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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind – Part One

Barbara Durlacher today begins a sumptuously-detailed family history – an account of why her ancestors sought a new life in Africa.

Conditions in Britain in the mid 1800s were bleak. A succession of poor harvests, the Irish potato famine and increasing unemployment in rural areas had meant a huge population drift and by 1830 the cities, unprepared to house such an influx, found it difficult to cope with the rising numbers of unskilled and dependent poor. It was not long before slum conditions were rampant.

Affordable accommodation was at a premium and by 1830 it was not unusual for up to 30 people to share one miserable room, unable to find an alternative. The records of a medical doctor of the time show that at one time up to 380 people were sharing the same ‘lavatory facilities’, a respectable name for what was scarcely more than a hole in the ground. Disease and starvation was rife. Life was tough.

The advance of mechanisation in agriculture was leading to old farming skills being replaced by machine. Many men were being put out of work. This was the situation facing the Symons family towards the end of the 1840s. The family had lived in and around the area of the Devonport and Bristol docks for generations, working mainly as carpenters, or as labourers in the dockyards. One early forebear is listed as a cooper - someone who fashions barrels out of wooden staves, a specialised trade. Yet, as the drift to the cities increased, together with a greater need for housing, despite their fragile security in Stoke Damerel, not far from Bristol, William Symons, my great-grandfather was worried about the future.

His concerns led to many anxious discussions and finally it was decided to leave Devon and try for a better life in London. He’d heard there was plenty of work on the sailing ships in the Thames Docks in the East End of London and thinking that with the experience he had gained from his years as a labourer in HM Dockyard in Plymouth he was sure to find something, they set off. Surely, their situation would be better in London than it was in the West Country. So, within a short time, after gathering their few belongings together he and his young wife Mary Jane Dobson and the children left their home and made their way to the great metropolis, determined to see if their luck would change.

Although many other rural families made the same decision at the same time, William’s years of experience in the dockyard helped. His carpentry skills also came in useful, and it was not long before he found a job working on the ships in the Thames Docks of London’s East End.

The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 brought some relief for the starving masses with offers of employment and new opportunities. If a man joined the Army and was not killed or injured in battle, time and experience might bring out the right qualities of coolness under fire, leadership and a will to succeed. But with the end of hostilities and subsequent demobilisation, the grim spectre of too many people competing for too little work reappeared.

And this is where my South African family’s story begins.

Life in the East End and working in the Dockyard was not too bad for the first few years; good Army contracts kept the shipyards busy and these were extended by repairs and ongoing maintenance on the hundreds of sailing ships based at the London docks. But with the ending of the Crimean War, there was a marked falling off of employment. Army numbers were being rapidly reduced, and demobbed soldiers were flooding the market anxious for the few jobs available. It was not long before less skilled and under-qualified men, or those who had failed to come up to the exacting standards of a demanding boss, found themselves out of work. Records of the time show that many blameless workers, most with wives and families to support, sometimes went twenty-six weeks out of work. Times were indeed desperate.

But for the moment, William Symons and his growing family managed to, in today’s parlance, “Hang in there”, and it seemed that all would be well. The famous English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was then engaged in the construction of his massive steam and wind-powered paddle steamer, SS Great Britain. William and his two eldest sons, William James and Henry, had found steady employment on this enormous project, and there was the prospect of more to come when it was finished.


To be continued.


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