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Jimmy Durham: The Sergeants' Boy from Sudan
Jimmy Durham in uniform 1909
James Francis Durham 2nd Battalion DLI 1909

James Francis Durham was the first African to join the British Army as a fully enlisted solider. Follow his amazing story which took him from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Wear.


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Young Mustapha seemed destined to be a solider from the moment he was found on the banks of Nile by Captain Beauvoir de Lisle.

It was New Year's Day 1886 and de Lisle was leading a mounted party of the Durham Light Infantry. This was the battle of Ginnis, Egypt, and de Lisle had set out to capture, the enemy's river transport.

Jimmy Durham aged 18 months
Jimmy aged about 18 months

The party approached a large nuggar (Arabic river boat), with a considerable number of enemy on board.

A charge was made and the nuggar was seized.

The Arab inhabitants fled in the darkness, leaving only one behind who was badly wounded. Alongside the nuggar was an infant.

"On the bank was a small dervish child, under two years old, who pointing his finger at me kept repeating 'Bung-morto', imitating the sound of the rifle and the result. My difficulty was what to do with the child and with the boats. The child I handed over to Colour Sergeant Stuart and told him to take the horses back by road".
Reminiscences of Sport & War by General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle 1939

The child was handed over to Sergeant Stuart, who, named him Jimmy Dervish. The boy's real name was Mustapha.

Regimental Pet

It appeared that the child's father, a Sheik, had been killed in the battle of Ginnis. His widow with two children had intended to make her way to Berber, but there was no trace of the child's mother.

Gen. Sir Beauvoir de Lisle circa 1938
General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle: Jimmy's kindly benefactor

Genreal De Lisle, in eccentric, Victorian fashion, decided Jimmy would make a good 'regimental pet'.

Little Jimmy performed the long marches seated astride the pommel of Sergeant Stuart's saddle.

James Francis Durham

In June 1886, some native women were asked Jimmy's age. By examining his teeth, the women pronounced his age to be 18 months. It was calculated that his birthday would be about 1st January 1885.

When the Battalion received orders to go to India, it was intended that Jimmy should be left in a mission school in Cairo.

The sergeants, however, objected and promised to subscribe one rupee a month towards the child's upkeep.

Jimmy was baptised James Francis Durham.

Boy Soldier

When the DLI moved to India in 1887, Jimmy went with them, where he attended the school for the regiment's children.

In 1898, he accompanied the DLI to their new station at Mandalay.

Jimmy and 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry 1897.
Jimmy (centre) aged 12, with the Band of the 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry, India 1897.

It was in Burma that James Francis Durham made his mark on British military history by applying to enlist as a boy soldier.

Jimmy's application, strongly backed by the sergeants, went all the way to Queen Victoria.

The official decision was favourable, and in July 1899, James Francis Durham was formally enrolled as Boy Solider No. 6758, aged 14 years old.

Although the British Army had employed Black drummers and musicians since the 18th century, and colonial regiments were often black, no African had been allowed to join the regular Army on the same terms as white recruits.

Among family and friends

After Burma the regiment spent a period in Wellington, India, where Jimmy distinguished himself as an athlete. He returned to England in 1902.

Jimmy with goat at Aldershot 1904
Jimmy at Aldershot 1904, pictured with Billy, the regimental sheep.

Having known only warm climates, Jimmy found himself in the cold and wet of Northern England, through he was warmly welcomed by and an extended family of former and serving sergeants.

Jimmy spent this period living in and around Darlington, Bishop Auckland and Tyneside.

Jimmy was partially brought up with the family of Sergeant Robson, whose daughter, Stella, he regarded as a sister.

There is no record of Jimmy's thoughts about his original roots but his letters are revealing.

"Dear Stella,

I hope you will always reckon me as your brother. I have known you from when you was a dear little child and I always use to look to your father and dear mother as my mother as well. They have treated me like one of you all.

Our band are in hopes of coming to Newcastle as we have been engaged to play at different places and I believe we are going to finish up at Darlington. I shall be very likely to be able to see you all and, I would like you to hear our band.

Your loving brother Jimmy".

Letter to Stella Robson , April 1908

In 1908, Stella asked Jimmy to be godfather to her baby. He was over the moon.

Later the same year, Jimmy married Jane Green, the sister of the quartermaster sergeant at Bishop Auckland.

The DLI were on the move again. Their next stop was Cork where Jimmy divided his time between the regimental band, playing clarinet and violin, and running the Army Temperance Association.

Jimmy in uniform, Oct 1909
Jimmy. A model soldier stationed at Victoria Barracks, Cork in Oct 1909

The Temperance Association was unusually popular at Cork's Victoria Barracks and its large membership won the DLI an award.

Jimmy who was teetotal, held his temperance meetings in rooms above a pub, opposite the barracks.

However, his comrades' interest grew when they realised that attending the temperance lectures was an easier way of getting into the pub!

Jimmy: The accidental tourist

Jimmy was by all accounts a popular figure in Cork and an avid tourist, writing to Stella in July 1908:

postcard from Jimmy Durham  to Stella Robson

"My Dear Stella,
What do you think of the masta, does he look all right.
I have been very busy and we are not having very nice weather.

Today it has been thundering and lightning. Sorry I didn't write before but have had a lot of correspondence to do.

You will excuse me not sending this by its self but it would get damaged I think. Hope you all are keeping well. Roll on the 21st".

The Irish climate finally undermined Jimmy's health and on the 8 August 1910, aged only 27, he died from pneumonia.

Jimmy was buried with full military honours in the local cemetery. The floral tributes and large gathering of mourners bear witness to his popularity.

Franes Jubb circa 1980
Frances Jubb: Jimmy's only daughter, pictured here in the early 1980's.

Three weeks later his wife, Jane gave birth to their daughter Frances. She lived in Bishop Auckland until her death in 1998.

An exhibition featuring James Francis Durham is on display at County Hall, Durham.


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