Frederick Hitch was born on November 29th 1856 at Chase Side in Southgate, then a hamlet in Middlesex,
now a suburb of London. He was born into a typically large Victorian family. His father, John, a shoemaker,
was originally from Hull, and his mother, Sarah nee Champness, was from Epping.
Fred was the tenth of eleven children. An older sister, Susan, would die at the age of eighteen months,
ten years before Fred was born.The only one younger than Fred was his brother Charles and there is evidence
to suggest that Fred was closer to Charles than with any of the others.
Fred did not follow into his fathers trade of shoemaker. With no education and no training, there were
very few opportunities for employment.Fred did eventually find work as a bricklayer's labourer. It would have been
Fred's task to mix the mortar compound and carry the bricks up to whatever level the bricklayer was working at.
A menial job of this kind brought with it miserly wages. People like Fred were two-a-penny in the building industry
and they were forced to accept whatever rate of pay they could.
We do not know what crime led Fred to appear before the magistrates at Westminster Police Court on
March 7th 1877. It may have been an opportunistic crime, it may have been one compounded by an empty belly.
Alternatively it could have been one of many such enterprises and happened to be the only one he was caught at.
The records of the court were destroyed during the Second World War and so far, no newspaper
reports of the case have come to light.
There are two reasons to believe that whatever crime Fred committed, it was not a serious one. Firstly, he was tried
at a Police Court and not the Sessions House or a Crown Court; and secondly, when he applied to become a taxi driver
the police would have performed a check to see if he had a criminal record. If there was any doubt that he was not a
"fit and proper person", his cab licence would have been refused.
Fred probably pleaded guilty to the offence with which he was charged, he may have been held in custody had he
pleaded not guilty. His case, and the sentencing were done in a matter of hours. It was a matter of hours that was to
change Fred's life. He was given the option of going to prison or joining the army.The Victorian penal system left a lot to be
desired, and the army would not have been much fun either. It probably was an easy decision for Fred to make.
At least now he would be clothed and fed.
We get the first physical description of Fred when he joins the Army: he is 5'8'' tall, has brown hair,
hazel eyes and a fresh complexion.We also have proof as to how illiterate Fred was, as he could not even sign his own
name on his enlistment papers but instead made a X. Two days later 1362 private Frederick Hitch joined the 2nd Batallion
of the 24th Regiment of Foot. He was stationed at Chatham but in January 1878 came news that they
were being sent to South Africa.
On February 2nd 1878 Fred, "twenty-four officers, eight staff-sergeants, thirty-nine sergeants, forty corporals, sixteen
drummers and…" 745 other privates set sail on the Troopship Himalaya. They reached Simon's Bay on February 28th
and remained there whilst they replenished their stocks. They set sail again on March 6th and landed at East London
on the 9th. From their they were despatched on trains to King William's Town - known locally as "White Man's Grave".
After several days march Fred and the rest of the 2/24th finally, on April 6th, located the troublesome Galekas and after
a brief skirmish in the dense Petrie Bush the natives were beaten. Their were further battles on April 30th and again on
May 9th. Their leader, Chief Sandili, escaped but his wounds were found to be fatal. Sandili's death saw an end
to the Ninth, and last, Kaffir War.
Throughout May and June the 2/24th were stationed at Mount Kempt and on June 19th a dutiful Fred sent home
£2 to his mother - not a small sum of money considering that a private was lucky to see a penny a day from his
shilling a day wages, once all the expenses had been taken into account.
By this time the Zulu nation had reached its peak. No other African tribes could threaten it - only the red soldier.
By imposing impossible restrictions and obligations on the Zulus, Britain soon managed to escalate a war against the
Zulus for no other reason that because they were there - and "there" posed a potential threat to British interests.
Yesterdays hero was soon to be tomorrows unemployed as on August 25th, a medical board ruled that Fred was unfit
for further duty and he was discharged from the army. He gave his intended employment as a bricklayers labourer but
a bricklayers labourer with a game arm was not much use to anybody and it is unlikely that Fred ever
returned to the building sites.
Although he would have received a £10 a year pension from the War Office for his Victoria Cross
(increased to £50 in 1898), he received little else, there was in those days no invalidity pension. This was not a new
problem but it was one that had been partially addressed by a Captain Waller, who founded an organisation consisting
of loyal ex-servicemen who could be entrusted to stand guard at business premises. That organisation, which is still with
us today, is the Corps Commissionaires and within five weeks of his discharge, Fred was a Commissionaire.
Fred's life seemed to be improving, when compared to his pre-army life. In July 1881 he married Emily
Meurisse. For some unknown Fred drifted in and out of employment with the Commissionaires, on his
wedding certificate his occupation is listed as a labourer. By the time their first child, Frederick, was born Fred and
Emily had moved out of Porchester Square and were now living in the family quarters of the Commissionaires at
Exchange Court, just off the Strand.
The next few years were to prove very disruptive to the Hitch household. Fred, still drifting in and out of the
Commissionaires was at one time a railway porter and at other times just listed himself as an "Army Pensioner" or
as a caretaker at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington.Despite the constant moving around and different employments,
Fred was soon able to settle down not with one job but two as well as the added bonus of an income from a third source.
Fred was still employed as a messenger at the Imperial Institute but he was no longer living there. Instead the Hitch
household were living above a pub in Little Durweston Street, off Crawford Street. On October 7th 1893 Fred gained his
licence to sell liquor there but on July 23rd the following year his licence was forfeited.
When Winifred was born in October 1894 Little Durweston Street is still given as the household address but
his employee is still the Imperial Institute.It is around this time that Fred may have become a Hackney Cab proprietor -
the owner of a hackney coach. He was not qualified to drive it for a living but there was nothing to prevent him from purchasing
a coach and horse, perhaps with his Victoria Cross pension, and renting it out to a licensed hackney cab driver.
Whatever links Fred had with the pub in Little Durweston Street, his name still appeared above the door, as Lord Miles
discovered before writing to The Times in March 1895:
Sir,- In a mews connecting York-street and Crawford-street, in postal district W., there is a small public house known
as the Durweston Arms. Over the window of this public house, as a signboard, is painted in large letters the name of the
publican:- "F. HITCH, V.C."
Have any of your readers ever met with a case in which this coveted and most honourable distinction has been used for the purposes
of trade or business.
Fred was not the first to notice the benefits of trade when linked to the Victoria Cross but such associations
were frowned upon by the War Office and that painted sign, and the notice given it by Lord Miles, may have done
much to hinder Fred's attempts to receive a replacement cross when his one was stolen.
A fund was initiated for a decent memorial for Fred's grave by Chiswick Urban District Council. Members of
the public were invited to send in donations and the proceeds from the screening of a film were also donated.
The memorial was finally erected on Friday 19th June 1914 and was described by The Times as a "..block of granite
some 7ft. in height. On the top is carved the Union Jack surmounted by a sun helmet, bearing the badge of Hitch's
old regiment, while at one end are replicas in bronze of the Cross and a palm leaf.