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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind – Part Two: Decision To Emigrate To South Africa

...“Enough of this struggle to find work! Enough of the insults and curses from hard-hearted overseers and bosses! It’s as much as a man can stand. I’m putting our names down to go out to the Cape of Good Hope,” and without pausing for further thought, he completed his application and rushed home to tell the family the news....

Barbara Durlacher continues her account of how her family left England in the Nineteenth Century to seek a new life in South Africa,

As mentioned in the first part of my story about how my grandfather and his family came to South Africa (see Fair Stood the Wind, Part One) his father and mother had left Stoke Damerel in Devon and journeyed up to London not long after ggreat-grandfather Symons married Mary Jane Dobson in 1839. William and Mary Jane were born and bred in the West Country a largely agricultural area where their families had lived for generations working either as farm labourers or coopers. The latter employment was an essential trade, as hundreds of wooden barrels were used to store the fresh water carried by all sailing ships. Over the last decade or so, great-grandfather and his father, (also called William) had been employed as labourers in HM Dockyard, Devonport. But times were getting tough and son William, desperate to improve the family’s prospects, decided to move to London in the hope that it might offer better prospects.

Reaching London They moved into rented accommodation in Stepney in the East End and it was not long before their eldest son William James was born in 1841, followed over the years by John, Harry, Mary and James. By the time William James was eleven he was eager to grab any employment available as the family’s hopes of future prosperity and comfort had not been realized and they were facing increasing hardship. (See Open Writing archives “A Christmas in the Old Country”)

Employment prospects improved with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 and for a few years the family’s fortunes seemed were enhanced when father William and his two older boys obtained jobs in the construction and fitting out of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive steam and wind-powered paddle ship, the SS Great Britain, which was then building. The Pool of London and the Thames Docks at that time were a hive of activity with sailing ships of all kinds coming and going providing employment for a large number of laborers, skilled carpenters and apprentices. Then, sadly within a year or two William James’ beloved mother Mary Jane sickened and died, and before long the two eldest sons found that life at home had become so intolerable that they moved into separate ‘digs’ away from the domination of their increasingly frustrated and difficult father and the intrusion of an alien step-mother.

The Crimean War ended in 1856 and the flood of soldiers returning from the battlefields put increasing pressure on the employment market, and it was not long before William Snr. was again worrying about the family’s future. So, it was almost as if providence had taken a hand when, towards the end of August 1857 he read the following advertisement in Lloyd’s Shipping News and Advertiser.

‘Wanted: married men (mechanics) with their wives and families to proceed to the East London Harbour Works, Cape of Good Hope.”

As his eyes skimmed rapidly over the print, William impulsively made up his mind.

“Enough of this struggle to find work! Enough of the insults and curses from hard-hearted overseers and bosses! It’s as much as a man can stand. I’m putting our names down to go out to the Cape of Good Hope,” and without pausing for further thought, he completed his application and rushed home to tell the family the news.

In later years his son - my grandfather William James Symons - wrote his memoirs of his youth in the East End. They make interesting reading.

Here is his version of the story... “My mother (Mary Jane Dobson) having died 3 years previously, and father having re-married, I and my next brother had left home and were “on our own,” and as it was just after the close of the Crimean War in 1856, work was very scarce, and times very bad.

I knew good tradesmen with large families to be twenty-six weeks out of employment and although I, as a lad, was content with half a crown a day, I could not get employment even at that rate. I went to my family’s residence on the Tuesday evening when my father told me he was going to the Cape and he had given my name with the rest of the family. I objected at first, but after considering matters I decided to accompany the rest. On the Friday we started from Euston Station by train for Plymouth, and I feel pretty certain the landlord of the house we left was rather astonished on discovering that a dealer in furniture, etc., had bought everything and cleared the place and the tenants had left without notice.”

An item thrown up by my researches into my family’s English antecedents has uncovered a detail which I find intriguing, and this is that on 4th September 1857, the same day that William Symons undertook to take the family and sail to the Eastern Cape of Good Hope he married Anne Jane Stow, a twenty-nine year old widow with three children.

Was she a housekeeper brought in to care for William and younger children, or was she a young widow who, without a husband and home, had become his ‘Common Law Wife’? Did he suddenly decide to legitimise their union in order to make their life in a new land easier? We will never know, but it’s interesting to speculate, especially as my 90-yr old first cousin Margery Symons remembers many years later, hearing her father (John Henry, my father’s eldest brother) shout angrily at “Uncle” Samuel (listed as a babe in arms on the momentous voyage to South Africa) “You’re not a member of the Symons family; you’re even related to us” which seems to indicate how, even years later, William James’s sons were still resentful about their grandfather’s second marriage and the arrival of these unrelated “steps”.

William James has left some interesting memories of the voyage on the Lady Kennaway, which will I quote later, but prior to this, it is interesting to read the list of the artisan families who came out to South Africa. These lists are made available on the excellent website Knowledge4Africa, run by Professor Keith Tankard of East London. It gives the names of, amongst others, the artisan families who came out on the ship in 1857 as well as the so-called “Irish Brides” who feature in a small way later in the story.

For the moment however, the time is late August 1857 and the family are living in Stepney in London. Father William Symons has just announced his momentous decision to lead the family to a new life in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa and this unexpected news was met with strong objections from the two eldest boys, although they subsequently agreed that it was better for them to all stick together than be separated, possibly never to see one another again.

Earlier in the year, with father William and sons William James and John employed on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s innovative new steamer SS Great Britain, their future had seemed secure, especially as they’d been assured by agents recruiting artisans for future employment that as soon as SS Great Britain was completed, work was available on the steam ships Himalaya and Great Eastern just being commissioned. Their sound employment record assured them of jobs in the future.

The family consisted of four sons, one daughter and three step children. The eldest was my grandfather William James Symons (17) (born 1841) his brothers, John (15) Harry (13) James (7) and the only daughter Mary (11). Then came the step-mother’s three children, Rebecca (5) Robert (3) and Samuel (infant).


GEORGE, Carpenter (Surrey, 31)
MARY (Wife, 26)
Children: Sarah (7), Jane (6)

PETER, Labourer (Middlesex, 26)
ELIZABETH (Wife, 23)

JOHN, Labourer (Galway, 30)
CATHERINE, (Wife, 24)
Children, Mary (2), John (1)

JOHN, Bricklayer (Middlesex, 36)
MARY, (Wife, 36)
Children: John (18), Edward (2)

PATRICK, Farm Servant (Monaghan, 22)
CATHERINE, (Wife, 24)
Children: Owen (baby)

EDGAR, Carpenter (Middlesex, 26)
SUSAN, (Wife, 23)
Children: Susan (5) Anne (1)

FREDERICK, Carpenter (Middlesex, 32)
ELIZA (Wife, 31)
Children: Samuel (8), Harry (5), George (3)

Charles, Bricklayer (Middlesex, 40)
Harriet (wife, 44)

CHARLES, Carpenter (Middlesex, 28)
EMMA (Wife, 24)
Child: Eliza (baby)

CHARLES, Carpenter (Middlesex,2 4)
CATHE (Wife, 20)
Child: Samuel (1)

WILLIAM, Carpenter (Middlesex, 35)
CHARLOTTE (Wife, 25)
Children: William (3), Louisa (3), Mary (1)

THOMAS, Carpenter (Middlesex, 31)
MARY (Wife, 28)
Children: Thomas (9), Elizabeth (7), William (5) Emma (3), Emma (baby)
Note: It is doubtf
ul that the Reed family had two children by the same name; an incorrect name was probably entered in the register.

JAMES, Farm Servant (Tyrone, 22)
ANN (Wife, 18)
JOHN, Carpenter (Middlesex, 27)
HARRIET (Wife, 25)
Children: Martha (4), Eliza (2)

William, Carpenter (Essex, 23)
Sarah, (Wife, 23)
Children: Eliza (2), Ruth (baby)

John, Carpenter (Middlesex, 27)
Harriet (wife, 25)
Children: Martha (4) Eliza (2)

William, Carpenter (Essex, 23)
Sarah (Wife, 23)
Children: Eliza (2), Ruth (baby)

Gerald, Labourer (Antrim, 20)
Mary (Wife, 26)

Richard, Labourer (Middlesex, 21)
Margaret (Wife, 23)

William, Carpenter (Middlesex, 42)
Anne (Wife, 26)
Children: William, (Carpenter, 17), John(Carpenter, 15) Harry, (Carpenter, 13) Mary(11), James (7), Rebecca (5), Robert (3) Samuel (baby)

John, Farm Servant (Dublin, 42)
Bridget, (Wife, 38)

William, Farm Servant (Armagh, 23)
Eliza (Wife, 24)
Child: Robert (baby)

William, Labourer (Antrim, 25)
Eliza (wife, 22)
Child: Lilly (2)


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