Tuesday 29 October 2013

Whatever Happened to May?

By Angela Hurrell, Bob Manser and assisted by Eddy Norris
     May with flowers

MAY MANSON THOMSON   ( Allan Wilson's Fiancé’ )
May Manson Thomson was the second eldest of six children.

Born 6th October 1860 in Corskie, Garmouth'  Scotland,  she had three sisters and two brothers.     Her father was Andrew Thomson, a farmer of Corskie Farm, Garmouth, Scotland and her mother, who died when May was a young girl, was Charlotte Duncan (nee) Manson.


Major Allan Wilson
 (Commanding the Victoria Column)
 Born 1856 - Killed at Shangani 4th December 1893

Engaged to Major Allan Wilson of Shangani Battle fame she became known as the lady who later married James Dawson, a close friend and comrade of Allan’s.   It was he who retrieved and transported the remains of the Pioneer men after the ill fated battle against the Matabele.

   On his first,  very difficult  journey to the site,  accompanied by James (Paddy) Reilly and five Matabele,  he buried the remains and carved a memorial into the trunk of a nearby tree ‘to brave men’. Later he returned to the site and transferred the remains to Zimbabwe Ruins where they were reburied.    On that trip he also transported grain and other foodstuffs to the starving widows and children of the Matabele who had been killed by the Patrol. 

After some time those remains were again reinterred at Worlds View in the Matopos in the Bulawayo area where Cecil John Rhodes was later buried.

Site of the original burial place of Allan Wilson's patrol at Shangani

The remains were later removed and buried at Zimbabwe

The Shangani Memorial at the Matopos. The last resting place of Allan Wilson's Patrol

 In 1896 James visited his home town in Scotland.    A long time friend of Allan Wilson, he must have met Allan’s fiancé May much earlier during Allan’s lifetime.

Left to Right Mr. James Fairbairn and Mr. James Dawson

    James was reputed as knowing the native Matabele better than most, having enjoyed the complete confidences of Lobengula and Khama who he included amongst his friends.


He was one of the few trusted whites as it was said that he never 'trifled' with the natives.   His word was his bond and he did much to inspire the respect that the natives had for the Englishmen (all considered English, even the Scots!)    He was a brave man, courteous to a fault and bore himself like a true gentleman.   He appears to have been a caring man, one on whom unpleasant duties were often undertaken when no one else wanted to carry them out. 


Of interest was the foresight he had on the occasion of his wedding when he arranged to have his guests, locals and from Rhodesia transported in first class carriages from Garmouth to the school house where his marriage ceremony took place.

   Married in October 1896 when May was aged 36 and he 8 years older, the wedding attracted much publicity and descriptions of the wedding were published in the newspapers of Elgin, Scotland  and also in Bulawayo, Rhodesia.    James was described as a prosperous South African merchant.   A kind man as evidenced by his journey to rescue the starving Matabele widows and children after the Shangani Battle, transporting them back to Bulawayo.

   The wedding ceremony, considered something of a ‘modern romance’ took place in Fochabers and was celebrated by the townsfolk who revered Allan who was a son of the village.    Much interest was manifest in the burgh of Macduff when flags floated from the Municipal buildings, from the crafts in the harbour and from a large number of public and private houses throughout the town.   With the events of the Shangani battle still fresh in the townsfolk’s minds, it was reported that the story of their union was of interest the world over.

   May's father had passed away by this time so she was given away by her brother-in-law Mr Alexander Geddie.  May's three sisters and two brothers and families attended the ceremony.  Her nieces were bridesmaids.
Many gifts were given and of particular interest was a cheque  received from Holloway Gaol from Dr Jameson and Sir Willoughby. They had been jailed for the parts they played in the Jameson Raid in South Africa.

Leander Starr Jameson

Major Sir John C. Willoughby Bart.
 (Chief Staff Officer to His Honour the Administrator)

After the wedding James and May returned to Rhodesia where James, who had given up his military duties, revived his business interests while farming in Essexvale.   These, which he and his brother Alexander had previously established in the name of Dawson Bros. were based in an office on the corner of Fife Street and Market Square in Bulawayo.    James was the manager and Alexander, the London based buyer for the enterprise.   Eleven branches were formed in such places as Khami River, Filabusi, Geelong, Balla Balla, Fairview and Essexvale.   An early map of the Essexvale area shows a farm named Fochabers which was apparently the property of the Bechuanaland Charter for whom Allan Wilson had worked.   This same farm was later given to Allan and his family posthumously)

   Reports of parties held in the Dawson's home included friends such as the hunter Selous, Sam Lee (who had accompanied Livingstone to Lake Ngami)   Bill Finaughty,  ‘Old Mahogany’ Ware (who went with Dawson's brother Alexander when they penetrated the Chobe in 1872)  Edward Swimborne and van Rooyan, (who killed more lions than any other hunter including one put up for Randolph Churchill's last shot) Crewe and Farrell,  all talking the night away with their tales of hairbreadth escapes from wild beasts, drought, natives and disease.   

   It was reported that James pegged out Livingstone Falls as his farm but was persuaded by Rhodes and Jameson to give it up to the world.    He had no clear titles to the spot and the other men interested in the venture blamed his Highland munificence in surrendering the prize with no compensation.

   One wonders why the marriage did not last but sadly it did not appear to have been successful.  May returned home to Scotland in 1905 with son Ronald Maurice aged four (born in Bulawayo on 18th August 1901)  which is the  date that  James moved 800 miles away to Barotseland’s capital Lealui.    His friend  King Lewinika welcomed him and later when the king died his death notice described him as an old and staunch friend of  Britain and the missionaries in his country.   A description of a couple of Scottish men living there at the time, and another Scottish settler (unnamed) was included.  That was probably James.

   James lived in Barotseland some 16 years and is mentioned in records and books on Susman Bros. as one of their most important partners and the biggest cattle buyer in the Valley.   He later apparently experienced financial difficulties as a result of huge cattle losses from pleuro pneumonia in 1921  and shot himself when he was 70 years old.    He was buried in Mongu Cemetery near Lealui.

   May lived in Scotland and sent her son Ronald to school in Spymouth from where he progressed to Milnes Institution where both James and Allan Wilson had been educated. 

On leaving school in 1919 he went to Malaya where he worked for Penang Rubber Estates. He married Dolina Barbara Falconer  on 26th August 1937. 

According to the Garmouth Register he was a rubber planter, as registered on his marriage certificate. She was the daughter of Donald Falconer, clothier,  and  Christina  (nee) MacLennon.

Ronald and Dolina had a son James who was born in Malaya in 1941.   He never married and retired as a Dundee lawyer after which he moved to Forfar in Scotland.   Apparently he had no interest in the part that his grandfather played in Rhodesia and passed away aged 60 after a heart attack in 2003.

   The apparent lack of interest shown by both Ronald and his son James was only explained recently by a cousin of May’s, Ian Mackenzie.      He gave the reason for May having left James as being the result of his ill treatment of her, due he thought, to the worry and stress of losing all his cattle.   As he had moved to Lealui at the same time that May returned to Scotland, it is not clear whether he had suffered this loss in Rhodesia which led him to move to Barotseland .

   At the time of her death at the age of 86 May was busy writing another book dedicated to her grandson.    A lover of flowers she took care of the local war memorial in Garmouth tending it since its erection after the first World war.    She was survived by her son Ronald in Malaya.   He was reputed to have been a prisoner of war of the Japanese and at the cession returned to work in Malaya where he died some years later. May was well loved and recognised as a Moray authoress and a frequent contributor to journals and magazines, and widely read in the Northern Scott Newspapers and  the Milnes Institute magazines.   Of an arresting personality she was held in great respect in the district.


When Allan Wilson of Fochabers, Scotland died during the Shangani Battle in 1893 he left behind his fiancé May Manson Thomson who was a local girl from Corksie,  Garmouth in Scotland.   She must have suffered greatly upon hearing of his fate as Allan was considered a ‘man amongst men’.   One can only imagine her deep sense of loss.

I had so often wondered what had become of her so in 2010 placed an advert in a Scottish newspaper calling for information of her family.

Amongst people who responded were the grandchildren of her sister Isabella Geddie, Angus and Charlotte (nee) Christie.    Correspondence followed and I received photographs and copies of newspaper cuttings.     Another great nephew Ian Mackenzie had known May well in his young days.  He sent me wedding photographs of May and James.

Mays siblings were as follows.:-

   Jean, the eldest, was born 24th Feb 1859  and married Alexander Geddie, son of a Speymouth shipbuilder and  headmaster of Balnacoul School. 
    Isabella ‘Tibby’ Thomson born 21st October 1862 was married to  Dr. William Stewart  Geddie.   They moved to Queensland, Australia in 1894 but returned to Scotland in 1900.   In 1903 Phoebe (their daughter) was born and Phoebe had four children,   Angus and Charlotte (Sharley), Emma and Magaret

Angus is in Scotland, and his sister Charlotte, now living in Esperance, West Australia.    It was Angus, the family member most interested in genealogy, who contacted me and has proved a most helpful source of information.     He was able to procure copies of the two books that May wrote as well as many of her poems and short stories.  His other two sisters Emma and Margaret remembered May as being a ‘feisty lady and of fairly cheerful disposition’.   Some of Mays wedding gifts are still held by the family

    John Thomson born 13th April 1864 – no further details given. 
    Charlotte Thomson 4th April 1806 married Hugh Spencer.   
    Andrew Thomson born 17th April 1869 and married to Charlotte Duncan Manson, daughter of Capt. Sinclair and Mary Ann (nee Walker)

   I located the ‘engagement’ ring that Allan gave to May, (but described as a signet ring in A.J. Smits story ‘’The Shangani Story’’) It had been found amongst other Allan Wilson memorabilia that had been presented to the Allan Wilson School Archives in Rhodesia by May.   One wonders, however, whether there was a ‘proper’ engagement ring as the one in question does look rather more like a signet ring.    Was there perhaps another ring that May treasured too much to send to the school?

  Peter Dawson, of Fochabers (no relation to James Dawson) wrote an article ‘’There were no Survivors’’ which was published in the Northern Scot Christmas Number of 1989.   He forwarded many articles and newspaper reports that he felt were of interest and assistance to me, as have a few older folk who have stories of May and her son Ronald and grandson James.    Most of these have been handed down from their parents who lived near May.

   A biography of James Dawson was written by John O’Reilly and called 'Pursuit of the King’ but sadly I have been unable to find much relating to James after he left for Barotseland in 1905 where he lived until his death in 1921.

Hugh Macmullins book ‘An African Trading Empire Story of the Susman Bros and Wulfsohn 1901-2005’  in the chapter on the Sesheke War and the Cattle Trade 1909-1931 mentions James as the most important of their partners and the largest cattle buyer in the Valley, and a contemporary of George Westbreech who had been working in Central Africa since 1870.   Page 114 describes Susman's one time partner Jimmy Dawson as having ‘‘got into financial difficulties as a result of the collapse of the cattle trade and died tragically aged 70 in 1921.’’

Mays later life

According to Mrs. Jean Smith of Banff-shire, Scotland, whose parents lived opposite May on the Brae remembers May as a very gracious lady who owned a small dog called Tegas, which, Jean thought, was a Scottie.   She also recalled James, Mays grandson as a young lad always on his bicycle and later at Varsity where he qualified as a solicitor.    She saw him last at Mays funeral.. Jean reports that Ronald, Mays son was a Japanese prisoner of war who worked 'east' to where he returned at the cessation of war and died there some years later.   The gravestone in Essil states that he died in Malaya.   Jean sent me a copy of Mays signature and notes that she had written in Jeans autobiography book when Jean was about 12 years old.   Always interested in her reading May often suggested authors who she thought suitable for young Jean.

A few  snippets of May’s book as it is 139 pages long

Extracted from her book


Spring in Rhodesia! Away in the wide, solemn, lonely veldt; far from the haunts of men, spring comes to us in our peaceful solitude with something of home sweetness, and power, and charm. Nothing is just the same, it is true, but in fancy we try to believe it is April and spring in England, instead of September and spring in Rhodesia.

All over the ground is a faint flush of green;reminding me pleasantly of the "breer" (the briar) in the corn fields of Morayshire - the tender yellowy-green of the young mimosas, the deep funereal shade of the euphorbia, and the wonderful dazzling green of the wild fig trees - such a green as one never sees in our northern latitudes; a green that seems to have absorbed the very light of the sun into it and kept it there. Young figs, like tiny green

Mays books:

May wrote a small book called ‘Veldt and Heather’ described by Glass as ‘a trifling empty thing’ but which does give a glimpse of May's thoughts on her life in Africa at that time. 

 ‘Twa Tinkers’ was her book of poetry.   Many other short stories and poems were written over the years, most of which were published in the Northern Scot newspapers in their Christmas editions and the Milnes Institution magazine.

   Letters held by the family include one from the War Office in  Droitwich. Worcs UK dated lst Dec 1948 which records that ‘‘at the suggestion of the Rhodesian Sec. for Education,  (Mr J Cowie) memorials be erected to Major Allan Wilson and the gallant band who fought at Shangani on 4th Dec. 1893.  This has been done.   A series of British War medals all of them representative of acts of heroism by British Regiments, have been presented to the Royal Norfolk Regiment, a section of this regiment served as Mounted Infantry in the Rhodesian Campaign of 1896.   Mrs Dawson will doubtless agree that as the Regiment gained five Victoria Crosses in the war of 1939/45 they are the appropriate custodians of the memorial to the “These were men of Men and their  fathers were Men before them ’  of Wilson's last stand’
Secondly,  that the Regimental Assoc. has undertaken to forward to the Allan Wilson School at Salisbury, a memorial silver bugle (or drums if they prefer) for use with the Cadet Corps,  particularly on each anniversary of Shangani Day.   ‘Medals are displayed at the Royal Masonic School, Bushey, Herts in the hopes that some of the 400 boys there may be inspired by Major Wilson's example of devotion to duty in the service of the country’’

   Another letter from V.W. Hillier from the govt Archives in Salisbury dated 10th Nov 1942 wherein May was advised that ‘’in April 1939 I wrote to you regarding the late Major Allan Wilson's ring and medal.  At that time he was unsure as to whether they would be housed in the Archives or the Bulawayo museum.

He advised her that the medal, ring and a photo copy of a page from Major Wilson's diary,  bearing his signature, were still there.  It was formally presented to the Allan Wilson School at the end of their Shangani  Day service.   Accepting the gifts the headmaster of the school expressed his pleasure in accepting these items that would be treasured by the school stating that a small glass case was to be made to house them in  the assembly hall.

Allan Wilson School Badge
These were men of men and their fathers were men of men before them (M’Jaan the Induna) 

    Recently it was found that the ring in safe keeping, it having been removed from the school when  Zimbabwe became independent. With recent threats and discussions by locals in Zimbabwe of obliterating the Shangani and Rhodes graves and memorials in the Matapos  it is with gratitude that these precious memorabilia are being taken  care of.


Thanks to Angela and Bob, the long walk to get this story finished was well worth it Special thanks for your patience.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at orafs11@gmail.com
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Thank you for this beautiful and very interesting story of May Dawson, which I stumbled upon while researching family history of Dolina Dawson (nee Falconer), my grandaunt

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