Wednesday 11 March 2020

Two Watford Workhouse Boys

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.

But 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 on. 

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. 

It 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.  In inland 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 all boys.  

"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 Foot.

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 Cape. 

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 war.

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 movement.  

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. 

The Battle of Isandhlwana

Halfway to Ulundi, Lord Chelmsford halted his army at the base of Mount Isandhlwana, ignoring the advice of Boer attendants to entrench the camp. Prior to the start of the campaign, Chelmsford had made careful preparations and given instructions that any camp set up, for however long or short a period, must be laagered with a central circle of wagons as a last chance citadel, and an outer perimeter entrenched and protected with stones and thorn bushes. As an extra precaution, broken bottles were to be scattered around to welcome the barefoot Zulus.  None of this was done at Isandhlwana.  During the night, Colonel Durnford and an escort of fifty mounted Basutos approached the camp, but Chelmsford ordered Durnford to return to his unit, bringing them to the camp immediately to reinforce Colonel Pulleine.   A Lt. Vereker would join Durnford as aide-de-camp.

Reacting then to false intelligence, Chelmsford led half the British army, including the best infantry, cavalry and artillery units, on a wild goose chase far from the camp, in pursuit of a phantom Zulu army. On the Zulu bank, immediately ahead of him, lay the territory of the Chieftain, Sihayo kaXongo. The amaQungebeni had been appointed guardians of the border by the Zulu kings. Sihayo himself was a royal favourite, and his son Mehlokazulu had been named in the British ultimatum, so on all counts Chelmsford felt compelled to make a demonstration against them.   

On the 12th  he marched out at dawn, attacked and dispersed the men Sihayo had left to guard their homes and crops, and destroyed Sihayo’s homestead; what was considered a fairly insignificant skirmish in itself, but Chelmsford noted that while the Zulus had been no match for his own troops, they had put up stiff resistance.

Heavy summer rains then delayed Chelmsford’s forward advance until the 20th, when he moved the column forward to the foot of a distinctive rocky crag known as iSandlwana. Yet even as he arrived, and his men began unpacking his transport wagons and setting up their tents, Chelmsford rode forward with his staff to reconnoitre the land ahead. He had, by this stage, heard rumours that King Cetshwayo had assembled his army - perhaps 25,000 men - and sent it against his column, so he was worried by a line hills on his immediate right which might screen a Zulu advance on that side. He returned to camp that afternoon and ordered most of his mounted and auxiliary troops to make ready to sweep through those hills the following morning.

They set off before dawn on the 21st and spent a long, hot day marching through a rugged and apparently deserted landscape until, late in the evening, and at the very furthest point of their march from Isandlwana, they ran into a Zulu force moving through the hills ahead of them. The commander, Major Dartnell, decided not to risk returning to camp and sent a report back to Lord Chelmsford.

The message reached Chelmsford in his tent at the foot of Isandlwana at about 2am on the morning of the 22nd , and it seemed to confirm his view of the unfolding campaign. Worried that he might lose contact with the Zulu force, and determined not to be hampered by his slow-moving baggage wagons, he split his command. He would march out of the camp with a mobile column, roughly half his men, leaving the rest behind to guard his baggage. Those left behind would have included the two Boys.

 Previously, Chelmsford had ordered up a mobile column from Rorke’s Drift  of mounted auxiliary troops under a Col. Durnford. He hadn’t, however, specified what Durnford was to do when he arrived.  Durnford and his troops arrived at about 11:00am at the camp at Isandlwana and there were now about 1700 black and white troops there.   Meanwhile, the Zulu captives had managed to escape from their torturers and regrouped with the Zulu army, informing them of the British army's direction and strength.

After having lunch with Colonel Pulleine and Lt. Vereker, Durnford quickly decides to send Vereker to scout the hills and to take his own command out from the camp too to scout the iNyoni heights.  The British units defending the camp had now become dangerously spread-out, and were oblivious to Zulu forces moving round the sides of the mountain in an encircling move.
Lord Chelmsford’s original plan had envisaged 5 columns crossing the Tugela river, but a shortage of troops forced him to reorganise his force into just 3 columns. 

He then resolved to head for Isandlwana Hill. Isandlwana can be seen from Rorke’s Drift, a distinctive shape some 10 miles into Zulu country that the British troops likened to a Sphinx or a crouching lion.
 The proximity of this strange feature adds substantially to the macabre aura that hangs over the battle.


In the face of the invasion Cetshwayo mobilised the Zulu armies on a scale not seen before, possibly some 25,000 warriors. The Zulu force divided into two, one section heading for the Southern Column and the remainder making for Chelmsford’s Centre Column. 

Receiving Dartnell’s intelligence, Chelmsford resolved to advance against the Zulus with sufficient force to bring them to battle and defeat them. The 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, the Mounted Infantry and 4 guns were to march out as soon as it was light.

Colonel Pulleine was left in camp with the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot and orders were sent to Colonel Durnford to bring his column up to reinforce the camp.

Early on the morning of 22nd January 1879 Chelmsford advanced with his force and joined Dartnell. The Zulus however had disappeared and Chelmsford’s troops began a search of the hills.

It transpired that the Zulus had bypassed Chelmsford and moved on Isandlwana. The first indication in the camp that there was likely to be a Zulu threat came when parties of Zulus were seen on the hills to the north east and then to the east.  
One of Durnford’s officers rode back to Isandlwana to warn the camp that it was about to be attacked.

Pulleine meanwhile had just received a message from Chelmsford ordering him to break camp and move up to join the rest of the column. But on receipt of Durnford’s message, he deployed his men to meet the crisis.

It is thought that neither Pulleine nor any of his officers appreciated the scope of the threat from the Zulus or the size of the force that was descending on them. 
Pulleine could not, from his position at the foot of Isandlwana, see their approach and he pushed out his men in a thin screen which guarded the approaches to the camp, without being fully aware of the extent of the Zulu attack. And as the flanking Zulu ‘horns’ drove back Durnford’s men on both sides, the central ‘chest’ began to spill over the ridge-line and descend towards Pulleine.  Pulleine pulled his men back fifty metres to higher ground and for a while the Zulu attack stalled in front of the musketry of the men of the 24th Regiment. Durnford, too, made a stand in a watercourse, the iNyogane, way out on the British right.

But the British position was far too extended and the Zulu attack too concentrated; Durnford, in danger of being outflanked, pulled back from the iNyogane. With his own flank now exposed, Pulleine attempted to withdraw his line towards the tents, but it was all too late.  Encouraged by their commanders, the Zulus rose up and charged, preventing Pulleine’s men from forming a new line and pushing individual red-coat companies through the tents. As the 24th tried to make a stand on the nek below Isandlwana hill, the right horn - which had passed down the valley unseen behind them - emerged to attack them in the rear. 

As British infantrymen began to run out of ammunition due to the Quartermaster's incompetent distribution, and the British cavalry were driven back towards the camp, Zulu warriors charged the British troops en masse, sustaining horrific casualties themselves, but succeeding in breaking the British lines.

The “horns” of the Zulu attack did not quite close around the British camp, some soldiers managing to make their way towards Rorke’s Drift. But the Zulus cut the road, and the escaping soldiers from the 24th were forced into the hills where they were hunted down and killed. Only mounted men managed to make it to the river by the more direct route to the south west. 

The final act of the drama was played out along the Tugela River.  A group of some 60 soldiers of the 24th Foot under Lieutenant Anstey, were cornered on the banks of a tributary of the Tugela and wiped out. Numbers of men were caught there by the Zulus and it is thought that natives living in Natal came down to the river and on the urging of the Zulus killed British soldiers attempting to escape.  Their anonymous graves are marked by the clusters of white-washed cairns that stand there today.  

The Aftermath

It had taken time to dawn on the men under Chelmsford’s command that something was wrong. By the time he had gathered his scattered command together it was late afternoon, and they were then faced with the long walk back to Isandlwana. It was late evening by the time they approached the camp; smoke was hanging over the tents, and here and there fires could be seen burning among them.

Of the 1700 men in the camp at the start of the battle over 1300 were killed. Most of those who got away were auxiliaries - only about 100 white men survived. The battle of Isandlwana was the most serious single defeat inflicted on the British Army during the Victorian era. 

There was something else of note that occurred that afternoon.  At 2.29pm there was a solar eclipse.  An officer in advance from Chelmsford's force gave this eyewitness account of the final stage of the battle at about 3:00pm. 

"In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times - a pause, and then a flash – flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the tents had disappeared."

The Zulu word “Isandlwana” translates as “the day of the dead moon”.

Private William Meredith of Pontypool noted later in a private letter to his brother:
"I could describe the battlefield to you - the sooner I get it off my mind the better. Over a thousand white men lying on the field, cut to pieces and stripped naked…..  Even the little boys that we had in the band …..

___ oOo ___

James Gurney and Daniel Gordon. Two boys from the Workhouse in Watford, journeyed to Kent and enlisted at Chatham in December 1877 and died at the battle of Isandlwana just over a year later on January 22nd 1879, one of the worst battles in military history up to that point. 

Mentioned near the beginning of this piece, Mr Tim Needham was hoping to raise enough money to have a new memorial plaque made. At the time, our history group wasn’t in a financial position to make a donation and we really couldn’t think of anywhere in West Watford where such a memorial could be placed and seen. But we do know that a new one was commissioned and where it was eventually erected. The 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot became the Welsh Borderers and in Brecon Cathedral, in Wales, there is a side chapel dedicated to the Regiment. But there is also a Museum, in which are galleries displaying uniforms and weapons, photos and personal belongings that had been rescued from the battlefield of Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift, plus the Rolls of Honour of all those who died. And displayed there is the new plaque that was commissioned, which also bears the names of the three other Boys who died alongside James Gurney and Daniel Gordon. On my visit, I made a donation, because this story is one that has touched my heart and deserved being told. 

Research - Lynda Bullock

Should any of the details recorded here be shown to be incorrect, I would be pleased to bow to those of greater knowledge of the Battle of Isandlwana. 

__ oOo __

To make the life of a researcher more difficult, the service papers of a man killed in action were destroyed: the 1/24th took their service papers into battle and these were all lost after the action was finally over that January day. 

To make matters worse a large number of service papers were destroyed in the Second World War due to the action of the Luftwaffe. Despite all these obstacles we have barely touched the surface on research matters and I hope new facts will still emerge.

References: 1879 Zulu War website, forum

Scrapbook of the Watford Hospital, cuttings from the Watford Post

Census records


Various war record sites

New World Encyclopaedia – Anglo-Zulu War

Union Workhouse accounts – Watford Museum

With special thanks to Mr Tim Needham and Mr Paul King who set me off on this journey

For the casualty returns mentioned, I advise you to look in the following books in particular:

1. Casualty Roll for the Zulu and Basuto wars, South Africa 1877-79 IT Tavender (JB Hayward & Son ISBN 0-903754 24X)

2. They Fell Like Stones: John Young (Greenhill Books ISBN 1- 85367-096-0)

3. The Roll Call for Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879: Julian Whybra (Roberts Medals Publications ISBN 1-873058-0-1)

4. The Silver Wreath, 24th Regt at Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879: Norman Holme (ISBN 0-906304-02-4) – 

Mole’s Genealogy Blog


Since my initial researches into the Boys' story, I have since very kindly been given information from the Census records and some family history. This will be incorporated into the story as soon as I can. 

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