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Book 2: Sawford, John William (1879– 1900) GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN

Sawford, John William (1879– 1900) GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of organisations in all spheres of English life. The County Councils were formed in 1888 followed in 1894 by the Local Government Act which instituted the Rural District and Parish Councils. It was also a time when many of the sports codified their rules and centralised with the formation of the Football Association in 1863, Rugby Football Union in 1871 and Amateur Athletic Association in 1880.

This was also the era when many uniformed voluntary groups were founded. It began with the Salvation Army in 1865 followed by the Church Boy’s Brigade in 1883 and the St John Ambulance Brigade in June 1887. These groups provided training and discipline, with a religious and moral element. Government and communities, then and now, saw them, in part, as a channel for adolescent boys and young men to use their energies in useful ways rather than causing trouble and disruption. Times were changing rapidly, however, and women and girls were very soon involved.

The St John Ambulance Brigade had emerged out of the St John Ambulance Association which had been formed some ten years earlier. The Association taught first aid and awarded certificates to those who passed an examination. At first this ran alongside the Brigade which was formed of volunteers who had received their Association certificate in first aid and health care. It was a uniformed organisation, run on military lines, which used these skills especially at events and in the workplace.

Dr Mackenzie of Raunds ran St John Ambulance Association classes in Ringstead in the autumn of 1892. On the 12th December twenty women and seventeen men sat the examination and only two women failed. We see in the successful candidates many of the familiar names of the village. There are Bulls and Cottinghams, Mayes and Weekleys and Childs and Sawfords.

Walter and Elizabeth Sawford, probably husband and wife, both passed. The Sawford name was unknown in the village until the end of the eighteenth century when Thomas Sawford married Mary Musket on October 14th 1790 in the Parish Church. Thomas died just three years later and Mary re-married. It was probably his brother, Henry, who married Susannah Wilson on the 29th October 1792. The family seem to have come from just over the county border, in Bedfordshire, probably from the Knotting area, some nine miles due south of Ringstead. William and Susannah had three sons, John, George and William who married and a daughter, Elizabeth who died a spinster aged just 28 years old.

It is George, an agricultural labourer, whose line we are following here. He married Ann Cobley (nee Saddenton or Saddington), the widow of Robert Cobley who had also died after just three years of marriage, aged twenty-three. They had had a daughter Sarah. George and Ann had two sons Thomas and William. It was William who married Esther Hornsby on 14th October 1847. She too was from Knotting in Bedfordshire, and perhaps William had met her when he had visited relatives. On the other hand she was a ‘servant’ at their marriage so perhaps she had followed the family trail to Ringstead. Their happiness was, once again short lived. They had a son George who had received a Wesleyan baptism and was buried on July 6th 1849 and five days later, aged twenty-four, Esther followed him.

William was a young widower but, as was the usual practice, he quickly re-married, to Mary Ann Barker, on November 3rd 1851. She came from Old in Northamptonshire and was once again a ‘servant’ so perhaps she had come to Ringstead. William was a shoemaker and like many of them he was a non-conformist and the children were baptised in Ringstead, as part of the Higham Ferrers Wesleyan Circuit.

The history of the Wesleyan Methodists in Ringstead is less documented that the Particular Baptists and probably goes back further than is recorded. Whellan’s Gazetteer and Directory of Northamptonshire for 1849 does tell us that:

                A blacksmith’s shop has lately been converted into a Methodist Chapel

According to the Religious Census of 1851, however, a Wesleyan Chapel had been erected in 1814 and we know that such a chapel was sold in 1817 for £12 9s 0d. The building in Chapel Street, now a private house, was registered for worship on October 1st 1857 and the present frontage and extra schoolrooms were added in 1878. It was not until July 30th 1896, however, that it was registered for marriages.

The children of William and Mary Ann were John, Walter, George, Mary Ann and Louisa. We can see from the Registers that, from Henry and Susannah, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Sawfords had now become part of the Ringstead family of names.

Walter, the second oldest child, was born in July 1854 and baptised on the 8th of November of the same year. He, like his father, became a shoemaker and married, across the river, to Elizabeth Perkins, on December 25th 1872, when they were both eighteen years old. She was from Little Addington and a lacemaker which was becoming an increasingly unusual profession in the area. The couple had eight children and it is John William, the third child who was born in 1879 whose story this is.

If we can now return to those successful St John Ambulance Certificate candidates we see that the Sawfords were a family who took an active part in the community. Walter became a member, and one of the earliest chairmen, of the Ringstead Parish Council. In 1881 they were living in Carlow but by 1891 had moved to Shop [High] Street where Walter describes himself as a “hand-sewn shoemaker”, living next door to his cousin Alfred, a carrier, and his family.

The successful candidates were presented with their certificates on the evening of Wednesday 8th February 1893 at a ‘well-attended public tea at the Temperance Hall, This was followed by public meeting, a distribution of certificates, and a variety entertainment. There was a ‘glee’, entitled ‘Hail Smiling Morn’ was sung by a mixed quartet. After the presentation the variety entertainment included:

Comic song in character, “Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent-road,” Mr. Head (cheered and “Frolics of Parliament” given); recitation, “The Doctor’s Fright,” Mr. G. Baker; song; “On the Banks of Allan Water, Miss Bailey; song, “Off to Philadelphia”, Mr Walter Hall.

There was then an interval while the St John classes went through a series of bandaging exercises as well as stretcher drill, ‘which were inspected by Dr. Mackenzie and pronounced to be ‘well done’. Then the programme of songs and recitations started again.

It may seem a little odd in comparison to the modern ceremonies for the giving of First Aid certificates but it was a new adventure for many there and they certainly knew how to make an occasion of it. Songs were to village meetings what raffles are today. Is that a metaphor for the changing times?

At first the Association and Brigade ran alongside each other but the Association morphed into a Brigade as a branch of the Wellingborough District. By 1897 the Brigade was well in its stride and on 11th September 1897:

What was probably the largest parade of any provincial corps took place on Saturday at Wellingborough . . . when nearly 200 officers, men, and nursing sisters were present . . . All but few of the men were in full uniform, whilst the nursing sisters  also wore their neat and useful dress, and everyone on parade presented a smart appearance. Hen, likewise, the stretchers, the wheeled litters, the cycle transports, the ambulance wagon, and all the necessary appliance for a properly fitted-up Ambulance Corps, all being in evidence.

The Ringstead Corps were at this Parade as they were at the annual ‘smoking concert’, held in October by the Brigade at the Wellingborough Drill Hall. Whether Walter’s son, John William, was present we do not know but we do know that he had become a member at around this time for we next meet him being sent off to the Boer War.

Although not much remembered today, the British were engaged in small wars and battles across the world throughout the nineteenth century. The nature of warfare was changing and the set piece battles such as Waterloo to a mutually recognized set of rules was disappearing as the machinery of war increased in accuracy and power. The unwillingness of many British commanders to recognize and adjust to this change was seen at the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War, in 1854, where cavalry uselessly charged at cannons with terrible results.

What had been shown by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole in the Crimea was the way that good nursing care and hygiene could dramatically reduce the number of soldiers killed through disease and infection. Unfortunately these military and medical lessons were known but were not sufficiently acted upon.

The Boers had risen in 1881 and, led by Paul Kruger, had defeated the British. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal and diamonds in the Kimberley area, on the borders of Cape Colony, had increased the conflict between the Boer farmers and the Uitlanders, the new immigrants, who were mainly British. The Uitlanders had few political rights but they were backed by the multi-millionaires, Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit. Rhodes, in particular, acted in Africa as the East India Company had earlier done in Asia, as an unofficial arm of the British Empire. The British army became involved and tried to take the Transvaal and Orange Free State. On October 11th 1899 the Boer President, Kruger, sent an ultimatum, insisting that the army withdrew from these states. The British Government refused and the second Anglo-Boer War began.

It was a confusing war of sieges and skirmishes where small numbers of Boer farmers inflicted defeats on a numerically superior army led by men bewildered by this new type of guerrilla warfare. It was also a war where letters home from literate soldiers, and newspaper articles from the front by war correspondents, quickly alerted the British public to the nature and conditions of the conflict. Published in the Rushden Echo on 15th February 1901, by a private in the Coldstream Guards, was a soldier’s diary which the writer hopes will enlighten the inhabitants of Rushden and Higham Ferrers district as to the way the British Soldier has been treated. He writes:

We arrived at Klip Drift and that was one of the worst times we have had. We were on short rations – very short indeed – for all we could get were two biscuits a day, and even then we were sometimes robbed. Whose fault it was I cannot say, but I know we were nearly starved. To make it worse it was very wet at the time and often we were in two feet of water. After Cronje was caught, we advanced to Bloemfontein, and were about killed to make a name for a certain person.

During the Nineteenth Century the Royal Army Medical Corps had slowly developed but it was realised by the government that there was not enough medical support to fight the war in South Africa. Within three weeks of the declaration of war, on October 11th 1899, the St John Ambulance Brigade was asked to provide a volunteer force to back up the Medical Corps. By 13th November `1899 the first twenty-three of these volunteers had arrived at the St John headquarters in Clerkenwell. 

The Wellingborough Division prided itself as being one of the best of the provincial groups and the Northampton Mercury reported that, on Wednesday 20th* December 1899, the Ringstead Corps had sent: [*the memorial tablet states 20th November; there may be a difference between the volunteering date and the call-up]

. . . one of their number, John W. Sawford (son of Mr. Walter Sawford, chairman of the Parish Council) for ambulance work in South Africa. The division all turned out and marched to the station. Dr. Mackenzie and the men of the corps presented young Sawford with part of his outfit. Not being able to be present at the “[s]end off”, Dr. Mackenzie wrote bidding him “Goodbye”, good luck, and a safe return to the old country”. Young Sawford left by the 6.12 train for London, the men all heartily wishing him God speed and a safe return.

He was expected to sail for South Africa just one week later. In that week he would have reported to St. John’s Gate in London and perhaps had a very brief period of training with the army at Aldershot or Netley.

The London Standard tells us of the first St John volunteers, who sailed in November, that:

Each man provides his own outfit and underclothing and Brigade uniform, the khaki suits and field or sea kit being paid for by the St. John Ambulance Association.

The article goes on to add:

Considerable numbers of nursing sisters of the Brigade have volunteered for service in South Africa, but owing to the Army Nursing Reserve being more than equal to meet the requirements of public service, the War Office has not found it necessary to call for volunteers from the Nursing Divisions of the Brigade.

Throughout the war, the generals remained unwilling to call up sufficient female nurses of any kind and this probably cost many lives.

In an article in the Proceedings of the St John Historical Society, Professor Peter Beighton quotes from an account by James Crook ,of the Blackpool Division of the Brigade, who went up to London a few weeks after John Sawford. It is likely that John’s experiences would have followed a similar pattern:

During the time we were in London we had to have two hours drill in the morning and two in the afternoon. Our nights were spent in the Strand or some other place. On Sunday January 7, we had a church parade in full khaki uniform. At the conclusion of the service we were formed in front of the church and addressed by a couple of gentlemen after which they wished us “God speed”. On Monday we paraded at 9 am and were conducted to the Tower of London, where we spent a very enjoyable morning, being permitted to visit places which were closed to civilians. The night following we went to Collin’s Music Hall, where 120 seats (stalls) had been reserved for us. The programme was one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, an several times during the performance the audience rose and gave three ringing cheers for the men in khaki. At the conclusion Miss Kate Carney, the Coster Queen, presented each man with a good fat cigar, while the manager provided free drinks. The manager wished us to remain all night and spend a social evening, but our officers thought a good night’s rest would be better for us. All the way from the theatre we were cheered until we arrived at St John’s Gate, where we were dismissed at 12 pm.

It is easy to imagine the excitement for these young men, suddenly thrust, literally, into the limelight before they embarked on their great adventure. This pattern of free food and drink continued to Southampton where they boarded their ship. The ship would have had its own hospital and John Sawford’s duties would have started as soon a she was on board. Going south they would have left the cold of England in January and encountered the heat of the tropics. The journey to Cape Town would have taken about three weeks.

By June 1900 more than 1,300 “Johnnies” had sailed for South Africa and in all some 1,800 served in the war. The initial tour of duty was for six months although some volunteered for longer. Generally, the Johnnies would have been posted to base hospitals to allow the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) to deal with the casualties near the battlefront. It seems that John Sawford was sent to No. 1 Field Hospital near the Orange River. It may be that he had been posted there from Bloemfontein for, on 13th March 1900, Lord Roberts had led an army into the capital of the Orange Free State. Kimberley and Ladysmith had been relieved in February and, the most famous relief of a siege, at Mafeking, was to come on 17th May.

At Bloemfontein, however, the triumph quickly turned into tragedy. The British had entered unopposed but the Boers had seized the waterworks which supplied the town. As a result the British and colonial soldiers were supplied from wayside pools or any other source that could be found. The weather was hot and the water was not always boiled. As a result ‘Yellow Jack’ laid much of the army low. Some 6000 soldiers came down with Enteric or Typhoid fever and 1000 soldiers were buried at Bloemfontein.

A wounded soldier from the Coldstream Guards wrote home from another No 1 Station Hospital, at Wynburgh, and his letter was printed in the Cheshire Observer on Saturday January 27th 1900. In this he wrote:

Africa is a very nice country, you travel for a week and only see a mud house, and all the people have deserted from that. Tell Barney there are plenty of hares and ostriches here. We have to go two or three days sometimes before we get any water, and then we have to drink the same as we wash in.

This simple misunderstanding, or disregard, of the need for regular food and a healthy water supply by the army chiefs killed more of their own soldiers than any alleged incompetence in battle.

The hospitals could not cope, with many more suffering than there were beds available, made worse because sixty orderlies contracted the disease from the patients. At some point  John moved to No 1 Field Station, which was near a railway station on the De-Aar to Kimberley line, some 14 kilometres east of Hopetown. The Orange River Bridge was three kilometres north of the station. At the outbreak of the war a garrison was established at the station under the command of Lieutenant Colonel C.G.C. Money and all mobile troops were concentrated there.


‘Telling the Surgeon how the light cases are getting on. Orange River Hospital, S. Africa’.

From a Stereoview by Underwood & Underwood. (Author’s own copy.)

These Stereoviews (like many war photographs) were posed and conditions may have been far more crowded and chaotic than is shown here, with some men having to lie on the floor.

Whether the Enteric Fever was brought from Bloemfontein or whether it was a separate outbreak we cannot be sure. We do know that John contracted the fever, possibly from one of his patients. The poor rations and lack of adequate safe water weakened the British troops so that they often succumbed to this virulent disease. Lying on a hospital bed, (if he had one), all the gaiety of the send-off must have seemed to John a long time ago although it was only a matter of a few months. On 30th April John died of the effects of the fever and was buried at the Field Station near the Orange River. Like William Frost Cottingham, another young man who had left Ringstead for Africa some fifteen years earlier, Africa had claimed him almost as soon as he had arrived in the “Dark Continent”

The Mercury reported on 11th May 1900 that:

Information reached Chief Supt. T. H. Hilton of Wellingborough on Friday [4th May] of the death at Orange River of Private Sawford who was a member of the Ringstead Division of the Wellingborough Ambulance Corps. The deceased who was about 22 years of age [sic] went out early in the campaign as a hospital orderly in company with the late Private Woodhams of Wollaston and, like him has become a victim of enteric fever. The sad news has caused a painful sensation in Ringstead where the deceased was well-known and deservedly popular.

The article continues with a ‘humorous’ piece which may partly explain the reason for the spread of the disease:

The rank and file with Lord Methuen among whom are the Northampton [Regiment} were a short time ago temporarily forbidden to bather and sentinels were posted to look for surreptitious swimmers. One of the sentinels caught sight of a swimmer, who persistently ignored his summons to surrender to arrest. At last the bather emerged from the river; the furious sentinel advanced upon the dripping figure and claimed a prisoner. “Confound you!” was the reply, “can’t you see I’m an officer!”

On Sunday 13th May a special service in memory of John Sawford was held in the Ringstead Wesleyan Church. The Evening Telegraph reported the next day that:

There was a splendid muster of the men in the Wellingborough Corps, every division being represented, and in addition to the 93 males on parade there were 15 nursing sisters present. . . The corps assembled at the Temperance Hall and proceeded direct to the chapel where an impressive service was conducted by the Rev. J. Bates. The preacher took “Duty” as his subject and in a touching reference to the late Private Sawford referred to him as one who had given his life for others. In all his letters home there was never a complaint and he always spoke highly of his comrades.

By the end of the war, although figures vary slightly, 7,582 British soldiers had been killed in action or had died of their wounds but over 13,000 had died of disease. Interestingly officers were some 9% of those who died as a result of wounds, but they were only 3% of those who died of disease. These figures may be explained in several ways but certainly some of the Canadians who were fighting felt that treatment at a hospital was based on rank and, perhaps foolishly, tried to nurse men, who came down with the fever, in their own beds. Of the 1800 St John Ambulance volunteers some 60 died, the majority from enteric fever, which they had contracted from their patients.

The war seemed to be won by June 1900 but the Boers continued to resist, using guerrilla tactics. Kitchener, now in sole command, begins a scorched earth policy destroying the Boers’ crops, livestock and farms. This led to thousands of homeless and starving women and children. Kitchener used ‘concentration camps’, pioneered by the Spanish in Cuba, to hold these refugees. Again figures vary but according to Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, writing in 2011 on the BBC website, by the end of the war, some 28,000 Boer women and children as well as 20,000 black people died in these camps. They did not die as a matter of policy but because of incompetence and a callous lack of care only relieved when, first the Fawcett Commission Report and then Emily Hobhouse, a campaigning Liberal, revealed the terrible conditions to the British public,   and the Government finally took action.  The black refugees were often forgotten (even by Emily Hobhouse) and they continued to endure terrible conditions after the camps for Boers had been improved

The Orange River Station where John Sawford had died became the location of both white and black concentration refugee camps. The bigotry of the Boers was almost matched by the lack of care of the British.

Others did return safely from the war to Ringstead, On Saturday 19th October 1900:

P.C. Sullivan, who was formerly stationed in the parish previous to the calling up of the Reserve forces for South Africa, arrived by the 6.47 train at Ringstead and in addition to his wife, over 200 parishioners assembled at the station to give their highly respected officer a hearty welcome. A conveyance had been provided. The horse was taken from the shafts of the vehicle and, amidst cheers, Mr Sullivan was drawn by the villagers, accompanied by Mrs Sullivan and their two children, into the village up to his front door, where every good wish and congratulation was given him on his safe return.

The following year, on Saturday 19th January 1900 a member of the Ringstead St John Ambulance Brigade also arrived home safely from the war. Private Chester was from Raunds but was greeted by the local Ringstead Division who, headed by a Drum and Fife band, met him at Ringstead Station and took him to a packed Temperance Hall, where he was officially greeted and thanked for his ‘great and good work’. He spoke of his time in South Africa but said the he ‘had never flinched’. He also expressed his regret for the loss of John Sawford. Were John Sawford’s parents and siblings present or did it stir too many recent painful memories?

At the end of the Northampton Mercury article on the memorial service for John it states:

A movement is on foot and is being heartily taken up by all classes to erect some permanent memorial to Private Sawford in the parish.

There had been a number of articles in 1893, in the Mercury, with headlines such as, “A Village Without a Burial-Place”, for in April of that year the churchyard had been deemed full and unfit for further burials. Burials continued at Denford but there was a local outcry and a cemetery was decided upon and the land purchased and fenced. Writing in the Northampton Mercury on 15th June 1894, “Eye-On” in About Town and County wrote:

In passing through Ringstead the other day, I could not help noticing the pretty chapel which has been erected on the new cemetery that has just been provided on the Station-road. It is such a handsome structure and much more commodious than such buildings usually are. I understand that the graveyard is to be dedicated shortly – not consecrated – and that ministers of all denominations are to be asked to take part in the ceremony.

John William Sawford has been remembered in a number of places across the globe. His body was moved from the Orange River Station to the West End Cemetery in Kimberley and his name put on a memorial there which is, “In Proud Remembrance of British Soldiers who were killed in action or who died as a result of service during the South African War at places commemorated on this monument”. He is in a Book of Remembrance at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town and his name is recorded in Peterborough Cathedral below a stained glass window installed in 1903 in honour of those who died in the Boer War.


Memorial stone to John William Sawford on Ringstead Cemetery Chapel wall.

Author’s own photograph. May 2012

In Ringstead there is a white memorial stone to John on one corner of that Cemetery Chapel, with the inscription:



Thomas Pakenham, in his book on The Boer War, wrote:

The central tactical lesson of the Boer War eluded them. The reason for those humiliating reverses was not the marksmanship of the Boers, nor their better guns or rifles, nor the crass stupidity of the British generals – all myths which British people found it convenient to believe. It was that the smokeless, long-range, high velocity, small-bore magazine bullet from rifle or machine-gun – plus the trench – had decisively tilted the balance against attack and in favour of defence.

The world learnt this lesson the hard way: in the bloody stalemates of the Dardanelles and Flanders.

Walk around the corner of the Cemetery Chapel and you will find, backing onto John’s stone, is another, similar, white memorial plaque to:

 Members of the Young People’s Class*, whose companions have erected this tablet in affectionate regard. 

*Wesleyan Bible Class

On the stone are the names of five young men, the oldest twenty-three, who died in 1917 and 1918. Among them is William Sawford, son of George and Minnie who were living in Gladstone Street in Ringstead. George was Walter’s brother and William was the nephew of John. William had been a soldier in the East Kent Regiment (‘The Buffs’). He was killed in action and buried in the Philosophe British Cemetery at Mazingarbe, near Lens, on 24th May 1917. He was nineteen years old.

On the 17th September 1999 John W. Sawford’s St John Medal for South Africa, in ‘nearly extremely fine’ condition, was sold at auction for £250.

NOTE: On Feast Sunday, September 1900 the St John Ambulance Corps from the area held a parade in Ringstead, followed by a service in the Wesleyan Chapel. A memorial tablet to Private J Sawford was unveiled inside the chapel, on the right hand side. It seems likely that this is the tablet that now is on the outside wall of the Cemetery Chapel. The same may be true of the First World War tablet which also has a Wesleyan reference. Was it moved when the chapel ceased to be used for worship?



Ringstead BMD (Northampton Record Office. NRO).

Methodist Circuit Baptisms (NRO)

Ringstead and Knotting Censuses 1841- 1901(

Ringstead Census 1911 (

Notes for Ringstead Flower Festival [on Wesleyan Chapel]. 8 & 9 Sept. 1973 Anon (NRO. ROP2107)

Northampton Mercury: Friday 23 December 1892; Friday 10 February 1893; Friday 17 September 1897; Friday 29 October 1897; Friday 22 December 1899; Friday 11 May; Friday 18 May 1900; Friday 26 October 1900; Friday 25 January 1901; Friday 17 July 1903. (British Newspaper Archive).

Northants Evening Telegraph Monday 14 May 1900: 10 September 1900. (British Newspaper Archive).

The Cheshire Observer. Saturday January 27th 1900(British Newspaper Archive).

London Standard. 12th December 1899; 29th January 1900. (British Newspaper Archive).

Soldier’s Diary of the Boer war. Rushden Echo 15th February 1901 transcribed by Gill Hollis. (

St John Ambulance ( ).

Roll of St John men who went to Boer War (St John Museum, Clerkenwell).

The St John Ambulance Brigade in the Anglo-Boer War 1899 – 1902. Professor Peter Beighton. (St John Historical Society Proceedings 2000).

The St John Ambulance Brigade in the South African War 1899-1902. Casualties and memorials in South Africa. P Beighton, J C de Villiers. Military History Journal Vol. 19 No. 5 June 1997 (

The Boer Wars (

The Boer Wars. Professor Fransjohan Pretorius. (

The British Army in the Anglo-Boer war (

Casualty details of William Sawford. (

The Boer War. Thomas Pakenham. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1979:1997).

Reader Comments (1)

I find this very interesting as my family history research shows my husbands g g grandfather was George Sawford, born in 1838 in Slipton, Northants, not very far away from your story.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Logan

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