Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Accuracy in Family History Research

A quote from the Society of Genealogists Exhibition catalogue of 1937:

It is of importance that individuals should be encouraged to study the history of their own families: not in the boastful and snobbish spirit which produced such a spate of false pedigrees in the nineteenth century, but on the scientific lines of modern genealogical research which demands proof of every statement and the recording of every fact, whether pleasant or unpleasant, for whatever view may be held on the merits of such research, all will agree that unless it be conducted with accuracy it is entirely futile.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Grimaldi of the Natal Police

When a collector acquired two campaign medals awarded to S Grimaldi of the Natal Police, it was the beginning of an absorbing search for information on a man who had blood ties with numerous aristocratic families of Europe - yet was at one stage of his career a Collector of Dog Tax in South Africa.

The medals were a Queen's South Africa medal for service during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, and a Natal Rebellion 1906 medal, both named to S Grimaldi, Natal Police. The collector takes up the narrative: 
Part of the fun of phaleristics is researching the recipient of the medals collected and discovering something of their life story ... I wanted to find out as much as possible about Sergeant Grimaldi. The World Wide Web and search engines became my initial source. Searching on GRIMALDI produced a host of links to Italy, Monaco, actors, clowns and other famous people.
Searches on NAAIRS, the South African National Archives online index, brought up seven references to the surname. A South African researcher was able to trace Grimaldi's career in the Natal Police through the enlistment and order books of this unit preserved in Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, as well as retrieving some reports written by the man himself.

At this stage I knew when and where Grimaldi was born and some details of his service and his appearance. Due to this information I believed him to be Australian and born in November 1867. However I wanted more details, such as did he marry, when and where did he die, did he have any children? So back to the web and now the fun really began, I went on a virtual tour from the Australian outback, to the English countryside via the South African veld, with the occasional detour to Monaco and Italy.

Using various surname and other sites, the following was established:

Stacey Grimaldi, born Swan, WA [Western Australia], 1867, two elder sisters also born in this area. His mother and father were English. These details came from the Church of the Latter Day Saints. I tried a further search using this utility against England and the UK. Further details were revealed, as this searched the 1881 census. I now knew Stacey and his family were back in England in 1881, his dad was a curate in Devon, Stacey himself at Probus School, Probus, Cornwall. Also there were four more siblings that I was certain of and possibly a further brother who was at Christ's Hospital School then in London before later removal to Lancing in Sussex.

Now I had some geographical data I searched the web for Probus, York and Guildford in WA, Greenwich, Pietermaritzburg and other places in the UK and SA. From these searches I obtained photographs of Probus School, the Police Station in PMB where Stacey had worked, maps of Western Australia and South Africa at the time he would have lived there. The 1881 Census return had proved productive so I tried the 1901 census ... This gave more details of the employment of Stacey's relatives. Further refined searching using both first and surnames produced some very exciting results. I was able to ascertain that Stacey's grandfather was also called Stacey (1790-1863) and was a genealogist and had published books on the subject. He also was a lawyer and has a room at the Law Society in London named in honour of him. Stacey's (1790) father was William Grimaldi, a miniature portrait painter and examples of his work are available on the web. A portrait of him by his daughter-in-law is hanging in the National Gallery, London. Both these Grimaldis are titled as Marquis and at one stage I thought my Natal Policeman might even have been the 11th Marquis, however I later discovered Stacey (1790) had two sons earlier than my Stacey's father, Henry. One interesting fact was that Stacey (1790) had given all 9 of his children (6 sons 3 daughters) Beaufort as their second name. I still do not know where this appellation has come from. There are no Beauforts in the family that I have discovered. I returned to web search engines and even more exciting was the lineage of my Policeman's grandmother Mary Anne KNAPP, whom it turned out was 21st in direct descent from Henry II: her lineage includes a plethora of European royalty.

Tracing William Grimaldi's family tree led to Alexander Grimaldi born 1659 in Genoa, died 1732 London. Other sources show this man as fleeing Genoa in 1684 for London. I had discovered a Genealogy forum and more information on the surname, including other descendants of Alexander in Australia and the USA as well as the UK.

FreeBMD, FreeCEN and other similar web facilities added further detail, as did Australian genealogy sites and sites for individual English counties:

I was able to confirm Henry Beaufort Grimaldi, Stacey's dad, had served as a curate at St. Giles in Sidbury, Devon. I visited my local central library and found Crockfords Clerical Directory, confirming details about Stacey's dad, an uncle and a brother all of whom were clergymen. The main finding in the library however was the microfiche listings of all BMDs in the UK from 1837. Scanning these I found my man had died in Paddington, London in the last quarter 1952. Armed with these details I was able to obtain a copy of his death certificate showing the date of death as 28/11/1952, cause of death and address. I have been unable to discover a marriage in the UK although I know his wife's name from research undertaken at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

An exciting and rewarding journey in search of a Natal Policeman with a famous surname.

Extracts re Stacey Grimaldi by kind permission of Paul Summers.

Grimaldi Family

On 2 July 2011 Prince Albert II of Monaco, born 1958, marries his South African Princess-to-be, Charlene Wittstock, a former Olympic swimmer, during a two-day extravaganza.  Tens of thousands of tourists are expected to flood in to the wealthy enclave (it's the smallest state after the Vatican) to witness the ultimate prince and commoner wedding.

Somerset Maugham famously called Monaco a sunny place for shady people. Run by the Grimaldi family for over seven centuries, the principality is a tax haven: a recent report in the Guardian refers to its 360,000 registered bank accounts and population of 35 000 – the vast majority of whom are foreign expats, many of them British.

All this depends heavily on the stability of the House of Grimaldi, which has a history of tragic events including the death in 1982 of Grace Kelly, wife of Prince Albert's father, Prince Rainier. Perhaps Prince Albert's forthcoming wedding will be the start of a new golden age in Monaco. As with any dynasty, it's essential that a legitimate male heir is produced to continue the line. It's even more important in this case, for without a prince, Monaco would revert to France.*

For a fascinating account of the history of the principality and the rise of the Grimaldi family, including a tree of the princes of Grimaldi, see

*Prince Rainier changed the constitution before his death so that succession would pass to Princess Caroline and her heirs. The recent marriage of Prince Albert and Princess Charlene may bring a further change in due course.

Knuckleduster: An undated photograph provided today by the Monaco Palace shows Prince Albert with fiancée Charlene Wittstock

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kissing Cousins

Cousin is a term bandied about with sublime disregard for precision. This is particularly the case among internet-using family historians: any distant relative who pops up out of the ether is immediately given the epithet 'cousin', no matter what the actual degree of relationship. Such assumptions can produce tricky situations.

A person's first cousin (or cousin german) is the child of an uncle or aunt. That seems fairly straightforward, except that to be accurate the 'uncle' and the 'aunt' must be the person's parent's brother or sister - not merely someone who has been called 'uncle' or 'aunt' yet isn't a blood relative. This presents a problem if you've grown up, as I did, being told to call a large number of adults 'uncle' or 'aunt', many of whom were simply close friends of my parents. Our neighbours - a childless couple who took an interest in me - were naturally 'uncle' and 'aunt', and remained so to me until their deaths by which time I was a married woman with children of my own.

 My paternal grandmother had a whole raft of sisters who should have been regarded as my 'great-aunts' (grand-aunt being the old-fashioned form) but who much preferred me to call them 'aunt'. A real aunt's husband may be called uncle, but he isn't a blood relative, just an 'in-law'. This is not always explained to the younger generation who can't be blamed for the resulting confusion.

Perhaps most people don't much care one way or the other, though these perceived relationships can plunge family historians into deep trouble. It's vital to know the distinction between a first cousin twice removed and a third cousin. The term twice removed indicates a difference of two generations - once removed a difference of one generation, and so on. Second cousins are the grandchildren of a person's grandparents' siblings. Er - yes, I think that's right.

The habit of calling people 'Cousin Helen' etc died out some time ago, which is probably just as well. During my childhood it simply wasn't the done thing for a schoolgirl to call her aunts and uncles by their first names. The current trend is for a child to call almost anyone by their first name - not excluding its own parent.

There are several charts available online to help with working out complex relationships while you're compiling the family tree, for example:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hamilton of Stevenston, Ayrshire

Annie Hamilton nee Gibson b 17 Aug 1882 d 20 Sept 1951
Her parents: Anne Bell and Finlay Gibson.
Her husband: Joseph Hamilton, son of William and Elizabeth Hamilton
of Stevenston, Ayrshire.
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'More than kin and less than kind ...'

Was it legal for a man to marry his deceased brother's widow (a situation frequently discovered when digging into ancestry)? Answer: under civil law in Britain, not until 1921 and this law was passed only after lengthy deliberations. If you want the finer fascinating details read Hansard:

The difficulty stems from moral and religious scruple: in the Old Testament Leviticus xx 21 reads, If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity ... with the accompanying threat that such a couple would remain childless. We might argue that the statement refers to taking the brother's wife while the brother was still living, another far from unusual finding in family history research. Yet the accepted interpretation of the biblical rule has been that marriage between a widow and her brother-in-law is forbidden.

Marriage between a man and his deceased wife's sister was another prohibition, lifted (as far as civil law in Britain was concerned) in 1907.

The Table of Kindred and Affinity included at the front of prayer books set out precisely which of your relatives you were allowed to marry. Kindred referred to blood relatives. Affinity meant relationship by marriage: the basis for this was that a so-called in-law became kin because the bride and groom would henceforth be regarded as of one flesh.

This explains the above taboos.

Nowadays it seems possible to marry just about anyone other than your parent, sibling or child.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chinese Whispers

Family stories, like the old parlour game Chinese Whispers, do not pass through the generations and emerge unscathed: they are usually embellished, or assumptions are made which have little or no basis in fact. Certainly, in some cases there might be a kernel of truth lurking behind the inherited version and such stories should be explored rather than ignored or simply accepted as gospel.

The incentive for numerous people to begin researching their family tree is that they've heard they descend from a famous - or infamous - historical personage. Frequently the foundation is simply a shared surname - Nelson, for example. The truth is that Nelson had no legitimate descendants, his line being continued through his illegitimate daughter, Horatia. There are descendants through collateral lines.

While on the subject of Nelson, it has become a joke in genealogical circles that if all the ancestors believed by descendants to have served on the flagship Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar had TRULY been on board, the ship would have sunk and history might have been written very differently.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Delusions of Grandeur

It's surprising how many people 'dearly love a lord' and go to great lengths to find aristocratic or noble connections among their ancestry. And if such connections aren't found the seekers not infrequently resort to invention. This is rather an old-fashioned approach to family history: today most of us are happy tottering after our ag labs, mariners, chandlers and stonemasons.

Others prefer to trace descent from someone with a title, perhaps with a view to inheriting a dormant or extinct title, though that rarely happens. To be fair, there are some advantages in discovering descent from an aristocratic family, or from landed gentry. Usually there are established pedigrees which have been traced previously and which may have been published. e.g. Burke's Peerage. However, it's a mistake to rely exclusively on any published genealogy: it may contain inherent inaccuracies and omissions. Even if your ancestor merely worked for the gentry who owned the land, manorial records could be helpful in finding out more about him.

Common sense is all the family historian needs to steer a straight course: if your ancestors turn out to be illiterate fork grinders from Mangotsfield it's pointless sticking to it, buckle and thong, that they had a so-called 'family crest' or a title.

On that topic, contrary to all advertisements and similar temptations, there's no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname. Avoid these like the plague.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pietermaritzburg Archives News

Word is that Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository will be back to normal by January 2012. This after a long phase of building refurbishment causing dislocation of regular activities and the removal of all archivalia to temporary storage facilities. The staff have been doing their best under trying circumstances. Everyone, staff and researchers alike, will welcome a speedy return to routine.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Passenger lists as a primary source in SA family history research

The above photo is of a passenger list taken from a handwritten register of arrivals at Port Natal in 1849 i.e. a record made at the time of the event and therefore considered to be primary evidence.
Even at normal size - zoom in for a closer look - the text is by no means easy to read.

Family historians in search of an ancestor's arrival in South Africa clamour for passenger lists. To find an original list mentioning an immigrant ancestor written in a register at the port of arrival is a rare and precious thing. There has been no concerted national effort to index the registers which have survived. In Natal it's fortunate that the European Immigration Registers have been preserved, though they are not all-inclusive. There is also an index (not online) to these arrivals covering from about the mid 1840s to the turn of the century. 

If you're lucky enough to discover in the original register an entry which seems likely to refer to your ancestor, and if you are able to read the handwriting, you should acquire some interesting facts.

From left to right (as seen in the typical example above) the columns of the register show: month, day, name of ship, type of ship, name of master, tonnage of vessel, port of departure, date of departure (that is from the port of embarkation, London in this instance). The passengers' names are written across the width of all these columns (no nice tidy alphabetical lists, if that's what you expected) and continued over the central binding, which has separated slightly (be aware of that when matching up lines of text). Generally, though, the condition of the register is good for its age - over 150 years. Careful handling of these volumes is important.

The arrival date of the barque Washington is given here as 18 July: in fact the vessel reached Natal on 17 July so why does the register offer the following day? The answer is that like many other ships of that era, the Washington had had to wait in the 'roads' (roadstead or outer anchorage) before suitable conditions of wind and tide made it possible to cross the Bar (the sandbank at the entrance to the harbour) and enter the Bay. When compiling our family narrative, which day should feature in an account of the ancestor's arrival at the port? The detail concerning tonnage of the ship often varies from source to source - if you care about getting it right.

In these early volumes (and the 1840s are early for Natal) no personal information such as occupation or age is given for the passengers. This would be one good reason to check newspaper reports at that time for any published versions of a passenger list and to do a comparative exercise.

There could be several versions of a passenger list particularly if the ship was carrying a large group of immigrants as part of a private or government scheme. Mistakes could arise prior to embarkation: passengers might get cold feet at the last minute and decide not to emigrate after all, family members might fall ill, perhaps die. Such names might not be removed from the passenger list - i.e. the list carried on board - before the ship sailed. When the vessel arrived at its destination, the Port Captain would draw up a list of the passengers who landed. The immigration agent would have his own list. By the time the reported list appeared in the press there were likely to be several discrepancies - incorrect initials, misspelled surnames, omissions.

A local newspaper published the passenger list of the Washington twice, because of errors in names shown in the first printing. Yet the first list offered occupations of the immigrants, a useful detail omitted in the second printing and not appearing in the handwritten register's version. Probably the occupations were included in the immigration agent's list made available to the press.

The Washington, because it was one of the Byrne settler ships, is well-documented in other published sources. John Clark's book, Natal Settler Agent, gives detailed lists of all the Byrne passengers and the ships which brought them to Natal. His sources included private correspondence and other documents of Moreland, Byrne's agent. So, if your ancestor travelled on the Washington it's probably not essential to access the original handwritten passenger register: but it is rewarding on some deeper level to see the ancestor's name as recorded at the point of arrival in the country of destination.

For further information on tracing ancestors through passenger lists, use the search facility on this blog or browse the archived posts using the menu at right.

The Natal Witness 18 July 1849: 2nd version of
Washington passenger list.

Update 2012: the eGGSA Passenger List Project is a work in progress and can be accessed at 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Do descendants really want the truth?

Most family historians would claim that accuracy is high on their list of priorities. Certainly, if at all serious about our topic, we spend time, energy and money in pursuit of BMD, Census and other records, seeking ancestry. Yet after years of pursuing my own as well as other people's ancestors it has become clear to me that not everyone is addicted to the truth. Far from it.

There are thousands of people who really prefer their version of the family history; who are happy to retain the myths and legends handed down from generation to generation and who aren't at all grateful to anyone who discovers that these stories not only have no basis in fact, but give an entirely false impression of the past. 

When offered the truth as confirmed by concrete proof, these descendants are disbelieving, their usual question being a suspicious 'how do you know all this?'.

Frequently, the new evidence is ignored in favour of the anecdotal model which like an old pair of shoes is well-worn and comfortable to slip into. Truth has hard edges. But if we are to expunge its grim realities from the family narrative our descendants might as well read the phonebook.

And how can carefully-conducted research hope to compete with 'what the psychic told my mother about our family history...' ?

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Archival Documents: is their information accurate?

Primary sources - documents or other items created within the same date parameters as the events to which they pertain - are usually of greater value than secondary evidence. The difficulty is that primary evidence has to be interpreted by the historian. These records were made for a particular, generally an official, purpose which had nothing to do with the future pursuit of genealogy or any other academic study. Because of their nature such records require careful attention on the part of the researcher.

There are pitfalls. Some records held at archive repositories may not fall into the category of primary evidence. A proportion of archived material consists of accessions i.e. transcripts, letters, photographs and other items acquired from/donated by family historians or people with an interest in local history etc. These accessions are a different kettle of fish from public records generated for 'official' reasons or for legal purposes. However, even the information contained in the latter documents may not always be strictly reliable.

In the South African context a deceased estate file could be one of the most useful finds for a family historian, and certainly these file types are well worth accessing. Most people view only the Death Notice, which is a great pity because anything worth doing is worth doing properly: all the contents of an estate file should be seen. It's surprising how many helpful clues emerge.

But it is accepted that a Death Notice may contain errors as well as omissions. This is because the details were provided by an informant who may or may not have been the deceased's next-of-kin. Sometimes the informant was a boarding-house or hotel-keeper with no intimate knowledge of the deceased. During the Anglo-Boer War, two Death Notices for the same individual might be compiled: one by the Adjutant of the army or hospital camp where the death occurred and another more informative version issued later. Even the next-of-kin might have had only a sketchy idea of certain facts about the deceased: in the colonies, a spouse could well not remember her husband's English parents' names or even his precise place of birth. There are occasional instances of deliberate disinformation, though not easy to detect a couple of generations later.

Among archived Bell family papers is a letter written by George Cato, a prominent Durban citizen, shortly after the death of  Captain William Bell. If I had relied on the information given in that letter concerning Bell's children, several errors would have been perpetuated on my family tree. This despite the fact that George and William were close friends for about forty years. When Bell as master of the schooner Conch was trading during the 1830s in coastal waters between the Cape and Natal, he and George Cato were associated with the agent John Owen Smith of Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth).

William Bell and the Conch mentioned in the South African Commercial Advertiser, April 1837.
Note that as usual steerage passengers are not named.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Check that Memorial Inscription

Even when carved in stone, family information may be suspect. It's worth checking MI dates and names against primary sources.

After establishing William Bell's place of origin I visited the parish of Bowness-on-Solway and found St Michael's Church where Bell had been baptised and where various other Bell events had taken place. I'd heard there was a memorial stone in the churchyard of St Michael's, commemorating members of the Bell family. I searched for and eventually found this stone, in a reasonable state of preservation. The inscription read as follows:
Erected to the Memory of Elizabeth Bell of Drumburgh who died Feb 27 1867 aged 82 years Thomas Bell, who died Decr 10th 1872, aged 88 years Also their son William who died at Port Natal South Africa, April 3rd 1869 Aged 63 years Also their son John who died at Port Carlisle Decr 17th 1880 aged 63 years Also Elizabeth Bell of Drumburgh Who died December 4th 1906 aged 81 years.’
Elizabeth and Thomas Bell were William Bell's parents. William is mentioned as having died at Port Natal - a useful detail to find in a memorial inscription - but the date of his death should be April 10 1869.

The existence of a brother named John, who apparently died at Port Carlisle in 1880, was news to me. So far the identity of the last-mentioned Elizabeth Bell of Drumburgh remains uncertain.

Finding the stone wasn't the end of the journey, though, as the details shown in the inscription had to be checked. Next stop was Cumbria Record Office, then in the Castle at Carlisle, where I discovered that Bowness parish records began in 1642. The number of Bell families in the area were legion and hours of research were needed to identify the 'right' Bells. It's probable that links between these families will emerge as the search continues.

St Michael's Church, Bowness-on-Solway. Bell memorial stone in foreground left.

The parish of Bowness stands on the Solway Firth at the western end of Hadrian's Wall: border country, with Carlisle inland to the east. St Michael's Church is about four miles from Drumburgh, where some Bell family members lived at various dates, and not far from Glasson, Easton and other hamlets associated with the family.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Be wary of Secondary Sources

The newspaper report mentioned in yesterday's post, relating the story of Captain Bell's supposed grant of land, is a typical example of secondary evidence. Appearing in the press about 60 years after Bell's death, it is based on the personal memories of one John Chalsty, who at the time of publication was a very old man.

Information of this sort, created long after the events described, cannot be relied upon. Even contemporary press reports - including such items as lists of passenger arrivals, accounts of shipwrecks, and obituaries - do not fall under the heading of primary evidence. Passenger lists given in newspapers were frequently based on third-hand transcriptions and usually contain inaccuracies. If the ancestor was high-profile enough to merit a published obituary (and many were not) it's likely to give a glowing version of his accomplishments which may make his descendant proud but glosses over any less worthy - and possibly more intriguing - aspects. In short, obituaries seldom 'tell it like it was'.

Family trees - in print or on the web - should be regarded with suspicion, as should published family histories, biographies and autobiographies.

Transcripts of original documents (or of copies of original documents) may include errors, no matter how careful the transcriber.


On the subject of errors, I find the terms 'ancestor' and 'descendant' are often used incorrectly. An ancestor is the person from whom one descends and strictly-speaking shouldn't be applied to past family members in general. A descendant is a person who has a proven descent from a particular ancestor. This seems obvious, but, for example, much as I'd like to claim relationship with Alexander Graham Bell (and perhaps that might be proved at some future date) I cannot refer to myself as his descendant. Terrick FitzHugh points out that someone could not be described as a descendant of the poet John Keats, who had no children and therefore has no descendants. A person descended from Keats's brother cannot refer to Keats as his ancestor nor to himself as a descendant of Keats.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fact & Fiction in Family History Research

Family historians are constantly warned about the dangers of inaccurate data appearing on genealogy websites and it’s certainly wise to check facts given on internet against original material wherever possible.
However, don’t believe everything you read in printed sources, either. Even apparently authoritative publications may include inaccuracies. Take these as gospel and your family history narrative could be a mine-field of perpetuated errors.

When I began my research (in pre-internet days) into my great great grandfather, Captain William Bell, I found several references in published works which described him as a Scotsman, born in Dumfries. The truth (which took years to establish) is that Bell was born (1807) in the parish of Bowness-on-Solway, Cumberland, England. His parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Bell, were then living in the village of Glasson, in that parish. Their son William was baptized at the Bowness parish church, St Michael’s, as proved by the register entry. The Bells had been in the same district for several generations.

Despite my efforts to put matters right, there are still pockets of resistance regarding Bell’s true birthplace. But how did the confusion arise? It’s impossible to be certain, though there is a reference to another completely unrelated William Bell in Cape records who was born – you guessed it – in Dumfries! A simple case of mistaken identity?

In later years members of the Bell family lived in the village of Drumburgh - not far from Glasson where William Bell was born. The locals, as I discovered when I visited the area in 1991, pronounce Drumburgh as 'Dumbruff' (or that is as close I can get, phonetically). Was this obscure hamlet muddled with the better-known place-name of Dumfries? It requires a stretch of the imagination. The entry for William Douglas Bell which appears in a volume of South African Biographies gives his birthplace as Drumburgh, 'before 1822' (Bell was born in 1807 in Glasson). The same source mentions his parents' names as William and Elizabeth Bell: they were actually Thomas Head Bell and Elizabeth (nee Millican).

Another controversial point is the Captain's middle name, frequently given as Douglas. At what stage of his career this was added is not clear. His baptismal entry simply states William. This isn't particularly unusual: the parents may not have decided at that point whether to give the child any middle names. When Bell married Mary Ann Caithness at Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth) on 28 June 1838 he was plain 'William Bell, Bachelor'. By the 1840s he begins to appear in records as William Douglas Bell and, to confuse historians further, names his first son William Douglas Bell. This choice may have caused difficulties during the Captain's lifetime, as in most sources the son's forenames are given in a different order: Douglas William Bell. The significance of the name Douglas has yet to be explained.

After Captain Bell's services during the conflict at Port Natal in 1842, he is said to have been offered, by Queen Victoria through the Governor of Natal, a grant of land on the Berea, which Bell declined because he was a seafaring man. Instead, he accepted a pair of gold epaulettes to wear on his 'uniform on special occasions'.

This is the stuff of family legend but regrettably, despite the fact that it's mentioned in the volume of biographies mentioned above, there is no documentary evidence to support the story*. Bell was a merchant mariner before he became Port Captain at Natal; he never served in the Royal Navy and would not have been entitled to wear naval uniform. It's probable that the double-breasted frock coat (as seen in the best-known photograph of Bell), trimmed with braid on the sleeves as well as epaulettes (ornamental shoulder-pieces), was made to Captain Bell's own design when he was in office as Port Captain. The anchor shown in the photograph is real enough, as is the brass Dolland telescope tucked under Bell's arm. Until comparatively recently the telescope was in the possession of one of Bell's descendants

Captain Bell's life was sufficiently action-packed and unusual to make any mythical embellishments unnecessary. There's no harm in acknowledging the fiction as long as there's no pretence that it is fact.

*Reported in The Natal Mercury, April 9 1927, in an article on John Chalsty, 'last of Captain Bell's men'.

Photographic portrait of Bell: colour version by Hartmut Jager.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Descendants of Captain William Bell (1807-1869)

After a lifetime of researching my ancestry it remains a thrill to hear from distant cousins. In this case, the distance is merely a matter of geography: Sheila, now living in Texas, is my third cousin; we share a great great grandfather in the person of Captain William BELL (1807-1869). [For further details about Captain Bell see post on this blog: Saturday April 10 2010, Remembering a Mariner.]

Sheila's great grandmother, Sarah Scott BELL b 1847, was the sixth child of Capt Bell and his wife Mary Ann (nee CAITHNESS). Sarah, who was in her early twenties when her father died, married Charles George PAY in 1874.

The PAY family were Byrne settlers to Natal. George and Elizabeth Ann Pay, with their children Charles George and Edward R E (the latter born during the voyage), arrived at Port Natal on the Edward on 24 March 1850. This ship of 680 tons carried 250 emigrants among whom were some now well-known names: ACUTT, PIGG, FEILDEN, DACOMB, TYZACK, BASELEY.

Sarah and Charles George Pay's children were:

Ernest Bell Pay m Charlotte Caroline East
Violet Amy Pay m David Stanislaus O'Donovan
Natalia Beatrice Pay m William Percy Radcliffe

Ernest Bell Pay, pictured above in a carte de visite by H Kisch, had a son Victor Edwin Pay who married Violet Dorothy Moffatt. Victor and Violet had two daughters, Stella and Sheila.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What shipping line did your ancestor choose?

Here's an interesting link: ... and it isn't only about Norwegian heritage.

The site gives in-depth information on the great shipping lines e.g. the White Star Line - their Colonial Service brought so many of our ancestors to South Africa and Australia. You can search by line or by name of ship e.g. Persic. Pictures of ships are also included. Good background material for a family history narrative or just have fun exploring the site. You're guaranteed to discover some new and fascinating maritime facts.

Incidentally, the 'Passenger's Contract Ticket' of 1900 pictured below looks like the real thing but is a clever fake - right down to the sealing wax. Makes you think, doesn't it? Have another look at those 'original documents'.