My local defense hero from Rorke’s drift

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

According to the descendants of his family, William Jones was born on August 16, 1839, at 5 Lucas Street, Castle Precinct in Bristol. He was the son of a bricklayer 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 March 22, 1840, and the 1851 census records a family living in East Dean, near Ross-on- Wye, that may be them. William apprenticed as a shoemaker before entering the army, and there are records of a shoemaker named Jones living on Cowell Street in Evesham, Worcestershire, who may have been William.

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

Tension between the British authority and various factions in South Africa had been building for years before 1879; especially when it comes to the independent-minded Boer farmers and the warrior nation of the Zulus. Because of this, many British Army units were in South Africa participating in the ninth in a series of Cape Frontier Wars, and the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment had embarked on the Himalayan troop ship on 1 February 1878, for active service in the Colony. This campaign consisted mainly of radical skirmishes to drive the rebellious natives out of the jungle, which gave the British some experience in fighting in the veldt, and the rebel leaders were captured and dealt with in mid-1878.

However, the main threat to stability in the region came from the highly disciplined army of intrepid Zulu warriors, and the British government knew they had to be subdued before there could be any progress towards a nation united under one flag, which would be more easy to administer. To deal with the Zulu threat, the British issued a deliberately impractical ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, and British forces began to accumulate in strategic locations along the border with Zululand even before Cetshwayo had responded. The third (central) column marched towards a commanded mission station known as Rorke’s Drift. Most of this section of the invasion force was made up of soldiers from the 24th Regiment. Private Jones sailed to the Cape with his unit and his wife accompanied him, but died of tuberculosis on October 11, 1878.

When hostilities began with the Zulus and the British invaded Zululand, Private Jones and his ‘B’ company stayed behind to guard the hospital and store at Rorke’s Drift. When the Zulus attacked the morgue, they posted him at the entrance to a room in the hospital building that contained six patients, and he had to keep the warriors outside unaided until joined by Private Robert Jones. Later, Soldiers Henry Hook and John Williams broke through a wall and into the room with more patients, and together they fought the Zulus while helping the patients 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 the next morning. For his service he was mentioned in dispatches, and his Victoria Cross award was announced in the London Gazette on May 2, 1879. He also received the South African Medal with 1877-8-9 clasp. He was decorated by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on January 13, 1880. He was examined by a medical board in Pietermaritzburg on September 3, 1879, which determined that he suffered from chronic rheumatism. He was sent to Netley Military Hospital and, on February 2, 1880, he was discharged for “unfit to continue service due to chronic rheumatism of the joints.” He possessed three badges of good conduct.

His intended place of residence was 174 Lupine Street, Birmingham, and in 1881 he was appointed storekeeper visiting Charles and Elizabeth Goddard at Court 3, 6 Love Lane, Duddeston, Aston, Birmingham. A boy named Albert Ulundi (Frodsham) was born there on May 12, 1881, and Elizabeth (Frodsham) was born on June 19, 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 whose names were changed to Jones. In 1891, the family home was 8 Luxton Street, Duddleston, Aston. Charles had moved in and William was registered as a guest.

He moved to Rutland Street in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, and in 1901 he lived at 7 Ash Street, Miles Platting. He was on tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when he arrived in Lancashire, and appeared at Hamilton’s Pansterorama in Rochdale to recite his account of the defense. However, he was unable to get a regular job due to his health and was forced to pawn his CV to support his family. It is now in the regiment museum. William was 61 when he married Elizabeth, at St Augustine’s Church in Newton Heath, Manchester, on July 16, 1901. In 1912 they were living at 72 Sanderson Street, Collyhurst, Manchester, when William was found wandering the streets in a ‘impoverished’ condition and his wife had to pick him up at Bridge Street Workhouse in Salford.

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