Lt Gonville Bromhead VC

UPDATE - 21 July 2022 - In a decision which I think reflects greatly on their integrity and standing, C+T Auctioneers have decided to withdraw this letter from their sale. I’d like to thank them for considering the evidence in this situation, and for taking the appropriate action. This is an important step in preserving the integrity of the historical record, and in preventing confusion over any further Bromhead correspondence which might emerge in the future. Thank you C+T.


19 July 2022

In the opinion of the writer, Lot 459: "Battle of Rorkes Drift Historically Important Personal Letter Written by then Lieutenant, later Major, Gonville Bromhead VC" with an estimate of £45,000 - £55,000 in C&T Auctioneers upcoming Three Day Fine Arms, Armour & Militaria Auction starting on July 26, 2022 is believed to be a contemporary copy. 

C+T Auctioneers of Kent, the noted militaria auction house, are offering for sale a number of interesting Anglo-Zulu War-related letters and documents in their sale of 26-28 July. These include an interesting summary of Rorke’s Drift, written by Frank Bourne in the 1930s - he was, of course, present at the battle as a Colour Sergeant in B Co. 2/24th – a signature by John Chard VC, and a note by Anthony William Durnford. The highlight of the sale, however, is a letter apparently written by Gonville Bromhead.

Caption: First page of letter offered in C&T lot 459  

This is of particular interest because Bromhead was notoriously reticent about the battle. He could only be persuaded to write the shortest of reports recommending men of his company for the Victoria Cross, and very little personal correspondence of his has emerged, and that which survives contains only the briefest reference to the battle. The letter offered by C+T is therefore of particular interest as it runs over two long pages, and includes several brief references to the fight. Addressed to one of his sisters, and dated clearly enough ‘Rorke’s Drift, Feb. 3. 79’, it appears to be one of the nicest surviving documents relevant to Rorke’s Drift written by Bromhead.

Caption: Second page of letter offered in C&T lot 459  

And yet…There are a number of reasons to conclude that whilst this might indeed be a genuine account by Bromhead, it was not written in his own hand.

The first red flag is the size of the paper. The postage rate for officers in the field was 6-pence for a letter and envelope weighing a total of 1/2-ounce or less. The cost doubled if the weight fell between 1/2-ounce to a full ounce. As a result, almost all surviving correspondence written from the field in 1879 is on smaller format paper. A letter this size along with the required larger format envelope would certainly have exceeded 1/2-ounce and potentially been more than a full ounce resulting in considerable expense to Bromhead. Even more significant, paper and all other similar supplies were in notoriously short supply at Rorke’s Drift in the aftermath of the battle, a fact commented on by many who did manage to get letters out. It seems very unlikely that Bromhead would have had access to a stock of larger paper than anyone else in the garrison at the time. Below is an example of both the typical letter size sent by officers during the Zulu War and a striking demonstration of the need to conserve valuable paper supplies in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the British force at iSandlwana and destruction around Rorke's Drift. This is a letter written on January 29, 1879 by Col. Glyn to another officer of the 24th from Rorke's Drift. Notice the reliance of cross-hatched writing by Glyn. 

Col. Glyn Letter To Captain Harrisson from Rorke's Drift

Next, although Bromhead was not a prolific letter writer, at least two other letters written by him from Rorke’s Drift do survive, one addressed to the same sister, and one addressed to Captain A. G. Godwin-Austen, who had previously commanded B Company until wounded in the 9th Cape Frontier War, and invalided home; Bromhead had assumed command of the company, and the two men had remained close. The letter to his sister (below left) is in a private collection; the Godwin-Austin letter is in the Brecon Museum (below right).

Comparing the C+T letter to the other two is revealing, for while the other two are consistent with regard to handwriting and style, the C+T letter is rather different. Notice the apostrophe written between the “e” and “s” of Rorke’s Drift in the C&T letter and the other two letters. Additionally, the “ft” of Drift is very similar in the two below and different from the C&T letter. Next, the C&T letter has Bromhead separating the first letters “R” and “D” from the cursive script of the rest of the words. The two other letters have Bromhead writing Rorkes Drift as continuously connecting cursive words. Importantly, notice the similarity between the “D” of Drift in the two letters on the right and their difference from the “D” in the C&T letter. (Below: C&T letter is first, followed by the letter in a private collection and the one in the Regimental Museum, Brecon)

Next, in the dateline in the other two letters Bromhead renders the date with the number first, then the month, which was generally the style of the time, but in the C+T letter he writes the month first; most people, having settled on one style, are usually consistent, so while an apparently small change, this is significant. All three letters are written to close a family member/friend, so the dating/formality would be consistent. The non-C&T letters not only include the number first but also show Bromhead’s superscript “th” and “nd” after “19” and “22” – The C&T letter includes the day number second and excludes a superscript “rd”. 

There are other significant differences too with regard to the hand-writing; generally the C+T letter is written in an even, smooth style, rather more reminiscent of the conditions of an English drawing room rather than the harsh realities of life among the mud and rotting mealie bags at Rorke’s Drift. Most telling, however, is the fact that the rendition of the letters is very different – all three beginning with the phrase ‘My Dear’, and while the writing of the private collection and Brecon Museum letters are consistent, the strokes of the C&T offered letter is different. There are a number of repeated words and phrases in all three letters, and while the writing of them is consistent in two, it is very different in the C&T letter.

Finally, Bromhead’s signature itself; in the other letter to the same sister, he signs the ‘G’ of Bromhead is a fluid way, so that it almost looks at times like an S – the C+T ‘Gonville’ is much more precise. Comparing all three, it is obvious that they were not written by the same hand, and that the C+T one was not written by Gonville Bromhead himself.

An important unanswered question - what was originally written in the top left corner of the letter offered by C&T? The use of a Video Spectral Comparator, a device that allows an examiner to analyze inks and reveal alterations on a document would greatly help shed light on this mystery. 

So who wrote the letter being offered by C&T? To all appearances it does seem to be a contemporary document, so the likelihood is that it was copied by a family member from the original letter itself, either to circulate the information within the family (no email and CC in those days!), or to preserve it as a family record. This seems to have been quite a common Victorian practise, and even within the narrow field of Rorke’s Drift studies another example survives; at the Bonhams sale of 17 December 2020 a copy of John Chard’s account of the battle, made by his sister, was sold with a number of other pieces of Chard memorabilia.

This would mean, of course, that the information within the letter is still relevant – including the light-hearted likening of barricading the hospital at Rorke’s Drift to Bromhead having as a boy been ‘a good hand in making holes in doors and walls’.

For the sake of the future record, however, it is important to record that the letter offered by C&T Auctioneers is not in Bromhead’s own hand; and for anyone interested in bidding to be aware that they are buying a contemporary copy.

UPDATE: 20 July 2022 - 

Here is another verified example of a letter sent by Lt. Bromhead from the album of family letters related to Captain WJ Warneford sold in 2014 by Henry Aldridge & Son. Notice again the first two words - "My Dear" and the overall style of writing differences between this and the letter offered by C&T.

Bromhead Letter in Henry Aldridge and Son Auction November 15, 2014