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Lewis joined the Royal Artillery as Gunner 458 on November 21st, 1874. In February 1878 he was with 'N' Battery in South Africa, he was promoted to Bombadier. Bombardier Thomas Lewis had some luck that he perhaps did not regard as such. After a wagon overturned on him and badly injured his leg, he was in the Field Hospital at Rorkes Drift. Had this not been the case, he would have been with “N/5” at Isandhlwana. Rorkes Drift was a trading post built by James Rorke. In January 1879 it was serving as a Commissariat and Field Hospital. It was regarded as a backwater and lightly defended.
Zulus repeatedly attacked the hospital and set the roof alight. Henry Hook defended a doorway single handed for several hours with bullet and bayonet. Private 1395 John Williams hacked through walls with his bayonet to get the patients back to (relative) safety. At the other end of the building Privates 716 Robert Jones and 593 William Jones also defended each inch at bayonet point. Private Cole and another of the Hospital Guard were soon killed. Private 1398 Joseph Williams defended a window single handed and when his ammunition ran out, he continued to defend the window at bayonet point. Eventually the Zulus dragged him out and disembowled him. After the battle, 14 dead Zulus were found by “Joseph Williams Window” and many more in his field of fire.
Eventually the Hospital Guard got most of the patients out of the hospital and carried those who could not walk through a rain of assegais and bullets to the Commissariat. Thomas Lewis, had to jump out of a window despite injury to his leg, and crawl the 30 or so yards across open ground to some form of safety. Miraculously he reached the Commissariat unscathed.
The battle continued all night but in the morning the Zulus being unable to take Kwa Jimu (Rorkes Drift) and fearing the arrival of Chelmsford’s reinforcements, retreated. Thus a military legend was born. 11 VCs were awarded, including Chard, Bromhead, Dalton, Henry Hook, John Williams, Robert Jones, and William Jones.
Bombardier Lewis developed fever in addition to his leg injury and was taken to the hospital at Pietermaritzberg. Thomas’ brother in law was dead, he was injured and although he was unaware at the time, his father had died six weeks before the battle.
3rd July 1882 at Windsor Great Park, Lewis was accorded the great honour of being personally presented to Queen Victoria. Victoria always retained a soft spot for Rorkes Drift Defenders and it was she who coined the phrase, “The defence of Rorkes Drift is Immortal”.
Circa 1885 Thomas Lewis left the Army. He worked briefly as a Prison Officer, perhaps in Brecon. He then came to London and took up residence in Highgate and became Horse Tram Driver. It is believed he worked for London Street Tramways, based at Junction Road or London Metropolitan Tramways based at Highgate (Holloway Road) Depot. Both these companies were taken over by London County Council Tramways. The first date that Thomas can be placed in this occupation is January 1898, as he is shown as such on his eldest child’s Birth Certificate.
In August 1910 Thomas developed Appendicitis. This was a very serious matter in 1910 and the only “free” hospital with the technology to operate was The London Hospital Whitechapel. Thomas Lewis’ full daily medical notes is still extant for his final 77 days.
After his initial operation (before the days of antibiotics) Pus developed and also gangrene. Thomas’ wound was opened twice more. In addition, various drainage tubes were inserted. Despite this and being bedridden from August, Thomas recovered to the point that he was considered for discharge. (No actual date has been given by Thomas’ Grandson-in-Law) but at 10.22 pm in Richmond Ward, London Hospital, Thomas’ Medical Notes record….”Was practically ready to go out till 2-3 minutes from death, when he was reading a book and seen to drop it and fall dead”. The note was signed by Mr Levy the house surgeon
Thomas died from a Pulmonary Embolism. There is a final twist, line six and seven of Thomas’ Post Mortem Report records….”Small amount of fibrin along sinus which leads to a pus soaked Gauze Swab. Fibrous adhesions around the swab”! They left a swab inside him after one of his three operations. Although this was not the direct cause of death, it would have delayed his recovery and made the final Pulmonary Embolism more likely. Thus, after surviving the horrors of Rorkes Drift and Victorian working class society, Thomas’ demise was at least hastened by the negligence of Hugh Rigby, his Surgeon.
He is buried in Highgate Cemetery in a pauper’s graveSee Pictorial catalogue of AZW graves
HIGHGATE CEMETERY MILITARY