It was 1859, and there was no internet. In our modern times, truth falters in a cacophony of faux journalism. Back then, veracity was the privilege and responsibility of a select few.
Sheffield had two well-established newspapers in those days. The Telegraph had recently stepped up to a daily edition, with strict accuracy a possible casualty of the transition. The Independent had always known the value of titillating its readership. Its principal articles were sound enough, but some of its minor stories were decidedly improbable. In spite of these shortcomings, both of these august periodicals attempted to tell Ned’s story, even if they fell somewhat short of impeccable journalistic standards in doing so.
A few of the other actors in this tenuous tale are slightly more clearly drawn than Ned. Thomas Handley was evidently a man of some means, although he evaded the census of 1851 and had disappeared again by the following one in 1861. The duelling publications also differ on where he actually lived: it might have been the Coach House or else Moor Hole Farm. These potential dwellings stood a couple of hundred yards apart on the Sheffield road leading west from Mosborough village.
The ambivalent occupant had local origins, or at the least the Telegraph intimates that he might have done. In the years immediately preceding their story, they were evidently surer about where Thomas Handley had been, making a vaguely-explained fortune in Natal in southern Africa while accompanied by his two sons, Tom and Harry. He presumably had a wife at some point too, though she doesn’t seem to have merited journalistic attention. Possibly Mrs Handley’s untold tale was a short and sad one, because the father of her children entreated a manservant to look after the boys on their voyage back to England.
Ned was a refugee from the Zulu Wars or alternatively he fought in them, depending on which newspaper you choose to believe. The Independent, consistently but somewhat implausibly, describes a proud warrior while the Telegraph reveals a preference for the victim angle. According to the first source, the voyage to England took place in 1857, whereas the other has it that Ned entered Handley’s service in 1857, but only set sail late in 1858.
Something that is not in dispute is that Ned did not enjoy the trip. He was very ill on the high seas, so much so that he lived in dread of ever having to take to the water again. During the summer of 1859 however, Handley seems to have announced his intention to return to Africa, whereupon our thalassophobic Ned decided to do a runner. There is an unusual consensus about the day of his departure from wherever the family was resident. It was Sunday, 28th August.
The slope of Rose Bank, down to the Ochre Dyke, was heavily wooded in those days. Indeed much of it still is, being on the steep side even for farming, let alone building. The locals went there for their gritstone and not much else. They used the material for the sharpening of agricultural tools, products which were in those days the basis of their economy. There was little to be gained from trying out a scythe on the profuse vegetation that shrouded Rose Bank, though. The result of this dereliction seems to have been several square miles of hiding place for a recalcitrant Zulu.
This was the point in the story at which a newspaper first took interest. In mid-September, the Independent informed its readers that a visitor was lost in the area. This African, they were assured, was ‘perfectly harmless and inoffensive’ and needed rescue from ‘perishing by cold and hunger’. The Telegraph responded to being beaten to the scoop by reporting an ‘escaped slave’, a description for which they were obliged to apologise a few days later, with the reassuring declaration that in Natal ‘slavery is as unlawful as in England itself’. To make it quite clear that their competitor had no monopoly in hand-wringing, they added that Ned had been seen begging, but had subsequently gone into hiding after dogs were set on him.
The Independent, presumably determined to maintain the moral high ground, announced that the Anti-Slavery Society were taking an interest and had asked the police to inform them when Ned showed up. The Telegraph responded with the testimony of a Mr Helliwell, a farmer from Hackenthorpe1, who declared that his neighbour Mr Jubb had had a lamb stolen. This seems to have precipitated some precocious Neighbourhood Watch activity, and locals found the remains of a fire, lamb bones and a few potatoes in Hanging Lea Wood.
In the course of the following week, both newspapers reported unceremoniously that Ned had been apprehended by the police. He seems to have been on the loose for around forty days, and a strange and detached formality now pervaded what was left of press interest. Ned’s remand was fortunately brief, because a justice on the Eckington bench, said to be one T. Need Esq, put up the money for Ned’s removal to London under the supervision of Superintendent Chawner.
Who these people were and what any of this actually signified has long since become unknowable, at least beyond these bare facts stated in print. Thomas Handley is conspicuously absent from the later account. Perhaps he had lost sympathy for Ned, or had already gone back to Natal, or had threatened to sue one or more of the editors for gross misrepresentation.
Mosborough3 meanwhile evidently returned to its bucolic preoccupations. In early October, the tale of Zulu Ned enjoyed a brief and inexplicable retelling in the national press, before vanishing from all forms of public record forever. According to some accounts4, Ned died in a railway accident the following year, but how and where, and to be quite frank if, remains a complete mystery.
Did Zulu Ned really exist? Even if he did, was he truly a Zulu? Just how rife was lamb-rustling in rural South Yorkshire in the middle of the last century but one? How was it ever possible to sell newspapers like this? We might never learn the answers to any of these questions, but one thing can be declared with certainty: Zulu Ned is a damned fine name and surely demands to be preserved somehow.