Friday, 4 August 2017

The Breaker

At the end of June, a story appeared on the ABC News website (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) about a man who found a hessian bag on a rubbish tip in New South Wales. It contained Boer War items, seemingly connected to the Australian folk hero Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant.
Harry 'Breaker' Morant, Australian War Memorial, A05311 (public domain)
Harry 'Breaker' Morant, Australian War Memorial, A05311 (public domain)
I am cataloguing the papers of Colonel Hubert HS Morant who was the commanding officer of 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, during the First World War. This collection was purchased at auction with help from the Friends of the National Libraries, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Trustees of the former DLI. Breaker Morant is a result that always comes up on doing a google search on the family name. I hadn’t noticed anyone closely related called Harry, but the Morant family had many branches, and with this recent news report, I wanted to know if there was any family connection.

I didn’t really know the details about Breaker Morant until I started looking into the connection. Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant began to make a name for himself ‘acquiring a reputation as horse-breaker, drover, steeplechaser, polo player, drinker, womaniser, [and] from 1891 he contributed bush ballads to the Sydney Bulletin as ‘the Breaker’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography). He enlisted in the Australian army and fought in the Boer War. The story (disputed by some) is that he and some other men shot and killed several Boer prisoners, and a German missionary. They were arrested in October 1901, and the trial lasted until January 1902. Breaker Morant and a Lieutenant Handcock were both sentenced to death. On 27 February 1902, they were killed by firing squad. A film was made in 1980 in which Edward Woodward played Breaker.
D/DLI 7/1230/4 Hubert HS Morant, c.1918
D/DLI 7/1230/4 Hubert HS Morant, c.1918 
So, what is the connection between Breaker Morant and the commanding officer of a DLI regiment? Well, there isn’t one, not by blood at least. Breaker claimed to be the son of Admiral Sir Digby Morant, the cousin of HHS Morant. The claim was denied by Admiral Morant, and it was never proven. Breaker is thought to have been born Edwin Henry Murrant in Somerset in 1865, to Edwin and Catherine, and emigrated to Australia in 1883. A recent book, ‘Breaker Morant, the Final Round Up’, by Joe West and Roger Roper, suggests that Breaker adopted Harbord into his name from a newspaper report on the death of Horatio Harbord Morant, HHS Morant’s father (and the Admiral’s uncle). Horatio Morant had served with the 68th Foot Regiment, a predecessor of the Durham Light Infantry, in the Crimean War, and as a senior officer in New Zealand.

Of course, in 2017, we can look up birth entries on Ancestry, and dig around the internet to put a family tree together. If we want to move to another country, checks are in place to make sure we are who we say are. But at the turn of the 20th century, when Edwin Murrant went to Australia, moving to a new country could literally mean starting a new life.

You can read more about Breaker Morant here:

You can watch the report of the recent find, or read a transcript, here:

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