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  • Writer's pictureDiane Mague Stanley

"A Place Called Ladysmith"

Updated: Feb 22, 2018

Week 1: This week's inspiration for 52 Ancestors was "Start," so I'm starting with some of the sweet treats found in the Candy Box File.


Phoebe (Gilbert) Saunders had opened, read, and refolded the letters a thousand times. Then she carefully packed them among the precious mementos from home that would make the trans-Atlantic voyage in 1905.[1] They were all that remained of her dear oldest brother, Thomas. Now the letters were old and worn. The black ink was sometimes unreadable in the areas frayed by the folds. Still, Phoebe instructed her daughter, Kitty, to never throw them away. They were to be kept and handed down in the family so Thomas would not be forgotten. Kitty did just that.


Thomas Gilbert was born on 14 October 1878.[2] He was the first son in a family of 7 children born to Susannah Dobbs and Nathaniel Gilbert. Thomas was born in the Harborough district of Leicestershire. His father worked as a bricklayer’s laborer in Great Bowden where the family made their home. When Thomas came of working age, he got a job in the Woodland & Johnson shoe-making factory alongside his siblings in Leicester. His job lasted until the spring of 1896 when he quit and joined the military.

Military activity in southern Africa had reached a fevered pitch. The English fought against the independence-seeking Afrikaners, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers. Gold and diamonds had been discovered in the area which upped the ante for control of the region. Britain was on the verge of their second Boer War, called the Anglo-Boer War. Eighteen-year-old Thomas, along with like-minded young men from Leicester, enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment, 1st Battalion, eager for adventure and fortune.[3]

Thomas’ first posting was to Camp Curragh in Ireland for training. By early December 1898, the regiment was ready to set out for Africa in service to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Before they shipped out, Thomas finally found the time to write to his sister, Phoebe, and her new husband, Jack Saunders, back in England. Thomas’ big news was that he would not make it back to Leicester for Christmas. He had promised his sweetheart, Nellie, that he would be there and he knew her disappointment would be great. Christmas was a special holiday when all family was expected to gather at home. Thomas had a good excuse for being a ‘no-show’; his regiment was departing for Natal, southern Africa, on Christmas Eve.

Thomas, ever the wise-cracker, joked that he would be spending his Christmas “feeding the fish on what he had eaten for the last 2 or 3 days.” Jack Saunders had given Thomas some cigarettes as a good-bye gift before he left for Curragh and Thomas asked for more “fags.” Jack had apparently promised, twice, to send more, but never had. Thomas also asked Phoebe to let their mother, Susannah, who lived next door, know that he would not be home this year and to give her his love.

Thomas had procrastinated on his letter from Camp Curragh, but he wasted no time in writing to Phoebe and Jack once he reached Africa. The sea voyage to Africa had gone well and Thomas apparently enjoyed the trip. He was completely awed by the African continent and the differences with England. He spoke of the beauty of the landscape and the glory of the flowers which covered the ground everywhere. But he also hinted at loneliness and class separation. He could not understand the language of the indigenous Black people, and the upper-class British would not even speak to him because he was a “common Loidder.” That left him alone “talking to himself.”

His regiment was stationed high above sea level “in the clouds” as they made their way to a “place called Ladysmith.” Thomas complained to Phoebe that the heat was unbearable, and his fair English skin had already sunburned and blistered.

Still, Thomas was luckier than some. Many of the men had been gripped with a terrible fever and were dying. Thomas claimed they had buried a soldier every other day since they had arrived. Thomas still felt well and intended to stay that way! He implored Phoebe not to mention the fever to either Nellie or their mother because “they would go out of their head with worry,” ... though it was clear that the fever deaths had rattled him too.

Ever the optimist, at least in his letters, Thomas was looking ahead to more adventure next year when his regiment was going to Bangalore, India. He asked Phoebe to tell Nellie to “cheer up” because “I shall be nearer home next year … India, I mean."

This letter of 6 February 1899 was to be his last to his sister. Thomas casually mentioned that by the time Phoebe and Jack read his letter, he would already have arrived at their destination … Ladysmith. There the Leicester regiment battled bravely and suffered greatly. Thomas survived the military hardships, but took ill with intestinal disease. He died on 17 March 1900[4] and his body was interred in that far away country among the clouds.



[1] Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, NARA microfilm publication T715 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service), photocopy from microfilm, List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the U.S. Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival, SS "Cedric," Liverpool to Port of New York, arrival 1 January 1905, lines 2 – 5, Phoebe Saunders, Kate Saunders, Phoebe Lydia Saunders, and Fred Gilbert.

[2] England, General Registrar, Birth Certificates, certified copy of birth certificate, Thomas GILBERT, 14 October 1878; citing year 1878, Qtr. D, vol. 7a, p. 18, no. 373, Market Harborough district, Harborough sub-district in the Counties of Leicestershire and Northampton.

[3] Leicester, Leicestershire, England, militia attestation, no. 5882, Thomas Gilbert, 28 April 1896; digital images, The National Archives of the U. K. ( : access date not recorded).

[4] Army Register Book of Deaths in the South African War (1899-1902), Death Record Entry, Regl. No. 1118, T. Gilbert, 17 March 1900, Ladysmith; General Records Office, England.

© 2016-2018 Diane Mague Stanley ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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