Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Iris arrival at Natal 2 January 1852

Passengers per ship Iris as reported in the Natal Witness
2 Jan 1852.

Note Miss Shuttleworth among the passengers. The Shuttleworths became a prominent family in Natal. Linked to this family is Mark Shuttleworth, born in Welkom, Free State in 1973, who became the first citizen of an independent African country to travel to space as a space tourist - 
Time in space
9d 21h 25m
MissionsSoyuz TM-34/TM-33

Monday, October 16, 2017

Danube and other arrivals at Natal July 1880

Passengers per Danube and other vessels
The Natal Witness July 1880

Passengers arriving at Durban in the 1880s were still landed by baskets like this one, which can be seen at the Natal Maritime Museum.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Steerage passengers to Natal on Priscilla

The barque Priscilla

Priscilla brings Government Emigrants to Natal 1860.
Fortunately these steerage passengers are named - this wasn't always the case. Family historians would prefer to have the children's names included.

'To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.'

Optimized for speed, they were too fine-lined to carry much cargo. Clippers typically carried extra sails such as skysails and moonrakers on the masts, and studdingsails on booms extending out from the hull or yards, which required extra hands to handle them. And in conditions where other ships would shorten sail, clippers drove on, heeling so much that their lee rails were in the water.

Not the most comfortable ride for passengers.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Durban harbour still hazardous: container ship stuck in entrance channel

Hot on the heels of my post about the hazards of Durban Harbour in the 1860s came a much more recent example in the shape of a container ship blown sideways in the tremendous gale of 10 October (yesterday), causing the vessel to become stuck across the harbour entrance resulting in a major difficulty for other shipping trying to enter or leave the port. 

Spectacular video footage can be seen on a number of sites, so I won't post any videos here.
Have a look at

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Durban: the Bar hazardous for shipping; 1860s

This photograph of the Point, Durban, can be dated to the 1860s because the steam paddle tug Pioneer (the port's first tug, arrived 1860) is included at left - with her distinctive funnel and flag flying astern. If you look closely at the tug you can see the shaped housing for the paddle wheel.

The other shipping consists of sailing vessels, though a regular mail service by the steamer Sir Robert Peel had commenced in 1852 between Durban and Cape Town. Among the structures clustered on the shifting dunes the Point (the spit of land at right, projecting into the bay) are the Customs House and warehouses. There were no wharves or jetties (if your settler ancestors arrived at Natal by ship they would have got their feet wet). In the distance are the hills of the Berea - not a building in sight at that date. The entrance channel is in the foreground. The picture is taken from the Bluff.

Though Durban had potential as a harbour, it wasn't until various harbour works and the building of piers by a number of marine engineers such as Milne and Vetch, as well the introduction of dredging (to remove sand), that the port became safe and useful for shipping.

'Nature guarded its entrance in the form of shifting sandbanks which made access to the safety of the inner harbor unpredictable and hazardous. As a result entry was restricted to small vessels drawing less than three metres of water. All other shipping had to anchor offshore and endure the extremes of wind and sea. Not surprisingly 66 ships were blown ashore on Durban’s beachfront between 1845 and 1885.' (Source:

Local newspapers of that era regularly reported on 'the state of the Bar' and how ships were navigating in and out of the entrance, or waiting in the 'roads' for suitable conditions for entry. While ships were 'outside' they were subject to weather and wind and often came to grief on the rocks below the Bluff, or were grounded on the beach.

Natal Mercury 9 Aug 1860
A bar is a shoal, similar to a reef: a shallow formation of (usually) sand that is a navigation or grounding hazard, with a depth of water of 6 fathoms (11 metres) or less.

The Dutch ship Hermanus Izaak, on this occasion, 'touched on the Bar though drawing only eight feet of water'.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Passengers to Natal 12 July 1880: Nyanza, Venice, Umzinto

RMS Nyanza: Passengers on Deck 1877 (note, earlier date than the settlers of Willowfountain)

For further information on the Willowfountain/Wilgefontein settlers who came to Natal on the Nyanza in 1880, see

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Passenger arrivals Natal April 1859

Shipping column from The Natal Mercury 14 April 1859
Note that, as usual, the rank and file of troops on board the transport
Himalaya are not individually named.
Two Dutch ships, the Hermanus Isaak and the Jan Van Brakel,
 part of the New Guelderland emigration scheme arranged by Colenbrander,
are mentioned under Vessels Expected.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Passenger arrivals Natal October 1880

Shipping Intelligence 1880 Dane, Quathlamba, Moor passenger arrivals

 Natal Witness 7 Oct 1880

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Parker Wood and Company, Durban, early 20th c.

Parker Wood and Co., Point, Durban
The name of this company comes up frequently in Natal newspapers
and other sources such as deceased estates. Their building reflects the size
and importance of the company.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Scottish ancestors and their occupations

A fascinating post from Christine Woodcock about Scottish genealogy - especially occupations:

A mill powered by water from the Clyde.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The brig Thorne and the American Ship Panther at Plettenberg Bay, July 1831

South African Commercial Advertiser 7 July 1831

Note that the brig Thorne was reportedly the ship on which Captain William Bell was serving in the capacity of '2nd Officer’ according to one source, but this is uncomfortable terminology for a merchant ship of Thorne’s type and size (251 tons) in the 1830s. Usually such a vessel would have the following crew structure: Master, Mate, 2nd Mate, Carpenter, 6 seamen, 2 Apprentices. Nevertheless it appears that Bell was on board the Thorne in 1834 i.e. at the time of her wreck and that this was when he decided to remain at the Cape. 


Friday, September 22, 2017

Elandslaagte memorials at Nambiti Game Reserve

The charge: Battle of Elandslaagte

At Nambiti Private Game Reserve the northern gate is appropriately known as Memorial Gate. Nearby, memorials to both British and Boer soldiers who fell in the Battle of Elandslaagte, 21 October 1899, can be found. 

Elandslaagte was a defeat for the Boers following a brutal cavalry charge by the British, where lances were used against the enemy. Boer prisoners were taken and marched through the streets of Ladysmith, which town was soon to be under siege from 2 November 1899 to 27 February 1900.

Memorials at Nambiti are featured below, including to the Gordon Highlanders killed at Elandslaagte and to the 1st Btn Manchester Regiment.

Photos by E and S Dixon-Smith

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

108 years ago: SS Waratah Anniversary

108 years ago

Monday, 26th July 1909, 8.00 pm

SS Waratah – departing from ‘C’ Shed, Durban, South Africa
Destination - Cape Town
Route - London via Las Palmas and Plymouth 
Commander – J E Ilbery

On her departure from Durban Harbour on Monday, 26th July, at 8.00 pm, SS Waratah put to sea for the last time.  As she turned south past Durban Bluff, headed for Cape Town, the scene was now set, for one of the greatest, tragic sea mysteries of all time, to be played out.  Little did anyone imagine that she was destined to vanish within the next 24 hours!

Captain Ilbery and his crew knew a heavy southerly storm was blowing up from the Cape and they would soon be confronted by enormous seas. This stretch of the South African coastline is notorious and treacherous, taking merchant ships close to the very edge of the Continental Shelf, which generates gigantic swells, especially when very strong winds blowing from the south-west, oppose the 3 knot south-running coastal current.

The following morning of 27th July had the ship progressively heading into stronger winds. Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due east of Cape Hermes, near the town of Port St. Johns.  Down this coast, abnormal waves are at their worst. Facing this hazard, the question remains - had she tried to come about to return to Durban and broached, or had she continued further down the coast, to be lost with all hands?

During the passage from Adelaide, (Australia) to Durban, the Waratah had not been well-received by many passengers when moderate to rough seas had manifested in her top-heavy promenade deck being the cause of her insecure righting motion.  Would Captain Ilbery and his senior officers have felt apprehensive in anticipation of this wild storm ahead of them?  
Did that underlying unease amongst some of the crew and passengers start to increase now, as they recalled the recent Adelaide passage and the disagreeable way in which the Waratah had rolled, remaining on her sides for a long time before recovering?  Little did any of them imagine that they were sailing directly to their deaths!

Where and when, exactly, did Waratah meet her demise?  

Most haunting of all is how the passengers and crew would have faced their terrifying imminent doom.  They would have been hurled about the ship as she hit the enormous waves and possibly rolled over completely. Perhaps she was engulfed by an enormous rogue wave as she drove down into a trough.  We can only hope that their demise was quick, with perhaps no time to realise what was happening, before the thousands of tons of icy water poured over the ship to drag them helplessly into the depths of the Indian Ocean’s Continental Shelf.

Now, many years later, in looking back at all the possible outcomes and the human tragedy that occurred, speculation persists, questions continue to be asked with doubts raised and searches will continue.  We have been left to draw our own conclusions on what actually happened to the SS Waratah that night and where she, her Captain and the passengers and crew might rest in their ocean grave.

Psalm 107:23-31
 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders of the deep.

SS Waratah: by Seth Wade

This guest post was written by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson - thank you Sue for your passionate interest and on-going research into the Waratah! 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

SS Waratah – Wednesday 7th July 1909 ...108 years ago

From Ocean Steamers Wharf for the Indian Ocean crossing to Durban, South Africa.

The weather report issued for South Australia at 9 pm on 6 July 1909 was, ‘Cloudy, generally with rain and squally winds between NW and SW, strong on the coast and rough sea.’  Captain Ilbery had taken on 6 new crew members in Adelaide and as the 14 new passengers embarked their fate was sealed and destiny was closing in on them.

That Wednesday, in a ghostly drizzle as the tug guided the SS Waratah from the wharf, no-one on board would have had the slightest notion of the impending doom that awaited them much further into their voyage.

Winter had come to the Southern Hemisphere, storms at sea were now commonplace for shipping in these lower latitudes and much heavy weather was expected.  It had already been noted by some passengers that soon after leaving Adelaide the weather had become rough, as forecast, and it seemed that the Waratah rolled in a very disagreeable way, remaining for a long time on her side before recovering. While she was recovering and the deck became horizontal, she often gave a decided jerk.

As the voyage continued, an underlying unease grew amongst some passengers regarding the Waratah’s design, with her high promenade deck, instability due to the design and slow righting movements of the ship.

However, none of the passengers would ever have imagined that this ship would vanish so completely without trace on that fateful night of 27 July 1909………

Acknowledgement to Susanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Waratah begins her fateful voyage 108 years ago

108 years ago yesterday, 1 July at 4 pm Australian time, cargo loaded and passengers from Melbourne embarked, SS Waratah crosses Port Philip Bay, bound for Adelaide. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: Finley Gibson 1841 - 1924

Finley (or Finlay) Gibson, 1841 - 1924, was entitled to the Afghan Campaign Medal, seen above,  as he served in that conflict. My great grandfather, he was in the 15th Hussars from attestation at the age of 18 years in 1859 to his discharge at the age of nearly 40 in 1880. His papers indicate that he intended residing at Stevenston in Ayrshire, though he was a Londoner by birth (birthplace St George's,  Borough, East London, England)
The reason would become clear. I discovered that living in that Scottish village was his  widowed sister, Margaret McIntyre, with her children. Finley and his brother, William, also a soldier, both made their home with Margaret for a while. Finley married Annie Bell in Stevenston in May 1881 and started his own family. By 1911 he was Foreman of the Dynamite Factory at Ardeer, known locally as the 'dinnamit'. Several of his children worked in the factory - a dangerous environment as explosions could, and did, occur. 

Annie Bell married Finley Gibson in 1881

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Wreck of the Annabella at Durban 1856

The Annabella, 200 tons, was a British-built barque wrecked on Annabella Bank - named after the ship - on 21 January 1856 at Durban. No lives were lost. 

Her story emphasises the difficulties encountered by ships entering the harbour and having to wait until conditions of wind and weather, and particularly the depth of water over the Bar, were suitable for a safe landing. 

As Port Captain, William Bell was involved in assisting at many such wrecks and their aftermath, reporting on causes of the incidents and sitting at the inquiries held.

By the late 19th c tugs were used to help vessels in and out of the harbour. Also there were various attempts made by marine engineers to improve access to the Bay by dredging, building piers and other schemes, not all of them successful. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Souvenir Saturday - Port Office and Lighthouse staff 1878: including Gadsden and Bell

Is Your Ancestor listed here in 1878?

The Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory is a mine of information on the Port and Town of Durban in the late 19th c. This entry tell us that T (Thomas) Gadsden was Lighthouse Keeper with a salary of 125 pounds per annum. His brother-in-law Douglas William Bell was Assistant Keeper at 100 pounds. At the time, the Port Captain was Alexander Airth. (Captain William Bell had died in 1869.) Gadsden was married to Captain Bell's daughter Eliza Ann.

Customs and Excise staff are also listed, as well as those in the Engineer's Office. 

Is your ancestor listed?

Durban Point and Bay in the 1870s, with the Berea dimly 
outlined in the distance. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cape Shipping 1829 including Conch under Cobern

The schooner Conch was making regular sailings carrying colonial produce and passengers between Algoa Bay and Table Bay, and other ports, before William Bell took over her command. Here she is under another master, Cobern, variously given as 'J' and 'T' but probably the same person. Extract from SACA 31 Dec 1829.

Ships in Algoa Bay in the 1820s, by Thomas Baines

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: Durban Docks ca 1887

Durban Docks circa 1887. Extremity of Point Wharf showing original Wharf Shed A erected in 1881 (with curved roof) and the Sheers erected at the end of the main wharf, the total length of which, at this period, did not exceed 1500 feet.In the left foreground is a craft known as the "Anchor Boat" used for laying moorings about the Bay.  The funnel of one of the paddle tugs (probably "Forerunner") can be seen in front of the ship in full sail.  To the right of "A" Shed is the Customs House.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Captain William Bell of the Conch: death of his daughter in 1844

From the South African Commercial Advertiser 27 April 1844: the death, on 23 April, of Ellen Selwyn Sophia Still, aged 1 year and 8 months, daughter of Captain William Douglas Bell 'of the schooner Conch'. It must have been a low point for Bell and his family. At this juncture, after his heroic part in the action at Port Natal in 1842, Bell had returned to the relatively quiet life of a coastal mariner, commanding the Conch, and based at Algoa Bay, making regular sailings to and from Table Bay and other ports. 

That people had not forgotten his courageous act in taking British troops into land at Natal under enemy fire had been evidenced by one particular letter which appeared in the local press in November 1843. This and other efforts by the public on Bell's behalf eventually led to an offer by the colonial government of a post as 'Harbour Master' at Natal. But the course would not be plain-sailing. 

This child, born shortly after Bell's return to Algoa Bay in July 1842, had been given the middle name of Selwyn - after Major Selwyn who had played an important part in events at Natal in June of that year. Sadly Ellen was to die very young. A Bell daughter born subsequently in May 1846 would be named Ellen Harriet. By that date the Bells had their eldest daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth Pamela, b 1839, and their first son, Douglas William, b 1841.

St George's Cathedral Cape Town Cape Colony 1800s:
watercolour by Thomas Bowler

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bell of the Conch - a lesser-known photograph ca 1850s, with telescope

This is not the widely-known photograph of Bell taken some years later but it is taken
on the same spot, with the same anchor, and he is wearing the 'uniform' though not with epaulettes on the shoulders as shown in the famous photo. The picture probably dates to the 1850s. He is holding the Dollond brass telescope, still in the possession of one of his descendants. Bell was never in the Royal Navy and the nautical jacket he wears may have been made to his own design. 

The Dollond Telescope belonging to Bell and bearing the maker's name,
and 'London', and 'Day and Night'. This instrument was in Bell's possession throughout his life.
(Photo by Caz Collins, Bell descendant)

John Dollond FRS (10 June 1706 – 30 November 1761) was an English optician, known for his successful optics business and his patenting and commercialization of achromatic doublets (for telescoeps)In 1752 he joined his eldest son, Peter Dollond (1730–1820), who in 1750 had started in business as a maker of optical instruments; this business is now Dollond and Aitchison. His reputation grew rapidly, and in 1761 he was appointed optician to the king.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Cape Shipping 19 November 1828 including Cobern commanding Conch

Conch is noted as then under command of 'J' (should be 'T') Cobern, agent J Smith (later to be William Bell's agent). The schooner had been on a regular run to Mossel Bay and was arriving back in Table Bay on 19 November with a cargo of colonial produce. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: The Great Gale, Algoa Bay 30 August 1888

The Great Gale, Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth 1888: ship founders while people look on.

After the Great Gale - Algoa Bay 30 August 1888

During a south-east gale, nine vessels were wrecked on the North End beach. The ships were: 'Andreas Riis', 'Dorthea' [sic], 'Wolseley', 'Drei Emmas', 'Elizabeth Stevens', 'Jane Harvey', 'Lada', 'Natal', and 'C. Boschetto'. The Rocket Brigade, life-boat and crews of other ships assisted and only one drowning was recorded.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Cape Shipping May 1830 Conch under Cobern, Flamingo under Scorey

This report shows the Conch arriving at Table Bay under command of Cobern - with the Captain's wife on board as passenger, from Algoa Bay on 15 May. The date of departure from Algoa Bay is given as 29 May which must be an error unless the Conch was into time travel.
The Flamingo date of departure is also dubious, unless like Cobern he was travelling backwards. Interestingly the latter vessel is commanded by Scorey - who would later become a relative, by marriage, of Captain Bell. There was an intriguing group of Cape mariners operating in coastal waters at this period, all linked either by agent or by personal ties and of course acquainted with one another. A small world which Bell would soon join.
                             Table Bay and shipping: Thomas Bowler (South African Sketches)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cape shipping: mention of Conch to Knysna, Drumore steerage passengers etc

Apparently a routine visit of the Conch to the small port of Knysna was deemed worthy of mention in the shipping columns - no captain is given, but it would have been too early for Bell so perhaps Humble or Bosworth was in command. Interesting to note that the ship Drumore, which had departed Falmouth on 4 August, brought 32 men and women and 18 children, none of them named (as was usually the case for steerage) - you can lose a lot of ancestors like that ...  These steerage passengers were likely on their way to New South Wales, not remaining in South Africa. A chance to track their progress via the Cape is lost to descendants because of the lack of identification. 

                                                               Table Bay by Thomas Bowler