Thursday 24 April 2014

Letter from Rev. Joshua Brough to Peter Handcock’s Widow

The Rev. Joshua Brough’s letter to Peter Handcock’s widow is an important piece of historical evidence. He waited seven months until he had returned home to England before he wrote it, thus ensuring that it would not be subject to military censorship in South Africa. This is not surprising since it is far more than a simple letter of condolence to a grieving widow.

The Rev. Joshua Brough was the Church of England military chaplain at Pietersburg at the time of the courts-martial of the Bushveldt Carbineers officers. He was a career military chaplain, promoted to Chaplain to the Forces 1st Class on 8t September 1911 and retired on 8t March 1916. Notices of his promotion and retirement were published in The London Gazette on 19 September 1911 and 7 March 1916 respectively.

George Witton published his letter in Scapegoats of the Empire but his copy did not show the date that it was written or where it originated from and so it lost a lot of its significance. However the letter was first published on page 3 of the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal on 3rd January 1903 showing both these missing details and I am very grateful to Ted Robl for drawing it to my attention. Here is the article in full:

Those Bushveldt Scapegoats

Now that the official censorship is relaxed, we are enabled to learn more of the real facts of the case against the Bushveldt Carbineers. Mrs. Handcock is in receipt of a sealed letter, through the proper military channel, of which the following is a true copy.  It bears out “The Bulletin’s” assumption that Morant and Handcock were made the scapegoats of the British Army in S’ Africa: -

"Dear Madam,
I was military chaplain at Pietersburg, in the N. Transvaal, during all the time that the Bushveldt Carbineers had their headquarters there, and I knew your late husband and all those officers and men who were concerned, for and against, in his trial, and I attended most of the sittings of the courts. And knowing what I know, I want to say to you that, great as may be your grief for the loss of him, you need feel no shame, but rather pride, on his account. He was a good-hearted man, and a brave soldier, simple and fearless, and he did what he was told. If he did wrong - I do not say that he did - it was the fault of his superiors, and [sic] gave them their orders. In the matter of the shooting of the Boer prisoners, of which he and others were found guilty, he acted under the orders of Lieutenant Morant, a man of strong feelings and eager to avenge the savage murder of his friend Captain Hunt.

In the matter of the shooting of the missionary, the only one of the crimes charged which really excited any moral indignation, the court, without hesitation, found him not guilty, and never, I should think, has a feebler charge been brought before a court.

I was not a friend of these officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers, but my sympathy was aroused by the harsh treatment they received - in being kept in close arrest (I myself, the chaplain, was requested not to visit them) for some months before they were tried, and by the way the case was, as it were, prejudged from the statements of bad men, and by the utterly false accounts which were inserted in English and, I believe, Australian papers.

I did not see your husband after he was taken down to Pretoria, but I understand that he died simply and fearlessly, as he had lived.

I have heard it said that the execution convinced the Boers of British fairness, and made them ready to come to terms. If this be so, then Lieuts. Morant and Handcock died for their country in a very special sense, and this is one of the many instances of suffering, even if undeserved, bringing salvation.

With much sympathy and good wishes,
I am yours very truly,
Newcastle, Staffs, 25/9/’02"

Joshua Brough must have had very strong feelings about this case for him to have waited so long to write the letter. Normally a military chaplain would write to the widow immediately after the death of a soldier but it is obvious that he had so much to say that he did not want removed from the letter by the military censors.

As the chaplain he occupied a unique position in the garrison. He would be aware of any discussion about the case in the officers’ mess and he would also have the confidence of many of the troops. He would have a pretty good idea who were the “good guys” and who were the “bad men” he referred to in his letter.

So what does his letter tell us:
  1. He attended most of the sittings of the court so he would have heard a lot more of the testimony supporting the accused than was published in The Times;
  2. He formed a very favourable opinion of Peter Handcock;
  3. He believed that the orders to shoot the Boers came from his “superiors” – a very strong indication that there were superior orders to shoot prisoners;
  4. He confirmed the fact that the shooting of prisoners was understood to be a common practice by his statement that the shooting of the missionary was , “the only one of the crimes charged which really excited any moral indignation”;
  5. He was disgusted that Handcock had been charged with shooting the missionary: “never … has a feebler charge been brought before a court”;
  6. He confirmed the harshness of their close arrest and the fact that he was denied access to them;
  7. He believed that case was "prejudged from the statements of bad men" which sounds to me like a serious indictment of Trooper Cochrane and his 15 cohorts; and
  8. He believed that Morant and Handcock were scapegoated for the greater good in that their executions helped to bring about an end to the war.

Rev. Joshua Brough’s letter deserves a much more prominent place in the history of this affair. Many historians have ignored it completely which is not surprising since it sharply contradicts the position they have chosen to take. 

It is worth pointing out that Rev. Brough was not the only British officer present who believed that Morant and Handcock were unfairly scapegoated. Frederic Cutlack (p93-4) tells us that after publication of his book Half A Life, [Jarvis C.S., Half A Life, 1943] which included a brief story of Morant and the courts-martial, Major Jarvis received a letter from Major Bolton's daughter:

"My late father was Provost Marshal at Bloemfontein in 1901 and was ordered by Kitchener to proceed to Pietersburg to prosecute in a court-martial. When he arrived he found it was the then notorious Morant case. As he had already done much campaigning in the Zoutpansberg district he was not keen to take on the job. But apparently for that reason he had been selected.

My father so often spoke about the case that I know it almost by heart ... The whole case was most unsavoury and my father often said it did him a lot of harm as narrow-minded people blamed him personally for the verdict and even when so far as cutting him ..." 


  1. Hi Richard, Is there any way we can converse privately? Peter has come up on my family tree and I just have a few questions if you don't mind.

    1. Hi Lurlaine,
      If you use the Contact Form on this page and provide your email address I will be happy to try to answer your questions if I'm able. I don't want to publish my email address on here, I already get too much spam.


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