Friday 25 April 2014

Peter Joseph Handcock

Updated Sept. 2016
Peter Handcock was born near Peel, New South Wales in 1868. His father died when he was aged 6 so he had a minimal education and was apprenticed to a blacksmith at age 12.

Peter was the second youngest of eight surviving children of William and Bridget Handcock. William was a farmer and carrier and he also operated two thrashing machines in partnership with George Fish, owner of the foundry in Bathurst where Peter was later apprenticed as a blacksmith.

Peter was working as a labourer in Dubbo when he married Bridget Martin (1871-1944) in Bathurst in 1888. They had 3 children, William (1889-1941), Peter (1891-1966) and Eileen (1894-1944). 

This photo was taken in 1896. It shows Bridget(left) and her twin sister Ellen standing behind from left William, Peter nursing son Peter, and Eileen. Photo courtesy Joyce O'Farrell, with many thanks.

Jobs were difficult to obtain in the 1890s and with a young family to support he had take whatever work he could, wherever it was available. In January 1900 he was working for the NSW Railways at Manildra, 100kms from home. On 29 March 1902 my great-grandmother, Bridget Handcock, was interviewed by a reporter from the National Advocate (Bathurst) who wrote:
“He was at Manildra at the time the second contingent was being formed, and having expressed a wish to some friends to serve as a soldier of the Empire he bade them not to mention the matter to his people until he enlisted. He accordingly went to Sydney, and succeeded in passing the tests and it was not until he had been accepted that he broke the news to his wife and family. He seemed then to be greatly elated that he was to be given the chance of fighting the Boers.”

He made a will on 15 January 1900 and his beneficiaries were his wife, his three children and one of his nieces. Little did he realise that his act of patriotism and loyalty would result in manipulation, betrayal and judicial murder** by the very people he volunteered to serve. Nor could he have known that because of his alleged crimes his innocent wife would be victimised:
“Bridget could not walk the streets of Bathurst as the townspeople shunned her, threw stones and called her names. It was many years before Bridget and her young family could peacefully walk the streets of Bathurst” “Further Than The Eye Can See”, Eileen Joyce O’Farrell, p52, ISBN 978-0-646—93222-4, record of an interview in 1986 with Elizabeth Mae Bowan (nee Clines), daughter of Bridget Handcock by her 2nd marriage to Maurice Clines.

This treatment must have had a devastating effect on his young children and I know my grandfather, Peter, spent the rest of his life defending his father's good name. Along with other family members he campaigned to have Peter Handcock's name added to the Bathurst Boer War Memorial and he was finally rewarded when the good people of Bathurst agreed to do so in 1964.

My grandfather pictured at Bathurst when his father's name was added to the memorial.  Sadly, the young boy on his dad's knee in the picture above would spend the rest of his life deprived of the father who was nursing him. I recall how proud he was to be invited to the ceremony and I'm glad he lived long enough to witness this event.

Peter Handcock enlisted as a shoeing-smith in the 2nd Contingent of the New South Wales Mounted rifles and sailed for South Africa on 17 January 1900. During his service he was promoted to Farrier-sergeant. According to Bill Woolmore “His Boer War service would have entitled him to the QSA with clasps Cape Colony, Driefontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill and Wittebergen as well as the KSA with the two date clasps, but the Medal Roll for the BVC shows an endorsement next to Handcock’s name: ‘No Medal’”
The Bushveldt Carbineers and the Pietersburg Light Horse – William (Bill) Woolmore [p201]

At the expiry of his enlistment Major Lenehan offered him a commission in the Bushveldt Carbineers which he accepted with effect from 21 February 1901. While the BVC was a locally formed unit it should not be forgotten that Peter Handcock went to South Africa as the member of an Australian unit and served honourably in that contingent for twelve months.

In the above-mentioned newspaper interview Bridget Handcock said that he wrote to her saying that "he had got a promotion and intended to remain in South Africa as it was no use to return to New South Wales as there was so little work, and further he loved a soldier’s life". She went on to say that she had received many letters from him, the last being about three months ago.

One of my goals has been to try to discover what type of person my great-grandfather was. Here is what I have found:

He was a fine type of the silent Australian, essentially a doer, not a talker. Resourceful and a grafter he was never out of work. Morally and physically clean-living, careful financially, he was no rude overstepper of  social conventions.”
A Bathurst Resident, Closed File, Kit Denton (p64)

“He was with us as shoeing-smith and a more courteous and obliging fellow you could not meet. Every soldier who knew him respected him. During the whole time he was with our contingent his conduct was excellent and he never gave any idea that he would do anything brutal.”
A fellow soldier C Company 2nd NSW Mounted Infantry, Closed File, Kit Denton (p67)

“The adjutant of the 2nd New South Wales Mounted Rifles wrote of him, and his new unit: ‘I was sorry he remained behind to join the Bush Veldt Carbineers. They are composed of a mixed lot, the pickings of men of every corps who were left behind. In fact I might add that many of the men forming the BVC had been charged when in other contingents with shooting surrendered Boers, had been court-martialled and got off’. The Adjutant spoke of Handcock as a really good man, the best of them, and he expressed regret at seeing him with a regiment which, he said, was so discredited in South Africa”
Closed File, Kit Denton (pp67-8)

On the same page Kit Denton went on to say about Peter Handcock “There is no record of any word being spoken against him in his civilian life and nothing adverse in his time as a soldier – until after his arrest”.

On page 48 of Scapegoats of the Empire George Witton wrote:
“Handcock was an Australian, he was never the bloodthirsty desperado that (after he had been shot) he was made out to be; he was simply the chosen tool of unprincipled men, who held the power to command. He was born and reared to bush pursuits, and was a hard worker; if he was not doctoring the back of a worn-out horse, he was at the forge shoeing. He never initiated any outrage, but he had a keen sense of duty, and could be absolutely relied upon to fulfil it. He had been under fire many times, and there never was a braver man.”

“Major R. W. Lenehan, late of the Bushveldt Carbineers, gave evidence that Lieutenant Handcock was a veterinary officer, and that he had not wished him to go to Spelonken, but upon representation being made he allowed him to go. Mr. Handcock had a very strong sense of duty, and anything he was ordered to do he would do without the slightest question, no matter what it might be.”
Maj. Lenehan testifying in the Eight Boers case – Scapegoats of the Empire (p117)

The following letter is particularly important. As military chaplain Rev. Brough would have been the confidant of many of the members of the Pietersburg garrison and so would have a fairly strong understanding of the character and personalities of all those involved in the courts-martial.

“Dear Madam,--I was military chaplain at Pietersburg, in the Northern 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 him 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 …”

Rev Joshua Brough writing to Handcock’s widow – (Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, Saturday 3 January 1903, p3)

I believe that Rev. Brough’s letter is highly significant for a number of reasons so I intend to discuss it further in another post.

Major James Thomas, the defending officer, is another person whose opinion is very important. He would have spent a great deal of time in the company of the defendants during the trials and so would have come to know them quite well. He was clearly very impressed by Peter Handcock as the following testimonies show:

This extract is from a letter written by Thomas on 27 February 1902, the day of the executions, to an unnamed recipient:
“…I begged especially for Handcock who was merely present as a veterinary lieutenant when Morant ordered the Boers to be shot for outrages. I pleaded his want of education and of military knowledge and all that I could plead, but in vain. Poor Handcock was right when he wrote – ‘Our graves were dug before we left the Spelonken.’ They were dug; I see it all clearly now and why. I know what I cannot write in this accursed, military-ridden country. Poor Handcock! A brave, true, simple man! …”
Breaker Morant, F.M. Cutlack (pp99-100)

On 17 May 1902 Thomas wrote from South Africa to The Hon. John Lee, Premier of NSW. That letter stated in part:
“…But the matter of Vet. Lt. Handcock wants special elucidation – especially in view of the lying and filthy statements made in some of the English newspapers, and which find ready sale here.
I say, and always will say, that Handcock’s life should have been spared – for he was a splendid stamp of a man … He was a man for whom I had the very greatest regard…”

In Search of Breaker Morant, Carnegie and Shields, p164

On 2 May 1902 he wrote to the premier of Western Australia:
“As for Handcock … the most that can be urged against him is that he had an exaggerated idea of patriotism and soldierly duty. He simply obeyed the orders of Morant, who alleged that the reprisals were legal and justifiable”
Source: Steve Playford "No Surrender"

And on 6 March 1903 he wrote to the Berlin Mission:
“I am sorry Mrs. Heese wrote a letter afterwards saying Lieutenant Handcock shot her husband. Lieutenant Handcock was fully discharged by the court of that offence and I feel quite certain he was not the man who shot Rev. Heese. I have always said so and I told Rev. Krause so. I doubt very much if the fighting Boers did it – but I strongly suspect a Boer (who joined the English troops) of doing it. I feel quite sure it was not Lieutenant Handcock…”
Source: Steve Playford "No Surrender"

On 12 September 1902 the National Advocate (Bathurst) published a report from an old “Bulletin” contributor, who was then representing an English paper at Pretoria, who wrote:
“…the published evidence occupies but a few columns. I have seen the original evidence and compared it with the scant extracts, and was amazed at the careful emasculation of the full report. In most essential points the facts were perverted, and everything which told in favor of the men was carefully excluded …As for Handcock- a simple-minded, uneducated fellow-the evidence would acquit him in any civil court in the world, and all the Bushveldt Carbineers I interviewed are unanimous as to his absolute innocence…”

All of the above opinions come from people who actually knew Peter Handcock. Contrast them with Craig Wilcox’s opinionated epitaph in Australia’s Boer War, the so-called official history, published 100 years later:
“a simple-minded and brutal man” (p379)

Fellow historian Geoffrey Blainey spoke at the book’s launch in 2002 - a book bearing the Australian War Memorial logo and supposedly a history of Australia’s involvement in the Boer War. The newspaper report of his speech concentrated on his criticism of Morant and his belief that he was an undeserving hero rather than focussing on the many fine achievements of Australian troops in this conflict. Referring to Peter Handcock, Blainey chose to parrot Wilcox’s opinion:

“Fellow lieutenant Peter Handcock was a ‘simple-minded and brutal man’, he said, quoting the book”
Herald Sun, Melbourne, Vic, Nov 20, 2002, p30

It’s a shame that those involved with the preservation of our military history are unable to do so with impartiality. Surely it is incumbent on them to present all the known facts and allow people to draw their own conclusions. 

 **Judicial murder is the unjustified use of capital punishment.

Lt.Col Barry Calgari (Retd.) summed this up very nicely:
"There was insufficient evidence to guarantee a conviction in the Heese case, so to ensure a successful outcome, Kitchener cobbled together several cases of shooting Boer prisoners, which had previously been ignored. Shooting prisoners on both sides became prevalent during the latter stages of the war as guerilla warfare and Kitchener's brutal policies desensitized the moral sensibilities on both sides. Yet despite this frequent "crime" only Morant and Handcock were tried and executed for the offence..." The Morant Affair, Barry Caligari, 2002

The members of the courts-martial obliged by finding the officers guilty of murder in the 8 Boers Case and the 3 Boers Case (they could hardly do otherwise since the men admitted to shooting the prisoners). However, they were not taken in by Kitchener's dubious tactics and made strong recommendations to mercy. In regard to Peter Handcock and George Witton these recommendations were made on the grounds that:

  1. The court consider both were influenced by Lieut. Morant's orders, and thought they were doing their duty in obeying them.
  2. Their complete ignorance of military law and custom.
  3. Their good services throughout the war.

According to the 1899 Manual of Military Law p65, in force at the time:
"a recommendation to mercy will be exceptional...owing to the prisoner's character or other exceptional circumstances, he should not suffer the full penalty which the offence would ordinarily demand." (emphasis mine)
I have Barry Caligari's paper to thank for this information, I certainly didn't learn about it from any historian I've read.

So when Kitchener ignored the law and carried out Peter Handcock's death sentence he was guilty of judicial murder in addition to all his other war crimes. Kitchener knew he was acting unlawfully. He only informed the Australian government of the executions by cable on 5 April 1902, five weeks after they were carried out, and then only after he was asked to do so by the Australian government. Many writers have commented on the lies and distortions in that cable where he claimed, for example, there were no extenuating circumstances and that "Morant was originator of crimes, which Handcock carried out in a cold blooded manner". When he eventually sent the courts-martial findings to the Australian government he failed to include the mercy recommendations, which clearly indicate Peter Handcock's subordinate role in the shootings.

Despite the understandable animosity that has prevailed in the Northern Transvaal, the people there have not been taken in by Kitchener's duplicity in scapegoating Peter Handcock for killings instigated by Kitchener and his cohorts.

In April 2001 the citizens of Pietersburg, South Africa held a re-enactment of the trial as part of the celebrations commemorating the centenary of the end of the war. Major Paul Naish (retd.), a tour guide in South Africa, played the part of Major Thomas, who defended the accused. Vivienne Kelly wrote:

"The volatility of the occasion was heightened by the presence in the audience of descendants of the Boers who had been shot by the Carbineers: the spectators were not only biased but actively hostile. As the trial continued, the audience became more vocal and their partisanship hardened..." but is spite of this "In the end Naish succeeded, through an audience vote, in having Handcock found guilty on lesser charges and thus escaping the firing squad..."
Kelly, Vivienne. 2009. 'Ghosts of the past: Breaker Morant and re-enactment'. History Australia 6 (1):pp.8.1 to 8.14.  


  1. Kitchener seems like the murderer here, killing two men to maintain his reputation and hide his policies.

  2. Thank you for your comment. You're right, Kitchener was the real villain and I hope that some day history will judge him as such.

  3. You have honoured your great-grandfather's memory with this blog. Excellent work!

  4. Thank you. I am very grateful to you and the thousands of others who have taken the time to read my blog.

  5. Thanks Dave, for those who want further information I recommend that they read your essay on:

  6. Thanks William! This information here is nicely collected and well displayed. I think the only bad character of this trial is Kitchener who allowed and supported the "NO PRISONER" policy! It is cowardly that he made himself unavailable shortly after the bogus trial until the poor officers were shot! There were atrocities on both sides, but Kitchener should have spared his two officers, who put their life on the line for him and the commonwealth. Your poor great grandfather followed orders as a good and reliable officer should! I am working on Witton's book, will revise, comment and illustrate it with many pictures and maps. Handcock will have a good spot in it. Greetings, Klaus

  7. Thank you Klaus. I am sorry about the delay in responding to your comments. I look forward to hearing about your revised book.

  8. Wonderful article, thanks for putting together! This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here.
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  9. Thank you. I am greatly encouraged by your kind remarks.


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