Where it all began

This is the story of too many Philips, of guesswork and wrong turns, and of how genealogy becomes the biggest logic puzzle you will ever take on.

Until we get up to date, this is also a recollection of times past – some of these events may have happened in a different order than I remember and we may have known more or less than I claim at different times but the narrative is essentially true.

Some years ago now, Dad started looking into the family tree. Not long after that I showed an interest and started poking around but progress was still slow and limited; the Internet hadn’t really got going and genealogy was limited to dark corners of libraries and record offices in cities you quite often couldn’t get to. Tracing some of our branches proved as straightforward as you might hope; following English roots back to 1837 at least can be relatively easy. A couple of others were more difficult. The Leiths, for instance; Irish records are notoriously difficult to come by, and then there was the job of tracing the Foster line back through Australia, and the British Army in India, to Ireland which took some time and effort. However, the biggest problem area was the Robinson family itself; there was so little to go on.

Why was this? Well, the first Philip of our tale is my grandfather, Philip Benjamin Robinson, and he had become so firmly estranged from the rest of his family that we had very little oral history from which to make a start (he had also died in 1977). To make matters worse, the family had been in South Africa for decades and getting records out of Cape Town and Pretoria was, and still is, a trial.

What did we know?

At the start we knew his name, where he lived, who he worked for and so forth. We knew he had a sister Connie, who we believe was married to a Mr Sweigers, and there was another sister, Doris who showed up at Mum and Dad’s wedding. We also had a random but apparently related name; Sarah Cahill, and a belief that there was a connection to the family of Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson; one of the slightly bigger names in South African history. Not much.

We started working on the basis that the Sir JB Robinson connection was true (cue: sharp intake of breath from regular genealogists), because we felt there had to be some known history of the chap and we hoped it would be helpful to know what was known – there may even be a fully realised family history out there (wishful thinking). Dad posted requests on the few Internet message boards that existed at the time, while I read up on Sir JB and discovered the 1820 Settler connection. Dad contacted a professional genealogist in Kimberley and asked her to make some enquiries based on the name Robinson, my grandfather in particular, Sarah Cahill, and the address in Kimberley where dad was born (as well as some details about the Currie family, my grandmother’s line). We waited.

Over the next few months we start to make progress. We get the birth, marriage and death records for my grandparents (Philip Benjamin Robinson and Elsie Edna Currie) which gives us names for the previous Robinson generation; Philip Joseph Robinson and Louisa Johanna Anderson. We get Louisa’s death record, an unfortunately early demise, which gives us a list of siblings for granddad. There’s also the transcript of a newspaper cutting in the deaths section of the Diamond Fields Advertiser 23 May 45: ‘CAHILL, Sarah., passed away suddenly at 13 Waterworks Road on 22nd inst. Beloved grandmother of Mrs C Sweegers and Mrs E de Jager’ – possibly (probably?) Connie and Edith (another sister). Progress. Just.

At this point we know that Philip Benjamin is the youngest of six but we can still find nothing concrete on the other five. We also have an approximate year of birth for Philip Joseph and the possibility he worked for De Beers around the turn of the 20th century, but nothing else. Nothing.

After a while it is apparent that we’re not getting much further so I start looking at the 1820 Settlers hoping to eventually make the connection.

Stay tuned for a series of mistakes.

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