The Tathams of County Durham
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Robert Bristow Tatham (1824-1881)

Letter to his nephew Herbert Tatham (1838-1900)

Pietermaritzburg, Natal
South Africa 20 Oct. 1879

My dear Herbert,

      I am really ashamed at allowing your kind and welcome letter to remain so long unanswered, but I have no doubt your military instinct will, whilst taking in all the circumstances of the War, my boy's recent return from "The Front" etc. - acquit me of neglect.

      The horrid, badly managed Zulu War is over (at any rate for a time) whether it will break out again is a question which time alone con can determine.

      It is now 29 years since I bid you goodbye at the Railway Station with your dear departed mother. I was very fond of your dear mother and she of me. I could receive more comfort from her than ever I did, or could, from my own flesh and blood. Her memory is revered by me. On the platform when I kissed her dear face and said "Goodbye", she begged me to write to her. I replied "Yes, dear Louise, if I succeed - when I succeed, I will write but not otherwise! I had a horror, as I still have, of crying "Peccavi", and when I married and settled, 12 years after my arrival in the Colony, I wrote home.

      I had been reported killed in action here - Killed at Sevastopol; Drowned from jumping overboard from a vessel on this coast and goodness knows what else. True I had many escapes, and have led a most eventful life, - but I live yet - and am well and healthy - have a family of 5 sons and 2 daughters, and last but by far not least, an excellent, kind, sensible, ladylike wife - she is young enough to be my daughter, but still loves her "old man" - I say, old man, because I shall be 56 in May next, and 12 years service in the army and the life of a Land Surveyor in a Colony since I left the Service, is not calculated to make one look or feel young; but I am very fairly strong as straight as ever. I cannot take the enormous amount of horse riding as of old but that I cannot expect.

      After my leaving the "Cape Mounted Rifles" in 186l (I joined them during a Cape War in 1852) I got an appointment as Manager of the Natal Railway and was Lieutenant and Adjutant of a mounted Volunteers Corps, called the "Royal Durban Rangers".

      Then I fell in love with my dear wife who I met at a Ball. She was very pretty and the sister in law of a Sugar Planter here (her brothers were also planters) - The family objected for which I cared nothing. I had her consent, and as I did not want anything more, I obtained a licence, took out to their farm a led horse with a ladies saddle, put my dear girl on the horse, mounted my own, took off my hat to the brothers etc. and rode off to the nearest church (where by the bye I had taken the clergyman) and was married! - This I have found was the one bright, amongst the many foolish things I have been guilty of.

      My eldest son Charles is 17 years of age, as tall as his father (and will be a bigger man) as straight as an arum and as plucky as a lion - All my boys are. At the terrible disaster of Isandhlwana - (of which you doubtless have read in the papers) some of his school fellows fell and Charles, who was in a lawyers office, swore to try and avenge their slaughter - he joined the Native Contingent, but poor Colonel Durnford (who was killed) of the Engineers who knew me, advised my boy not to go until he was a year or two older - but No! nothing would do and he went to the front as a Natal Carbineer (the same Corps which had been so cut up at Isandhlwana). Charlie was soldiering, hard, rough, real soldiering, campaigning in fact without Tents etc, - riding expresses and despatches through the enemy's country - in fact through the very Battle Field of Isandhlwana for 6 months. You will see in the papers how highly my boy's Corps have been spoken of - Thank GOD he returned to me about six weeks since, after the war was over, without a scratch. From my very heart I say "GOD be thanked" (but I am getting into a list of details which cannot be contained in a letter).

      The names of my children are Charles Wm. Adolphus (after my father), Frederick Spence (after your father), Ralph Heathcote (after my grandfather), Augusta Clara (after two of her aunts), Georgina Alice (also after your Aunt Georgie), Robert Benjamin (he died poor darling aged 3 about 18 months since), Basil St. John (born on St. John's day) and Oates Richmond (the baby - after an intimate friend and your Aunt Julia). The second boy - Fred - is 14 (in a merchant's office), 3rd boy Ralph at the best school here (Bishops College) and the two girls at a day school. They (the girls) both play well (Clara especially) and she is 10 and Georgie 8 - Clara is quite a musical genius.

      Well, you are a father yourself and you will know how to excuse a little "Gas" about my children - but I must own I am very proud of them - the boys are fine manly young colonists - educated, at least so far as one can in a Colony - Charlie is going in for the Law. He is a very bright young fellow, in proof of this I need only say that he is to be articled to a Lawyer in January next for 3 years, and in consideration of his smartness and intelligence the usual premium 200 is dispensed with; and he is also to receive during the term of his articles 60 a year!

      But enough of this - I am glad you are thinking of going back to Canada. I hate this colony - but still one can do more for the children in a Colony - at home one can do nothing without means or interest - the first we have not got - and the second I would not ask for - I have fought a hard battle with life - and am still fighting very hard to give my children education and a position - I hold the position of gentleman here and I wish my children to do the same - Oh! but what a Battle it has been and is.

      This is a more expensive place than London! You will scarcely believe that, but it is a fact. We could live comfortably in London for what it costs us here. I am obliged to live in town as I hold a small Government Appointment i.e. Clerk to the Master of the Supreme Court - I am also a Government Surveyor but I do not go out on country surveys - altogether I make about 300 a year and spend every farthing - in fact if it were not for my dear economical unselfish wife I could not live on what I make.

      I have never been ashamed of having been a soldier. Never! - I never forget I was a gentleman and it was my own fault that I am not now with the rank of Major - here! - I was 5 times reduced from Sergeant in the C.M.R. - Men junior to me hold that rank today, but what is the use of grumbling? I broke the mug and must pick up the pieces.

      I have often thought of you and wondered what had come of you, but Julia wrote to me and told me of your poor father's death and then of having seen you - I wonder Gertrude never wrote to me - I was always a favourite with your people and especially of the girls I thought. Of course I can see by your likeness (for which many thanks) the Tatham stamp - but in my mind's eye you are still the Philological School boy that I used to write excuses for.

      I have always "paddled my own canoe" - old chap - and do you do the same - when I have got myself into a mess -I got myself out of it - or grinned and born it - "Nil desperandum" HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY MOTTO, although I have often, I dare say, growled but growling relieves one - especially an occasional bite to the cause of the trouble. "Sera numquam est, ad bonos mores via" - a capital Saw out of the Latin Grammar.

      Your uncle Edmond who you must remember has poor fellow burst a small blood vessel in his head - they say partly from surveying in the sun - he is done for as to work but his eldest son "George" has been very successful and is making about 1000 a year and your uncle and Mrs. T. live with him. His youngest child is 2 years older than my eldest - therefore all his are grown up and provided for - they are a nice family, but I cannot say a happy one - I never liked my brother's wife, nor did your dear mother. I got two letters from your father during 26 years! I wrote several to him.

      I shall be glad to hear from you occasionally and will write when I can. I trust Julia may be inclined to help you to go abroad. She writes very nicely about you - As to my family they washed their hands of me many years ago and as your father used to say "Got me transported".

      Well, all is for best no doubt old boy. I have much to be thankful for to an Almighty loving GOD, and I trust I am (not sufficiently thankful that can never be) but try to realise his great mercy to me in allowing me to see a dear good family growing up - this is all the comfort I can have now - I have passed the meridian of life and am now going down hill, I trust to a better world than this has been to me - Although I must honestly say I made it worse than it might have been - PUT YOUR TRUST IN GOD dear Herbert, never forget his mercy and although trouble will assail you, you will have strength given you to pull through.

      May GOD bless you clear old fellow. Give my kindest love to your sisters. I had heard from Julia that Frederica was in Japan. I hope she will do well. Give my love to your wife and children in which my dear wife and kids also join me - We shall never meet in this world most likely - but we shall in the next.

      I hope you have not left the address you gave me, if you have, I presume your letters will reach you. In fact you may be in Canada by now and I hope you are.

      Ever your affectionate uncle.

      Robt. B. Tatham.

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