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Handcock, Peter Joseph (1868–1902)

by R. L. Wallace

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Peter Joseph Handcock (1868-1902), soldier and blacksmith, was born on 17 February 1868 at Peel, New South Wales, third of eight surviving children of English-born William Handcock, farmer and carrier, and his Irish wife Bridget, née Martin. His father died when he was 6 and as a youth he worked at Bathurst as a blacksmith. When he married Bridget Alice Mary Martin on 15 July 1888 in the Catholic cathedral, Bathurst, he described himself as a labourer from Dubbo.

In 1899, when a railwayman, Handcock enlisted for the South African War as a shoesmith in the 2nd Contingent of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles. Reaching Cape Town in February 1900 he was promoted farrier sergeant before transferring to the Railway Services Police. In February 1901 he joined the Bush Veldt Carbineers as a veterinary lieutenant. Raised for guerilla warfare, the B.V.C. operated from headquarters at Pietersburg, northern Transvaal.

In June Handcock joined a detachment under Captain Robertson, a British officer, at Fort Edward in the Spelonken district where the fighting was bitter and brutal. Robertson's detachment lacked discipline and shot prisoners and he was dismissed by Colonel F. H. Hall, the B.V.C.'s Pietersburg area commandant. By late July Captain P. Hunt, also British, was in command. Lieutenant H. H. Morant, a close friend of Hunt, was also at Fort Edward. Hunt was killed in action and his body mutilated. Left in command, Morant ordered all Boer prisoners to be shot from then on. He and his men afterwards swore that Hunt had received verbal orders from Lieutenant-Colonel H. Hamilton, General Kitchener's military secretary, not to take prisoners and that Hunt had reprimanded them for disobeying. The B.V.C. rigorously hunted Boers; prisoners and those who surrendered were shot. Morant praised the work of Handcock, and Hall congratulated Morant for his detachment's success.

In August 1901 a German missionary, C. A. D. Heese, was murdered near Fort Edward; he had been seen talking to Boer prisoners who may have told him that they were afraid they would be shot. The murder attracted the close scrutiny of British Intelligence. Kitchener ordered a full investigation. In October certain B.V.C. officers, including Handcock and Morant, were arrested pending a court of inquiry into the murder of Heese and the shooting of prisoners.

Before general courts-martial proceedings began, Colonel Hall was transferred to India out of the way. Morant accepted full responsibility for the shooting of twelve prisoners, saying that the others had carried out his orders. Hamilton denied having given Hunt instructions regarding prisoners. Handcock and Morant were found guilty of murdering twelve prisoners, inciting to murder and of manslaughter. The charges against Handcock for Heese's murder and against Morant for instigating the crime failed. Both officers were shot by firing squad in Pretoria gaol on 27 February 1902 and were buried in a single grave in Pretoria cemetery.

Other British units were known to have shot Boer prisoners without being brought to trial. This may explain the widespread belief that the sentences took into account Heese's murder. Opinions of contemporaries on whether Handcock murdered Heese are divided. Lieutenant G. R. Witton, a B.V.C. officer sentenced to penal servitude at the same time, later wrote in Scapegoats of the Empire (1907) that Handcock 'was simply the chosen tool of unprincipled men … He never initiated any outrage, but he had a keen sense of duty, and could be absolutely relied upon to fulfil it'. However, in 1929 Witton wrote to Major J. F. Thomas, defence counsel for Handcock, Morant and himself, that Heese's murder was 'a most cold blooded affair. Handcock … described it all to me'. Witton's letter was not made public until 1970. In 1902 Captain F. R. de Bertodamo, the Intelligence officer whom Kitchener had ordered to investigate the Heese case, had referred to 'that poor fool Handcock' who apparently had a reputation for blindly obeying orders. During his trial Handcock testified: 'I have had a very poor education. I never cared much about being an officer; all I know is about horses, though I like to fight … I did what I was told to do, and I cannot say any more'. In a farewell letter to his sister he wrote: 'If I overstepped my duty I can only ask my People & Country for forgiveness'.

Handcock was survived by his wife and by two sons and a daughter. He was the first Australian national executed for war crimes and his sentence, which had been carried out without the knowledge and consent of the Australian government, aroused bitter public controversy.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray, ed (Melb, 1911)
  • F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962)
  • H. J. May, Music of the Guns (Johannesburg, 1970)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • Dictionary of South African Biography, vol 3, (Cape Town, 1977)
  • M. Carnegie and F. Shields, In Search of Breaker Morant (Melb, 1979)
  • National Advocate, 29 Mar 1902
  • ‘The Bushveldt Carbineers’, Marquis del Moral (F. R. Bertodamo) papers (National Archives, Rhodesia)
  • P. J. Handcock papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • J. F. Thomas papers, AM 77/8 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • information from Bathurst Historical Society and Catholic Archives Office, Bathurst.

Citation details

R. L. Wallace, 'Handcock, Peter Joseph (1868–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/handcock-peter-joseph-6549/text11255, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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