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3rd April 2004Bob S. Head - who was he?
By ed coan
Don't know if this has come up before, but am just reading Alan Baynham Jones/Lee Stevenson's book 'Rorke's Drift By Those Who Were There' and there's a letter from a Bob S.Head of the 2/24th. The accompanying text from the Irish Times says this was John Williams VC who enlisted under the name of Bob S. Head. I had always understood that he John Willams' real name was John Fielding, and he had enlisted under the name of Williams.

In Norman Holme's 'The Noble 24th', the same letter appears, with a note saying 'the name under which this man served is unknown, therefore it is impossible to establish the identity of the writer'.

Have also just got Julian Whybra's 'England's Sons' and, although I may have missed it, can't see any reference to said Head.

Anybody throw any light on this apparent mystery man?

3rd April 2004Lee Stevenson

Don't forget there was more than one "John Williams" at Rorke's Drift...

3rd April 2004ed.coan
Lee - good point - so in both cases John Williams was not their correct name?

4th April 2004Julian whybra
Bob Head's true identity remains a mystery.
4th April 2004Ed Coan
Looking a bit further into this, the Irish Times letter in Alan/Lee's book reflects the fact that they must have thought Bob Head was John Williams VC and not the other John Williams who was at Rorke's Drift, as the latter died at Rorke's Drift in Feb 1879.

I wonder what brought them to that conclusion? Can't see any mention of Bob Head as a psuedonym in the W.G.Llloyd biography of John Williams VC.

Any other theories?

4th April 2004Ed Coan
Just re-read my above posting, and should clarify that by 'they' I mean the Irish Times, not Alan/Lee.

6th April 2004Alan BJ
As Lee said there was more than one John Williams at R/D. There were 3 using that name.
1395 John Williams VC
1374 John Williams
934 John Williams
all Pte's 2 in B Coy and 1 in E Coy.
so as Julian says it is a mystery as to which one it is and will remain so I fear for some time to come.
I hope you enjoyed reading our book.
Alan BJ
7th April 2004Peter Ewart
I'm as puzzled as Ed is on this one. Although there may have been three men known as John Williams at Rorke's Drift, the Irish Times implies quite clearly that their piece refers to the VC (whom we know to have been John Fielding, although using a second alias wouldn't be unknown).

Could the Irish Times have confused matters, either in their 1879 or in their 1932 piece? Did they perhaps not know of the two other possibilties. Is this what you mean, Lee and Alan, when you point out the other two who were there?

Despite the Irish roots of the VC family, Fielding/Williams appears NOT to have had a brother with the initial F among his many siblings (see WG Lloyd) so if they're are right about the Grafton St (presumably Dublin?) employment of the brother F, one imagines they've made a mistake with the identity of the family, despite the original infornmation presumably having come from a family source.

I appreciate the lack of surviving army service records for so many AZW participants is a big disadavantage and I'm not privy to the latest situation with regard to any research accomplished by those such as Lee and Alan or the KLH, but I've long clung to the belief (or hope?!) that some high quality genealogical and biographical research could flush Bob Head out. Provided Robert Head or Robert S Head was his real or birth name and the name under which he served at Rorke's Drift was another, the work done by people such as those above will surely gradually assist in the important eliminatory work which is required to reduce the task from a needle-in-a-haystack job, before any serious work is undertaken.

Hellishly difficult it may be but I don't think it should be dismissed yet as impossible, unless there is bad news which I'm not aware of. If the Irish Times piece points to the possibility of his being one of the two "other" John Willams, that's bad news, given the common name. With the later life, family connections and the death being such a vital element of the research, the pinning down of every other defender as "totally & absolutely eliminated" must also help, so I'm looking forward one day to an eventual "Eureka!" from the "...Who were there" authors or from the KLH.

One small point. Have I not I read somewhere that the brother he was writing to was in South Africa at the time? Or have I imagined that?

7th April 2004Ed Coan
Thanks Alan/Peter:

Alan - I am very much enjoying the book; not finished yet!

Maybe it's me, but you say above that there were three men using 'John Williams' as their name - but I can't find any record of Pte 1374. Am I missing something?

Can only find Pte Joseph Williams (1398) alongside John Williams VC in 'B' Company.

On Peter's investigatory theme, applying Sherlock Holmes principles, there seem to be four main possible hypotheses over Bob Head:

1. He was someone who deliberately used a pseudonym as his letter criticised Chelmsford and this may not have been politic at the time.

2. It was the 'other' John Williams (934, 'E' Company), who died of disease at RD on Feb 5 1879, so he took his other identity to his grave.

3. It was indeed John Williams VC, who had already used one pseudonym, and was using another.

4. The letter was made up by the newspaper as a satirical comment.

Any further hypotheses/views?

8th April 2004Julian whybra
John Williamses in the 2/24th
1430 - served in D coy - not at Rorke's Drift
1395 - in B coy - the VC winner at Rorke's Drift
934 - in B coy - at Rorke's Drift - died subsequently.
I repeat there is no evidence as to the identity of Bob Head and no known connection with any John Williams.
8th April 2004Martin Everett
I hold the original Bob Head letter.
8th April 2004Ed Coan
Julian - understand lack of evidence/connections, but your speculative view?

Martin - any thoughts? As you hold the letter, does its handwriting match anyone else's you've seen?

8th April 2004Peter Ewart
Martin's contribution above reminds me of a little episode about four or five years ago.

Someone phoned the Cathedral Archives wanting some advice on a framed letter written by a soldier in the Zulu War, so they put him on to me. He described it carefully - very old, badly charred etc., and now behind glass in a frame. I listened to him read the text and recognised it straight away (although admittedly only vaguely) as the Bob Head letter. Genuine? Or a copy? Where had he acquired it? "A boot fair"! I arranged for him to bring it in.

Meanwhile, that night I couldn't find it in The Red Soldier but suddenly remembered it was published in full in TWOTS. And there was the exact text he'd read out over the phone & the charred paper described by Morris exactly as explained by the caller. The original? But Morris acknowledged the SWB Museum! Stolen at some earlier time, then?

Phoned Brecon, spoke to Martin. Is Bob Head's letter safe? Are you sure? Have you checked? Yes, it was definitely all fine. So I arranged to update Martin when I'd seen the mystery framed letter. When I did, it was immediately clear that it had NOT been written by anyone Victorian, that much was certain. More like a 1970s youngster's handwriting and held in a cheap little 1960s frame. So no problem. But the text was spot on and the charred bits exactly as described in Morris. A little school project, carefully and faithfully completed, perhaps?

I let the poor chap down gently, "a la Arthur Negus", but he wasn't quite convinced. So I got the conservator to open up the frame while we all watched and he did this very gingerly (used to handling medieval MSS as he is) thereby prolonging the suspense of the poor purchaser & his wife, who still harboured hopes of a rare acquisition.

And as the conservator's skills showed us that "Bob Head's letter" was written on a piece of card, not paper, he carefully turned it over in his hand - the atmosphere by now resembling that at the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb - enabling us all to see what was on the reverse: "Kellogg's Cornflakes - the Sunshine Breakfast" !!!!!

So if you see anything fishy on eBay ...

9th April 2004Ed Coan
Nice one Peter. I see someone on ebay is trying to auction bits of the Ultimatum Tree!

Have you got any speculative view of the identity of Bob Head?

10th April 2004Julian Whybra
Ed, I do not have any idea at all on the alias used by Bob Head. As I said earlier an Irish Times link might suggest confining your search to the 16 Irishmen at RD.
10th April 2004Peter Ewart

I have no idea of his identity either. Julian makes a good point with the elimination process. Elimination is all-important but there are several stages during the research where assumptions could be made and subsequently be found to be wrong, rendering a lot of the work erroneous. The Irish Times article is one of these but there are many others.

Yesterday I set out (being me, at some length!) my own ideas on how I would tackle the whole task if starting with a blank sheet of paper. Unfortunately, I lost the lot just as I was sending it & wasn't inclined to start again.

If there was sufficient interest I might try again some time but it would also be interesting to learn if any others have made even any slight progress with the elimination process.