The Boer War

A host of authentic new stories that are told for the very first time; errors in past history corrected

Karori and the Boer War
Soldiers' Tales
More Soldiers' Tales
Further Soldiers' Tales

The Boer War took place over a century ago and those who fought in it are now gone. It was a time when most of today's technology was unknown, not even imagined, yet people themselves were intelligent, accomplished and very sophisticated in their thinking and their attitudes, with many skills and abilities that we have largely lost. Much has been written about the Boer War but this recent research has shown errors in past history and in the servicemen's records. Conversely our modern technology has been bringing us a growing access to the primary records of those days. Thus we can now write about the war and and its soldiery with greater accuracy and detail than in the past. What is written today is better in many respects that what was written only a decade or so ago.

Cover of Karori book

In the years 2009 and 2010 I carried out historical research into the New Zealand contingents that sailed to South Africa and fought in the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902). It was a project initiated by the present vicar of St Mary's church in Karori, Wellington (the Reverend John Hughes), where a memorial was set up in 1936 for the 1st Contingent of the NZ Mounted Rifles. The objective in 2009 was to investigate men with a Karori connection who had served in any of the contingents, hopefully to identify and perhaps contact their families.

It proved to be a fascinating project and it led to my writing a book, "Karori and the Boer War". It begins with a brief background to the war and then retells the story of that First Contingent, correcting several significant errors that I uncovered in the story told by Richard Stowers in his book "Rough Riders at War". Within the ten contingents were about a score of people with a Karori connection who enlisted and went to South Africa. For some it proved possible to find a detailed and very interesting story. For others the going was harder and the findings were more limited. However, it created a substantial chapter, a chapter that revealed many further errors in previous history. Finally I wrote a short chapter about the memorial in St Mary's, once again finding some errors and false assumptions in previous work, even in a published history of St Mary's. One surprise was that although Rough Riders mentioned several Boer War memorials, its author seemed to be unaware of this significant memorial in Karori.

It was a major concern in the course of this research, as indeed in my work on histories of Shell Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, that there were so many errors to be found in the previously published details of the servicemen. The Rough Riders book was immensely at fault, with errors in dates, ages, place names, spellings, arithmetic and sometimes with two men rolled into one or one man presented as two different men. For several men, for example, it gave a date of death and also age at death that implied a date of birth after the war or only a few years before it. It is hard to see how any historian could produce five editions of a book without noticing errors of that sort. Boer War enthusiasts have told me that much of the material in that book was carelessly taken on board from other sources and not checked in any way.

Some errors and omissions in Rough Riders date back to the very early years, to the 1900-1902 transcriptions of the men's details that were published in the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. It is not surprising that the clerks who worked on the nominal rolls would miss a few names in the process. Those published rolls are only loosely in alphabetical order and that makes me wonder just how well the job was done. Many other errors were added to Rough Riders when the information was expanded to include biographical details.

Errors also emerged in the treatment of the records by NZ National Archives. My Soldiers' Tales lists a large number of men who are not to be found in the Archives index. It also lists many men whose entry in the index is mis-spelled or is actually mistaken because the indexer failed to check the file properly. Such errors are very like a mis-shelved book in a library, unlikely to be found except by a great deal of luck. An on-line database of the Ministry of Culture and History also has errors.

Finally, a South Island trip made it possible to look at the Boer War memorials in Christchurch and Kaiapoi, and further errors emerged.

When "Karori and the Boer War" was nearly complete, I sent a copy to Dr Colin McGeorge, the researcher at Canterbury University who had created the database of our Boer War volunteers from those House of Representatives transcriptions, a database that then became the basis for the NZ History database and for "Rough Riders at War" by Richard Stowers. He told me that he had found my book a treat but that it was unsettling to see the large number of errors that I had found in those records and in the index at National Archives. My own feeling all along has been that "Karori and the Boer War" has not only dealt very adequately with the original aims of the project but that because of the digitisation of material of the Boer War period it has had the good fortune to detect past errors, make very large numbers of corrections and also add much to the stories of those volunteer servicemen. Then the "Soldiers' Tales" books, in addition to being very readable stories in their own right, have taken that correction process further.

John McKinnon, New Zealand's Secretary of Defence, read the text of the Karori story and agreed to write a foreword.

Soldiers' Tales

The Karori book includes a poem about the war, entitled "The war of the horse and the rifle". The Boer War was very much on the boundary between two ages, fought when the motor car had just appeared and when warfare was about to acquire much more mobility and fire power. "More Soldiers' Tales" expands that story with a short discussion of the age of oil, under the heading of "The span of history". "Further Soldiers' Tales" has another poem, commenting on one of the problems of furlough and sick leave that was a major irritant to the returning servicemen. Poems can often be an effective way of saying a great deal in very few words.

Thus the Karori book, starting as a slim volume, became eventually a weighty A4 book approaching three hundred pages. It also developed offshoots in the form of those three subsidiary books. I believe that all these books are a significant addition to previously published material, as well as being a very necessary correction to previous errors.

Cover of More . . Tales The research into the servicemen was able to make great use of their personal military files, thanks to the digitisation project at National Archives. It made it possible to read the files on a home computer via an Internet link and it became obvious that there were some fascinating stories that could be told. At the same time, however, it found errors in the indexing of the archived files and also apparent problems in the files themselves. A surprising number of documents appear in wrong files and the quality of the digitisation itself is quite often such that material is illegible. These findings were totally unexpected.

It was this research that led me to create a second book of little stories, "Soldiers' Tales". It told stories of their experiences, stories from the veldt, stories of arguments with the Defence Department over pay and other aspects of their service, stories of health problems, the story of a man who was shot and robbed in camp, a story of a man reported by Rough Riders as dying in Australia but who was actually a South Island rabbiter who was caught in a snow storm and was found frozen to death three weeks later. There were fascinating "letters from the front", sent by men to their families or friends and often published by the local press. There were stories of bereaved families. There were men who survived the Boer War but lost their lives in World War One. There were courts martial. There were dismissals. There were petitions by disgruntled men to the House of Representatives. There were men chased by the Defence Department for moneys paid in error, while rightful pay sometimes took years to be resolved.

Cover of Further . . .Tales

It became possible to write two more books, "More Soldiers' Tales" and "Further Soldiers' Tales", adding still more variety to the story of the war. It may yet be possible to write even more, as digitisation has not yet reached thirty per cent of the files, but there are many files that contain too little to offer a story, and many stories turn out to be similar. It therefore becomes steadily harder to find material that is sufficiently varied and interesting for such a purpose. Undoubtedly, however, there could be another two or three books yet and I already have a few stories on hand.

It has been a great privilege and a most interesting one to be able to uncover these stories of the Boer War men. One very special little discovery, after the event, was to find that Private Milroy, the subject of one of the stories, was the grandfather of one of our friends. She was able to confirm that my research into his life was correct and she added some valuable comments about the man himself. Many of those Boer War men will have grandchildren still alive today who will have known them, but that is a living link that may not now remain for many more years.

The Soldiers' Tales books are in A5 format, each 180 pages, and have a good many illustrations. They all have the same picture on the front cover, a low resolution picture of a troop of mounted rifles in South Africa, the low resolution tending to create the impression of a mirage of horsemen emerging from the distant past. The books have been colour-coded, the first having spine and back cover in dark green, the second having dark plum and the third having a bright terra cotta.

The "Soldiers' Tales" books are available from Capital Books in Wellington, and are now also available at Arty Bees bookshop, again in Wellington. They will very shortly be available to readers at Wellington Central Library.

These four books have been printed in Wellington by AstraPrint, a firm recommended to me by a Wellington publisher. They had recently installed TruePress printing machinery that prints on a huge roll of paper rather than paper fed in sheets. It requires books to be presented as PDF files in a format that defines exactly how they will be guillotined once printed and bound. I acted as my own publisher under the name of Owls Hatch Books, Owls Hatch being a name that I have used for more than fifty years. It is a name found in Britain several times, in Norfolk, Hertfordshire, and more recently as the name of a barn converted into a beautiful home in Devonshire. The little owl below is an "egg cosy" stitched by my wife in the early 1960s, and the Owl's Hatch inscribed on a slice of timber was the name-plate for our first home in Tonbridge, Kent, in 1960.

Thus I defined my own layout and design, presenting my material to PrintStop, an Astra subsidiary, as PDF and JPG files, for the final production of the files for TruePress. It is a procedure that divides the processing in a sensible way and provides proofs for checking at the preparation and preprint stages. AstaPrint have since changed name, calling the entire operation

All these books have been selling well, via bookshops and via library suppliers, then generally retailing at prices between $30 and $40. They can also be bought from the author direct, at $20 for "Karori and the Boer War" and at $12 each for the books of Soldiers' Tales, those prices being based on recovery of costs, with only a minimal margin. Solderis' Tales, the fist book in the series, sold out and has been reprinted.

You can write to M W Foster at 30 Campbell Street, Karori, Wellington 6012 with a cheque for the appropriate amount plus the cost of packing and postage. P & P is normally $3.50 for one book, or about $5 for the set of four. I can also mail books overseas by economy airmail at prices that are still well below those asked by booksellers for local sales in New Zealand. For example a package of the three Soldiers' Tales books can be airmailed to Britain for around NZ$28, making an all-up price of about NZ$64 or about $22 per book

Or you can contact me by email at

Owls' Hatch
Owl Eggcosy
Owl Craft

And more on Karori . . . . .

My work on "Karori and the Boer War" took place while the Karori Historical Society was in the final stages of a local history, the story of the suburb of Karori with its growth from a pioneer rural settlement to a major suburb of New Zealand's capital city, Wellington.
Thus there were overlaps in some respects. Though I was unable to become directly involved in the KHS project, I subsequently put some work into checking through the finished work and then yielded to the temptation to do some more work on Karori people, something that had already been part of my work in respect of the Boer War.

A Karori directory ?

Thinking about Karori, I wondered "How about a substantial listing of people from Karori and the country districts of Makara and Ohariu in the 1800s?" On the basis of Papers Past, with additions from other sources, I have now built up a directory of names and personal events from about 1842 to 1899.

There are details of births, deaths and marriages, accidents and accidental deaths, advertisements, announcements related to electoral rolls, jury service and the like, land ownership, items lost and found, straying farm stock, houses burned down, houses built, bankruptcies, court reports (magistrates' courts, police courts and the Supreme Court), lunacy, prize givings at schools, examination successes, auctions of houses, livestock and land, committees and other organisations. This multiplicty of information identifies around 1500 people, ranging from the deaths of very old settlers to the deaths of infants who were local people for only a matter of weeks. The names are supplemented or complemented by references in electoral rolls and other sources. Names have been garnered from gravestones in Karori, Makara and Ohariu. There are also records created for the local schools in the late 1800s. Many additional births have been found through the on-line births index operated by the Department of Internal Affairs, though, in common with many of the records from those early years, there are very large numbers of mis-spellings of names. Thus one set of parents may have several variants and identification can become uncertain.

This project has developed into far more than a simple directory, becoming a collection of mini-stories, well worth browsing as a tapestry of life in early settler Karori. It is not just a simple list of names.

Some people crop up just once, some appear many times. The body of the collection is presented in date sequence, showing the name and date of the newspaper concerned so that the reader can sometimes dig out more information. The collection begins with Karori names and then goes on to shorter collections based on Makara and Ohariu.

The newspaper material does have one characteristic that limits its value, namely that it is very much male oriented. The birth announcements of the time would refer to "the wife of Mr James Smith" without giving her name. Gravestones at local churches, especially St Mary's in Karori, have proved valuable in giving us the wives of local people. They also give dates of death for wives and young children, making it possible to go back to Papers Past with a good chance of finding more information. School Inspectors' reports on local schools have given us well over six hundred names of school-children in the late 1800s. Marriage records have also made it possible to discover the names of many wives, names that used not to be reported in birth announcements. The DIA birth index has also added to our knowledge of wives' names.

Property ownership was also related to the man of the family. In that respect this directory is a starting point for the researcher. Nevertheless, simply in terms of the number of items that have been found, its coverage seems likely to be very good.

It became obvious in this research that information can be patchy. It seems clear that announcements of births, deaths and marriages dropped significantly in the mid-1870s and that may reflect the closure of The Wellington Independent in 1874. It was incorporated in the New Zealand Times from 1875, a paper that is not yet covered by Papers Past. Although Wellington's Evening Post began in 1865, people apparently didn't immediately switch their announcements to it. It may simply have been that it was not so easy to submit items to the Evening Post, or perhaps it was a matter of cost. The team at Papers Past have told me that requests for digitisation of the NZ Times wil now be followed up, so we may well have an injection of new information for this directory before too long.

The directory concludes with an overall index in alphabetical order of names. It is clear that this research could go on and on, building an ever better record, but the basic drive has been to collect as many names as possible. Based on officially quoted figures of the number of people at the turn of the century, it seems likely that this directory of the Karori district is not far from being a complete one.

There were some areas of "white space" at the ends of chapters and those were an opportunity to include photographs. Rather than looking for early pictures at the Turnbull Library, I decided to take my own pictures and thus to avoid any problems with copyright. When I subsequently met someone who had lived for 30 years in the Ohariu Valley and showed her the pictures of the Catholic graves and the little church of Holy Trinity, she was able to say "There was a Catholic church but it was burned down".

I feel that one or two interested people from NZSG branches around the country could take on such a project for their own local district. This venture took an elapsed time of around six months but it was concentrated work and many people may find that the the timing could easily extend to a year or so.

An ISBN for this Karori directory has been issued, 978-0-473-20556-0, so that its existence can be more easily found and copies will thus be held by the New Zealand National Library. I may also donate copies elsewhere but I have no immediate plans for a print run. If anyone would like to acquire a copy, please get in touch and I will try to quote a price. It should be possible to print the text for around $17 and thus supply by post in a comb-bound version with back and front covers, clear front cover and card at the back, for about $25.It is a book running to a little over 200 A4 pages and has a number of colour photographs and a poem that summarises the likely feelings of the early settlers. It was read at a recent committee meeting of the Karori Historical Society and both there and elsewhere it has received very favourable comments, comments that I hope are justified! As a further option, I can supply the material as a PDF file on a CD for about $5 by mail within New Zealand.

The book has been greeted with enthusiasm by the Karori Historical Society and by the team at Papers Past in the National Library.

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