Monday 4 September 2023

Uncovering a sleeper: The man who started a scandal

I was recently asked by a client to research a Queen's South Africa medal named "H.W. Penn" Imperial Military Railways (IMR). A fairly typical medal to a civilian organisation for which there is no official records beyond the medal rolls (WO100-252).

The medal had been sold with the following attribution from an unidentified newspaper:

"Having gone on to work on the railways in South Africa, in 1969 Penn is recorded as 84 years old, and having attended the the 30th Anniversary event for the Blue Train Special, he having presumably been a driver on this famous train service which travels the 1600 kilometre journey between Pretoria and Cape Town."

"Driver Penn" of the famous Blue Train. My client was concerned that given the year and age of Mr Penn, he would have been 15 years old in 1900. Could a 15 year old have been an engine driver? Additionally, and more concerning "HW Penn" could not be located on the medal rolls hosted by Ancestry. Resolving such issues is a speciality of mine. The Ancestry index is full of spelling mistakes for surnames, incorrectly transcribing initials and mangling unit names, all of which can hide names from a researcher. The issue in this case, and it is not an isolated example, is that Ancestry are missing medal roll pages for both the QSA and KSA medals. It appears that the copy of WO100 that Ancestry are working from is faulty in this regard, or they somehow omitted pages when creating the index.

I have the missing pages for the IMR and locating "HW Penn" was a quick job, here is the entry:

This is the only Penn on the IMR roll. Note the trade "Examiner", not "Driver". Of real interest is the faint pencil note, "? 51+415 Pburg LH", indicating possible service in the Pietersburg Light Horse (PLH). Checking their roll reveals a "John William Heartey Penn" number 51 and 415 who also served in the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC). This roll has two contradictory remarks:

On the right it reads "Not identical with W.H. Penn/ I. M. Raily" and on the left "M & CC issued AG2/M/7379". The left hand reference is to the IMR roll on which "Examiner HW Penn" appears and is shown above. To resolve which remark is correct we are fortunate in that a biographical roll and history for the BVC and PLH was published by Bill Woolmore (Slouch Hat Publications, 2002). In compiling his roll Bill consulted the attestation papers (The National Archives, London - WO126) which supply details of former service, age and next of kin.

The entry for John William Hartley [sic] Penn, age 33 (in 1901 on attestation into the BVC), former service, Examiner, Imperial Military Railways. His calculated birth year is 1868, so he can't be "Driver HW Penn" of the Blue Train, that piece of circumstantial evidence is discarded. The former service links the men in the medal rolls and the left hand remark on the BVC roll is correct and the right hand "not identical" comment is incorrect. The difference in initials is frustrating, especially the lack of a 'J' on the IMR roll. But we know individuals drop forenames and clerks make mistakes. The next of kin is given as, wife Mrs ASA Penn, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, they had one son.

Using the excellent we learn that his wife was Angenesse Sussana Amarentie de Villiers (nee Buekes, baptised 1857 Cape Colony). They got married in 1893 in Molteno, Cape Colony, John was a butcher. Obviously butchering wasn't to his liking and he headed north to seek his fortune on The Rand. We assume he joined the railways prior to the war to learn his trade as an 'Examiner' - inspector of rolling stock, and remained on The Rand after war was declared. What prompted him to join the BVC is anyone's guess.

The scandal. The BVC became an infamous unit on account of the "Breaker Morant Affair". Cpt HH "Breaker" Morant and other officers were accused of murdering civilians and Africans. In a trial that remains controversial to this day Morant and fellow officers were tried by a military court, found guilty and executed. The spark to this affair was a letter of complaint alleging crimes by Morant and others to the commander of the Lines of Communication, Colonel FH Hall, RA. The letter was signed by 15 men of the BVC, one of those being John Penn. He is also listed as a witness at the trial.

John appears to have been issued one medal, that off the IMR QSA roll which should have a Cape Colony clasp. This may have been taken off by an ignorant dealer or collector believing all IMR QSAs were issued without clasps, which is patently untrue. The BVC/PLH roll is marked "address not known, P.A. (assumed Personal Application) till for appn.", there is a reference and a date in 1908 which could indicate the issue of clasps Transvaal, South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902.

What happened to John after the war is not known, until his death in August 1931, long before the 1969 Blue Train reunion. He is buried in Grasmere Cemetery, Krugersdorp. His wife, Angenesse died in 1937 and is buried in Brixton Cemetery, Johannesburg.