The challenge resonated on many levels. Firstly, it’s true that memories and stories quickly begin to fade, unless they’re recorded. Secondly, a tweet is a whole lot more manageable than an entire blog post, right? That’s not to say that the challenge excludes blog posts – quite the contrary – but it doesn’t dictate the format or medium or length for the content of the tweet (or what it links to), and there’s a freedom in that. Thirdly, the challenge could just help move my research (and organisation of it) forward, baby steps at a time. And, by the end of it all, I’d have 52 ancestral tidbits “published”, in a manner of speaking – more than I would have otherwise. So I decided to take up the challenge.
To stick to it, though, I needed a plan and so I chose to pick an event from an ancestor’s life that fell during the week scheduled for each of my tweets (not that I’ve managed to tweet on the scheduled day every time, or even in the appropriate week, but, as “they” say, better late than never!)
However, it occurred to me that many friends and family members aren’t Tweeple and, furthermore, my #AncestorChallenge2018 tweets could end up sandwiched in a mini-melee of other, unrelated tweets, so I figured a quarterly roundup of them in a blog post was the way to go and, voilà, a new blog post (or four) was born 🙂
A machine maker/machinist, journeyman, carpenter, and joiner, my 3x great-grandfather, William Andrew #Pinny, died from senile decay at the age of 75, on 4 Jan 1900, at 23 James Street, #Northampton, Northamptonshire, #England. Anyone stay there, or nearby? #AncestorChallenge2018
It was a balmy Sunday evening in El-Qantara el-Sharqîya, or Kantara, as it was known to the Allied forces. Situated in the northeast of Egypt, the city’s name comes from the Arabic for “the bridge” and it was here, on that night, 11th November 1917, that Private Lachlan Macdonald, slipped away over the bridge between time and eternity.
The Quiet before the Storm
In Palestine, ten days earlier, the first phase [of the third battle] for Gaza was carried out by the Allies: the assault on the sand dune known as Umbrella Hill. It was still under Turkish control, as was the city itself, following the Turks’ successful resistance to the Allied advance in April 1917.
While this resistance resulted in respite from fighting, the Royal Scots’ focus in the Middle Eastern theatre of war turned, instead, to the development of transportation infrastructure, gaining ground in No-Man’s-Land, and the construction of a series of elaborate trenches and fortifications facing the objective still very much in their sights: Gaza.
On the 30th September 1917, Lachlan, under the 4th Royal Scots, joined the 412th Field Company Royal Engineers, as part of the 156th (Scottish Rifles) Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. As a pioneer, he would likely have spent much of his time working on those roads, railways, and trenches, an experience vividly described by Major John Ewing: “The soil was infested with insects of every description, and in numerous trenches and hollows the troops found unpleasant companions in snakes, flies, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. During the hot and dry weather the atmosphere was thick with dust so that even the tiniest scratch tended to become a septic sore.”1
It was also during this lull that the soldiers received new rifles, steel helmets and, in the case of the 4th Royal Scots, new command: Lieutenant-Colonel A. M. Mitchell.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
But this was war, and the fighting was bound to resume, which it did with the attack on Umbrella Hill, on the 1st November 1917. At 23:00, under heavy fire from Ottoman soldiers, the 7th Cameronians and a company of the 7th Royal Scots advanced. Despite the ferocious aggression of the Turks, and the captain of the 7th Royal Scots taking a hit, they, together with their wounded leader, and the Cameronians, made superb headway and, within half an hour, by 23:30, the hill was theirs.
This victory paved the way for the second phase of the battle for the Palestinian city: prying El Arish Redoubt and “Little Devil” (a network of trenches to one side of the fortification) from the grip of the Turks.
The operation was to be carried out by Lachlan’s battalion, the 4th Royal Scots, together with the 8th Cameronians and the aid of the 7th Royals Scots, should it be required. The carefully-planned assault would take place in waves, formed along four lines of tape laid out earlier. As the men started to move out along the tapes, they were sighted by the Ottomans who unleashed a storm of fire from their machine guns. Nevertheless, the 4th Royal Scots resolutely concluded their deployment along the battle lines.
Just before 03:00 on the morning of the 2nd November 1917, the two tanks escorting the battalion set off toward enemy territory. Neither made it very far, though: the first was soon rendered inoperative and the second was hit and ended up in flames, having reached the opposing trenches, leaving the Royal Scots to advance without them. Even so, and despite the ceaseless barrage of machine gun fire from the Turkish soldiers, they made formidable progress through the lines of their enemy. Then, as Major John Ewing recorded, there was, “…a terrific crash, while stones and earth hurtled through the air and the ground seemed to rise in eruption…”2 Lance Corporal R. Loudon, a signaller with the 4th Royal Scots, added, “Two Turkish contact mines exploded… blowing many of the men to pieces… As I got near the Turkish trenches the enemy shell and machine–gun fire became so intense, with shells bursting all around…”3
Reeling from this massive blow, the Royal Scots somehow managed to pull together and press on with their mission. Still in the dark of those early hours, they attacked “Little Devil”, slowly but surely forcing the Ottomans out, “with bomb and bayonet”4.
On the Edge of Glory
The fighting continued all through the day but El Arish Redoubt had been successfully captured by the 4th Royal Scots. In the midst of the battle, they received a message from Brigadier-General A. H. Leggett: “Well done, 4th Royal Scots! Hold on for all you are worth. Your battalion has covered itself with glory.”5
They paid a high price for that glory, though: bloodshed, and lots of it. Many lost their lives; many were wounded and, somewhere among them, in what David R. Woodward termed “Hell in the Holy Land”6, was Lachlan. He was wounded in action on the 2nd November 1917. But how? Was it in that deadly machine gun fire? Or the explosion of the mines? Or in the assault on the series of trenches known as “Little Devil”? Perhaps we’ll never know, this side of eternity, but he must have been taken to Deir al-Balah where, on the 3rd of November 1917, his service records state that he was dangerously ill, having suffered shrapnel wounds to his midsection. It seems he was then transferred to the 44th Stationary Hospital in Kantara, Egypt.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell, in command of the 4th Royal Scots, received another letter from Brigadier-General Leggett: “I particularly desire to thank you and every officer, N.C.O., and man of your gallant battalion for their magnificent services and unequalled dash and bravery in the attack, capture, and consolidation of El Arish Redoubt. The task was a very formidable one, but nothing could or ever will be able to stand against the gallantry and iron determination, you, one and all, so recently displayed. I hope to see you all soon and thank you personally for all you have done, but in the meantime I should much like you to make it known to all ranks how grateful I am and how intensely proud I am of the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles.”7
I don’t know whether Brigadier-General Leggett ever met with the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles but I’m fairly certain that Lachlan never heard of his letter or got to meet him for, on 14th November 1917, the matron of the hospital wrote to Lachlan’s wife, Christina, informing her of his death, on 11th November 1917, from fatal wounds to the abdomen, while his service records confirm this and add that he suffered a secondary haemorrhage.
Lachlan Macdonald was my great-grandfather. Piecing together some of the story of his last days has filled me with emotion. In reading various accounts of the war in Palestine, there has been an almost tangible sense of terror at facing the horrors of battle. I’ve felt sick to my stomach as I’ve sought to place myself in Lachlan’s shoes at the instant he was wounded and then grappled with what it must have been like to endure. Tears have fallen as I’ve envisaged him dying in that hospital in Egypt, and as I’ve imagined Great-Granny Christina, back home in Leith, opening that letter from the matron, and needing to break the news to their three children, who would always carry in them something of the man she married.
But a character portrait has also begun to emerge of a man of courage, exhibiting selflessness, and who, while staring death in the face, “was most patient in bearing his sufferings”, as Matron Hughes observed. Today, 11th November 2017, is the 100th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s death. It’s also Remembrance Day and so I choose to remember, not only his death, but his life and the lessons and legacy he left behind.
Till we meet, Grandad Lachlan, till we meet…
Until fairly recently, we knew nothing of Lachlan Macdonald’s death, aside from the fact that he died while serving during the First World War. In fact, we knew very little about him at all.
Then I discovered his grave in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, as well as a family headstone in a small cemetery on Skye, through The War Graves Photographic Project. My uncle in Edinburgh, with whom it has been such a privilege to journey on this voyage of family discovery, scanned the letter through to me from Matron Hughes, which was found amongst papers belonging to our Macdonald relatives. Following the information on Lachlan’s Kantara grave, I ordered both volumes of Major John Ewing’s The Royal Scots 1914–1919, in the hope of gaining insight into the context in which my great-grandfather served and died. Subsequent to the September 1940 bombing of London, about 60% of soldiers’ service records from the First World War were lost in the ensuing fire. Those that remained became known as the “Burnt Documents”. We are therefore incredibly fortunate that, in Lachlan’s case, his service records survived and I was able to get hold of them through Ancestry.com.
While I cannot say for sure what happened in the events leading up to Lachlan’s death, it is from piecing together the information found in these sources that the story above has gradually taken shape and the picture of his last days has become clearer. I can’t, though, even pretend to understand the Great War, and am by no means a military researcher, but have tried to ensure that facts have been retained and that my findings are consistent with them. However, it’s entirely possible that the story may continue to evolve as more evidence and new information comes to light.
Similarly, I apologise where my military knowledge, and interpretation and use of military terms, may be lacking. I’m sure my proficiency in this area will also continue to develop with time and, consequently, lend a greater depth of understanding to what we have already been able to uncover.
I wake up with all the eagerness of a kid on Christmas Day. On my bed when I arrived at Granny Oxford’s yesterday was the DNA testing kit I had ordered from AncestryDNA. Today, before I eat or drink anything, I’m going to spit in a tube and send my saliva to Ireland for testing – how exciting is that?!
My DNA Testing Backstory
I had been itching to have my DNA tested for ages. AncestryDNA was the logical choice since I have a family tree on Ancestry.com. However, they don’t ship kits to South Africa – surprise, surprise – so I’d parked the idea for a bit.
However, through the fabulous Facebook group, South African Genealogy, I virtually (or digitally – whatever the correct term is) bumped into a “brand new” third cousin. She’s related to me through my Dad’s paternal grandmother, Augustina Welhelmina Becker, born to Julius August Wilhelm Becker, who arrived in South Africa from Germany as a child. Brand-new-third-cousin also happens to have her family tree on Ancestry.com and her great grandmother was Augustina’s sister. You’re still tracking with me, right?!
Anyway, during some e-mail correspondence with brand-new-third-cousin, it transpired that she had her DNA tested and, quite astonishingly, it revealed her ethnicity to be almost 40% Jewish. She believed it to be from one of the German branches in her family tree and so the desire to have my DNA tested was renewed: I ﬁgured it could either conﬁrm or eliminate the Becker line as the potential source for third cousin’s ethnicity surprise! Consequently, when my trip to the UK was conﬁrmed and my itinerary was starting to come together, one of the ﬁrst things I did was order an AncestryDNA kit online.
Now, here I was, carefully depositing just the right amount of saliva into a test tube, sealing it, shaking it to release the stabilising ﬂuid, and popping it into the collection bag and then into the prepaid mailing box provided, all ready for the postman to pick up on his way past.
A Warm WI Welcome
After a lovely, late-ish, leisurely breakfast and a quiet morning with a few cups of coffee thrown in, we slowly begin preparing ourselves for the Sibford WI meeting, which means gathering platefuls of scrumptious eats from the larder and the freshly-ﬁnished Christmas stocking, before making our way to the Sibford Village Hall.
Granny Oxford has obviously prepared ahead: during the announcements, apologies and welcomes, I’m warmly introduced as “her adopted granddaughter from South Africa.”
The new Sibford WI banner, beautifully embroidered for the WI centenary by Mollie, one of the local members, is on display, and Mollie explains the symbolism and elements of The Sibfords she so skilfully incorporated into the work.
What Makes a Santa?
Having initiated the process to gain insight into my own DNA just this morning, I’m about to discover the DNA of a Santa. The Sibford WI speaker today is Santa Ron from Luton, who has been Santa-ing for decades – just over ﬁve of them, in fact. That’s a fairly substantial career to compress into a short talk but a champion Santa has got to have some serious time management skills, right?
He takes us on a ﬂypast of some of his red-suit-donning-work, which started when he dressed up as Santa to deliver gifts to his own son. Since then, he has brought festive cheer to countless youngsters, raised funds for charities, travelled the world and attended a myriad of conventions and functions around the globe. If you’ve ever wondered what Santas do in the summer (Northern Hemisphere summer, that is), they apparently descend on Denmark for the Annual World Santa Claus Congress held in Bakken (the oldest amusement park in the world, established in 1583)!
Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of Santa Ron’s career was winning “World’s Best Santa” at the Santa Claus Winter Games in 2004 on his ﬁrst attempt, and that against veteran Santas! Held in Lapland, qualifying Santas from several countries arrive to battle it out for the coveted title. Aspiring Santas, if you want to know what it takes to become a champion, listen up! You’ll be expected to eat porridge while ensuring your ample white whiskers remain spotless, forge friendships with and harness grumpy reindeer, climb chimneys, gift wrap like a pro, exhibit nerves of steel in hair-raising sledge and reindeer sleigh races, and more, all in the icy temperatures of the Arctic Circle while maintaining a jolly, personable demeanour!
In keeping with the Christmas theme, the meeting wraps up with the judging of the Christmas stocking competition. Predictably (in my humble opinion!), Granny Oxford’s entry takes top honours 🙂 After helping with the cleaning, washing and packing up, we head home to prepare for our next engagement!
I Heard the Bells…
Granny Oxford is quite musical and, although she takes piano lessons, we’re making our way to something a little more unusual this evening: hand bell ringing! Yes, it’s a thing, and quite beautiful (if one knows what one’s doing, I guess!). I don’t, sadly, and don’t even read music, so can’t ﬁll in for the absent bell ringers. Instead, after helping them set up, I simply watch, intrigued, as this group of ladies work together to coax magical, fairy-like melodies from a vast array of brass bells.
As we drive the dark lanes back to Sibford, I mull over what has been a day of eclectic and extraordinary experiences and, once again, marvel at the privilege of being a part of them, even as I look forward to my bucket list plans for tomorrow 😉
This morning’s schedule is ﬁlled with a strict series of carefully coordinated train trips that will carry me from the south coast of England through London Town to the edge of the Cotswolds – Banbury, to be precise. There, my “adopted grandmother” will meet me when my ﬁnal train for the day pulls into the station at 12:05, but much needs to fall into place ﬁrst.
I Know Where You Live[d]!
Charlotte Walker, recorded as the informant of great grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton’s birth, lived at 3 Trinity Mews in Hastings so, naturally, I’m going to swing past the place before heading off to the station to catch my ﬁrst train which leaves just after 08:00.
Trinity Mews is roughly a block and a bit away but I still jog-walk there for fear of being late for the ﬁrst leg of my northbound journey. The property is marked as private so I don’t go in but snap a few pics from the street.
Oh, for more time (and a peek inside Number 3)! I long to uncover who Charlotte Walker was. All I know is that she was present at Great Grandma Kate’s birth but was she the midwife? A friend of the family? Perhaps there’s a baptism record or a newspaper clipping somewhere that would make the connection for me. Perhaps title deeds to the Trinity Mews residence would answer some questions. I wonder if I’ll ever know. For now, I have to content myself with standing outside the home of one who witnessed my great grandmother’s entrance into this world.
Monday Morning Madness
I motor back to Cambridge Gardens, snapping a spooky selﬁe on Brassey Steps as I go.
I grab my bags, check out (i.e. leave the key in the door – foreign concept to a South African!) and make my way to Hastings Station. The platform is insanely busy and, I realise, it’s school rush hour. Consequently, the arrival of the train signals a rather tense jostle for position as I join the tide of satchels, briefcases and shopping bags vying for a spot on it. I only have 5 minutes between its arrival at Brighton and my next one’s departure for London Victoria, so can’t afford to miss it. There’s no sitting room left and those of us standing are so tightly packed that it takes a few attempts before the doors manage close successfully.
Thankfully, I make my connection to London Victoria and, with the train having emptied considerably, I peel off my backpack and ﬁnd a seat. Barely an hour later, I wrestle my luggage onto my back again and hightail it through London Victoria to Victoria Underground Station. The direct route, amid all the construction, involves stairs and so it’s here that I’m particularly grateful to have my luggage on my back. I catch the underground to Oxford Circus and then once more from there to Marylebone.
I walk through to London Marylebone station and collect my ticket for my ﬁnal train trip of the day from the self-service machine. Phew – what a morning! The platform for the Banbury departure is not yet listed on the boards so I grab a cappuccino while I wait – a ﬁtting reward for a hectic schedule, skilfully executed. Until now.
I look up at the boards and notice that the platform for the 11-something to Banbury has now made an appearance. Shouldering my baggage once more, I make my way through the gates and bundle myself into a quiet carriage. It’s not long before we leave London behind and are cutting our way through the English countryside.
The Consequence of Carelessness
The train makes several stops along the way and, after about forty minutes or so, I almost instinctively become aware that it’s not going to make it to Banbury by 12:00. As I process this thought, I cast my mind back to the booking I’d made. I remember seeing another train scheduled to leave London Marylebone at around the same time as the one I’d chosen but it was scheduled to take almost an hour longer. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” was the thought that had gone through my head when I booked my ticket and now here I was, inadvertently aboard the wrong 11-something to Banbury 🙁
As the realisation dawned, my heart sank. The fact that I had caught the incorrect train and was going to arrive late at my destination didn’t bother me; it was that my adopted grandmother had offered to drive to Banbury to meet me at the station and now I wasn’t going to be there – that bothered me a great deal. Mortiﬁed at the thought, I scold myself severely before considering an appropriate course of action.
She doesn’t have a mobile phone (that I know of) but I wonder whether I can get hold of her before she leaves home. My mobile, which has thus far had no problems ﬁnding a network, now stubbornly refuses to connect. For the remainder of the trip, I continue trying to call, all to no avail. I ﬂy out of the train as we eventually pull to a stop in Banbury. Swinging myself down the stairs, I frantically search the parking lot – nothing. I retrace my steps to the longer term parking – no sign of that familiar face there, either.
Catching public transport is the next option but I want to make certain she’s arrived home ﬁrst and isn’t still searching for me. My phone has not yet found itself so it’s time to go old school and use the payphone. For that, I need the correct coins, which I don’t have, so I ﬁgure that’s a good enough reason to buy a Ribena in the station shop. Clutching my precious change, I make the call and discover she’s not yet there. After a ten minute wait, I try again and this time she picks up – yay! We chat brieﬂy, I apologise profusely, and then dash out of the station building to hail a cab.
We negotiate the trafﬁc out of Banbury and soon Oxfordshire is ﬂying past in a blur of green. My thoughts turn to my adopted grandmother. She was a teacher at my mother’s school, George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh, back when my mother was a student there. They stayed in touch through the years and I met her during a trip to the UK with my mum in the 80s, I think.
We corresponded erratically after that and, years later, in the late 90s, while I was doing Oracle Forms development on a Fleet Management System in Bracknell, she helped me maintain some semblance of sanity during what was a particularly difﬁcult time of long working hours and relentless project deadlines. Often, if I had a weekend off and it was my turn to use the pool car, I would head north on the hour and a half-ish drive to spend a couple of days with her. It was then that she began referring to me as her adopted granddaughter. One of my colleagues at the time dubbed her “Granny Oxford” and, while she lives in Oxfordshire, not Oxford, and isn’t my biological granny, the name stuck.
“Which way?” my driver asks suddenly, pulling me out of my reverie. I look around. I don’t usually come into Sibford this way but soon get my bearings, even though it’s been eight years since my last visit. I direct him the rest of the way and, a few minutes later, I’m hugging Granny Oxford and her sister, who now lives with her.
Home Away from Home
“Dinner’s not quite ready,” I’m told as I walk through the door, so I go upstairs to put my luggage down. Nothing has changed. The familiar guest room feels like home, from the pink paint on the walls to the rose-patterned curtains, to the window overlooking the apple tree in the front garden, to the wooden ﬂoor and the white dresser. I breath it all in deeply and exhale slowly before making my way downstairs again.
Dinner (or lunch, as I know it) is a delicious stew, and is followed by dessert and an afternoon ﬁlled with catch-up chats. One of Granny Oxford’s outstanding characteristics is her incredible industriousness and that hasn’t changed either. She’s constantly baking or making or learning something. Her larder inevitably contains an array of home-baked goods, her hands are always busy and her calendar is usually covered with a generous sprinkling of appointments. She introduced me to needlework when I ﬁrst met her and, on this particular evening, she’s putting the ﬁnishing touches on a Christmas stocking she’s made for the WI (Women’s Institute) meeting we’re apparently attending tomorrow 😉
Exhausted, I eventually fall into bed and drift off into contented slumber, but not before whispering a prayer of thanks for awesome adopted family 🙂
Kate Isabella Bolton’s parents, Alfred and Clara, were married in Emmanuel Church, Hastings, in 1877, and so my plan is to head there for a Sunday service and get to sit in the building where my great, great grandparents would have committed themselves to one another, almost 140 years ago.
It’s a fair walk but a beautiful morning for it, cool and bright. Seagulls squawk pleadingly overhead but, other than that, it’s still quiet out.
I stop brieﬂy on the way to get some shots of Holy Trinity before heading up Castle Hill Road again. It’s a little more forgiving when one has a bit of time to spare!
I reach the church with about half an hour to spare and wander the streets that surround it, appropriately named Vicarage, Priory and Emmanuel. As I do so, strains of 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) ﬁlter out of the building as musicians prepare for the service. It’s one of my favs and seems somehow appropriate. Gratitude gets my insides doing a little happy dance!
Just before 10:30, I make my way indoors just as two elderly ladies do the same. They notice I’m not a regular, introduce themselves and bustle me through the doors, introducing me to a number of other congregants along the way.
I ﬁle into a pew, trying to look inconspicuous, but a couple sitting behind me are eager to hear my story. We chat easily as I share where I’m from, why I’m here and where I’m heading, and they tell me something of themselves. It transpires that their daughter and her family had recently been holidaying in Orkney and so more threads of this amazing tapestry of connectedness reveal themselves, as the chords of 10,000 Reasons reach my ears for the second time today 🙂
Afterwards, I’m graciously invited to stay to tea but have a train to catch and so say my goodbyes. The lady sitting behind me with her husband says, “We won’t forget this day,” and I swallow the lump in my throat – I walked into this building a total stranger and leave, barely an hour and a half later, blown away by the kindness and warmth of this beautiful community.
Pensive but ﬁlled with joy, I head back down the hill, admiring the splashes of colour, mostly pastels, that mark many Hastings houses.
At the station, I buy a return ticket to Battle (I’m optimistic, you see!) and hop on the train. Battle, as you may have guessed, is a place rather than an event, although it is named after the Battle of Hastings which took place on this site in 1066. It’s also where William the Conqueror had an abbey built in gratitude for his victory over the Saxons and in penance for the blood that was shed. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the battleﬁeld from Battle station and I ﬁnd that I’ve arrived on a weekend commemorating the battle which took place here on 14 October, 949 years ago.
Consequently, Battle isn’t devoid of danger after all, for the place is teeming with people and almost every child is armed with a sword or axe of wood or plastic which they’re ﬂailing around madly, at a height rather hazardous to adults! I take refuge in what remains of the chapter house and dormitory range.
I then head down to the battleﬁeld, wandering among the Saxon tents, where battle preparations are underway. In keeping with the theme, I decide on a wild boar burger with applesauce for lunch – delish!
Then, sun glistening on their helmets and standards ﬂuttering proudly, the Saxons, led by Harold, draw up battle lines to form their trusty shield wall. It has served them well in recent victories and, as long as it holds, they will stand. Soon, the Normans are deployed onto the battleﬁeld, William the Conqueror leading them.
The battle rages and a skirmish sees William falling. In the confusion which follows, his men drop back, now unsure, faltering. William is alive but needs to prove it to his warriors. He remounts and removes his helmet, so they can see his face, as he rides along their lines.
A ﬂank of the Norman army begins retreating. They’re pursued down the hill by a group of Saxons. William sees his next tactic demonstrated. He orders his army to repeat the retreat and, sure enough, some Saxon soldiers are drawn away, following the Normans apparently retreating down the hill, only to be surrounded and annihilated by them. The shield wall is thinning.
Then, another ﬂurry of Norman arrows trace a graceful arc into Saxon lines. Shields are lifted to deﬂect them but a cry of horror rises to the skies, too – an arrow has pierced Harold’s eye and he drops to the ground – dead. A band of faithful men surround him, loyal to the last, but they lose their lives and Harold’s standard falls.
The Saxons rally bravely but they are leaderless and the shield wall is disintegrating. The Normans pick it to pieces and William emerges victorious to lay claim to the English throne. This historic ﬁeld I’m standing in lies soaked in the blood of battle and marks a turning point in the British narrative.
I walk back through the grounds, below the Guesthouse Range and the Abbey, past the dairy and icehouse, to explore the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden.
As I head back toward the gatehouse, I pass a tapestry strung up between some trees. It’s not the famous Bayeux tapestry, as one might expect, although there is one panel dedicated to the technique used for that piece. Rather, this one tells the story of a lesser known battle, the Battle of Maldon. The artist informs me that it took him three years and that it’s for sale… for £6 000, if you’re interested and happen to have that lying around!
Back in Hastings, it’s already dark as I take another walk along the beachfront, to Queen’s Apartments.
This used to be the Queen’s Hotel and it’s where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny in Emmanuel Church, where my day started.
I’ve come full circle. I’ve returned to places that were part of the lives of my ancestors, part of me. I’ve had a history lesson. I’ve touched the past. And I have an early start in the morning!
I pre-planned this now-late lunch for Café des Arts, having stumbled across them on the Internet. Perhaps it was their tagline that got me: “Satisfy Your Coffee, Art and Food Passions”. Perhaps it was their social concern. According to the intro in their menu, the “café was opened by Autism Sussex in 2009 as a social enterprise to provide training and work experience for people with Autistic Spectrum Condition. The aim is for trainees to learn transferable skills which will enhance their chances of future employment in the wider community.”
I order a cappuccino and look around. Large, comfy-looking armchairs encircle low tables in the front windows. Stained glass windows and wooden panelling line the back of the café area. Shelves display works by autistic artists. They’re all for sale, another way Café des Arts seeks to support and empower those on the autistic spectrum.
The café is also directly across the road from Holy Trinity, which appears to be the church of the parish in which my great grandmother’s birth was registered. “Where was she baptised?” I wonder idly. Was it in the beautiful though unusually-shaped church I was now looking at? I make a mental note to ﬁnd out…
Holy Trinity Church, Hastings, was built on a triangular piece of land formed by the intersection of Robertson and Trinity Streets in the 1850s (about the same time Hastings Station came into being). To my uneducated eye, it seems the site may have been ideally suited to the eccentricity of the church’s Victorian architect, one Samuel Sanders Teulon, a great character, by all accounts. Hastings itself had, of course, been around a lot longer, with its ﬁrst documented mention in 790. Historically a Saxon settlement, market and ﬁshing town, and port, it later became a popular seaside resort, and remains a tourist destination today.
A Brisk March up Castle Hill
By the time I’ve devoured a delicious goat’s cheese, pesto and salad sandwich, it’s just after half past three. If I’m to make it to Hastings Castle at all, it needs to be today and I’ll need to hurry – last admission is at 16:00. I pay my dues and turn right out onto Robertson Street, marching hurriedly in the general direction of the castle. I appear to be on track by the time I reach Castle Hill Road but it shows me no mercy. It’s a steep climb and, within minutes, I’m gasping for breath and it feels as though molten iron is searing through my calf muscles. Just when I think I’ll never make it on time, I round a bend and see a sign for the castle.
I reach the entrance, barely able to speak, at 15:57 – just in time to buy a ticket and stumble into the last audiovisual presentation of the day. Afterwards, I wander round what remains of the castle, though much of it has long since collapsed into the sea or fallen prey to ruin, decay and disrepair. With its majestic vantage point high above the town and overlooking the sea, it’s easy to see why William (the Conqueror) ordered the building of a fortress here, a few days after the Battle of Hastings.
As with any castle worthy of the title, Hastings Castle has a few ghost stories to tell. One belongs to the structure itself: it is said that 18th century sailors out at sea were occasionally able to look back and see the castle whole, in all its former glory. Ghosts said to wander the ruins include that of a nun, a lady in white, and a woman carrying a baby (who is thought to have ended her own life and that of her child following desertion by her lover). The phantom of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is also thought to hang out here. Fortunately for my constitution, I saw none of these, although this creature could be seen wandering around:
Middle Street Today
I have no number for the Middle Street location where Great Grandmother Kate was born and, even if I did have, I doubt the building would still be there. Nevertheless, I make my way back down Castle Hill Road and into the “New Town” again. Middle Street is easy to ﬁnd. It feeds into the shopping district and, today, The Body Shop occupies one corner and a pub the other, at that end. Behind these, the backs of shops are housed in newish-looking buildings. Further up, there’s a university parking lot and then a couple of ramshackle, rundown houses on either side. At the top of the street, grafﬁti covers a garage door.
If I had more time here, I’d be hitting the museum and archives, ﬁnding out more about this street in the late 1870s. For now, I simply get to walk where my ancestors walked, about 137 years ago. I savour the experience and then, as the sun begins to set, I head for the beach and the Old Town.
Walking the Town Flat and Reaping a Reward
It’s a gorgeous evening but the beach is quiet. I meet a seagull who’s very friendly until I try to photograph him. I wander along the pebbles.
I pass the miniature golf course and railway, the amusement park, and then the net shops. The information boards tell me, “These Tall Black Wooden Sheds are unique to Hastings.” They were used by ﬁshermen to store their ﬁshing tackle and keep it dry and prevent rot.
I’m now striding down Rock-a-Nore Road in search of Rock A Nore Kitchen, a tiny restaurant earning quite a name for itself, judging from the commentary on the Interwebs. With only about ﬁve tables and a reputation which is both glowing and growing, I suspect they may be fully booked this evening. They are.
Not to be easily outdone, I have another evening meal option up my sleeve. I am in England, after all, and on the coast. Fish and chips is pretty much mandatory, and I’ve done a bit of homework: Life Boat Restaurant is the place to go. It’s back a little, in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, which I’m already wishing I had more time to explore.
While waiting for my order, I notice conﬁrmation of popular Internet opinion taped to the counter in the form of an article from the Hastings Independent Press. It shows Life Boat Restaurant voted the top ﬁsh and chip restaurant in Hastings, by the locals, in February this year.
It’s almost 20:00 now and I’ve put in a pretty decent power-walking effort today. I feel I’ve earned my meal but nothing could have prepared me for the size of it.
They offer a medium and a large cod. I chose the medium and shudder to think what the large would have looked like. The pics do not do it any justice at all but I feel it would have fed at least two and a half people!
Exhausted, but sated and grateful, I eventually fall asleep in the town where my great grandmother would have done the same, as a baby, over a hundred years ago.
Of course, sleep never seems to last long on a plane before one gets hyper-uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot of squirming and a little bit of shut-eye playing on repeat until breakfast is served some two hours before landing.
It’s a continental breakfast, quite ﬁtting since we’re now ﬂying over France. I’m tracking our progress on the moving map, you know – just to make sure the pilot’s on course and holding altitude and all that! I start lifting the shutter and sneaking peaks out of my window, matching the lights below with our current location. It’s not long before I identify the lights of Paris, beautiful even in the darkness from 40 000 feet. We begin our descent.
Clearing Immigration and Making Connections
I’m a little concerned I may not have left enough time to catch my bus from Heathrow into London so, on disembarkation, I power-walk through Terminal 2 (the Queen’s Terminal, I’ll have you know!). It’s a long walk but welcome after 11 hours airborne, strapped to a seat.
I’m astonished to ﬁnd that, for UK and EU passport holders, there’s barely an immigration ofﬁcial in sight but, instead, a row of self-service booths. Trying to look inconspicuous, I shufﬂe slowly towards a free booth, buying time to carefully take in all the instructions: step onto the yellow footprints on the ﬂoor, remove your glasses, put down your bags, place the photo page of your passport on the scanner, look at the camera, remove your passport…
The gates swing open! I make a mental note to thank my amazing mother for her wisdom and presence of mind in obtaining British citizenship for me all those years ago. Not only does it make entry into the UK a breeze, without any queues, but it also made leaving South Africa smoother – no questions about visas and how long I’d be staying and where I’d be staying and what other places I’d be visiting – what a pleasure!
Having collected my luggage (which, thankfully, arrived – something I never take for granted), I make my way to the Central Bus Station. I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of a lift. With almost 22kgs on my back and a day pack of 7½kgs clipped onto my front, a thought occurs, “I hope my Eiger-climbing uncle doesn’t disown me when he sees this lot!” I’m quite sure he’s perfected the art of travelling light. I console myself with the fact that I carry gifts as well as electronic equipment, including a mobile scanner and a netbook, none of which a climber would require!
I make it to the bus station with enough time to grab a much-needed cappuccino and a strawberries and cream mufﬁn before boarding the National Express bus bound for London.
Connections of Another Kind
It’s a ﬁne, crisp day here and bright enough for sunglasses. Out on the M4, trees cloaked in gold, studded with jewel-like ﬂecks of red, are a reminder that it is indeed autumn here, though.
We stop at a trafﬁc light and, out of the window on my right, I see a gorgeous old entrance covered in window boxes and baskets brimming with ﬂowers. It’s a beautiful, postcard-British pub. I reach for my camera and then notice the building’s name: The Bolton. I scramble to get my camera out of its pouch as my neighbour, sitting next to the window, sees the scene and tries to snap it with his cell phone. We both miss it.
“Are you a Bolton, then?” he asks. “No, but some of my Dad’s family were,” I respond, “What about you?” “No, but the friend I’m meeting up with in a bit is.” We start chatting after that and I discover he’s from Swindon, coming into London for a surprise birthday get-together at The Shard and then ICEBAR LONDON with some of his college mates, whom he hasn’t seen in years. I also discover he spent his honeymoon in South Africa. He, in turn, discovers a bit of my journey and the reason for it and, when I mention Orkney, shows me his wedding band made there. It certainly looks Orcadian: silver, with Norse-like runes engraved around it. “It’s supposed to read, ‘Hope, Love and Happiness’,” he says, and then, after a brief pause, “Aren’t these random connections just great? They make the world seem smaller, don’t they?” We talk about family and family history and he resolves to dig into his father’s family tree. “I’ve often thought I should look into it,” he muses and, with that, the bus pulls into London Victoria Coach Station and we go our separate ways.
While it is perhaps better known as the site of that (in)famous battle way back in 1066, Hastings is also the birthplace of one of my paternal great grandmothers, Kate Isabella Bolton.
Her parents were married there, too, and it’s where I’m headed ﬁrst. A brisk march has me collecting my ticket in London Victoria Station and on the platform within a few minutes. I tuck into my magical strawberries and cream mufﬁn while waiting for the train to depart and soon we’re out of the suburbs and cutting our way through quintessentially English countryside: pastures dotted with sheep and lined with post and rail fences or neat hedges or stone walls, steeplechase courses, and crops spread out like intricately stitched quilts.
Around lunchtime, I ﬁnd myself at Hastings Station. Another short walk delivers me to Apollo Guest House. After a shower and a little reorganisation of my day pack for strolling the streets, I’m out the door again, meandering down the road in search of Robertson Street…
…the journey my heart has longed for. Yes, yes, my heart does indeed long for many, but this one involves precious family I haven’t seen in years and family I’ve never met. It was, I think, born from a single photograph I ordered from The War Graves Photographic Project website a couple of years ago, a headstone in a tiny cemetery on Skye, erected to the memory of my great grandfather who died of wounds sustained in Palestine in the First World War, his brother who was lost in France during that same conﬂict, another of their siblings and their parents, John and Marion Macdonald.
Looking at that photograph, my heart was hooked (not that it needed much encouragement). “I want to go back again. I want to be there. I want to walk where they walked. I want to live and cherish their memory.” The journey then grew through connection with my uncle (my mother’s brother) and their cousin (in law), both of whom hold family documents and photographs they want organised somehow. This dovetailed perfectly with my genealogy, um, addiction, which then yielded more and more crumbs along the family history trail. These I added to a bucket list which formed the basis of my itinerary for this trip. It’s amazing, though, how quickly four weeks can ﬁll up, especially when one’s trying to get from the coast in the south of England to the west coast of Scotland to islands in the north and then Edinburgh on the east coast! Some items have had to stay on the bucket list for now but that simply means there’s scope and reason for another trip 😉
Pride Goes Before a Fall
I managed to get home from work almost on schedule. I successfully disconnected my car’s battery and then managed, after a couple of attempts, to manually lock the driver’s door. I checked it again before squeezing the last few items into my now rather bulky travel pack. I e-mailed off details required for my car hire in Skye. I showered and got ready. I washed the dishes lying in the sink. I unplugged all appliances and switched off the geyser. I locked and checked the doors and windows. I was sorted. Yay me! The buzzer rang – my lift had arrived.
I wrangled my travel pack onto my back, grabbed my hand luggage, took a last look around, locked up and made my way downstairs. Paranoia made me check my car doors. Front door… locked. Back door… swung open! I was horriﬁed. I tried a few options. None worked. Now dripping with sweat, I concluded I would have to reconnect the battery and try ﬁgure out how to get the back doors locked. I worried about how long it would take to ﬁgure out, particularly with my fear of ﬁddling with car batteries (which comes from reading the manual – it’s a bit like reading the package insert for medication). I knew I would get dirty again and didn’t have time to clean up. I was holding my lift up. I worried about being late for check in. I decided to leave it. It was inside my complex. And if someone wants to get in, they’re going to get in whether the doors are locked or not, right?
A Little African Adventure for the Road
I’ve always had slight concerns around the safety of tuk tuks in the aggression and speed of Jozi trafﬁc and the questionable roadworthiness of many of the vehicles on our roads but, I ﬁgured, what better time to try it than at the start of my holiday? My very courteous driver hopped out of his seat to help load my luggage and very graciously took a photo of me in the tuk tuk:
At the Gautrain station, he once again leapt out to carry my luggage across the road (closed to trafﬁc for EcoMobility month) and help get it on my back. So there you have it: no mess, no fuss, super-fun and I lived to tell the tale 🙂
A fellow passenger on the Gautrain, perhaps prompted by the Springbok shirt I was wearing, asked whether I knew what the Rugby World Cup result was of the South Africa-USA game. “Oh my,” he said when I told him of the whitewash. Turns out he’s a Columbian, studying at Wits, and also on his way to the airport, ﬂying out to a friend’s wedding in Georgia (the country). I love these serendipitous little encounters, learning about others and their life journeys.
The Departure Lounge
Safely checked-in, and through security and passport control, I ordered a serious cappuccino to calm my nerves while I poured out my car door woes to my mother over the phone. Without missing a beat, she said she and my father would drive down and sort it out, “so you don’t have to worry about it.” It’s no trivial matter, either, since it’s at least a two-hour drive for them, one way. Well, that was me ﬁnished! How come I have such awesome parents? I said a teary goodbye with a prayer of gratitude for the great grace and blessing that are mine in my father and mother.
Just sitting in the departure lounge reminded me how much I love this, the immense privilege of travel. People rushed to and fro while others seemed bored, waiting for their ﬂight to depart. Out of Africa had their Christmas displays up, a riot of colour and beadwork, while the strains of a live marimba band ﬁlled the walkways with lively African beats.
Destinations echoed out over the PA system, fuelling the wanderlust that rages within. “This is a ﬁrst boarding call for Turkish Airlines ﬂight XYZ to Istanbul.” Istanbul! A myriad of magical memories ﬂooded back. “We have unﬁnished business,” I thought. “One day, I want to walk your streets again…” Two girls, possibly in their twenties, sat down next to me, glued to their phones. A second boarding call for that Turkish Airlines ﬂight to Istanbul wafted over to us a few minutes later. One of the girls, without removing her eyes or ﬁngers from her phone, said to the other, “Wanna go to Istanbul?” “Nah,” said the second, and both carried on their interactions in their virtual worlds, as if nothing had happened, as if they hadn’t just closed the door on an incredible city. I tried to recover from the shock by meandering over to the boarding gate for my ﬂight!
So long, South Africa; Hello, Holiday and History!
It wasn’t long before we boarded and were airborne. The exhilaration of take-off is one of those sensations I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. It’s obviously physically powerful but it also holds a sense of expectation, of something new or different, of change. The glitter of city lights spilled out below us on the velvety-black canvas of night, as I contemplated what the next four weeks may hold for me…
Dinner was a peppery, though quite yummy, dish of grilled chicken strips, accompanied by bowtie pasta, roasted butternut sticks and creamy mushroom sauce. It was served with a salad, a pretzel-like roll, crackers and salmon cream cheese, passionfruit orange cake and a chocolate.
Full, satisﬁed and ﬁnally able to relax after a number of late nights of preparation, I was asleep within minutes, as Africa ﬂoated by below us.
“There are a few entries on NAAIRS – you may already have seen them, though…” This is often my response to other genealogy-obsessed individuals online who, like me, are desperately seeking information on their family members in South Africa. At least four times in the last couple of months, I’ve received a private message from the person shortly thereafter saying they haven’t seen them and asking for assistance on how to see what I’m seeing. It’s as a result of these interactions that I realised a basic intro to NAAIRS could be of value and so here we are 🙂
Firstly, though, a disclaimer: I am self-taught and so the guidelines I provide are based purely on my experiences and research and bits I’ve gathered along the way. I’m quite sure there are better ways to do much of what I try to explain here, so please feel free to provide me with feedback – I’d love to hear from you.
NAAIRS stands for “National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System” and is basically an index to records held in the various archives around the country. Obviously, not all records are indexed so you may not always ﬁnd what you’re looking for on NAAIRS, even though the record may be in one of the archives.
Then, as it is only an index, NAAIRS will not provide you with the record itself – only a reference. However, once you have that reference, you can go to the relevant archive yourself and request the documents, you can ask someone to go on your behalf (which may or may not involve a fee) or you may be able to request a copy from the archives.
So, to the searching: open your web browser and navigate to http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs_content.htm – this will open up the NAAIRS content page which will list a number of links, many of which you may want to look at, since they’re quite useful and will also help you identify the archive and document type of records you may ﬁnd. For now, though, click on the “Search” link.
A list of databases will be displayed – I generally choose “RSA”, since that covers all archives but you can always limit your focus, and the number of results returned, by selecting one of the other databases. Just be aware that the family you’re looking for may not always have been where you expect them to have been!
Next, a search form will be displayed. Only enter one search term per text box. I usually enter the ﬁrst name in the ﬁrst search box and the surname in the second. It’s also important to note the following when entering names as search terms:
Remember that given names will likely be used in legal documents. For instance, if your ancestor was known as “Archie”, try searching for “Archibald”.
Indexing errors do occur, so it’s worth trying variants of the terms you’re searching for, or reducing the number of terms you’re searching for at the same time.
You can add middle names as search terms if you know them but be aware that they may not all have been indexed and so the person you’re looking for may be excluded from the search results.
Once you’ve entered your search terms, check the operators – for a basic search on a forename and surname, “And” will usually sufﬁce. Now click the “Search” button.
The query results will be displayed and you’ll be able to see how many records exist in the archives for your search criteria. Click on the “Results Summary” link to view the list of records. Now you need to start sifting through the information. If you click on one of the links on the lines in the list of results, the “Result Details” will be displayed. The DEPOT tells you which archive repository the document is housed in. This is the point at which you may want to refer back to the links on the NAAIRS content page:
Regarding the sources, death notices (and hence, estate ﬁles, which should contain a death notice) are generally the most useful in the South African context since they should provide details of the deceased, including their parents and their children and so, with a sprinkle of fairy dust and a prayer for obsessive-compulsive ancestors ﬁlling in the death notice, you may be rewarded with three generations on a single document! Bear in mind, though, that not everyone has an estate at the time of their deaths, in which case there may not be an estate ﬁle for them.
You usually need the SOURCE, VOLUME, REFERENCE and sometimes the TYPE and SYSTEM to retrieve the document from the archives. Sometimes, however, you’ll also need a part of the DESCRIPTION, e.g. EX PARTE APPLICATION, ILLIQUID CASE, etc. It’s best to record all the Result Details for records which show promise in a research diary or similar document to keep them handy.
Now you just need to get hold of the records that interest you somehow! If you are unable to make the journey to the archive where the records are held yourself, consider asking the online forums or pages of which you are a member whether anyone is scheduled to visit the archive and could look it up for you. Alternatively, for a small fee, the eGGSA may be able to assist, as long as the record is not in the Cape Town Archives Repository (KAB) – see http://www.eggsa.org/sales/help_archive_docs.htm. For records in the Cape Town Archives Repository (KAB), you could e-mail them directly – see their Client Services page.
I hope this has been of some use and has provided some direction. Please leave a comment if you have any other questions in this regard and I’ll do my best to answer them. I would also love any feedback you may have.
A year ago to the day, while visiting my parents for Christmas, I’m sitting in my mother’s study. I’m fixated on her laptop monitor, trying to make sense of and keep up with the military jargon flying back and forth on the Great War Forum in response to a question I’d asked about my great grandfather, Lachlan Macdonald, who lost his life in that horrific conflict.
My mother, sitting beside me, is intently studying old family photographs with her mini magnifying glass, looking every bit the family historian. Out of the easy, companionable silence, she suddenly exclaims, “That’s where you get your chin from!” I look across at her, not computing. “Huh?” She looks up, taps a photograph with her magnifying glass and says again, “That’s where you get your chin from!”
I lean across, looking at the photograph. It’s true: my great grandmother, Christina Macdonald née Cameron, has the same dent in her chin, slightly off centre, like the indentation left by a finger in clay. I look at my mother and check out her chin. The dent is missing. “It must have skipped a generation, then!”
It’s strange, you know, that I never questioned where it came from, that dent. I remember it causing one of a number of insecurities when I was younger but it never occurred to me that it may be an “heirloom”, especially since it was missing in both my parents. Now it represents a family fingerprint, a part of my inheritance, a connection with my Cameron past, with my great grandmother, character that she was. In the same photograph, it’s clear that my great grand uncle, Murdo Cameron, carried the same mark. My grandmother carried it, to a slightly lesser degree. My uncle carries it.
So what about you? Where do you get your chin from? Or your toes? What about your mouth, your eyes, your ears? What are your family fingerprints? Did they skip a generation or two?
In celebration of family and the ties that bind us together