My maternal great-grandfather, Harry Joshua Davis, has generally made himself extremely difficult to find after 1923. In fact, I have not found him or his date of death or where he might have died and I have been looking for a very long time. Yes, it’s annoying and he most definitely qualifies for July’s Genealogy Blog Pool party theme. Elizabeth of Little Bytes of Life writes:
‘Do you have an ancestor which makes you absolutely miserable?’ Why yes I do! ‘Bring your most aggravating ancestor to our summer pool party and PUSH HIM (or her) in the pool!’
Harry Joshua Davis was born in Gorton West, Lancashire, England in 1879. He was the first child of Joshua Davis and Helena (Schmidt) Davis. He is easily found in the 1881 and 1891 UK census with his family in or near Manchester, Lancashire. By the 1901 census however Harry is not found with the family who has stayed within the parish of South Manchester. In fact, despite numerous searches, I have not found him at all in 1901 in England. I do however know that by June 1902 Harry Davis was in South Africa. He joined the British South Africa Police (B.S.A.P) in Johannesburg and I am fortunate that I have his enlistment papers.
However not being able to find Harry J. Davis in 1901 in England raises the question of whether he was already in South Africa at that time. Did he go over to fight in the Boer War? As a paramilitary unit, the B.S.A.P fought in the Second Boer War but Harry Davis’ B.S.A.P enlistment papers clearly show he enlisted in Johannesburg in 1902. (The Second Boer War had officially ended on May 31, 1902). In 2003 I hired a researcher to do a search in the Public Record Office in London with the goal being to find out if Harry Davis had enlisted in the British Army prior to 1902. Although several men were found with similar names, none fit the details I already had for Harry Joshua Davis. Was Harry intrigued by the lure of adventure in deepest Africa? Perhaps he saw one of the many newspaper advertisements asking for men to join the B.S.A.P?
Harry’s trail in South Africa from 1902 until 1923 is fairly well documented in his enlistment papers. I also know that Harry Davis married Adelaide Agnes Maud Hayes somewhere between 1902 and 1908. However, I do not have their marriage certificate or a confirmed date of their marriage. It’s difficult to get this sort of documentation in South Africa as there is no central repository for vital records and many are kept on a local level by the various church’s – if they exist at all. There is also the unconfirmed family story that Harry and Adelaide were not married at the time of the birth of their first son, my grandfather, Harold James Davis in 1908. A birth certificate for Harold James Davis may have shown the word ‘illegitimate’ had that been the case but again, I have not been able to find one for him. In fact, the family story goes so far as to say that Adelaide’s father went out and found Harry and told him he would be marrying his daughter – ‘shot-gun’ wedding style. Until I find their marriage certificate I can’t prove or disprove that family story.
Harry Davis did well working with the B.S.A.P and his records are full of praise and commendations. He was promoted in 1907 to a Detective Probationer and then to Detective in 1908. In September of 1914 the notation in his enlistment papers shows that Harry was called to active duty. The First World War had started in July of 1914 and South Africa’s military forces, including the B.S.A.P, participated in the fighting in various parts of Africa including the East African Campaign. Harry Davis survived and returned to Johannesburg on June 26, 1915. Approximately 4 years later Harry was again promoted to Detective Lieutenant Constable. In 1921 Harry Davis moved to Cape Town where he was stationed with the newly formed C.I.D (Criminal Investigative Division) of the B.S.A.P.
Harry Joshua Davis and Adelaide Agnes Maud (Hayes) Davis had 4 children together:
- Harold James Davis, born in 1908 in Johannesburg
- Lillian Adelaide Davis, born in 1909 in Johannesburg
- William Francis Davis, born in 1912 in Johannesburg
- Florence Maud Davis, born in 1922 in Cape Town
Harry Joshua Davis left the B.S.A.P in 1923 at the age of 44. And that is the last time I have found any mention of him in any document. I don’t know where he went after he left the B.S.A.P. I do know that there was a separation from his wife Adelaide and that when she died in 1964 her death notice stated she was a widow. Whether Harry Davis had died by then is unknown. Widows were not always widows but may have preferred to be known as such rather than as the woman whose husband abandoned her.
There are various family stories that have been told about Harry Joshua Davis including:
- When Harry and Adelaide separated Harry went to South West Africa (now known as Namibia).
- In 2001 at the age of 79, daughter Florence Maud Davis was of the opinion that her father died in South Africa and that he may have taken his own life. She believed she was about 11 when her parents separated and in her early teens when Harry died, which would put his death around 1935 or so.
- Information from Florence Maud Davis’ husband was that when Harry Joshua Davis left the B.S.A.P he started a plumbing business with a partner. The partner absconded with all the money and the business failed. Interestingly enough Harry’s father, Joshua Davis, was a plumber (back in England) so perhaps there could be a shred of truth here.
- In 2004 Adelaide Agnes Maud (Hayes) Davis’ nephew was asked if he remembered anything about Harry Joshua Davis. He stated that he thought Harry went into the bakery business and worked for a company called T & F Connery. And again, Harry’s grandmother Charlotte L. Cook had been a confectioner/baker back in England. So again, perhaps a shred of truth?
Harry Joshua Davis remains a man of mystery right now. Every few months I go back to Harry and look at him again, read the few documents I have on him, and look through any new South African records that have been placed online, but no luck so far. Harry is doing a great job at hiding. And that’s pretty aggravating, right?
8 thoughts on “Hide and Seek with Harry”
Have you tried Australia? A lot of the South African went to Austrilaia in the 1900s. It seems weird but they did. Worth a try.
What an interesting story. I enjoy and appreciate how you combined historical events with the information you have about your great-grandfather. I have several of my North Dakota families for whom I can not find 1920 census records. Since many of them lived fairly close to one another, it’s almost as if the assigned census taker didn’t complete the assignment. But, like you, I check back on these folks from time to time to see whether any new records are available that might fill in the blanks resulting from the missing census reports.
Thanks for a good read!
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Thanks for stopping by Wanda. I am hoping one day I will be update this post with the news that I have finally found out what happened to Harry. One can hope, right?! 🙂
Fascinating story! I have a 2x great-aunt who disappears after 1911, so I share your frustration.
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Thanks for your comment! Some day we’ll find that little piece of info which unlocks both our family mysteries!
What an interesting story and how lucky you are to have his service papers giving so many details. It could have been that he missed the 1901 census because that indeed was the time period in which he was migrating to Africa, but it is extremely aggravating that no trace of him has been found from 1923 onwards. Places that have records stored at the local level – like most early Scandinavian records – are very frustrating because you know what you are looking for is in there somewhere, but finding it is just a needle in a haystack.
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Thank you for commenting Linda. I do feel like I am looking for a very very small needle in a huge haystack, that’s for sure! 🙂