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Jo'Burg Days: Early British Settlers in South Africa – Part Two

Barbara Durlacher tells of her grandparents who were early settlers in South Africa.

This is the second in a series of four articles.

My Grandparents

My paternal grandfather, William James Symons was one of South Africa’s pioneers, sailing to South Africa from Plymouth at the age of 17 in 1857 on the sailing ship Lady Kennaway. This ship was later wrecked on the sandbar off the mouth of the Buffalo River at East London, as told in my tale “Finding Out”. Fortunately for William James and the children he was to sire, he survived and went on to prosper mightily, becoming the owner of a large sawmill and timber merchant business in King William’s Town and later in East London. He is also credited with being the ‘inventor’ of a type of high-axled trek wagon, which – so legend has it - was used by the British Army in the Crimea. He fathered eleven children, of whom my father was the last, being born around 1897 – although I’m not sure of that date.

My grandmother, a formidable lady, if old family photographs are anything to judge by, was – again according to family legend – a daughter of the Anglican Bishop of Ceylon – but despite extensive internet research, I can find no trace of such a bishopric, although it is possible that it fell under the Diocese of Calcutta. I have no record of her maiden name, so it is very difficult to establish the truth of this legend, but it certainly gives a taste of the exotic to the family history.

Another family story tells that Granny Charlotte was a passenger on the HMS Birkenhead and luckily for her, disembarked in Cape Town – [the internet tells me the ship only called in at Simonstown; but what’s 25 miles between friends] and thence eventually found her way to East London and then King Williams Town. [Three separate words was correct usage in those days, although it’s now written as Kingwilliamstown.] The poor doomed officers and men of the 73rd Regiment of Foot, commanded by Lieut-Colonel Seton, were drowned when the ship went down with great loss of life, holed by an uncharted rock near Gansbaai, Western Cape Province. The bravery of the troops in obeying their commanding officer’s order, “Stand Fast. Women and Children First,” gave rise to the now famous ‘law of the sea,’ and it was in Kingwilliamstown that she married William Symons and went on to produce those eleven children.


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