C is for Frances Ellen Colenso

So far so boring. Only the two authors of this History of the Zulu War are respectively the lover and the brother of Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Durnford RE, hero and/or villain of the Battle of Isandlwana, killed in action by the Zulus on 22nd January 1879.

Frances Ellen Colenso (1849-1887) was the daughter of Sarah Frances and John William Colenso, later Bishop of Natal. She was educated at Winnington Hall and the Slade School of Art and wanted to be an artist. Nell’s life went off the rails in 1873 when she met and fell in love with Anthony Durnford and was smashed when Durnford was killed.

Nell, as she was known to her family and friends, spent most of the last nine years of her life defending Durnford’s reputation. She died from tuberculosis probably caught while nursing a soldier in Natal.

Anthony William Durnford (1830-1879), son of General E W Durnford RE, was a career soldier who joined the Royal Engineers in 1848. A Christian soldier and a friend of C G Gordon, you might think he was an ideal match for Nell Colenso. Only he was married.

Col. Anthony William Durnford

In 1854, while serving in Ceylon, Durnford married Frances Tranchell daughter of the colonel commanding the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. They had three children, two of whom died in infancy. The second death ended the marriage. (His gambling habit didn’t help.) Anthony went off to command 27th Field Company RE in Gibraltar. Frances went off to live with her uncle. But they never divorced. Indeed, in Victorian England it wouldn’t have done Anthony’s career any good at all if they had.

Lurid things have been said about Frances Durnford. Donald R Morris in The Washing of the Spears remarks of Durnford in 1874, “He was forty-four years old and had not seen his wife in a decade; she lived somewhere in England, and had no contact with Durnford’s relatives, who were raising their sixteen year old daughter.” This is untrue. There was no secret about Frances Durnford’s location, nor had she abandoned her daughter. The 1871 census records Frances Durnford and her daughter (yet another Frances) living in Portsea with her uncle George Tranchell and his wife Amelia. Towards the end of her life Frances was given the use of a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened if she’d had the scandalous past so many writers attribute to her. She and Durnford lived apart. Full stop.

Giant’s Castle seen from Bushman’s River

Fast forward to the Drakensberg Mountains in 1873. Anthony Durnford, now a Major, has missed out on active service. In 1858 he arrived in India too late to help suppress the Mutiny. In 1864 he set off for China to join his friend C G Gordon (later of Khartoum) only to be struck down by heat stroke. Now in South Africa active service finds him.

Langalibalele was leader of the amaHlubi clan who had long been settled around Bushman’s River in Natal. In 1873 the colonial government demanded that the clan register its firearms. Rather than try to enforce this order, Langalibalele determined to take his people up the river, over Giant’s Castle and into what it is now Lesotho.

The colonial government determined to thwart what they considered an act of secession. A complex plan was devised to trap the amaHlubi. A force would follow the amaHlubi upriver. Meanwhile two detached forces would come through the Drakensberg Mountains from north and south to close Bushman’s Pass. One of the two detached forces failed to arrive at all. The other commanded by Durnford arrived a day late by which time it is was they who were ambushed by the amaHlubi rather than the other way round. Here is a plan courtesy of the South African Military History Society.

You can read in detail about what happened at


Durnford’s party consisted of 35 white troopers, mainly Natal Carbineers, and about 20 baSotho auxiliaries. He himself behaved with exemplary courage despite having fallen from his horse on the way and cracking two ribs. His basSothos stood by him, helping him escape after he was assegaied. By contrast most of the white troopers broke and ran after two of their number were killed. Durnford’s later comments to this effect made him as the Dictionary of National Biography recorded “the best abused man in the colony.” Langabilalele was captured and sent to Robben Island after a trial widely regarded as “a disgrace to British justice.” He remained in South Africa until the 1880s. He is buried in Giants Castle. In 1990, shortly after his own release from Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, another Xhosa prince, laid a wreath on Langalibalele’s grave.

Why am I going on about this obscure military campaign? Answer – because Frances Colenso did. Her history of the Zulu War has 20 pages on the Langabilalele Rebellion and another 20 on the trial. The three years after 1873 were the happiest years of Nell’s life. She and Anthony Durnford were at one about the evils of the colonial government and the injustice done to Langalibalele. While Bishop Colenso went to London and lobbied for a retrial, they fought the good fight in Natal. And made themelves very unpopular doing so. More to the point: they spent a great deal of time together.

And now – at last – the Zulu War and the battle of Isandlwana, the greatest defeat of the British Army in the nineteenth century. This is the picture of the battle in C T Atkinson’s History of the South Wales Borderers whose 1st Battalion lost 5 companies in the battle.

In Frances Colenso’s opinion – a view shared by several other historians – the build up to the Zulu War bore a remarkable resemblance to the earlier treatment of Langalibalele. The Zulu king Cetshwayo was confronted by a series of demands, including the disbandment of his army, which would have cost him his kingdom had he complied. There is little doubt that Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British High Commissioner in South Africa from 1877 to 1880, believed that war with the Zulus was inevitable sooner or later, and preferred sooner rather than later. Simply, Frere wanted to impose a federation on the territories that now form South Africa, and the Zulus were in the way.

Cetshwayo went to war with public enthusiasm and private doubt. He hoped to negotiate a settlement and he gave the induna in command of the Zulu army vague and contradictory orders about how to cope with Lord Chemsford, the British commander in chief, who launched a four pronged invasion of Zululand towards the end of 1878. Neither Cetshwayo nor Chelmsford had any doubt at all that the Zulus would be defeated if they ran up against a sizeable body of British soldiers.

Cetshwayo’s brother Nthsingwayo (shown above in an authentic photo taken in 1877 and shown below in an Illustrated London News engraving) had other ideas.

With the best part of 24,000 men he advanced in two columns a few miles apart from each other. When his northern column was discovered, he concentrated his force to the south, logistically easy for Zulus since they carried their supplies on their backs, but still an impressive demonstration of command control. Lord Chelmsford, meanwhile, who had crossed into Zululand and established a camp at Isandhlwana on 20 January, reacted exactly as Nthsingwayo must have hoped. He divided his force, himself setting off north at daybreak with a mobile column to find the Zulus and bring them to battle.

There was nothing particularly clever about Nthsingwayo’s tactics at Isandlwana. He adoped the standard Zulu buffalo’s chest and horns, the chest holding the enemy frontally while the horns closed in behind. The senior British officers remaining at Isandlwana seem to have had little idea they were facing the whole Zulu army until quite late in the battle. At about 8 o’clock in the morning, Lieutenant Charles Raw in command of a body of native scouts came across the entire Zulu army resting quietly in a valley. He sent a messenger to Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine now in command of the camp and Pulleine in turn sent a messenger to Chelmsford who received the news at about 10 o’clock. But – Chinese whispers style – the message was toned down each time it was passed on.

Durnford, now also a lieutenant colonel, arrived in camp with a body of native horse and a rocket battery at about 10.30. Probably by agreement with Pulleyne, he and his men set off shortly afterwards to investigate the truth of Raw’s report. They ran into one of the impis forming the Zulu buffalo chest. The rocket battery was overwhelmed. Durnford’s mounted men retreated to a dry watercourse and held the Zulus until their ammunition ran out. Meantime Durnford sent word to Pulleine who reacted by advancing his firing line further from the camp in an attempt to support Durnford and detaching Lonsdale’s company of South Wales Borderers to stay in contact with him. Later he detached Pope’s company to cover the extending gap between Durnford and the main firing line. Both moves helped the Zulus. Frances Colenso disputes this view.

For a detailed account of the battle I like:


though there are many others on line including Frances Colenso’s. Here is a plan.

There are a variety of explanations for the Zulu breakthrough. The most likely is that Durnford’s retreat, after his native horse ran out of ammunition, exposed the flank of Pope’s company. Once the Zulus got within stabbing distance, the end came rapidly. Durnford, who was still mounted, elected to stay on the battlefield. He died bravely organising a last ditch defence that prevented the Zulu horns from meeting for a few minutes, thus allowing a handful of the defenders to escape. Out of a total of about 1700, more than 800 British and nearly 500 African soldiers died. The Zulus are reckoned to have lost something like 2000 having endured sustained volley fire at close range.

This Pyrrhic victory cost the Zulus their kingdom. Despite Cetshwayo’s restraint in refusing to allow an invasion of Natal, there wasn’t the slightest chance any longer that the British would negotiate. Chelmsford was replaced by Wolseley but had the satisfaction of commanding at Ulundi where the Zulus were finally defeated. Cetshwayo was captured and exiled to South Africa. In 1882 Colenso arranged a visit to London.

Cetshwayo did so well the British tried to restore him to his throne. But Zululand was hopelessly divided and prey to civil war. Cetshwayo’s faithful induna Nthsingwayo was killed in July 1883 defending him. Cetshwayo died in 1884 possibly poisoned.

The initial reaction of the Natal press to the shock of British defeat was to blame Durnford. If he had fortified the camp “as ordered” and refrained from venturing out “as ordered” the Zulus would have been defeated as thoroughly as they were at Rorke’s Drift. Poor Nell. The press reports lifted her from grief to the incandescent fury that provided the driving force for her History of the Zulu War, her two volume Ruin Of Zululand and a third book (see ahead). The “as ordered” onslaught was utterly unjustified. Chelmsford had given no orders to fortify the camp. Even if such orders had been given, Durnford who arrived in camp at 10.30 and who was dead by 2.30, couldn’t have obeyed them. And as for remaining on the defensive, what on earth did the Natal press imagine was the function of mounted scouts? To his discredit, Chelmsford failed to correct these aspersions. Colenso did. And rescued Durnford’s reputation.

Frances Colenso is buried at Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Her gravestone is so weathered it can’t any longer be read. The inscription reads:

In memory of Frances Ellen Colenso
Born 30 May 1850
Died 29 April 1887
Second daughter of the right Rev John Colenso Lord Bishop of Natal
Following her father’s example she sacrificed her life on behalf of the helpless and oppressed.

Anthony Durnford has a larger scale memorial. The Royal Engineers subscribed for a stained glass window in Rochester Cathedral.

But I want to give Nell the last word. Here is what the DNB had to say about Anthony

Look at the end. One of the works consulted cited in brackets is Wylde’s My Chief and I. Atherton Wylde – that celebrated author – is none other than Frances Ellen Colenso.

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