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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind – Part Six (B) – Life On Board Ship

...We know that my paternal grandfather, William James Symons was one of the new emigrants sailing to East London on the Lady Kennaway, and that he was then 17 years of age. Although there is no evidence that the two families ever met in the early years of settlement, with the small numbers of white families in the Eastern Cape, seventy-three years later my mother and father, both deeply rooted in the area, had met and married...

Barbara Durlacher continues her account of how her forbears came as settlers to South Africa.


The following sections of William James Symons’ story are superficially the same, and yet all incorporate slightly different recollections of the voyage and the events on board ship. They were written at different times by my grandfather and published over several years in the East London Daily Dispatch newspaper. Rather than spoil their authenticity, the reader’s forbearance is requested in reading each account – all of which give a slightly different version of the voyage.


As part of his plan to increase immigration and get the British government to carry the cost of the immigrant’s support, Sir George Grey had played a game of bluff with the Colonial Secretary and sent back reports of “war and trouble on the frontier.” Although these “frontier wars” were largely trumped up by Grey, they were all part of his plan to bring more settlers to the Cape together with as many single women as possible, to provide suitable marriage partners for the new colonists. Grey felt this would provide a solution of the problem of persuading the settler/soldiers to desert their own farms and homesteads in the event of an uprising to serve as Civil Defence units, something they were understandably reluctant to do, as Grey reasoned that in the event of an uprising it could be expected that a man with a wife and family would be ready to protect his own property as well as those of others.

Therefore, it was decided to recruit only married men with families amongst the soldiers and settlers and with the German Legion already in barracks in Colchester, an order was sent out that they were being sent to South Africa. When they were told that married men would be given preference when housing and land was allocated, many of them made haste to find partners willing to accompany them, and only three days before sailing, large numbers of men were married by the captain of the troop transport Stamboul. Amongst these was my maternal grandfather, Adolphus von der Decken who with his wife, was to form part of the young settler community.

Born in Schleswig-Holstein in Prussia, Adolphus had enlisted as a young recruit in the same German regiment in which several generations of his forebears had served with distinction, and at the time of his hurried marriage to Emma Eustace of Colchester he was just 21 years of age.

We know that my paternal grandfather, William James Symons was one of the new emigrants sailing to East London on the Lady Kennaway, and that he was then 17 years of age. Although there is no evidence that the two families ever met in the early years of settlement, with the small numbers of white families in the Eastern Cape, seventy-three years later my mother and father, both deeply rooted in the area, had met and married.

To return to life on board the Kennaway. A number of the woman who made up the passenger compliment were “Irish Brides” in the words of Dennis Godfrey, a journalist whose racy account of the wrecking of the ship was printed in The Star newspaper in 1970. It states that these women were volunteers from Irish workhouses anxious to achieve a better life by travelling out to South Africa to marry single men in the young colony. What had happened was that when the appeal for emigrants for South Africa had failed to attract the necessary numbers from the Irish labouring and agricultural classes, an advert was placed in England in “Lloyds Shipping News and Advertiser” and it was only then that word was sent to the workhouses for volunteers to make up the numbers, as in order for Grey’s scheme to succeed it was important that as many single women as possible should come out as prospective brides for the unmarried men in the young colony.
The following account is taken directly from William James’ memoirs and it gives a vivid account of what life was like on board ship. I find it remarkable that with only three days in which to make their travel arrangements, the London family still found the time to (presumably) send a telegram to Stoke Damerel to advise the relatives that they were sailing from Plymouth to the Cape and ask them to meet at the station to say farewell. The family had clearly not anticipated a restriction forbidding them leaving the station, and one can imagine their disappointment on reaching Plymouth not to be able to say goodbye to their loved ones on the eve of the journey of a lifetime when there was every possibility they would never meet again.

...‘It was a considerable crowd who joined the train with us, for the long journey to Plymouth. We were greatly disappointed on arriving there at not being allowed out of the station, as my grand-parents and some other relations were waiting to bid us good-bye.

We were put on board a tug and taken out to the harbour to the Lady Kennaway and to our astonishment found a large number of women watching our arrival. We learned afterwards that the attempt to fill the ship with single women had been unsuccessful, hence the advertisement which brought us on board.

We were no sooner on board than the vessel started her voyage aided by a tug, and as we were leaving and the shores of England were gradually fading from view, I sang to the crowd at the bulwarks: “Isle of Beauty, Fare thee Well.”I will not say it was the charm of my voice, but the words of the song and the circumstances, that were sufficient to cause many of them to shed tears.

Next day the trouble began. The London passengers had a list given them of the food they were to receive and found on enquiry that the single women were not receiving the quantities they were entitled to. This at once brought a deputation to the Captain demanding for all on board the full amount of the Government scale of allowances.

The next trouble was the bread. What was served out looked more like a slab of wood than anything edible, so an auger was obtained from one of the men’s tool-chests and the so-called loaf was hung over the Captain’s door and led to the so-called baker being superseded by a male passenger, Berry, who was a good tradesman, and baked after his arrival in South Africa for Cawood’s the contractors to the Imperial forces; and from that time we had no complaints as to the bread. Of course there was some sea sickness, I was pretty bad myself for a few days, and I kept out of the way of the second mate, when I heard him uttering curses loud and deep on some lubber who had “gone to windward” to cast up accounts.

The names of the married families as far as I can recollect now were: Apps, Christmas, Berry, Clarkson, Reid, Reid (two families) Cooper, Lockhart, Purss, Philpot, Symons. There were a couple of families from Ireland besides Berry, but the named have escaped my memory. We had a doctor and a matron for the women: and considering the size of the vessel – under 500 tons, I think – and having some four to five hundred souls on board, there was not much cause for complaint when we had fairly shaken down. I forgot the name of the Captain, but the mate was Mr Hunkin and to him we all may attribute, under Providence, our escape from death off Cape l’Agulhas. The second mate was an American named Miller and a real Yank he was. The carpenter’s name was Rentoul, and some of his sons are prominent in public life today.

After the sea sickness was over and we were well out at sea, it became a question of how to pass the time. I was called upon every night when the weather was favourable to sing to the assembled passengers and having the knowledge of some 270 songs by heart I managed to amuse them so well that some of them at least said they would have died if I had not kept them alive. Bear in mind we had nothing on board in the shape of musical instrument except your humble servant – not even a penny whistle – and when the women in their part of the ship used to get up quadrille parties the music was vocal, turn and turn about as each one was tired...’


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