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JEREMIAH GEORGE THOMAS 1 year 2 months ago #62719

  • RobCT
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This is a story about a special pair of medals and with his son’s QSA medal it hopefully qualifies for a write-up on this Forum. More importantly there is mention of a member of this Forum whom I am sure, at least through his voluminous postings, is well known to all. It is primarily for that reason in particular that I felt that I must share this story which ranks with my most thrilling experiences in more than 50 years as a serious numismatist.

I have previously recorded the story of this recipient of a South Africa 1853 medal and I therefore hope that Forum members will forgive for me repeating part of his story.

It is the story of Jeremiah Thomas of Izavani who in conjunction with John Hemming, the Civil Commissioner and Magistrate for Queenstown, first became involved in the subsequent War of Ngcayecibi in 1878. Their actions were not well received by the governing and military authorities.

In my 2012 article written specifically to examine the award of the clasps 1877/8/9 awarded to recipients who had previously received the earlier South Africa 1853 medal I wrote: “I like to think that, due to the accusations which he and Hemming endured in late January and February 1878, that he would most certainly have emphasized the award of the earlier SA 1853 medal to him. Sadly, unless an SAGS medal awarded to him surfaces, we will never know whether he was issued with an additional medal or simply the bar 1877-78.”

This then is the story of Jeremiah George Thomas.

Jeremiah was born in Carnarvon, Wales on 12 June 1829 and was baptised at Llonllechid on 26 July 1829. His parents were William Thomas and Ann Williams. It would appear that Jeremiah married Mary Maria Davis, the daughter of Richard and Charlotte Davis in the Methodist church at Fort Beaufort on 5 August 1856. Mary was eight years younger than Jeremiah having been born in Dublin, Ireland on 7 August 1837. All of their eleven children were born in South Africa and it seems likely that Jeremiah immigrated independently to South Africa before 1850. At the time of his marriage in 1857 he was living at Seymour which was situated a short distance away from Fort Beaufort. During the following years the family lived in and around Fort Beaufort and Queenstown. Records indicate that their two daughters, Catherine and Margaret, were both majors at the time of Mary’s death in Queenstown on 6 September 1878.

Archival records record that he was at the military post in Southeyville when his son George John born on 1 August 1863. In early 1878 some records indicate that he was a Magistrate, or possibly acting Magistrate at Gatberg (later renamed Maclear) while he is referred to as the Acting Location Inspector at Gwatyu in 1883. It would appear that Jeremiah Thomas was declared insolvent in about 1886. His name is best brought to notice during the Ngcayecibi War, which commenced in January 1878. Acting on the instructions of the well known John X. Merryman (Colonial Minister for Lands and Works and MLA for Aliwal North) Mr John Hemming, the Resident Magistrate and Civil Commissioner of Queenstown assembled a force of approximately 373 European and 38 coloured volunteers. For this purpose he convened a public meeting in Queenstown on 14 January 1878. Fortuitously a large number of Albert Burghers and some Aliwal North Volunteers were at Queenstown at that time and were invited by Mr Hemming to join his force. On the 22nd January 1878 this force marched from Queenstown on an expedition against Gungubela.

(Gungubela was the son of Maphasa, the Tshatshu Thembu Chief who had joined the Xhosa in fighting against the British during the 8th Frontier War. Gungubela was eventually captured and in accordance with the Cape Ministry’s intention of making examples of the leaders was tried for High Treason in July 1878. However, a popular feeling of revulsion for their execution amongst the frontier colonialists made it expedient for the Prime Minister Sprigg to ask the Governor of the Cape, Sir Bartle Frere to commute the death sentences which had been imposed. When Sandile’s four sons were later charged in October they were only charged with the lesser crime of sedition. Hemming had first met Gungubela in about 1860. They knew one another well; however their relationship had become strained, particularly during the last few months of 1877.)

John Hemming was born in Ireland in 1834. He had served as a volunteer Lieutenant in the Queenstown Rifles between 1861 and 1864 and had been re-appointed as a Captain in this unit in November 1875 soon after his transfer back to Queenstown as Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate. Never-the-less he stated in his despatch to Merriman on the 24 January 1878 that he regarded himself as “having no experience in such matters” and reported that “I have given, Mr Jeremiah Thomas of Izavani the general management of the expedition”. (Izavani is situated a short distance outside Queenstown). John Hemming however clearly accompanied this force and retained control over it. Michael Spicer in writing his Master’s thesis in 1978 on “The War of Ngcayecibi 1877-8” states that Thomas was the Magistrate at Gatberg at this time and that he was given overall command by virtue of his military experience and it is for this reason that I first guessed that he had served during one of the earlier Frontier Wars and was indeed the previously unidentified recipient of the SA 1853 medal named J.G. Thomas.

On reaching the Bolotwa River the force was joined by about 250 native levies (presumably the Bolotwa Tembus). Early on the morning of the 24th January this force reached the Qwatyu. Armed Tshatshu supported by a large number of Anta’s men manned the surrounding heights and as Hemming’s force unsaddled they were fired upon. Fighting started immediately and in two hours approximately 150 Thembus and Gaekas were killed. Reporting to Merriman in a despatch from Gwatyu the same day on 24 January, Hemming stated “Instead of taking the waggon road, the division travelled down two parallel kloofs, which converged at Qwatyu, one in rear, the other in front of Gongobella’s kraal. Mr Thomas, having general control of the movement, accompanied the right column. I went with the left, which saw numbers of Kafirs (sic) on the tops of the mountains, these jeering and taunting us, and closing in on our rear. On sweeping round the base of the mountain opposite Gwatyu, the advanced guard was fired upon.” Merriman appreciated the significance of the action and realizing the necessity for an experienced command, immediately ordered Commandant Griffith up to the Tembu Location instructing him to “crush all disaffection” and “to arrest the leaders thereof”. Griffith had also served during the earlier Frontier War of 1850-53 and held the position of Commandant of Colonial Forces. Griffith arrived on the 28th January to hear that Mfanta had joined the rebellion by sweeping off 50 horses from Hemming’s camp earlier that day. Thomas presumably took part in the actions during early February, particularly on the 4th when the 2 000 troops Griffith had mustered completed the dispersal of the black forces at great cost to them. On the 10th February, identifying himself as Commandant J. Thomas, Thomas reported to Griffith that the “Tshatshu were completely broken up.” Thomas’s name again crops up when Henry Elliot, acting on the advice of Thomas, was able to corner Sitokwe and his 4 000 to 5 000 followers against the mountain side at Maxongo’s Hoek. Elliot’s expedition decisively ended all resistance in the North-East. Gungubele was captured at the end of March, and brought as a prisoner to Queenstown. Mfanta was captured two weeks later. Mhlontlo captured Sitokhwe on 13 April and handed him over to Thomas. Elliot had previously held a senior commissioned rank with the Royal Marines Light Infantry before his appointment as Chief Magistrate of Tembuland and British Resident in Pondoland.

A real fuss was made in the Cape Parliament and the Governor, Sir Bartle Frere, was exceedingly displeased. Merryman in particular was taken to task for ordering the undertaking of this patrol in such a cavalier manner. He was accused of commencing a separate campaign on a considerable scale without the previous knowledge, and contrary to the advice and warnings, of both the General Commanding the (British) Forces and the Governor. He was accused as having acted in ostentatious disregard of all authority and as a kind of minister of war and general commanding operations in the field. Thomas and Hemming were not left out of the arguments. The Colonial Governor stated that “Jeremiah Thomas deserves Mr Hemming’s commendation, as a man who has experience in such matters but I do not recollect hearing of him before, and I do not know what warrant or commission he bears from any constituted authority, to legalize his acts and orders, which are really military acts and orders of great importance, and necessarily attended with heavy sacrifice of life and property.” Hemming was criticized for “undertaking what in reality was a military operation on a very large scale, the columns of Europeans being quite as strong as those usually employed in war whereas it was really commenced as a measure for supporting the police in executing warrants for the arrest of persons charged with arson, theft or assault.”

It is however clear that Hemming was acting with the agreement and on the instruction and encouragement of Merryman. He was a man of considerable experience of Frontier affairs. His intuition of the likely reaction by Gungubela and his followers were based on his experience and understanding of the last few months of 1877 was clearly justified. He clearly was not reckless in co-opting the leadership of Thomas who was both experienced and knew the area of Qwatyu very well. He would have known that his raising of a strong force in Queenstown, in line with Merryman’s instructions to him, would have been closely watched by Gungubela’s followers and that they would be ready and waiting for him. He was wise to include the various volunteers who had already assembled at Queenstown in mid-January in his force. His inclusion of the force of Bolotwa Tembus being loyal natives was in line with the standard practice employed by the military in dealing with similar situations on the Frontier. He certainly was not without considerable support and it was stated that he well deserved the praise, which had been awarded to him in a Despatch dated 6 February 1878. Hemming’s career in the Colonial civil service was not tarnished. He was promoted and transferred to Kimberley on 7 February 1881 but was transferred at his own request back to Queenstown on 1st January 1882. He was again promoted to King William’s Town on 1st February 1883 and in 1885 he was appointed to the important post at Grahamstown as resident Magistrate and Civil Commissioner for Albany were he continued to serve until his retirement in 1900. He served as Chairman on numerous Commissions including the Komastone Lands, 1875, the Tambookieland War Losses, 1880 and the Tambookie Country Land Settlement, 1882-83. Following his transfer to Grahamstown he joined the First City (Grahamstown) Volunteers. The Colonial Gazette of 21 July 1896 confirmed the award of the Volunteer Decoration to Captain John Hemming, he being the first officer in the Regiment to be honoured with such an award.

Merryman and his cabinet colleagues however took the brunt of the criticism. It is clear that these actions were viewed as the final straw of ineptitude by the Cape Ministry and that the Governor, Sir Bartle Frere, had lost all faith in them. Prime Minister Molteno and his Cabinet were dismissed from office within a few weeks. Sprigg was appointed as the new Prime Minister and a new cabinet appointed.

For his participation in the Tambookieland Rebellion of early 1878 Jeremiah Thomas was awarded the South African General Service medal of 1877/78. From an examination of the medal rolls held at the Public Records Office in London it is clear that these are, at best, copies of the original medal rolls and have been redrafted. The roll for the Tambookieland Division includes 5 names listed in alphabetical order. The details for Thomas, which are listed last, give his details as “Field Cornet / Jeremiah Thomas / 2nd in Command”. His service is listed as being engaged against the “Gaikas, Galekas, and other Kafir (sic) tribes, 1877-’8.” His medal was issued with Voucher 85 dated 26-4-82 some 15 months before the issue of medals to Comdt. Hemming and Doctor William Bisset in August 1883. Finally, there is the marginal note “Schedule of Individual claims", “G” being recorded against his name. Certification of this roll, dated Queenstown, September 1880 is given by the wording “John Hemming Civil Comr.” which is copied above the underwritten explanation “Signature of Commanding Officer, or Head of Department”. It would therefor seem to be clear that Thomas’ medal application was submitted via an Individual claim form, which was subsequently re-listed on Schedule “G” and then once again relisted under a listing for Tambookieland. It is not known if Thomas declared whether or not he was “In possession of Medal for previous Wars”. His medal entitlement was issued by way of a comparatively early voucher dated 26 April 1882, and I therefore suspected that he was issued with a second South African General Service medal with bar 1877/78 rather than only the loose bar 1877/78. Never-the-less I like to think that after all the problems and the questions about his competence etc. that he would have made it very clear that he was an experienced veteran.

I concluded my write-up by stating that I would certainly like to know whether or not an SAGS medal named to Field Cornet J. Thomas existed.

Following my initial article I once again combed the Web for further information and family contacts. Fortunately I managed to make contact with a great great grandson and he provided me with a photograph not only of his great grandfather who was Jeremiah’s eldest son but also of Jeremiah himself. Quite understandably he asked the obvious question about Jeremiah’s medal however he did not press the point. I did however learn that Jeremiah, recorded as a 20 year old shepherd, arrived at the Cape as a passenger on board the immigrant ship Diadem in February 1850 and that many years later after living in South Africa for 52 years he returned home to England where he died in 1913. Unfortunately he knew nothing of any further medals.

Collectors will therefore understand my utter joy and delight when the well-known Natal/Eastern Cape medal collector Rory Reynolds phoned me out of the blue one Friday morning just a few months ago. He had acquired two new medals and, seemingly even before these were properly unpacked, he had interrogated the Web and had learnt of my special interest. He visited Cape Town the following week bringing not only Jeremiah’s companion South African General Service medal with him but also the QSA medal awarded to his eldest son George who had served as an officer with the Queenstown D.M.T. during the Boer War.

To Rory therefore goes my very special and sincere thanks for his collector’s understanding and gentlemanly kindness in allowing me to re-unite this rather special pair of medals. It is of course not only the stories and the everlasting memories of old soldiers but also the friendships we develop even in far off places that make medal collecting such a wonderful hobby.

Father - Jeremiah George Thomas

Pair - South Africa 1853 medal “J.G. Thomas, Md. Burgher Corps.”; South African General Service medal bar 1878 “Capt. J. Thomas, Queenstown Burgr. Force.”

His son - George John Thomas

Single – QSA no bar: “Lieut. J.G. Thomas, Queenstown D.M.T.”

And also his Chief – John Hemming

Pair - Volunteer Decoration (VRI)(unnamed), SAGS medal one bar: 1877-78 “Comdt. J. Hemming, Tambookieland Div.”


Always interested in medals awarded to members of the “Dukes”
The following user(s) said Thank You: QSAMIKE

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JEREMIAH GEORGE THOMAS 1 year 2 months ago #62754

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Very nice indeed Rob. 1853/1878 combinations are few and far between.

Well researched as well.



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