Sunday, January 31, 2010

SA Immigration forms (PIO) 1904-1967

PIO files (Archives of the Principal Immigration Officer, Cape Town) contain passengers' declaration forms for the period 1904-1967.

These records are extremely useful for family history: immigrants arriving at South African ports had to complete a form giving their name, age, birthplace, nationality, occupation, marital status, age and birthplace of spouse, reason for entering the country, port of embarkation and the name of the ship on which they arrived.

If a PIO file for your ancestor turns up on NAAIRS, it's a valuable find and should be accessed.

A good rule when searching NAAIRS is: don’t hit everything that moves on the index. A well-chosen list of references will keep costs down (if you’re delegating to a researcher), speed up the process and ensure that you make the most of available sources.

An ancestor in the SA Constabulary?

On NAAIRS the source code SAC refers to the South African Constabulary, a semi-military force established in 1900. Many British men then serving in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War were recruited for this unit.

Should you find a reference to your forebear's Record of Conduct and Service,his documents are likely to include a detailed description of his appearance, his date and place of birth, his marital status, his religion, his civilian occupation, the name and address of his next of kin, his date and place of attestation (when he joined the SAC) and discharge (when he left the SAC and why) mention of any medals awarded and comments on his character and behaviour.

Be prepared to see your ancestor warts and all: his defaulter's sheet might show that he absented himself from duty without permission, created a disturbance in camp when under the influence of drink, disobeyed orders by gambling or indulging in other forms of 'irregular conduct' such as entertaining a lady in his tent.

File types useful in SA family history research

Divorce records provide addresses, career details, names of children and who received custody and reveal financial and other circumstances of both plaintiff and defendant. If the cause of divorce was adultery, another person's name may be cited in the proceedings: this could lead to finding a spouse's later change of surname and from there to a deceased estate file for a second husband.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of divorce files is that a copy of the marriage certificate may be found among the documents. The term 'illiquid' (illiquidation) cases is applied to divorces, but can also refer to the dissolution of business partnerships. The latter may offer addresses for the ancestor concerned and tell us more about the rise or fall of his fortunes at that point.

Divorce records are indexed under the archives of the Supreme Court in each province: in Natal the code RSC applies, in the Cape CSC, in the Transvaal WLD and in the Orange Free State, HG.

Though divorce files can be either depressing or intriguing, depending on your point of view, they are certainly worth accessing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Getting the best out of NAAIRS

Though NAAIRS has become increasingly well-known to family historians researching South African ancestry, many aren’t sure how to use the index to best advantage. This is partly because of uncertainty as to what they’re likely to find in the various available file types.

Which files offer the most useful information for family history purposes? Public records naturally weren’t generated for the benefit of genealogy research. How to discriminate between the types of records, pruning your list of references, saving time and expense and achieving optimum results?

Read the list of source codes used at each repository: these are a vital aid in understanding what sort of files you’ve turned up during a search of the index. See the source codes for SA archives repositories at:

One of the most informative sources in the South African context is the deceased estate file and will be discussed in future posts. In Natal, deceased estate files carry the code MSCE (Master of Supreme Court Estates). This is not to be confused with an insolvent estate, coded MSC in Natal. Insolvent estates can provide useful detail and shouldn’t be overlooked; they may include an inventory of an ancestor’s possessions e.g. in 1849 items listed in an insolvent estate were:

‘gunpowder, shott, caps, 1 pistol, boots, 2 waistcoats, velvet coat, handkerchiefs, socks and shirts, bed linen, tools, a trunk, a pair of moleskin trousers, 1 toilet glass, books, knives, forks, silver spoons and 1 lot of doctor’s instruments …’

A few lines giving a glimpse into this man’s life in the colony: perhaps the most revealing and personal description his descendants are ever likely to find.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hiring a researcher in South Africa

Lists of professional freelance researchers for each province are given, with contact details, on the NARS (National Archives of South Africa) website.
Note that these details are not regularly updated as they should be.

If you decide to delegate to a local SA researcher, it speeds things up if you’ve done your homework first and are able to provide full source references from NAAIRS, copying and pasting these from the Results Details (not Results Summary) section of the index.

If you haven’t been able to find a relevant reference to your ancestor on NAAIRS try to give the researcher a reasonable amount of family history detail as a starting point: not your entire family tree going back to William the Norman, but somewhere between that extreme and minimal information.

Questions to ask (other than the important matter of costs and preferred method of payment) include whether the researcher will provide information as transcripts or as digital image files. Photocopying – on a flatbed copier – is not permitted in deceased estate material, and is in any case often impossible due to the size and binding of older volumes.

For preservation reasons, access may be denied to files (of any type, not only deceased estate files) which are in a fragile condition. So, don’t shoot the messenger if a researcher reports that a required file cannot be ordered.

More tips for finding SA ancestors on NAAIRS

Getting back to using NAAIRS for South African family history research: a common mistake amongst first-time users of the index is placing two search terms on one line of the search form. Detach surname from forename and enter the words on two separate lines of the form. Also make use of the Beginning and Ending features at the foot of the form to give a date parameter for your search: this helps limit unnecessary hits, especially if the surname is commonly-found.

If you’re looking for a deceased estate file for your ancestor, remember that if he died in South Africa comparatively recently, say within the last 30 years, the estate reference would not be reflected on the index e.g. in Natal deceased estate files up to 1974 are shown on NAAIRS.

There are two non-archival databases on NAAIRS: the Bureau of Heraldry (HER) and Gravestone Inscriptions recorded by the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GEB). Under the MAN database are National Registers of Manuscripts (NAREM) and Photographs (NAREF). On these you can search libraries and museums as well as archival repositories. NAREM could lead you to a shipboard diary: first prize would be one written by your own forebear but accounts by contemporary travellers can be useful. NAREF could help you locate a photograph of an ancestor.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Correct spelling of the word Genealogy

Mark Howells writes:
One of the most common mistakes made by beginners in the hobby of family history is to spell genealogy incorrectly. Nothing shouts out ‘I don't know what I'm doing!’ louder than the misspelling of this pivotal word in our hobby.
Typically, most failed attempts at spelling genealogy put the letter ‘O’ where the letter ‘A’ belongs. Like this:


Because this misspelling is such an endemic problem, I devised a little memory aid to assist in remembering the correct spelling of the word. The first letters of each word in this very true sentence combine to form the correct spelling of genealogy. Remember the sentence and you'll be able to spell the word correctly every time.

Genealogists Examine Needed Evidence At Lots Of Grave Yards

Mark, I couldn’t agree more.
P.S. I see that one of the advertisements shown on my blog contains the word ‘geneology’: I did not write this ad.

Seeking SA ancestors on NAAIRS

For family historians who haven’t used NAAIRS before, it’s well worth reading the on-site introductory pages which explain information categories, source codes, acronyms and tips for structuring searches. The Help pages give user-friendly instructions for Getting Started, Searching, Selecting a Database, Saving Queries etc, plus a list of FAQ.

Before you begin the search, have some basic family history details handy: the ancestor’s name, location if known (i.e. Cape, Natal etc), an approximate date parameter, and any extra facts which would assist in identifying an individual on the index, such as an unusual middle name or a spouse’s forename or maiden name. This is essential when looking for a John Smith or Joe Brown, to avoid an avalanche of hits. As with any search, always try variant spellings of a surname.

If you find no reference to your ancestor on NAAIRS don’t jump to the conclusion that he never came to South Africa. He may simply have remained invisible as far as public records were concerned. Possible reasons for that are many and varied.

The colonies often provided an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and an emigrant may have used an alias. This would effectively mask his identity in the records and imaginative search options might be needed: e.g. he could have taken his mother’s maiden name.

Access NAAIRS at

NAAIRS and South African research

Continuing on the topic of NAAIRS, note that the original documents cannot be viewed online. NAAIRS is an index for identifying and locating archival material. If your searches turn up relevant references, and you live at a distance from the repository holding the required file, you’ll need local assistance. Archives staff cannot undertake in-depth research, though may carry out specific searches e.g. a Death Notice. Hiring a professional researcher to access the file for you and either transcribe or take digital photos (where allowed) to be sent to you by email is often the best option.

Regrettably, the Western Cape Archives and Record Service, previously known as Cape Archives, in 2007 banned the use of cameras and other imaging devices. Instead, their own reprographic service is offered. Digital copies can be supplied through this service but are available only as prints, not in e-format. Despite a strong wave of protest in the SA genealogical community, so far the controversial ruling has not been rescinded, though there has been a blurring of the edges in that certain professional researchers now have a mandate to use their own digital cameras in the Reading Room.

Contact details of SA professional researchers in each province are available on the NARS site at

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

South African family history research

Where you live influences your approach to family history. If, like me, you’re descended from British stock but your home is in one of the previous colonial outposts of the Empire, local records can take you only part of the way back to the ancestral past. In this case, research will need to encompass UK records. Similarly, if you live in the UK but have ancestors who emigrated to the colonies – or who simply disappear from British records after the 1881 Census, for example – digging into colonial records will be essential. With a computer and access to internet much can be achieved.

The South African National Archives and Record Service launched the NAAIRS index in 2001, resulting in an explosion of interest in South African ancestry research. NAAIRS (National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System) is the gateway to South African archival data and can be accessed (free) from the NARS (National Archives and Record Service) website at

The automation of archival retrieval began as far back as 1974 and is an on-going project with over 250 000 computer records added annually. Despite this achievement, not all archivalia are yet reflected online – perhaps less than half the holdings. When you think of NAAIRS compare it with the ears of the hippo.

Read the Beginners Guide to South African Research: see tab next to the Home tab on these blog pages. It includes 'Hiring a Researcher in South Africa'.

Instant family history?

Computers and the internet revolutionized the study of genealogy and family history, speeding up communications and giving access to huge amounts of data. This is all good but there are unfortunate spin-offs. People’s expectations have changed: they want ‘instant’ family history. Not only that but they’re prepared to believe whatever they find on the web. Both these attitudes are bad. Anyone can upload information on websites and forums and these offerings may or may not be accurate. Pre-digested genealogical trees should be treated with particular caution. Unless you want a family history full of perpetuated errors, check every fact. Go back to original records wherever possible.

There’s no such thing as instant family history. Access to online Census, BMD and other records may help to provide the basics of a family tree and if all you want is a decorative chart, accurate or not, to hang on the dining-room wall you might well be able to achieve that in a weekend. If that is all you want, don’t bluff yourself that you’re a family historian – you aren’t.

If you want more than that – and I really hope you do - the aim is not to gallop ahead collecting a pile of dubious details in the shortest possible time, and arrive panting at some imaginary finish line saying ‘I’ve done my family history. Next?’

Family history research is a quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There are no shortcuts.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Genealogy, Family History & Surnames

I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between genealogy and family history. These terms are used as if they’re interchangeable but strictly speaking genealogy refers to the tracing of particular lines of descent. Family history indicates a wider focus of research: uncovering the details of the ancestors’ lives and times. The phrase ‘putting flesh on the bones’ is overworked; nevertheless it’s what the family historian is attempting to achieve. Theoretically it might be possible to be a genealogist without being a family historian – but not vice versa.

Returning to the subject of surname distribution and frequency, the name Swires – my paternal grandmother’s maiden name – is far from commonly-found: only three instances per million people in the UK, the current total number with that surname being 130. At the time of the 1881 Census there were 106 individuals named Swires in Yorkshire, pointing to a concentration of the surname in my grandmother’s family’s county of origin. In comparison with this rarity of occurrence, Gadsden - my father's surname - crops up 12 times per million people in the UK, and is most numerous in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Gadsdens are very thin on the ground in South Africa, but there are thousands in the US. Variant spellings of Gadsden cause complications: GADSEN, GADSON, GADESDEN etc.

For a specialist’s view of the topic and some remarkable nuggets of information, I recommend Colin D. Rogers’ book, The surname detective: Investigating surname distribution England, 1086-present day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Diversity, dynamite and decisions

Because family history offers such a diversity of intriguing avenues to explore, it's often difficult to maintain focus. In the process of finding out more about my Hamilton and Gibson ancestors who had once lived in a small village called Stevenston in Ayrshire, Scotland, I discovered that several members of these families had worked at 'the dinnamit' – local parlance for Nobel's explosives factory at Ardeer (see photo right from Ayrshire Libraries Forum showing women workers queuing outside the factory).

UK Census entries reveal that the girls, some as young as twelve, were 'carteridge [sic] makers' at the dynamite works. They wore their hair in pigtails for safety. I spent hours in pursuit of this topic, visiting related websites and generating text files and photographs. Fascinating, yes, and it provided a glimpse into a vanished era, but sometimes it's necessary to tear ourselves away from sidetracks and get back to the main road. Tempus fugit.

Deciding from the outset what that main road is going to be, is helpful. Are you going to collect data on one specific line? Will it be your paternal or maternal line? Or both? What do you intend to do with the information: put together a simple family tree for the benefit of your children and grandchildren or produce a detailed illustrated narrative for circulation within the family? If you have a particularly unusual surname, you might want to work towards a One Name Study. This would involve all instances of the surname (and its accepted spelling variants) anywhere, at any date: a real challenge and clearly not an option if your surname is Smith – or Bell.

A peal of Bells

There's no such thing as plain sailing in family history research. It's not an ideal pursuit for the perfectionist, as research never ends and there will always be gaps and brick walls to contend with. There may be unexpected complications, too. For example, I found that the surname Bell occurs in my maternal and paternal lines. William Bell the mariner (see picture left) was my paternal great great grandfather, but there was a whole raft of other Bells who cropped up in my maternal ancestry.

Bell is a commonly-found name in UK: according to some sources it occurs 1669 times per million people (in the British Isles). It is prevalent in Cumberland, which was William Bell's place of origin. However, there are thousands of Scottish Bells, too, and that's where the Bells of my maternal line originate.

Some recent members of this line were keen to establish a connection with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone (among other things). Trying to trace forward from a famous individual in the hope of linking him/her with your own family tree is an endeavour doomed from the start. Far better to plod backwards, beginning with yourself (the known), through each generation establishing as much documentary evidence as possible for every individual. So far, I have found no such evidence that my maternal Bells are related to Alexander Graham Bell - though I am keeping an open mind.

Exploring the meaning and etymology of a surname can be rewarding, as well as giving clues as to a family's geographical origins. I've found Reaney and Wilson's Dictionary of English Surnames very useful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

These Forgotten Things

Why do we research our ancestry? I suspect the reasons vary from individual to individual. Terrick FitzHugh, in his excellent book How to Write a Family History, quotes the opinion of an author of yesteryear, John Aubrey:

'The retrieving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many hundreds of years and to represent as it were to the eie [eye] the places, Customes and Fashions that were of old Times'.

Any family historian who has attempted to make their forebears 'walke and appeare' by finding out more about them and the times in which they lived, will agree that there is a magical element in such a task. But what is it that produces our initial stirrings of interest in the topic?

Readers of Thomas Hardy's novels will remember that, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the heroine's father caused anguish and tragedy through his search for noble ancestry. This sort of 'snobbish' approach to genealogy is now considered old-fashioned. Most of us are content to accept our 19th c ag labs and are thrilled when an ancestor happens for some reason to stand out among the crowded branches of our family tree. We also realise that there's no such thing as an 'ordinary' ancestor: every ag lab has his story too.

I was fortunate enough to be encouraged from an early age by my mother to take an interest in family history. Another helpful aspect was my unusual surname, Gadsden - though I would discover later that it wasn't nearly as unusual as I then thought it was. Perhaps the most significant bit of luck was the fascinating local hero, a mariner named William Bell who occurred in my paternal line: lucky, because he had achieved recognition as a result of a brief moment of glory in our home town, so a certain amount of information about him had appeared in print. Even more intriguing, that glorious moment had been captured in a painting by a famous artist, featuring a depiction, centre-stage, of our mariner's ship. It was an irresistible combination of events and circumstances.