Quartermaster, Durban Volunteer Artillery – Anglo Zulu War
- South African General Service medal (no clasp) to Qr. Mr. Holmes, Dn. Volr. Arty.
Reuben Holmes was born in Oldham, Lancashire on 22 February 1853 the son of Levi Holmes and his wife Sarah, born Jellet. Although not apparently Jewish the family seems to have been given Old Testament Biblical monikers. He was baptised in the Parish of Oldham on 15 November 1853 – the record indicating that his family lived at North Moor and that his father was a Bricklayer by trade.
As was common for the times there was a proliferation of children and Reuben would have had as playmates his siblings, Elias, Elijah, Ruth Ann and Moses.
Holmes came to the Cape as a child with his family in 1858 where they lived for twelve years, the father being a contractor and builder. In 1870 they moved to the diamond fields in Kimberley where they stayed for a year before moving on to Durban in 1872; where they took up residence. The Colony of Natal was a “rough and tough” place before the benefits and comforts of civilisation began to reach it with alacrity towards the end of the 19th century.
Holmes would have found streets which were little more than sandy tracks between the houses and doubling as major thoroughfares. Additionally, he would have had to dodge the lumbering ox wagons and other primitive means of transport, as he went about his business.
The 1879 Natal Almanac records that a R. Holmes, Carpenter, was resident in Victoria Street, Durban along with a M. Holmes, Architect, of the same address. 1879 was famous for an altogether different reason – this was the year that the long threatened hostilities between the Zulu nation and the might of Imperial Britain spewed over into open conflict.
Like most civic minded young men Holmes had joined the ranks of one of the many militia units that abounded in the Colonies in Victorian times. According to the aforementioned Natal Almanac he had enlisted with the fledgling Durban Volunteer Artillery as Quartermaster on 21 December 1878. This could well have been as a result of the impending hostilities previously mentioned. Under Captain A. McNeil this outfit had been formed on 3 June 1870 with its rules proclaimed a month later, on 3 July.
With the dawn of 1879 the D.V.A. (also known as the Durban Artillery Volunteers) was comprised of 3 officers, 8 Non-Commissioned officers and 25 men. On the 12th January the British invasion of Zululand commenced. A parade of volunteers in Durban was held on 24 January in the aftermath of the disaster of Isandlwana when, so it was perceived, the Zulus were about to descend on Durban and massacre all in sundry. All of the town was in an uproar with the volunteers called out and the defences of the town tightened.
The volunteers were despatched to take up defensive positions along the Umgeni and Umdloti Rivers, the D.V.A. was stationed on the south bank of the Umgeni so as to command both the river and the road to Verulam, being moved, later on, to a defensive camp at Greyville.
A newspaper at the time reported that: -
“Yesterday the encampment of the Durban Volunteer Artillery and the Royal Durban Rifles was moved from the south bank of the Umgeni, where the two corps had been stationed for a couple of days, to the vlei close to the Zingari cricket ground. We believe the spot selected at the Umgeni was not considered a healthy one, and on this being ascertained it was at once decided to move the men nearer town. They have all settled down to camp life, and seem to enjoy it much. Several members of both corps were in town yesterday.”
An article in the Western Morning News of 17 March 1879, under the banner The Zulus Disheartened” read thus: -
“Durban is defended at present, in addition to the weak company of infantry, by the Royal Durban Rifles (100) and Durban Volunteer Artillery, about 50 and two guns, who are encamped near the town. The inhabitants have also come forward cheerfully and enrolled themselves into the ranks of the Town Guard”
The D.V.A. were never called on to fire a round in anger but their very presence must have served as a deterrent to the Zulus massing on the Natal border. The “Red Book” – a collection of newspaper articles compiled into one volume – reported that: -
“The corps assembled outside the armoury yesterday afternoon and were dismissed for the present. They have been out on garrison duty for seven weeks, during the whole of which time they have been under canvas. The men have shown every desire to carry out what was required of them in a thoroughly military spirit; and they deserve much credit for the way in which they have discharged their duties.”
One of the most moving incidents of the Zulu War seen in Durban was the funeral arrangements of the Prince Imperial who had been killed during an unfortunate incident in Zululand. With befitting pomp and ceremony the embalmed body of the Prince had been escorted from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, where on 12 June 1879 a Requiem Mass had been conducted in the Roman Catholic Cathedral after which the body was conveyed aboard H.M.S. Boadicea. Holmes and his Durban Volunteer Artillery were positioned on the sand dune at the end of West Street, firing five minute guns from the time the procession left the Cathedral until the body was placed aboard ship.
The war over and the threat thus reduced Holmes received the Zulu Medal without clasp – the clasp being awarded to those who had crossed the river into enemy territory. Along with Captain McNeil and Lieutenant Benningfield, he was one of only three officers in the unit.
Holmes now settled down to his business and, on 18 July 1881 at the home of Robert Plant in Durban, he wed young Alice Plant. His occupation showed that he had followed in his father’s footsteps and was now a Builder by trade.
At some point Holmes realised the benefits of doing business in the north of Natal, setting up a lumber business there. That this business prospered was evidenced by the sum available for bequest on his death at his residence in Scott Street, Newcastle on 13 November 1905 at the age of 52 years 8 months. His occupation was provided as Timber Merchant and he left his brother, Moses Holmes the Architect, to administer his estate.
The money - £7109 – was bequeathed to his wife and children – Daisy Alice Holmes, Hilda Sarah Holmes, born in Durban on 9 May 1885, and Percy Victor Holmes born in Durban on 1 February 1887.
The following user(s) said Thank You: QSAMIKE, jim51
Great story Rory-you seem to have the knack of unearthing some real gems- the medal itself appears to be in great shape-do rolls exist for this unit as some of the Zulu war rolls for this kind of unit are very haphazard?