The Two Watford Workhouse Boys Who Went To War
Some time ago, while researching the history of the Watford Workhouse and Watford General Hospital, I was given a scrapbook of old
newspaper cuttings and photographs of Watford General Hospital – or more
correctly, the building of the new Shrodells Hospital as it was named back then
- and in it there was a report from the Watford
Post, dated February 1962, about St Barnabas’s Chapel. A chapel had been incorporated into
the workhouse when it was built, but the late Countess
of Essex, who took much interest in the institutions of the town, opened a
subscription list for the purpose of building a place of worship for the
inmates and this resulted in the erection of the chapel, in 1870, in the grounds on the west side. It was originally for use by the
Workhouse inmates – but services continued until after the Second World War -
then over the years it fell into disrepair and was to be demolished. (see photos in the Gallery - Places of Worship)
The newspaper report commented on
various items that were in the Chapel that were to be kept and incorporated
elsewhere; the chapel bell was to go to St Oswald’s Church in Croxley Green,
the stained glass window and the font to the Church of St Bede, also at Croxley
and the altar ornaments were to be transferred to a replacement chapel within
the new hospital.
the article also referred to several brass memorial plaques. One was dedicated to Louisa,
Countess of Essex, which apparently read:
“in memory of
Louisa, Countess of Essex as a grateful record of her Christian kindness to the
inmates of the Union House and to the warm interest she took in the building of
the Chapel”. There was one to William Plaistowe, a
relieving officer in Watford for 32 years who “performed his
duties with a conscientious regard for the interest of the ratepayers and with
justice and kindness to the poor”.
But what was more unusual, was a plaque
in memory of Two Workhouse Boys – James Gurney and Daniel Gordon:
“These two boys who, “after being educated in
this house, joined the band of the 24th
Regiment and fell in the service of their country at the Battle of Isandlwana
in Zululand, January 22, 1879”.
Making a note of this
information about the Chapel, I went on to research some other
things, until a while later a letter appeared on the Nostalgia Page in the Watford
Observer from a Mr Tim Needham. He was asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of
a plaque relating to the workhouse boys. So, along with a fellow group member, we set off on a search to see if we could locate
anything to do with this request. We contacted various people, including the
museum, the library etc. and as both of us had worked at the Hospital for several years, got in touch with people who had also worked there for many
years in the hope someone might remember something. We made a thorough search
of all the places where we thought the plaque might have ended up. We even got
access at one point to some underground cellars. But the replacement chapel
mentioned in the newspaper article was no longer as it was originally and we
soon realised the Boys’ plaque (and probably the others too) was long gone,
likely disposed of or melted down. Afterall, the chapel was demolished in 1962
– over 50 years ago. So I let Mr Needham know we had drawn a blank and moved
Then at the beginning of January
2013, a Mr Paul King from Worcester contacted the group, also about the
workhouse boys. He’d seen the piece I’d written (on our old website) and offered some further information.
He wrote: “I understand that Daniel and his friend,
James Gurney, spent time in the Watford Union Workhouse prior to their joining
the 24th Regiment of Foot (The Warwickshire Regiment) in December 1877. Daniel
enlisted at Chatham, Kent on December 6, 1877, aged 13 years and James enlisted
at Chatham, Kent on December 29, 1877, aged 15 years."
Mr King was also the ‘keeper’ of the Anglo-Zulu
medal awarded to Daniel Gordon and he sent a photo -
Daniel Gordon's Medal (photo courtesy Mr King)
A little later, we heard from Mr
Needham again, who had been researching records and hoping, like us, to discover
the whereabouts of the brass plaque. However, he’d also drawn a blank and so had turned
his efforts towards procuring donations for a replacement memorial.
was then that I began to realise the significance of these two boys, not just
to the history of West Watford, but to Workhouse history and the history of the
Regiment into which they’d enlisted.
Now it had been hoped that any replacement plaque could be commissioned
with help from the War Memorials Trust, but in order for the project to be
assessed, the Trust needed as much information as possible about the original
and would only fund a replacement if evidence of the original design and exact
wording was available. As the plaque was missing, now presumed lost, the Trust
were unable to help.
Now it wasn’t unusual
for boys from poor backgrounds, or the workhouse, to “take (in this case) the Queen’s shilling”. Orphans or infants at 14 years old, could
enlist for life. 14 was the prescribed
age for the admission of boys, except under very special circumstances. Enlisting in the military was a way to escape the grinding
poverty and rampant illiteracy of the age.
Unions, the Army was a common choice of career and men and boys were actively
recruited from workhouses. A survey in
1860 showed that of a survey of 125 workhouse ‘graduates’, the largest single
group, twenty three, had ‘gone for a soldier’ and many school superintendents
claimed that, apart from its vocational value, military drill was beneficial to
"Instead of the dull,
listless, unintelligent air of the boys, with a careless attention to their
person, mixed with the coarsest and rudest of manners, there was now an unmistakable intelligence, a quick sharp eye and ear, a smartness and pride in
the boys’ personal appearance. Their marching in their weekly walks was the
pride and talk of the town". So wrote the master of the Wolverhampton
Workhouse. While this may not have
applied directly to Watford, boys (and girls) did receive an education and were
used to discipline and many workhouses, often with public subscriptions,
purchased instruments and gave musical instruction.
So, you could, in certain regiments, enlist as a Boy and gradually work
your way until you reached the age of 18 when you were considered a man; this in an age when you you were considered a youth until the age of 21 and could
not get married below this age without consent of parents and a soldier had to
ask permission from his commanding officer.
Now the information I originally had
showed that Daniel Gordon enlisted on 6th December 1877 and James
Gurney on the 29th December, aged 13 and 15 years respectively. They
were described by Mr King as ‘friends’ and both from the workhouse, so I think
it reasonably fair to assume they may have travelled to Kent together. But yet
further research and evidence from the 1879 Zulu War website suggested the boys
may have enlisted either on the same day, or at least within a day of each
other as the original medal roll gives Daniel Gordon’s number as 1491 and James
Gurney’s as 1494. There is also a birth record for James that has come to light
which is recorded for July 1863 and further evidence to suggest he enlisted on
20th December 1877, not the 29th. Whatever the facts of the matter (and as I and
others have discovered, the records can be quite difficult to unravel), towards
the end of December 1877, James and Gordon enlisted in the 24th (The 2nd
Warwickshire) Regiment of
Photograph taken at Chatham, of a Boy who enlisted in the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot) at about the time the two Workhouse Boys did
The use of the word “Boy” in the context of this research was an actual rank in the
British Army (which later equated to Private), and was applied to lads not yet
18, many of whom were the sons of men serving in the regiment. Part of the regulations for enlistment stated:
Now you read a lot about Drummers or Drummer
Boys, but they were seldom “Boys” as in the rank. Of the 12 Drummers killed at Isandlwana, the youngest was 18 and the oldest in his
30s. But there were five BOYS who were killed in that battle, most of them in
the 24th’s band, (into which our two lads enlisted) and the youngest was just 16.
But returning to the plaque in St Barnabas's Chapel. The
wording on the original plaque, as far as we know from the newspaper article,
had said - 'joined
the band of the 24th Regiment'. This was the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (later to become the Welsh Borderers).
The Workhouse would have
given the boys a limited education and they would have attended Sunday School. There’s
no sure way of knowing if the boys had been taught to play instruments, but
from some recent research of the Union Accounts, there are references to
payment of money to the Band Master for salary and musical instruments (1879)
and there are records of pupils having won prizes in local music competitions. But, no sooner had the boys enlisted than
they were on their way to South Africa. All the way from the Union Workhouse in Vicarage Road, Watford, to the Cape Colonies on the
other side of the world.
At this point it may be helpful to have some background to the Anglo-Zulu wars. In brief:
The build up to the war began in 1877
(the year the boys enlisted) when the British annexed the Boer republic of Transvaal. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a British colonial administrator and
a rather scheming man by all accounts, was sent to Cape Town with the task of
uniting South Africa under a single British confederation. But Frere soon realised
that uniting the Boer republics, independent black states and British colonies
could not be realised until the powerful Zulu kingdom on its borders had been
defeated. London didn’t really want war
with the Zulus, so Frere turned to the
new British governor of Natal and the Transvaal, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, for
reasons to invade. As
Shepstone's fragile territories were bordered by Zululand, he formally outlined
how regular border incursions by the Zulus were affecting the stability of the
region. He went further and expressed concern
over the increasing amount of firearms falling into Zulu hands, further fuelling
the case for war.
So in December 1878, an impossible ultimatum
was sent to the Zulu king Cetshwayo, requiring him not just to disband his army,
but to dissolve the Zulu Kingdom. Knowing that Cetshwayo would never accept the
terms, Frere then authorised Lord Chelmsford, a supremely arrogant man, to lead
a British invasion force into Zululand, and this also despite objections from leading
members of Cape Colony’s high society and from Great Britain itself.)
Part of the force that
was sent to South Africa included the two workhouse boys, Daniel Gordon and
James Gurney and I have been able find a record tracking the 24th Regiment’s journey to South Africa just after the boys enlisted.
England to South Africa
They enlisted in December
1877 and on the 28th January 1878 a dispatch was received from the Horse Guard
which directed the 2nd Battalion 24th to be held in readiness to embark for the
On 1st February the Battalion left
Chatham for Portsmouth, where it embarked in HM Troopship Himalaya, and sailed
the next day. The number on board was 24 officers and 849 other ranks.
HM Troopship Himalaya in 1854
On 28th February, the ship reached
Simon’s Bay (or Simonstown), near the Cape.
They left Simon’s Bay on 6th March, and the ship was sighted at East London on the 9th. But the surf was
apparently too low and dangerous to land and it wasn’t until the 11th that all the Company got ashore.The journey had taken about 6 weeks.
The Companies were then boarded onto trains and hurried off to King William’s Town. From there they marched to the front and virtually straight into
Now in South Africa and right the way through the first half of 1878, the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment was engaged in active operations. The same “CHRONOLOGICAL SUMMARY of 1878-79” that detailed their
journey recorded: The 2nd Battalion 24th, with a detachment
of Royal Artillery, which was the only regular force in this part of the country,
was split up into detachments of one, two, or three companies, each detachment
forming the nucleus of a column, consisting of Europeans and Fingo levies. (Fingo Levies were made up of the Fengu people, who had arrived in the
area in the early 1800s, fleeing from Shaka Zulu’s armies in the east).
From the time it landed, the
battalion was engaged in marching, patrolling, or waylaying paths leading to
the rebel positions.
Then, on 28th June 1878 The Kaffir War of 77-78 came to an end, and the Colonial
Government proclaimed a general amnesty. On the 12th July 1878 seven companies
of the 2nd/24th assembled in camp in the Buffalo Poort bush, to refit after the
hard work they had gone through, and on the 19th July a telegram arrived
ordering the battalion to Natal, where war with Cetshwayo, the Zulu king, was apparently imminent.
Yet from August, the 2nd Battalion remained
encamped in Natal for three months at Pietermaritzburg busily employed in drilling and refitting. War with Cetshwayo
had become a foregone conclusion and it came down to just a question of time. Orders
were issued for the troops to move gradually towards the frontier, more to
allay alarm among the border farmers than as for the preparations for any
The 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment
On January 11, 1879 - the day the British ultimatum to
the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, expired - Lt. General Lord Chelmsford crossed into
Zululand at Rorke’s Drift at the head of
his Centre Column of nearly 5000 British troops and African auxiliaries.
The invading British army, laden with an immense network of
supply wagons, invaded Zululand and marched in the direction of Ulundi, the Zulu capital. British forces,
eager to fight a large battle in which they could unleash their cutting-edge
military technology against the vast Zulu army, became increasingly frustrated
as the main Zulu army refused to attack and fighting was restricted to a few
small skirmishes with Zulu scouts. Concerned that their supply lines were
becoming overstretched and that the main Zulu army was still at large, British
troops began torturing captive Zulu
warriors in an effort to learn the location and tactics of their army.