Constable William Davis

William was eight years old when the first hostilities broke out between the British and the Boers in 1880 as the Scramble for Africa was underway. At the time he was walking a mile or so over the fields to a very small school near the Bonet river at Cloonaquin. There he heard stories of the ‘valiant’ efforts of the British and their soldiers to ‘civilise’ Africa. The school was funded by a local landlord, John LaTouche for his Protestant tenants.

Two members of the South African Constabulary set up in 1900.

The Boers won the initial encounter setting up the South African Republic and the Orange River Colony.  Almost twenty years later conflict broke out again over the same territories in what became known as “The Boer War”. This time the outcome was different, the British won, and William would play a part in the establishment of the new colonies.

After his bothers Robert and James joined the army William spent the next fifteen years living and working on the farm at Boggaun with his father, James, his remaining brothers Alex and Richard and his sister, Mary Jane.  What prompted him to leave after this time? There had been adverts in the local newspapers recruiting for the South African Constabulary (SAC) with the promise of assisted settlement for those who wished to stay after their term was over. Recruitment to Irish-based regiments had stopped at the time due to fears of rebellion in Ireland; a concern that the Irish would take an example from the defiant Boers. Given that there had been a number of difficult years with low farm incomes, coupled with the family’s unease at the Nationalist campaign for change and the growing clamour for Home Rule, perhaps William was drawn by the opportunity of a life elsewhere; as had many others before him from the Boggaun farm.

Leaving behind the love of his life, perhaps with vows already made, William set off on the long journey by train across Ireland, down through England to Southampton where the assembled recruits boarded troop ships to South Africa.  The steamer had about 200 men, small by comparison to the larger and more frequent army ships, taking men, horses and heavy equipment to the southern Africa. The last batch of recruits for the South African Constabulary left England in June 1902, likely with William onboard. He arrived in Cape Town over two weeks later, the sea voyage initiating him to a new life with new friends. But he was ill-prepared for the experiences of Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War.

An advert placed in the Leinster Express in Mrach 1901.

When they landed in Cape Town the war had ended a few months earlier. The new recruits to Baden-Powell’s police force travelled for days northwards by train to the newly named Transvaal Colony. Conditions here were grim. Two years previous a “scorched earth” policy was instigated by Kitchener, a Kerry-born General, destroying food supplies, animals and crops, housing and infrastructure, and brought the various populations in the Boer colonies to their knees with starvation and desperation. Before Williams’s arrival the SAC recruits had been used as a military force to help defeat the Boer campaign of guerrilla warfare.

Concentration camps had been established by the army, one for Boers and one for Africans.  While the vast majority of the Boer men were sent overseas, some 27,000 women and children died in these camps, the vast majority under sixteen. Control of the camps was removed from the army in 1901 after a humanitarian outcry and political pressure at home.  Conditions improved in the Boer camps but not in those holding black Africans; however, it would be some decades before institutionalised apartheid was established.   

When William began his training at their base at Modderfontein, the South African Constabulary were acting more as a regular police force operating in the conquered territories – previously the South African Republic and the Orange River Colony. There was a policy to recruit large numbers of farmers in a belief that they could better deal with the rural Boers.  Historian Albert Grundlingh stated that a “considerable number of ploughmen, farm workers and other members of the rural underclasses in Britain thus found their way into the SAC.” While most of the Constabulary were British some 11% were Irish with others recruited from far flung colonies of the Empire. As a police force, their task was challenging “Mostly unfamiliar with the customs of the country and unable to speak Dutch, they had to manage the subjugated and ill-disposed Boers, many of whom had lost homes and possessions in the war, and who spoke only Dutch.”

William’s post card to his brother Alex in 1925 on his return voyage to South Africa.

William returned home to Ireland in 1907 after completing his term, and married Elizabeth Ellen Henry from Derrynoveagh, a small townland about a mile from the Davis farm. The Henry family had a shop there, near the present day Manorhamilton GAA pitch, and traded in various agricultural goods at a time when these townlands had significant populations. William’s youngest brother, Richard, my grandfather, was a witness at their wedding in Manorhamilton Parish Church. The couple returned to South Africa shortly afterwards intending to settle there. It is likely that he availed of a return passage at the end of his term in the Constabulary.

The SAC disbanded by 1908 with many joining the Transvaal and Orange River Colony Police.  William was in Ireland again during 1924 and was on his way home by ship in February 1925, according to a post card to his brother (Aleck) Alex. There is no record of any subsequent contact over the intervening years.

Among the many Irish men who fought in colonial campaigns in Southern Africa was Belfast-born James Craig who became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Bertie Gillmor, my Grand Uncle, joined the Irish Guards in 1915 (see the next and previous blogs). The Irish Guards were established by Queen Victoria in 1900 to commemorate the Irish contribution to The Boer War, ironically the regiment recruited many more Irish men who would perish in World War One.



  • William Davis was born at Boggaun, County Leitrim 1872 and died in Pretoria 1950.
  • Text on back of post card addressed to Mr and Mrs Aleck Davis, Corballis, Donore, Drogheda, Meath Ireland: Dear Bro and Sister. On board ship on opposite side moving towards Canary Islands which we are due to reach tomorrow morning. Having pleasant voyage and weather. Had very cold snow storm on leaving England on Friday morn. Crossed the Bay of Biscay without mishap. Hope all are well. From Wm 30 Feb? 25
  • “Poor South Africa! Will no nice English people ever come out here?”—The South African Constabulary of the Second South African War, by Johan Fourie, Albert Grundlingh and Martine Mariotti. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 04/15. An informative paper on the SAC, Pdf copy here