Hartland teenager who fought the Zulus

A picture of some of the Rorke's Drift defenders taken in 1879. A picture of some of the Rorke's Drift defenders taken in 1879.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
9:14 AM

The tale of a North Devon farm labourer who fought in the 1879 Zulu War is retold in a new book Defenders of Rorke’s Drift.

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Defenders of Rorke's Drift - A Collection of Tributes is a new book by James Bancroft that features the life of Hartland farm worker turned soldier William Wilcox.Defenders of Rorke's Drift - A Collection of Tributes is a new book by James Bancroft that features the life of Hartland farm worker turned soldier William Wilcox.

A Hartland teenager who fought the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift is among the unsung heroes of the famous battle to be remembered in a new book.

William Wilcox was aged just 19 when he took part in the battle of 1879 which saw a small force of mostly British defenders hold off an army of thousands of Zulu warriors.

The action was depicted in the film Zulu! and the although many were decorated for gallantry – including an unprecedented 11 Victoria Cross awards – many were not.

William Wilcox’s story is among 26 tributes to some of those unsung participants in a new book Defenders of Rorke’s Drift by James Bancroft.

The son of a Hartland farm worker, William was born on August 17 1860 and began working on a local farm aged 11.

He enlisted at Cardiff on February 9, 1877, and as 1187 Private Wilcox was posted to the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, at Dover, serving as a servant for one of the officers.

He received orders for active service in South Africa, and sailed to the Cape in February 1878, taking part in the Cape Frontier War, and during the Zulu War was present at the defence of Rorke’s Drift, one of the youngest men in the garrison.

For his service he received the South Africa Medal with 1877-8-9 clasp.

The defence was all the more remarkable since just a day or so before the Zulus had attacked and destroyed a British column at Isandlwana, with the loss of more than 1,300 men.

In his book, James Bancroft tells how later in his military career William was tried for desertion and theft of government property. He was eventually shipped back to England and released from Forton Military Prison in 1881.

On return to Devon he became an agricultural labourer again, and by 1891 he was working at Docton Farm, having developed a passion for any kind of engine.

He married Lily Vanstone, on February 27 1892, at Bideford Register Office, and they rented a home in Limebridge, Hartland, where their only child, Maud Mary, was born in 1892.

Lily died in 1917, and William and moved into a caravan at Brightly Quarry. He died at Newbridge in Dolton on May 29, 1925, aged 64.

James Bancroft has written more than 100 books and articles. Copies of Defenders of Rorke’s Drift are available via at www.bancroftpublishing.com.

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