LIEUTENANT-GENERAL SIR JOHN STOKES, KCB, RE

(1825-1902)
Soldier

Sir John Stokes c.1890.
Sir John Stokes c.1890.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sir John Stokes lived at Spring House, Ewell from 1895 until his death in 1902.

Life and career

John Stokes was born in Cobham, Kent on 17 June 1825, the son of a clergyman, also named John, and his wife Elizabeth Annabella (nee Franks). Following his education, mainly at the Rochester Proprietary School and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, he was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1843; from 1845 he served at the Cape of Good Hope, being involved in the Xhosa Wars (then known as the Kaffir Wars), which went on intermittently for about a hundred years.

On 6 February 1849 he married Henrietta Georgina De Villiers Maynard of Grahamstown in Eastern Cape Province. In 1851 he was posted back to England and became Assistant Instructor in Surveying and Field Works at the Woolwich Academy.

The Vicarage at Cobham, Kent where the Stokes family lived.
The Vicarage at Cobham, Kent where the Stokes family lived.
Image source: Autobiography of Sir John Stokes

Shoot-out between Xhosa and long slow British army column, 1850-53.
Shoot-out between Xhosa and long slow British army column, 1850-53.
Image source: South African Library Archives via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1855 Stokes, by now a Captain, managed to get himself a desired posting to the Crimea and formed the Engineer Corps for the British-Turkish force there; he was also present at the Battle of Sebastopol (1854-5).

Major [John] Stokes and others. Stokes (seated) was the Chief Engineer of the Anglo-Turkish contingent during the Crimean War.
Major [John] Stokes and others.
Stokes (seated) was the Chief Engineer of the
Anglo-Turkish contingent during the Crimean War. c.1855
Image - Source National Archives Via Flickr

The Siege of Sebastopol by Franz Roubaud
The Siege of Sebastopol by Franz Roubaud;
this painting, which is 115 metres long and 14 metres high,
is in the Panorama Museum at Sebastopol.
Photo by Valentin Ramirez via Wikimedia Commons.

John's next appointment was as Her Majesty's Delegate on the European Commission for the improvement of the Mouths of the Danube. In his autobiography he freely admits that he had no idea what this was about. Having 'mugged up' on the subject, he found that it involved removing the sand banks that obstructed navigation between Isaktcha, at the head of the Danube Delta, and the Black Sea: much of the Delta is in Rumania. In due course he was joined on the posting by his family (see later). The assignment was very much more difficult than it may sound, bearing in mind that in those days men and equipment needed to be moved by horse-drawn transport and boat and the winters were harsh. Additionally, subsequent floods often undid the work that had been accomplished. The posting continued until 1871, by which time John, now a Commander of the Bath, was anxious to resume what he considered a more normal military career with promotion prospects.

The Sulina Mouth of the Danube in 1861, following the improvement works.
The Sulina Mouth of the Danube in 1861, following the improvement works.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In May 1873 he became Commanding Engineer in South Wales, based at Pembroke Dock. This sojourn in the UK did not last for long, as later that year he was asked to join an International Commission that was being set up to look at the charges to be levied on tonnage passing through the Suez Canal.

In January 1875 John declined an 'ordinary knighthood', because he wanted to be a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) but there was as yet no vacancy (currently there are 355 'slots' in total for KCBs and DCBs), and was appointed Commanding Engineer at Chatham, although he still had some duties in connection with the Suez Canal issues, and in November 1875 he became Commandant of the School of Military Engineering. The Suez Canal then reared its troublesome head once more.

The Canal was opened in 1869, financed by the sale of shares: these had been snapped up eagerly by the French, but other countries, including Britain and Russia, had not been so keen. Financial difficulties in the early years of the canal were the reason for the establishment of the International Commission on tariffs/tonnage referred to earlier. A large number of shares were owned by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan but by 1875 he was in severe financial trouble and wished to sell his holding. The British Government was concerned that this would be acquired by the French, which would give them a controlling stake, and summoned John Stokes to a Cabinet meeting presided over by Mr Disraeli. On John's advice the British bought the shares for the then very considerable sum of £4 million (about £380m in today's money). John was then sent out to Egypt to assist a special envoy tasked with investigating the financial situation of the Khedive (which was difficult, as the accounts were in Arabic and they had to believe what translators told them).

The Khedive Ismail Pasha.
The Khedive Ismail Pasha.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Suez Canal issues rumbled on and in due course John was appointed as one of three Directors of the Suez Canal Council of the British Government. In 1877 he received his much longed-for KCB. In 1878 he was nearly killed when travelling to Chatham with his daughter in an express; the train hit some railway trucks at speed and his carriage was derailed. Fortunately he was unhurt physically, but 6-8 other people were killed and over 40 injured (reports of the casualty numbers vary). The crash resulted in manslaughter verdicts against the two railwaymen who had made the error of shunting the trucks on to the wrong line.

During 1880 John was tipped off that he was about to be 'kicked upstairs' and, reluctantly at first, found himself Deputy Adjutant General of the Royal Engineers; by then he was a Colonel. Interestingly, one of the projects he worked on was the idea of a Sub-Marine railway tunnel to connect France and England. As we all know, this did not happen until more than a hundred years later and in the 1880s, as at various subsequent points, the reason against building it was the possibility of its use by invasion troops.

In the spring of 1884, still devoting considerable time to the affairs of the Suez Canal as well as his normal duties, John was promoted to Major-General. By 1886 his military work had finished and he moved to Haywards Heath in Sussex, but he was still involved with the Canal and, as a separate issue, a hospital at Port Said, Egypt. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General in 1887.

Smallpox had been rife in Port Said and the intention was to build a seamen's hospital, which project had been hi-jacked by Lady Strangford, a former military nurse; her father was Sir Francis Beaufort, who created the Beaufort Scale for measuring wind force. I imagine that she thought nothing would happen very quickly unless she took matters into her own hands, so she had some wooden buildings made in England and arranged for them to be shipped to Egypt. John tells us that the cost of her plan far exceeded the funds available, but it went ahead in order not to offend the lady and the hospital opened in June 1887. Sadly, Lady Strangford did not live to see it, dying of cerebral apoplexy whilst on her way out to superintend staffing arrangements.

Lady Strangford.
Lady Strangford.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

John continued his involvement with the Lady Strangford Hospital for many years; he was also a Vice President of the Suez Canal Company and chairman of the Roburite Explosives Company. During 1892 he suffered significant financial losses in companies where he had directorships and moved from Haywards Heath to a smaller house at Streatham Hill, which he and the family did not like. In 1893 Lady Stokes died and, after some time spent visiting friends and family, John was asked by Lord Rosebery, who was then Prime Minister, to represent the Government on the first visit of the current Khedive, Abbas Hilmi II, to the Suez Canal.

Abbas Hilmi II, the last Khedive of Egypt and Sudan.
Abbas Hilmi II, the last Khedive of Egypt and Sudan.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

On his return home John embarked on a further round of visits and began his autobiography. And then, having been wanting for some time to escape the disliked Streatham Hill, in 1895 he heard that the lease of Spring House at Ewell was available from the present occupant, Mr Edward Fairfax Taylor (See StMarysAppendix4.html), who wanted to move because he found the house too small.

Spring House Drawing
Architect's drawing of the northern elevation of
Spring House, looking into Spring Lane and Park.
Image source: The Autobiography of Sir John Stokes.

Spring House
Spring House
Image source: The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre.

John says that he was kindly received in Ewell and surrounding districts and renewed his acquaintance with an old friend and colleague, Major-General Robert Barlow McCrea RA, who had lived at Petit Ménage, Ewell for many years. (McCrea had married a daughter of local resident John Francis Maingay, a former resident of Petit Ménage). He also became friends with the Bucknills of Epsom and Mrs Bucknill asked him to become Honorary Treasurer of the Epsom Soldiers and Sailors Families Association, a job that became onerous when he acquired Mr Bucknill's duties on the latter's elevation to the Bench and the South African War broke out.

During his later years John was troubled by an old leg injury and for a time took to riding a tricycle, but this made the problem worse. In the winter of 1899 he visited Port Said for the unveiling of a statue to his friend Ferdinand de Lesseps, developer of the Suez Canal. (The original statue was blown up during the Suez crisis of 1956 but a restored version now stands in a shipyard at Port Fouad.) Whilst there John paid a visit to the Lady Strangford Hospital.

The original statue of de Lesseps at Port Said.
The original statue of de Lesseps at Port Said.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The real Ferdinand de Lesseps.
The real Ferdinand de Lesseps.
Image source: http://vmgnico.free.fr/photo_ferd.html via Wikimedia Commons.

The autobiography ends at this point, but an obituary has been added to it by his descendants. John died of an apoplectic seizure at Spring House on 17 November 1902 and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Ewell.

Grave of Sir John Stokes at St Mary's, Ewell.
Grave of Sir John Stokes at St Mary's, Ewell.
Image source: The Autobiography of Sir John Stokes.

Inscription on the grave.
Inscription on the grave.
Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource.

Sir John Stokes in later life.
Sir John Stokes in later life.
Image source: The Autobiography of Sir John Stokes.

Family

As mentioned earlier John's wife was Henrietta Georgina De Villiers Maynard (known as Etta), born in 1829 in Grahamstown, South Africa. Their children were as follows.

Name Born Married Died
Georgina Elizabeth (known as Gina) 14.11.1849 King William's Town, SA Arthur Bold Hamilton (lawyer and banker - died Ewell 1902) 24.4.1917 Vancouver
Charles Edward 20.8.1851 Cape Town Caroline Ada Giles 6.7.1911 Narrogin, Western Australia
Arthur (planter in Ceylon and Colonel RA, DSO) 9.4.1853 Woolwich ? 24.3.1912 Bedford district
Francis Herbert (Rev)* 29.12.1854 Woolwich Florence Giles 21.2.1929 Glenelg, Adelaide, Australia
Edith 29.1.1857 Galati (or Galatz), Rumania Herbert D Buchanan 26.3.1933 Paddington
Alice 15.8.1858 Galati - 16.8.1859 Rumania (meningitis)
Alfred (Brigadier-General RA, CB, CMG, DSO) 14.10.1860 Galati Margaret Dunbar Laing 18.12.1931 Dalgowan, New Galloway, Scotland
Constance (known as Con) 10.5.1862 Rumania Harris (Harry) Bigg-Wither 1.6.1919 Wallingford, Berks
*John's grandson, Francis Herbert Stokes Junior, was a Private in the Australian Army and was killed in action at Gallipoli on 27 April 1915, aged 24.

Private Francis Herbert Stokes in 1914.
Private Francis Herbert Stokes in 1914.
Image source: http://www.awm.gov.au/

It is clear from John's autobiography that there were health problems with some of the children, but it was his wife who caused him most concern. In June 1877 she was struck down with paralysis and, apart from a few periods of improvement, she remained in that condition, unable to speak for the last thirteen and a half years of her life, until she died on 17 June 1893 at Streatham Hill; she was buried in Norwood Cemetery.

Researched and written by Linda Jackson © 2014

The autobiography of Sir John Stokes is online at https://archive.org/



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