Harry Hook awarded VC at Rorke’s Drift

Alfred Henry Hook was born, at Birdwood, on 6th August, 1850 and was the oldest of four children whose parents were Henry Hook and Ellen Higgs. He was baptised on 1st September, 1850 at St Andrew’s Church, Churcham simply as Alfred.

Henry Hook was a farm labourer and woodsman and he trained Harry in the same skills.

Harry married Comfort Jones on 28th August, 1870 at Aston Ingham.  Firstly living at Kilcot and later at Gorsley. They had one son and two daughters. They divorced in 1897 having lived apart from 1877 when Harry joined the regular Army.

Harry joined the Monmouthshire Militia on 10th May, 1869 for a fixed period of five years. He then enlisted in the Regular Army joining the 24th Regiment of Foot (later the South Wales Borderers). He enlisted at Monmouth, Service number 1373, on 13th March 1877 and his training took place at the Regimental Depot at Brecon. He signed up for a short service of six years with the Colours and six years in the Reserve. As Harry had served in the militia he only had to undertake a maximum of three months training and on 11th May, 1877 was posted to Dover to join the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment.   At Christmas 1877 the 2nd battalion was based at Aldershot and a serious affray erupted between the battalion and the Tower hamlets Militia. This brought the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, to the scene. The Commander- in- Chief told the Battalion “that he would like to send it to hell” but would send it to Mauritius instead. It is unlikely that they were ever sent there as they received a telegraphic despatch from London, on 21st January 1878, ordering the battalion to be held in immediate readiness for embarkation for the Cape of Good Hope. They were given 10 days to pack after five years in England. Once out of the country the Battalion remained abroad for 13 years. Since 1782 the 24th Regiment had the county title of 2nd Warwickshire and throughout Harry’s service with them the Regimental march was “The Warwickshire Lads”.       

The battalion left Chatham on 1st February 1878 bound for Portsmouth where they embarked on the troopship Himalaya for a five week voyage to South Africa. On arrival they were posted to the Eastern Front for three months during the 9th Xhosa War. After the war the 2nd Battalion were based at Mount Kemp for a month and received orders on 21st July to embark at Natal. They embarked at east London on 24th July and disembarked at Durban on 26th July 1878. A few days march brought them to Pietermaritzburg on 6th August.

At Pietermaritzburg Harry Hook took the pledge and in an interview he said “I joined the Good Templars and kept the pledge as long as I remained in the Country.” (Good Templars were an International Organisation that supported abstinence from drink and drugs)

The next campaign was the Anglo Zulu War. Sir Bartle Frere issued an ultimatum to the Zulus on 11th December 1878 with hostilities commencing a month later. The 2nd battalion, several weeks before the ultimatum, were posted to Greytown and ultimately Helpmekaar before moving down to Rorke’s Drift arriving on 6th January 1879. On 9th January 4,709 men, 302 waggons and carts, 1,507 oxen and 116 horses and mules were waiting there. A supply depot and field hospital had been set up. “B” Company of the 2nd battalion was left as guards for the stores and hospital. There were two buildings on the site both made of rough stone packed with dagga (an African plant) and roofed with thatch one was the old store and the second an 11-room house, the second being turned into the hospital. As well as “B” Company there was a Natal Native Contingent a total of between 100 and 350 men. On 19th January the relative silence and loneliness was slightly disturbed by the arrival of Lieutenant Chard and five men of the Royal Engineers. In mid -January 1879 the main Army at Isandlana was overrun by the Zulus and the British massacred. Four horsemen arrived to advise the Officers at Rorke’s Drift and told them to take flight. Due to the fact that taking flight with casualties from the hospital would considerably slow them down they decided to barricade the site. A barricade of mealie bags and two waggons were used to produce a protected compound taking in both the stores building and hospital. The attack on the compound by 3,000/4,000 Zulus under Prince Dabulamanzi came on 22nd January. Harry Hook along with five other privates were to defend the hospital and its patients. About this time Captain Stevens and the Natal Native Contingent deserted Rorke’s Drift leaving 139 men to defend the enclosure. Hook said from his loophole in the hospital he saw Zulus approaching in their thousands. They began to fire, yelling as they did so when they were 500/600 yards off. They came on boldly and we were soon surrounded. More than half of them had muskets or riffles. I began to fire when they were 600 yards off. I managed to clip several of them, for I had an excellent rifle and was a marksman. The Zulus kept getting closer and closer and were at last able to set the roof of the hospital on fire. There was only one patient in my room with a broken leg and he was burnt and I was driven out by the flames and unable to save him. I retired by a partition door in to the next room where there were several patients. For a few minutes I was the only fighting man there. A wounded man from my regiment came to me from another room with a bullet wound in the arm which I tied up. Another colleague came to me from another room and made a hole in the partition wall through which he helped the sick and wounded men. Whilst he was doing this, the Zulus beat in the door and tried to enter. I stood at the side and shot and bayoneted several. They threw assegais (African spears) continually but only one touched me and that inflicted a scalp wound which I did not think was worth reporting. One Zulu seized my rifle and tried to drag it away. Whilst we were tussling I slipped in a cartridge and pulled the trigger and killed him. Every now and then a Zulu would make a rush to enter-the door would only let in one man at a time-but I bayoneted or shot every one. When all the patients were evacuated except one, who had a broken leg I went through the hole and dragged him with me. We continued from room to room breaking through the partitions.  I guarded the hole whilst the patients were evacuated again dragging the patient, with the broken leg, through the hole with me. Finally we evacuated the last room through the window into the inner defences. I then took my post behind the parapet where three men had just been hit. On this side the blaze from hospital lit up the ground in front enabling us to take aim. The Zulus, every quarter of an hour or so would get together and make a rush accompanied by yells. We let them get close and then fired a volley-sometimes two. This would check them and send them back until they rallied and came again. At about 3.00 am day began to break and the Zulus retreated. Several of us then went to the hospital to collect the water cart to relieve the thirst of patients and soldiers. When the sun rose we found the Zulus had disappeared. We then went out to search for our missing comrades. Of the 39 patients in the hospital 8 survived.

Harry Hook was awarded the Victoria Cross for helping to rescue the hospital patients whilst defending against the Zulus. His award was gazetted on 2nd May, 1879 one of 11 awarded to Rorke’s Drift soldiers. His VC was presented on 3rd August 1879 by General Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley (later Viscount Wolseley). On 29th September, 1879 the 2nd battalion began a 250 march back to Pietermaritzburg which they reached on 14th October and departed for Gibraltar arriving on 12th February, 1880. For the first time since leaving Chatham on 1st February, 1878 the battalion had a roof over its head. It was not to remain for long as orders were received at the end of July for it to be held in immediate readiness for India.

Long before then Harry Hook had decided to purchase his discharge. The machinery for his discharge was put in motion in June, 1880 and on 21st June paid the regulated compensation of £18 and he would have been required to lodge a sum sufficient to defray the expense of his passage home. His discharge took effect from 25th June, 1880.

After discharge from the Army the 1881 Census shows he was a groom for a family in Monmouth. He moved to London in Mid to late 1881 and firstly worked for the Builders William Cubbit & Co as a labourer. Harry Hook went to work at the British Museum as a contractor’s labourer but who also employed their own men. The Trustees Men as the directly employed men were known had very much greater security as they were employed under Treasury regulations and so were minor civil servants. Hook therefore hoped that he could transfer and be a Trustees man. Having received a glowing reference from Lord Chelmsford he was employed by British Museum in the Library Section as a duster from 26th December, 1881. He was appointed Umbrella Caretaker in March 1894 on the retirement of his predecessor. During his time at the British Museum he lived in Campden Town two miles from the museum.

In February 1982 he joined the Bloomsbury Rifles and then spent 20 years in the 1st Volunteer Battalion Royal Fusiliers ending up as a Serggeant instructor

Harry Hook married Ada Letitia Taylor at St Andrew’s Islington on 10th April, 1897- she being 14 years his junior. They had two daughters born in 1899 and 1902.

Due to Harry’s ill health he retired from the British Museum Library service on 1st January 1905. Hook’s Doctor advised him to return to Gloucester to “try what his native air would do for him”. He returned to Gloucester in late January 1905 to live at 2 Osborn Villas, Roseberry Avenue. He died on 12th March 1905 aged 54.

He was buried at St Andrew’s Church, Churcham on18th March 1905 and was accorded a full Military Procession from his home to Churcham, the coffin being carried by gun carriage. The procession was as follows:-

The Police

Firing Party (with arms reversed)

Volunteer Artillery band

Volunteer Drummers and Buglers

Gun Carriage flanked by bearers from South Wales Borderers and pall bearers from 1st Volunteer Battalion, Royal Fusiliers

Volunteer Detachments (Rifles, Engineers & Artillery)

  Some 50 old soldiers and Reservists (including a Crimean Veteran

Carriages of Chief Mourners

Previous Post
HMS Ganges at Highnam Court
Next Post
The Night before Christmas