Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker Museum

If you’ve ever stumbled on one of your old diaries did you stop to read it? Of course you did. You may have stopped making entries a couple of months in but nonetheless your recording of thoughts and feelings at the time will be of great interest and a sure fire source of potential embarrassment.

At the Whitaker we have a diary on display in the Social History Gallery. It belonged to 20 year old Private Fredrick Grimshaw of Haslingden and he made regular entries between 1900 and 1902. It details his experiences of joining the 3rd Battalion of the East Lancashire Volunteers and embarking on a journey to South Africa where he became involved in the Anglo-Boer War.
The diary has never been transcribed. Until now. 

 A Private of the East Lancashire Volunteers

A Private of the East Lancashire Volunteers

This is the first of three pieces that will detail his entire diary. Every entry, as he wrote it. At times you will see I have made a note [looking like this which indicates my commentary] though I’ve kept these to a minimum.

Before we have a look at Fred’s initial entries it may be useful to have a little background…

After the Crimea War of 1854-56 there grew a national fear of invasion, principally by the French. The Government decided that volunteer units be formed in each part of the country. This was a way of having a population ready should war break out but at a fraction of the cost of boosting the ranks of the regular army. By 1889 the two principal towns in East Lancashire, Blackburn and Burnley, found themselves with the 1st & 2nd Volunteer Battalions of The East Lancashire Regiment. By 1900 a 3rd Battalion was added to assist with the new war in South Africa.
This conflict was initiated, essentially, because the British wanted to control the recently founded Witwatersrand gold mines, located in the Transvaal. The Boer population and their Orange Free State allies (also Boers) somewhat naturally objected. Depending on which side you were on and/or your interpretation of previous conflicts in the region the war is known variously as The Boer War, The 2nd Boer War, The Freedom War, The Anglo-Boer War and The South African War. 
Step forward young Fred Grimshaw, your role in this conflict is about to be unveiled in public for the very first time…

 The first entry of Fred’s diary, on display at the Whitaker Museum

The first entry of Fred’s diary, on display at the Whitaker Museum

The experiences I had while serving in the Army as Private 7281 Fred. Grimshaw Volunteer Company East Lancashire Regt.

On the day of Wednesday in the month of January the 10th, and the year 1900, I was examined for active service, by the military doctor, at Burnley and was successful, also took the oath, to be a soldier for 12 months, (or till the war was finished). 
Thursday January 18th left my native town Haslingden, by the train, at 2pm. A large crowd had gathered at the station beside having lined the route from drill hall to the station, cheering us all the way, giving us a hearty send off. Arriving at Accrington, we was met by the Burnley and district men where we all entrained, and nothing more occurred till we arrived at Blackburn where the half Co [meaning company] was waiting, comprising of Blackburn and district, after that we arrived safe at Preston, and march to the barracks, (we believed), having to do a little training.

 The British Film Institute have footage of the 1st Battalion (Blackburn Volunteers) shot in 1900. (CLICK THE IMAGE TO VIEW)

The British Film Institute have footage of the 1st Battalion (Blackburn Volunteers) shot in 1900. (CLICK THE IMAGE TO VIEW)

Monday January 22nd 1900 left Preston and went to Fleetwood barracks here having to go through a course of firing, and getting, clothes, and equipment, ready for the front.

Sunday February 11th Off from the last place, as soon as 330am, having to encounter a foot depth of snow, before we arrived at the station where there was a few hundred who gave us a hearty send off. We landed at Southampton docks about 4pm, and had to wait until the boat had came, which arrived about 10pm, and we embarked soon after, also set sail just before midnight, the same day after a good days fatigue, then they must have known that we was ready for a meal, which was waiting for us, (enough to take our breath away), the morning after the very first thing I had was to be sea sick, being very rough weather rocking the boat terribly, especially in the Bay of Biscay, knocking us at least 200 miles out of our way, every thing in the lower deck was rolling from one side to the other, on the top deck the water was coming over the top, after we had got out of it, the sailors, told us we was lucky to get through, having had to encountered the worst weather he had ever seen.

We arrived in Madeira on Friday February 16th 1900, and stopped for coal and other necessary things, after we left the last place, we had good weather and started to have parades one physical drill every day and had two full pack parades, and a course of musketry, having to fire ten rounds at a barrel painted, tied with wire rope to the mast. We was very well looked after in regards to meals, namely for breakfast, porridge, syrup, milk, tea, bread, butter and stew, dinner, soup, meat, potatoes, cabbage, and duff, tea bread, butter, jam, and fish, supper, cheese and biscuits so you see we was living like gentlemen.

 Funchal Port Medeiria c. 1900

Funchal Port Medeiria c. 1900

It was very hot whilst passing the equator there being no breeze, and the sea like a lake, the top of the ship is covered with canvas, to keep the sun off. We met one or two boats on our way. There was a tug of war in which our Co team were the second to the Cambridge, value £1.10 the first £2.10. 

We arrived in Cape Town on Monday Mar. 5th 1900 but would not disembark until two day after, then we march to Green Point Camp arriving there at 11.30am being about half an hours walk. Whilst being down in town one night there was such an uproar in the Peck [possibly, could be Puck] Inn I had never seen before, one man knocking as many as six out of tune, there was broken glasses and forms [benches] all over the place but it must be nothing new for they cleared the wreckage away and the singers came on the stage again.

Friday March 9th 1900 We had a route march about 7 miles, Saturday March 10th we charged a hill close by called Lions Bump which is used for signalling. The day after we got orders to deliver our kit bags up, and wait for the order to move up the country, which came on Tues March 13th and entrain about noon, riding all that day and night, and arrived at a place called Laingsburg. 212 miles from Cape Town at about 8am having to get off and make our camp, there was the Duke of Edinburgh Own Volunteers here, who is volunteers in this country and receive a 6p a day clear profit. 

I did my first guard in this country Thurs Mar. 15th, being on the station, the day after the other volunteers got orders to go down to Matjiesfontein [this was the Headquarters of British Army Cape Command] and clear the rebels, we now being with ourselves, and having to guard, two big railway bridges one nine miles off, besides find guard for two mountain station and camp.
On Sat. Mar. 17 Saint Patrick Day, we was called out, this taking place about 8pm, the officers having seen some suspicious lights thought there was someone knocking about, but after skirmishing around for about an hour, we could not find any thing or any body, but had to sleep with our rifles by our side and our equipment on ready if called out. There was a big rumour about the natives of this place, going to strike up, but must have been afraid of starting. On Sunday they are religious every place being closed except the religious places, even the drinking houses, do not open no time on this day, I was on guard at the bridge that is nine mls off, we go by train if possible, but sometimes have to walk it, the bridge is called Geelbeck [Geelbek] about 160 yards long, only single line out here, we had a non com and nine men to guard the bridge. You most likely have heard of Sir Alfred Milner [if you are struggling to think who he is I can tell you that he was one of the most important men around as he was the British High Commissioner], he passed through here on Tues Mar 20th up the country giving us tobacca. 

(You can see the bridge Fred is talking about here along with the block house the troops used during their guard: https://www.boerenbrit.com/archives/16063 )

On Wed Mar 21st there was a wagon full of mauser rifles come in at the station, having been captured up the country, and we thought it such a pleasure to take them out of one wagon and packed them in another. On the following Saturday it started to rain and when it rains it comes down very heavy, there is a cutting to let the water run down, which was dried up but in less than an hour it was over three feet deep our camp was shocking with the rain, and the sand. There is a rifle and bayonet instruction every morning. 

 East Lancashire Volunteers helmet on display next to Fred’s diary, Whitaker Museum

East Lancashire Volunteers helmet on display next to Fred’s diary, Whitaker Museum

On Tuesday Mar 27th there was a collision on the line, made us very late before we could come back, we used to get relieved every morning and be back at dinner time but it was nine o’clock when we arrived in camp, having had nothing to eat from 7am till then, rather hard lines.
On Monday April 9th we had a smoking concert in connection with Captain Woodhouse and Leut. Howard birthdays, the night after we supplied a hospital train with tea, being very thankful to the wounded.

On Wed April 11th I was on guard the other bridge namely Buffel’s, just the very same as the other.

On Good Friday April 13th the assembly sounded at 1.15am there having been a telegram sent to our officers saying that some prisoners had escaped and was making there way towards our town, of course we had to fall in and skirmish around for about 5 miles over hills and very bad ground, we returned to camp about 7am, and brought the only man we saw back with us as a prisoner, and a rifle tied up with string but of course, this was only for fun, but as our officer said we must have something for this nights work but we could do nothing but let the man go after afraiding his wits out, we never heard anything more about any escaped prisoners.
On Sunday April 15th, it started to rain very heavy, I getting wet through, blankets, and all, it rained so hard that it washed some big rocks down on the line, making it impossible for the trains to get through, we having to clear away the rubbish. The day after had to go on guard to Geelbeck [Geelbek], but owing to damage on line, had to walk it, of course, you had a full pack on blankets on your shoulders, and 9 miles on rough ground, not so very easy of doing. 

On Wednesday April 18th we had a very bad dinner, so bad that we refused to eat, and layed a complaint to the Officer this being Leut Howard who said it was alright, most likely against his mind for I don’t think he would have liked it for his dinner well this word made the rest of the company mad and someone proposed that we should bury it, so we had a procession headed by a tin whistle band who played “Dead March” some carrying picks and spades and other their rifles, but we had not gone far before we were stopped and taken before our Captain who said it was a crime to play “dead march” and gave twenty of them two hours fatigue and one hour pack drill.
……..

We are going to leave Fred and his Battalion there for now. In the very next entry we will discover how he spent his 21st birthday – yours was almost certainly more enjoyable…


Mick Stephens
Twitter – @brownbowlerhat
Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer / Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant