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Magistrate Hignett – Did he warrant a QSA medal? 4 months 1 week ago #84449

  • RobCT
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Pair – Natal 1906 medal no bar (C.F. Hignett, Natal Civilian Employees) ; George V Jubilee medal, 1935 unnamed as issued.

Charles Francis Hignett was born in Chatham, Ontario in Western Canada on 19 January 1866. He was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harrison Hignett formerly of the 4th Regiment and subsequently the Army Pay Department and his wife Amalia Elizabeth Mary Cavallini. As an 18 year old, after receiving his education at Woking College in Surrey, he attested for service with the 64th Regiment (1st Battalion of the North Surrey Regiment) in April 1884 and served with them until August 1889. He came out to South Africa in December 1889 and obtaining a position in the Natal Civil Service he was appointed as a 3rd Clerk in the Magistrate’s Office in Durban. In January 1891 he was appointed as a Sub-Inspector with the Zululand Police and served with the Police for a period of 5 years until January 1896, serving for three years as Adjutant. He was then appointed as Assistant Magistrate in the Umlazi sub-district of Eshowe in February 1896 and promoted Magistrate in December 1897. In August 1899 he was appointed as the Magistrate for the Nqutu district in Zululand and served in that capacity during the Anglo Boer War. He served as Acting Magistrate for the Eshowe district from April to August 1903 being transferred to the Dundee district from September 1908 to February 1909. In June 1911 he was at the Umgeni division in Pietermaritzburg transferring back to Eshowe in Zululand in May 1912 and Verulam in November 1915. He was promoted Chief Magistrate at Durban from October 1920 and two years later he was selected to take up the important position as the Judge of the Native High Court in Natal in October 1922. He retired from this position on pension on 19 January 1931 on reaching the age of 65 years.

From the military perspective he is recorded as having served during the rebellion in Zululand in 1888-89, the Anglo Boer War, 1899-1902, the Natal Native Rebellion (Bambata Rebellion), 1906 and yet it seems as if he received only the single Natal 1906 medal for all this service.

From the military point of view, it is the period of the Anglo Boer War which seemingly is the most interesting. In a letter held in the Pietermaritzburg Archives he complains that he has not yet received his medal for the Boer War. Typifying the sentiment of those years to highlight military service and the number of medals and clasps received, his entry in the South African Who’s Who of 1933, which he probably drafted himself, records “Boer War (Medals)” and “Natal Nat. Rebellion, (Medal)”. This is seemingly incorrect. His name, along with many others, is included on a QSA medal roll headed “Civilian Government Employees” and dated July 1904 at Maritzburg, however both his name, and the vast majority of the other names are annotated “Award of Medal not approved – WO letter 8/10/08.” Certainly, it is unimaginable that the Natal authorities would have awarded him a second medal, i.e., a KSA, medal for his “service” during the Anglo Boer War.

And yet, his “service” during the Anglo Boer War was not without substance, nor merit, and one would expect that had he been a Magistrate in the Cape Colony he would most certainly have been awarded the Queen’s South Africa medal!

The District of Nqutu is in Zululand and incorporates the areas of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift about 50 km east of Dundee. After the opening of the War and the battle of Talana Hill outside Dundee the Boers continued their patrolling of the surrounding areas and Charles Hignett as the magistrate of Nqutu decided that in the event of an attack, which to him seemed imminent after the Talana battle, he would defend his Magistracy. At that time his little force comprised just nine members of the Natal Police, 50 members of the Zululand Police and about 8 civilians.

On 30 November a deputation of the chiefs of the Nqutu district told magistrate Hignett that they would protect the district in the event of a Boer invasion since there were no troops available to do so. On 13 December Chief Mehlokazulu spent the night with 250 men on Nqutu Hill ready to defend the magistrate's building from a rumoured attack. At the end of December 1899 and the beginning of January 1900 the Boer made two more raids into Zululand when the trading stores at Rorke's Drift and Vant's Drift were looted. On the first occasion Chief Tlokoa from Nqutu assembled at the magistrate's office and pursued the raiders out of the district.

These raids by the Boers led to additional forces being sent to Zululand. From the beginning of January 1900 onwards the so-called Melmoth Field Force (under the command of Colonel A.W. Morris) made up of two squadrons of Colonial Scouts, fifty men of the 60th Rifles, and a troop of Natal Police, assisted the Zululand Native Police in guarding the Zululand border. Furthermore, in support of Sir Redvers Buller's attack on the Boer main Natal front, a force of some 300 Colonial Scouts under Col Friend Addison was ordered from the Lower Thukela to move through Zululand to attack Helpmekaar and cut the Boer communications at Waschbank. Addison reached Nqutu on 18 January 1900. When his force arrived at Nqutu they expected to obtain food but they only found rations sufficient for half a day. They also learned that no fighting had been heard from the direction of the Tugela and that the Boers had got wind of their movement and were lying in wait for them. Addison concluded that his best move was to fall back.

There were protests about Addison's aggressive intentions. Sir Charles Saunders felt these troop movements would encourage a build-up of Boer forces on the border leading to more raids by the Boers into Zululand and perhaps even occupation. The Boers had placed a commando under General Coenraad Meyer with its headquarters at Vryheid to watch the area bordering Zululand up to the Phongolo River while another commando under Commandant Ferreira was placed at Helpmekaar to protect the rear of the Boer forces in Natal. Ferreira had also placed an outpost at Rorke's Drift. In January 1900 Meyer and Ferreira had reportedly met to discuss the possibility of invading Zululand. Eventually on 31 January 1900, 600 Boer commandos under Commandant Ferreira invaded Nqutu attacking the magistracy where Charles Hignett contemplated his defence. After half an hour's action and after his small band of defenders had wounded or killed ten of the Boers' horses, the men at the magistracy surrendered. Twenty British, among whom were the magistrate Charles Hignett, his wife and child and about fifty others including Zulu policemen were taken prisoner. At the time a report received through native sources said that six Boers first went to the Nqutu Magistracy under a white flag and demanded surrender. Mr Hignett refused. The main Boer force subsequently opened fire with a big gun and Hignett was thereby forced to surrender. He was taken to Pretoria and incarcerated in the same prisoner of war camp as Winston Churchill. The Magistrate at the adjacent district of Nkandla was warned of the approach of the invading Boers, and unlike Hignett, he made good his escape before they arrived. The Boers also took 295 guns, twenty horses and 65 boxes of ammunition. President Kruger was unhappy with this attack and the Zulu prisoners were sent back from Pretoria to Nqutu. The Boers however, remained in possession of the Nqutu district for several months since it was considered to be of strategic importance to them, shortening their line of communications and was useful in protecting the Vryheid border.

After a few months’ incarceration by the Boers, Charles Hignett returned to his magistracy. In his subsequent official annual report for 1900 dated 31 January 1901 he described the events in the following terms:

“Locally, the chief event of the year was the occupation of the Nqutu district by the Boer commando under Assistant-generals Ferreira and Meyer on the 31st January. This was the termination of an anxious and trying period of over three months, during which looting incursions into the district and frequent threats of attack were the order of the day.

The Magistrate’s Office was held as a defensive laager, and this was the objective of the Boers who, whilst parleying under a flag of truce and demanding surrender from the magistrate, practically surrounded the larger.

On a surrender being refused the Boers, who had artillery, and were in greatly superior numbers to the defenders, opened fire on the larger with a pom-pom and with rifles.

The laager had to surrender after a short stand, and the magistrate and his staff, with six Natal police and about 37 Zulu Police, were taken prisoners to Pretoria. Beyond the damage from the shell and rifle fire, the buildings were, on the re-occupation in June, found to be very little the worse for the Boer occupation.”

Andrew Hofmeyr in his book The Story of My Captivity During the Transvaal War 1899-1900 provides a few details about their time as captives in Pretoria:

“Another source: a magistrate had been captured by the Boer forces in Zululand and brought to Pretoria, accompanied by his wife and little daughter of about four years. Mr. Hignett, the magistrate, was quartered with us, whilst his wife and child stayed in a private boarding-house. A generous Government allowed Mrs. Hignett to come and see her husband once every two weeks in the gaoler's room and under his supervision. The brave lady, therefore, thought out a plan. She managed to convey to her husband in one of her visits a code of signals. She wrote out carefully what the different colours she should happen to wear would mean - colours of flowers and ribbons. For instance, white, with certain combinations, would mean good news from Ladysmith, and with other combinations bad news, and so on. And thus she had planned a code for Natal, Free State, Kimberley, and Mafeking - a simple and effective one. Then, as she walked past the prison, her husband made a note of everything she wore, and decoded the message. Aye, and how we grouped round him to hear the news! The brave lady and her dear little child passed by every day. How we looked forward to that coming! Verily her visits were an angel's visits.

But there was a sad side to it all the same. The sweetly little girlie was passionately fond of her father, and as they were such utter strangers her mother could not leave her alone at home, but always had to bring her along. And then, whenever they passed our prison, the little one would burst out crying and stretch out her arms to her father so pathetically that we on-lookers, who had dear little ones far away, could not bear to witness the sight. It was heartrending. On the day we were taken to the new prison I was standing close to Mr. Hignett. His wife and child had managed, taking advantage of the crowd, to sidle up close to him. Before a Zarp could interfere the little one sprung forward and flung her arms round her father's neck, sobbing bitterly, moaning with broken voice, "Come home, Daddie; come home with us." It was a piteous sight. It brought a mist before many an eye. The guard grumbled a little, but allowed the father to hold his girl in his arms for a while and say a few words to the mother. Then came the goodbye and the tearing asunder. And as we moved off the last we heard was the bitter wail of the dear little girl. How our hearts ached!”

Justin Davies in a note on the Anglo Boer War Forum records that Magistrate Hignett was captured at Nqutu on 9 February 1900. I would guess that this is the date he was held in Pretoria rather than the actual date of his surrender. He was released on 24 March 1900 after being held captive at the Waterval Camp.

A few years after the end of the war there was a sequel to this.

A local newspaper reporting:

“A remarkable libel case has been commenced in the Supreme Court of Natal at Maritzburg. Mr Charles Francis Hignett, magistrate of Nqutu, Zululand, sues Mr E.J. Strachan (Edwin James Strachan (for £500 damages for slander and libel). The affair arose out of the capture of Nqutu by the Boers in January 1900, when Mr Hignett, Mr Strachan, and eleven other Europeans were taken prisoners. On their return from Pretoria, Mr Strachan wrote to the Prime Minister, alleging that Mr Hignett was unfit for the position of magistrate, giving as his reasons that he acted with treachery and cowardice when the Boers appeared at Nqutu. The trial has been fixed for October, and is likely to be of a sensational character.”

A few weeks later the following further report was published:

“A libel action brought by Mr Hignett, magistrate at Nqutu, Zululand, against a shopkeeper named Strachan, concluded at Maritzburg on Wednesday after proceedings extending over a week. The plaintiff sued Mr Strachan for alleging that he had been guilty of cowardice and treachery on the occasion of the capture of Nqutu by the Boers and claimed £500 damages. The jury found unanimously in favour of Mr Hignett, who was awarded £300 damages and costs.”

Charles Francis Hignett married Alice Mary Osborn, the daughter of Sir Melmoth Osborn, K.C.M.G., at Eshowe on 18 April 1892. Their marriage produced 3 children, twin sons named Charles Arthur and Osborn who were born in 1904 and an elder daughter, Evelyn Dorothy, the young girl who was taken to Pretoria with he mother and father who was born in 1893. Charles' father, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harrison Hignett, died in Fulham, in London on 23 May 1909 leaving an estate valued at £11 563 9s 5d.

Charles’ wife Alice died on 10 January 1925. Sixteen years later Charles died on 2 December 1940 due to a cerebral embolism and thrombosis ulcer of the stomach at his home 599 Stamford Hill Road, in Durban shortly before his 75th birthday.

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Magistrate Hignett – Did he warrant a QSA medal? 4 months 1 week ago #84464

  • Clive Stone
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What an amazing account and in such detail.
I never cease to be surprised at the wealth and depth of information that is available and the time taken to share this and keep us informed.
Many thanks
Rob - are you able to PM me please
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Magistrate Hignett – Did he warrant a QSA medal? 4 months 1 week ago #84478

  • Rory
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Great story Rob - it's what the hobby is all about
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