My Local Hero of the Defense of Rorke's Drift

On 22 January 1879, a garrison of British soldiers successfully defended the storehouse and field hospital which had been established at Rorke's Drift against an army of Zulu warriors. This heroic stand has been written about extensively and inspired the epic film 'Zulu!' This is a biographical tribute to Private William Jones, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry that fateful day, and eventually settled with his family in Manchester, England, which is in my home county.

According to his family descendants, William Jones was born on 16 August 1839, at 5 Lucas Street, Castle Precinct in Bristol. He was the son of a stonemason named William Jones, and his wife, Mary Ann (late Martin, formerly Lancastle). The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel at Coleford in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, records the baptism of William and James Jones, on 22 March 1840, and the 1851 census records a family living in East Dean, near Ross-on-Wye, which may be them. William served an apprenticeship as a shoemaker before entering the army, and there are records of a shoemaker named Jones who lived in Cowell Street at Evesham, Worcestershire, who may have been William.

He enlisted into the British army at Birmingham on 21 December 1858, and as 593 Private W Jones he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment. He was described as being five feet five inches tall, with a sallow complexion, dark brown eyes and brown hair. While serving at Mauritius he was promoted corporal on 1 September 1859, but he was reduced to private in the following year. He re-engaged at Rangoon in 1868, to complete 21 years service, and he also served in India. He married Elizabeth Goddard at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Farnham, on 25 May 1875. He was posted to Dover, where a child named William was born on 15 November 1876, who was sent to live with his grand-parents in Farnham.

Tension between British authority and various factions in South Africa had been building up for years prior to 1879; Especially concerning the independent-minded Boer farmers and the warrior nation of the Zulu. Because of this, many British army units were in South Africa taking part in the ninth of a series of Cape Frontier Wars, and the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment had embarked on the troopship Himalaya on 1 February 1878, for active service at the Colony. This campaign consisted mainly of sweeping skirmishes to flush rebel natives out of the bush, which gave the British some experience of fighting on the veldt, and the rebel leaders were captured and dealt with by mid-1878.

However, the main threat to stability in the region came from the highly-disciplined army of fearless Zulu warriors, and the British government knew that they had to be subdued before there could be any progress towards a united nation under one flag, which would be easier for administration. In order to deal with the Zulu threat the British issued a deliberately unworkable ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, and British forces began to build up at strategic places along the border with Zululand even before Cetshwayo had responded. The 3rd (Central) Column marched towards a commandeered mission-station known as Rorke's Drift. The main bulk of this section of the invasion force was made up of soldiers of the 24th Regiment. Private Jones sailed to the Cape with his unit, and his wife went with him, but she died of tuberculosis on 11 October 1878.

When hostilities with the Zulus began and the British invaded Zululand, Private Jones and his 'B' Company remained behind to guard the hospital and store at Rorke's Drift. When the Zulus attacked the depot he was posted in the doorway of a room in the hospital building which contained six patients, and had to keep warriors out single-handed until he was joined by Private Robert Jones. Later, Privates Henry Hook and John Williams broke through a wall and entered the room with more patients, and together they fought back the Zulus while the patients were helped out through a small window. He made his own escape from the burning building, and spent the rest of the night with his comrades in the inner entrenchment, before a relief force arrived on the following morning. For his service he was mentioned in dispatches, and his award of Victoria Cross was announced in the London Gazette on 2 May 1879. He also received the South Africa Medal with 1877-8-9 clasp. He was decorated by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 13 January 1880. He was examined by a medical board at Pietermaritzburg on 3 September 1879, which found that he was suffering from chronic rheumatism. He was sent to Netley Military Hospital, and on 2 February 1880, he was discharged as 'unfit for further service due to chronic rheumatism of the joints.' He was in possession of three good conduct badges.

His intended place of residence was 174 Lupine Street, Birmingham, and by 1881 he was named as a warehouseman visiting Charles and Elizabeth Goddard at Court 3, 6 Love Lane, Duddeston, Aston, Birmingham. A child named Albert Ulundi (Frodsham) was born there on 12 May 1881, and Elizabeth (Frodsham) was born on 19 June 1883, at 7 Holt Street, Duddeston, Aston, Birmingham. Albert's unusual name suggests that he may have been fathered by William, and he and Elizabeth are the only two children who had their names changed to Jones. By 1891 the family home was 8 Luxton Street, Duddleston, Aston. Charles had moved out and William was recorded as a boarder.

He moved to Rutland Street in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, and by 1901 lived at 7 Ash Street, Miles Platting. He toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it came to Lancashire, and he appeared at Hamilton's Pansterorama in Rochdale to recite his account of the defense. However, he could not get regular employment because of his health, and he was forced to pawn his VC to provide for his family. It is now with the regimental museum. William was aged 61 when he married Elizabeth, at St Augustine's Church in Newton Heath, Manchester, on 16 July 1901. In 1912 they were living at 72 Sanderson Street, Collyhurst, Manchester, when William was found wandering the streets in an 'impoverished' condition and his wife had to collect him from Bridge Street Workhouse in Salford.

William Jones died at his daughter's home, 6 Brompton Street, Ardwick, Manchester, on 15 April 1913, aged 73, and he was buried in a paupers grave with military honors at Philips Park Cemetery, Manchester. A ceremony was held at the cemetery in 2007, to commemorate the unveiling of a new headstone for the grave.

Source by James W Bancroft

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