Sarah Wilson (war correspondent)

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Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill Wilson
1893 photograph of Lady Sarah by Henry Walter ('H. Walter') Barnett, whole-plate glass negative
Personal details
Born (1865-07-04)4 July 1865
Hove, Sussex
Died 22 October 1929(1929-10-22) (aged 64)
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Gordon Chesney Wilson (1865–1914)
Children Randolph Gordon Wilson (1893– 22 May 1956)
Parents John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822–1883) and Lady Frances Anne Emily Vane (1822–1899)

Lady Sarah Wilson, RRC (4 July 1865 – 22 October 1929), born Lady Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill, became the first woman war correspondent in 1899, when she was recruited by Alfred Harmsworth to cover the Siege of Mafeking for the Daily Mail during the Boer War.


Born on 4 July 1865 at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill was the youngest of the eleven children of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822–1883), and his wife, Lady Frances Anne Emily Vane (1822–1899), daughter of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. Her eldest brother was George Charles Spencer-Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough (1844–1892), and another brother was Lord Randolph Churchill (1849–1895), father of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), who also worked as a war correspondent during the Boer War, for The Morning Post. Anne, Duchess of Roxburghe (1854–1923) was her elder sister.[1]

On 21 November 1891,[1] she married Gordon Chesney Wilson,[2] MVO, (3 August 1865–6 November 1914), of the Royal Horse Guards, son of Jennie Campbell and Sir Samuel Wilson, MP.[3][Notes 1] Her Oxford-educated husband,[4] who had been born in Wimmera, Victoria, Australia,[5] was killed in action on 6 November 1914, at First Battle of Ypres. They had one son, Randolph Gordon Wilson (1893–1956).[6]

Siege of Mafeking correspondent[edit]

The Daily Mail newspaper recruited Lady Sarah after one of its correspondents, Ralph Hellawell, was arrested by the Boers as he tried to get out of the besieged town of Mafeking to send his dispatch. She was in the right place at the right time to step into the journalistic breach, having moved to Mafeking with her husband, Lt.-Col. Gordon Chesney Wilson, at the start of the war, where he was aide-de-camp to Col. Robert Baden-Powell, the commanding officer at Mafeking. Baden-Powell asked her to leave Mafeking for her own safety after the Boers threatened to storm the British garrison. This she duly did, and set off on a madcap adventure in the company of her maid, travelling through the South African countryside.[7] Eventually, she was captured by the Boers and returned to the town in exchange for a horse thief being held there.[8]

When she re-entered Mafeking, she found it had not been attacked as predicted. Instead, over four miles of trenches had been dug and 800 bomb shelters built to protect residents from the constant shelling of the town.[9][3]

Three soldiers talk with Sarah Wilson in Mafeking. She is seated by the door to her bomb shelter.

On 26 March 1900, toward the end of the siege, she wrote:

The Boers have been extremely active during the last few days. Yesterday we were heavily shelled and suffered eight casualties … Corporal Ironside had his thigh smashed the day before, and Private Webbe, of the Cape Police, had his head blown off in the brickfields trenches.[10]

Lady Sarah Wilson during the Siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War

Although death and destruction surrounded her, the Mail’s fledgling war correspondent preferred not to dwell too much on the horrors of the siege. She described cycling events held on Sundays and the town’s celebration of Colonel Baden-Powell’s birthday, which was declared a holiday.[10] Despite these cheery events, dwindling food supplies became a constant theme in the stories she sent back to the Mail and the situation seemed hopeless when the garrison was hit by an outbreak of malarial typhoid. In this weakened state the Boers managed to penetrate the outskirts of the town, but the British stood firm and repelled the assault.[11][3]

The siege finally ended after 217 days, when the Royal Horse and Canadian Artillery galloped into Mafeking on 17 May 1900. Only a few people standing in a dusty road, singing "Rule, Britannia!", were there to greet their saviours. But in London it was a different scene as more than 20,000 people turned out in the streets to celebrate the relief of Mafeking.[11][3][Notes 2]

Later life[edit]

In May 1901, Wilson was invested as a Dame of Grace of The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (D.G.St.J.),[12] and in December the same year King Edward VII personally conferred on her the decoration of the Royal Red Cross (RRC) for her services in Mafeking.[13]

Notes and References[edit]

Sarah Wilson, circa 1899.


  1. ^ Her husband had also witnessed the attack by Roderick Maclean on Queen Victoria, and was called, an Eton school boy, to the Berkshire Assizes to testify at the trial. See Christ-Church Oxford Memorials, Gordon Wilson, Accessed 5 September 2015.
  2. ^ The boisterous celebration ensuing from the lifting of the siege created the word, to maffick, for extravagant and public celebrations).See Pall Mall Gaz. 21 May 2/2 "We trust Cape Town..will ‘maffick’ to-day, if we may coin a word, as we at home did on Friday and Saturday." Complete definition: "To celebrate uproariously, rejoice extravagantly, esp. on an occasion of national celebration (originally the relief of the British garrison besieged in Mafeking (now Mafikeng), South Africa, in May 1900). In later use usually with pejorative connotations." "maffick, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 5 September 2015.


  1. ^ a b Daryl Lundy, The Peerage. Siblings. See John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough family page. Extracted from G.E. Cokayne; with Vicary Gibbs, H.A. Doubleday, Geoffrey H. White, Duncan Warrand and Lord Howard de Walden, editors, The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant, new ed., 13 volumes in 14 (1910-1959; reprint in 6 volumes, Gloucester, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 2000), volume VIII, page 502. Ngaio, Wellington, New Zealand. December 2012 version. Accessed 5 September 2015.
  2. ^ FreeBMD. England & Wales, FreeBMD Marriage Index, 1837–1915. [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006. here. Accessed 5 September 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d See also Christ-Church-Oxford-Cathedral Memorials.Gordon Wilson, Accessed 5 September 2015.
  4. ^ [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. This collection was indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors. England, Oxford Men and Their Colleges, 1880–1892, Accessed 5 September 2015. (subscription required)
  5. ^ Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.
  6. ^ England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858–1966. [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010. Probate details p. 444, and p. 666. Accessed 5 September 2015. (subscription required)
  7. ^ Sarah Wilson, South African Memories Social, Warlike & Sporting From Diaries Written At The Time, Chapter VI. Accessed 5 September 2015.
  8. ^ Wilson, chapters IX and X.
  9. ^ Wilson, chapters XI and XII.
  10. ^ a b Wilson, Chapter XII.
  11. ^ a b Wilson, chapter XIII.
  12. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27313. p. 3282. 14 May 1901.
  13. ^ "Court circular" The Times (London). Wednesday, 18 December 1901. (36641), p. 6.
  • S. J. Taylor (1996). The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-7538-0455-7.

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