Finding Harry

Harry1

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.

Two True Friends – the Soldier and the Nurse

Charlotte Lillie Davis never married and probably would have been known as the maiden aunt of the family. However, that doesn’t mean she never loved nor led a fulfilling and interesting life. She was my second great grand-aunt; a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a niece, and a fiancée.

Very little is known about Charlotte’s fiancé, not even his full name. Official records refer to him only as R.L. Harrison. In 1901 he was with the British Army Post Office Corps, serving in South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War.1 It’s unclear when R.L. Harrison and Charlotte met, but likely Charlotte was already in her late 30s. Charlotte, aged 39, was working as a nurse at Beckett Hospital in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1901. 2

Their long distance love story is encapsulated in the seven envelopes that are framed, hanging on the wall of my cousin’s home in England. Addressed to Miss L. (Lillie) Davis, they were sent from South Africa by R.L. Harrison, complete with incredibly detailed hand drawn sketches on the front. As befits Private Harrison’s job with the Army Post Office Corps, the franking is very thorough on each envelope. Below are 3 of the 7 envelopes.

Envelope1
“Two True Friends – the Soldier and the Nurse”
Envelope2
“Tommy’s Smile” (Tommy was slang for a common soldier in the British Army.)
Envelope6
“A Gentleman in Khaki”

Sadly, their love story was short and sweet. R.L. Harrison never returned from South Africa. His exact death date is unknown but in the Roll of Individuals entitled to the South African War Medal he is noted as ‘Deceased’ as of 9th July 1901. 3

Also in my cousin’s possession are Corporal Harrison’s medals. The Queen’s South Africa Medal was presented to British, Imperial and Colonial troops serving in the Boer War. It has bars representing individual campaigns fought in. Corporal Harrison’s medal contains bars for service in the Cape Colony between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902, service in the Transvaal between 24 May 1900 and 31 May 1902 and a third bar for service at Wittebergen 1 July 1900.

RlHarrisonMedal
R.L. Harrison’s Queen’s South Africa Medal.

There is also a British War Medal for Charlotte Lillie with her name, C.L. Davis and S.(Staff) Nurse, 1914-1918 written on it. Charlotte Lillie served in France as a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), which was the nursing branch of the British Army. 4

Charlotte Lillie fit all the requirements for entry into the QAIMNSR which stated that members were to be over the age of 25, single, educated, of impeccable social standing, and must have completed a three-year course of nurse training in a hospital approved by the War Office. 5

CLMedal
Charlotte Lillie Davis’ British War Medal.

During the time that she served as a Staff Nurse, Charlotte kept a small autograph album which some of the men she was nursing, wrote in.  One of the pages is shown in the photocopy below. The large black square is a plaster (bandage) stuck to the page. A transcription of the page follows.

DavisAutogrph
Page from Charlotte Lillie Davis’ Autograph Book.

“This court plaster is warranted
Not to heal “unkind cuts” “wounded feelings” “injured innocence”

“cracked heads” & “broken hearts”
              ___________

If you should carve the Xmas goose
This plaster you may find of use
For you’re so kind upon my word
You’ll cut yourself and spoil the bird.”

A.W. Narrel. The E/Surreys
Ward 22
Sep ’17

To Sister Davis”

Charlotte Lillie Davis never did marry.  Perhaps I am being fanciful but I wonder if her heart ever recovered after learning of Corporal Harrison’s death.

After her service in the war, she lived for some time with her older brother, William Davis in Doncaster, Yorkshire. Later, she moved to a Nurse’s Home in Wentworth, West Yorkshire. From 1931 until her death in 1940, Charlotte Lillie lived at 14 Woodland Road, Wath-Upon-Dearne, near Rotherham, Yorkshire.6

CharlotteLillieDavis1862_lastresidence
14 Woodland Road, Wath-Upon-Dearne, as it appears today.

The maiden aunt of the family perhaps, but so much more. I would have liked to meet her and hear her tell her love story in her own words, and listen as she described her care of the ‘boys’ fighting in France during the Great War.

 

WordCloud

 

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 14 prompt: Maiden Aunt

  1. “Natal & South African Forces Death, 1899 To 1902, Army Post Office Corps”. Database with images, Findmypast.com (www.findmypast.com : accessed April 3, 2018), Roll of Individuals entitled to the South Africa Medal, entry for R.L. Harrison. 
  2. “1901 Census for England and Wales,” database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 February 2004); entry for Charlotte Lillie Davis, Barnsley, Yorkshire West Riding; citing the National Archives, RG 13, piece 4314, Folio 79, p. 1. 
  3. “Natal & South African Forces Death, 1899 To 1902, Army Post Office Corps”. Database with images, Findmypast.com (www.findmypast.com : accessed April 3, 2018), Roll of Individuals entitled to the South Africa Medal, entry for R.L. Harrison. 
  4. Scarletfinders, (http://www.scarletfinders.co.uk/2.html : accessed April 7, 2018), “Researching A Nurse.” 
  5. The National Archives (U.K.), “Service Medal and Award Rolls Index, First World War,” database, Discover Our Collections (http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ : accessed 6 April 2018), “Medal Card of Davis, Charlotte Lillie”; citing catalog reference WO 372/23/10656. 
  6. West Yorkshire, England, Electoral Registers, 1840-1962, Township of Wath-Upon-Dearne, p. 36 for Davis, Charlotte Lily, 1940, residence 14 Woodland Rd; image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 February 2012). 

The Life of a Miner: from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa.

johnbellas1859b
John Bellas (1859-1938)

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].

english_coal_miners
County Durham Coal Miners.  Photo in public domain.

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.

1871census
1871 England Census, Thornley, County Durham, Class: RG10; Piece: 4976; Folio: 31;  Page: 60, Ancestry.com

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.

diamondfields
Manchester Evening News, Tuesday 12 September 1871.

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.

kimberley
Diamond Mine. Kimberley, South Africa 1896.  Photos.com/jupiterimages

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.

union-castle
One of the many advertisements for the Union Castle Line. Photo in public domain.

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.

newspapersiege
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. Tuesday 31 October 1899

                               “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.

kimberley-town-guard-war
Dundee Evening Post. 30 March 1900.

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.”

 

kimberley-town-guard
Kimberley Town Guard.  Photo credit: angloboerwar.com

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.

newspaper1900_kimberleytownguard-disbanded
South Wales Daily News. 12 March 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.