Medal mystery cleared up

From left, Christopher Mellor-Hill, director of client liaison at Dix Noonan Webb, arrived from London last week to return medals to John Evans.

Four medals travelled from Cape Town and around the world before ending up at Timour Hall Villa last week.

Their owner, John Evans, 82, served as an assistant commissioner in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) for 27 years.

In 2002, wanting the medals to pass from generation to generation, he gave them to his son, Robert, who was emigrating to Perth, Australia.

“My granddad fought at Gallipoli, and there is a strong association with this war in Australia, so I wanted this to continue with my grandchildren,” said Mr Evans.

And that was that, until recently when friend and fellow BSAP veteran Dave Blacker knocked on his door. Instead of the usual “how are you?” the forthright friend asked Mr Evans if he was hard-up and needing financial help.

Mr Blacker was one of many BSAP veterans who saw an internet post that Mr Evans’s medals were on sale on a British auction site.

“The BSAP is as alive today as it was 40 years ago. Through the worldwide network, we could not believe John would sell his medals unless he was hard-up,” said Mr Blacker at the hand-over in the pub at Timour Hall Villa in Plumstead.

The story begins when Mr Evans was 17 and came to South Africa. “I turned 18 on the boat and shared a table with three women who thought I was too young for them,” laughed Mr Evans, reminiscing with Mr Blacker.

The two veterans were met at Cape Town harbour by a mule cart and taken to the Athlone Hotel – which still stands today. Three days later Mr Evans and Mr Blacker were on a very slow train to Salisbury, Rhodesia, now Harare, Zimbabwe.

That was 1953. Mr Evans served in the BSAP all over Rhodesia in the criminal-investigation department until retirement as assistant commissioner in 1980. “With uneducated children and lots of broken furniture,” he laughed.

Jim Blain, chairman of the British South Africa Police Regimental Association Western Cape, said the origins of the force dated back to 1889 when Queen Victoria granted a royal charter to Cecil John Rhodes’s British South Africa Company to “open up” Mashonaland in what was then known as British South Africa.

“Recruiting began in Kimberley in the Cape Colony for a police force to accompany and protect the pioneer column which was to occupy the new territory,” said Mr Blain.

He added that it was unusual for a police force to be established before the country.

“The force held to the customs and traditions of a light-cavalry regiment. With military ranks and discipline reflecting the military ethos with emphasis on smartness and drill.

“It had to establish the rule of law while also defending the borders of the country. With no standing army, the BSAP remained Southern Rhodesia’s first line of defence and held the honour of occupying the right of the line,” said Mr Blain.

He said the BSAP was regarded by many as one of the greatest police forces of the British Empire and Commonwealth: a regiment of policemen and women, both black and white, brought to the fore in civilian and military roles until it ceased to exist after August 1980, when it became known as the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

Back to the medals, which turned up at international coin, banknote, medal and jewellery auction house Dix Noonan Webb, in London. Its director of client liaison, Christopher Mellor-Hill, was instrumental in getting Mr Evans’s medals withdrawn from the auction.

He explained that most medals were unnamed except for those British and South African ones which traditionally had the recipient’s name and rank number engraved on them.

“This makes it a great way to collect and enjoy history and it’s also why these medals were identifiable as belonging to John Evans,” said Mr Mellor-Hill.

Thanks to the internet, they get many calls from people discovering medals of relatives sold in the past and wishing to reunite them. They also identify stolen medals, often leading to happy returns.

“But sadly we have as many cases where medals have been allegedly stolen when, in fact, they were actually sold and this is only exposed when they surface through the internet,” said Mr Mellor-Hill.

Mr Evans’s daughter, Bronwen Wetton, was contacted, and she discovered the medals had been stolen two years ago from her brother’s home in Australia.

“He never told my dad because he knew he’d be upset,” said Ms Wetton.

Having sent pictures of her dad wearing the medals and documents confirming ownership,
Mr Mellor-Hill removed the medals from auction. However, there was one final problem.

“Where did the they belong – in Australia with the vendor or with the recipient in South Africa?” said Mr Mellor-Hill.

The medals are not very valuable but have great sentimental value for Mr Evans and his family. Through the worldwide network, BSAP members had a “whip-round” and collected £250
(R4 605) to match the bid an Australian collector had made before the medals had been pulled from the auction.

With serendipity playing a part, Mr Mellor-Hill was coming to South Africa on a medallic tour and he brought the medals with him.

And after a journey from Cape Town to Perth and London, the medals are back in the hands of their owner, 40 years later.