Jack Newman wanted adventure…

Defence of Mafeking by A Sutherland. Image: The Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University

My great uncle Jack was a loveable man with a handle-bar moustache and centrally parted, heavily brilliantined, dark hair. He smelled of Sunlight Soap, and Wills’ Gold Flake cigarettes, which he smoked incessantly, as did his younger brother, my grandfather Harry, as would Harry’s son, my father Roland.

Back in the mid-1950s my sister and I loved going to Uncle Jack’s cottage in Hampton Lucy, where he was born in 1877, a cottage that belonged to the Fairfax Lucy family, who lived in the big house, Charlecote Park, where Jack’s father had been the book-keeper for over fifty years.

We always called to see him after church — he was a widower and lived alone — and there would always be shop bought cakes and lemonade, and the same old picture hanging on the wall above the fireplace. We always asked the same question: “ What’s the picture about, uncle?”

He’d then flick the ends of his moustache, and say: “ That, children, is a picture of the Defence of Mafeking, and I was there.”

As you can see above, it’s a very exciting , cinematic piece of work that lays out clearly the town of Mafeking, and the surrounding area. You can look at it for hours on end and still see different things. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that, for a young boy, must have been worth a million Mars Bars.

While we ate our cakes and drank the lemonade, uncle Jack would tell us his stories about being a member of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s Mounted Rifles, pointing to the armed riders having a go at the Boers in the picture.

“ Good fighters they were, the Boers. You didn’t want to mix with them too often.”

“ Why uncle?” we’d ask in unison, knowing full well the answer.

“ Ruddy good shots, that’s why. You had to take ’em by surprise if you could, which wasn’t that easy on a horse, was it.” He’d answer, laughing. Which made us laugh, which made him laugh even more, slapping his legs as he did so; laughter that slowly turned to coughing, with his eyes watering.

“ Oh dear, oh dear,” he’d say, as he lit a cigarette and wiped his eyes.

In 1899 Jack wanted adventure, and had seen an advert in the local paper asking for recruits for a new mounted force being organised by a Colonel Baden-Powell in South Africa. If interested the reader must go to the Army Recruiting Office in Warwick. An experience of horses and horse riding would be an advantage.

Jack had worked with horses for the Fairfax Lucy family since he was twelve years old , either ploughing behind two heavy horses, or carriage work with slender, posh horses used for trotting into Stratford or Warwick, with Jack driving when the head driver wasn’t available. When the family was away he’d take a horse and ride it hard across the countryside. His mother and father warned him he’d get caught one day, and then what would he do?

He never stopped riding, and was never caught. He fancied himself as a mounted soldier in South Africa though, and walked the six miles to Warwick and applied. Jack was the sort of young man they were looking for.

“ How old are you, son?”

“ Twenty-two, sergeant.”

“ You say you can ride?”

“ Yes, sergeant, any sort of horse. I can groom ’em too, and know every sort of harness.”

“ Good. Can you shoot?”

“ Shotguns, rifles and pistols. Essential on the estate.”

“ Do they know you want to clear off to South Africa?”

“ No, don’t need to do they.”

“ They might cut up rough…”

“ My old man can handle ’em, and I’ve got a younger brother who can take over.”

“ And your father and mother?”

“ They’ll be glad to see the back of me.”

“ Right. Report here a week today. Nine o’clock sharp.”

“ In the morning. sergeant?”

“ In the morning, Trooper Newman.”

And he did, and a few weeks later he docked in Cape Town. His adventure had begun.

Before we went home, a two mile walk, uncle Jack would always end with a story of an elderly white resident of Mafeking accused, by a neighbour, of stealing bread. The case came to court (the penalty was death if found guilty) and the man was found guilty. Baden-Powell was presiding and, according to Jack, the colonel asked the neighbour if he was helping to defend the town. The answer was a long silence. Baden-Powell sentenced both men to extra duties on the perimeter walls.

Jack Newman was — after WWI and into the 1950s — the local pig killer (a lot of villagers still kept pigs in those days), and when round-up time came all the village pigs — at least ten — were gathered in my father’s bake house yard, from where Jack took them into an old stable block where, behind closed doors, he slaughtered and butchered them all. I have no recollection of the pigs making any sound whatsoever, which sounds strange I know. After a couple of hours the pigs were ready for collection. He’d learned pig killing in Mafeking.

After Mafeking, Jack stayed in South Africa with Major General Robert Baden-Powell’s Mounted Police Force.

When he returned to Hampton Lucy he managed to get his job back on the estate, where he ‘laid’ hundreds of miles of hedgerows, learned to operate new farm machinery, and looked after the dwindling number of horses.

By the end of the 1950s uncle Jack had left Hampton Lucy to live in a small village in Gloucestershire with his new wife. He had a splendid garden I remember. His new wife was lovely and wouldn’t allow shop bought cakes in the house.

When he was in his late eighties, in the 1960s, he was a widower again, living with his son in Charlecote. I used to take him books and sit and talk for ages. His old uniform used to hang on his wardrobe door, with his helmet on top of the wardrobe. He no longer had any hair, but his moustache was still in great form; he still smelled of soap and Gold Flake, which he still smoked with relish, causing him to cough and laugh at the same time. He was a joy, with the picture of the Defence of Mafeking leaning against his bedroom wall.

He died aged 90.

Written by

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store