the River Tyne had by then become its primary industry and employer. The biggest shipbuilder in Jarrow was Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company, established by Charles Palmer and his brother George in 1852. By the mid-nineteenth century, the British industry was booming, and labour was becoming scarce. Britain couldn’t find enough workers for the expanding factories. So that was where the starving Irish came in, migrating to the labour-hungry factories and yards of Tyneside. By the 1890s, with a full order book and enough labourers, Palmers was booming.

“So, I escaped the dangerous coal mining work and found a job at Palmers as a boy labourer,” continued Joe. “I later graduated to a full worker by moving to the Hawthorn Leslie Shipyard in Hebburn near Jarrow. Hawthorn Leslie was small compared to Palmers, but still a significant shipbuilder. They created Hawthorn Leslie & Company out of the merger of a shipbuilding concern, A. Leslie and Company, with a locomotive manufacturing company, R. and W. Hawthorn.”

“At 13, I was helping the shipbuilders in their everyday tasks, positioning steel sheets and welding, for example. I worked long and hard, but out in the open air. I enjoyed the company of men and learned the trade from them.”

Joe was earning a wage and contributing to his family. But he dreamed of one day sailing to the far corners of the British Empire on one of the same ships he was helping to build. In the intervening years, Joe worked long hours but had developed his reading skills in the few hours he wasn’t working, often by candlelight in the evening. He was an exception among his marras and family since he enjoyed reading and learning. He collected any print matter he could find to feed his curiosity. Joe had followed the end of the war in Sudan when the Anglo-Egyptian Army, under its commander Sirdar Herbert Kitchener, defeated the Mahdists. He came to know of many of the leading celebrities of the Royal Navy and British Army, and he followed their exploits. And he was reading the news of rising tensions in China and South Africa at the close of the nineteenth century. The newspapers in 1899 said that war was inevitable, in both far-away places. But Joe couldn’t enlist, so he followed events through the papers instead.


South African Highveldt – Deneys Reitz

Meanwhile, in South Africa, a young Boer of Joe’s age surveyed the endless grassy plains below him before remounting his horse and continuing on his journey. He had climbed the road to the top of a small group of hills eroded by the searing heat and powerful thunderstorms of the South African Highveldt summers.

It was spring, and under an azure sky, the shrubs were bursting with glistening young leaves and scattered blossoms. But since the rains hadn’t yet started, the grasses that covered the plains were still in their golden winter colours. In the distance, he could see meandering lines of green riverbeds lined with evergreen trees and shrubs, splitting the flaxen plain as it faded into the horizon. He had observed this intoxicating scene often enough in his childhood, and to him, it was still every bit as enchanting as an ocean with its rolling waves. He had experienced the sea as a child with his family at Plettenberg Bay and Capetown in the Cape Colony. But this golden plain was typical of the land of his birth, and he wondered when he might see the oceans of the Cape Colony again.

Commandos, organised groups of Boer fighters, had joined him along the way. Together, they were now several scores in number, a loose gathering of fighting age farmers called to action, mounted, armed and ready for war. Boer fighters didn’t wear uniforms as regular armies do, wearing their working and hunting clothes in shades of brown instead.

These commandos had various destinations. One was heading north-west towards the South African Republic and the town of Mafeking on the British Bechuanaland border. Others were riding to Winburg where they turned east through the north-eastern Orange Free State, to the Natal border. Yet another group of commandos was heading from Bloemfontein to the western Free State border with the Cape Colony near Kimberley, the diamond mining town and British garrison. Still others, including Deneys, were aiming for Pretoria, the capital of the South African Republic. The commandos had a singular purpose: to protect their Republics from the British preparing for war on their borders.

That evening they camped at the side of the road and constructed a protective kraal for their horses out of branches with vicious-looking thorns. Such kraals protected against leopards and lions and other unwanted predators in the bush. Then they pitched their tents, lit their fires and settled in for the evening. They roasted springbok, killed that day, on spits, meat being the primary diet of the Afrikander[9] Boers.

Deneys made new friends on this excursion; others he already knew. Most of the men knew of his father. They talked and sang around the fire, late into the night. When questioned by his comrades, he described his childhood as the son of a famous man.

“Tell us more about yourself, Deneys,” asked one.

“What do you want to know?” asked Deneys, a slim man with a friendly, clean face and just the slightest hint of a beard running from his sideburns to under his chin.

“My full name is Deneys Reitz, and I was born on the 3rd of April 1882, in Bloemfontein. My father, Francis William Reitz, was a lawyer, Member of Parliament of the Cape Colony and the fifth president of the Orange Free State. He was born in Swellendam in the Cape, and my grandfather was born in Capetown. Our ancestors were German immigrants but had assimilated the Dutch language and culture. Our family has five sons, two older and two younger than me, and we grew up in this wild paradise. My brothers and I learned to ride, shoot and swim, from a very early age. And we often escaped the town for the game-rich bush with our father and uncles for weeks at a time, hunting, fishing and camping, only returning home when we became bored with this carefree temporary existence.”

“My father took us with him on his extensive tours into the outlying areas of the Orange Free State,” recalled Deneys. “Besides more hunting and camping, we attended wappenshaws, held by the Boer commandos to honour my father. [10] [11] I consider our small country perfect. We are a peaceful community, hundreds of miles from the sea and the hustle and bustle of Capetown. There are no political parties, and our life here is protected from the noise of the outside world. Nor was there any animosity between the Dutch and English, until now, that is.”

Deneys noted the nods of recognition and agreement among his companions. They came from the same wild environments of late-nineteenth-century Orange Free State, but that was where the similarities ended. Unlike the others, Reitz was from an elite family. His hands didn’t have the thick callous that his fellow Boers had gained through hard labour on their farms. But they were in awe of his family.

“But now there’s trouble in the air,” declared Deneys, becoming stern, and turning his voice an octave lower. “President Paul Kruger and Commandant-General Piet Joubert of the South African Republic often came to Bloemfontein on official visits to my father. Sir Henry Loch, Governor of the Cape, and Cecil Rhodes, a big red-faced wealthy man who cracked jokes with us boys, visited my father too. They were trying to prevent the Orange Free State Republic from allying with the South African Republic. They didn’t succeed, though. President Kruger crafted a treaty with the Free State to stand by the South African Republic if war with England started.”

Interest picked up around the fire, with wonder and admiration because Deneys and his father had met and conversed with such famous men. They revered their President Kruger, whom they called Oom, or Uncle, while mention of Cecil Rhodes provoked scorn and anger. While he was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, he had been the wealthy instigator and backer of the failed Jameson Raid. He was a staunch Briton, a proponent of expanding the empire from the Cape to Cairo. Most Boers detested and mistrusted him.

“That man’s a thief,” commented an older man. “And a bloody troublemaker. We must get rid of these English!” Everyone agreed with him and cheered his comments.

“In 1895, my father’s health failed, and he resigned,” continued Deneys. “So, my family went to live in Claremont, a cramped suburb of Capetown. While in the Cape, the Jameson Raid took place near Johannesburg. And on our return to Bloemfontein, we found that tension had arisen between the English and the Dutch.”

There were a few questions on the Jameson Raid, so Deneys explained in more detail. The Jameson Raid was a bumbled incursion outside Johannesburg over the New Year weekend of 1895 to 1896. British colonial statesman Leander Starr Jameson and his mercenaries attempted to trigger an uprising of foreign workers, known as Uitlanders in Dutch in the South African Republic, also referred to as the Transvaal Region by the British. The raid failed, so no rebellion happened. But the episode created more animosity between the British and the Boers. Deneys said in the Orange Free State, where differences had been unknown, animosity between Boers and British citizens arose because of the raid. People now spoke of “driving the English into the sea”.

“When my father recovered, he moved to the Transvaal and became Secretary of State under President Paul Kruger. By July 1899, circumstances had become so grave, and since the war with England by then appeared inevitable, my father ordered the family to join him in Pretoria. I’ve just returned to Bloemfontein with my brother for a brief visit. Having said goodbye to our home city, we left behind the peace of our past life; to face what?”

At seventeen, he was hurtling towards the growing turbulence on the borders of the Republics in those troubled times. It was with this thought in mind he stared into the flames of their campfire and fell into a pensive silence, pondering his immediate future while others related their stories around him until late.

“We will push them back into the sea,” called out one of the Boers at the back of the assembled crowd.

“That we will,” called another. “The British have no business in our Republics.”

“Oom Kruger will see to that,” claimed another.

Such angry sentiments swept through the commandos. It affected those assembled there on that evening, and the many others around the Republics heading off to war.

At sunrise, they continued their determined journey across the plain. This vast, flat, grassy expanse at the southern end of the African continent sits a mile above sea level on the Highveldt. The Highveldt is a high, flat plateau covering most of the Boer Republics. Clouds always gather in October over the Highveldt, signalling the start of the rainy, summer growing season. But in 1899 the clouds of spring coincided with the clouds of war. So this joyous and promising time took on an ominous atmosphere for the Boers that year instead.


London – Winston Churchill prepares for departure

At the same time in London, twenty-five-year-old Winston Churchill rushed from one appointment to another, preparing for his trip to South Africa. His decision to join the dash to yet another British colonial war in the making resulted from a disappointing political defeat. Churchill’s uppermost ambition in life was to follow in his father Randolph’s footsteps as a Member of Parliament. Robert Ascroft had invited Churchill to be the second Conservative Party candidate in his Oldham constituency, his first opportunity to begin a political career in parliament. But Ascroft's sudden death forced a double by-election with Churchill as one of two Conservative candidates. Amid a national trend against the Conservatives, they lost to the Liberals, who won both seats in July 1899.

When Churchill lost the election, he looked around for something else to exercise his restless mind. He was forever impatient and needed yet another theatre of action. Churchill was no stranger to far-flung conflicts. In 1895, he travelled to Cuba to see the Spanish fight the Cuban guerrillas. There, someone shot at him on his twenty-first birthday. In 1897 he fought under the command of General Jeffery, of the second brigade operating in Malakand, in the frontier region of India. He published an account of the Siege of Malakand in December 1900 as The Story of the Malakand Field Force, for which he received £600. Churchill wrote articles for The Pioneer and The Daily Telegraph during the campaign. His accounts of the battle earned £5 per column from The Daily Telegraph.

Transferred to Egypt in 1898, he visited Luxor before attaching to the 21st Lancers serving in Sudan under the command of General Herbert Kitchener, the Sirdar or British Commander-in-Chief of the British-controlled Egyptian Army. There he took part in a famous British cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman. By October 1898, Churchill returned to Britain and began his two-volume work, The River War. This extensive work, published in 1899, is an account of the reconquest of the Sudan and revenge for General Charles George Gordon’s horrible death at the hands of the Mahdi warriors in 1885.

In September 1899, the war in South Africa was imminent and high in the British public’s awareness. So mid-month, he arranged a deal with The Morning Post and was busy preparing for his departure to Capetown. He was to receive a generous £250 a month, plus expenses, for a four-month assignment. It was too good to refuse. Once more, it filled Churchill with anticipation. So, early in October, he visited Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.

“Hello, sir. So good to see you again. This time I’m off to South Africa to cover the war,” Winston explained to the Secretary.

“My dear Winston, will you ever stop your travels?” asked Secretary Chamberlain. “Ah well, you’ve never been one to sit still, have you?”

“I wonder whether you could write a letter of introduction for me,” asked Winston.

“I will, with pleasure,” said the Secretary as he scribbled on a sheet of his official paper, to High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony, Alfred Milner. He recommended Winston as “the son of my old friend, Sir Randolph Churchill”.

“Now look after yourself,” said Secretary Chamberlain as Winston left. “Don’t let one of those Boers shoot you.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Winston with a grin. “I’ll endeavour to avoid their bullets!”

Churchill had booked to sail on the RMS Dunnottar on the 14th of October 1899, bound for Capetown and hoping the war wouldn’t start before he arrived. Letter in hand, he could now take care of the rest of his last-minute arrangements. [12]


Jarrow – Rolling Mill Pub

Back on Tyneside in early October, Joe attended a parade of the 1st Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry (1/DLI), in Newcastle. They were marching off at the start of their journey to South Africa to prepare for war, and it stirred a small, glowing ember in him into a bright flame. He overheard people in his vicinity saying the British Army had notified the 1/DLI they were heading to South Africa early in September. They scheduled the Durhams to sail from Southampton on the 24th of October. After that, Joe followed their progress and developments in the colonies by reading everything he could find on the topic.

Voyages of British troops posted daily in The London Times included the exact number of officers and men leaving, and often the names of the officers. Two hundred and fifty military sailings, in October and November 1899 alone, left a dozen British Empire ports across the globe. More left overseas ports such as Houston, Texas, New Orleans, Italy and Spain with supplies. They carried vast numbers of men, horses, mules, weapons, cannons and other munitions. More transported waggons, steam traction engines, hospital equipment, tents, clothing and bedding. They brought food supplies for both men and animals, including at least four-and-a-half million pounds of tinned meat from the United States. These ships had Capetown, Durban or Lourenço Marques in Portuguese Mozambique as their destinations. An absolute avalanche of British and colonial forces and material was descending on the tip of Africa to fight the defiant Boers. And that was just the beginning.

Joe, his father Thomas and his brothers William and George, met on Saturday night in the Rolling Mill Pub on Western Road after a hard day’s labour at the end of the week. 

“I'm getting too old for this heavy work, boys,” complained Joe’s father.

Thomas had arrived in Jarrow from Ireland in his early twenties and had adopted Geordie as his daily language. Although still active and very strong at fifty-one, he was approaching the end of his working usefulness and feeling the effects of thirty years of arduous labour and coal dust, visible deep in the creases and pores of his weathered face. His sons had grown up speaking Geordie. William was the first-born in England in Heworth nearby, now thirty. George, also born in Heworth, was 28. Joseph, the youngest of the boys, born in Felling, was almost 18 but had eight years of hard labour behind him.

“Aye Da, it’s hard work for an old man,” replied William. 

“I didn’t say I was old, Bill,” replied Thomas, somewhat peeved. “I said, I’m too old for this heavy work.”

“It’s hard work for a young gadgie, never mind,” confirmed William, refusing to argue with his father.

“I don’t mind working, except I find what I’m doing boring,” added Joe, “Always the same thing day in and day out. I’m not learning anything new.” 

“Four pints of the best, Murphy,” called out William, “You’re lucky to have the work, Joe.” 

“I know, and I appreciate it, Bill,” replied Joe.

The conversation moved to more pressing matters. “This new war in South Africa, have you heard anything?” asked Bill.

“I don’t worry about such far-away matters,” grumbled Thomas. “We have far more important affairs to worry about here. Where we get our next meal from, for example.”

“Aye, I know, Da, but it’s an enormous thing, you know,” replied Bill. “The Queen is sending howfing numbers of troops out there. It must be serious.”

“Aye, I’ve seen that in the newspaper,” added George. “It’s an enormous thing.”

“It is. I read that too,” commented Joe, “and I’m thinking of signing up with the army.”

“Are you mad, laddie? What the hell for?” asked Thomas, leaning forward towards his youngest at the table.

“Da, I’m bored here,” replied Joe, “and it’s an important thing for the Queen and our country, and I want to be a part of it. And I want to see the world.”

“Queen and country?” roared Thomas. He was half-standing now and leaning well over the table towards Joe, who was cringing under his stare. “Why support them? Did they support us in Ireland when we needed it? Nee! Why should we support them now?” 

“Da, you came from terrible times in Ireland where you say you were starving. And you found work, food and a home here,” replied Joe. “They have supported you, us. Why shouldn’t you support them too?”

“Look at how we live, laddie,” replied Da, waving his arm around him. “Does this look like the Queen cares for us workers?”

“Nee, Da, but look at how you and your parents were living in Ireland – starving; friends and family dying,” replied Joe. “Are we not living better in England?”

Joe’s brothers marvelled at the courage their younger brother had mustered to stand up to their da.

“True, laddie, true,” replied Da as he sat back in his chair. “You have an excellent point there. But the British Government didn’t help much either. We are better off here because the pit and yard owners need our backs.”

“Well, I’d leave if I could,” blurted out Bill, “but I can’t. I’m married now and have my wee bairn to look after.”

“Aye, me too,” added George, “I have my family to look after too.”

“Well, I’ve read that the Durhams are going to the Natal Colony in South Africa,” declared Joe. “They will soon fight against the Boers, protecting what belongs to England. I watched their parade in Newcassel the other day. It was a magnificent sight and stirred me in my gut. If I wait much longer, they will end it.”

And with that, the conversation moved elsewhere, while Joe pondered in silence. He considered where he was in his life. Joe was approaching eighteen years old. He had a serious relationship with Ruth Anderson, a lovely Geordie girl with long thick ebony hair and a petite, shapely figure. She was quiet and introverted, and she cared for him. But Joe considered himself too young to settle and marry. He now had an excellent job at the shipbuilding yards and had become a full-time employee. Should he throw that up for an adventure in South Africa? But the army offered a decent job with a good wage and handsome uniforms. And he believed Ruth would wait for him.

So much to consider. For example, the pay of a soldier, at £1 15 shillings per month, he had heard, was low compared to the £4 he was earning in the shipyards. But then, soldiers didn’t have to pay for their clothes, lodging or food, and “I take four quid for that alone”; an important consideration. Joe didn’t drink that much, enjoying only a pint or two of Brown Ale on a Saturday evening, and he didn’t smoke. So he could save his soldier’s pay; on what else could he spend it?

Then there was the travel and experience. By reading up on the British Empire, Joe knew of the places a British soldier could visit. He dreamt of travelling to far-off places such as Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and the Gold Coast of Africa, India, Afghanistan, Burma, Borneo, New Guinea and South Africa.

“It appeals to me,” he thought out loud.

“You’re mad!” his Da yelled. “And I won’t hear of it.”

So, with that last statement, all talk with his father ended.

Once his father and brothers left, Joe joined his marras at their table.

“Ya'aalreet Mike, Billy, Jack?” Joe said while pulling up a chair for himself.

“Aye, canny right, Joe,” they replied in unison.

“Sit with us for an ale,” Mike offered, standing to fetch one.

“I don’t mind if I do,” Joe replied, with no interest in an early night and needing to talk to sympathetic ears.

Mike O’Brien had the same pedigree as Joe – born in Jarrow of Irish immigrants. He was an intense, dark, curly-haired, youthful man, amiable and loving, but he enjoyed a good scrap now and then. They had been in school and worked together, and they were closest among Joe’s marras.

Billy Wilson had red curly hair and a very nervous and retiring disposition. He was tall and thin, a lanky and awkward chap. Billy had Scottish parents but had grown up a Geordie.

Jack Williams was of Welsh descent but was pure Geordie, a blond, stocky, moody and introspective youth with possible Angle blood, who could be belligerent too, and was always ready for a scuffle.

The marras had grown up with Joe, and they had ended up in the collieries and shipyards together. They shared the same needs and passions but left the reading to Joe.

The conversation turned to football. Born in Felling, Joe couldn’t decide between Gateshead N.E.R. and Jarrow F.C. Both talented teams, first in the Tyneside League, and later in the Northern League where Jarrow became champions in 1898–99. But his loyalties, as with so many others on Tyneside, were moving across the river to Newcastle United. The team had just joined the First Division of the Football Association, a more prestigious association than the Northern League. The team was gaining in popularity, even among the Jarrow boys.

“Newcassel United is doing great this year, aye,” said Billy. “Thanks to Jack Peddie.”

“Aye, true,” Joe replied. “He’s a grand player.”

 “We should finish better than the thirteenth position we finished in last year,” Jack added.

“Aye, and Matt Kingsley will no doubt keep the balls away from the back of the net,” Joe added.

Football was the dominant topic of conversation among these working men. It was more important than work or women. But Joe was fond of Ruth, who was working in the grand house of a Tyneside shipbuilding baron. She was introverted and not very talkative, but with a pleasant disposition, and she was an excellent companion for Joe.

“You’re seeing that young lady often, Joe,” commented Mike with a broad grin.

“Not as much as I want, Mike,” Joe responded. “She doesn’t get much free time. And nor do I, so we can’t spend much time together.”

“And the South African War, Joe?” queried Jack, keen to change the topic lest the talk of women turned to him.

“It hasn’t started yet,” Joe responded, “but it might happen soon.”

 “Are they crazy?” asked Billy. “Taking on the British Empire?”

“I’m afraid so,” sighed Joe. “They don’t want the British or any other foreigners in their countries. But the Army won’t back down either.”

“You seem to know a lot about it, Joe,” said Jack.

“I read a lot about the empire, Jack. I find South Africa interesting and exciting, and I will join up, lads. Are you with me?”

“For sure,” they replied together.

“We have to sort out those bloody Dutchmen,” snapped Joe. “But I have to sort out a few affairs with my family and Ruth first. Then I’m out of here.”

“We’ll be with you, Joe,” they replied.

Joe hadn’t realised at that stage just how complicated the challenges with his family and Ruth could be.

“See you tomorrow afternoon with the other lads for our game of footie,” Billy called out as they said their goodbyes outside the pub.

“Aye, that you will, Billy,” declared Joe, Jack and Mike in quick succession.

[1] Geordie is a nickname for a person from the Tyneside area of North East England, and the dialect used by its inhabitants.

[2] A marra is a workmate or friend in the Geordie dialect spoken in North East England

[3] Young man

[4] Ross, David (2002), Ireland: History of a Nation, New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset

[5] Kinealy, Christine (1994), This Great Calamity, Gill & Macmillan

[6] Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1991) [1962], The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849, Penguin

[7] Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, 1970

[8] A leather belt with a swivel chain linked to the corf, a strong osier basket, for pulling from 4 to 7 cwt of coal.

[9] Archaic term for Afrikaner

[10] Deneys Reitz, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War, 1929.

[11] A wapenshaw, from the Old English for ‘weapons show’ was originally a gathering and review of troops formerly held in every district in Scotland, and had been adopted by the Boers to be an assembly amongst themselves, usually in the presence of a distinguished visitor

[12] Roy Jenkins, Churchill, Pan Books, 2001

About the author

Michael Bergen was born in England and grew up in Canada, though he has lived in Europe and South Africa for most of his adult life. History has always been Michael’s passion, and through this interest and extensive research The Rutherford Chronicles first sprang to life. view profile

Published on December 08, 2020

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Genre: Historical Fiction