May 17, 2015 by auntkatefirmin
Osborne is a tragic figure in the family – his story starts out in a romantic way, traveling to South Africa and hunting elephants – but ends on an almost farcical note when he ignores the advice he is given and is killed as a result. Osborne was a likable young man, good looking, and he was either impulsive or like many other young men thought himself invulnerable.
Osborne was the third son and the third child. The Firmin family was living in Stepney (in the parish of St George in the East) in 1848, but chose to have Osborne baptised at St. Pancras. He was one of the four children born before the death of his grandfather (John Firmin) and thus had the prospect of some inheritance from the estate (always assuming there was anything left to inherit).
The eldest son, John, and at least one of the brothers were said to have traveled with their father to Canada on two occasions. From the letters neither the geography nor the details of the trip are really clear. It was in “Canada” that his father George Firmin was rumored to have lost all his savings. (The letter with this fascinating tale will be transcribed in another post.)
At age 16 Osborne enlisted in the Paddington Rifles as a clerk. This was a volunteer brigade officially titled the 36th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps. He was struck from the rolls in June 1870, a year after his death – I am assuming that he had been on leave and the unit was not notified of his death, but I haven’t been to the National Archives to look at the records. (If anyone finds a good photo of the Rifles from around 1865-1870 please post in the comments!) The Rifles were a part-time force, and Osborne must have had another source of income.
Possibly Osborne used an advance on his inheritance to pay for a ticket to Natal in 1868. As a young man of 20, he followed others in search of gold along the Tati River in modern Botswana – the first gold rush in South Africa, coming shortly after the discovery of the gold fields in 1867. It’s not surprising that his party did not reach the Tati gold fields – they were remote and negotiations with the local ruler of the Ndebele people (then called Matabele by the English) were disrupted by the ruler’s death around the time the discovery was announced. Gold was also discovered north of the Zambezi about the same time. The journals and drawings of Thomas Baines provide an interesting look into this era and region.
Osborne’s hopes for the journey remain a mystery. What education and resources did he bring? Was this to be the beginning of a career and a way to recover the family’s fortunes Was he caught up in the romance of the gold fields? The impulsive nature which led him to Africa also placed him in the path of an elephant, cutting his story short. He died just a six weeks after his father, and the news most likely had not reached him in Africa. The Firmin family apparently learned of his death through the following letter to the editor of The Times.
“Sir, On arriving at this place to-day I learnt the sad intelligence of the death of Mr. Osborne Firmin last evening, and as no one in this country knows the address of his friends in England, I have to request you will be so good as to publish the particulars of his untimely end. Mr. Osborne Firmin came out in the Earl of Southesk, which sailed from London in October, 1868. On arriving at Natal he joined a party who intended proceeding to the goldfields on the Tati River. This party having broken up, he proceeded to Potchefstroom alone, and arrived there in March last, where he joined Mr. George Wood, a celebrated hunter. He arrived at the Tati River with Mr. Wood in the 26th of April.
Shortly after this Mr. Wood’s party proceeded to the Ramokobane River, 19 miles further north, where they halted and camped for the purposes of hunting. Yesterday, Messrs. Firmin, Wood, and MacMaster, all in the same party, and mounted on well-trained horses, came up with three elephants, each singled out his animal, and shortly after MacMaster heard Firmin’s elephant “trumpeting,” a sure sign of its being about to charge.
MacMaster immediately rode up to the spot but was too late, for just as he got up he a saw cloud of dust and heard the report of Firmin’s gun, and upon MacMaster firing at the infuriated anmal, it turned upon him, leaving the body of Firmin terribly mangled with its tusks, also trodden on, and quite dead – in fact, death must have been instantaneous.
As Firmin was dismounted when the elephant attacked him, it is supposed that he endeavoured to get close to him to insure a deadly aim. Mr. Firmin had never been out after elephants before, and had frequently been warned never to dismount. His death can only be attributed to his own reckless intrepidity. His remains were brought to the Ramokobane this afternoon in a waggon, and buried close to a house formerly occupied by Mr. Lee. Great sympathy was shown, for he was univeral favourite.
Mr. Firmin was 20 years old last October.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant, S. J., Ramokobane River, South Africa, May 26. ”
-Ramokobane is now written Ramokgwebana. To find this on a modern map look for Francistown, Botswana. The river forms the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe.
-The Mr. Lee mentioned in the article was a missionary to the Matabele/Ndebele. Mr Wood and Mr MacMaster are mentioned in other contemporary accounts of the area.
-Potchefstroom was the first capital city of the (Boer) South African Republic – by 1860 the capital had moved to Pretoria.
-The Earl of Southesk was a wooden barque built in 1858 and purchased in 1860 by JT Rennie & Sons who ran various passenger and mail services between East London and Natal – as well as many other routes.