Walter Ernest Mortimer Stanford was born on 2 August 1850 in Alice. His grandparents were part of the 1820 settlers. His father, William Stanford was born in 1820 shortly after the arrival of the settlers; his mother was Mrs. William Wright a widow who had three children. The couple had three children, Robert, Walter and Arthur. When Stanford was six years old his father was killed in a riding accident. Subsequently, in 1857, he was sent to live with his uncle J.C. Warner, a missionary in charge of the mission at Glen Grey in Queenstown. The reason for this was that Stanford was sickly and his mother hoped that sending him to live in place of higher altitude his condition might improve.
Stanford spent the following three years with his uncle being educated by Aunt Mary Stanford. In 1860 Stanford moved back to his mother in Alice and then spent the next two years of his education at the Lovedale Mission Institute. At the age of twelve he ceased his formal education.
Stanford began working as a clerk for his uncle in July 1863 under the Department of Natives Affairs in Glen Grey. During his uncle’s absence, he became the Tambookie Agent. In 1869 he spent some time working as a bookkeeper before returning to the Department of Native Affairs.
Due to his good work ethic and ability Stanford was able to advance steadily and by 1876 he was appointed magistrate with Dalasile the chief of the AmaQwati. During the Ninth War of Dispossession, Stanford was appointed to oversee the division that collected levies from African people to fund the Gcalekaland campaign. At the end of the campaign Stanford returned to his work at Engcobo.
When the prime minister of the Cape, Gordon Sprigg passed the Peace Preservation Act more commonly known as the Disarmament Act, Stanford voiced his opposition. When Basotho rebelled against the Act a revolt broke out in the Drakenberg and other area resulting in the death of Magistrate in Qumbu. Stanford was forced to flee to Dordrecht where he became part of a force of white volunteers and loyal Africans He was placed in command of Troop B of this force. When the rebellion came to an end in 1881, Stanford returned to magisterial work dealing with the relocation of the defeated tribesmen and chiefs, while also dealing with European squatters. That same year Stanford became part of the Native Laws and Customs Commission created in order to review the laws that dealt with black people. The Commission drew up a criminal code based on black customs and the white justice system.
In 1883 Stanford married his wife Alice Walker, and two years later he was appointed as Chief Magistrate of Griqualand East. On 5 November 1886 Stanford sent 200 Cape mounted riflemen and 2300 native troops to the Pondo border to threaten the Pondo Chief, Mqikela and instruct him that he had four days in which to make reparations and make a proposal on how he was going to ‘control his people’. During negotiations the Chief agreed to open up the road from Port St Johns to Kokstad and to allow construction, repairs, and outspan places wherever necessary. This was to be coordinated with the Chief Magistrate of Griqualand East as well as a Justice and punishment system to be created.
In 1894 Stanford was sent to negotiate the annexation of Pondoland after the death of Chief Mqikela and a deadline was for an agreement set, or military force would be used. The son of Mqikela, the Chief of West Pondoland, Sigcawu apparently ‘signed’ a treaty of submission. In 1896 Sprigg asked Stanford to become the Under-Secretary of Native Affairs an offer that he declined because most of that post powers had been reduced. When Sprigg reinstated the powers of the Under-Secretary, Stanford then took office.
During the Second South African War, Stanford was placed in command of the East Griqualand Field Force, at the end of the War Stanford was awarded a Companion of Bath for his efforts along with the title of Colonel in the Cape Colonial Forces. In 1902 when the position of Chief Magistrate was consolidated in the Transkeian territories it was given to Stanford.
Stanford was part of the Native Affairs Commission (NAC) from 1903 to 1905, and disagreed on two standpoints, firstly he felt that black people needed better security and fixity of tenure and secondly he felt that black people should not have designated areas in which they could purchase land. Stanford also served as Secretary of Native affairs from 1904-1908. However, his tenure was broken in 1907 when Stanford had to stand down due to the damage the stress was causing on his heart. After after a year of respite, he resumed his position. The sentiments expressed by Stanford in the NAC of 1903 did not last, he later retracted these sentiments and this ensured his inclusion in the 1913 Native Lands Commission.
During the First World War Stanford helped in the recruiting process in Cape Town, and was instrumental in the founding the Cape Corps as an Imperial Unit. In 1918 he took up a post as Director of Recruiting in Pretoria, a post he held until 1919. Stanford was knighted in 1919 and retired as a Union Senator ten years later in 1929.
Stanford fell ill and died on 9 September 1933 at the age of 83.
• Walter Ernest Mortimer Stanford, The Reminiscences of Sir Walter Stanford, pp. xii-xxvii