Friday, June 12, 2020

Charles Searle's letters from South Africa

Charles John Searle served in the South African War, also called the Boer War with the Victorian Imperial Bushmen. Charles, born in 1878 in Berwick, was the youngest child of  Henry and Jane (nee Coad) Searle, of Berwick. I have more family information at the end of this post. Henry was a Blacksmith and operated from the corner of High Street and Wheeler Street from around 1860. Charles Searle had two of his letters, both addressed to his parents, that he had sent from South Africa published in the South Bourke & Mornington Journal. I have reproduced them here. According to Early days of Berwick, Charles remained to reside in South Africa at the conclusion of hostilities. See his entry in the Boer War Nominal Rolls, here.

His observations are interesting and he has some local references. He also mentions a Nell - this may be his girlfriend or possibly his sister Ellen.

Umtali, 27/6 /1900
It is a longtime since I last wrote, but you will understand that it is a bit hard to get a letter written out here. We got into harbor at Beira on the 23rd of May, but we were not allowed to land until the 2nd of June. We saw a great number of flying fish the day before we got in, and it was a pretty sight. We were met out side by the man-of-war "Partridge," and conducted into the bay in great style. The water is very shallow and dirty; and everything is very dear at Beira, cocoa nuts 9d, bananas 1s, jam 1/6 half-lb. tin, bread 6d small loaf. A number of the men got fever and dysentry whilst there, but none of the cases were very severe, and all recovered in a few days. I have kept in grand health throughout, and not at all afraid of catching fever as I am not fat. When we landed we camped about a mile from the town, and were placed in charge of about 500 Mexican ponies.

We took our own horses out for exercise every day on the veldt, which was very pleasant, and we got to see a lot of the country in this way. To wards the last we were drilled on the veldt, which was not nearly so pleasant. We ran down several deer, which proved splendid eating. The country around Biera is very flat, with plenty of grass and water. In fact, the grass in most places is six or seven feet high, and in places beautifully green, cattle doing very well on it. The forest here is very thick, and the color of the leaves of the trees from green to blood red. Palms abound, and the ground is spangled with red and white phlox, which created a nice effect. The water here is not of the best quality, and has to boiled before using.

Beira is a fairly large town, built right on the sea, the houses being all red roofed. It has a railways workshop, in which is a grand lot of machinery. The railroad is only 2ft. 6in. wide, and looks very strange after our broad gauge. We left Beira on the 16th, and went up to a place called Bamboo Creek, which is well named, as the bamboos grow eighty and ninety feet high, and very thick. It is a dirty and unhealthy place, and we were glad when we left it on the 18th. I suffered severely there with dysentry, and only got rid of it three days ago, and still feel very weak.

Yesterday we took the horses out to graze, and came in at two instead of four o'clock. Then we went out for drill, and had to march up hills like Wilson's, and go at the double, and as the grass is over one's head, and the ground covered with large stones, it was very hard work, tea time being hailed with joy. For tea we had tinned meat and oatmeal biscuits, and also another kind of oily biscuit which none of us ate as it is horrible. Usually we get rice twice a day, also curry and soup, so you see I am getting broken in to eat anything. We also get porridge every morning, and between twelve there in a half-pound tin of jam divided, and, although we growl like fury, we are not so badly treated. A cup of coffee is given us every morning at six o'clock.

After we left Bamboo Creek we went a trip of 222 miles, up to a place called Umtali. It is a broader gauge (3ft. 6in.) after you leave Bamboo Creek, and we travelled a little faster, but you can imagine what the pace was like when we left at four o'clock on the 16th, and did not arrive at our journey's end until three o'clock on the 18th, and, as there were 85 of us packed in one truck, you can conclude that we were not too comfortable. We passed through some beautiful country, quite as hilly as Gembrook. It was a mass of palms, asparagus fern, phlox, clematis, and that pink creeper that we have growing on the end of the verandah at home, and those snowballs that James Taylor grows ; all the waterholes and small pools were covered with blue and white water lillie, like those at Horsham.

The train when rounding some of the curves is shaped like the letter U, and they are very sharp. The Yeomanry Camp is only about a mile from here, and we are often allowed to visit them. Poor fellows, they are dying like sheep from fever and dysentry, about eighteen deaths occurring last week. They are nice gentlemanly fellows, and I feel very sorry for them. They cannot ride, and are homesick, and are evidently unaccustomed to hard work.

Tomorrow we are to start on a march of 120 miles through the mountains to a place called Marandellis, where all the troops are to be inspected by Lord Carrington, and then sent to the front. We have not been paid yet, and goodness knows when we will be. Report says that Cecil Rhodes is going to give a £5 note to every man in the A.I.R, and I hope it will prove true; also, that we are to get £13 good conduct money at the end of twelve months.

Umtali is a beautiful place, right in amongst the mountains, and is very healthy, but things are very dear-sugar 7d to 10d lb., meat 2s 6d lb., cabbages 2s 6d each, potatoes 10d lb, jam 1s 3d and 1s 6d ½-lb tin, strawberries £1 1s per lb, and so on right through. The birds here are of very gay plumage, but are not nice whistlers, and not nearly in such variety as in Victoria. There are hundreds of vultures, repulsive-looking birds, also crows, which are black with a white band under the throat and look rather pretty.

Although there are so many sorts of flowers here, the ferns do not nearly come up to those of Victoria, with the exception of the asparagus variety which is very plentiful and, as you know, beautiful. Flowers are just now in abundance and of every colour imaginable, and I would like Nell to see them as she would go into raptures.

Umtali is in Rhodesia, and is the first British town we have been in yet. It is pretty dusty, but we do not stick at trifles in this part of the world, and we prefer to deal with English rather than with Portugese. Cecil Rhodes is to visit our camp to-day, which is considered an honor, as he is a person of consequence and just about owns all the land out here. The railway is also his, as are also all the principal buildings. The natives have some very nice vegetable gardens around here and have just the hut they live in.

We will be sorry to leave Umtali, as all are in grand health again and the work is not too hard. We take our horses out to graze every morning at ten o'clock, and come in at four in the afternoon, and as we have our lunch with us, we make camp in at pleasant shady gully, and really enjoy the pleasures of picnicing. Our horses are in very bad condition, and twelve of them had to be shot the other day, and I wished that mine had been amongst them as she was horribly thin and weak, with legs swollen so that she looked more like a draught than a hack; but she is now on the mend, and when once she gets right she will be better than ever.

Yesterday we camped on a slope where a battle was fought six years ago with the Matabele, and the mounds were plainly visible under which repose the dead. Two or three spear heads were also found. We had a slight inconvenience here. All the tents became mixed, and our tent was transposed, and I have got into the worst one of the lot, but still there is a nice young chap from Monbulk in it, named Healey, and he and I are mates. We often have talks together about Berwick, Gembrook, and Narre Warren, &c., and the time passes pleasantly.

The weather here is pretty cold in the mornings, but is just perfect during the remainder of the day, and the sunsets are prettier than I can describe, the shadows and colors on the mountains are so beautiful and varied. Wages are good, drapers getting from £10 to £25 per month, blacksmiths £28, surveyors £40, and the pay of engine drivers and railway guards are also good; but it must be remembered that living costs £8 per month.

A young chap named Fry, from Horsham, is very bad, and we think that he will have to be invalided home, he never having got over being vaccinated on board ship. It seems a great pity, as he is a fine man, 6ft. 1in, in height, and was one of the strongest men in the contingent, and withall a nine chap and a good shot. He is up at the Hospital now, and is still in bed with fever, and I am afraid it will go pretty hard with him. All the other Horsham lads are in good fettle, both as regards health and spirits.

The writer winds up with enquiries after the health and welfare of his numerous friends and acquaintances at Berwick, Horsham, and Carlton, and especially mention Don. Bain and Syd. Leggatt.

This is from the South Bourke & Mornington Journal - it was published over two weeks on August 22 1900 (see here) and August 29, 1900 (see here) and I have edited it.

Buffles' Hock 28/10/1900
(After writing of a private character, he says)—You would not know me now as I am so fat, and I feel just grand. We have had a pretty hard time of it since Friday last, as we have been fighting almost continuously, and I have just got orders to have the captain's things ready as we may move out again at a moment's notice. Last Friday week we left Ottoshoop at 2.30 a.m., and just after daylight we were attacked by the Boers out on the Zeerust road, but after about four hours' fighting we drove them back, and I think they lost a good many men.

After a spell of a couple of hours our (B) squadron was taken about 2½ miles out to the south-east, and then the fun started. We could see two large kopjes about 1½ miles away, which we were told we were to take, which delighted us. Our Captain gave us the order to move forward at a walk, and after proceeding a few hundred yards we were put into open order and commanded to trot. In this manner we got a little further, when the bullets began to sing amongst us. Then we got the order to gallop, and we went up at a splendid pace. It is remarkable how fearless one gets. For the last five hundred yards there was not a bit of cover (we did not want it), and the bullets began to tell. Two horses went down, but their riders got them going again, and with a cheer we got to the foot of the kopje, whilst from the other side the Boers were clearing out as fast as they could.

We mounted the kopje and got our rifles to work, but could not do much damage as the enemy had reached another kopje a thousand yards away. We held the position under heavy rifle fire and bullets fell thick, but no one was hit, and at last some of the Tommies came and we left them as garrison. Our Captain was complimented on the way we did the job and was delighted.

Next day we had to escort a convoy out to Botha's farm, and as he had some nice maidenhair fern I took some and enclose it in this letter for Nell. This is the man you read so much about, and we only took his place a little before I write this. We returned next day, and both ways we had plenty of fighting. Next day we had to go out again, and this time it was to Zeerust, 18 miles, and a great place for Boers, but we were disappointed as we did not see any, but to make up for this failure we brought home a pig, a lot of green peas, and five chickens, and as there are only six in our mess we did very well.

Next day we had a spell, and then we were off again. We left camp at half-past two or three o'clock in the morning, and had travelled for two and a half hours before the first shot was fired, and from then till 12.30 p.m. it was one continuous fight. We went into the row as Lord Erroll's advance guard, but he was too slow, and we got up to a kopje just as Lord Methuen, had shelled it and the Boers were making off. We got after them as fast as our horses could go, and I was second up to their rear rank, and, one man disappearing I was on his pony in two acts, as it was fresher than mine, and after them again. We chased them 14 miles, and our horses were pretty well done when we got up to their convoy of seventeen waggons which we captured with 23 prisoners, and I can tell you there were a few on our back track that will never fire again. We had by this time got far ahead of Lord Methuen, and were in with Lord Douglas, who had come to cut them off. So you see B squad is not too slow when it gets going.

We went into camp about half-past one and had an afternoon's rest and did our cooking, and as Henry Field, Rafferty, and myself had between us ten fowls, four ducks, a goose, a pig, fourteen dozen oranges and any quantity of limes, we had a fair time. Next day we passed on to Kaffir Krail, and had two days' spell, and there we also had a feast of liver, heart and kidneys which we obtained from some sheep on the way. Next day we moved back to this camp, and are liable to be moved at any hour.

For the last five nights it has been very wet, and I am afraid it is going to be the same again to-night, and yet the days are very fine. The letter closes with a wish that the writer's friends may spend a merry Xmas and a happy New Year.

This is from the South Bourke & Mornington Journal of December 19, 1900, see here.

Searle family
Henry Searle married Jane Barrett Coad in 1865. Henry, the son of Henry Searle and Sarah Whitford, died in Berwick in 1909, aged 76. Jane died in 1905, aged 72, also in Berwick.

They had the following children -
  • Maria Jane, born 1866 in Berwick, married Edward Arthur Fawkes in 1897; died in Camberwell in 1945.
  • Henry Whitford, born 1867 in Berwick, married Jane Elizabeth McCann in 1898, died in Surrey Hills in 1935.
  • Joseph Thomas, born 1870 in Berwick and died 1893 also in Berwick.
  • Sarah Henrietta, born 1871 in Berwick, married John Warne in 1901, died in Ivanhoe in 1955.
  • Ellen Catherine, born 1874 in Berwick. Also called Helen. Died 1950 in Dandenong. 
  • Charles John born 1878 in Berwick. As you can see from his sister's death notice, below, he was still alive in 1950. I believe he died in 1953 in Cape Town according to a record on Ancestry from their Cape Province, South Africa, Estates Death Notice Index, 1834-1956 collection.

Ellen Searle's death notice from The Argus October 24, 1950

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