Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Mary Ann Cruwys and
Samuel John Witheridge

Kim Cook of the Witheridge Family Society has provided some welcome information about a hitherto unknown Mary Ann Cruwys and her husband Samuel John Witheridge, a sailor who served with great distinction in the Zulu Wars and the First Boer War. Mary Ann Cruwys is descended from the Thorverton Cruwys family. This line can be traced back to William Cruess and Mary Brook who married in Thorverton, Devon, on 17th September 1721. I've compiled a brief outline of Mary Ann Cruwys's life below and Kim has kindly provided a most interesting account of Samuel Witheridge's life and naval career. Further information about the Witheridges can be found on the Society's website or by contacting Kim Cook.

Mary Ann Cruwys
Mary Ann Cruwys was the eldest daughter of John Cruwys and Sarah Thomas. She was born in St Clears, Camarthenshire, some time between 1852 and 1856. It seems likely that she was registered at birth as Mary Ann Thomas as she was almost certainly born before her parents' marriage in 1856 in Camarthan. Her father, John Cruwys (1831-1884), was an agricultural labourer. He was born in Thorverton, Devon, and was the fourth and youngest child of Courtney Cruwys and Sarah Weslake. Within a few years of their marriage John and Sarah moved from Wales back to Devon, settling in the seaside resort of Dawlish on the South Devon coast. By the time of the 1871 census John and Sarah were living at 8 Town Tree Hill, Dawlish with their four children, Mary Ann, 17, a domestic servant, Anne, 11, John, 8, and Maria, 5. Seven years later when Mary Ann married Samuel John Witheridge at Portsea Register Office on 8th March 1878 she was living at 44 Somers Street, Portsea. Just a few weeks after the wedding Samuel set sail for Africa on the HMS Boadicea. That was to be the last time Mary Ann saw her husband alive. Samuel served in Africa with the Naval Brigade for three years before tragically losing his life on 27th February 1881 at the Battle of Majuba in the First Boer War at the age of 30. Unsurprisingly there is no record of any children from the marriage. By the time of the census on 3rd April 1881 Mary Ann was a young widow aged 26 living alone at 25 Albert Street, Plymouth, and working as a cook.

Two years later Mary Ann married Joseph Charters, another seaman. At one time Joseph had lived a few doors away from Samuel Witheridge's family, and the records show that both men served on HMS Cambridge, although it is not known if they were ever aboard the ship at the same time. Mary Ann and Joseph had five known children:

1. Mary Charters, born in 1884 in Stoke Damerel
2. Edward John F Charters, born in 1887 in Stoke Damerel
3. Sarah Jane Charters, born in 1890 in Stoke Damerel
4. John Charters, born in 1893 in Stoke Damerel
5. Bessie Florence Charters, born in 1896 in Plymouth.

The last record we have of the Charters is from the 1901 census when they were living at 25 York Street in Plymouth. Joseph, Mary Ann and their five children were living in just three rooms in the house with the other two rooms being occupied by another family. Joseph, now 52, was a labourer and his wage was supplemented by a naval pension. We have no details at present of the deaths of Mary Ann and Joseph and it is not known if they have any living descendants.

Samuel John Witheridge (1851–1881)
Samuel John Witheridge, born in January 1851 in Plymouth, was the third son of  Thomas Witheridge (born 1820, Devonport) and Mary Ann Garry (born 1820, Exeter). On 30th March 1851, aged three months, he was in the family home at 1 Woolster Street, Plymouth Charles, with his parents and paternal grandfather Joseph Witheridge (born 1788, Wembury, not Holsworthy as the census states). At some time between 1851 and 1854, the family moved to 10 Lower Batter Street. On 2nd April 1854, Samuel's six-month-old brother, Joseph William Witheridge, died there of pneumonia. In 1855 his younger sister, Elizabeth Jane Witheridge, was born, but on 8th September 1857, Samuel's father Thomas Witheridge, a bargeman, died there of phthisis and diarrhoea.

Mary Ann Witheridge was thus left a widow, with four surviving children, all under the age of ten. Samuel's brother Edmund later wrote that Mary Ann kept the family out of the workhouse 'by turning a mangle'. By 7th April 1861, Mary Ann, with Thomas, Edmund (wrongly listed as Edward) and Elizabeth, had moved to 9 Looe Street, Plymouth Sutton, where Mary Ann was a laundress, but Samuel remained with his grandfather Joseph Witheridge at 10 Lower Batter Street.

In 1865 Samuel joined the Royal Navy as a boy sailor, and soon progressed to ordinary seaman and then to able-bodied seaman. By 1871 he was serving on HMS Caledonia which naval records state was based in Malta, but census returns place in Naples. In 1873 Samuel was transferred to HMS Cambridge, where he served until July 1874. During this time he was promoted from able seaman to TM, and his character was 'very good'. He then served as a TM on HMS Topaze from July 1874 to April 1876, when he was promoted to Leading Seaman. His character throughout was 'exemplary'.

In 1877 he went to the Portsmouth shore base, HMS Excellent, where he received gunnery training, and later served as an instructor to both Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel. When he married, on 8th March 1878 at Portsea, Hampshire, Mary Ann Cruwys, age 24, he was described as a Seaman, RM of HMS Excellent. Throughout his time on HMS Excellent, his conduct remained exemplary.

In April 1878 he was appointed Petty Officer 2nd Class on the newly-launched HMS Boadicea, a Third-Class Screw Corvette, which soon sailed for the Africa station. By July 1878, Samuel had been promoted to Petty Officer 1st Class, and was later appointed Quartermaster. In Africa, a number of Boadicea's crew were seconded to the Naval Brigade to reinforce troops in the Zulu Wars, and Samuel served in Pearson's column at Gingindhlovu and in the relief of Eshowe. He was awarded the Zulu Wars campaign medal, but its present location is unknown.

When the Zulu Wars ended, the crew returned for a while to HMS Boadicea, but in 1881 were again called upon to serve in the First Boer War, under the command of Sir George Pomeroy-Colley. After a number of failed encounters with the Boers, by mid-February it was apparent that Colley had made a number of serious errors of judgement, and may have been having a breakdown.

In a disastrous manoeuvre kept secret from other commanders, Colley led his motley collection of troops (who had never served together before) on a night trek up the treacherous south face of Mount Majuba to capture this strategic point 6,000 feet high. Although they secured the summit plateau, no proper reconnaissance had been made, and no entrenchments or fortifications were dug, except by the Naval Brigade. As a result, on the morning of Sunday 27th February, the Boers crept up a gentler slope of the mountain and over-ran the British troops. Throughout the ensuing battle Colley failed to issue a single order, and in the resulting chaos many lives were lost unnecessarily. Colley himself was eventually shot and killed.

The attrition rate was highest among the Naval Brigade, the most disciplined and well-trained troops there, as they guarded the retreat position, covering the fleeing troops. Among those who died were Samuel John Witheridge and his friend George Hammond, also from Plymouth. The two died side by side, shot through the head by Boers. Later, a Boer commandant pointed them out to a British officer as brave men 'who had stayed at their post till the last'. They were mentioned in despatches when details of the battle were published in the London Gazette on 3rd May 1881.

Samuel John Witheridge and George Hammond are both buried in the small cemetery on the summit of Majuba, and are commemorated on the Boadicea memorial in Haslar Cemetery, Portsmouth. Sadly, the cemetery at Majuba has been desecrated, partly because of the strong feeling that this was an unjustified battle, and partly because local tribesmen believed that 'white men's bones make good magic'. It is not known whether Samuel's grave is intact, but the memorial stone to the men of HMS Boadicea bears a large bullet hole.

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