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The Portsmouth's of Wyford, Van Reenen's Pass 1 year 7 months ago #68751

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Henry Portsmouth

Corporal, “C” Battery, Natal Field Artillery
Trooper, “F” Squadron, Natal Carbineers – Bambatha Rebellion

- Natal Medal with 1906 clasp to CPL. H. PORTSMOUTH, NATAL FIELD ARTILLERY

Henry Portsmouth was born on the family farm “Wyford”, in the Van Reenens Pass area of the Drakensberg on 7 August 1885, the son of Job Portsmouth and his wife Catherine, born Mitchell. Portsmouth senior arrived in Natal in 1874 where he established a store and forwarding agency at Good Hope, one-mile south of what came to be Wyford. He later purchased 103 acres of the farm Wagtenbeetjes Kop, which he renamed Wyford after the farm near Basingstoke, from whence his wife came.

A young Harry Portsmouth

Mrs Portsmouth landed in Durban in 1878 and the two were married in 1879 after an eleven-year long courtship. Four children were born to the couple – William, in 1881, Elizabeth, in 1883 Henry, in 1885 and Catherine Dorothy, in 1888. It is to Catherine Portsmouth that we owe a debt of gratitude for it is she that compiled much of what we know about the family and their experiences in the Boer War, in the form of a letter to her family in England about her experiences. This was followed up by Henry himself who penned “The Story of Wyford, 1874 -1965”, published in 2010.

Harry Portsmouth was sent down to Durban to attend school and, at the time the Boer War erupted onto the international stage on 11 October 1899, was a pupil at Durban High School with his brother William. Once war had been declared the Free State Commandos, who had been massing at Harrismith on their side of the border, crossed through Van Reenen’s Pass and negotiated their way down the Drakensberg mountains, heading for Ladysmith where, the plan was, they would meet up with their Transvaal comrades and encircle Ladysmith.

Wyford - the family farm

This was achieved by 1 November 1899 and, on that date, with the Boers dotting the hills around the town with their artillery pieces, Ladysmith, its townspeople and garrison, were besieged. This period lasted until Buller, on his third attempt, broke through the Boer resistance and relieved the town and its inhabitants on 1 March 1900. It was a few months later, in June 1900, that Mrs Portsmouth was able to make the trip to Durban to bring her sons back to Wyford. Henry was a young lad of just 15 at this point.

But for now we return to the commencement of the war – Catherine Portsmouth wrote that, on the 12th and 13th October 1899, the Boers could be seen at the very top of the mountains round the Berg and that “with a field glass we could see them facing their big guns”. She was visited by a Field Cornet Van Rooyen who informed her that she would be perfectly safe, so long as she stayed quietly in her home and remained perfectly neutral. He mentioned that the Boer Commandos had been given instructions not to touch her or destroy any of her property.

In the early part of October Boers could be seen passing the farmstead in great numbers, with their guns and wagons, on their way to Ladysmith but the family were not interfered with. From time to time they would stop and make purchases from the farm store at which point the Portsmouth’s would be told just how well the Boer cause was doing and that Ladysmith was sure to fall at any moment. On 17 November the Boers moved their laager from Van Reenen nearer to Ladysmith and any trepidation the Portsmouth family may have felt, disappeared.

With Ladysmith on the verge of being relieved, the Boer traffic back up the mountain towards the Free State increased tremendously but, as with was the case on their way down, those that stopped in to make purchases, were at all times civil and agreeable – some would say relieved that they were homeward-bound than defeated. Mrs Portsmouth was now allowed to journey to Durban to bring her two sons back to the farm with her.

But there is a slight twist to this tale – one of life’s unexplained coincidences. A number of years ago I acquired a Bambatha Medal with 1906 clasp to a Frederick James Thomas Brandon – this worthy was accused, tried and convicted of being a Natal Rebel. In his testimony he makes mention of how he, and two British soldiers, had escaped from incarceration in Harrismith and had fled, in the dead of night, over the Drakensberg to safety in Natal. They had stopped at the Portsmouth’s farm for refreshment on their journey. How strange then to acquire a medal to a Portsmouth whose mother, in her memoirs, corroborates this account by referring to the very same incident! Her account read as follows: -

‘One morning, about 8.30, just as we finished breakfast, two English soldiers and an English farmer (Brandon) walked into the store, asking us to shelter and hide them for the day. They had walked through the middle of the Laager at Van Reenen that night. They had escaped from Harrismith a few days before. We gave them breakfast and persuaded them to move explaining that the British scouts were only two miles away and that the Boers would be sure to come down and look for them. It would not be easy to find a safe hiding place. William took them part of the way. Some days later we heard that they had reached safety.”

With the Boer withdrawal came the British troops – they turned Wyford into a Remount Depot and hospital in July 1901 – requiring the Portsmouth family to seek accommodation elsewhere. But before that, at Easter-time, Harry returned to the farm for his holidays – one of the British columns of about 6000 men, with transport, wagons etc. marched through Ladysmith, via Van Reenen’s Pass to Harrismith (which was now under British occupation) passing the farm on their way through. Harry spent a bit of time chatting to some of the men as they went past and, no surprise when an army is on the march, quite a bit of poultry was found to be missing once they had moved on.

Mrs Portsmouth went to stay with friends in Pietermaritzburg, whilst Harry returned to Durban High School, matriculating from that venerable institution in December 1901. With his school days behind him and the war still raging, Portsmouth turned his attention to the work front. Writing from 249 Pine Street in Durban on 9 December 1902, he addressed himself to the Colonial Secretary thus: -


I beg to make application for an appointment on probation, in the Civil Service, for preference, Audit Department, and would go up for examination next year. I have taken a 3rd Class pass both in the school Higher and Matriculation exams of the Cape University, the School Higher in 1900 and Matriculation in 1901, while I was at the Durban High School.

I am now in the Natal Burgher Camps Office, Durban, which is in Maritzburg where my sister is at school. I beg to enclose a copy of a testimonial which I have received from the Assistant General Superintendent. This is the only employment I have had since leaving school. My age is 17.

I am sir….’

The testimonial referred to was written from Timber Street in Pietermaritzburg by Edward Noble, the Assistant General Superintendent, on 6 December 1902 – it read as follows: -

‘To Whom it May Concern

I have much pleasure in stating that Mr H Portsmouth who has filled the position of Clerk in the Durban Office of Natal Burgher Camps for several months, and who is leaving us in consequence of the closing up of all camps, bears an excellent character. He has always taken a great interest in his work and performed his duties with credit to himself and entire satisfaction of the department.’

For some undisclosed reason nothing seems to have happened to Portsmouth’s request until June 1903 when the Secretary of the Education Department wrote to the Senior Inspector of Schools,

‘I should be greatly obliged if you would kindly interview Mr Portsmouth with reference to his suitability for employment in the Education Office. I do not like to ask him to come up from Durban until he has been interviewed.

If you recommend him for appointment, he would be employed to do the work Mr Davies is now doing. I should be glad if Mr Portsmouth could commence work on Monday morning.’

The position offered carried a salary of £100 per annum – a handsome sum for an 18 year old. Writing from Pietermaritzburg on 9 June 1903, Portsmouth replied to the Education Department that “I have just received an appointment here in Pietermaritzburg, so cannot accept your offer. Thank you for wiring to me.”

Now gainfully employed, Portsmouth did what many young men of the period did – he enlisted with one of the many volunteer regiments that abounded at the time. In his instance he joined “C” Battery of the Natal Field Artillery. This outfit, although sent up to Elandslaagte, had an almost inglorious end to their Boer War campaign. This was not through a lack of competence or enthusiasm but rather as a result of the weaponry at their disposal – 7-pounder field guns were puny in comparison to what both the Boers and the Royal Artillery deployed and were ineffective as a result.

Portsmouth spent three years in Pietermaritzburg and was in the capital when the Bambatha Rebellion broke out in early 1906. This conflict arose as a direct outcome of the Hut Tax imposed by the Natal Colonial Government on the heads of all males aged 18 and above. It must be remembered that Natal, post-war, was in a decidedly unhealthy financial state. The war had drained the Government’s meagre resources and a “quick fix” was needed – this was the Hut Tax. Most Zulu Chiefs took it on the chin and, although unhappy with the state of affairs, grudgingly agreed to collect the tax and hand it over to the Magistrates’ when they called round.

There was, however, a young upstart by the name of Bambatha, a minor Chieftain of the Zondo clan in the Umvoti district who went about the land, inciting rebellion and openly agitating for others to rise up and physically oppose the imposition of the tax. Matters came to a head and the Militia was called out to suppress what was now open revolt. The Natal Field Artillery were called out with all three Batteries in action. Portsmouth, in his memoirs, regales us with a first-hand account of the role they played: -

‘For three months during 1906 we were on active service during the Zulu Rebellion, we roughed it, sleeping out in the open, wet or fine, hot or cold and enjoyed it. Then in August 1906 I turned 21 and returned to Wyford and gradually took over the running of the store.” Portsmouth is very vague about this period of the rebellion – an unpublished “official history of the N.F.A. provides more detail: -

“As soon as the deployment of the militia had become legally possible orders to mobilise were issued to the Right Wing of the Natal Carbineers and to “C” Battery, N.F.A., both of Pietermaritzburg. This force proceeded from different points on 10 February 1906 to concentrate at Thornville, Elandskop and Richmond, and consisted of Right and Left Wing N.C., two sections of “C” Battery, under Captain W.S. Bigby – all under Colonel McKenzie. While these columns converged on Trewirgie the artillery remained at Richmond. On 19 February McKenzie was ordered to march, with all his mounted men and one or two sections of artillery, to Springvale, crossing the Umkomaas River, thence to Highflats, via Ixopo and Bulwer, to Elandskop. The column pushed on back to Ixopo where it remained until 13 March before moving off to Mtwalume on the Natal South Coast, the scene of the trouble in Charlie Fynn’s tribe (the half-caste). Here an indaba with local chiefs was held, the N.F.A. guns featuring in a show of psychological force. The troops were demobilized on 30 March and sent home.”

Portsmouth resumes his account: -

“On the 1st December the volunteers were again called out for active service. When I left Maritzburg, I transferred to the Ladysmith Squadron of the Natal Carbineers – “F” Squadron - (Carbineers muster roll has this date as 1 September 1906). The various regiments were sent by train to Gingindlovu, then after a couple of days sent on by train to a railhead which was in the bundu (bush), and the nearest railhead to Nongoma, taking three days which was the pace set by the mule wagons carrying the stores and food. There was no fighting, the only hardships were long slow time sitting on a horse at walking pace. The saddle burns one’s seat.

Our rations consisted of bully beef and hard biscuits, fortunately, our QMS picked up two bags of mielie meal from an unknown source and our squadron of about 200 men lived on those two bags for nearly two weeks. The bully beef was terrible, our mess consisted of 10 men, we were drawing 5 tins per day and yet on reaching Vryheid, we gave away 20 tins which were unopened.

Dinizulu’s kraal was raided, a very trying ride, we were in the saddle for nine hours, except when we dismounted and lead our horses down a very steep and rough krantz. It was a night march and we got lost in the pitch dark and heavy mist. From Nongoma we marched to Vryheid through Zululand, reaching Vryheid on 22 December. Camp rumours said we were to be sent to Colenso, to go through the Bantu locations on the lower Tugela where the tribes were showing signs of unrest. However, this was but a rumour.

About 4 p.m. on the 23rd we heard cheering from one end of the camp, we soon all knew we were being sent home. It was wonderful news. Trains were waiting and immediately entraining commenced. Our squadron was the last to leave Vryheid. We passed through Dundee at about 2 a.m. and there were those good Dundee ladies ready with hot coffee and sandwiches. Bless them.”

Portsmouth was home for Christmas – for his efforts he was awarded the Natal Medal with 1906 clasp to the Natal Field Artillery – his first regiment. 101 medals were awarded to “C” Battery, 91 with clasps.

Portsmouth returned to his employment in Pietermaritzburg but, in 1908, fully took over the running of Wyford. He became a Dipping Officer and Sheep Scab Inspector for the Van Reenen area and the Natal Archives are littered with memorandums between the Veterinary Department and himself for stocks of Haymark’s Paste Dip and tins of Tattoo Oil to be sent to him so that he could perform this important function.

Having settled into a routine he turned his attention to matters of the heart and, on 27 April 1916, at the Presbyterian Church in Howick, he wed Marjorie Isabel Laing, a 22 year old young lady from Harrismith. He was 30 at the time and referred to as a Store Keeper, Wyford, Van Reenen.

After many happy years, Portsmouth made the heartbreaking decision to sell up Wyford. His children had all grown up and moved away. The road from Natal to the Orange Free State no longer bypassed his land and his neighbours had all disposed of their farms and moved away. He and his wife moved to Greytown to live with their daughter and the farm was old to the Russell family in 1965.

Harry Portsmouth passed away at the age of 85 on 31 December 1970 at “Furbrook”, Greytown. He was survived by his wife and four daughters – Jean Catherine Joyce, Marjory Heather Edwards, Gwenneth Mary Mentis and Shirley Isobel Elffers.

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The Portsmouth's of Wyford, Van Reenen's Pass 1 year 7 months ago #68752

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Hi Rory.

As usual, you make the average medal come alive with some really interesting facts and information.
Well done, I really enjoy your contributions to the Forum - many thanks.

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The Portsmouth's of Wyford, Van Reenen's Pass 1 year 7 months ago #68758

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Good Morning and Thank You Rory...… Great piece as usual..... Makes me wonder if I should expand my field..... Something to think about during the lockdown..... Mike
Life Member
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Military Historical Society
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The Portsmouth's of Wyford, Van Reenen's Pass 1 year 7 months ago #68774

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The link to the Natal Rebel, Brandon, mentioned in the Portsmouth story, is below


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