My grand aunt, Emily Maud(e) Brown née Nelson, would have turned 119 today. She was born on Thursday, 17 January 1895. But how do I know this detail, when I know so little else about her? How, indeed.
Your Own Personal PI
When I was little I loved, LOVED, L.O.V.E.D building puzzles, and researching one’s family history is much like building a puzzle. One of the challenges, though, is that you may only have a handful of pieces in your box for a puzzle that contains squillions of pieces, give or take a couple. However, if you missed out on a career as a detective and now vicariously solve mysteries through television programs such as NCIS, The District, CSI or Numbers, try your hand at genealogy – it’ll elevate you to the ranks of detective overnight. A warning, though: it comes with similar occupational hazards. Coffee and doughnuts may become a staple diet. Long hours glued to a computer screen lie ahead of you. Mountains of paperwork will spontaneously start forming, not just on your desk, but on the floor and every other available surface, and they will demand your attention, because one document in those paper mountains may be one of your missing puzzle pieces. And don’t underestimate the threat of attempts on your life, either. You never know when you may ask the wrong question of the wrong relative, and find yourself on the receiving end of a broom-lashing from a distant cousin several times removed!
A Tentative Lead
Anyway, I digress – back to the puzzle. So in Grand Aunt Maud’s case, I really only had one mangled puzzle piece to start with. Mangled, because at the time of receiving it, I had no idea how important the information was or the care that ought to have been taken recording it. It came to me at a family lunch a number of years ago, at which Grand Aunt Maud’s daughter, my first cousin once removed, was present. I already had a keen interest in my family history but hadn’t yet started any formal research to speak of. Somehow, we got onto the subject of our family tree, at which point Mum fortunately hauled out her ever-present notepad and pen, otherwise we may have had nothing at all recorded from that day. While the information we gathered was sparse, it did help to establish some relationships, particularly of my grandfather and his siblings, and also provided a few interesting little insights into their lives. And so it was that, at the end of that gathering, I knew my paternal grandfather, Arthur Archibald Julius Nelson, had a sister named Maud Emily Nelson or Emily Maud Nelson. We weren’t quite certain at the time, but the family seemed to indicate her name could have been Emily Maud, although she was known to them as Maud. Her parents (like my grandfather’s) were George Nelson and his German wife, Augusta Wilhemina*, who was born Becker. Apart from the names of Grand Aunt Maud’s husband and children, that was just about the sum total of what I knew about her. Until I opened Granny I’s tin of treasures, that is…
Down the Rabbit Hole
One of the confirmation certificates in that tin was my grandfather’s. While it contained no explicit information regarding the family, it did provide a clue: the church that Grandad Arthur was confirmed in – Church of Holy Trinity, King Williams Town, an Anglican church. Ah – so that may have been where the family worshipped. Also in that tin were two abridged death certificates for Grandad Arthur. Although abridged, they do include his date of birth. Mmm – a name plus a date of birth plus a church could equal a baptism certificate! But this is not the UK or the States where bazillions of records have been indexed and are now available online. This is South Africa, where recordkeeping and preservation is perhaps not always of the highest standard, and where easy access to records is certainly not of the highest priority. However, I took a flyer and Googled “Church of Holy Trinity King Williams Town baptism records”. A number of results were returned, but it was a message on a RootsWeb mailing list that provided the next hint: some Anglican church records may be held by the library at the University of Witwatersrand. Well, that’s a whole lot closer to home than King Williams Town, if I needed to visit in person, but I first returned to trusty friend, Google, and asked it to look for “University of Witwatersrand Anglican church records”. What I saw next justified a fist pump:
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Anglican Church Registers ONLINE? REALLY? Barely able to contain my excitement, I clicked the search result. Sure enough, the Historical Papers research archive page reported the following:
“The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made the registers of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa available online and free of charge. The South African registers cover the years 1850-2004 and include baptism, marriage and burial records.” Clicking on the link provided took me to FamilySearch’s “South Africa, Church of the Province of South Africa, Parish Registers, 1801-2004” landing page. Clicking on the country and province took me to a listing of parishes. Holding my breath, I searched for “Holy Trinity” – 18 matches. I started clicking through them. BINGO! Holy Trinity, King Williams Town in the diocese of Grahamstown. I clicked on it and was presented with a catalogue of record types and years. I checked the year of Grandad Arthur’s birth and selected the relevant baptism register. Now, what you need to understand is that while these registers are available online (which I am truly very grateful for), they have not been indexed, so searching involves paging through images of the register, checking every entry. Of course, one ought to start by applying a sort of triaging, based on the date of birth, if known, which is what I did. Eventually, there it was: Grandad Arthur’s baptism entry – WOW! I cannot even begin to describe my elation! But this is about Grand Aunt Maud, right? What does this have to do with her?
Following the White Rabbit…
Well, if a child was baptised in Holy Trinity, King Williams Town, chances are that their siblings may have been, too. But now I don’t have a date of birth. All I have is a name, and, possibly the church. So I stick with what I know, and apply strict research principles, searching the register in which I found Grandad Arthur’s baptism record from start to finish, all 200+ images, with 10 entries on each page. But, eventually, when I get to the 117th image, it pays off… I think.
Is It, or Isn’t It?
I find a record for Emily Maude Nelson, born on 17 January 1895, with parents George Albert and Christina Nelson. Christina? That doesn’t seem right… Mmm… Well, all appears to tie up with the little I know, except for her mother’s name, which complicates matters somewhat, but then it could just be a mistake. I don’t know. Clearly, I need other evidence which will either corroborate the entry in the baptism register, or the family’s memory. Sigh. I have yet to unearth this evidence, but am happy to report that I have discovered a couple of records that may shed some light on the matter in the National Archives Repository in Pretoria. However, viewing these records requires a visit to the Archives in person. Until then, much of Grand Aunt Maud’s birth remains a mystery…
*Spelling based on the memories of those present that day.