Scorpions, Pythons, and Lionesses
As one of the informal group known as the Hanwood Boys, Sergeant Stafford Northcote of the King’s African Rifles Signals was a regular correspondent with Rev. Chitty of Hanwood. His letters give little information about the war but detail life in East Africa and his leisure activities. The following extracts also reveal British attitudes to the local population and, most notably, his encounters with wildlife.
3 March 1918. Letter from CA Stafford Northcote, Monmouth Regiment, B Coy, Hut 10, School of Instruction for NCOs, Bordon, Hants. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/185
CA Stafford Northcote reminds Rev. Chitty that he was ‘the boy who was going to repair your door bell when I was called to Buxton.’ He says that he has ‘been selected for the King’s African Rifles Staff and learning Swahili,’ a language that he says is ‘frightfully difficult’. He continues that he shall ‘see most of East Africa and Uganda, and stand a splendid chance of rapid promotion.’ He is to commence as Staff Sergeant, but understands that commissions are ‘easily obtained out there.’ CA Stafford Northcote is hoping to see Hanwood once more before he sails. He does not expect to see any ‘trout’ in Africa. He says that there will be an examination each week which will become more difficult. They have been ‘advised to get several articles of kit which are not provided, and the Captain says a light rifle is very handy.’
31 May 1918. Letter from Sergeant CA Stafford Northcote, ‘Somewhere in France’. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/187
Cecil Stafford Northcote talks of ‘pleasant memories’ of Hanwood and The Rectory. He advises that they are ‘at present resting for a short period “en routes” on the South Coast of France’ and that the ‘rendezvous in Africa will be Nairobi.’
24 July 1918. Letter from Cecil A Stafford Northcote, King’s African Rifles, Mbagathi, East Africa. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/188
Cecil Stafford Northcote writes ‘Natives are said to be dying by hundreds in the bush, it is a common belief among them that the white men are holding up the rain to depopulate the country. This will give you an idea of the primitive nature of the native mind.’ He continues: ‘I only hope that God may think it fit to spare the natives and us the terrible ordeal of a famine.’ CA Stafford Northcote describes an encounter with a lioness: ‘Two of us were out for a walk in the bush unarmed and were coming in the direction of camp when we came practically on to a lioness. I was taking a bearing to camp when I saw her looking at me over the bushes about 40 yards to my left.’ He goes on to say how it was ‘a blessing she had no cubs or she may have been unpleasant instead of just indifferent.’
Cecil says that he spends a lot of his leisure hours playing hockey and auction bridge during the long evenings after dark, he is also hoping to find some left-handed golf clubs. He talks about how ‘the Germans have told the natives that although we are winning here, they, in Europe are driving us into the sea. That when they have done this they will force us to give them back their African Territory.’ He continues: ‘The native is only like a little child and will readily believe this, or at least will not forget it, although they hate the Germans, and look on them as merciless wielders of the Kiboko (Rhino hide whip).’
2 October 1918. Letter from Sergeant Cecil A Stafford Northcote, 1/6 King’s African Rifles. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/190
Cecil Stafford Northcote reports ‘some fairly large casualty lists in the EA campaign, but really it affects this Battalion little’. He has volunteered to go hunting for game for the mess and continues ‘My shooting has been good and bags quite respectable. I never see a leopard, however, and cannot get near enough to a lion to bag it. Last Saturday week I managed to get two gazelle, and last Saturday I had a splendid day.’ He says that the natives call him ‘Bwana wa jicho wakali’, meaning ‘Master of the keen eye’, and ‘Bwana huyu piga sawa sawa sawa sawa killa siku’, meaning ‘That Master (me) shoots very straight every day’. He reports having seen his ‘first herd of Thompsons gazelle.’
16 January 1919. Letter from Sergeant Cecil A Stafford Northcote, King’s African Rifles Signals (Karsig’s), East Africa. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/193
CA Stafford Northcote says that he is enclosing a photograph of himself and his servant Ali. He says that he was ‘hoping to send one of “The Bluffs” my two chums and me with a 13 foot Python which nearly ended my career. The film however was hopelessly ruined so I cannot have any printed.’ He continues: ‘A civilian hunter about a mile on our left bagged two splendid lions, both males and maned, in all he saw 18 during the day.’ Cecil expects to leave East Africa soon and head south. He is planning a hunting trip at the weekend, and intends to use a tethered goat as a lure. He encloses another photograph, of Kikuyu women and children and explains ‘They have to keep an all night guard on their shambas as the pigs come and eat all the young maize. They have a big fire and beat tom-toms at intervals to scare the intruders. I’m on quite friendly terms now and can go among the children without scaring them’. He adds that he is borrowing the goat from the old woman sitting down on the right.
4 February 1919. Letter from Sergeant Cecil A Stafford Northcote, East Africa. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/195
CA Stafford Northcote encloses with the letter ‘two awfully decent scenic snapshots of a typical ravine on one of the practically dried up water courses.’ He reports how he ‘came across the spot while following, with the assistance of a Masai warrior, the spoor of several lions which came into a Cattle Boma and wilfully and maliciously mauled about a dozen cattle.’
15 February 1919. Letter from Sergeant Cecil A Stafford Northcote, Stationary Hospital, East Africa. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/200
CA Stafford Northcote advises that he is ‘being fed-up as tomorrow I commence another 3 days of absolute fasting,’ He says: ‘I’ve had a scorpion sting doctored and am now preparing to get rid of a tapeworm, these minor items were just companions of a touch of Malaria.’ CA Stafford Northcote mentions that EA are welcoming Sir Edward Kortley that week as their new Governor. He remarks that ‘the speeches are awfully boring, as they appear in print to we who don’t particularly want a finger in the pie out here.’ He says that while in hospital ‘the one high spot is the weekly visit of a few ladies who scrape together funds enough to give us two cakes and a packet of “gaspers”‘. He concludes how he ‘picked up Mr Scorpion in some socks this sting is pretty painfull’
30th April 1919. Letter from Cecil A Stafford Northcote, The Old Farm, Blaenavon. Shropshire Archives ref. 9155/1/202
Having returned to Britain, Cecil writes ‘I do wish myself in a warmer climate once again,’ reporting daily snow and biting NW winds where he is. He is pleased to know that the photographs he sent were received safely. He mensions how he wanted to study surgery but states that his ‘means will not run to it,’ so he is going to continue with electrical engineering. He continues ‘As a side line I shall take up writing. I’ve had several poems published but thus far have attempted no prose.’
By Philip Jones
This collection of letters has been deposited at Shropshire Archives, details can be read on the online catalogue under the collection ref 9155/1. www.shropshirearchives.org.uk/ The letters have been sorted and described by Philip Jones, an undergraduate at the University Centre Shrewsbury.