by Peter Munro
It is an oppressively hot Friday in March as I stood beside the grave of Trooper William Croome in the Mudgee Cemetery. Beside me stood William’s great niece Helen Shearman. As we read the inscription on the headstone, my thoughts were with William’s five mates who were buried on the Sorrento Cemetery and of the ‘Drayton Grange’ that ill-fated, ill equipped troopship who through sickness and death is the catalyst for the connection between these two towns.
Sorrento to Mudgee is quite a distance, even by to-day’s standards with the comforts of plane and hire car. Back in August 1902, the trip would have been considerably longer for William Croome who made his final journey from the military hospital at Fort Franklin, Portsea, to his home town of Mudgee, N.S.W. This was a homecoming poor William would never see.
William Croome along with five of his fellow soldiers died at Fort Franklin Hospital while returning on the troopship ‘Drayton Grange’ at the conclusion of the Boer War. Unlike the five of his comrades who were buried in the Sorrento Cemetery, William’s body, at the wishes of his father, was conveyed from Sorrento to his home town of Mudgee to a hero’s funeral before more than 2000 of the local and district folk.
Towards the end of last year, I became interested in Croome’s death. His was the sixth at Fort Franklin following the disembarking of 75 critically ill soldiers returning from South Africa. I wanted to know if there were any of William’s descendants still within the Mudgee area and what they might know of his funeral. Following a number of phone calls and emails I eventually came in contact with William’s great niece Helen Shearman. Fortunately for me, Helen had undertaken considerable research into the Croome family and in particular young William who, at the age of 20 had volunteered to fight in the Boer War.
Some three months later, I met Helen at the Mudgee Museum. She was armed with more information and photos of William and his funeral. Among the information was a most poignant testimonial saying that while on board the ‘Drayton Grange’, William although seriously ill, had given up his bed for a colleague whom he regarded as worse off than himself.
I visited Robertson Park in the middle of the town where a beautifully restored rotunda is dedicated to the memory of the three soldiers from Mudgee who fought in the Boer War. Not one of these three Mudgee boys returned home alive after the war. One became ill and died en route to South Africa, one was killed in action in Bloemfontein and William at Fort Franklin on his homeward journey at the conclusion of the war.
I was driven four kilometres out of town to the Mudgee Cemetery to see William’s grave. Helen told me that many of the 2,000 who attended the funeral service had actually walked that distance in procession on the day of the funeral.
A local reporter from the ‘Mudgee Guardian’ had become interested in this particular connection between Sorrento and Mudgee and about the facts which precipitated such a connection. Over a cup of coffee beside the newspaper office, reporter Sam Paine asked many questions about the circumstances surrounding the troopship ‘Drayton Grange’. At the end of 45 minutes Sam had his story. A week later, on March 28th a 450 word story appeared on page 10 of ‘The Mudgee Guardian’. Both the towns of Mudgee and Sorrento are mentioned in the article which, in some way has reunited those six deaths at Fort Franklin Hospital in 1902; William Croome buried in Mudgee and his five mates buried in Sorrento.