Sir Henry Wellcome’s deep interest in the archaeology, history and wellbeing of the Sudan is well known. Undoubtedly the event that did more than anything else to spark such fascination – in Wellcome’s mind as in that of so many of his Victorian contemporaries – was the siege of Khartoum and death of Gordon in 1884-85. This explains the presence in our holdings not only of hundreds of letters by General Gordon himself, but a small collection of correspondence of Garnet Wolseley (MS.7043), leader of the Gordon Relief Expedition .
The thirty-five letters by Wolseley were all written to the poet Alfred Austin between 1878 and 1905. In fact only two of them concern Sudanese affairs; the rest range widely over the various stages of Wolseley’s career, from the Zulu to the Boer wars. They were purchased at auction in London in 1930. A single letter written from Camp Korti in the Sudan on 6 February 1885 describing the failure of the Expedition cost Wellcome £25 (about £1200 in today’s money).
Although few in number the letters provide remarkable insights into the mind of late Victorian Britain’s most famous soldier and confirm the power of individual pieces of physical correspondence to connect us to the past in ways that cannot be matched by other physical artefacts, let alone digital objects. From the letter written aboard the steam ship Edinburgh Castle en route to South Africa in 1879 – ‘ this infernal ship shakes so much I can barely write’ – to the moment in 1905 when Wolseley’s letters suddenly slip into typescript – ‘in my old age I have taken to a typewriter’ – thus signalling as it were the irruption of the twentieth century, the correspondence immediately transports the reader back to hover over the writer’s shoulder.
Wolseley reveals himself as a man of overweening self-regard with a highly developed sense of entitlement, more than befitting the model for W.S. Gilbert’s ‘modern major-general’. Politicians are given short shrift – Gladstone is held in particular contempt – as well as military pen-pushers and rivals. Contemporary resonances abound, from Wolseley’s strictures on government policy in Afghanistan to complaints about underfunding of the army – ‘the professional soldier is ignored by the politician who prefers to spend money upon buying bibs and pinafores for the young children in the Ragged Schools than providing for the defense [sic] of the country!’. If the evident friendship between the brusque military man and the poet seems at first sight surprising, it can perhaps be explained by Austin’s other role as leader writer on the Standard, a Tory organ that Wolseley clearly expected to puff his claims for career advancement.
Alfred Austin was eventually made poet laureate in succession to Tennyson in 1896, and thus assumed his place as probably the least distinguished holder of that office in its long history. His attempts to follow Tennyson as creator of national myth foundered at his first attempt, which embarrassingly celebrated the humiliating Jameson Raid into the Transvaal. The verse style can best be gleaned from an earlier poem on the illness of the Prince of Wales in 1871
Flash’d from his bed, the electric tidings came,
He is not better; he is much the same.
Wolseley though was a fan, and in truth Austin was not an entirely bad poet but merely miscast as national celebrant.
In the centenary year of death of both parties to this remarkable correspondence, it is interesting to ponder how much has changed in the intervening century and yet how much has remained the same.