Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker

So far we have seen Haslingden lad Fred Grimshaw join the East Lancs Volunteers in 1900 and become part of the war effort in South Africa. Now 21 years old, he appears to have taken being badly let down by officers, getting lost a lot and enduring tough support duties in harsh conditions in a very matter of fact manner. This transcription is exactly as he wrote it [with any additional comments looking like this].

We left Fred in part two happily practising with the deadly Maxim gun but he is about to encounter a swarm of locusts, get lost again, suffer more officer incompetence, briefly experience Christmas and receive orders that he can return home. But it isn’t going to be that straightforward….

Mafeking Siege note on display at the Whitaker Museum This currency, pictured left, was in operation in Mafeking during the 217 day attack by the Boers, which started 12th October 1899, two days after war was declared. The British leader here was Scouts founder Colonel Baden-Powell

Mafeking Siege note on display at the Whitaker Museum This currency, pictured left, was in operation in Mafeking during the 217 day attack by the Boers, which started 12th October 1899, two days after war was declared. The British leader here was Scouts founder Colonel Baden-Powell

Saturday Sept 1st a parade in the morning to ask us, if we would be inoculated, but of course we refused on board the ship, so we thought we could manage without it. 

On Saturday Sept 8th received instructions that we should have to go on the signal hill with the Maxim, but number three of us, arriving up there at dinner time. 

On Wednesday Sept 12th we had to return to our company, these being half of our company on the hill and they had to go to the company and we had to follow suit, being relieved by B Co and the three men of the same company, on the following Saturday we was troubled by a plague of locusts the air being completely full for miles, it has been notified that they have [these last four words crossed out] known to have stopped the train owing to their numbers.

Boer War: soldiers in camp driving off a swarm of locusts with anything to hand. Halftone, c. 1900, H.R. Paget; Welcome Collection

Boer War: soldiers in camp driving off a swarm of locusts with anything to hand. Halftone, c. 1900, H.R. Paget; Welcome Collection

Wednesday Sept 19th went as an escort with with a convoy up to Zurfontein [Zuurfontein] about 12 miles off and there handed it over to some other troops and we came by [last word crossed out] back by the train.

On Saturday Sept 22nd there was sports on the cricket ground, passing a good afternoon away we being allowed to go.

Wednesday Sept 26th H and A Company of the East Lancs taking over the duties on the armoured train, we couldn’t go, on account of the supply guard, we still finding it, and have not had a crime against us yet.

Monday Oct 8th Pte R Stebbins returned to his company after being away since June 16th. We have now been drilling this last few weeks. A rumour that we had to mobilise and proceed down to Bloemfontein, and every billet man was returned to duty.

On Tuesday Oct 9th the men that had been doing police duty in Johannesburg returned to their Co. A few days after, the order was cancel, before we had made a move down the country.

On Wednesday Oct 17th, I with 17 men and Leut Button, had to go to our own quarters on the veldt, but 2 days after, we with the remainder of the Co went into Germiston near Elandsfontein, but was in tents. But still we had to find the supply guard, although we was nearly 2 miles off. We had to find funeral parties nearly every day, being very near to No 16th General Hospital.

On Sunday Nov 4th we had to go as an escort with the big gun Sir Alfred, (30 in number) and started by train about noon, up the country, arriving at Pretoria at 5.30pm stopping for the night, giving us the chance to look around the but it is not the place I expected to see, a few big buildings and that it is finished. There is monument in the square, where they was going to erect the bust of Kruger, but had not time, so most likely now, they will never have the pleasure of seeing it on, it coming very handy for some of our own officers. 

The bronze statue was cast in Rome in 1899. Fred would have been surprised to know that it was actually put in place in 1954

The bronze statue was cast in Rome in 1899. Fred would have been surprised to know that it was actually put in place in 1954

The day after we was off again at 6.30am and arrived at Pienaars river, our destination at 10am this place being as far as the line would go. The gun was stopping here, therefore, we had to come back, setting off at 12am arriving at Pretoria about 3pm stopping for half an hour and returned to Elandsfontein at 6.30pm, after having a grand time of it.

On Sat 10th we moved with another Co of the East Lancs down to Clip river [Klip River], arriving here just as it was coming dark about 25 miles for the last place the day after we was up at 2.30am, and set off in the direction of Vaal river at 4am, in skirmishing order for about 5 miles where we made a hut, on a little hill, big hills being on both sides of us, and had to start as soon as possible making trenches, according to what the scouts told us, there has been Boers in the hills, for a considerable time, at night we had to find, a detached post about two miles off, I being one that had to go, about twenty of us, we had no sooner got there, than the officer found it out, that we had no spare ammunition and I with the other three had to go back for two boxes, it was just going dark, when we set off, but we went on alright.

To camp, here we found it out, they we had made a big mistake, having left our rifles, but however, we set off back with the boxes, we had not far before, we heard horses footsteps but could see nothing being very dark, so we had nothing to do but wait and see who the intruder was, at the same time there was rifle firing in the camp, of course we thought it had come our turn to be captured, it was not long before we could see that there was a horse and rider coming the same way, and luck was with us again, for it was one of our own scouts, so off we went again, and being completely dark, and not used to the place, we got lost, a horrible sensation to be lost on the Veldt, and no arms to defend us with, so two of us went forward, and skirmished around for about an hour, but could find no detached post, so we came back, two the other two, and they went in a opposite direction and was away so long that we thought they had got captured, but they came back at last with their rifles, having found the camp so we got the ammunition to the post after a lot of trouble, there was firing all the night through, and the following fortnight. 

A British Lancer Army Scout

A British Lancer Army Scout

Here at this place we experienced a lot of trench digging, working all the day through, many a time we got fired upon whilst working but we always had our magazine charged and by our side, often we have had to lay our picks and spades down, and fire a few shots to keep them off, we could not go and wash ourselves, without taking our rifles with us, there was always firing at night, for the Boers who were in the hills, had to come past our camp to water their horses, they also tried to blow up a culvert, but we made them skirmish off, after a lot more trouble, nearly every night would have to stand to arms, on account of the firing, they never did no damage to us, only on the first day the scouts went out to a farm house, who had the white flag up, but when they got to about thirty yards off, someone started firing at them from this place, with the results that one of was shot in the shoulder, making him fall off his horse and breaking his leg beside, but his companion snatched him up and brought him back to camp.

Tuesday Nov 20th General Gordan [I can’t see any General with this or a similar name] with his cavalry, came and scouted the hill on our left, securing about thirty prisoners, and we went around with General Hast [looks like but again not a General I can find] to the other hills, but was too late having made good their escape, but they had burnt a good many farmhouses down. Here there is all sorts of reptiles running about on the ground, being trouble at night by moskities, stopping us from sleeping. 

Both Christmas and New the year came, but no difference, only that we got a little pudding and ciggarettes, a gift from the people of Johannesburg. 

On Tuesday Dec 26th it was in the order book, that a order had come from the war office signed by Kitchener that all volunteers who had serve 12 mths in the country, could go home, or sooner if they could be spared by the commanding officer of their reg, and so ours would be up on March 5th 1901.

We encountered very bad weather at the beginning of the next year, ne time having 12 wet days together, never ceased raining all the time every thing we had was wet through, having wet clothes, and having to sleep in wet blankets, and no tents. 

On Monday Jan 28th1901 our artillery (about 12 men and a small gun) fired five shots at about forty of the enemy, but can’t say what damage they did, being too far off, they repeated the same thing for a day or two after.

On the following Wednesday we saw about 800 of the enemy passing the bottom of the hill on our right about 9 miles off, and of course the gun would not reach them so we had to stand there, and watch them go past. 

The next day they tried to blow the Vaal river bridge up, but without success.

On Saturday Feb 2nd whilst on parade a rifle inspection, I fainted not having felt well for the last week, and remained unconscious for two hours, although there was a doctor in camp he never came, the day after I went to see him having to stop three or four times on the road, and it was only about a hundred yards off, he took my temperature and said I should have to go, to the hospital in Elandsfontein having enteric fever, went the same day and got admitted.

On April 18th being in convalescent camp, asked to be returned to my Co [Company] who was waiting for the relief Co to come, so that they could go down the country. 

The relief Co arrived on Wednesday April 24th 1901 at Elandsfontein, our Co having removed a few weeks back from the Wet Cop to their old place.

Had a farewell concert with the Regt on Thurs April 25th having a jolly time of it.

On Friday April 26th we fell in at 1.30pm and with the Regt band we marched through the town, and on the station (I believe) this time the last, at a few minutes past 4pm we steamed out of the station, the band playing popular airs, and “Auld Lang Synne” the regulars together with the relief Co. cheering us till we was out of sight, stopping at Clip [Klip] river for the night, off again at daybreak through Wet Cop, where we had a look at the work we had accomplished and arrived at Kroonstad about 7pm remaining here all night, the next day we started travelling at 6am, at night we arrived at Bloemfontein. 

The next Monday April 29th we commenced about day break, arriving at Nouvals Pount at 5pm this is the place that separates Orange river from Free State, and now being in the Free State we started to travel all night passing through Neau Port at night, and arriving at Dee Aar [De Aar] on Tuesday April 30th putting us off here, having to wait until the boat was ready for sailing, on account of the plague in Cape Town. Dee Aar is the worse place we have ever been at very poor accommodation for troops to wash themselves, and especially so far off the front. We had no tents, and had a sandstorm nearly every day, we had no duty to do only a quarter guard to find. 

The day we left was Sunday May 12th about 6pm, had a sandstorm commencing soon in the morning, and continued untill we left, having great difficulty in rolling our blankets and top coats, our face was rough as sandpaper, making us afraid to wash it. Waited until 8pm for the train, this time wagon 36 in a coal truck, and started raining having to put a sheet over us, nearly smothering us, but we manage alright untill we got to Cape Town.

This being on Wednesday May 15th getting here our valise and giving our blankets also our rifle and bayonet in the store room, after that we went on board the Avondale Castle the following day we set sail 4.30pm, having on board different volunteer companys, and imperial yeomanry, we are the last volunteers to set off from South Africa. There was about 1500 troops on board, being packed like housing. [This may be a reference to the tightly packed terraced houses of East Lancashire?]

The Avondale Castle, the ship that transported Fred back to Britain

The Avondale Castle, the ship that transported Fred back to Britain

We had very nice weather, till we passed the Equator, after that we had a very hard head breeze against us. We did not get fed like we was when we coming, but not bad, being along way ahead, twards the meals, we have had this last 4 months 11 days.

We arrived at Las Palmas on Sunday June 2nd having to anchor out on account of the plague, as we had not been on the water long enough, taking on coal. 

We left at 9.15pm, after leaving here we had two deaths aboard, one IY [Imperial Yeomanry] and the other Worcester, through enteric fever, nothing else accurred, and we arrived safe and sound at Southampton Saturday night June 8th but anchored out, till morning and got in the docks at 8.30am. [Fred recorded the daily mileage of the homebound ship – his return journey was 5,996 miles]

Our old Colonel Mitchel soon came on the dock, looking as jolly as when we left. We had everything to wash up and was off at 9am, and waited for the train till 11am and we was off up the country, this is a lot quicker work than what occurs in South Africa, where you have to wait hours upon hours for a train sometimes. We had a good run till we got to Derby getting refreshments here. (We got refreshments at Southampton, kindly given to us at expence of our own Colonel)

Our next stop was Manchester and not long after we ran in Preston station at 7pm having enjoyed ourselves with the scenery up the country. We got out at Preston along with Yeomanry, and marched to the barracks, the streets being lined with spectators. We stayed here all night and at 11am had our photos taken, after that we fell in and had a splendid speech from Leut Col. [there is a space left for the name but it remains blank] who congratulated us, on our return, and the splendid behaviour and good work we had done in South Africa, a feature, the Regt was proud of, and hoped we would still continue to hold the reputation, we had made for ourselves and the Regt.

Haslingden, Fred’s home town (pictured c.1895; haslingdens.blogspot.com

Haslingden, Fred’s home town (pictured c.1895; haslingdens.blogspot.com

Arrangements were now made for different men to proceed to their town, Bacup to go away from the barracks at 3pm Burnley, Accrington, Haslingden, and Ramsbottom, at 5pm. Blackburn, Darwin, Chorley and Clitheroe, at 6pm there fore at 5pm we set off from the barracks, the band playing us out of the barracks and we marched to the station, a good many people seeing us off, we had to change at Accrington, but had not to wait for a train, therefore at 7.30pm we ran in the station where we left a good, many months since, they greeted us by placing fog signals on the line, the volunteers was formed up on the platform and their band was playing but we could not hear it on account of the cheering that was taking place, we got off the train, leaving Ramsbottom to continue their journey. 

We had great difficulty in marching till we got to the church, where we had a splendid service, due to the vicar, Rev Spencer. After coming out of the church the first thing I heard was a tolling of the muffled bells, in regards to the men that had fallen out in South Africa.

We then marched down Church street, Market street, along Blackburn road, and up Beaconfields street, along Bury road to the drill, the first time I heard any band was when we went past the Temperance, who was playing “home sweet home”, and no wonder, of us not hearing any bands, for there were thousands of people all along the route, cheering us along, I do believe that everybody, that was able, turned out to welcome us back. 

However we managed to get in the drill hall, a very fine place now to go a drilling in, having been altered since we left, as soon as got in they closed the doors, but they soon burst open, and then there was a rush, and we soon got mixed up with the crowd. After order was restored we had some fine speeches from Capt Halstead, Leut Col Hardman, and the Mayor being absent on account of illness, the Deputy Mayor Waddington spoke for him, and made an excellent speech, after this “God Save The king” was sung, the band playing the same. 

After it was over, I had to make my way home, not a easy matter, but managed it alright. 
On Tuesday June 11th 1901 there was a banquet held in the drill hall and we had the pleasure to go and take our Fathers and Mothers together with a friend, in celebration of us coming home. Of course I went and it was a first class affair, and could do nothing else, but enjoy myself, and it broke up about 10pm.

The night after was for volunteers only and a friend, given by Capt Halstead and Mrs Halstead we had a good tea, after that there was dancing till a few minutes passed 11, when we broke up after spending excellent evening with your old chums.

The return of the East Lancs Regiment at the end of the war, 1902; British Film Institute [CLICK ON IMAGE TO PLAY]

The return of the East Lancs Regiment at the end of the war, 1902; British Film Institute [CLICK ON IMAGE TO PLAY]


Well, that’s Fred’s Anglo-Boer war diary completed, word for word, exactly as he wrote it. 
It has been a privilege and an absolute pleasure to be able to read and share this with the wider world for the very first time. 

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War he participated in cost Britain an estimated 200 million pounds. Over 22,000 British, 25,000 Boers, and 12,000 Africans lost their lives.

Documents like Fred’s diary are uncommon and really help us to see things from the ordinary soldiers viewpoint, and, as such, are an absolutely invaluable addition to the many learned published accounts of the war. 

The diary of Private Fred Grimshaw sits, for now, opened at a random page in a small cabinet dedicated to the Boer War at The Whitaker Museum. We will be doing more with Fred’s diary though in future…

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