eGGSA is the acronym for the virtual branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa. According to their website the ‘Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) is an international organization of people engaged in the study of genealogy, family trees and family history with a South African connection’.
From the first small colony established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 in what is now Cape Town to the British government settler schemes of the 1820s, to the men seeking their fortunes on the diamond and gold fields in the 1860s – settlers, soldiers and missionaries flocked to what is now South Africa. Records were created as they lived their lives. eGGSA has an incredibly rich variety of records on their site, including transcripts and databases (1820 Settler correspondence, newspaper extracts, passenger lists, church and burial records); photographic collections of gravestones (now containing over 700 000 gravestone photographs), family bibles and postcards, and an incredibly useful page of links to other websites which may help with research in South Africa.
Almost all the records on the site are freely available. Membership does offer the perks of receiving eGGSA’s quarterly publication, Genesis. Members also receive FAMILIA, the quarterly journal of the parent body, the Genealogical Society of South Africa and are eligible for a reduced rate when ordering documents from the South African Archives at Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
If you have ancestors with connections to South Africa this is an excellent resource to start your research with.
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.
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?
As part of this month’s theme for the Genealogy Blog Party ‘The Strong Will Survive!’ I am highlighting my Grandfather as someone I believe was strong both emotionally and physically. He survived not only a war but a situation at home, happening at the same time, which was incredibly emotionally stressful for him. Read on and see why I think he qualifies as a man of great courage and integrity.
I’ve always been fascinated with this postcard that my Grandfather, Harold James Davis, had made in Cairo, Egypt. He never sent it (there is no writing on the back) but from what we can gather brought it home to South Africa to give to his only daughter.
Harold James Davis (1908-1967) was stationed in Egypt with the 1st Hygiene Company of the South African Medical Corp from November 1941 to April 1944 and transferred to the United Defense Force Admin HQ in Cairo, Egypt from March 1944 to November 1944. Obviously he carried with him a photograph of the young daughter he had left behind in South Africa, enabling him to have the postcard made.
It was during this time serving in Egypt that my grandfather would have heard that his wife, my grandmother, Hazel Jane Keown, had abandoned their young daughter. Perhaps tired of life as the wife of a military man (Harold had been an Army man since July of 1929) Hazel Jane Keown had left their 4-year-old daughter and disappeared. Harold returned to South Africa in November 1944 where he sued for divorce and sole custody of his daughter.
It must have been difficult to be in the middle of a war and to be worrying about his young daughter. I like to think that the photograph of her he carried, and the postcard he had made, helped him to feel closer to her.