A King’s Confessor: Henry Essex Edgeworth, 20th January 1793.

By Ruairi Nolan, Library Assistant, formerly of MU Library

While conducting research in the Russell Library I came across a book which caught my interest. It was the Memoires de M.L’Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont dernier Confesseur de Louis XVI by C. Sneyd Edgeworth, translated into English by Edmund Burke, and published in 1815 in Paris. Henry Essex Edgeworth, (1745-1807) was known also as Abbé Edgeworth in France, where he had lived most of his life from an early age.

Edgeworth was the final confessor to King Louis XVI, the French monarch who fell victim to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The King sent for Edgeworth personally – Edgeworth had developed a friendship with Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister in the late 1780s-90s and came highly recommended.

Figure 1. Abbé Edgeworth

The book is one of many in the collections that is directly linked to the history of the foundation of the College. The effects of the French Revolution influenced the establishment of St. Patrick’s College. A number of French professors came to teach in the aftermath of the Revolution. L’Abbe Edgeworth was offered the presidency of the College in 1795 which he turned down.

In Edgeworth’s account, we are told the narrative of events which brought the Abbé to King Louis on the night of 20-21 January 1793 and we are introduced to the gut-wrenching first moment of when the two are alone. Edgeworth, thus far composed and in control of his emotions loses strength and begins to weep, prompting the King to follow suit:

‘Forgive me, sir…for a long time, I have lived among my enemies, and habit has in some degree familiarised me to them; but when I behold a faithful subject…a different language reaches my heart, and in spite of my utmost efforts, I am melted’.

From this we receive a detailed retelling of the evening spent with the monarch right through to the morning, he speaks of Louis’ final hour with his family where ‘Not only tears were shed, and sobs were heard, but piercing cries’. In the morning, the two were constantly bothered by paranoid officials and officers worried that the monarch would take his own life to avoid the shame of execution to which the king responded: ‘These people see daggers and poison everywhere; they fear that I shall destroy myself…they little know me! To kill myself would indeed be weakness’.

At 8 o’clock on the morning of 21 January 1793, the King was brought to the Place de la Révolution. The streets of Paris were so crowded with silent spectators that it took two hours to reach the site of execution. Once they arrived, the gendarmes attempted to bind the King’s hands and chop off his hair to which he exclaimed: ‘do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me’. (Fig 2)

Figure 2. King Louis Looks to Edgeworth

Edgeworth claims that the King looked to him in that moment as if seeking guidance, at which time he reassured him that this final humiliation served only to bring him closer to Christ in that he is suffering the same humilities as the son of God. Edgeworth is noted to have proclaimed ‘Fils de St Louis, Montez au ciel! / Son of St Louis, ascend to heaven!’ – though when asked himself about it, he could not recall having said anything.

A footnote to the memoirs highlight that the King was astonished that the Abbé chose to accompany him to the scaffold – he had assumed he would give flight once the night had passed. When the execution took place Edgeworth did become acutely aware of his position and feared he was next for the guillotine and he ‘thought it time to quit the scaffold…I saw myself invested by 20 or 30,000 men at arms…all eyes upon me’. Edgeworth had managed to blend in with the crowd, he simply looked like another spectator once he made it deeper into the crowd. (Fig 3)

Figure 3. Ascend Louis

France remained a dangerous place for him, he became known as King Louis’ final confessor and he noted in his memoir that a confidant expressed a dire warning: ‘Fly, my dear sir, from this land of tigers that are now let loose in it…it is not Paris alone, but France itself you must leave. For you I do not see a safe place in it’. (Fig 4)

Figure 4. Fly Abbé

Edgeworth remained in France for the next three years, evading arrest and hiding away. He eventually left to rejoin the then-exiled royal family, spending much time in Germany and Russia. He had refused a pension from the British Government. He died in Mittau, Russia (now in Latvia) while ministering for French prisoners of war on 22 May 1807. He was cared for in his dying days by the daughter of Louis XVI, further highlighting the close relationship he had with the family.


Liam Swords, The Green Cockade (Dublin, 1989).

Letters from the Abbé Edgeworth to his friends, written between the years 1777 and 1807; with memoirs of his life (London, 1818).

Charles Sneyd Edgeworth, Mémoires de m. l’abbé Edgeworth de Firmont : dernier confesseur de Louis XVI (Paris, 1815).

Interview with Dr. Ciarán McCabe

Dr. Ciarán Mac Cabe is a social historian of Ireland and Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. His interests are in the history of poverty and welfare, women’s history, and urban history. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 2015 from Maynooth University for his thesis, examining perceptions of and responses to begging and alms-giving in pre-Famine and Famine Ireland, with particular focus on charities and religious denominations. His monograph (Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland) was published in Liverpool University Press’s ‘Reappraisals in Irish History’ series in 2018 and received a Special Commendation Award in the NUI Publication Prize in Irish History 2019. His latest publication  – Dublin and the Great Irish Famine was co-edited by Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Ciarán McCabe & Ciarán Reilly and published by UCD Press. 

He is currently working in Queen’s University Belfast.  

A Seventeenth Century Camera: Johann Zahn and the study of optics 

by Alexandra Caccamo Special Collections Librarian

Digitisation is an important part of our work in the library. It increases access to our collections and helps us make them available online to a greater number of people. With the development of our Digitisation Suite and the arrival of the scanner to the library, it is interesting to look at our collection for early descriptions of the camera. 

The Russell Library holds a number of books that deal with the study of optics. One such item is by Johann Zahn (1641-1707) Zahn was the canon of the Premonstratensian monastery of Oberzell near Würzburg. He had an interest in natural philosophy and published several works, with the most notable being ‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium‘ or The Long Distance Artificial Eye or Telescope. This work was published in 1685 in Würzburg. 

Plate depicting Zhan’s design for a portable camera obscura

The book is a treatise on optical instruments and their uses. It describes magic lanterns, telescopes, microscopes and other projection types. Zahn also outlines and illustrates the first portable camera obscura. A camera obscura consists of an entire darkened room with a small hole at one end through which an image is projected. It should be noted that he was not the first to describe a camera-like device. The Han Chinese philosopher, Mozi (c. 470 – 291 BC) described the principle behind the camera obscura and detailed how light travels in straight lines from its source thus inverting an image when projected through a small hole. However, Zahn was the first to publish a design for a portable mirror-reflex camera, which you can see here. Although it is still relatively large, and perhaps not what we would think of as portable today, it was innovative at the time. This design did not become a reality until almost 140 years later. 

Plate showing how light travels in straight lines.

‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus…’ has 190 pages. The title page is printed in black and red ink, with an additional richly engraved title page facing the printed title page. This engraving depicts an oculus artifci, literally artificial eye or a telescope. The book is illustrated throughout and contains 8 double-page tables, 30 engraved plates and numerous engraved and woodcut illustrations. Many of the plates are quite elaborate including one examining optics and the structure of the eye. 

Plate showing the structure of the eye.

There are also a number of plates which depict the refraction of light. 

Although, cameras have come a long way since the seventeenth century, we are still developing new ways of capturing images. In the New Year, we hope to be able to image, digitise and share more of our collections online. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Military Postcards in the Maynooth University Library Collection

by Alexandra Caccamo, Assistant Librarian with Responsibility for Special Collections and Archives, MU Library

For Explore Your Archives week, I am going to focus on a small collection of military themed postcards. The images on the postcards are of a long-gone era and range from military regiments and army barracks to World War I postcards. Of the thirty-two postcards in the collection only a handful have written messages, the rest may have been collected as keepsakes.

With the outbreak of World War I, commercial companies quickly began to print wartime themed postcards. One such company was Bamforth & Company Limited based in Yorkshire, who are probably better known for their bawdy seaside postcards. However, during the War they produced a more restrained product, the postcard set. These sets or series of postcards depicted popular songs or hymns. Almost all of them are quite poignant and show soldiers deployed overseas or their concerned loved ones, like the examples pictured here.

There is also a series of postcards showing the British army in ceremonial dress. Some of these were painted by the military artist and illustrator, Ernest Ibbetson (1877-1959). The postcards in our collection are of Irish regiments in the British army, such as 5th Royal Irish Lancers. They are numbered on the back and were probably part of series. There are also two postcards printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons. These so-called “oilettes” were printed to resemble miniature oil paintings.

As mentioned, the collection of postcards at Maynooth are mostly blank, but there are four which include messages. One with an image of the Curragh Camp, was sent from someone who seems to be missing their loved one. It says:

‘Dear A, Arrived safely on Sat. about noon of course it was raining over here. Am not in the best of spirits. Hoping you are all quite well. Best Love, A.’

Another postcard contains a very prosaic message, telling the recipient what to order from the butcher! This reflects the use of postcards as a quick and cheap means of communication.

‘Please tell Stratton that we shall not have anyone to the house next week. So I only want her to order 4lbs topside of Beef….from the butchers. Best love xxx from Mummy.’

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

The Knight of Glin Archive at OMARC, Castletown House

by Marie G. Cullen, Assistant Librarian, MU Library

In December 2014 the Office of Public Works (OPW)-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House received a donation of the archive of  Desmond FitzGerald the 29th and last Knight of Glin. The archive contains personal papers, correspondence and photographs that reflect FitzGerald’s life’s work—fighting for the preservation of Ireland’s Great Houses.

It is appropriate that the archive is housed in the surroundings of Castletown House, a historic house which was saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness as the focus of the archive relates to furniture of Irish and other origins in Irish historic houses. Guinness was the founder, patron and president of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), and Fitzgerald served as President of the IGS from 1991 to 2011. 

In his article Early Irish Trade-Cards and Other Eighteenth-Century Ephemera Fitzgerald describes the importance of what in most cases are ephemeral items. 

PP/GLIN Del Vecchio, print sellers, trade label

The archive contains much that would be considered ephemera. Fitzgerald carefully and systematically collated and annotated details and examples of furniture of Irish and other origins.  Photographs, auction catalogue and sales listings, articles from magazines, journals and other publications often accompanied by notes handwritten or typed. 

Fitzgerald documented and noted trade labels, carvings such as coat of arms, lions’ feet and acanthus leaves. Through the information provided in catalogues, other often ephemeral sources, his own knowledge and connections, he provided more details regarding origin, provenance, and ownership of items.

The archive demonstrates the Knight’s knowledge, enthusiasm and the variety of connections and associations he could draw on for insights and knowledge, including members of the Irish Georgian Society

While the information gathered in the archive on furniture and decorative arts is invaluable, the ephemeral nature of some of the sources, receipts etc. gives an insight into people’s spending habits in relations to food, fashion and furnishing their homes. The combination of one person’s lifelong interest and work, beautiful furniture, decorative arts and social history makes this an invaluable, fascinating and intriguing archive. 

PP/Glin Gregory Kane, trade label


With sincere thanks to Nicola Kelly, Archivist, OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre for providing research sources and photographs. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Moving Hearts: A Sample from Hutchinson’s Record Collection

By Darren Sturdy, Library Assistant, MU Library

The archive of distinguished multilingual poet Pearse Hutchinson (1927-2012), was deposited in Maynooth University in 2014. This large and eclectic archive contains many fascinating unique documents, but also an extensive library and music collection on both vinyl and audio cassette. Among the collection is an album on vinyl, familiar to most of a certain age, the self-titled debut from Moving Hearts.

Pearse Hutchinson

Christy Moore and Dónal Lunny formed Moving Hearts in 1981 out of the Baggot Inn in Dublin and released their debut album the same year on the WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) label. It is a mixture of traditional music and the contemporary sound of a rhythm section.

The band on this album consists of Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, Declan Sinnott, Eoghan O’Neill, Brian Calnan, Davy Spillane and Keith Donald.

The year is 1981 and there is a lot going on in Ireland and around the world. The songs on this album are a commentary of how the musicians on this record felt about things at the time.

The album opens with ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette’ written by Jim Page which is about the nuclear threat at the time and the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. Heavy opener indeed. The track also seems to play with the musicians themselves by introducing the line up with instrumental breaks between the verses.

The second track is ‘Irish Ways and Irish Laws’ is written by John Gibbs. While the opening song belts along, this following track is brought right down to a slower pace. The way Ireland was, what happened to her over time and wondering about the future.

Third track ‘McBrides’ is an instrumental written by Lunny/Sinnott. On this piece Spillane really shines on uileann pipes with backing from the rest of the band. This kicks in nicely after the more sombre tone of the previous song.

The penultimate track on side one in the old vinyl days is ‘Before the Deluge’ written by Jackson Browne. Bringing it back down again, this is a tale of idealism overtaken the realities of industry. Keith Donald has a great sax solo for the outro.

Side one closes with ‘Landlord’ written by Jim Page. An upbeat groove to a song about the evils of the landlord class and the treatment of tenants. Short and sweet at under three minutes.

Side Two kicks off with ‘Category’, an instrumental written by Lunny/Sinnott. Plays like a jam between the band and the second half of the album kicks into gear. No hanging about here.

Side Two, Track 2 and for me the best song on the album, ‘Faithful Departed’ by Philip Chevron. Chevron had no problem doing this as he did it twice with The Pogues (sorry Shane…). This has a nice guitar intro by Declan Sinnott. There seems to be so much talent on show for this album and finding a place to accommodate everyone.

Penultimate track on the album is the third and final instrumental ‘Lake of Shadows’ by Lunny/Sinnott/O’Neill. A downbeat tempo showcasing the band again. It really is lovely this one like a waltz.

The album closer and longest song on the record is ‘No Time for Love’ by Jack Warshaw. Injustices in the world.  

The album was produced by Dónal Lunny and with all the talent on show the star for me is bassist Eoghan O’Neill. His podcast is worth a listen. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Some New Additions to Maynooth University Library’s Troubles Collection Northern Ireland 

by Dr Ruth O’Hara, Assistant Librarian, MU Library 

Since 2018, Maynooth University Library (MUL) has been actively growing a unique archive of material dedicated to the period commonly referred to as the Northern Ireland Troubles. Our ‘troubles’ collection contains a diverse mix of literature, political ephemera, journalism, and secondary source material dating from the 1970s up to and beyond the Good Friday Agreement. It is a remarkably comprehensive archive that represents and documents the various ‘sides’ of Northern Irish society, including marginal groups and those on the fringes within the various strands of unionism, republicanism and beyond, as well as the main political groups. 

Ulster Says No! Vote Paisley; Democratic Unionist – Ulster says No. Ulster Democratic Unionist Party: ephemera

Some recent additions to the collection provide further valuable insight into Northern Ireland’s complex journey to becoming a post-conflict society. Ephemera, like an election leaflet for Ian Paisley in the 1986 North Antrim by-election, or evocative advertisements in the Ulster Defence Association produced periodical Ulster are redolent reminders of the debates from the 1980s and 1990s that still have echoes in more recent political campaigns.

Ulster, July/August 1986
Sinn Féin (1995). Towards a lasting peace in Ireland. [Dublin]: Sinn Féin

A shift in the narrative in the 1990s is, however, evident in many of the pieces in this part of the archive. For example, there is a 1995 reprint of Sinn Féin’s Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland, a document that has been described as a “watershed in the history” of the Republican movement.

We have also continued to add to the voices of those outside Northern Ireland which often provide an alternative view to events in the region. This pamphlet, edited by the Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland, and published in London, includes interviews with a British Labour MP, a Russian politician, as well as trade unionists from across the UK and Ireland.

Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland (1980). Ireland: Voices for Withdrawal.
London: Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland

However, it is the ephemera of everyday life contained in this archive that makes it such an important resource for researchers interested in understanding the impact of the ‘troubles’ on all aspects of Northern Irish society. Amongst many items, a door sign from the community-based project Cúnamh is a physical reminder of the ongoing toll political conflict can have. Cúnamh was established in 1997 and was funded by the Peace and Reconciliation Programme. Following the Saville Inquiry into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, a counselling and support centre was established by Cúnamh at the request of the relatives of those killed and wounded in Derry in 1972.

Cúnamh. Bloody Sunday Counselling & Support Service: ephemera

These items provide a brief snapshot of MUL’s comprehensive and growing archive dedicated to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. For more information or to access this collection please contact library.specialcollections@mu.ie


McInnes, C and Kennedy-Pipe, C. (2001) “The British Army and the Peace Process in Ireland”. Journal of Conflict Studies, 21 (1). Available at: https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/JCS/article/view/4291 (Accessed: 16 November 2022).

Cúnamh, Information Leaflet, [Derry]: Cúnamh: a lifeline for change.

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

‘Party Tunes’ in the Littlehales Archive

by Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections & Content, MU Library

The archives of Sir Edward Baker Littlehales, held in Maynooth University Library contain a wealth of interesting information on the Irish administration after the Act of Union.  While much of it is fascinating, it lacks the ribald and risqué stories which can be found in some of the other archives under our stewardship (looking at you Marquis of Sligo!).  Almost every mention of ‘party’ by Littlehales refers to that of a political type, and despite being a significant player at various prominent social events in Dublin for nearly twenty years, he scarcely deigns to mention them in correspondence.  Indeed, with the exception of ‘political’ parties, the main concern he had regarding moments of jollity came when militia and yeomanry decided to strike up an air. 

Portrait of Edward Baker Littlehales, taken from The diary of Mrs Simcoe

What really concerned Littlehales was when these sizeable amateur military forces decided to use festivals and parties for the airing of political ideology.  And to be fair to the beleaguered undersecretary, this was a genuine challenge, with the militia being primarily Catholic and the yeomanry being primarily Protestant

A letter from the Chief Secretary in April 1814 noted that there had been accusations of bias on behalf of Dublin Castle, given that

‘regular militia regiments have been forbidden to play party tunes on certain days but they are still played by the yeomanry here’

(MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 29 April 1814)
MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 3 May 1814

In reality, the government had striven for years to present as neutral a front as possible on such matters and when called to account for the confusion by the Chief Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, Littlehales was quick to defend noting that both militia and regular forces had been expressly forbidden, but also regarding the Yeomanry. He observes

‘it has been the policy of Government invariably not to countenance their playing any party tunes on certain days, in any manner which might give Offence to their Fellow subjects many of whom are probably of different persuasions, from themselves, particularly in the North of Ireland’

(MU/PP12 Littlehales to Peel, 3 May 1814)

Oddly enough Littlehales had brought this to Peel’s attention the previous year noting in particular that due to the link with the burgeoning Orange Order, no military band was to play any tune on certain days of commemoration

‘and especially on the 12th of July’

(MU/PP12 Littlehales to Peel, 26 June 1813)

lest it offend.

As always, Littlehales proved himself to be far from the Georgian libertine, but in this instance at least his party instincts (or lack thereof) could be said to be for the greater good. 

MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 3 May 1814

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

The Sale of Kilkenny Castle, 1935

by Nicola Kelly, Archivist, OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre

An item which currently forms part of the Irish country house archives at the OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre is a sale catalogue for Kilkenny Castle dated 1935. It symbolises the fortunes of the powerful Butlers of Ormonde and the collections amassed during a six-hundred-year dynasty.

Kilkenny Castle has been an important site since Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, commonly known as Strongbow constructed the first castle in the 12th century. The Castle later became the seat to a very powerful family, the Butlers of Ormonde. The Butler family (who changed their name from FitzWalter in 1185) arrived in Ireland with the Norman invasion. They originally settled in Gowran where James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond built Gowran Castle in 1385. The patrimony of the Butlers of Ormond encompassed most of the modern counties of Tipperary, Kilkenny, and parts of County Carlow. The purchase of Kilkenny Castle in 1391 and the Butlers established themselves as rulers of the area, a dynasty that would last for centuries.

Main entrance and courtyard, Kilkenny Castle

By the twentieth century, however, the impact of rising taxes, death duties, economic depression and living costs had taken their toll. The Butler family disposed of the bulk of their tenanted estates in Tipperary and Kilkenny, 21,000 acres (85 km²), by 1915 for £240,000. Death duties and expenses following the death of James Butler, 3rd Marquess of Ormonde in 1919 amounted to £166,000 which was devastating. George Butler, Earl of Ossory and his family remained living in the castle until 1935, when they sold its contents for £6,000, moved to London and abandoned it for thirty years.

Cover page, Sale catalogue of Kilkenny Castle, 1935

It was announced in Irish newspapers as follows

‘Battersby and Co. are favoured with instructions from the Right Hon. the Earl of Ossory to sell by auction at “Kilkenny Castle” the valuable furnishings and appointments of the historic mansion together with the library, outdoor effects, etc. : Catalogue of the valuable, antique and interesting contents of this historic mansion to be sold by auction commencing Monday, 18th November 1935 to 25th November, 1935 and 3 following days.’

So much interest had been garnered in the auction, a second printing of the catalogue was required.

Opening the auction on 18th November 1935, Raymond V. Judd, Manager of Battersby and Co. Auctioneers was quoted by the Irish Independent newspaper as saying,

‘he could not let the occasion pass without voicing his regret with the citizens of Kilkenny for the severance of an association which lasted for so many centuries.’

The names of the illustrious ancestors of the Castle had been interwoven with Irish history for centuries. Unfortunately, due to the changing economic circumstances of the Butlers and many landed estate owners alike, they were forced to sell the contents of Kilkenny Castle.

Contents of the Dining Room, Kilkenny Castle

The catalogue lists 3,036 lots, amounting to a little over 4,000 items, interspersed throughout are plates, featuring prominent items from the auction. Over 600 lots alone from the catalogue include the contents of the library. A visitor to the second day of the auction described stepping into the entrance hall,

‘Immediately you have crossed the threshold of the main door, you are reminded of its associations through centuries, heartbreaking and painful for the native Irish and not uneventful for the castle’s inhabitants. The castle is filled in its every nook and cranny with beautiful pieces from many periods.’

Lot 412, Oak framed fourfold Spanish leather screen, figures and cherubim

The Picture Gallery

The Picture Gallery, photographed in the catalogue features significant pieces of art of international importance, the picture collection is a story of acquisition and sales, collection and dispersal, spread over four centuries. The story can be told in four phases: acquisition in the seventeenth century, sales in the eighteenth, followed by a period of improving fortunes leading to more acquisitions, and finally, in the twentieth century, a final sale and partial recovery.

As early as the 16th century, the Ormonde family were important patrons of the arts, when James Butler 9th Earl (1504-46) commissioned his portrait from Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the greatest portraitists of the time at the court of Henry VII.  The 17th century ducal collection was the largest and finest of its time in Ireland, numbering over 500 paintings, 200 tapestries, oriental furniture, silver, and objects d’art.

The Picture Gallery, Kilkenny Castle sale catalogue, 1935

During the nineteenth century the collection in this gallery consisted of 184 paintings, today there are 49 hanging. The nineteenth century list shows that paintings on display were comprised of almost equal numbers of portraits (98), the rest (86) divided amongst subject painting, landscapes, and religious pictures. Today there are 36 portraits on display.

From examining this catalogue, it certainly places the Butler family as one Ireland’s most important collectors of fine art, furniture, silver and tapestries and Kilkenny Castle a key component in Ireland’s art-historical heritage.

The collection of country house sale catalogues is available for consultation to researchers, please contact the OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre for details.

Website: www.maynoothuniversity.ie/omarc

Email: nicola.kelly@mu.ie

Explore Your Archive: Documents of the Day

The Wardell Archive: George Vaughan Wardell Letters

by Adam Staunton, Library Assistant, MU Library

The Wardell Archive comprises the personal papers of the Wardell family. The Wardells were a military family serving in the British army. William Henry Wardell (1799-1881) was a Major in several regiments, his son William Henry Junior (1838-1903) was a Major-General, George Vaughan Wardell (1840-1879) a Captain, while his nephew Warren served in the Garhwal Rifles. The collection consists of their letters along with letters by Professor John Wardell (1878-1957) whose father John Charles Wardell was a Captain in the Royal Marines, Frederica Wardell, Eliza Wardell, and Georgiana Wardell.

The Wardell letters show the close bonds that existed within military families, not just of the adults who served but also the families at home including the children who write about pets or their siblings. The collection details military life and traditions but also the daily life of British landed gentry of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is reflected in the letters by George Vaughan Wardell. George was born in Toronto in 1840 and followed his father Major William Wardell into military service. In May 1858 he joined the British 24th Regiment. By 1861 he became a lieutenant and as detailed in his letters to parents and siblings, served in Mauritius, Rangoon, Madras, Malta, Gibraltar and Brecon. In 1872 he was promoted to captain and posted to South Africa following an increase in native disturbances.

MU/PP/2/75/1 George Vaughan Wardell (1840-1879)

However, George in his letters had now started speaking of his long desire to retire from active military service but remarks he cannot do so on a Captain’s pension with a wife and six children to support. George is often refused leave from service as he states

‘I am so disappointed, after all my waiting, and longing, I suppose I must grin and bear it as well as I can’


George was still needed in Africa as his company had successfully built and defended Fort Warwick against Xhosa attacks for several months and as a result earned praise from British commander in South Africa, General Sir Arthur Cunynghame. Following British victory over the Xhosa in 1879, attention turned to the Zulu Kingdom.

I do not think they could possibly spare any troops at present from this.’


High Commissioner for Southern Africa Sir Henry Bartle Frere, on his own initiative and without the approval of the British government, presented an ultimatum to Zulu king Cetshwayo that the Zulu army be disbanded and the Zulus accept a British resident. Zulu culture which had been reformed under King Shaka in the 1820s could not accept these terms. Shaka transformed the Zulu tribe into a warrior outfit under the ibutho military system, convincing his people that the quickest way to power was to conquer and incorporate smaller tribes into their army. The Zulu army used the chest and horn military tactic, as the chest would commence a frontal attack on the enemy, the horns would surround them and cut off any retreat.

MU/PP/2/64 Wardell to his parents,
18 September 1877

George Wardell knew the Zulu posed a much greater challenge than the Xhosa and predicted a much tougher war,

the Zulus are a far more powerful and better armed than the last’


Despite this, the British military had a clear technological and tactical advantage over the Zulu military. Continuing in his letter George writes,

I don’t want to see any poor devils bowled over but I am curious to see our field battery open fire on them in mass. I think it will open their eyes


George would go on to describe his column as consisting

of one battery field. Royal artillery, about 500 horsemen and a native contingent about 200 strong.


On 10 January 1879, George would write his final letter to his family as the British army crossed into Zululand

I must write a few lines before bidding adieu to Natal, as very early tomorrow morning we commence crossing the Buffalo, into Zululand to bring that great and sable potentate Cetchwayo to his bearings.’


George finished the letter by saying

If all is well I will send you a line again’


The next morning the Zulu army of 20,000 men attacked the British camp at Isandlwana hill. As Wardell’s 24th Regiment fought the chest, the British right flank retreated allowing the Zulu left horn to flank and break British lines. The bodies of the 24th regiment weren’t found and buried until June 1789. Wardell was survived by his wife, Lucy, and six daughters.

MU/PP/2/71 Wardell to his parents, 6 November 1878
MU/PP/2/73 Wardell’s last letter, 10 January 1879