Back in November 2016, the Local History Group email inbox received an enquiry relating to the 1879 battle of Isandlwana, the massacre immediately preceding the better known Defence of Rorke’s Drift, in the Anglo-Zulu War. Over 600 men from the Brecon based 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot were lost on the 22nd January in what was the first major encounter of the six month long campaign. Many of the men came from Wales, and the enquirer, Tim, was keen to trace memorials to those killed in action which might be in churches, chapels and cemeteries across the Principality.
Tim was advised to contact the Regimental Museum in Brecon, and also the Museum’s former Curator, Bill Cainan, a great source of information on the subject. We also sought the advice of eminent Montgomeryshire historian David N Peate. Mr Peate was reasonably certain that there are no former 24th Regiment soldiers buried or the subject of memorials in Montgomeryshire. He recommended contacting the Family History Societies in Wales, who are undertaking the recording of gravestones and memorials. Without the names of individual soldiers or their families, finding memorials or inscriptions becomes a matter of chance.
In mid-February 2017, Tim made contact again, this time with the name of one of the soldiers who was killed at Isandlwana, whose name he had come across in the course of his research. The soldier was Private John Hughes whose family was from the Llandinam area. Armed with this information, LLHG committee member Peter Brebner has been able to search the census records from 1861 onwards, and has also checked the Montgomeryshire Genealogical Society’s index of memorial inscriptions.
Peter’s research has revealed that John Hughes senior was born in Llanllugan, Montgomeryshire in 1835. His wife Margaret was born in Llanfair, Montgomeryshire in 1836. They appear to have lived in Llandinam since at least 1858 because all of their 7 children were born in Llandinam. In 1861 John Hughes senior was a railway labourer and the family lived at Graig, Llandinam. In1871 they still lived at Graig and his occupation was a platelayer. In 1881 he was a farmer living at Highgate, and in 1891 he was a railway platelayer again, still living at Highgate. Mary was the first child born in 1858, and their son John was their second child born in 1862. The enquirer has discovered that John Hughes senior died in 1895 aged approximately 61. His wife remained at Highgate after she was widowed, dying there in 1912, aged approximately 75 years. The graves of Pte Hughes’ parents and elder sister are to be found in St Llonio’s churchyard.
The Zulu War was in 1879, and Private John Hughes was around the age 17 at that time. In the 1871 census he was shown as a scholar aged 9 and just 8 years later he was fighting a war in South Africa, a long way from his home in Llandinam!
Having seen the item in the Llandinam Listener, Llandinam resident Dawn Williams got in touch to say that about 3 years ago she picked up a query on social media from a lady in Pennsylvania appealing for information on the Hughes family of Highgate, David Hughes being her grandfather. At that time Dawn passed on what information she could provide including details of the family’s graves in St Llonio’s churchyard. When Dawn saw the Listener item, she sent her contact, Ruthann, a copy, which has led to a lot of new information coming to light. Ruthann has a letter written by Pte John Hughes to his parents from S. Africa. This is dated April 9th 1879, after the battle of Isandlwana on the 22nd January, where it had been presumed by Tim that Pte Hughes was killed. Although there were 2 casualties listed among the 24th Regiment’s fallen in the battle of Isandlwana named Pte John Hughes, ‘our’ Pte John Hughes was clearly not one of them. Dawn describes the letter as quite astounding to read, from a very young soldier from a little village in Mid-Wales to the Battle fields of South Africa with horrific sights. A copy of the letter, followed by a 2 page transcription, can be found here. Ruthann’s family also has Pte Hughes’ military medal, and we hope that images of this can be added to the website at a later date. Tim has pointed out that in his letter Pte Hughes seemed to be describing the battle of Khambula which took place on 29 March 1879.
At this point it became clear that Tim’s own interest in tracing details of Pte Hughes was prompted by the same social media query from Ruthann in the US that Dawn responded to 3 years ago!
Another of Tim’s contacts then came up with the information that John Hughes signed up into the 24th Brigade of Infantry (Cardiff) on 4 June 1877. The attestation paper also shows that he was aged 18 and a half, a collier, with previous service with a militia unit (the South Wales Borderers Militia). He volunteered to transfer to 11 Brigade (2nd Battalion 4th Regiment of Foot) on 4th December 1878, and was eventually discharged to the Army Reserves on 25th December 1883. It was then the norm to serve for 6 years in the reserves, and he was completely discharged on 26 November 1889. His military service sheet shows that he served in S. Africa 10th December, 1878-7th February, 1880 and in India 8th February, 1880-19th December, 1883. He was awarded the South Africa medal with clasp in 1879.
Dawn then made a further visit to St Llonio’s churchyard, and this time found near to his parents’ and sister’s graves, one for John Hughes, with the inscription:
Of 23 Nixonville Merthyr Vale
Died 22nd July 1894
This suggested that following his military service, he returned to his occupation as a collier.
Peter Brebner then began to follow up on the new information, and using publicly available official sources, to fill in the picture following his discharge from the army in 1889. It appears that John Hughes married Mary Ann Timmis in1889. She was born 1851 at Audley, Staffordshire, her father was Samuel Timmis born 1819 in Audley, and her mother Mary was born 1827 in Madeley, Staffordshire. From 1881 the Timmis family lived at Gaer, Llandinam where Samuel farmed 75 acres. The marriage banns, dated 31 Mar 1889, show John Hughes was resident in Merthyr Tydfil, spouse Mary resident in Llandinam. The General Records Office (GRO) shows John Hughes married Mary Ann Timmis, in the 2nd quarter of 1889, in the Registration District Newtown, Montgomeryshire. GRO death records show John Hughes birth year 1861, and age 33 died in the 3rd quarter 1894, Registration District Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire. Without having a copy of the full death certificate it has not been possible to ascertain the cause of his death, although this would be available to family members to purchase from the GRO. In the mid 1890s there were some 2000 miners working in the mine at Merthyr Tydfil. Working conditions in the mining industry were appalling and the environment highly dangerous, so it would be very likely indeed that John Hughes’ death at such a young age was directly as a result of an accident or through a mining related illness. We do no know what happened to the widowed Mary Ann or whether there were surviving children from the brief marriage.
This may be the end of the story – but if anything new comes to light, we’ll be sure to let you know!
If anyone reading this has more information on Pte Hughes or his family which they would like to share with the enquirer, please get in touch (Helen Edwards 01686 688953, or email firstname.lastname@example.org)