The Town Guard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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As soon as the South African War threatened in September 1899, the Imperial army decided to operate a major offensive via Queenstown and the Stormberg.
East London was chosen as a point of disembarkation for the troops and stores. The port was also to be used as the base for the 3rd Division which meant that considerable bodies of troops would be stationed there for short periods.
The Town Council, which maintained unquestioning loyalty to the British cause throughout the conflict, spared nothing in co-operating wherever possible. The entire commonage was placed at the disposal of the troops, and the Recreation Ground was granted as a permanent camp.
Soon after the onset of hostilities, the British forces sought to supplement their ranks with local recruits. In January 1900, therefore, a flood of notices filled the local papers which called for enlistment to the various branches of the military.
Of greater consequence, however, was the formation of the Town Guard, a body created in many of the towns throughout the Colony at the request of the Imperial authorities. Ostensibly it was to be a home guard but its exact purpose was never fully clarified.
Indeed, when a public meeting was called in January 1900 to establish the organisation, the aims were deliberately kept vague. Even so, one objective was clear: that the Town Guard would boost loyalty to the British cause and reduce support for the Boer republics.
The Guard would therefore muster as many men under arms as possible and they would devote time to marching with rifle drill twice a week, and so acquire a sense of common cause with the Imperial designs.
The general feeling at the meetings was that "he who was not with them, was against them". Indeed, a letter in the Daily Dispatch summed up the attitude: although the men would probably never be called into service, it was enough that the Empire had asked for a Town Guard.
"In the formation of a Town Guard," the letter concluded, "we all meet on one common ground. Rich and poor, old and young, we all enjoy the same liberties and blessings under the good old flag."
Despite the calls for loyalty, East Londoners generally gave the issue only a luke-warm response. Indeed, the public meeting and subsequent ward meetings proved relatively unsuccessful in rallying the townsmen to the cause, and the numbers which attended were low.
The only exception was the predominantly English-speaking West Bank. Interest, on the other hand, was poor even at the Beach where a substantial number of Uitlander refugees were already camped.
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