Cope of the Maritzburg Ambulance Corps 6 months 4 weeks ago #67553
George John Cope
Private, Maritzburg Ambulance Corps – Anglo Boer War
- Queens South Africa Medal with Natal clasp to Pte. G.J. Cope, Maritzburg Amb. Corps
George Cope was born in May 1855 in Windsor in the County of Berkshire, the son of George Cope, a Tailor by trade, and his wife Ann Newell. As events will show George was to follow in his father’s footsteps by plying his trade as a Tailor until the end of his days.
The first glimpse we have of George was at the tender age of 5 where he appears in the 1861 England census. That census showed that he was the oldest of three children in the house at 17, Besley Street, Clewer, Windsor, along with Jane (4) and William (2), bringing up the rear. Mr Cope would appear to have been a rather successful Tailor as he had, boarding with him, three others of his calling in the forms of Richard Lawley, John Newhams and William Davis.
Ten years later, at the time of the 1871 England census, things were much altered. The family had moved to Albert Street, Clewer, Windsor and, as was rather typical of working class Victorian families, there were a number of new additions to the brood. John, at 15, was already a Tailor in his father’s employ and was joined in the house by siblings William Henry (12), Sarah Ann (9), Minnie (6), Annie (4) and baby Arthur (1). A boarder, James McCraw from Scotland (and a Tailor to boot) was also in residence.
Quite what decided him to bring about change in his life we will never know but, towards the end of the 1870’s, Cope decided to emigrate to new climes, choosing the sunny tip of Africa as his destination where, in Pietermaritzburg in the Colony of Natal, he set himself up in business as a Tailor. On 1 March 1881 at the age of 26 he took for a wife a 30-year-old widow with the name of Sarah Mills. The couple were married at the house of Mr Fearnsides in Pietermaritzburg.
Sarah came with a ready-made family in that she had no fewer than five children from her previous marriage. Undaunted the couple added to their large family with the birth of John Cope’s only biological son, George Frederick, who was born on 25 March 1882. The family were living at Thornville Junction, a small settlement not many miles from Pietermaritzburg at the time.
According to the Natal Directory of 1896, Cope had moved back into the city of Pietermaritzburg – to 8 Holliday Street, between Prince Alfred and Burger Streets. As a tradesman himself he was in good company – the records showing that he lived alongside a bootmaker, a builder, a wagon maker and a carpenter!
As the 19th century wound to a close the spectre of war loomed large on the horizon. The citizens of Maritzburg had settled down to a period of relative peace after the upheaval and uncertainty the Anglo Zulu war of 1879 had brought them. This was about to change with the new threat not being Zulu by nature but rather from the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State who, in October 1899, declared war on Great Britain.
Within days of Boer Commandos entering Natal, battles at Talana and Elandslaagte had been fought and the British garrison had fallen back on Ladysmith where they were besieged by the Boers. Commandos had infiltrated as far south as Mooi River and Nottingham Road – virtually on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, sending the inhabitants into a flutter of anxiety. But there were bigger problems to contend with – Buller’s attempts to relieve Ladysmith had stuttered and finally faltered at Spioenkop on 23 January 1900 and his force had fallen back on Colenso in disarray.
The need for stretcher bearers, medical orderlies and others who could help with the ever increasing flow of wounded and sick troops became urgent. Into this breach strode the Maritzburg Ambulance Corps – this Corps was raised in connection with the Rifle Association, and was accepted by the authorities for service at Fort Napier, in Pietermaritzburg, after the battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899. It was to this small and little-known band of men that Cope, now 45 years of age, had gravitated.
Under Assistant Superintendent Charles Aldridge they had done splendid work but now wanted to expand the scope and range of their assistance to the war effort. On 5 March 1900, writing from the Hospital Ship “Nubia”, anchored in Durban harbour, Aldridge directed his plea to Colonel Hime as follows:
In answer to your appeal in this morning’s paper. The Maritzburg Ambulance Corps offer their services. Since the battle of Colenso they have been transferred to the above Hospital Ship but feel that if the time has arrived for their services to be put to better use it is but their duty to go.
Although we have now been out some three months our work has fallen in places where at least we have not had to undergo the hardships that others have, and we are quite ready and willing to take our share.
No doubt the Authorities would transfer us as a Corps or a part of us on application. Any further information will be willingly given by our Medical Officer, Dr Strapp of Maritzburg.
I am sir, yours very faithfully. Etc. etc.”
The problem confronting the authorities was that the Maritzburg Ambulance Corps was never more than 19 in number – scarcely enough to man two stretcher parties. They were thus, as a Corps, decidedly on the small side compared to the Natal Voluntary Ambulance Corps and the Imperial Bearer Corps (to name a few), who numbered in their hundreds.
The “Nubia” referred to above had been converted into a Hospital Ship of some 300 beds and was one of as many as eight Hospital Ships who served in Durban harbour for extended periods. After conversion she was ready to receive patients on 5 January 1900. Five surgeons, seven nursing sisters, two dispensers and 40 civilian orderlies completed the staff – the majority were refugees from the Transvaal – the balance (with exceptions) the men of the Maritzburg Ambulance Corps.
She received wounded direct from the battlefields on several occasions – from Spioenkop, Potgieters, Pieters and from the fighting in Ladysmith. After the relief she received many of the sick from that town, and took some home – for this was her other mission – to act as a convalescent ship transporting the sick and wounded and the recuperating, back to England. There is evidence to suggest that, on the voyage to England returning to Durban made on 31 March, the Nubia had a complement of Maritzburg Ambulance Corps men aboard.
The work these men did was vital to the war effort – from January until 31 March about 1500 non-commissioned officers, men and officers passed through the ship. Of these one officer and six or seven men only died, chiefly from enteric fever and dysentery contracted in the field. Large numbers of both sick and wounded passed up to the front again.
The medal roll off which Cope’s Natal clasp Queens medal was issued on 14 November 1902 carries a caption to the effect that, “G.O.C. the Forces states that these N.C.O.’s and men actually performed duties with the Troops during the war, and are, in his opinion, entitled to the grant of the medal and clasps claimed on the roll.”
When it was that Cope took his discharge – his services on the “Nubia” no longer required – is not known. He did, however, return to his native Pietermaritzburg, taking up his civilian trade as Tailor.
His wife, Sarah, who had been a Maternity Nurse, passed away on 21 January 1910 – interestingly she had been “born at sea.” That he was on reasonably good terms with his step children was evident by the fact that he bequeathed all his effects, both real and personal, to David Henry Mills, who was also appointed executor of his estate in the will he drew up on 17 April 1936.
George John Cope passed away at the Chronic Sick Hospital in Hillcrest on 15 October 1939 – he was 84 years and 6 months old at the time of his death.
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