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Jo'Burg Days: Early British Settlers In South Africa - Part One

Barbara Durlacher, in the first of four articles about early British settlers in South Africa, tells of a shipload of Irish girls who volunteered to be shipped out in 1857 as potential brides for men and soldiers on the Cape Eastern border with Kaffraria.

The second article in this series will appear next Wednesday.

Irish Girls

There is a great deal being said, done and written this year about the 1820 British Settlers, that famous band of hardy men, women and children who brought British tradition and enterprise to South Africa a century and a half ago.

But I wonder how many remember another colourful and romantic group, which arrived from the British Isles in 1857? I mean the shipload of Irish girls who volunteered to come out to South Africa as potential brides for men and soldiers on the Cape Eastern border with Kaffraria.

I am on a visit to Cape Town and have been talking to Mrs Sybil Tuck of Somerset West and Mrs Amy Row of Sea Point, grand-daughters of William James Symons, who as a lad of 17 arrived in South Africa in the same ship as the bouncy cargo of girls in the sailing vessel, Lady Kennaway.

William Symons left a quite detailed record of the voyage in the form of a series of articles he wrote for the Daily Dispatch, East London, describing events and adventures on board under the title “Life in an Emigrant Ship 56 Years Ago.”

His grand-daughters have an old scrap book in which the cuttings of his memoirs of the voyage are pasted. Not only does he describe events in the Lady Kennaway, but also old days in King William’s Town, and early times in East London, we he died at the age of 78 in 1918. This scrap book is a wonderful piece of Africana....

The voyage from Plymouth to East London took 90 days, and the Lady Kennaway had as passengers not only the Irish girls, but also other immigrants, as the anticipated number of young women wanting to find husbands and a new life in the wilds of South Africa in those days, “fell woefully short of the chartered complement.”

William Symons says in his memoirs that conditions on board were cramped and comfortless, the food monotonous and unpalatable, being mostly salt pork, preserved mutton and desiccated potatoes. The bread supply soon became mildewed and was thrown overboard, “followed by many longing eyes peering over the rails as it was left behind in the wake.”

An old pensioner, Mr Symons wrote, came out in the ship as a sort of watchman over the female portion of the immigrants, having to patrol that part every night when all were supposed to be sleeping. “I don’t know what he did but he offended his charges so much that he was deposed and I had to undertake his task. Luckily we were near the end of the journey....”

Needless to say, the 17-year-old “watchman” was spoiled and petted by the Irish girls.

One calm and starry night when the shores of Southern Africa were drawing closer, William Symons and another young passenger named W. G. Cooper were on deck discussing their future in the new country, when they noticed a light to the landward side of the vessel. They called the attention of the second mate to this. The captain, apparently much under the weather, was below, although it was his watch.

Miller, the second mate, examined the chart and found that the light was the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, and the ship was heading directly for shore. They could see the long fringe of foam of the waves and heard the boom of the breakers.

There was something akin to pandemonium aboard, but with the aid of every man that could pull a rope, the crew and passengers managed to turn the ship about and head out to sea and safety again.

After this the captain came back on deck and raging and shouting, altered the course of the vessel to the same direction out of which the mate had taken it.

Thereupon the men, crew and passengers, seized him, bundled him into his cabin and locked him in there for the rest of the voyage to East London, where the immigrants and of course, the Irish “brides” landed on November 23, 1857.

The only landing place was a jetty of ordinary planking to which they had to be ferried in the ship’s longboats as she lay at anchor in the roadstead. From East London the immigrants were taken by ox-wagon to King William’s Town with their belongings and with an escort of mounted soldiers.

There were so many desertions by the crew following the “Irish brides” to King William’s Town, writes William Symons, that when a strong westerly wind came up, the Lady Kennaway was too short of sailors to put out to sea and was wrecked on the bar at East London a few days after her arrival.

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