(Webmistress's Note:  The following speech was given by Sheldon Hall on 9/7/05 at a memorial service commemorating the centenary of Henry Hook's death.  See www.rorkesdriftvc.com, news section, for more information on that event.)




by Sheldon Hall


First of all, might I say what an honour it is to be invited here today to take part in this service in memory of a great man and to be asked to speak before you. If you’ll forgive me for harping on my professional interests, I think most of us who are not connected to the Hook family were first introduced to the name of Henry Hook through his portrayal in the film Zulu. Those of us who love the film – and there are many – also came to love the colourful, reluctantly heroic rogue played so brilliantly by James Booth.


    Of course, as we came to realise the more we read and learned about Rorke’s Drift, the real Henry Hook could scarcely have been more different. A teetotaller, the hospital cook and by all accounts a model soldier, he was nothing like his fictional portrayal. But in 1963, relatively few people were even aware of the battle. Certainly James Booth knew nothing of the real Hook: he simply played the character as written in the script, created out of the writer John Prebble’s historical imagination. Prebble was well aware that his creation bore little relationship to actuality, though he also said at the time that very little was then known about the defenders of the mission station. Incidentally, Prebble conducted his research in the Reading Room of the British Library, where in later life Hook had worked as a cloakroom attendant.


    But James learned the truth about his character when the film company received not only a letter of complaint from the Hook family, which was passed on to him, but a photograph of the real Henry Hook, which James kept and hung on the wall in his hallway. It remains there still, more than forty years later.


    When I accepted my invitation to attend today’s service, I suggested to Roger Morgan that it might be a nice gesture to invite James also. I hoped that it might serve as the opportunity for a reconciliation – if reconciliation were still needed – with the Hook family. Sadly, as I’m sure everyone here knows, James cannot be with us. On the very day that Roger wrote to invite him here, he died suddenly, at the age of 77.


    If James’ portrayal still rankles with some people here, perhaps they should remember that without it, and without the film, many of us might never have known about Rorke’s Drift at all, never discovered a passionate interest in past events, and never learned the name of Private Henry Hook. Perhaps then, while we honour his memory and celebrate his life and heroic achievement, we might also spare a thought for the man who brought him wider fame and who led us, by a roundabout route, to the truth about the battle and to the man many people regard as its greatest hero.