THE heroic background of a soldier buried in an unmarked grave in Highgate Cemetery has been unearthed by his granddaughter's husband.
John Roker has painstakingly researched the life of Thomas Lewis and found that he was one of the few to survive the siege of Rorke's Drift in 1879.
Bombardier Thomas Lewis of the N Battery 5th Brigade Royal Artillery escaped death at the battle immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu starring Sir Michael Caine.
Mr Roker, who lives in Gloucestershire, said: "My research started nearly two years ago. My late mother-in-law Gladys Blackwell always maintained her father fought at the defence of Rorke's Drift.
"To my shame, I did not pursue this while she was alive. My knowledge then was confined to watching the film Zulu which I now know to be historically inaccurate.
"I believed, again to my shame, that the research would take only a few hours, I would prove it was a load of rubbish and still be in time for a pint and a pipe in the village pub."
But Mr Roker found there was certainly more than a grain of truth in his mother-in-law's stories and that his wife's grandfather was a "brave and gallant soldier, who while an ordinary man, led a most eventful life".
Born in Brecon, Wales, Thomas Lewis joined the Royal Artillery in 1874 and was dispatched to South Africa in 1878. After being injured when a wagon fell on him, he was taken to Rorke's Drift, a supply station and makeshift field hospital. On the morning of January 22, 1879, Rorke's Drift became the stuff of legend when 150 soldiers successfully defended it against some 4,000 Zulus.
In 1882, Bombardier Lewis met Queen Victoria and was also awarded the South Africa Medal with Zulu Wars Clasp.
He left the army around 1885 and later came to London, where he worked as a horse tram driver. He and Annie Price had six children and the family lived in several places, including Despard Road and Highgate Hill. In August 1910, Thomas developed appendicitis and was taken to The London Hospital in Whitechapel.
After studying his post mortem notes, Mr Roker said: "They left a swab inside him after one of his three operations.
"Thus after surviving the horrors of Rorke's Drift and Victorian working class society, Thomas's demise was at least hastened by the negligence of his surgeon."
With the help of staff at Highgate Cemetery, Mr Roker located his relative's grave.
Simon Moore-Martin, manager of Highgate Cemetery said: "He's buried in a common grave so there's likely to be more than one person buried there. It's not visible from the path so we cannot include it in the tour but it could be mentioned."
He added: "Mr Roker has spent a long time researching the truth and we are very pleased for him.
See Pictorial catalogue of AZW graves