Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Death Notices far from kith and kin

When an ancestor died at a distance from home and family his Death Notice may give comparatively little detail e.g. the informant could be the owner of a boarding house where the deceased was temporarily residing. Unless the boarding house owner had subjected the guest to close questioning, it’s unlikely that the former would know much more than the name of the deceased – possibly not even his full name – and the date and location of death.

In time of war, a Death Notice would be produced hurriedly at the place of death, probably by the Adjutant in charge of the camp. Later a more detailed Death Notice would be completed. This can result in two Death Notices emerging in one individual’s estate papers. I’ve found several instances of this occurring during the Anglo-Boer War.

If the deceased was living elsewhere, perhaps in pursuit of his occupation, there may have been no family members present at his death. Again, the informant signing the Death Notice might know few personal details. This was evidently the case in the example shown below. The name is given in full, a guess is made at the age of the deceased, his parents’ names are ‘unknown’ (i.e. to the informant), he is described as married and in the space where his children’s names should appear is a scrawled note, ‘supposed to have a family in the Colony of Natal consisting of 3 small children …’. The deceased’s occupation is given as ‘canteen-keeper’ and his assets consisted of ‘a tent and other movable property’.

Death Notice: New Rush 1873
The most significant clue appears at bottom left of the document: it is dated at ‘New Rush, 1 February 1873’. This explains the deceased’s occupation as well as the tent listed among his movable assets. New Rush was the original name for part of what is now Kimberley.

We could speculate that the deceased had left Natal to try his luck at the diggings. Apart from mining, the diamond fields offered various opportunities for making a living. The population of the tented camps which sprang up almost overnight required food, drink, provisions of every kind. John James Johnason’s canteen would have filled a need. Unfortunately, he died leaving his family without a breadwinner.
Despite the omissions from this Death Notice, it does offer several clues which invite further investigation.

Early mining, Kimberley.

Footnote: In 1873 the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Kimberley, insisted that places newly within his jurisdiction on the Diamond Fields should receive decent and intelligible names. He did not approve of ‘such a vulgarism as New Rush and as for Voortuitzigt ... he could neither spell nor pronounce it.’ The populist Diamond Fields newspaper objected to the new name (Kimberley) saying, ‘...we went to sleep in New Rush and awaked up in Kimberley, and so our dream was gone.’ 

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