Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Your ancestor in the South African Constabulary

In 1900 the South African Constabulary (SAC) was established, somewhat optimistically, in an attempt to keep peace in the areas of the Transvaal, Orange River Colony (Orange Free State) and Swaziland.
Master-minded, under orders from Roberts, by Baden-Powell, fresh from his successful leadership of the garrison during the Siege of Mafeking, the SAC was a military body disguised as a police force. It was recruited from British men in the Cape and Natal, as well as from further afield: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon.

In addition, about 1500 Canadians were dispatched to swell the ranks of the SAC. Because these men were not recruited or paid by the Canadian government, their records are held mainly in South Africa. 57 Canadians died and six won decorations while serving in the ranks of the SAC. The 2nd Royal Canadian Regiment was the first to disembark in South Africa in November 1899 and from then on various other regiments continued to arrive in waves until June 1902. Among them was the unusual unit known as Strathcona’s Horse, the ‘Canadian cowboys’.


For the South African Constabulary, Baden-Powell came up with a comfortable khaki uniform topped by a broad-brimmed American hat known as the Boss of the Plains pattern. This was usually abbreviated to B.P. and Baden-Powell remarked that this ‘brought about the mistaken notion that they (the hats) had something to do with me.’ Later, when he established the scouting movement, the uniform closely echoed that of the SAC, including the now-famous hat.

Records of Conduct and Service
Many members of the Constabulary made South Africa their permanent home. Records of Conduct and Service of the SAC held in the National Archives of South Africa provide comprehensive information. A typical record sheet gives a detailed physical description of the man, his date and place of birth, marital status, calling (occupation), religion, and name and address of his next-of-kin, as well as a list of promotions or transfers. His Defaulter’s Sheet may reveal the odd blot on his career. Should the reference to an ancestor’s SAC Record of Conduct and Service emerge on NAAIRS, the contents would take any family historian’s knowledge several leaps forward.

More on the SAC at the following links:

Baden-Powell in the Boss of the Plains hat with scouting uniform

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ancestors in Police Units, South Africa

In the second half of the 19th c a number of semi-military police forces were formed. They arose out of the need to maintain law and order over large areas and difficult terrain in South Africa.

One of these forces was the Natal Mounted Police, first raised after the 1874 Rebellion, as well as seeing action in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. This corps continued to serve through the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (at the Siege of Ladysmith) and the 1906 Rebellion until finally being incorporated into the South African Mounted Riflemen in 1913.

They numbered about 300 at the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War. Many of its members were recruited in England in the early years of the unit and it’s interesting that some of these men are individually-named on Natal passenger lists, coming out on board ships such as the Kinfauns Castle and Roslin Castle in the 1880s. These lists appear in the European Immigration Department registers (EI) held at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

In 1894 the unit was amalgamated with other groups to form the Natal Police – it was known by this name (NP) until 1913.

If an ancestor was in the NMP/NP, the chances of finding out more about him are good. The history of the corps is told in Holt’s The Mounted Police of Natal; 16 volumes of original records of the unit are preserved at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository. They contain nominal rolls, enlistment registers from 1874-1913, records of service covering that period and a roll of individuals granted Long Service and Good Conduct Medals.

Further detail at

Similarly well-documented, the Cape Mounted Police (CMP) came into existence in 1882. Enrolment records are held in Cape Archives Repository.

Not to be confused with the above were the Cape Mounted Riflemen, a distinct semi-military entity, which began its life as the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police (FAMP) ca 1855, with the change in title dating from 1878. Their history is recounted by Basil Williams in his Record of the Cape Mounted Riflemen.

NAAIRS at offers a large number of references concerning each of the units mentioned in this post.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anglo-Boer War: photos and casualties

To identify a regiment or find out more from a photo of an Anglo-Boer War ancestor, several avenues need to be followed: family memory or letters and other personal papers and surviving items such as medals, combined with archival sources as well as the close scrutiny of the photograph itself – with magnifying glass if necessary – revealing detail of badges or other insignia as well as who took the picture, when and where. Don’t ignore anything that might be written (or printed) on the back of the photograph, or on the card mount.
When rephotographing the photo, include the entire picture, not just the part showing the subject.

Even if all these are studied there may remain unanswered questions. You may need to call in a specialist in military research – never send your original photograph, but a good copy. 

If you’re uncertain who the photographed ancestor is, remember that he might not be an ancestor at all, but a friend in the same regiment. This also applies to group photographs: they might not include your ancestor.


Ironically, it’s often easier to discover more about an ancestor who did not survive the war. There was enormous loss of life during the Anglo-Boer War, affecting both Boers and British, as well as the African population who were caught up in the conflict. Over
20 000 British died and nearly 23 000 were wounded. Disease accounted for more deaths than casualties during action. Enteric fever and dysentery killed about 18 000 – perhaps a conservative estimate.

Names of Anglo-Boer War casualties taken from the South African Defence Force Roll of Honour can be accessed at

A roll of Natal Field Force casualties of the first part of the war (20 October 1899-26 October 1900) is searchable at

Recommended Reading

Steve Watt: In Memoriam (University of Natal Press Pietermaritzburg 2000) provides a Roll of Honour of Imperial Forces in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, 25 000 soldiers, women and civilians, who laid down their lives for the British Cause whether they were from Britian, South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. The book offers alphabetical lists by name, regimental number, regiment, type of casualty, place, date of death, where buried and whether the name is listed on a monument or in a graveyard, with location. Particulars of age and religion of the deceased, where available, are given.

John Stirling: The Colonials in South Africa 1899-1902 (Blackwood, Edinburgh 1907). A mine of information; some individual names such as those mentioned in dispatches, are included as well as details of each unit’s operations during the war.

Darrell Hall: The Hall Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War (University of Natal Press 1999) gives a useful list of British Regiments and the dates of their period of service in South Africa, with the battles or field operations at which they were present. Hall also gives a list of the Colonial Forces with SA arrival and departure dates, and a list of SA units with details such as when and where these were raised and disbanded. Men who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Anglo-Boer War are listed alphabetically, as are names of graveyards where Imperial Soldiers were buried. There are brief biographies of some of the major personalities associated with the war.

Border Mounted Rifles, Ladysmith, December 1899

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Finding Anglo-Boer War Ancestors online

Some useful Anglo-Boer War links: Ongoing project to index attestation papers of colonial soldiers from WO 126 TNA. So far the regiments available are:
Ashburners Light Horse
Bechuanaland Rifles
Bethune's Mounted Infantry
Border Horse
Border Scouts
Brabant's Horse
Bushmanland Borderers
Canadian Scouts
Town Guards (A-Da, De-Gro done to date) search various rolls including Natal Field Force Casualties South African National Archives and Record Service, incorporating NAAIRS index South African National Military History Museum; recommended article ‘Researching ancestors who were Servicemen’; details of published medal rolls. Natal Volunteers, Police and Guides  Australians serving in South Africa 1899-1902 listed alphabetically by state and contingent Australian participation in the Anglo-Boer War, sources for service records, medal rolls, attestation papers, enrolment forms, returned soldiers' records Australian War Memorial site with Boer War Nominal Roll. Database searchable by name, unit and keyword

       Ladysmith: Defence of Caesar's Camp   Artist: R Caton-Woodville

Friday, March 26, 2010

Identifying Uniforms in Photographs

Any family historian who has looked despairingly at a photograph waiting for it to convey information will know that badges and other insignia are not always clear in Anglo-Boer War photographs, limiting our ability to identify the ancestor’s regiment.
In the accompanying cabinet print, though, the collar badge provides an excellent clue: it shows an elephant with howdah, a badge adopted when the 33rd and 76th regiments merged to form the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (originally the elephant appeared without the howdah, so that is another clue for earlier dating purposes). The same design was used on the regimental buttons, though in this photograph the buttons are slightly out of focus.

Now that the badge has been identified, further research shows more about the possible field operations in which this young soldier could have been involved. He was evidently of an Imperial (not a Colonial) regiment and is seen here in his 'Number One' Dress - blue, not khaki. It seems likely that he was among the thousands recalled from service elsewhere in the Empire to be sent to South Africa as reinforcements. The 1st West Riding Regiment (Duke of Wellington's) served in South Africa from January 1900 to the end of the war 1902. They were present at operations at Klip Kraal, Paardeberg (18-27 Feb 1900, where the Boers were defeated) and at Renosterkop. After the reorganisation of the British Forces in May/June 1900, the 1st West Riding Regt. formed part of the Sixth Division under GOC Lieut-General T Kelly-Kenny.

For more on the 1st West Riding Regiment (Duke of Wellington's) see

The name and location of the photographic studio – stated on the mount below the photo - can be helpful in establishing where and when the picture was taken. In this instance, the photographer was W Clark who had a studio in Longmarket Street, Pietermaritzburg in the 1890s and early 1900s.

So-called vignette photographs were trendy during this period: the subject, usually head and shoulders only, faded out artistically towards the edges of the photo. It’s an attractive effect, but generally disastrous for identification of details, and military portraits unfortunately did not escape this fashion. See example showing the same soldier as above, but in vignette:

Photo Link

A useful selection of photographs showing typical uniforms of the Anglo-Boer War era can be found at

Note particularly the group of British infantrymen in a varied assortment of headgear: cap, slouch hat (some more slouched than others), glengarry (triangular cap perched precariously at an angle on the head). There is a hint of discernible ‘uniform’ worn by only a couple of these men. The photograph was taken by Coyne, in Pietermaritzburg, probably ca 1900.

Also note the photograph of a Canadian Trooper of the South African Constabulary, with the distinctive high-crowned Canadian hat; more about that in a future post.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

More on Anglo-Boer War Ancestors

A photograph of your Anglo-Boer War ancestor may include soldier’s accoutrements which could give clues as to date, regiment and rank: e.g. in the Border Mounted Rifles, a Natal permanent volunteer corps, up to 1896 ammunition was carried in a pouch with a brown leather crossbelt. After that date, the ‘Royston Entanglement’ was adopted – a combined rifle sling and bandolier used by NCO’s and troopers. Officers and Warrant Officers of the unit wore the Sam-Browne sword belt.

Incidentally, the Alexandra Mounted Rifles, which evolved to become the Border Mounted Rifles in 1894, adopted the use of khaki for its field service uniform in 1874. This is the earliest recorded military use of khaki in South Africa, a possible exception being the 2nd Highland Light Infantry (74th Highlanders) who in the 8th Frontier War 1850-52 fought in doublets of that colour.

Colonial Volunteers

Some of the most interesting departures from standard uniform were seen among the colonial volunteer regiments. It wasn’t unknown for certain of these to take to the field in their shirtsleeves, a deplorable habit occasioning much comment from more conventional quarters. However, the colonials were valuable and courageous troops, well-suited by experience to the conditions which they faced in South Africa. This is particularly true of the colonial mounted regiments – they formed two-fifths of the entire mounted force participating in the war.

Which Regiment?

If your ancestor was among the colonials, there are numerous possibilities as to the regiment in which he could have served. On the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, thousands of troops from the overseas colonies were sent to South Africa from Canada, India, Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand.

In South Africa there were permanent regular forces including the Natal Police, Cape Mounted Police and Cape Mounted Rifles. These should not be confused with the permanent volunteer units which had been in place for some years, such as the Natal Carbineers, Durban Light Infantry, Diamond Fields Artillery and Diamond Fields Horse, Border Mounted Rifles, Kaffrarian Rifles, Cape Town Highlanders, the Kimberley Regiment and others.


Certain corps were raised at the beginning of the war, specifically for service in that conflict. These so-called irregulars carried an aura of glamour and non-conformity: Brabant’s Horse, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, Roberts’s Horse, the Imperial Light Horse, the Imperial Light Infantry, Steinaecker’s Horse – the stuff of legend.

Some forces came into being further into the course of the war, among them Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts raised in December 1900, Ashburner’s Light Horse, the Bushveld Carbineers, Dennison’s Scouts, Driscoll’s Scouts and the Cape Colony Cycle Corps.


The best place to research local armed forces serving in South Africa from 1899-1902 is The National Archives (TNA), Kew, which holds nominal rolls (soldiers’ names) and enrolment forms (completed by each man) in WO 127 and WO 126.

Col. Plumer's attempt to relieve Mafeking from the north; by artist Frank Dodd RI
 Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1900

Mafeking Relieved: At last! Baden-Powell and his heroic garrison are safe, their long privations are at an end. Lord Roberts has nobly kept his word, thanks to the dauntless and invincible courage of the troops composing the column of relief. He asked the garrison to hold out until May 18. True to his promise, succour arrived on that very day and the news reached London last night after a day of anxious waiting and eager hope deferred hour by hour.

It was just seventeen minutes past 9 o'clock when the message containing the glorious news began to come over the tape from Reuters Agency, and the Daily Telegraph had the felicity of being the first to convey the intelligence to the public by means of a placard in the front window of the office.

It was greeted with cries of joy from the passers-by. Cheers were raised and a crowd instantly collected. People gave vent to their long pent-up enthusiasm for the Defender of Mafeking, who has captured the heart of the nation and of the Empire. Strangers shook one another by the hand, staid folk forgot their staidness and shouted their loudest; the infection of the cheering spread like wildfire, and the news was carried through the streets of London like a flash.

The glad tidings for which the Empire had waited more than 200 days spread from mouth to mouth, from east to west.

[Note that today, the placename is spelt Mafikeng. But the original name added a new word to the English language: 'maffick', meaning to exult riotously.]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Your Anglo-Boer War Ancestor

Your photograph of an Anglo-Boer War ancestor (if he fought on the British side) probably shows him wearing khaki uniform. Khaki is for most of us a familiar term: it stems from the Indian word meaning dust-coloured. How this form of apparel evolved is uncertain. The Indian Corps of Guides in the 1840s may have been the first to dye their clothes as a form of camouflage, using a substance obtained from the mazari palm.

It has also been suggested that at a dangerous outpost on the Indian frontier, an officer dipped white uniforms in coffee to make them inconspicuous while soldiers were on patrol. This was followed up by a request for an issue of properly-dyed uniforms in the colour, an idea which was gradually adopted by the British Army for its colonial campaigns. All troops serving in the conquest of Sudan in 1897-1898 wore full khaki uniform.

According to a 1915 edition of The Natal Mercury Pictorial:

‘Khaki was discovered by a happy accident. British troops in India wore a cotton uniform which when it was new was khaki in colour, but after a visit to the laundry was indescribable. A Manchester businessman, discussing this defect, casually remarked that a fortune awaited the man who could find a khaki dye that neither, sun, soap nor soda would fade. A young officer overheard the remark, hired a skilled native dyer and began the search. Years passed in fruitless experiment, till one day turning over a heap of rags, relics of their failures, they chanced upon one piece which was still khaki, though the laundry had worked its will. But it had received no special treatment, so far as they knew, except that it had fallen into a metal dish. That was the secret. The metal of the dish and the chemicals in the dye had combined to produce that fadeless khaki colour which makes our soldiers invisible and turned the lieutenant into a millionaire.’
Whatever the truth of its origins, khaki became standard overseas service issue in 1896 and its use spread into civilian life as well, men’s khaki jackets and trousers being advertised in South African newspapers from about 1899.

Because of the universality of the khaki uniform, it’s not easy to identify photographs as specifically of the Anglo-Boer War period, or even to know whether the pictures were taken in South Africa at all, rather than in other parts of the British Empire – India perhaps, or the Far East. Many photographs of this era were ‘mock-ups’ taken a long way from the South African veld, perhaps prior to the soldier leaving home. Generally, such photos show the uniform in pristine condition; it would look less so after a few months in the field.

The uniform consisted of tunic and trousers, worn with puttees (a strip of cloth wound like a bandage round the leg from ankle to knee) and a khaki-covered helmet as protection against the sun. There were some changes – the original uniform fabric, a firm coarse cotton known as drill, was replaced by serge and the style of the helmet was modified. Sometimes a flap of material attached to the back of the helmet shaded the
neck – or the helmet was reversed so that the longer part of the brim served that purpose. There was a regulation pith hat (solar topee) as well. The felt slouch or ‘smasher’ hat with the brim turned up on one side, as worn by colonial volunteers, was found to be more practical than the helmet, and this headgear also became popular among Imperial troops, so if the man in your photograph is wearing the slouch hat it may not necessarily mean that he was in a colonial unit.

There were minor variations in dress according to regiment. The Canadians had their own distinctive hat with a high crown. Imperial cavalry regiments wore chains on the shoulders of their tunics, boots rather than puttees, and leather gauntlets. Certain regiments wore coloured puggarees wound round the helmet. It’s not difficult to pick out a member of a Scottish regiment in kilt and sporran (which must have been hot in the tropics, and sometimes a khaki apron was added to this ensemble). Some of these differences may aid in identification of an ancestor’s photograph, but in the field there were often highly-individualistic alterations to the regulation uniforms.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Finding an Anglo-Boer War Ancestor

On 21 March 1906 the United Kingdom paid South Africa 9,5 million pounds compensation for damage done during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

In the run-up to the war, there were about 10 000 British troops in the Cape and Natal. Before the delivery of the ultimatum, Britain dispatched reinforcements of another 10 000, about 6 000 officers and men being sent out from India. Before the end of the war was in sight, some 500 000 men were in the field.

One of the most frequently-asked questions I receive is: my ancestor fought on the British side in the Boer War. How do I find out more about him? The answer is, not without difficulty.

If the ancestor was in the British Imperial forces, he could have been in the Regular Army (Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry etc) or a Reservist. He may have been a member of the Militia (reinforcements attached to the Regulars) or among the Yeomanry. Over 120 000 recruits who had no military experience whatsoever joined the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War. If the ancestor served in the British Colonial forces, about 16 000 came from Australia, 6 600 from New Zealand, 6 000 from Canada and over 52 000 from within South Africa.

Statistics vary, but these numbers give some indication of the task ahead when trying to find information about one particular individual. For many family historians the only surviving relic of an Anglo-Boer War ancestor is a man in faded khaki staring out of an old photograph; details are usually scant, his regiment frequently unknown.

As family historians know to their cost, names, dates and places are notoriously absent from the back of photographs. In Anglo-Boer War groups, badges and insignia may not be visible or easily identifiable. More about this in a future post.

If you’re lucky enough to own a medal awarded to the ancestor, engraved on the rim will be his name, rank and unit, which is a good start in any research. Most men serving in the Anglo-Boer War were eligible for one or both of the two campaign medals – the Queen’s South Africa and the King’s South Africa. Several published medal rolls are available, including D R Forsyth’s Defenders of Kimberley Medal Roll, and S M Kaplan’s Medal Roll of the Queen’s South Africa Medal with Wepener Bar, and Medal Roll of the Queen’s South Africa Medal with Bar Relief of Mafeking. South African National Military History Museum: recommended reading is the article ‘Researching Ancestors who were Servicemen’.
Update 2014: the article is now accessible on this blog; see relevant top tag

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Honorary Doctorate for Natal Genealogist Shelagh Spencer

Genealogist and author Shelagh O’Byrne Spencer is to receive an Honorary PhD from the University of KwaZulu Natal. The award is in recognition of her outstanding work in the field of Natal settler genealogy, including her monumental project, British Settlers in Natal 1824-1857, covering approximately 2800 settlers who came to Natal, South Africa, during that era. To date 1057 biographies have been published in seven volumes.

Mrs Spencer will be presenting the Graduation Address at the Arts and Social Science Graduation in Pietermaritzburg on the 17th of April 2010.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Final word on female emigrants

The time and stamina taken up by childbearing, pregnancy and childbirth wasn’t much discussed by colonial women in their letters – even to their nearest and dearest ‘back home’. Victorian attitudes to such subjects precluded frankness. Ellen McLeod writing from the Byrne Valley in 1851 to her sister in England writes: ‘I am vexed to say I have but a poor account to give of myself. I am going to benefit the Colony, though not myself, by increasing the number of inhabitants …’

The risks involved in childbearing could be intensified for women living far from medical assistance. During the 1880s, Charlotte Dixon Smith ran a hotel at Umzinto in Alexandra County, Natal, combining inn-keeping with her midwifery skills. While still able to travel on the rough roads, expectant mothers would be brought in by wagon from outlying farms to stay at the hotel. Their babies would be delivered at Umzinto and they would make the return journey home when recovered.

Emigrant women in South Africa operated mostly within the confines of the home, but they made a large contribution to the colony. The settler wife was the rock upon which each family was founded. Under trying circumstances, she maintained civilized standards as far as possible. Her vital role, to bear and nurture the children of the Empire, as well as sustaining and comforting her husband, allowed him the freedom to achieve in areas of life from which, by unwritten social laws, she was excluded. Behind every successful colonial male – farmer, merchant, politician or entrepreneur – was a woman.

Though there was an influx of female emigrants to South Africa in the years following the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, it would take a World War to shake the rigid social structure which was the legacy of the Victorians, and to change women’s expectations forever.

Further Reading:

Dear Louisa: History of a Pioneer Family in Natal 1850-1888 by Dr R E Gordon (T W Griggs & Co, 1970)

A Merchant Family in early Natal: diaries and letters of Joseph and Marianne Churchill 1850-1880, edited by Daphne Child (A A Balkema, 1979)

Colenso Letters from Natal ed by Wyn Rees (Shuter and Shooter, 1958) The letters of Frances Colenso, wife of Bishop John Colenso, written 1865-1893.

Life in Natal a Hundred Years Ago By a Lady (Struik, 1972) [Possibly written by Sir John Robinson)

Natal Memories by Barbara Buchanan (Shuter and Shooter, 1941)

British Settlers in Natal 1824-1857 by S Spencer (UNP) Currently in 7 volumes.

Natal Settler Agent: The Career of John Moreland, Agent for the Byrne emigration scheme of 1849-1851 by J Clark (A A Balkema, 1972)

The British Settlement of Natal: a study in imperial migration by A F Hattersley (Cambridge University Press 1965) [Also many other works by this author.]

A history of education for European girls in Natal 1837 – 1902 by Sylvia Vietzen (UNP 1973)

Aided immigration from Britain to South Africa 1857-1867 by Esme Bull (HSRC Pretoria, 1991)  Extensive resource for women’s history, its catalogue contains records of female emigration societies including records of the South African Colonisation Society (1901-1922)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Navigating Mole's Blog

Mole pops up to respond to some of my blog readers who tell me they now ‘can’t find older posts’ which they had visited before.

There are several ways of navigating the blog. You can use the search facility at the top left of the page, entering particular keywords e.g.  emigration, immigration, passenger lists, death notice etc.

Another option: go to the Blog Archive and choose a title of a post; where the titles of older posts are not shown, click on the month e.g. February, to browse through all posts for that month.

Let me know if any other difficulties are encountered.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Emigrant Governesses

Not all emigrant females came to South Africa accompanied by a husband and children. Among the unattached women looking for better lives in the colonies were governesses. This occupation was one of the few open to educated, single women of limited financial means. 'Distressed gentlewomen' was a phrase commonly-used in the 19th c to describe this echelon.

In 1862 the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) was founded. The Society’s goal was to provide loans enabling such women to emigrate where employment prospects for governesses were believed to be more favourable.

(Engraving shows the main room at the Female Emigrants' Home, Hatton Garden, London 1853; women would be accommodated here before embarking for the colonies.)

There was a ready response and FMCES emigrants were soon on their way to South Africa. Several went to sugar-planter families in Natal, some to Dutch farmers and others to teaching posts in schools.

The idea was a good one but the demand for governesses in the colonies had been exaggerated. The women were in debt to the Society for their fare and had to repay that money. In the 1860s, prior to the discovery of diamonds and gold, SA was in the grip of recession. Women found themselves in a foreign country where it was difficult to obtain suitable work and if they were lucky enough to find employment the salary was so low that they couldn’t afford to repay the sponsor Society.

Emigrant governesses wrote plaintively of their predicament:
‘The lady who wishes to teach in a family had better not come out – she can have no conception of what life is on a Dutch farm – a girl must have an immense amount of energy, health and spirit with inexhaustible resources in herself to be able to bear it.’

‘Governesses do not seem to be in requisition nearly as much as servants … females become delicate after having been here a short time …’
The colonies did not appear to want women of refinement, especially British females brought up in a class system and who felt themselves to be above household duties.

Some of these emigrants remained in SA, frequently becoming colonial wives (a dubious alternative though it was seen as a welcome escape) or starting their own schools. Others, overcome by heat, fatigue and general loneliness, died or eventually returned to their country of origin.

Advertisement from the Natal Mercury, 6 March 1863:


Two Ladies are expected by the ‘Durban’ who wish for engagements on arrival.
One is qualified to teach French, German and Music, besides the usual branches of an English education, and has had much experience in tuition. The other is not so accomplished, but can teach English thoroughly, and the rudiments of Music, Singing and Dancing, and is prepared to assist in Household duties if required. These Ladies bear high testimonials, are healthy, and determined to give satisfaction. Parties requiring the service of either of the above are requested to communicate with the undersigned, stating their requirements and amount of salary etc. … and on arrival of the vessel further communication will be made.
J Brickhill.

Further reading: The governesses, letters from the colonies 1862-1882 by Patricia Clarke (Hutchinson, 1985)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Marriage in a South African colony

Marriage was a lottery in the colony: a breadwinner might suddenly die of fever, in an accident or as a casualty of war. The woman and her children would more often than not be left in desperate straits.

Natal colonist Marianne Churchill (see photo right) had borne six children and was pregnant with her seventh when her husband died after a fall from his horse. Fortunately, Marianne’s brother and his family were also living in Natal and could provide help and support.

When William Dixon Smith died of enteric fever (typhoid) the widowed Charlotte, with three young children by William as well as several older offspring from her first marriage, hired labour to plough her neighbours’ fields on a contract basis.

Because white women were in short supply there was a good chance that a colonial widow would re-marry even if she had children and was only passably good-looking. A trooper of the 45th Regiment in Natal remarked that ‘when the first shipload of emigrants came, the women were worshipped – it was so long since we had seen an Englishwoman we were all off our heads.’ Moreland, Byrne’s agent reported that ‘women are more in requisition’ than men and that ‘a freight of 100 respectable young women would do well.’

The scarcity of women was a problem in most colonies. In February 1850 the Natal Witness newspaper carried the following item:
‘Cargo of Ladies for California … a merchant advertised for 200 young, white, poor and virtuous girls of average prettiness to be taken to California and there honourably married to the thousands of North Americans who, having made their fortunes at the mines, are now anxious to throw themselves at the feet of the first passable specimens of womanhood whom fate and a happy wind may cast upon their shores.’
South Africa also resorted to the expedient of shipping in single women in a bid to redress the balance of the population. It was equally desirable for Britain to offload those who were a burden, and between 1840 and 1870 approximately 50,000 women living in Irish workhouses were given assistance to emigrate to various colonies, mainly to America. A small percentage, however, did undertake the voyage to South Africa, an example (not a particularly successful one) being the women brought out on the ship Lady Kennaway (mentioned elsewhere in this blog).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Did your mid-19th c female ancestor emigrate to SA?

If the answer to the above question is ‘Yes’, there are some excellent sources available for placing your family history narrative in context.

Eliza Feilden, in her collection of diaries and letters, later published as ‘My African Home’, describes a typical day in her colonial life:

William and Margaret get the breakfast ready, turn out the horses, fowls etc. and sweep the floor. Porridge forms their own breakfast and I begin mine with a small plateful and treacle. Then we have coffee, eggs and cold meat and any vegetable, if a suitable one was left for warming up. This morning we had beans and bacon; eggs are very scarce. We do not care much for beef this very hot weather, it will not keep well. After breakfast I make our own bed and attend to the room generally; but as we have no fine furniture or ornaments, very little dusting serves. The dewdrops form on the upper lip and I am glad to be quiet during the heat of the day …

The main living area of the Feildens’ house (on their farm 'Feniscowles' seen above) had windows at each end, the walls being papered in white, but there was no carpet on the board floor. A yellowwood table stood in the centre of the space, and there was a ‘Scotch cupboard’ containing crockery, bottles, raspberry vinegar and other items. Under a side table stood bottles of porter, ‘and our bread in a great mug’.

In April 1853 Eliza noted that glass was at last available in the colony and ‘we hope soon to get some to replace our calico windows, which, besides shutting out the light, show stains of rain. Our winter is coming on, and calico alone between us and the weather will be rather cold. The broad verandah has hitherto protected us … but on one or two occasions doors and windows … have been blown about, and rain has been very troublesome. Our books, occupying some very unprotected shelves, had to be removed in a grand hurry.
At this stage the only way of reaching the upstairs room in the house was by ladder for ‘the staircase is still hanging only half up and we cannot get the joiner to work steadily at it to finish. … It is surprising how safe we feel in the bush, so very slightly protected: neither bolts nor bars, and calico in our window-frames. I shut the door by means of a pair of scissors stuck under.’

In fact, the settlers and their families were far from safe. Their backyard was the indigenous bush – or in some areas, the veld; wild animals roamed about carrying off domestic livestock and posing a threat to humans. Snakes were plentiful and a constant danger, especially to children. A bite from a venomous snake generally meant death as there was no serum at hand.

Another early colonist, Ellen McLeod, wrote in 1850 to her sister from the Byrne valley in Natal*:

‘There are a great many snakes. Georgy trod on one the other day. Fortunately it did not bite him but went back to its hole very quickly.’ Some colonists’ children were not so lucky.

Most women diarists mention the enormous variety of insects. Eliza Feilden writes: ‘the air teems with them, and the white ant, great enemy of the colonist, devours anything in the shape of wood or paper. Alas for our books – half were mutilated.’ Fleas, ticks and mosquitoes were other constant companions and there were frequent locust invasions, destroying crops.

The weather was an endless topic for discussion in letters home. Eliza complains of the sudden and heavy rain storms: 'the houses were all so slightly built and thatched that the rain frequently penetrated the roofs and sides of a dwelling, creating a general rush to save books or other articles from being injured.'

Despite seasonal rains it was difficult to obtain fresh drinking water. Enteric fever (typhoid) and other water-borne diseases were rife, and a contributory cause of the high mortality among settler children.

Later the same diseases would take their toll of military men fighting in colonial wars in South Africa, including the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 - but that's a subject for another post.

* Dear Louisa: History of a Pioneer Family in Natal 1850-1888; Ellen McLeod’s letters to her sister in England from The Byrne Valley ed by Dr R E Gordon (T W Griggs, Durban 1970) 4th ed. ISBN 0620 25285 5

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Emigrant Wife

The ‘Hints for Emigrants’ Wives’ (posted Monday 8 March 2010), said to have been written ‘by a Lady’, paints a picture of colonial life which seems idyllic - from a masculine point of view. There’s a suspicion that the author may have been a man e.g. hard-working husband comes home after long hot day in the fields to find evening meal perfectly prepared by wife ‘who has the temperament and bodily strength … to enable her to find pleasure’ in her domain, the home.

This was far from reality. Nothing the emigrant wife had experienced previously could help her adjust to her changed circumstances in the colony. ‘Housekeeping’ took on a new dimension: multi-tasking would be a more accurate term.

Eliza Feilden, who came to Natal with her husband in 1852 left us a detailed account of her ‘African home’.* Originally written as letters to her family in England, she later compiled them into one volume, illustrated with her own sketches:

‘I am learning to become a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I bake very good bread (in an outdoor oven), mix a capital meat pie … the oven part is the worst. A bake-pan is placed over a fire of wood in our oven and wood is put on the lid. This fire has to be constantly watched … to keep it at the right temperature or your loaf gets burnt to a cinder in the lower crust half an inch thick, and your pie-crust is sodden when the meat is baked hard. The lessons I am learning in cookery, however, will never come amiss.’

Needlework was not of the decorative variety. Apart from sewing her own clothes, a colonial wife had to learn to ‘turn’ a man’s suit to make it last longer, or cut it down to fit a growing son. In spite of the sub-tropical heat, cumbersome crinolines and tight-lacing continued to be worn. Examples of women’s typically close-fitting bodices, now preserved in museums, show small padded pieces sewn in the armpit, presumably an attempt to prevent damp patches and staining of the garment.

* My African Home: or, Bush Life in Natal when a young colony 1852-7 by Eliza Whigham Feilden (Sampson Low, 1887) 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hints for Emigrants' Wives

By a Lady    1859

Wives who are on the point of emigrating to Natal, cannot too soon be aware that in all young, hard-working colonial communities there is very little room for the display of drawing-room graces and accomplishments. The wife, in Natal, is either a "help-meet" in the fullest and strongest sense of the term, or a hindrance and a draw-back to her husband. The colonial wife commonly needs to be, as well as companion and adviser, the instructor of children, the cook, baker, laundress, gardener, farming bailiff and often tailor. For these duties, solid and sterling qualities are required rather than refinements and elegancies.

In the choice of articles of dress to bring out to Natal, regard should first be had in all cases to utility and strength. The heat of the climate makes it desirable that the quality of strength should be combined with that of lightness. Thus, dresses of cool, light material, such as print, gingham (1), muslin, barege (2) and llama cloth (3) are most suitable, the two latter not requiring washing must be considered the most serviceable of all.

A large stock of well-made substantial but again not over-stout, underclothing will be found invaluable, since needle-work is not only dear in the colony but difficult to get done. In addition to this, pieces of long-cloth (4), holland (5), print (6), and in short, of almost any kind of cotton fabric used for clothing, may be brought out, and will prove of great worth at the beginning, when colonial supplies and colonial prices are most likely to be felt disappointing and disheartening by the new colonist.

A good stock of boots and shoes should be included in the outfit and these, like other articles of dress, require to be well made but not too heavy. There is one particular in which the boots now in common use by ladies in England, are unfit for colonial wear. It is in having only the part that covers the toe made of leather, while the rest of the boot is of cloth or cashmere. In the rough paths and roads of Natal this is an insufficient defence for the foot, besides being ruinous to the pocket. It is desirable to have boots that are "galoshed", as the trade expression is, all round, that is, which have the leather carried on from the toe, in a strip all round the sides and heel.

The same rule should be observed in choosing furniture as has been recorded for clothing. Strength and not style is the great desideratum. A piece or two of chintz (7) is sure to prove a good store ... (for) neat covers and simple curtains made of this material. The iron bedstead is in most common use on account of the ease with which it can be taken to pieces or put together and also for lightness of carriage. Horse-hair or spring mattresses are most desirable during the 5 or 6 hot and the 3 or 4 warm months of the year ... Bolsters and pillows will be found no ill store, though after 2 or 3 years residence in the colony the colonist's wife may have a large stock of them at pleasure, from the pluckings of the innumerable fowls that are a staple commodity of a South African country table. A good supply of bed and house linen (the former of cotton), of blankets and light counterpanes, is desirable.

Any one of those useful and portable machines, lately invented to save manual labour (are a good addition): a meat-chopper, a washing machine, a small patent mangle. Here washing is performed principally by male (native servants) at the river's side, and these make up for their want of skill by a double exercise of brute force, and by the employment of boards and stones as aids in the work. The consequence is that any articles of clothing of tender nature barely survive their first ablution in the Natalian streams. Ironing is generally dispensed with, in the case of all but the garments which require to be starched, and its place will be supplied by a process of stamping, which is also accomplished by the native servants. The result is more satisfactory than might be expected; still an English housewife will be very glad to have her preferences for perfectly smooth linen indulged, as it can be, when she possesses a patent mangle.

Complete dinner and breakfast services of enamelled crockery will soon pay their price twice over, for everything of earthenware is so sure to suffer breakage, sooner or later, in the hands of the servants, that the replacing of losses thus experienced becomes a heavy item in household expenses.

The iron baking-pot or camp-oven is the article most commonly employed in the colony for cooking. In it meat is roasted, bread, cakes and pies are baked, and irons are heated. It is placed over the wood fire, on bars of iron provided for the purpose. It is an inconvenient article for the service it has to do, both on account of its size and weight, and of the difficulty of regulating the heat that is applied to it. Some sort of stove that will burn wood - and excellent ones are manufactured now - will be a very serviceable addition to the domestic outfit.

Soyer's Shilling Cookery Book is a useful manual to be provided with, because it gives directions for so many different ways of dressing the same articles of food, such as beef and fowls - which are the two chief, nay almost the only kinds of animal food to be had in many parts of Natal. The multiplicity of ingredients mentioned in some of these receipts need not discourage the colonial housekeeper. Carrots and turnips may be scarce, but pumpkins and sweet potatoes will fairly supply their place, particularly when seasoned with a few ounces of goodwill and when the eater brings with him the sauce of a good appetite. This seldom fails to accompany the colonial husband, who returns to his evening meal after a day's work in the field, at the arrow-root mill or in the sugar-house.

Seeds of cabbages, lettuces, endive, carrots, turnips, celery, beet-root, radishes and cress will be found valuable ... there being nowhere in the colony a regular market for the supply of vegetables. Provision for the kitchen-garden may seem to come rather within the husband's province than the wife's. But in reality the care of that useful portion of the homestead is very likely to fall to her share since the labour of the husband may be entirely required and more profitably engaged in the plantations or farming pursuits in which the seed of his future prosperity is, with God's blessing, to be sown. The garden may become a pleasant portion of the wife's daily work, in a country where the climate, especially in the morning and evening, is so agreeable for out-of-doors occupation, and where the plants that will grow, grow so rapidly.

The colonist's wife should know how to cook and bake, and how to iron and get up linen: she should be able upon a pinch to clean and place in order the sleeping and dwelling-rooms of the house; and she should be well-skilled in the use of her needle.

Besides all this, she should have the temperament and bodily strength which will enable her to find pleasure in these household engagements. The delicately-nurtured lady, who can do none of these things, should on no account be transplanted to what must necessarily prove to her a sadly ungenial soil. In Natal she can find, at present, nothing but vexations, hardships, sorrows and regrets.

[Originally in: The Colony of Natal: An Account of the Characteristics and Capabilities of this British dependency published under the authority of the Government Immigration Board, for the guidance and information of emigrants, by R J Mann, London, Jarrold & Sons 1859]

1 Cotton cloth, at first striped and later checked.

2 A thin silky material, similar to gauze.

3 Shirting material of wool or cotton made in plain twill and in stripes.

4 Close-woven plain cotton of fine combed yarns; so-named as it was one of the first fabrics woven in a long piece.

5 A fine linen first manufactured in Holland.

6 Printed calicoes, used in SA throughout the 19th century as suitable for climate.

7 By the 19th century a glazed calico printed with flowers and other designs in colours.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Getting the Low-down on SA Passenger Lists

There has been a spate of queries on the knotty topic of passenger lists and how to find ancestors on board ship emigrating – or even just travelling – to South Africa (from Britain or other ports in Europe).

Use the search facility on this blog, entering ‘passenger lists’, or go to ‘passenger lists’ in the Labels cloud (below left on this page), or browse through the archived posts. One or all of these methods should bring you to the relevant posts.

Some basic truths about SA passenger lists:

If an ancestor was part of an organized emigration scheme, there’s a good chance of finding out more about him – or about them, if the entire family emigrated together.

If an individual passenger wasn’t part of an organized group but paid for his own passage and was free to settle in whatever part of the country he chose, his arrival is usually less easy to trace. In some cases it may be more sensible to check for a deceased estate file for the ancestor - if he eventually died in South Africa.

There has been no coordinated programme to transcribe South African passenger arrivals (or departures) in bulk. Consequently, one cannot speak in terms of accessing ‘South African passenger indexes’ or registers.

Instead, zoom in on what you believe may have been the ancestor’s port of destination: Cape Town? Durban? One of the smaller coastal ports in-between? Much depends on what records are available for these different points of entry. If there is no clue where he might have disembarked or finally settled, you're in for an extended search.

The other important aspect is the date parameter: the narrower the better. Attempting to trace an arrival on the basis of an entire decade is nothing short of masochism.

Generally, the closer we get to the 20th c the more difficult it becomes to find individual passengers. This is partly due to the increase in volume of shipping to South African ports as the turn of the century approached. Record-keeping was inconsistent; newspaper shipping columns couldn’t keep up with all the incoming ships and passengers; port registers that were kept often showed only first- and sometimes second-class passengers’ names; also, not all kept registers have survived.

If your ancestor sailed from Britain to South Africa after 1890, your best bet is the passenger search facility at powered by

UPDATE 2012:  eGGSA's Passenger List Project is a work in progress: explore what has been done so far at