An Early Event in a Short Life

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.

Sobering Searches
Images of civil death records for the Cape Province between 1895 (when they became compulsory in the Cape) and 1972 are available on 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…

It’s the 117th Anniversary of Grand Uncle Charles’ Baptism

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!

Grand Aunt Maud Would’ve Turned 119 Today

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:

Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc., used with permission.

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.

A Tin of Treasures

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.

Pandora’s Box
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.

Paper Diamond
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…