Meet Jimmy Durham – the only black soldier to serve in Queen Victoria’s Army


After being found on the banks of the Nile in Sudan in 1885, little Jimmy was taken on by the regiment until he could officially join up at the age of 14.

Found as a baby on the banks of the River Nile, in Sudan, in 1885 after a battle with the British, he was adopted by the men of the Durham Light Infantry, went on to join the regiment when the Queen gave special dispensation for him to sign up, moved back to the North East and married the sister of one of his comrades.

Durham County archivist Liz Bregazzi, who has studied Jimmy’s life, said: “It is the most remarkable and fascinating story, perhaps because we couldn’t imagine such a thing happening today.

“This little boy of around two was discovered on what was effectively a battlefield and taken away by the British regiment that found him.

“It’s almost impossible to compare that with life in the modern-day Army – the idea of that happening in Afghanistan or Iraq in recent times is unthinkable. But although the soldiers of the DLI were taking him away from his home they almost certainly saved his life.”

The forgotten tale begins with the discovery of an orphaned boy after an Arab army was cut down by the British at the Battle of Ginnis , in Sudan, on December 30 1885, with the boat-mounted Gardner guns of the DLI taking many lives.

Little Jimmy with one of the DLI soldiers (Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the former DLI and Durham County Record Office)

The survivors fled but the mounted infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle, pursued a river barge, or nuggar, up the Nile.

A year on, de Lisle, later a Lieutenant General, retold how they got on the barge: “Not knowing how many might have been there, we decided to creep up on foot, discharge two volleys and charge with as much noise as possible.

“These tactics were highly successful for, as soon as we set up a yell, the Dervishes fled dismayed. We ran up to the boat and seized the towline and there, standing on the bank of the stream alone, was a small curly-haired child under two years of age, dressed in the full war paint of a Sudanese warrior.

“As he held up his arms for me to take him up, I did so and threw him to Sergeant Stuart to look after with the barge, while the remainder of us pressed on in pursuit.”

De Lisle managed to find out from an injured man that the child’s name was Mustapha and that his father had been killed and his mother had fled.

Jimmy was thought to be under two when he was discovered (Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the former DLI and Durham County Record Office)

De Lisle soon forged a bond bet­­­ween the boy and the regiment that lasted a lifetime.

The DLI took him in as their own and he was put into the care of two men in particular – Private James Birley and Sergeant Major Joseph Francies.

Taking a name from each and his surname from the regiment, Mustapha became James Francies Durham – or Jimmy to the troops who became his friends. The only words he knew were “morto” – meaning death – which he would shout while holding his fingers like a gun as he wandered around the DLI camp, and “aus laben” which means “I want milk”.

Documents held by the DLI archive in Spennymoor, Co Durham, say that at first Jimmy was treated almost as a “pet” by the soldiers.

He would do song-and-dance routines to entertain the camp and on the long marches he would ride astride the pommel of a sergeant’s saddle.

Toddler with the Durham Light Infantry (Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the former DLI and Durham County Record Office)

In his journals, Lieutenant de Lisle recalled: “The little dervish boy remained with us as a regimental pet until we reached Cairo a year later.

“There, I intended to place him in a mission school but the sergeants implored me to allow him to remain and made themselves responsible for his upkeep. Until he enlisted in the regiment, the sergeants each subscribed one rupee (a day’s pay) a month for James Francies Durham.”

De Lisle added: “He was a very smart lad. He quickly learned to speak English and, when only two-and-a-half, could act as interpreter for the men with the hawkers in camp.”

Liz Bregazzi says: “The regiment was his home and the soldiers who took him to their hearts and clearly cared for him very deeply were the closest he had to a family, and he appears to have flourished with them.”

Jimmy as an adult in civilian clothing (Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the former DLI and Durham County Record Office)

Because they refused to let him go, Jimmy stayed with the battalion, the troops paying for his education as they were posted to Egypt and then India, and he learned to play the bugle.

In 1899, it was decided he was old enough to join up as a boy bandsman, even though no one knew his real age and were guessing he was about 14.

So unique was the situation, the papers had to go to Queen Victoria for royal approval and on May 23 of that year, he was enlisted as Territorial Number 6758 in the DLI – almost certainly the first black soldier to serve in the British Army .

His regiment, the 2nd DLI, was eventually brought home in 1908 and Jimmy travelled to Co Durham and the North East with the regimental band.

It was while visiting Bishop Auckland that he met Jane Green, the daughter of a local blacksmith and sister of a DLI Quartermaster Sergeant.

Jimmy sadly died young after a battle with pneumonia (Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the former DLI and Durham County Record Office)

They were married soon afterwards on July 28, 1908, at Newcastle register office, while Jimmy was visiting the city.

But their marriage was to end in tragedy. No sooner had Jane discovered she was pregnant with Jimmy’s baby than he was posted to Ireland where he was not used to the cold, wet weather. Jimmy became ill and on August 8, 1910, he died of pneumonia in Fermoy Military Hospital, Cork.

Just three weeks later, barely able to adjust to news of his death, Jane gave birth to their daughter Frances.

Jane later re-married, to Thomas Cleasby, who brought up Frances as his own in Bishop Auckland.

Liz Bregazzi said: “It’s such a sad end to a very young life, which might be one of the reasons his story has endured. Although he died young, no one can say that Jimmy didn’t pack an enormous amount into a tragically short life.”

Find out more at the Durham County Record Office website .

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