Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for HMS Orontes

O is for HMS Orontes

My 2nd great-grandfather James Cook (no, not the James Cook) was a Gunner on the HMS Orontes from 15 June 1879 to 19 July 1879.(ADM 196/31 Warrant Officers Register of Service Image 351).

He was 31 years old and had been married for nearly eight years to Caroline (nee Jefferies). His daughter Eleanor (my great-grandmother) was just four years old.   According to this site he would have been paid about £26 per annum.  

In the remarks column on his register of service, it says "Naval Brigade 8 Mch 79 to VO (perhaps this is WO??) Orontes 6 to 9 June 79, Hosp.(???) to Cape of Good Hope from 10 June to 11 June 79".  Before serving on the Orontes, my great-great-grandfather was serving on the Shah.  His service record lists the period 19 April 78 to 14 June 79.

Conrad Dixon's Ships of the Victorian Navy advises us that on the way back from her first commission:
Shah was diverted to Natal to land 400 officers, seamen and marines who fought ashore for five months as an infantry battalion. (p.88)
What was going on ?  The Zulu War of 1879 that's what.  I know nothing of the Zulu war apart from having seen the movie Zulu years ago.  

I was fortunate to find in the QFHS Library Phil Tomaselli's The Zulu War 1879. It is a slim volume published by the Federation of Family History Societies containing an easily comprehensible outline of the war, a good map of the battle areas and, furthermore, a good guide to family history resources relating to it.  For example, Tomaselli advised that while Ships Logs are located in ADM 53, unfortunately for my ancestor, "the logs do not cover parties landed as part of the Naval Brigade." (p.35)  Other sources suggested are despatches and letters, including a link to this site which provides "a comprehensive list of TNA documents relating to the Zulu War". Gold! 

I searched The National Archives catalogue for any references to the Shah at this time and discovered here that:
The Brigade consisted of 392 officers and men disembarked at the Port of Durban. On the 14 March the Brigade crossed the Tugela River and encamped at Fort Tenedos in Zululand. On the 25 March the contingent of HMS Boadicea with 220 strong arrived, and on the 29 March a column consisting of 3,700 white and 2,700 Native Troops, under the command of Loard Chelmsford marched to relief the Garrison shut up in Echoue, thirty seven men and three officers of the Shah were left at Fort Tenedos, in which Surgeon Connell was in medical charge.
I also found that there is a diary kept by Petty Officer (1st class) Benjamin Marshall at the National Museum of the Royal Navy which would be interesting to read.  I think it would be worth reading these folios as well.  And the letters from Admiral Brackenberry would be interesting too.  Frustratingly the Archives says that the medical journals are available on Ancestry but I have not been able to locate them there.  Ancestry only seems to have Medical Journals from 1817-1857.  I have emailed TNA for further enlightenment.  

This site has an account of the Battle of Gingindlovu which features a really great photo of a Royal Navy Gatling Gun Team. Could one of those men be my 2nd-great-grandfather?  Frustratingly no source is given for the photo. Sigh.

HMS. ORONTES  ca. 1900 Allan C Green 1878-1954 photographer.This work is out of copyright. Picture found at State Library of Victoria via Trove here.You can read the HMS Orontes vital statistics here. 
But back to the Orontes! What was the Orontes doing at the time?  Quite a bit as it happens. According to the Historical Dictionary of the Zulu Wars by John Laband (found, I cheefully confess, on Google) she was:

a troopship that had landed drafts at Durban on 4 June 1879 for all the British battalions and regiments fighting in the Anglo-Zulu War, the Orontes was specially prepared in Cape Town to take on the body of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte from HMS Boadicea on 15 June for conveyance to England for burial.  (p. 118)

Dixon's Ships of the Victorian Navy also has this interesting observation to make about HMS Orontes:

there was a general impression that appointments to troopers (trooper being a troopship) went only to the old, the incompetent or the eccentric.  The ships were known as 'lobster pots' because they carried soldiers, and problems were always arising because the Army loathed being subject to naval discipline.
Oh dear.

If we search digitised newspapers at the time, this is what we find:

THE WAR IN ZULULAND. (1879, June 16). Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 - 1912), , p. 3 (SECOND EDITION). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

From the Naval and Military Intelligence column of The Times on 24 June, we learn that the Orontes arrived at Simon's Bay on 30 May (Cape Town) and left for Natal.  My knowledge of South African geography leaves a lot to be desired so I have included a map.  Of course Google doesn't do boats (only walking, cycling, driving or flying).

Then this article headed [Reuter's Summary] Cape Town 17 June in The South Australian Chronicle was published 9 August:  

[REUTER'S SUMMARY.] (1879, August 9). South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1868 - 1881), , p. 2 (SUPPLEMENT TO THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN CHRONICLE). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from 

The Times reported on 5 July that the HMS Orontes had sailed from Madeira at 3pm on 4 July and would reach Portsmouth on Wednesday next. Then on Friday 11 July the Times reported:

"As soon as daybreak permitted anything to be distinctly seen, it was noticed that the Orontes had undergone a remarkable change as regards colour since she left Portsmouth.  Instead of the glaring white with which the whole of the Imperial and Indian troopships are now painted, as a protection against the heat of a tropical climate, she had received, as suggestive of the melancholy purpose of her voyage, a coating of slate or French gray; and so thoroughly had the alteration been carried out that, not the hull alone, but the lower masts, funnels and deck-houses had been placed in mourning."
The article goes on to report in minute detail the mortuary chapel and coffin.

The Prince in South Africa in 1879 - author unknown 

If you would like to read more about the Anglo-Zulu war there are some websites here and here which give summaries/timelines, not forgetting the Anglo-Zulu War Society.  You can read more about the Prince here.

Last but not least if you want to remind yourself of what an amazing movie Zulu was, starring the very young Michael Caine check out this clip here.

This is my contribution to the Blogging from A - Z challenge.


"BBC - History - British History In Depth: Zulu: The True Story". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"Diary Rel To Service On HMS Shah And HMS Harrier | The National Archives". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

ADM 188/30/55392 Register of Seaman's Service James Cook, Image 284

ADM 196/31 Warrant Officer James Cook's Register of Service, Image 351

ADM 196/169 Gunners Record of Service HMS Excellent James Cook, Image 15
   Dixon, Conrad. Ships Of The Victorian Navy. Southampton: Ashford Press in association with the Society for Nautical Research, 1987. Print.

"Folios 11-12: W Neale, Aged 29, Marine; Disease Or Hurt, Remittent Fever. Put On Sick... | The National Archives". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

THE WAR IN ZULULAND. (1879, June 16). Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 - 1912), , p. 3 (SECOND EDITION). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

[REUTER'S SUMMARY.] (1879, August 9). South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1868 - 1881), , p. 2 (SUPPLEMENT TO THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN CHRONICLE). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from 

"Home". Anglo Zulu War Historical Society. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016., Gooii. "Letters Written From Brackenbury To His Wife From HMS SHAH, 1879 - National Maritime Museum". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Johnson, Ben. "History And Timeline Of The Anglo-Zulu War, 1879". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Kemp, Peter Kemp. The Oxford Companion To Ships & The Sea. London: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.

"Medical Journal Of HMS Shah From 7 March To 21 July 1879 By John Shields, Surgeon,... | The National Archives". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"Napoléon, Prince Imperial". Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"Naval Brigade". Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Pappalardo, Bruno. Tracing Your Naval Ancestors. Richmond: Public Record Office, 2002. Print.

"Naval And Military Intelligence." Times [London, England] 24 June 1879: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"Latest Intelligence." Times [London, England] 5 July 1879: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"The Late Prince Imperial." Times [London, England] 11 July 1879: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"Royal Marine Pay : Officers, Ncos And Other Ranks". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

"The Zulu War : The Battle Of Gingindlovu". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Tomaselli, Phil. The Zulu War 1879. Bury: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 2006. Print.

"UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857". N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.


Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Alex I'm so impressed with the discoveries you are making. I hope you find the records on ancestry...a little closer than London.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

I also meant to say, how we've forgotten that war was essentially a "normal" occurrence in much of times past.

Kathleen Valentine said...

Gosh, you've done an amazing amount of research! I know noting about the Zulu war but it sounds like something I should investigate.

Meet My Imaginary Friends

Dianne said...

Wowie! You find so much! We should all be so lucky. When I get around to researching my navy guys, I will come to you for advice on where to start.

Wendy said...

Anglo-Zulu War is itself an A to Z challenge!
Look at all that you found and have yet to read about your ancestor's tour on the Orontes.

Liz said...

I've always wanted to investigate our family... so time consuming though! ~Liz

Richard said...

Wow. Excellent work here, Ms Daws. I've tweeted a few of your links just now. Stay at it till the end of the month! Best to you.