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"With bullets whistling all round" - the George Septimus Fitt story 5 years 8 months ago #61000

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George Septimus Fitt

Lieutenant, Salisbury Field Force Corps - Matabeleland Rebellion 1896
Captain and Officer Commanding, Garrison Volunteers Corps – Mashonaland Rebellion 1897

- British South Africa Company Medal (Rhodesia 1896 reverse) with Mashonaland 1897 clasp to Lieut. G.S. Fitt, S.F.F.

George Fitt was a very interesting man who can, in some respects, be regarded as a Pioneer of the old Rhodesia. Born in Twickenham, London in the County of Middlesex, on 12 February 1863 he came from humble beginnings as the son of John Fitt, a Groom born in Hertfordshire, and his wife Sarah Amelia, born Sidery. By the time George saw the light of day as many as five children had preceded him. George was baptised in the Parish of Holy Trinity on 8 March 1863 with the family’s address provided as Pratts Lane, Twickenham Common.

By the time the 1871 England census came round tragedy had already struck the large family – Mr Fitt had passed away on 29 December 1870 leaving his widow, a 38 year old Needlewoman by trade, to raise and support their children Robert (14), Emma (12); Alice (10), Sophia (9), George (7), Henry (6) and Thomas (3) at their residence – described in the census return as “Eversley Cross and within a Radius of ½ mile, Eversley, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire.” Life could not have been easy for her.

Ten years later Mrs Fitt had moved the family to Linton Villa, Uplands, Swansea Town, Glamorganshire in Wales. She appears to have come into some money as, in the census return for 1881, she is described as an Annuitant. Aside from her in the house were daughter Kate (24) and a Dressmaker in her mother’s enterprise, Robert (23) and a Commercial Clerk in the Corporation’s offices; Emma (21), Alice (20) and Sophia (18) all of whom were Dressmakers. Then came the subject of this work, 17 year old George who was a Commercial Clerk in the Coal industry followed by Thomas (13) and a succession of Boarders in the form of a 13 year old school boy Frank Adams and Sarah Evans a 16 year old Dressmakers Apprentice. Just for good measure Edith Nicholson, a 14 year old General Domestic Servant brought up the rear. George had obtained his education at Eversley High School in England.

Another ten years passed by and with it came the 1891 Wales census. On this occasion a 28 year old George was still living at home, a Rubber Merchant by trade. Also in the house at 3 Heathfield Road in Swansea, were his now 59 year old mother, 29 year old sister Sarah, and brothers Harry (27) and Thomas (23) – the latter two also Indian Rubber Merchants. George was also, according to the London Gazette of 7 November 1890, a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Glamorgan Volunteer Rifles where, it will be seen later on, he became a very popular officer.

Fitt’s promotion to the rank of Captain in the 3rd Glamorgan’s, dated 27 November 1895, coincided (almost) with his decision to leave his homeland and make his way to Rhodesia where he would make a life for himself. By the time the resignation of his commission was gazetted on 12 May 1896 George Fitt had already taken the plunge and set sail for Africa. His arrival was poorly timed in the sense that he was immediately immersed in the middle of the upheaval of the Matabele Rebellion.

Fortunately for the reader he wrote a number of letters home and was interviewed on occasion as well surrounding his exertions and experiences during this campaign and the Mashonaland campaign that was to follow. His story is best told in his own words and those of his comrades, the first appearing in the South Wales Daily Echo , Thursday, 21 January 1897:-

Troubles in Rhodesia – A Swansea Volunteer Officer’s Experiences – Interesting Reminiscences.

Colonel Pike, of the 3rd Glamorgan Rifles, has received a very interesting letter from Captain George S. Fitt, who formerly held a commission in the 3rd Glamorgan, but has for the last 18 months been in Rhodesia, where his knowledge gained in volunteering at Swansea has proved of the greatest value, and led to his being appointed captain of the Mashonaland Field Force. He gives some interesting experiences of his commencement of soldiering in real earnest at the outbreak of the war, and then goes on to say (he having been made a Lieutenant):-

“I have been in several lively fights and been successful each time. My first was on an occasion on which I was sent with 60 men as rear-guard to a convoy of waggons foraging for grain, and we came to a farmhouse, but the advance guard 60 yards in front, instead of thoroughly examining the outbuildings, went into the house and began to loot (the owner having been murdered), not noticing that the outbuildings were crammed with rebels.

The rebels then let us get within 100 yards and then gave us and the farmhouse a volley. I was ordered to take the left wing and promptly got my men in skirmishing order and rapidly advanced by half troops by rushes to within 60 yards, being subject to a hot fire from the rebels, who had good cover, whilst I had to come right on in the open, with bullets whistling all round. After a few volleys I charged the building, clearing them out with a loss to them of 11 and not one wounded on my side.

They fired too high, and it is lucky for me they did, for I was mounted and only two yards in the rear of my firing lines all the time, riding up and down to give orders. Meanwhile I had got ahead of the Maxim, in the centre, and was marking the fire, so I had to wait for that and the right wing to come up. They had managed to settle another 20 so we did fairly well that day.

We drove them into some mountains, as they were some 3000 strong and had a considerable number of mounted men among them. This was the last time the rebels stood against us outside their own rocks. They found it didn’t pay.

“I was naturally anxious to know how I should feel and act when ‘smelling powder’ with bullets in front of it for the first time, and must confess I never felt happier and cooler in my life. My time and attention were taken up in looking after my men, and I never had time to think of myself.

We were five weeks in the Salisbury Laager before sufficient relief came. During this time we contented ourselves by operating within a 20 mile radius and getting in grain supplies. Then, when arms and troops came in, we closed the laager, repealed the martial law, and allowed people to sleep at their homes. A few burghers were kept on, and I was one of the officers asked to remain for a month or so.

By this time our telegraph wires had been cut all round, and people at home thought Salisbury had been wiped out. I was sent off with 150 men to restore communication, and found the cut near here (Charter Garrison, 70 miles south of Salisbury). Being short of supplies, I came on to this garrison (this is an important telegraphic centre, being the junction of three main lines), and I found the district full of rebels who had cut the wires.

We joined forces and soon put the lines right and proceeded to clear the natives to a respectful distance. They gave a lot of trouble at first, and would cut and take away a half a mile of wire, poles etc. at a time; but finding it was risky business they gave it up, and things are quiet now. The Government then gave me a Captaincy, and gazetted me officer commanding the Charter Garrison and District, and have now asked me to remain on until March 1897. Whilst I always had a hankering after a soldier’s life – still, as O.C. here I have had about enough to last me for some time. It’s one thing to be a Lieutenant in a Volunteer regiment in time of peace, with no responsibility, but a different matter to be C.O. of a garrison surrounded by rebels during active operations in time of war.

I seem to be busy from reveille to “lights out”. What with patrols, scouts, convoys’ etc. time flies quickly enough. Our pay is good – Troopers 10/-, Sergeants 12/6, Lieutenants 15/-, Captains 20/- per day, with food and clothes, the whole being equal just now to 40/- per day for a Captain. I believe I get more pay than a full-blown Major of the line.

When I came here I found a small but strong laager, consisting of a square formed by waggons, surrounded by a palisade of poles 8 feet high, surrounded by thick bush, and a deep ditch provided with a drawbridge. I manned the walls with the whole garrison each night, so that each man knew his place. The appearance from the outside when the men were on the walls was just a row of guns, being quite impregnable. However there was not room for all the men in the laager, so I set to, and have just completed the building of a new township or garrison, consisting of huts for the men, with married quarters, hospital, commissariat store, and officers’ quarters.

General Carrington, Mr Rhodes, and Earl Grey were hear the other day, and were greatly pleased at the work I had done and the satisfactory state of my district. I am supplying the whole country with grain just now, and this gives me a lot of work. I have often wished I had two companies of the 3rd here with a few officers, for I could have done far better work with them… I must tell you that this war has been one of the most peculiar in the world’s history, for the fact is we have not beaten them by a very long way, for this reason – they retired to ranges of mountains extending perhaps from 3 to 10 miles long and 500 to 1500 yards broad.

These mountains are literally covered with huge boulders from 3 to 50 feet in diameter. Behind these boulders and near the top, very often the mountains are honeycombed with large caves with entrances perhaps 12 inches by 18 inches in diameter, and winding in a distance for probably 30 feet before you can stand upright, and then big enough to hold 100 to 500 men. These caves are filled with grain and contain water, some of them. They are high up in the mountain ranges, hidden by huge boulders, and an 81-ton gun would have absolutely no effect, even supposing it could be trained on an entrance. The 7-pounders and Maxims were useless.

Many officers and some men were shot dead whilst unknowingly, perhaps, passing one of these small entrances, though many were venturesome and suffered for it. Dynamite was largely used in blowing up the entrances when they could be got at safely; but as we never know how many exits, if any, these caves had, we were not sue if the inmates were killed. The natives got to know what our dynamite cartridges meant, and would throw them back amongst us if they could pick them up in time. Then we jolly well had to skip as you can imagine. We put in four cases of dynamite in one cave through a fissure in the top after blowing up the entrance. It was estimated that there were 1000 rebels in it, and of course everyone was killed.

The men who dropped it had to instantly clear for their lives, and the report was so deafening they could not hear for days, and the slope of the whole mountain was quite altered in appearance, for the cave was a large one and collapsed altogether. The rebels are now fairly quiet and afraid so some come out of their rocks; they are; on the whole, beastly sick of fighting and really anxious for peace. Nearly all the Imperial troops are leaving the country and are being replaced by police, who will be stationed in parties of 25 and 50 to keep the peace.

This in my opinion is all that’s necessary to keep down any future rising; in fact the present rising would never have taken place had the police not been sent to Bulawayo, the Transvaal and other places. The natives then thought they had only to kill the few remaining white men, then they would regain their country. But they found the “few” were more than they imagined, and quickly regretted their mistake.
This garrison has the reputation of being the cleanest, smartest, and most military garrison in the country, due to the experience I gained under you, for I insist on things being done properly.

Fitt is bottom left in this group of S.F.F. officers

The South Wales Daily Post of 23 April 1898 carried a delightful (impromptu) interview with Fitt under the banner:-

Home from Rhodesia - Interview with Mr George Fitt - Some interesting Facts

Travellers from far distant lands are always personages of interest to people of the Old Country. Their experiences and adventures are always in request, and their views on the countries they have visited are always sought after. Consequently a representative of the “Daily Post” on Friday morning called upon Mr George Fitt, brother of Mr Fitt of the Grand Hotel, who went out to Rhodesia in the summer of 1895 and the result of the conversation was a most interesting and informing interview.

Mr Fitt, his younger brother and cousin, are in a prosperous way of business at Salisbury. They have started a brickworks, and possess a large store. All sorts and conditions of building materials may be purchased. Mr Fitt’s bronzed countenance spoke instantly of his sojourn in a warmer land than ours – in fact, whilst travelling by train to Swansea, he got into conversation with Mr J.M. MacLean, M.P. for Cardiff, who jumped to the conclusion that the old Swanseaite was an Anglo-Indian. However the twain had an animated chat respecting the two countries with which they had been associated.

“Now Mr Fitt” says our man, “tell me what you have got to say about Rhodesia and South Africa generally”

“The first thing that I can say is that the climate is simply ideal”

“It has its variations of course”

“Oh yes, the wet season lasts several months, but the atmospheric conditions are so regular that you are nearly always prepared for the changes. Sometimes the unexpected happens, naturally.”

“What advantages does the country offer to emigrants?”

“Taken all round very good. When I left Salisbury carpenters and joiners were in demand. They could earn £2 a day and, if careful, could live on £10 per month. Mind they would deny the latter to keep the wages up, but I know it could be done. I need hardly say that it is useless for a man to go out there who is afraid to work. He must not expect to engage in the same capacity in which he was employed at home. The intending emigrant must take on any kind of work he can get and then persevere. Not 25% of those who go out labour in the same trade or profession as at home. ”

“What are the possibilities for emigrants with money?”

“I should strongly advise a man, no matter if he be fairly well off, not to start on his own account at the outset, but to work for others for a year or two, so as to get used to the conditions of life out there, which are entirely different to those obtaining at home.”

“Has the country made any great advancement during the three years you were out there?”

“Rather. When we went out it took us seven or eight weeks to journey the 380 miles between Beira, a port in Portuguese territory, to Salisbury. Today the distance can be done in three or four days by rail and coach. Then again we have three weekly newspapers, and they are thinking about starting a daily. The papers are sold at sixpence a copy. But fancy having three papers in a town at home of little over a thousand inhabitants. Oh I tell you Rhodesia has a big future before it, and all honour to the Chartered Company and Cecil Rhodes say I, who administer the affairs of the state much better than could the Imperial Government. As an illustration I might mention that the Company disbursed £360 000 in a period of about eighteen months as compensation to farmers and others who had lost cattle through the rinderpest. The Imperial Government would say, “Oh well we couldn’t help the rinderpest” and there would be an end of the matter.”

“By the way, how does the rinderpest take the cattle?”

“First of all their eyes become bloodshot and in a very few days they expire.”

“What is the extent of British influence in South Africa?”

“Almost unlimited. With the native races they are most undoubtedly the most favoured nation. Englishmen you know, always treat the niggers fairly, and the latter, when working for a Britisher, are never in doubt as to whether they will get their wages or not. The other nationalities treat the natives more like slaves, but the Chartered Company insist on the blacks being treated with consideration, and a white who is guilty of brutality against a black is imprisoned.”

“That is with regard to the natives. How do we fare with respect to the Europeans and Boers?”

“Oh of course the Germans and French are jealous of us, the Portuguese absolutely afraid and the Boers mainly loyal. Those outside the Transvaal perfectly so. Within the Transvaal you must understand that whenever a petty war breaks out the Boers are liable to have so many of their sons, so many of their oxen and so many of their wagons taken from them, and all they get in return is a share of the loot. They receive no pay. Under British rule things would be vastly different.

Then again 75% of the population of the Transvaal are Britishers and Paul Kruger knows that if he removes the disabilities under which they suffer, he would be unseated from the Presidency within 24 hours.”

Mr Fitt here produced a map of South Africa and together we made a careful examination. The interviewee pointed out those fine states, extending for hundreds of miles along the eastern seaboard, Lorenzo Marques and Mocambique.

“Those two magnificent countries” he said, “are bound to come into the possession of England eventually. The Portuguese are mortally afraid of the British. Why, if they want to run in an Englishman in a Portuguese town, they bring nearly the whole police force to do it. However, as it is, England at the present time, possesses the most tasty portions of South Africa.”

“How do Britishers strike you as Pioneers?”

“There is no nation under the sun like them. They are simply born Pioneers.”

“Isn’t it often the case that men who make England too warm for them are the class who frequently find their way to South Africa?”

“No. I really don’t think that is so. As a matter of fact, the majority of the emigrants are men of superior education. While on this subject I should like to say a word or two in reply to Mr Blake, who has been writing in “The Nineteenth Century” of the immorality of the white men in South Africa. To tell you the honest truth, I was greatly surprised at the moral restraints exercised by the men out there, and I fearlessly assert that there is more immorality in any English town, comparatively, than there is in South Africa.”

“Swansea for instance”, I suggested.

“Yes take Swansea if you like” said Mr Fitt.

The interview then closed Mr Fitt saying he would be pleased to give any possible information to intending emigrants.

As Mayor of Gatooma in the early days.

Fitt, the Rhodesian “troubles” over, journeyed back to Wales for, among other reasons, to wed his sweetheart. Whilst “at home” he renewed contacts with his militia comrades who entertained him to a sumptuous dinner at is his brother’s establishment – the Grand Hotel. The South Wales Daily Post of 17 December 1898 carried the article:-

Complimentary Dinner to Captain Fitt - Pleasant Gathering at the Grand Hotel

The promoters of the complimentary dinner to Captain G.S. Fitt are to be congratulated on the success of their efforts. A more pleasant reunion than the one held at the Grand Hotel on Thursday evening could not be desired, everyone spending a most delightful evening. The guest of the evening was responsible for the forming of a bicycle corps in connection with the 3rd G.R.V., and after bringing it up to a high state of efficiency, Lieutenant Fitt, as he then was, made up his mind to proceed to South Africa.

After remaining in the country through the Mashonaland War, and satisfactorily arranging his business, he returned to this country about ten months ago, and it is his intention, within the next month or so, to once more turn his face towards Rhodesia. The suggestion of a few members of the corps that their former officer should be entertained by them prior to his departure met with most cordial agreement, and on Thursday evening the dinner took place at the Grand Hotel. Lieutenant Bertie Perkins presided, and he was supported by Captain Fitt, Lieutenant Alf Thomas and many other friends of Captain Fitt. A capital dinner was served up in the Grand’s best style.

The toast of “The Guest of the Evening” was solicitously proposed by ex –Sergeant A.D. Perkins, who referred to the excellent manner in which Captain Fitt had treated his men, whose comfort was his first consideration when they were in camp. He was glad that when he next went from them he would take away from the town a Swansea lady for a wife (Applause). He need not remind them that on the 27th instant the interesting ceremony would take place, and he was sure all those present would heartily join with him in wishing Captain Fitt long life and happiness in their new South African home (Cheers).

Ex-Sergeant Treharne, in a really admirable speech, referred to Captain Fitt’s abilities as an officer, and the excellent work he did during the now famous Jameson Raid. Mr Treharne also pointed out how Captain Fitt had built up from ruins a cyclist corps which was at the present team the premier team of Wales, and so long as that corps was in existence the name of Captain Fitt would be honourably and inseparably associated with it. He wished both Mr and Mrs Fitt a safe return to their new home, and if ever they returned to their native country - which he thought they could via the Khartoum-Cairo route – they would receive no more hearty welcome than that from his old comrades.

Lieutenant Bertie Perkins also made a few observations, and said it was no easy mater to follow in the footsteps of such a capable officer, - Captain George Fitt, on rising to respond, received an ovation. In an interesting speech he referred to his journey to Rhodesia.
Where he was going was a spot 18 degrees south of the equator, about 10 000 miles away from Wales, called Northern Rhodesia, and was about 16 000 feet above the sea level. It was quite a new country, quite civilised, with a great number of Englishmen there. They do not wear box hats there, however (Laughter). He believed that someone there did propose such an article but it was only visible when there was a wedding, private theatricals or some other important occasion (Renewed laughter)

It would take him three months to get to his destination from Southampton, and there would be a deal of overnight travelling, to say nothing of the discomfort and dangers. Captain Fitt also alluded to the immensity of the country, and the excellent opportunities that were offered there to enterprising Englishmen. He also spoke of the part he played in the Rhodesia war, and in conclusion assured them that in his far distant home he would often think of these dear old friends he left in Swansea, and the many pleasant hours he spent when Captain of the 3rd G.R.V. Cyclist Corps.

As alluded to previously, other than a mere visit, Fitt’s purpose in coming home to Wales was to marry – the South Wales Daily News, Wednesday, 28 December 1898 announced the news to the world:-

Local Wedding – Fitt-Salmon

On Tuesday were celebrated the nuptials of Captain G.S. Fitt of Rhodesia, South Africa and Amelia, eldest daughter of Principal Salmon, of Swansea. The marriage took place at the Walter Road Congregational Chapel, Swansea, the Reverend Evan Jenkins officiating. The bride, who was given away by her father, was attired in an ivory white liberty silk gown. The best man was Mr David Salmon, junior.

Fitt Brothers & McDonald Store in Gatooma

With his wife beside him Fitt returned to Rhodesia to continue on in business. He had already joined the Rhodesia Lodge chapter of the Free Masons in Salisbury on 9 January 1896 and, no doubt, re-forged ties with members there for trading and social purposes. For his efforts he was awarded the British South Africa Company Medal with Mashonaland clasp – something he wore proudly having never affixed the clasp to the actual suspender of the medal.

After a number of years he moved himself and his family to Gatooma of which he became the Mayor in 1917 and again from 1927 to 1930. In fact he owned most of the town at one point and, according to a relative, owned a farm just outside as well. Fit had four children in total – a son, Eric, and his sister Hilda, were sent back to school in Wales, the same school of which Fitt’s father-in-law, Principal Salmon was the Headmaster. He appears there as a scholar in the 1911 Wales census.

In December 1914, a few months after the outbreak of the Great War, Fitt sailed to the United Kingdom from Cape Town aboard the “Llanstephen Castle”. Aged 51 he was described as an Agent. How long he was there for is unknown but it could have been to pay his children a visit. It might well have been the last time he saw Eric until the end of the war. Eric joined the Royal Air Force in June 1918 and qualified as a Pilot.

George Fitt, after making an enormous contribution to his new country, passed away in 1947 at the age of 94. Fittingly, he is remembered in Gatooma today by the Fitt Square so named in his honour.

George Septimus laying a wreath in remembrance for WW1 Soldiers

George, Amelia and David Fitt 1922

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"With bullets whistling all round" - the George Septimus Fitt story 5 years 8 months ago #61080

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A detailed account made even better by the number of photographs you have been able to include.
Dr David Biggins
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"With bullets whistling all round" - the George Septimus Fitt story 5 years 8 months ago #61207

  • Lynn Rodford
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Thank you for this information about my great-grandfather. It is nice to read articles relating to my family members.

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