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
Coffee and rusks again heralded the start to the morning. After showering and packing, we enjoyed a quick breakfast of fruit and yoghurt before dropping our keys in the Henri House postbox and heading for another – the oldest in South Africa…
On the corner of Worcester and Somerset
We found it on the corner of Worcester and Somerset Streets, where it has valiantly stood since about 1860. Here we mailed the postcards we wrote yesterday evening, some of which were to ourselves (this idea came from some clever person on the Interwebs who sends postcards to themselves from the places that they visit – a wonderful way to document one’s travels)! Some websites claim that mail posted here gets a special frank but we can confirm that this is sadly no longer the case – our postcards were, in fact, franked in Port Elizabeth. We took a last look around: the beautiful building alongside us and St Andrew’s College Memorial Chapel diagonally across from us rose proudly against a now grey and increasingly gloomy sky as we piled back into the Pajero bound for King William’s Town and the next leg of our Eastern Cape adventure…
Next stop KWT
It was a pleasant journey, winding through the Great Fish River Pass, roadworks and rolling hills, and away from the bad weather that appeared to be pulling into Grahamstown! We made good time to KWT and stopped at the Buffalo River 1 Stop just outside the town for a comfort break and a brief discussion about what to do next, since it was still too early to check in to our new “home”. Fortunately, my fabulous father (who doesn’t do procrastination!) decided we should try to find Macleantown, some 50 kilometres east-ish of King. Why? Well, that’s a bit of a story!
Basically, a particularly fruitful Google search late last year resulted in a true treasure of a find: “Stamboom van Pieter Becker: Bekker Families van SA” by Johan Pottas and Annatjie Tiran – a family register available for download from the website of The Genealogical Society of South Africa. It contains what is to date the only documented mention I’ve come across of what I think may be my great-grandmother Nelson. The reference is to an Auguste Wilhelmine BECKER who married a George NELSON and it seems highly unlikely that there would be many Augustina Wilhelmina Beckers (or variants thereof) marrying George Nelsons around the “right” time. However, it is certainly not sufficient evidence to conclude that the reference is indeed to my great-grandparents so further research is definitely required.
My one-day visit to the Western Cape Archives at the beginning of the year yielded the death notice cited in “Stamboom van Pieter Becker: Bekker Families van SA” for Julius August Wilhelm Becker and, as one of his ten children, it indeed listed an Auguste Wilhelmine as being married to a George Nelson. If my great-great-grandfather Becker was indeed Julius, that would also explain where my grandfather, Arthur Archibald Julius Nelson, got one of his names from! Still, this is not enough. What I really need is a death notice for Auguste Wilhelmine/Augustina Wilhelmina which ought to list her parents, her spouse and her children. That would (hopefully!) link my grandfather with my great-grandparents and confirm my Becker great-great-grandparents…
But what does all this have to do with Macleantown? This: that I had stumbled across some civil death records for Becker family members that happened to be listed as siblings to Auguste Wilhelmine on the death notice for Julius August Wilhelm Becker, i.e. possible great-grandaunts and -uncles. These documents listed the intended place of burial as Macleantown. Photos of gravestones in the Macleantown cemetery on the eGGSA website confirmed that there were suspected Becker relatives buried there and so (with no small amount of trepidation after our Aliwal North cemetery experience) we decided to visit the graves for ourselves.
And so we drove through King and then through Bisho, eventually heading south-east-ish on the N6. It was a pleasant drive through a pleasant, largely unpopulated landscape on what had turned into a rather warm day, despite the clouds still trying to maintain some sort of a presence. We passed a turning signposted “Smiling Valley”, which did make me smile, sounding as though it could have come out of a children’s book! Shortly thereafter and rather abruptly, we came upon Macleantown and I issued the instruction, “Turn left! Turn left!” thinking that access to the cemetery must surely be from within the “town” itself. Almost immediately, we were faced with an intersection of dirt roads and Madame GPS bleating that I’d made the incorrect decision and we needed to turn around. We obeyed and then turned left back onto the N6. Barely had we done so when she informed us we needed to turn left again. We slowed down. Seriously? A tall, thick hedge lined the N6 on that side. Ah, there: a gap in said hedge! We turned into it and found ourselves looking at a rusty farm gate, beyond which a couple of Nguni cows looked up from their serious business of grazing to eye us lazily. Then we saw it: just beyond them, surrounded by another fence and another gate, was the cemetery!
I opened the gate and the Pajero splashed through a large puddle of muddy water on the other side, pulling to a stop in front of the second gate separating the grazing from the graves. It was a small cemetery, but the wild grass was neatly cut and wild flowers nodded in the gentle breeze. We spilled through the second gate and almost immediately found a Becker grave. However, lichen growth had rendered it virtually illegible. It was then that I discovered another of my enterprising mother’s skills: grave-cleaning! With a bottle of water we had in the car and a roll of paper towel, it wasn’t long before we were able to read it: E.M.A Becker. I didn’t recognise the initials and so we continued our search.
There were several Becker graves, but it was on the side of the cemetery closest to the road, against that hedge, that those we were looking for had been laid to rest: Julius Becker (second great-grandfather?), Mary Becker (neé Meyer, second great-grandmother?), Christian Meyer (third great-grandfather?), Emelia Wolseley (neé Becker, great-grandaunt?), Herman Becker (great-granduncle?), Franz Becker(second great-granduncle?) and Elizabeth Taylor (neé Becker, greatgrandaunt?). Given its similar style, it is also possible that the grave alongside Christian Meyer’s is that of Friederika Meyer/Meier (third great-grandmother?), but the headstone had been weathered smooth, making identification pretty much impossible. The “question marking” is, of course, because they are all still “suspected” relatives until I can unearth the evidence required to either confirm or deny their relationship to our family.
We spent almost two hours there, photographing Becker- and Meyer/Meier-related graves, transcribing some of those which had become difficult to read and getting quite sunburnt, before heading back towards King William’s Town.
A Discovery Lunch Sandwich
Our beeline for what was by now a very late lunch was briefly swung off course as we “discovered” a quaint and quirky corrugated iron church just off the R63 begging to be photographed!
It was around half an hour later when we pulled back into the Buffalo River 1 Stop and were seated in the Wimpy. After lunch and a much-needed, mandatory mega coffee, we set off into King again. One of the more sentimental items on my wish list for this holiday had been to attend a service in the churches that my Nelson grandparents had been baptised in, and Grandad Arthur was baptised in the Church of the Holy Trinity, King William’s Town. It was also the church he was confirmed in several years later. We decided to hunt it down, check out service times and assess the parking situation. It didn’t take long to find: a left turn into Alexandra Road and there, a few blocks further, its neo-Gothic, bluestone form rose up ahead of us, surrounded by trees.
We circled it, noting down the details, before asking Madame GPS to take us to the intersection of Queens Road and Raglan Street and Glencoe Guest House which would be our base for the next few days. She refused though, categorically stating that she knew nothing of this Raglan Street, and an argument ensued. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to budge, I switched her off and reverted to the trusty paper copy of the map I’d printed before leaving home – take that, Maggie!
Glencoe and a gentle evening
We found Glencoe shortly thereafter and met our super-gracious hostess, Giselle, who showed us to our garden rooms and very generously agreed to serve us breakfast earlier than her standard Sunday breakfast time so that we could make it to the 08:00 service at Holy Trinity. Incidentally, the story of Giselle and her husband Bertus, as well as that of the guest house, is a beautiful one – check it out by clicking the “About Us” link on their website.
Having unpacked, showered and freshened up a bit, we migrated onto the little wooden deck outside our rooms as the sun started to drop lazily toward the Amatola Mountains in the distance. We reviewed the copies of the death notices and other documents I’d ordered from the Western Cape Archives while there in January and then looked up the location of the King William’s Town main cemetery and the library. We then perused our photos of the day and enjoyed some pleasant reminiscing and reflection of our finds, while nibbling on crackers and rosa tomatoes – a light snack for dinner after our exceedingly late lunch!
And, finally, another hunt yields fruit!
Later, once the parents had retired to bed, I continued paging through image after image of civil death records, looking for Grandaunt Linda. Quite suddenly, I stopped and just stared at my laptop screen, for a few moments forgetting to breath. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It took a couple of
minutes of reviewing the document to register, but there it was: the civil death record for Linda Wilhelmina Nelson, aged nine, signed by my great- grandfather, George Albert Nelson. It also recorded their place of residence at the time: 76 Cambridge Road, King William’s Town! I did a quick calculation – it had taken the examination of 4,346 images to find this record of my young grandaunt’s death and, interestingly, it likely disproves the oral tradition about the cause of her death, but that’s a story for another time…
Deep in thought, I shut down my laptop and curled up in bed after another blessed day filled with discoveries of family past and precious times spent with family present.
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…
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…
Like her siblings, Grand Aunt Linda (Linda Wilhelmina Nelson) was baptised in the Church of the Holy Trinity, King Williams Town. That was 103 years ago today, on Thursday, 26 January 1911, in a ceremony performed by the assistant curate, H.G. Wright, and witnessed by a Linda Williams, an Annie De Lacey and Grand Aunt Linda’s dad, George Albert Nelson.
Mom Nelson’s Middle Name
Her mom is recorded as being “Augustina Wilhelmina”, so Linda shared her mother’s middle name. “Augustina Wilhelmina” also aligns pretty closely with family memory, as recalled at a family lunch held a number of years ago (and alluded to here).
Questions and Sadness
I do find it curious that Linda was only baptised three months after her birth, whereas her siblings were baptised at about a month old, and I wonder what the reasons for this may have been. Her story is still a mystery to me, although, by all accounts, it’s a relatively short story, with a sad ending.
According to those present at that family lunch I mentioned, Linda burnt to death as a toddler. I have yet to find confirmation of this, and obviously have no details, but the horror and anguish of it sits sickeningly, heavily in the pit of my stomach. And I wrestle with why it had to happen; why Grand Aunt Linda didn’t see adulthood or children of her own.
Images of civil death records for the Cape Province between 1895 (when they became compulsory in the Cape) and 1972 are available on FamilySearch.org. However, as they have not yet been indexed, searching them is an arduous process which involves selecting the year in which you think the death may have been registered, then selecting the municipality in which you think the death may have been registered and, finally, paging through hundreds and thousands of images in an attempt to find the death you think ought to have been registered.
It is a sobering activity, too, seeing deaths due to teething, influenza, and a multitude of other conditions that today present very little danger to us. And it is glaringly obvious that death is no respecter of persons: from convicts to community leaders, babies to the elderly, none can escape it – a reminder that we better make getting right with our Maker a priority, for we do not know when we will be called to stand before Him.
In 2,432 images over three and a bit years of King Williams Town deaths, I still haven’t found any sign of Linda’s death being registered. It could, of course, have been registered in a different municipality, but since all her siblings were baptised in King Williams Town, this would seem unlikely, but not altogether unfeasible. It is also possible that in the monotonous paging through image after image, I’ve missed her death record.
These are some of the reasons I decided to start indexing a while ago, and now try to index at least one batch every day. It’s not much, but it all adds up, and “giving back” in this way benefits me, too. I am, in fact, currently indexing the very records I’m searching for Grand Aunt Linda’s death, so perhaps I’ll soon be able to search by her name – hasten the day!
While a death record will never be able to answer the weightier questions, it should provide a clearer picture of what happened, when and where. From other finds, I know I may need to brace myself for the emotions this could stir up. It is peculiar that one can be so affected by the events in the lives of family members one has never met, and the amazing grace that reaches down through the generations, through pain, through joy, to speak still today…
My grand uncle, William Charley/Charly/Charles Nelson, was baptised on Monday, 18 January 1897, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, King Williams Town. Assistant deacon, W.W. Castle, performed the ceremony, which was witnessed by himself, Grand Uncle Charley’s father (my great grandfather) – George Albert Nelson, and an Emma Gould, whoever she may be. I came upon his baptism record in the same way that I discovered Grand Aunt Maud’s, but I know even less about him than I know about her!
More on Names
Interestingly, though, it would seem that he, too, was known to the family by his second name, Charles or Charley or Charly. Also, his mother was recorded on his baptism record as “Agustina” – more in line with expectations as far as my great grandmother’s name is concerned. If her name was indeed Agustina, or a variation thereof, it may explain why Grand Aunt Maud’s mother is recorded as Christina on her baptism record, since the names could have sounded similar to the person making the entry, who may then have written “Christina” in error, perhaps being more familiar with that name. But that is nothing more than a guess at this stage!
Again, there would appear to be a record relating to Grand Uncle Charles in the National Archives Repository in Pretoria, so perhaps that will shed a little more light on the situation. Visit scheduled for 01 Feb 2014!
My grand aunt, Emily Maud(e) Brown née Nelson, would have turned 119 today. She was born on Thursday, 17 January 1895. But how do I know this detail, when I know so little else about her? How, indeed.
Your Own Personal PI
When I was little I loved, LOVED, L.O.V.E.D building puzzles, and researching one’s family history is much like building a puzzle. One of the challenges, though, is that you may only have a handful of pieces in your box for a puzzle that contains squillions of pieces, give or take a couple. However, if you missed out on a career as a detective and now vicariously solve mysteries through television programs such as NCIS, The District, CSI or Numbers, try your hand at genealogy – it’ll elevate you to the ranks of detective overnight. A warning, though: it comes with similar occupational hazards. Coffee and doughnuts may become a staple diet. Long hours glued to a computer screen lie ahead of you. Mountains of paperwork will spontaneously start forming, not just on your desk, but on the floor and every other available surface, and they will demand your attention, because one document in those paper mountains may be one of your missing puzzle pieces. And don’t underestimate the threat of attempts on your life, either. You never know when you may ask the wrong question of the wrong relative, and find yourself on the receiving end of a broom-lashing from a distant cousin several times removed!
A Tentative Lead
Anyway, I digress – back to the puzzle. So in Grand Aunt Maud’s case, I really only had one mangled puzzle piece to start with. Mangled, because at the time of receiving it, I had no idea how important the information was or the care that ought to have been taken recording it. It came to me at a family lunch a number of years ago, at which Grand Aunt Maud’s daughter, my first cousin once removed, was present. I already had a keen interest in my family history but hadn’t yet started any formal research to speak of. Somehow, we got onto the subject of our family tree, at which point Mum fortunately hauled out her ever-present notepad and pen, otherwise we may have had nothing at all recorded from that day. While the information we gathered was sparse, it did help to establish some relationships, particularly of my grandfather and his siblings, and also provided a few interesting little insights into their lives. And so it was that, at the end of that gathering, I knew my paternal grandfather, Arthur Archibald Julius Nelson, had a sister named Maud Emily Nelson or Emily Maud Nelson. We weren’t quite certain at the time, but the family seemed to indicate her name could have been Emily Maud, although she was known to them as Maud. Her parents (like my grandfather’s) were George Nelson and his German wife, Augusta Wilhemina*, who was born Becker. Apart from the names of Grand Aunt Maud’s husband and children, that was just about the sum total of what I knew about her. Until I opened Granny I’s tin of treasures, that is…
Down the Rabbit Hole
One of the confirmation certificates in that tin was my grandfather’s. While it contained no explicit information regarding the family, it did provide a clue: the church that Grandad Arthur was confirmed in – Church of Holy Trinity, King Williams Town, an Anglican church. Ah – so that may have been where the family worshipped. Also in that tin were two abridged death certificates for Grandad Arthur. Although abridged, they do include his date of birth. Mmm – a name plus a date of birth plus a church could equal a baptism certificate! But this is not the UK or the States where bazillions of records have been indexed and are now available online. This is South Africa, where recordkeeping and preservation is perhaps not always of the highest standard, and where easy access to records is certainly not of the highest priority. However, I took a flyer and Googled “Church of Holy Trinity King Williams Town baptism records”. A number of results were returned, but it was a message on a RootsWeb mailing list that provided the next hint: some Anglican church records may be held by the library at the University of Witwatersrand. Well, that’s a whole lot closer to home than King Williams Town, if I needed to visit in person, but I first returned to trusty friend, Google, and asked it to look for “University of Witwatersrand Anglican church records”. What I saw next justified a fist pump:
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Anglican Church Registers ONLINE? REALLY? Barely able to contain my excitement, I clicked the search result. Sure enough, the Historical Papers research archive page reported the following:
“The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made the registers of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa available online and free of charge. The South African registers cover the years 1850-2004 and include baptism, marriage and burial records.”1 Clicking on the link provided took me to FamilySearch’s “South Africa, Church of the Province of South Africa, Parish Registers, 1801-2004”2 landing page. Clicking on the country and province took me to a listing of parishes. Holding my breath, I searched for “Holy Trinity” – 18 matches. I started clicking through them. BINGO! Holy Trinity, King Williams Town in the diocese of Grahamstown. I clicked on it and was presented with a catalogue of record types and years. I checked the year of Grandad Arthur’s birth and selected the relevant baptism register. Now, what you need to understand is that while these registers are available online (which I am truly very grateful for), they have not been indexed, so searching involves paging through images of the register, checking every entry. Of course, one ought to start by applying a sort of triaging, based on the date of birth, if known, which is what I did. Eventually, there it was: Grandad Arthur’s baptism entry – WOW! I cannot even begin to describe my elation! But this is about Grand Aunt Maud, right? What does this have to do with her?
Following the White Rabbit…
Well, if a child was baptised in Holy Trinity, King Williams Town, chances are that their siblings may have been, too. But now I don’t have a date of birth. All I have is a name, and, possibly the church. So I stick with what I know, and apply strict research principles, searching the register in which I found Grandad Arthur’s baptism record from start to finish, all 200+ images, with 10 entries on each page. But, eventually, when I get to the 117th image, it pays off… I think.
Is It, or Isn’t It?
I find a record for Emily Maude Nelson, born on 17 January 1895, with parents George Albert and Christina Nelson. Christina? That doesn’t seem right… Mmm… Well, all appears to tie up with the little I know, except for her mother’s name, which complicates matters somewhat, but then it could just be a mistake. I don’t know. Clearly, I need other evidence which will either corroborate the entry in the baptism register, or the family’s memory. Sigh. I have yet to unearth this evidence, but am happy to report that I have discovered a couple of records that may shed some light on the matter in the National Archives Repository in Pretoria. However, viewing these records requires a visit to the Archives in person. Until then, much of Grand Aunt Maud’s birth remains a mystery…
*Spelling based on the memories of those present that day.
Back when I was just a kidlet, one of the highlights of those relatively carefree days was visiting Granny I. I say, “relatively carefree” because I cared a great deal about a number of things, especially the apparent eternity (otherwise known as a school term) between my stays at Granny I’s house. Iris Mary Nelson née Messenger she was, but I didn’t know that then; to me she was simply Granny Iris or Granny I. I do know, though, that many of those wonderful, wonderful hours I spent alone with her were spent looking through her photos (and making lightning cake, but that’s another story). I don’t remember if she tried to explain to me who was in the pictures; if she did, I suppose I was too young to understand or remember the significance of what she was sharing with me. Whatever the case was, they were special times. I guess that’s why, after she died, I was given a tin of documents and a photo album of hers.
The tin stayed closed for years. It came to me at a time when I seemed unable to carve any semblance of balance out of my work, or prioritise anything other than work. Some life-altering decisions saw that change, but I then found myself studying for a BCom and juggling a full time job, among other commitments. I knew that if I opened that tin I would be unleashing an obsessive distraction which would spell disaster for my studies. And so it stayed closed. It stayed closed until, like the Pandora of Greek mythology, I could bear it no longer. One semester, after I’d written exams and before I received my study material for the next semester, I opened the tin.
It’s a tin from the old Humphries Sunrise Toffee factory which used to be situated on Sunrise Circle, Cape Town. It’s not particularly big, approximately 22cm long by 14cm wide by 11cm high. Yet, I found myself instantly immersed in another world, my grandmother’s world. I gingerly lifted out a tattered-looking envelope. It had already split in two, the front separated from the back. Between the two pieces of envelope was a letter. From my grandfather to my grandmother. Written while he was in the army, less than a year after they were married. Starting with the words, “My Darling Sweetheart”. At that moment, the beauty of those words was enough. Somehow, it was enough right then for me to know that my grandfather loved my grandmother, and hold in my hands what both of them had held in theirs. I gently folded the letter back between the pieces of its envelope and placed it back in the tin, closing the lid before my tears smudged the writing penned in my grandfather’s hand… on 1 January 1945.
A Rough Inventory of Treasures
I dipped into the tin occasionally after that, but it was only in June last year, after I’d written my final BCom exam, that I allowed myself the luxury of losing myself in its contents: a marriage certificate, a baptism certificate, two certificates from the Red Cross, two abridged death certificates, about thirteen little newspaper clippings, two confirmation certificates, a MOTH certificate, four certificates of enumeration from a 1951 census, a few other personal letters in addition to the one I’d originally discovered plus some postcards, an invitation to my uncle and aunt’s wedding, a telegram, my grandfather’s volunteer ID book from the army and a couple of documents related to his estate, a letter regarding a property transfer, four poems, my grandmother’s will and a few related documents, a business card for an A. J. Western (who happened to be my parents’ marriage officer), a handful of miscellaneous businessy documents including a collection of television licence receipts, a little key whose home will likely never be found now and last but not least, a mini bookmark made by me for my grandmother. Which she kept in her tin of treasures 🙂 Isn’t that awesome?
Of course, we now know that tins are frightfully bad for preserving keepsakes, which isn’t quite as awesome, so I have mountains of archiving ahead of me to (a) digitally preserve these treasures and (b) ensure that they are moved into preservation-friendly storage. But what a privilege it is to be a custodian of that which was precious to my gran, and, in so doing, to celebrate her life and the grace that flowed through it…