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The Natal Witness – May 7, 2001

Pinning down the settlers
By Stephen Coan


THE latest volume of The British Settlers in Natal (1824-1857) (University of Natal Press) by Shelagh O’Byrne Spencer has just been published. Subtitled A Biographical Register, it deals with the surnames Gadney to Guy.

Her latest book is the seventh volume in a projected 20-volume work that had its beginnings in the early sixties when Spencer was doing history honours on the local campus of the University of Natal. "I had to do a long essay and I couldn’t work out all the Shepstones – Theophilus, Offy, Henrique – and how they were related to each other."

Having sorted out the Shepstones, Spencer began looking at other Natal families. "I thought I’d do all the Natal settlers – English, French, German and the Boers – those of them that remained here after British annexation."

Meanwhile, Spencer was pursuing her career as a librarian at the university library. "The work on the settlers has always been a part-time job; first when I was at university and afterwards when I left to get married." Spencer’s husband is Brian Spencer, former chief librarian of the Don Africana Library in Durban where they lived for 13 years before moving back to Pietermaritzburg.

Her husband played a role in the distinctive lavender-purple covers that are a feature of the published volumes: "It’s my favourite colour," says Spencer. "Brian suggested it."

Creating the potted biographies that make up the content of the book has meant Spencer poring over church records, magistrates’ records and assorted registers of births, deaths and marriages. Other information has come via newspapers, family letters and personal diaries.

Over the years, financial grants from a number of sources have enabled Spencer both to continue her work and, on occasion, to employ much-needed research assistants. She is full of praise for Gill Tatham and Jenny Duckworth. "After we moved to Durban I would send Jenny SOS messages to check things in the archives."

A pivotal moment in Spencer’s research came in 1969 with the publication of The Roll of the British Settlers in South Africa – Part One up to 1826 by E. Morse Jones. "This was intended as the first volume and I was approached to do a second volume and include the Natal settlers."

But the second volume never materialized and Spencer’s multi-volume work took its place. The first volume was published in 1981. Sub-titled A Biographical Register, Spencer describes it as a "reference book on the early white settler families in Natal with biographies of each founding person, whether male or female, and also single women and men."

It also includes their children with dates of births, deaths and marriages. "I stopped there as with 2 800 potential families it was impossible to include grandchildren.

"The settlers are those from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and those who came up from the Cape between the years 1824 and 1857. After that date, government-sponsored immigration began and a surety system came into place whereby relatives here could stand surety for relatives coming out." The resulting huge increase in numbers rendered research impractical.

Does Spencer herself have a Natal settler background? "No. My grandfather was Thomas O’Byrne who came from Dublin in the early 1890s and was one of the early photographers in Johannesburg."

Spencer’s volumes are sought after by genealogists and historians, not only in South Africa but worldwide, particularly Australia. "From 1852 to 1854 boatloads of settlers went from here to Melbourne," says Spencer. "They hadn’t been able to make a go of it here. Many of them headed for the goldfields of Balarat.


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