The day started much the same as yesterday: coffee and rusks at 07:00, followed by a shower and a light breakfast before heading back to the Cory Library. However, this we only did at about 09:10, having deduced that it may provide us with the best chance of nabbing a parking. After two circuits of the tiny parking lot, we succeeded in claiming a spot directly opposite the entrance.
“The Odour of Sanctity”
Today’s searches were centred on burial and confirmation records. We came up empty-handed from the burial records, although some entries provided fascinating insights into individuals who had passed on. Generally, the information recorded seems to be very basic, limited to the person’s name and age along with the date and place of burial. However, a rector of St Paul’s in Aliwal North during the early 1950s seemed to make a habit of recording something of the character of the deceased. He penned some beautiful, moving and vivid tributes, such as this one for a Jessie Allardice Morton: “A good and very devout soul, who died in the odour of sanctity…”
Perhaps there is a sense in which confirmation (in those denominations which practise it) represents the personal decision of an individual to cultivate that fragrance through faith in Christ. It was, therefore, a great joy to discover confirmation entries for each of the Nelson grand siblings in the records for the parish of King William’s Town!
We wrapped up our research at the Cory shortly afterwards – a good deal earlier than yesterday. However, instead of heading straight back to Henri House, we ventured on up Lucas Avenue to the 1820 Settlers National Monument and meandered around the monuments outside, some of which are beautiful pieces of art. We were intrigued, too, by the circle of astronomical stones. The entrance to them was marked by two large standing stones, each with a plaque fixed to them. Fittingly, the opening verses from Psalm 19 were engraved on the right-hand plaque, while the left-hand one described what the stones mark: in addition to the points of the compass, they also indicate sunrise and sunset at the spring and autumn equinoxes, sunset at the summer and winter solstices, the appearance of the Pleiades at dawn in June as well as the appearance of Canopus in mid-May before dawn.
For a while, we just stood looking over Grahamstown spread out below us before returning to the car and heading back down the hill to hunt for Peppergrove Mall, an optometrist, postcards and stamps.
Madame GPS guided us effortlessly to Peppergrove Mall although, with our “mall” conditioning of the vast, dazzling, multi-storey kind, we weren’t complete convinced at first. But, sure enough, there was a Pick n Pay tucked away in one of the single-storey face brick shops around the square parking lot. We managed to stock up on supplies for lunches and dinners and then found an optometrist just across the road who ended up being able to fix my Dad’s glasses.
Postcards proved to be surprisingly difficult to find, but we eventually tracked down a few of questionable quality in Postnet on the High Street. The next stop was the post office to buy stamps. Now you must understand that it has been ages since I last bought stamps, so this was a rather novel experience – an indication of the changes wrought in my own life by the digital age! I was fascinated by the work on the stamps themselves: brightly-coloured taxi hand signs by Susan Woolf. Somehow, just looking at them made me tear up just a little and caused my heart swell with pride. This captivating country of ours, with all her flaws, yet loaded with unique symbolism, culture, creativity and story does that to me – often.
The Close of the Day
We returned to Henri House for lunch, and dined royally on my Dad’s legendary Bacon & Mushroom Quiche, salads, cheese and biscuits, before enjoying an afternoon nap. My mother and I then wrote postcards while my father continued reading his book. A storm put paid to our plans for an evening braai, but our lunch menu stepped ably up to the plate again. Afterwards, we reviewed the photographs of our research over the last couple of days on the television, trying to piece together a little more of this immense puzzle.
I then reached out to the Eastern Cape genealogical community on RootsWeb for any information on the Toise River burial ground, before turning my attention to civil death records again, where I spent the rest of the evening still desperately searching for a trace of Grand Aunt Linda…
Coffee and rusks at 07:00 provided enough fuel to get showered and presentable before a light breakfast of fruit and yoghurt, provided in our unit.
It was around 09:00 when we headed to the car and I coaxed Madame GPS into leading us to the Cory Library at Rhodes University, on the corner of Somerset Street and Lucas Avenue. She seemed to be having a slow start to the day, too, staying sullenly silent until the last moment, when she would suddenly become very annoyed and insist that we turn one way or the other. She led us to our destination, though: the Eden Grove building in which the library is housed on the ground floor. Unfortunately, she could do nothing to improve the parking situation, so I turned her off while we drove up and down Lucas Avenue and then sat and waited outside the library in the hope that someone would leave and we could pounce upon their parking. Our patience was rewarded at about 09:20 when a bunch of students, a good number of them barefoot, began to spill out the doors.
A Hard Day’s Work!
We parked and, armed with camera, laptop, notebooks and HB pencils, marched into the silence of the Cory Library. I had read about the genealogical research process at the Cory on their website and knew that we each had to register for a Reader’s Ticket, which we duly did at the reception desk. The very helpful young lady on duty then introduced us to the various resources available, but I already had a list prepared of Anglican Church registers for King William’s Town and Burgersdorp that I desperately wanted to get my hands on. She duly produced them and we started the arduous but fascinating process of searching them for glimpses of ancestors on my father’s side.
In their stained, often fragile pages and ink script, we found ourselves transported back to the late 1840s. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1899, we found an entry for a marriage of one of the suspected Becker great grand siblings (Great Grandma’s sister). The Beckers were German, so I’d thought that marriages, particularly of the women, would likely have taken place in the bride’s church, probably a Lutheran or Baptist one, but clearly this was not always the case. Despite being buoyed by this discovery, we could find no trace of the marriage of Great Granddad George and Great Grandma Augustina Wilhelmina Nelson, or not in the Church of the Holy Trinity, King William’s Town, anyway.
However, in the 1920s, we found records of marriage and banns of marriage for some of the Nelson grand siblings, though not all of them. Besides the obvious details such as names, dates and places, these help to paint a picture of the movement and dispersion of the family, and can provide tantalising new leads.
Apart from that, though, the Nelsons remained stubbornly elusive. We scoured the index cards for early newspapers in the Eastern Cape, the Manuscript Catalogue and the Picture Catalog. We found surname matches and related surnames, but none that appeared to be connected to our tree. We noted them anyway and, just before 15:00, decided that we should call it a day.
Hungry and more than a little parched (food and drink are not allowed in the library, for obvious reasons) we decided to reward ourselves with a meal at Saint’s Bistro on the High Street, and what a reward it was! Their paper menus double as funky placemats, from which we made our choices. My father decided on their Roast Pork Chops, served on apple mash, with crumbed mushrooms & apple cider & rosemary sauce. My mother ordered the Chicken Pesto Pasta: grilled chicken breast, zucchini, basil pesto & cream all tossed in your pasta of choice and topped with parmesan shavings. I eventually settled on the Chicken, Avo & Haloumi Sandwich, served on ciabatta with shoestring fries. All three dishes were absolutely superb. Perhaps our only disappointment was that they left absolutely no space to try the Amarula Crème Brûlée or Apple, Pear & Lime Cheesecake!
A Regroup & a Surprise Discovery
We returned to Henri House late in the afternoon, well fed and watered, so there was certainly no need for dinner. I reconciled our findings and what we still needed to look for at the Cory, before continuing the hunt for family death records. It was then that I discovered one for Leah Mary Lottie Wilkinson née Messenger. Now don’t go asking awkward questions about who she was because the truth is that I’m not absolutely sure, yet. I suspect that, like Minnie Florence, she was a great grand aunt, but I still need a few more pieces of evidence to prove it! Anyway, the death record revealed that her intended place of burial was the Toise River Burial Ground, which none of us had heard of. Google hadn’t really, either, although it was able to tell us that Toise or Toise River was 50 to 60 kilometres north of King William’s Town, where we were headed a few days hence. Hmm – another graveyard adventure in the offing, perhaps?
An Unexpected Visitor & Bedtime Blackout
A little before 21:00, while my mother was reading and I was still wading through Cape civil deaths, Thomas O’ Malley invited himself in. There was no asking, no waiting for an invitation, none of that. He is, you see, the cat of Henri House. His ginger and white form lazily padded around our doorframe and into the living area without any hesitation at all. Only when he was inside did he stop to look us up and down. He attempted to continue his inspection of our unit by meandering toward the second bedroom where my father was already sleeping. We didn’t think this would end well for either of them, but it took a good few minutes of intense negotiation to convince Mr O’ Malley, who eventually turned on his heel, nose in the air, and stalked sulkily out.
Shortly thereafter, we suddenly found ourselves plunged into darkness. Through the door and windows, we could only just see the surrounding houses as vague silhouettes against the silky night sky and concluded that a general power failure must be to blame. It seemed like an opportune time to call it a night after a full, blessed day of working side by side with one another, immersed in family and history…
To his credit, dear Mr Wessels shows no signs of accepting defeat just yet. I realise that the exercise book he has with him lists the graves in each plot by row number, so I suggest he look up some of the names we are seeing on the graves to check whether we are indeed in the correct place. Mmm – it seems as though we are in row 10. We move back one row and work our way slowly back up it, checking the names on the graves with those in his book. Now we seem to have passed the place where Aunt Minnie’s grave ought to be. We look around, surveying bits of broken headstones. Behind me, I notice a strip of white under a rampant daisy of sorts. It’s the edge of a grave, and a cactus stands guard at the foot of it. There is no sign of a headstone, just the flourishing mass of a creeping bush with shiny green leaves. I turn and look at it. Swallowing my fear of snakes, I start to push it back. Mr Wessels goes around to the other side of the grave and does the same. And there, underneath that leafy shroud, we discover Aunt Minnie’s headstone, just as my Mum joins us. For a moment, we just stand there, almost in disbelief. Then we thank Mr Wessels for taking time out from his busy day to help us. Reverently, sympathetically, he observes, “Sy was nog jonk, net ses-en-twintig,” then bids us farewell. In a few seconds, he’s gone, although we hear him chatting briefly to my Dad who’s waiting in the car.
My mother and I clear a little more of the vegetation away from the grave. Three simple blocks of white stone (marble?) are stacked on top of one another, each a little smaller than the one below. The top one seems to have had concrete roughly squished around it, presumably to keep it in place. While the job is not well done, I am grateful to the person who sought to preserve Aunt Minnie’s name on her grave. It is evident, too, that something is missing from the top block – ornamentation of some sort which has long since broken off. I never met Great Great Aunt Minnie. A few months ago, I didn’t even know I had a Great Great Aunt Minnie. Yet, standing there, I’m surprised by the emotions I’m feeling. There is a yearning to tend the grave of this lady I know so little about. There is sadness at the loss of a young life, young wife and young mother. Yet there is also a sense of joy and peace that we persevered in finding her resting place, that while she may be gone, she is indeed now not forgotten. Pensive, we return to the car, and then find our way back onto the N6, bound for Grahamstown.
A Jamestown Jewel
It’s a beautifully clear day and the scenery is stunning – mostly farmland. I’m again reading out snippets about the tiny towns on the route as we approach them. Less than an hour outside of Aliwal North, we drive through Jamestown, and then realise we’re about to pass the church I’ve just read about: the Kidwell Memorial Church. My mother and I squeak at the sight, and my father obligingly pulls over. It’s a small, attractive, stone structure, with something resembling a mini-steeple on top of it, which looks as though it may have melted and now leans to one side. The cleaning staff outside don’t have a key, but bush telegraph works a treat, and a few minutes later, somebody appears with one. It doesn’t, however, seem to help much, because it still sounds as though they have to break in to gain access! The petite foyer is illuminated by sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows. Sandwiched between the back wall of the sanctuary and the last wooden pew is an old organ – strong, silent and battle-scarred. More stained glass windows, each set of them different, line the side walls, and to the left and right of the pulpit, above the windows, are little sections of ornate pressed ceilings. It is a place full of character, a place of peace, but it’s suddenly becoming a little less peaceful, as a couple of curious locals have arrived on the scene, doubtless hearing about the “tourists” in town!
On the Road Again
Shortly after leaving Jamestown, we see a sign to Burgersdorp. We’re going to spend the last part of our holiday there, where Granny Iris was born, hence the relevance. A little while later, we see another sign, and then another, at which point my father and I exclaim almost simultaneously, “All roads lead to Burgersdorp!”
The landscape is still breathtaking, though it’s now starting to morph from farmland into mountain ranges, a reminder that we really do live in a country of incredible diversity and beauty. In Queenstown, boards advertising the Dew Drop Inn and the appropriately-named Number Two Piggeries remind us that there is no shortage of wit here, either! We decide to leave the N6 and take the R67 from Queenstown to Grahamstown. Whittlesea and Seymour make cameo appearances along this route, and it’s somewhere between Seymour and Fort Beaufort that we stop at a lay-by for a quick lunch of pies and cherry tomatoes and to stretch our legs.
Just after 15:00, we see Grahamstown unrolling before us. Astonishingly, it looks as though we’re driving on the edge of a municipal rubbish dump rather than a hip, arty cultural hub. Rubbish is strewn about the streets and banked up against the curb, and I’m wondering what I’m about to subject my long-suffering parents to. Fortunately, by the time we make our way onto Hill Street, past the Cathedral, things become much more pleasant, and I relax a little.
Madame GPS expertly guides us to Henri House where we will spend the next three nights. I ring the gate bell and Chiara appears, a toddler on her hip and a little boy attached to her leg. We make our introductions and she disappears briefly. When she returns, the boy has detached himself and is tentatively walking toward me with the keys for our unit, delightfully explaining where we need to go and what we need to do. I double-check some of the instructions with Chiara, and then return to the car.
We unpack and get ourselves settled in, which includes checking the DStv channels for my father (“There’s rugby on tomorrow, you know!”). We discover that we can only get SABC, so my mother and I meander out into the garden to “call for help”. As we’re about to walk around to the front of the main house, the side gate opens and a gentleman pulls in on a scooter. He clearly sees we’re looking a little unsure and asks if he can help. His name is Andrew, and he’s just returned from work (teaching at a local school), but seems to be co-owner/manager of Henri House, so we relate our woeful tale and are amazed when he gets straight off his scooter and immediately comes to investigate. After fiddling with the remote, decoder and TV for a few minutes, he discerns that the problem will take a little longer to fix and says he will look into it tomorrow for us.
We do, though, discover that the TV has a USB port, so I download the photos we’ve taken over the last two days onto my laptop and then copy them onto a flash drive. We spend a wonderful evening reviewing our journey down in pictures, and put a brief plan of action together for the next couple of days. After a light supper, we decide to call it an early night. The time to curl up in bed and read before falling asleep is a holiday luxury I crave, so I take full advantage and am soon immersed in my book, in other places, in another time, until sleep eventually takes over and I drift off into dreams…
I haul myself out of bed at 06:00 and, eyes still heavy with sleep, weave about the passage toward the bathroom (which, for me, is not en suite) for that arduous (but very necessary) daily ritual of showering and hair-washing. Conville’s plumbing, fittings and fixtures (right down to those funky bell doodads next to the main bed to summon ladies’ maids, à la Downton Abbey!) may be in need of some maintenance, but the whole place has a cosy yet intriguing feel about it, as though its rooms are begging to be explored. To me, a night here could be described as a quintessential stay at grandma’s: wooden floors, high brass beds, interesting antique furniture, piles of books, patterned wallpaper, and old paintings and photographs lining the walls.
There is, however, plenty of hot water on tap, and it is only after a thorough drenching and a cup of coffee that I feel capable of walking without the support of a wall or window sill.
History over Breakfast
Breakfast is at the long table in the rather grand dining room, with another guest couple who are passing through on their way to Sandstone Estates, Fouriesburg and then onto the Kruger National Park.
“Is that Scottish?” asks the lady, on hearing my mother’s accent. I smile and incline my head toward my mother, “Yes, that is Scottish, and that,” now indicating my father, “is South African!” Over yoghurt, cereal and fruit juice, we learn that the original owner of Conville was Scottish. Linda, our amiable hostess, and her husband Anthony, now own and run the farm, but it was Anthony’s grandfather who started it all and built the house for his young bride. Anthony appears, right on cue, and, while we tuck into our fried eggs, bacon, tomato and toast, he recounts some of Conville’s history, including his grandfather’s engineering background, involvement in an irrigation scheme on the Orange River and interactions with Sir Herbert Baker. It was Grandfather Gerrand’s early childhood in a Scottish castle together with the architectural skill of Herbert Baker which resulted in the design of this magnificent home, the construction of which was completed in 1908.
Linda asks what we’re doing in the area, and we explain that we’re hunting for relatives. Dead ones. We recount yesterday’s traumatic experience of searching for Aunt Minnie’s grave in the old cemetery, and Linda nods sympathetically. “We’re constantly fighting with the municipality about it,” she says. “But you should speak to Madeleine at the Aliwal Museum…” We need to track down Mr Wessels before we leave and still get to Grahamstown today, but have a day trip planned to Aliwal North from Burgersdorp later in our itinerary. Linda helpfully takes down details of the family we’re looking for to pass onto Madeleine before our return. Then she leaves the room briefly and returns flicking through a copy of Driehonderd Jaar Nasiebou – Stamouers Van Die Afrikanervolk by Dr D.F. du T. Malherbe . “There are no Wessons,” she says, handing the book to me. I’m almost twitching with anticipation as I quickly search for other surnames in our tree: Becker, Bolton, Meyer, Nelson – all have entries, but I don’t recognise any of the other details. I make notes regardless. Perhaps they’ll come in handy someday…
It only takes us a few minutes to pack our overnight bags back into the car, and then we’re bidding our gracious host and hostess farewell and heading back into town.
A Human Whirlwind
We pull up outside Community Services, just as an official-looking gentleman strides out of the office. I’m not about to let history repeat itself, so I launch myself out of the car and accost him: “Excuse me, Sir. Are you Mr Wessels?” To his credit, if he was surprised by my “attack”, he didn’t show it. A thick Afrikaans accent responds, “No, I’m Blackie Swart. Are you looking for Uri ? Can I help?” I explain that we’re looking for the grave of a relative, and he says, “Ah, no – you will need to speak to Uri, then,” and leads us back into the office building. “Where is Uri?” Mr Swart asks the man who is behind the bars of reception today. “He’s in a meeting,” comes the response. My shoulders start to droop with disappointment already, but we explain that we will be back in town the following week. Mr Swart recommends we make an appointment to see Mr Wessels then, and also suggests we speak to Madeleine Joubert at the museum. We confirm that we already have her in our sights. I’m exchanging details with Mr Receptionist when he suddenly says, “Just hold on. Just hold on. I think the meeting’s finished,” and disappears down a passage to my right. A few seconds later, he pops his head around the corner at the end of the passage and beckons to me. We thank Mr Swart for his help and quickly follow Mr Receptionist, who leads us to a tiny office, indicating that the occupant is Mr Wessels.
Mr Wessels, who is having a very loud, demonstrative exchange with a colleague, ushers us in with a “Kom in! Kom in!” before flinging a pile of papers into an in-tray, still muttering as his co-worker leaves the room. “Sit,” he says and I sit, as someone thoughtfully brings in a chair for my mother. Once again, we explain ourselves and, to my surprise, Mr Wessels picks up a note on his desk with the details we had given the receptionist yesterday. “O, ja – hierdie een,” and he jumps up, dashes to a steel cabinet which seems to be bursting at the seams, flings open the door, burrows around and emerges with a printout which he triumphantly drops on the corner of his desk and furiously starts paging through. “Wesson… Wesson… Wesson… Hier’s sy!” It is an alphabetical list of graves in the old cemetery and, sure enough, there is Aunt Minnie’s name. Mr Wessels scribbles the grave number on a piece of paper: 419009. Apparently, this means plot 4, row 19 and grave 9. He grabs his keys and says he’ll show us the grave. In the same breath, he puts his keys down again and spins round to rummage in the embankments of paper that have built up around his desk, mumbling something about “my ander boek”. Then he finds it and holds it aloft – an A4 exercise book. Snatching up his keys once more, he heads out the office at breakneck speed. The whole meeting has probably taken less than five minutes. Outside, we discover that my father has vanished, doubtless to buy a newspaper. We phone him to let him know that Mr Wessels is going to show us the grave, when Mr Wessels gets a phonecall. Apparently, someone has been digging somewhere and unearthed what appear to be human bones which apparently makes it Mr Wessels’ problem. Completely unphased, he’s not to be thrown off his current mission, but is clearly in a massive hurry, so we decide that I will drive to the cemetery with him while my mother waits for my Dad to return.
Mr Wessels is talking non-stop as his bakkie bounces obediently over and through the potholes which he barely seems to notice. As he careers around the left hand bend toward the graves, I say a quick prayer of gratitude for my seatbelt, without which I may have been flung straight out the drivers’ side window. He pulls to a stop at the same dejected-looking stone pillars we had seen the day before. It’s almost as if they themselves are somehow ashamed of the state of this that they are presiding over. Mr Wessels is out of the vehicle almost before I’ve managed to undo that seatbelt. He marches down the overgrown pathway in his boots, still talking ceaselessly, as I trot gingerly behind in my billowing skirt and flip-flops, camera swinging from my arm. He comes to an abrupt halt opposite a round, black sign with a large number 1 painted on it in white and points out a similar sign across the pathway with a large number 3 on it, before confirming with me in an easy English-Afrikaans mix that we’re looking for plot 4. I reply in the affirmative, and he continues talking at high speed (as much to himself as to me), deducing that plot 4 must be off to our left. And then he shoots off again, exercise book now open, ploughing through the knee-high grass, while I try to keep up and avoid broken beer bottles at the same time. He’s counting now, the row numbers in the plot, which, curiously, start at 9. How he manages to make any sense of the seemingly haphazard arrangement of overgrown graves, I’ll never know, but then I hear him say “neentien” and see him bolt off into the undergrowth on the right. He’s counting again, this time from 1. He squeezes between a large grave and a bright green shrub, before clambering over the corner of another grave and finally pausing to ask me who we’re looking for again. I remind him of the surname and he starts reading the graves: “Thomas?” “Nee,” I say, and he steps into the next row, muttering that perhaps it is one of the several broken graves in the vicinity, or one of those whose headstone has fallen, facedown into the dirt. I start losing hope – again. What are the chances that Great Great Aunt Minnie’s grave is still intact in all this mess?
End of an illusion
Roughly half an hour later, we cross the Orange River into the Eastern Cape and Aliwal North, where we will spend the night. It is, however, still a little too early to check into our lodging, so we decide to try our hand at finding the old cemetery, for it is there that a recently “discovered” family member (more about that another time!), Great Great Aunt Minnie Florence Wesson née Bolton, ought to have been buried. Thanks to the eGGSA Photo Project, I have the coordinates on my laptop, so I boot it up and wake up the GPS at the same time (note to self: next time, have holiday & genealogy docs on Google Drive!). I punch in the latitude and longitude and Madam GPS (later christened Maggie by my father) thinks a little and then, in her clipped, efficient way, commands us to turn right. We obey. “Turn right,” she says again. And we obey, again.
Now it’s important to understand that we had, somehow, formed a rather naïve, romanticised impression of searching for the graves of family members. It seems almost laughable now, but, to an extent, I think we may have been picturing clearly defined plots separated by well-maintained pathways nestled in neatly manicured gardens. And so, with great anticipation, we are now eagerly straining for signs of Aunt Minnie’s resting place…
Madam GPS issues her next instruction, to turn left this time. Instantaneously, our illusion begins to crumble. There, ahead of us and to our right, sandwiched between the road we are on and the Orange River itself, lies the cemetery. A couple of tired gate posts hint at what must once have been an entrance. Above the rampant bushes and veld grass, a few of the taller gravestones are just visible. We slowly pull to a stop, processing the scene before us.
My super-brave mother is out the car first, and already plunging into the undergrowth. In a skirt and thin-soled flip-flops, I’m a little more tentative, but breathe a quick prayer and pick my way carefully toward some graves. There are no paths that I can see. Broken bottles, cans and litter lie strewn around. Many gravestones are broken; some seem to have been vandalised. The slabs on top of some graves have cracked open. I try hard not to look into the gaping darkness below, but images of coffins and skeletons are already clamouring for attention inside my head. I give myself a stern talking to and move on, taking care not to trip on any of the rubble that may send me sprawling toward one of those cavernous holes. While I have thought of cemetery recording projects as incredibly useful, I now understand their significance first-hand. I know this burial ground has not been fully photographed, so I whip out my camera and randomly snap a few headstones as I continue my search. Perhaps they will be of value to someone… Mum is valiantly forging through the brush, almost out of sight now, but it is evident that our random searching is highly unlikely to yield any results. We know Aunt Minnie died in 1911, so we start looking at the dates on the headstones – perhaps certain sections of the cemetery were used at certain times…
I suddenly notice some cardboard and flattened grass behind a grave, and, with a shock, realise someone has been sleeping here. Almost simultaneously, an awful smell hits me, and then I see why – a little way away, in front of another grave, buzzing flies and used toilet paper indicate that someone has been defecating in this place, too. I hurry away, gagging.
My mother is also returning from her search. Even the dates on the graves provide no real clues as to the organisation of the plots. Dejected, and more than a little horrified at the state of the cemetery, we realise that, without help, we have almost no chance of finding Aunt Minnie’s grave. So I haul out the laptop again and look up the address I have saved for the Aliwal North municipality.
It’s not far, and we pull up outside the building a minute or so later. Mum and I go in, and the telephonist/receptionist person beckons to us, but seems to be on a phone call and helping someone seated across from him at the same time. He still needs to deal with a couple of people in front of us while juggling a steady stream of telephone calls. He does so efficiently and we are soon asking him whether there are cemetery records which could show us where our family member is buried. He tells us we need to speak to a Mr Wessels at Community Services, which is in a different building. He explains to us how we get there, and we step out into the sunlight again. We find the Community Services department without any hitches but, as we’re parking, a gentleman in a white bakkie is hurriedly pulling out of a parking space. He vanishes in puffs of reddish dust and Dad says, “I bet that’s Mr Wessels!” Sure enough, the lady behind the bars of reception confirms that “he has just left” and she doesn’t know when he’ll be back, but she takes our details and those of Aunt Minnie and says she will pass them onto Mr Wessels for us. We ask her what time they open and inform her that we’ll be back in the morning.
Of food and lodging
By now it is well beyond lunch time and also check-in time, so we drive back through the town, following the map I had printed to Conville Farm, where we will stay tonight. We find it just outside the town on a dirt road. The house is an old, rather imposing structure, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. We amble in through the open front door, but there’s nobody in sight and all is quiet. We take in the wooden floors, pressed ceilings and antique furniture, and then spot a bell on a table in the entrance hall. We ring it. Still nobody appears. After a few awkward minutes, we ring it again – louder – and listen. Ah – footsteps! They’re padding down a carpeted passage toward us. It turns out that they belong to Linda Gerrand, the lady of the house, who shows us to our rooms, each of which has a cute little French door opening onto a patio and semi-enclosed garden.
We unpack our overnight bags and the cooler box before enjoying a quick picnic lunch on the patio: leftover egg and bacon rolls, pork pies and cherry tomatoes. Then there’s time for a nap before getting ready for our evening meal. This we decide to take at the Riverside Lodge’s pub and grill, on the banks of the Orange River. Parking is limited and awkward, but the atmosphere is relaxed and the view in the evening sun is gorgeous. Dad settles on a serious steak – fillet with a cottage cheese and avo topping, Mum goes green with a salad and I choose a pizza. While waiting for our meal, we put a rough plan together for tomorrow and decide on our route to the “City of Saints”. As we look out over the river, we recount bits of our day, and give thanks, for our travels thus far have been safe, filled with family, fun and adventure…
I’m suddenly yanked from a delicious, cosy cocoon of sleep by a shrill, repetitive, digital bleating. It’s my alarm valiantly, persistently informing me that it’s 05:00. My mood is not quite as foul as it usually is when I’m woken at that time of the morning, for today my father, mother and I begin our family road trip to the Eastern Cape. Our aim was to leave by 06:00 and get out of Jozi before the masses made their daily pilgrimage into the City of Gold and her surrounding suburbs. And so, just after the appointed hour, I stagger out under an overcast sky, rucksack on my back, insulated coffee mug in one hand and keys in the other, having undertaken a final paranoid (it’s in my genes!) check of the apartment. I clamber into the car and we send up a prayer of gratitude for this time together, and for safety and blessing on our travels. And then we’re on our way.
It was sometime toward the end of last year that I happened to mention to Dad and Mum that I was considering a visit to the Eastern Cape, not only to see whether I could dig up anything on the elusive Nelsons who came from that part of the country, but also simply to walk in the towns they had walked in, to catch a glimpse of what their lives would have been like back then, to remember and acknowledge the grace that has resulted in me being here today. To my surprise, it was my father who said, “We should go together,” and it was he who, barely days later, asked, “What about February?” Now this surprised me because I hadn’t thought that he held any particular interest in this whole family history thing, but I had just been showing him how I searched for records online when we happened to find his father’s baptism certificate, and I think that may have been when he was bitten by the bug 😉 Since then, almost every time I spoke with him, I was interrogated with “What else have you found?” in one form or another 🙂 At that stage, February was but a few months away, so the suggestion sent me into a mild panic. I saw no way that I would be ready to embark on a well-organised, fruitful research trip with the little I knew about that side of the family. But I realised that it wasn’t all about the research: it was as much about my living relatives as those who’d gone before. Besides, as Tracy Chapman reminded me, “If not now, then when?”1 – a good question for the serial procrastinator!
It takes us roughly an hour to reach the Vaal River, and now we’re in the Free State. The early start has given us all a serious appetite and I hand round scrambled egg and bacon rolls which, in our family, is like handing round memories: they’re our staple road trip food, always made by Dad, stuffed full of reminders of good times we’ve shared. The clouds are reluctantly starting to dissipate, and rays of sunshine start peeking through. The landscape is typically Free State: vast open spaces, rolling mielie fields, ploughed farmlands and smiling sunflowers, punctuated every now and then with an obligatory windmill or homestead.
I sip my coffee and read out a Seeds of the Kingdom devotional which I receive daily via e-mail. Fortunately, my motion sickness has improved greatly since my childhood, or perhaps it’s just that we now have aircon.
Driving through Ventersburg, a sign advertising The Fat Butcher leaves us in no doubt as to what he thinks of his biltong! About 40 kilometres further on, a reservoir-dam-type-thingie announces that we’ve just passed “A DAM FINE PADSTAL”. It’s just after 10:00 when we pull into the Shell Ultra City on the outskirts of Bloemfontein. Shortly thereafter, we turn off the N1 onto the N6 and are promptly informed by a road sign that we’re on the “Friendly N6 Route” – we’re very grateful for this, not being particularly keen to find out whether an unfriendly one exists!
Now we’re going to start passing through little “dorpies” dotted along aforementioned friendly route: Reddersburg, Smithfield, Rouxville. I Google each as we approach them and read out snippets from Wikipedia. Each holds a little history, a little fascination, a little architecture all of their own. Each calls out to be explored.
Respite from the rush of the road in Rouxville
The steeple of Rouxville’s Dutch Reformed church succeeds in briefly luring us off the main road. We pull up outside the stunning sandstone structure to which said steeple is attached. Mum and I tumble out the car, cameras in hand, and set about trying to capture some of the beauty of the building, which dates from 1879 and is now a national monument. We round the church, clicking away like paparazzi circling a celebrity, and then peer inside through the open door. We walk into the cool quietness. There is a wooden ceiling and wooden panelling on the walls. Wooden stairs lead up to what seems to be a cry room for mothers and infants. Another shorter flight of stairs leads into the sanctuary, which exudes a sense of calm. It is light and airy, fully carpeted, filled with wooden pews, and gently slopes down toward the rather striking pulpit and organ. We tear ourselves away and return to the car, where Dad is patiently waiting.
Driving another block, we find that we’ve already left the tar road behind and are now on dirt. Old buildings stand like sentries frozen in time, watching over this little town. Oh, the stories they could tell! It is as if they hold a certain sadness within themselves, and perhaps it is so, for Rouxville has endured much, including a two-year desertion when her occupants apparently wound up in a concentration camp2. We turn right and then right again, heading back to the N6, but drive slowly, as if mesmerised by the time warp we appear to have stumbled into…
Son, brother, pigeon-racer, husband, father, soldier, M.O.T.H. member, bricklayer. Arthur Archibald Julius Nelson was all of these, and doubtless much more, besides. Sadly, it was only after his death that he also became Grandad Arthur to six grandchildren who would grow up never knowing this grandfather of theirs. Not personally, anyway. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for this genealogical quest of mine: a hunger to know those whose blood flows through my veins, whose voices I have never heard, whose hands I’ve never had the privilege of holding, and to celebrate them, their lives, and the legacy they have left behind…
Celebrating Grandad Arthur’s Birth
And so to celebration: it was one hundred and ten years ago today, on Saturday, 13 February 1904, that Grandad Arthur’s life began, somewhere in what was then the Cape Province, and most likely in King Williams Town or surrounds. He was the fourth of six children, and the second son, born to his parents, George Albert and Augustina Wilhelmina Nelson, although, more than two decades after Grandad Arthur was born, they adopted a seventh child!
1 Death Certificate + 1 Confirmation Certificate = Several Baptism Records
It was the combination of Grandad Arthur’s abridged death certificate (which included his date of birth), together with his confirmation certificate that eventually led to the discovery of the baptism records for the Nelson grand-siblings (I’m not sure whether “grand-siblings” is an official term or not, but it seems to me that it ought to be!). Coincidentally, one of those baptism records belonged to Grand Aunt Maud, Grandad Arthur’s eldest sister, and shows that she was also baptised on the 13 February back in 1895, a Wednesday. As with all her siblings, her baptism took place in the Church of the Holy Trinity, King Williams Town, too. It was performed by the rector at the time, B.E. Holmes M.A., and witnessed by Grand Aunt Maud’s parents and a Kate Gravette.
Lots of Missing Puzzle Pieces; Lots of Unanswered Questions
I often wonder about those recorded as witnesses to key events in the lives of my ancestors. Who were they? How did they know my family? Were they family? Why did they witness the event? What pieces of this vast puzzle do they hold? For my part, it still seems I hold only a meagre handful, both of Grand Aunt Maud’s life and the life of Grandad Arthur. However, with a family trip to the Eastern Cape now only weeks away, who knows if that is set to change? Perhaps it will yield little in the way of concrete facts. Perhaps it will add colour and life to facts we already know. Perhaps it will simply be precious time spent with family. And an opportunity to grill my Dad for more stories about Grandad Arthur 😉
Of course, this side of eternity, I will never know him personally, but I do indeed catch precious glimpses of his life and character in the stories my Dad and Aunt share with me. I hear his voice and sense a deep love in the letters he wrote to Granny Iris, which she tenderly tucked away in her tin of treasures. I feel his courage as I run my fingers over the engravings on the medals presented to him many years ago now. I look into his eyes through the photographs I now hold dear…