John O'Brien - a Defence of Kimberley to the South African Constabulary 5 days 11 hours ago #88221
John Dominic O’Brien
Private, Beaconsfield Town Guard
2nd Class Trooper, South African Constabulary
Trooper, Kimberley Light Horse
- Queens South Africa Medal (Defence of Kimberley; Orange Free State) to 393 2ND CL: TPR: J.D. O. BRIEN. S.A.C.
- Mayor of Kimberley's Star, hallmarked "a" and unnamed as issued
John O’Brien served in a multitude of units during the Anglo Boer War – all of them related to the Siege of Kimberley and subsequent to the relief. Born in East London in the Eastern Cape, he was the son of James O’Brien, a Blacksmith by trade, and his wife Charlotte Elizabeth, born Clark. At some point the O’Brien family made the move to Kimberley where they settled in the hamlet of Beaconsfield on the outskirts of the town.
John was born in about 1884 and, from almost the outset, like many young men in late Victorian times, lied about his actual age in order to advance their employment opportunities as well as making themselves eligible for military service. Growing up he was to know tragedy from an early age – his father passing away on 11 December 1887 when he was still a small boy. This sad incident took place at his residence in Posno Street, Beaconsfield when Mr O’Brien was only 32 years old. Apart from John, he left behind his wife and children George William, James Alexander, Robert Charles, Patrick and Charlotte who, as can be seen, was hopelessly outnumbered by her male siblings.
At some point Mrs O’Brien decided that raising a young family on her own was a bridge too far and she wed John Christian Peine, a man of German descent who had anglicised his name from the original ‘Johan.’ With Peine she had four more children – Mary, Bertha, Joseph and Hilda. From that moment on the household was a large and noisy one with Mr Peine taking up residence in Posno Street, in the house bequeathed to his wife by the late Mr O’Brien.
Kimberley, as can be imagined for a town which in the space of less than two decades had become the diamond mining centre of the world, was a bustling, thriving place. The population had exploded since the first discovery of the precious stone was made and, with Cecil Rhodes’ De Beers Corporation up and running, the bulk of the European population either worked for De Beers or were in some way linked to them.
War clouds which had been gathering in the southern tip of Africa for a number of years, finally burst on 11 October 1899 when the world woke up to the news that Great Britain was at war with two seemingly incorrigible Dutch-speaking Boer Republics neighbouring her colonies of Natal and the Cape. The reasons behind this war are many and numerous and I don’t propose to elaborate on them, suffice it to say that Kimberley, that “jewel in the Empire’s crown”, was one of the first targets the invading Boer forces made a bee-line for after the commencement of hostilities. By the 14th October commandos from the Orange Free State had crossed the border and made for the town, just on the other side in the Cape Colony.
Map illustrating Beaconsfield's proximity to Kimberley
Apart from its strategic value, the Boers recognised that occupying Kimberley would be an enormous morale booster to their forces and, tantalisingly, there was the added incentive of being able to capture Cecil Rhodes himself – the man recognised by the Boers as the architect behind the ill-fated Jameson Raid of 1896 which had plotted to bring about their demise.
Colonel Kekewich, the man tasked with defending Kimberley from the invading Boer force, had his hands full. Apart from having to find the necessary number of men to withstand the Boer onslaught (he had only a few hundred Imperial troops at his disposal), he had also to deal with the histrionics of a man like Rhodes who, with his powerful contacts, thought nothing of approaching the powers-that-be with any number of demands. Make no mistake, Rhodes played a vital role in the defence of the town once the siege had commenced on 15 October 1899, and was a major supplier of equipment, food and almost everything else the De Beers stores could supply, but he was also a disruptor who had to be humoured by Kekewich in order to preserve the peace inside Kimberley.
An added factor was that almost half the working local population were employed by Rhodes. It was thus crucial for the towns chances of survival that the two men get along. The Town Guard which was called into existence was comprised, in the main, of De Beers employees, if not loyal to Rhodes, they looked to him for their monthly salaries and employment.
Two Town Guards were created – the Kimberley Town Guard and the lesser known Beaconsfield Town Guard. As has been mentioned, Beaconsfield was almost a satellite to Kimberley, endowed as it was with its own municipal structures. It was to the Beaconsfield Town Guard that O’Brien gravitated, joining their ranks on about 15 October 1899, and serving with them until the end of the siege on 15 February 1900 and for two weeks beyond – on 28 February 1900.
Part of the Beaconsfield Town Guard
Although almost impossible to “place a man in an action” unless mentioned by name in some context, it can be assumed that O’Brien would have had a role to play in the actions in the which the 391 members of the BTG were involved. The first was on the 25th November 1899 – in the Carter’s Ridge sortie: - Reconnaissance this morning details of which will be found in a separate report. Portions of most of the troops in Kimberley were employed also in the armoured train, and the Beaconsfield Town Guard. We had 6 men killed and 27 wounded – including Lt Col Scott Turner, Captain Hickson Mahony and Capt. Bowen of Kimberley Light Horse. We obtained very accurate information as to the strength and position of the enemy – and he must have lost heavily; we took 28 prisoners and may be able to obtain some useful information from them.
They were also involved on 5th December 1899: - Reconnaissance this morning under command of Lt Col Chamier RA consisting of 200 mounted troops, 6 guns, DFA 3 companies 1/LN Lan Regt 12 Neds and men 7th Co RE; 100 men Beaconsfield Town Guard, to make a small work near Mights farm and if possible draw off some of the enemy from opposing the advance of the relief column. About 100 of enemy in all were seen on the Wimbledon ridge – and he did not open with artillery.
On 14th February 1900, Major Fraser, the Officer Commanding the Beaconsfield Town Guard, learning from natives that the enemy had evacuated Alexandersfontein, very pluckily at once rode out on his own initiative, and reconnoitred that position. Finding that the report was true, immediately on his return he ordered out 50 of the Beaconsfield Town Guard to occupy the enemy trenches in that direction. After the arrival of further troops and two field guns, the Boers took up their positions on either side of the small force and tried to eject them from Alexandersfontein.
The ensuing fight continued into the next day, 15th February, but abruptly stopped at 11 o’clock and a few hours later the reason became clear when a large group of mounted men was seen advancing towards Dutoitspan from the southeast. These were soon confirmed as being British troops and the news spread quickly so that the streets were soon filled with people trying to catch a glimpse of the relieving force.
From Alexandersfontein at about 3 p.m., Fraser reported seeing a heliograph 15 miles southeast of Kimberley. By 4 p.m., Kekewich was in heliotropic communication with French’s column and soon afterwards a patrol of Australian Horse rode into Kimberley, bringing an end to the siege.
In his despatch Kekewich commented as follows in respect of the same action: -
14 February - A very busy day. At 6 am Major Fraser reported from Beaconsfield that he thought Alexandersfontein was evacuated. I instructed to at once ascertain if this was true, and very shortly afterwards heard that he and about 100 men of the Beaconsfield Town Guard had occupied Alexandersfontein. Prisoners, waggons, ammunition, cattle, despatches etc were captured, and a quantity of vegetables and supplies fell into our hands. I reinforced Major Fraser with 125 mounted men under Col Peakman and later in the morning Captain O’Brien 2nd Lt Webster and about 74 men 1/LN Lan Regt proceeded to take command and for Col Peakman and Major Fraser to return.
The siege was over and the inhabitants of both Kimberley and Beaconsfield would return to an (almost) normal life. A priority was to get the population fed and the mining operations underway again. Many men however, continued to take the fight to the Boers – the battle was won but the war was far from over! O’Brien was one of those who fought on, joining the ranks of the Kimberley Light Horse on 10 March 1900 with no. 151 and the rank of Trooper. He was to serve two “stints” in the K.L.H. and was with them in and around Boshof (in the Orange Free State) until taking his discharge from them on 31 July 1900.
Perhaps it was boredom that drove O’Brien back into uniform, whatever the reason, on 13 November 1900 he was signing the attestation papers to join the South African Constabulary. This body of men, eventually numbering 10 000, was drawn from all over the Empire as well as from Colonials within the borders of South Africa. Started by Baden-Powell as a para-military force tasked with the dual role of maintaining law and order throughout a disrupted countryside; as well as taking the fight to the Boers in the field as an armed and equipped extension of the Imperial forces ranged against the Boer commandos who now, after the fall of their capitals, Pretoria and Bloemfontein, had embarked on the guerrilla phase of the war where no pitched battles were fought, but rather hit and run type skirmishes where small highly mobile groups of mounted men would swoop down on unsuspecting stragglers and columns and plunder what they could in order to extend the life span of the war.
Confirming his previous service with the Town Guard and the K.L.H., O’Brien claimed to have been born on 8 November 1879 (we know this to be untrue based on his death notice particulars.) He was single, 5 feet 7 inches in height, weighed 140 lbs and had a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His occupation was provided as “Fireman” but in whose employ we are not informed. His general appearance was described as “soldierly” and he provided his mother as his next of kin. By way of religious persuasion he was a Roman Catholic.
O’Brien was assigned no. E393 (Free State Division) and the entry rank of Third Class Private. Having only enlisted for 1 calendar years’ service he wasn’t with the S.A.C. long. His stay there being unremarkable, he took his discharge, time expired, at Bloemfontein on 11 December 1901, after 1 year and 12 days service. With a character reference of “Very Good” he stated that he was returning home to Bartle Place, Posno Street, Beaconsfield. It is to the S.A.C. that O’Brien’s Queens medal is issued – only 12 being recorded as issued to this outfit with the Defence of Kimberley clasp. Intriguingly, in a later application form, signed at Bloemfontein on 1 December 1900, O’Brien claims to have been in South Africa for 14 years – perhaps a flight of fancy as we know him to have been born and raised in East London and later Kimberley.
The SAC application form referred to above
Where to next for O’Brien? He had already survived the ravages and tensions of the Kimberley siege with the Beaconsfield Town Guard; chased the Boers in the Orange Free State in the run up to the surrender of Bloemfontein in March 1900 with the Kimberley Light Horse, and served in a para-military capacity in and around Bloemfontein with the South African Constabulary. Undaunted he now turned his attentions back to the Kimberley Light Horse, attesting with them for another stretch of service with no. 40262 and the rank of Trooper.
His attestation form, signed on 4 February 1902, confirmed his prior service and physical details, cementing, once again, the fabrication that he was 20 years old. This was at the tail end of the war and, after five months service, he took his discharge on the disbandment of the outfit on 30 June 1902. Returning to Beaconsfield, he wed 21 year old Emma Dorothy Webber at the All Saint’s Church there on 26 June 1907. He claimed to be his correct age, 23, on this occasion and a Miner by occupation.
After many years, O’Brien perished under violent and tragic circumstances, the backdrop to which I have been unable to find out more. According to his Death Notice, he died on 12 November 1937 “due to a haemorrhage from the lungs following severe crushing of chest (Injured in Bultfontein Mine by a fall of rock” – (he was an Underground Miner.)) He was 54 years old at the time of his death and resident at 27 Hercules Street, Beaconsfield. He is buried in the West End Cemetery in Kimberley and was survived by his wife and three daughters – Irene Fanny O’Brien, Doreen Ethel Clark and Edith Margaret (born 19 July 1917 and still a minor.)
A tragic end to a busy life.
- Ancestry for medal rolls
- Familysearch for death and marriage notices
- OFS Archives for SAC attestation papers
- Anglo Boer War Forum for KLH attestation paper
- Dr David Biggins Siege of Kimberley Account and Meal Roll for map of Beaconsfield and photo of BTG
The following user(s) said Thank You: djb, David Grant, goose, Moranthorse1
John O'Brien - a Defence of Kimberley to the South African Constabulary 4 days 18 hours ago #88230
A fascinating account with excellent images. Many thanks, Rory.
Dr David Biggins
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