I have always been fascinated by the life of my great-grandfather John Bellas. Born into a coal mining family originally from Flintshire, Wales, he spent his entire life working down the mines. John was born in 1859 in St Giles, County Durham, England. He was the third child and first son for David Bellis and his wife, Margaret Williams. There would eventually be 9 children in the family. David Bellis and Margaret Williams were both of Welsh birth but by 1851 the family had left Wales and moved to the coal fields of County Durham, England. [At some stage John changed the spelling of his surname from Bellis to Bellas].
The 1871 England Census for Thornley, County Durham shows David Bellis and sons John Bellas (age 12) and Thomas Bellas (age 10) working as miners in the Thornley Colliery.
John Bellas’ life was marred at times by tragedy beginning with his first wife Elizabeth Jane Robson. They married in 1880 and had 4 children together. Tragically all four children died in infancy or early childhood. Elizabeth herself died in 1886 at age 24, only one month after her 3rd child died. She left behind her husband John and 2-year-old son, also named John. A year later, in June 1887, John married Anne Wilson. John and Elizabeth’s surviving child (John) passed away in June of 1889. John and his second wife, Anne Wilson went on to have 11 children, five of which also died in infancy.
In 1893 John Bellas left on his first trip to South Africa. This was the beginning of numerous trips back and forth between England and South Africa between 1893 and 1911. It’s not clear what precipitated the trip to South Africa but perhaps prospects there were better than in the coal fields of County Durham. For many years newspapers had reported on the ease with which diamonds could be found in South Africa and implied a man could get rich very quickly.
The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s caused a great influx of men, particularly experienced miners, seeking their fortunes in the diamond fields of South Africa. Because the labor needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labor migration to Kimberley.
In 1893 John Bellas was hired by the De Beers Diamond Mines in Kimberley, South Africa. Through correspondence with the De Beers Archivist and the Africana Research Library in Kimberley, and using employment records and passenger lists, I was able to track John Bellas’ movements in South Africa. Between 1893 and 1898 John traveled back and forth between County Durham and Kimberley, South Africa four times. Approximate travel time was 17 days via one of the Union Castle steam ships which traveled weekly between Southampton, London and ports in South and East Africa.
Throughout these years of back and forth travel, Anne Bellas and their 4 young children remained behind in County Durham. In 1899 newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley. This must have caused great anxiety for Ann Bellas.
“The Siege of Kimberley. Boers Building Forts.
(Reuter’s Telegram) CapeTown, Monday.
It is reported from Barkly West that the Boers are building forts
around Kimberley for the purpose of shelling the town.”
Ultimately the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the influx of foreigners as a result of that discovery, led to increased tensions between the Boers (Afrikaans speaking settlers) and the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners). The Boers feared that the Uitlanders would seize all political power and therefore passed laws that made Uitlanders in effect, second class citizens. Tensions escalated between these two groups. Britain was in control of the Cape Colony and wanted to incorporate the Boer Republics and keep them under British control. Failed negotiations between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 and the failure to remove British troops congregating on the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the declaration of war.
John Bellas began serving with the Kimberley Town Guard ‘D’ Company Division II. The town guard had been raised in October 1899 to defend the town of Kimberley from Boer attack. The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces.
Transcription: “The Siege of Kimberley: Town Guard Defending Carter’s Ridge.
The Kimberley town Guard lost twenty-one killed and forty-one wounded in defending this position.”
In March 1900 the Kimberley Town Guard was officially dismissed. There was no work to be had at the mines which had shut down during the Siege of Kimberley and John Bellas returned to England in July 1900.
It was not long before John Bellas returned again to Kimberley and employment with De Beers Mines. This time his family traveled with him. John and Anne Bellas and their 4 young children made the journey to Kimberley about 1902/1903. Five more children were born in Kimberley between 1902/1903 and 1909. Unfortunately 3 of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis. My grandmother, Elizabeth Bellas, was about 7 years old when she moved to Kimberley and 15 years old when the family returned to England permanently in 1911. In her older years she could still remember a word or two of Afrikaans which she had learned as a young child in South Africa.
Although Anne Bellas and children never returned to South Africa again, John Bellas traveled back again in early 1912. He only stayed a few months, returning for the final time to County Durham in December 1912.
John Bellas seems to have been a man who didn’t mind adventure and many years spent going back and forth across the ocean between countries. He was the first in the family to set foot in South Africa but certainly not the last. His daughter, Elizabeth Bellas, would have a son, my father, who would eventually immigrate from County Durham to South Africa and raise John Bellas’ great grandchildren there.