General news

Back burner

So much has been going on in my life lately that genealogy has been put on the back burner. Well, actually it’s been taken off the stove all together, covered in cling film and been left to go cold.

However, one or two interesting things have happened along the way. I’ve been in touch with a descendant of the Erith family which was very interesting, even adding a tiny bit of colour to the life of Philip Robinson (1746) who was a witness at an Erith wedding, but nothing further on is origin unfortunately.

I’ve also recently been contacted by someone from another branch of the Leith family and am just waiting to hear back from her. The Leith tree is a little chaotic in places and this will hopefully firm up another line.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to devote more time to it but it will hopefully be soon as the things I have to do are easing off a little.


Famous skeletons

When you embark upon a genealogical quest you will eventually have to start drawing lines. At some point your tree will start to look more like a hedge unless you limit the number of branches you go down – it is nice to know for example that your second cousin Bob was married to Jean, but you perhaps don’t need to know all of Jean’s ancestors or siblings and their descendants.

You will also, at the start, be hoping that there might be some link to someone famous or notable, someone to start a conversation at dinner perhaps (or maybe only because that will mean an awful lot of work will already have been done for you!).

What this is leading to is that one of the slightly more obscure branches of my tree links in to the Pretorius family, something I hadn’t paid much attention to before. But it would appear that they’re something akin to Afrikaner aristocracy; descendants of Johannes Pretorius who arrived in the Cape in 1666. He was one of the first Dutch settlers and great grandfather of the famous Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius and great-great-grandfather of the first president of the South African Republic, Marthinus Pretorius.

And also, as it turns out, my eight times great grandfather.

This link to one of the most famous Boer families comes on top of being descended from an 1820 settler.

To put that in some context, I suppose it’s a bit like being descended both from a Pilgrim Father and a Son of the American Revolution.

And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

The case of James Erith and the revolting settlers

James Erith had spent some months petitioning the colonial office to be allowed to lead a party of settlers, first to America and then to the Cape when that opportunity opened up for 1820. It was clear he was keen to be something of an empire builder and also that he saw his role as a leader of men, not a foot soldier. He eventually secured passage for himself, his wife Jane and their two young daughters, his cousin Robert Robinson and his young family, along with eight other young men all of whom were to be indentured to him for some years after settling. For this he raised the princely sum of £105 (well over £4000 today) paid to the government to set against expenses, tools and rations until the settlement was established.
Thomas Baines painting of the landings
His party, aboard HMS Brilliant arrived at Algoa Bay on 15 May 1820 and it may be that they were already in dispute but the cracks were definitely showing as early as that June when there were complaints to the provisional magistrate, C. Trappes, that rations had not been drawn, they were infested with vermin and the whole party was suffering with bowel complaints due to unclean water. Twice Mr Trappes intervened to settle the differences between the party and Erith, once on behest of the men and then because Erith claimed his party were in a state of mutiny!
excerptEventually forced to intervene again, Trappes called a day to hear grievances and even found work for some of the party in order that they might afford some shoes, and gave out rations charged against Erith’s account.
Some ten weeks into the settlement, the authorities (and who knows what unrecorded conversations took place) decided that parcels of land had been wrongly allocated and that as a result, several parties had to move. Erith’s party was told to relocate to Waay Plaates, which Erith describes as having been abandoned both by the Dutch because of its proximity to the native border and thus at a great risk from cattle raiders, and also by Mr Damant because it was rocky and barren. He was not at all happy. Erith decided to sit it out on his original allocation citing conflicting authority and that the move was motivated by nothing more than private revenge, accusing Trappes and the Landdrost, Rivers, of oppression and injustice. He resisted attempts to move him, claiming illness, firing on those sent to evict them, and destroying wagons. Eventually authority prevailed, knocked down the house Erith had built, evicted him and released his party from their obligations.

There followed several years of correspondence from Erith and Jane, his wife, claiming redress for losses suffered, relief from destitution, and legal grievances against all those involved in what they saw as the architects of their misery.
They eventually sought leave to return to England, separately, he to continue his grievance, she because she was destitute. In September 1827 James is in Lambeth, still petitioning, still complaining:
It’s not yet clear whether Jane and the children did return to England, but it appears that James died in 1868 back in South Africa.

Quick update – Mary Ann Foster

So far it seems Mary Ann Foster has managed to cross continents unrecorded.

Thanks to some help from Rootschat, I’ve found that at the time of her father’s death in 1898 Mary was living in Cheltenham, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria. I still believe she was a nurse, but have also discovered she wasn’t trained at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and can still not find her on any list of Australian nurses bound for the Cape.

The next time we know her whereabouts is August 1902 when, presumably because of her impending nuptials, she asked for and received confirmation of her birth record from the Victorian State Statist, Richard Treacey. This shows that she was in South Africa shortly after the conclusion of the Anglo Boer War and, it can be surmised, she hadn’t just arrived if she had got engaged that summer.

So, sometime between 1898 and summer 1902 she crossed the Indian Ocean. There’s a searchable index of passengers leaving Victoria to foreign climes and as far as I can see, she’s not on it. There is a Miss Foster bound for Fremantle and it is possible that she travelled there first (her sister Matilda was married and living in Perth) which is great, but passenger lists for those leaving Western Australia are not so easily found. Update: I found the arrival manifest which has been digitised on the WA archives site, and while the Victoria archive suggests a Miss M Foster left Melbourne on the Wollowra, she’s not listed when it gets to Fremantle. So frustrating.

Noticing things

It’s funny what you notice when you’re not really looking.

I’ve been both a bit disheartened after Kew and busy with other things, so haven’t been actively looking for anything in the family history for weeks. However, some time ago I made a list of things I should be doing in this field, one of which was to track down the nursing credentials of Mary Ann Foster. I had another cursory look today and there’s still nothing showing on any of the records of Australian nurses at the Boer War. A bit disappointing but not unexpected.

Anyway, I started to look at it from another angle given that there were a number of nurses who travelled to South Africa from Australia but were not part of any official party. Passenger lists are an obvious option and I was about to start searching for them but then I got distracted. Just going over things known, I was reading the reports of her father’s demise when it struck me that she wasn’t there – the reports only mention her younger sister Margaret and later the husband of her older sibling, Sarah, as pall-bearer. Mary Ann would have been 26 by this time and although still single could, in theory, be anywhere in the world, so the chances that she would show up on any official Australian list of nurses becomes more slight not better. Just the sort of puzzle one needs to kick-start the research juices.

The game is afoot!

Cape Police

At the start of the war there were some 750 members of the Cape Police. According to, a force so ubiquitous, and its services throughout the whole war so varied, that to give a connected account of its work is impossible. This is the unit that Philip Joseph Robinson joined in September 1900 and so must be* among the 14 men pictured in this old photograph of a Cape Police unit at Mafeking.

unit of soldiers

It shows their uniform though and the almost compulsory moustache wearing.

*won’t be

A brush with minor royalty

Much as I am vehemently against inherited privilege, my great-grandfather, John Leith, would have been chuffed to receive this gift from the then Governor-General of the Union of South Africa (the Earl of Athlone and husband of Princess Alice, granddaughter of Queen Victoria), on his retirement from the railways.


As the following letter shows, John was in charge of the train that the Governor-General often used to travel around the country on his frequent ceremonial tours.


Radio silence broken

I haven’t posted anything for two weeks (and the blog views have dried up as a result) and there’s a reason for this – I’ve been busy! Every spare moment that I can spend on genealogy (which is really not much when there are so many other demands on my time) has been spent looking into a family of Edwards’s. Not even my Edwards’s – not directly anyway – those of my second great grand uncle.

Kath got in touch recently and after exchanging some pertinent information (see earlier post) asked if i could look some things up for her so she could draw a line under a particular family. So for the last few days there has been an ever lengthening email trail between me here in the UK and her in Australia. With the two of us rarely awake at the same time it’s been interesting to see what has landed in my inbox of a morning.

The gist of the story is that James Edwards goes to London from Somerset in the late 1840s to become a policeman. He marries Mary Rowe and they have four children (one dies in infancy, another in childhood) before moving to Devonport and having another child. James dies in 1881 and Mary in 1890 from which point the fates of the children (by now young adults) becomes very difficult to trace. We get to the turn of the century ok but then they all seem to disappear and we can find nothing concrete in the censuses of 1901 or 1911, no certain marriages, no deaths to be sure of and they don’t seem to have left the country. It’s puzzling and the sort of challenge that makes us all carry on this genealogy lark.

Aren’t people helpful?

Every so often one’s heart gets warmed.

I’ve just had an email exchange with someone I had been in contact with, briefly, a few years ago. We have a common interest in the Edwards family in Somerset. Anyway, she has basically said ‘here’s a load of information for your tree that I have’ and sent me a summary of the particular family members I’m interested in and a descendant chart for another branch. It’s the sort of help that turns a few disparate facts into a history.

Lucky to be here

I have, in the past, remarked to my children on how lucky they are to be here. This is not to promote some sort of Western guilt complex, but a mere statement of fact. Consider the following:

  • Their mother and I were born on different continents
  • My parents were born on different continents
  • My mother’s parents were born on different continents and met on a ship
  • Her mother’s parents were born on opposite sides of the earth; then, having been born on different continents they met each other on a third. During a war
  • My great-grandmother was born in Australia. Both her parents were born in Ireland but then took very different routes down under and only met in Melbourne whilst on route elsewhere

Amazing how much chance plays a part in our lives, isn’t it?