Finding Harry


Harry Joshua Davis was a seemingly complicated man. I never knew him, but the records he left often describe a man with many complexities. Living family members knew little of him, except rumors and hushed opinions as to where he had ended up.

His birth in Lancashire, England in 1879, was innocuous enough. The oldest son of a plumber and his German born wife, Harry spent his younger years at school and at age 21 joined the British Army. In 1901 he was sent to South Africa, fighting there in the Boer War. Something must have appealed to Harry, as he returned to South Africa a year later, signing up with the British South Africa Police (BSAP) service in 1902.

He went on to marry in 1908 and had four children. He became a Detective with the BSAP, his official paperwork containing both commendations for excellent work and bribery allegations against him.  His career in the BSAP came to an end in Cape Town in 1923 when it was disbanded. Harry was 44 years old. This was the last time that my great grandfather, Harry Joshua Davis, appeared in any records. Family members weren’t sure if he had separated or divorced my great grandmother, Adelaide. It was rumored that he started a plumbing business, perhaps following in his father’s footsteps, but that his partner absconded with all the money. Other extended family thought he may have started a bakery business, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, who had worked as a confectioner in Lancashire. However, no one really knew what happened to Harry after 1923.

Harry became one of my brick walls. I spent years trying to find out more about him, including where he died. Thinking he may have returned to England, I followed men of the same name but nothing panned out. Adelaide passed away in 1964, her son, the informant on her death notice, stated she was a widow. That could mean Harry died previous to 1964, but without further proof, that was only a guess.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, 10 August 2019 to be exact. I was in South Africa to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday. One evening, as we sat around chatting after dinner, the conversation turned to Harry. We again wondered if we would ever find out what had happened to him. Since the early 2000s I had been combing through South African records, excited and hopeful as each new record set was digitized by FamilySearch and made available online. Over the years, I had also gone through the available documents on the South African Archive website, without success. I became an indexer on the South African Completion Team for FamilySearch. Who knows, maybe I’d find Harry that way. Every few months I would check all the online genealogy sites for any mention of Harry. Nothing. Until I was in South Africa a few weeks ago. My mom, feeling a renewed sense of hope after our conversation, decided to do a quick search on FamilySearch, not really expecting anything.  Her excited and somewhat shocked voice echoed from the other room, “I found him”.

You can imagine the excitement we felt. My mom had done a simple search and up came a death notice. Had we really found Harry after all of these years? Would we finally know what happened to him, where he had gone after his retirement from the BSAP in 1923? Would we find out when he died?

Both of us peered at the document. And both of us took a breath and let it out slowly. Oh. It was definitely our Harry. The address given as his residence was my great great grandmother’s. The age was off by a bit but it was Harry. But oh. Typed in bold at the top of his death notice was the stark sentence, “Inquest No. 435/45. Death due to asphyxia due to hanging. Suicide.”

Genealogy can be emotional. It’s naturally that way because we care about our ancestors. All of them. The good, the bad and the ugly. And this way of dying, it was ugly. It was shocking and terribly sad. The death notice gave little else to go on. At the time of his death in 1945, Harry was working as a barman in a hotel. He was actually 66 years old, not 60 as stated on the death notice. His place of death was not the same as his usual place of residence, which makes one wonder if he was perhaps not living with his wife and children at the time. More questions.

But for now, we have found Harry. After over 16 years of searching, there is a sense of closure in finally finding him, albeit tinged with sadness at the manner of his death. I wondered if perhaps I had to be in South Africa to find him?

I hope Harry is at rest now, knowing that his descendants cared enough to want to find him and remember him.

Harry Joshua Davis
7 June 1879, Gorton West, Lancashire, England – 5 June 1945, Johannesburg, South Africa.

22 thoughts on “Finding Harry

  1. When we are searching for so long, we build up expectations. Nothing would have met those expectations, but this was so not what you wanted to find. So tragic! I know very little of my paternal great-grandfather’s family, so I was excited to find something about his brother. Until I read it. He had committed suicide by hanging himself from the rafters of the family’s barn. The barn still standing on the farm still in our family. Never had heard that story before…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, Harry, has sadly been said one too many times in my research, when finding the cause of death is from suicide. I’m glad you found the record, but sadden, as I always am, by the reason.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer. I’m not the most patient person around so 16 years to find Harry felt like a few lifetimes! But so worth it in the end! I wish you much luck (and patience) in breaking your brick walls!

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  3. I love it when the brick walls crumble. And it is bittersweet when something you’ve obsessively chased for years finally comes to an end especially in such a sad way. I’m glad you found your Harry. May he rest in peace that you cared enough to keep looking.

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  4. Oh gosh! I know how you feel. Just the day before yesterday I found my 2x ggf death notice after years of searching. He committed suicide by poison. What a shocker, I never would have guessed! Now to tell my cousins.

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    1. I wish I could find something in newspapers but unfortunately, South African newspapers are almost impossible to locate online, and in person at an archive, even more difficult. Not to say I won’t give it a try though!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow – what a story! So sorry to hear about Harry – it’s so difficult reading these details about our ancestors…still, quite the story of perseverance – I’m glad you now know when he died…perhaps you can discover even more details about his life from the early 20s to the mid-40s in the years to come.

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    1. I hope so, Teresa! I’m on the look out now for a photo of his gravestone. The cemetery is currently being photographed by volunteers in South Africa. It’s a huge, very old and quite dilapidated cemetery, so I’m being cautiously optimistic! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! It was such a roller coaster of emotions! Hopefully I’ll fill in some of the gaps in his timeline but South African records being what they are, that may not happen. But I do think he is at rest and that makes me happy!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved reading this story, and am glad you finally found what happened to Harry although it is a sad story. That is so exciting to have found him with your mom in South Africa! Sometimes we just have to be patient:)

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