Category Archives: General

Richard Walford Stevens at Isandlwana

Richard Walford Stevens at the 60th anniversary of the battle and as a Natal Mounted Police Trooper against the backdrop of the battlefield as seen from the camp.

My great grandfather, Richard Walford Stevens, was a 20 year old Trumpeter with the Natal Mounted Police when the Anglo Zulu War began on 11 January 1879. He crossed the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River into Zululand that day at Rorke’s Drift and was part of the first battle of the war the following day. On 20 January, he had to walk the 11 km to the base of the strange, sphinx-like hill, Isandlwana, because his horse was sick. His sick horse also prevented him from heading out with most of his comrades in a big scouting party the next day so he was in the camp on 22 January 1879 when it was attacked by the main Zulu army of some 20,000 warriors pouring over the ridge and racing towards them.

He played a small part in the spirited forward defence by the mounted troops in “Durnford’s Donga” until they were overwhelmed and had to retreat back to the camp. All was lost by that stage because Zulu warriors were already there when they arrived – stabbing and slashing. His only weapon, a revolver, was broken so he made his harrowing escape down the back of Isandlwana to the Mzinyathi river along the route that became known as the Fugitives’ Trail, now marked by a string of burial cairns. He managed to get across the river into Natal and rode to Helmekaar as one of only nine Natal Mounted Policemen to escape.

He wrote about his experiences to his family back in Witham, Essex, and they sent his letters to the newspapers so we know what he said. Quite a lot it turns out despite the brevity of his letters. And pithy. Which is why he has been much quoted by historians especially regarding the mayhem in the camp.

He had gone to Natal on an adventure and left the police to do the same by going to the diamond fields of Jagersfontein. He did not make his fortune and instead embarked on a career that can best be described as entrepreneurial and opportunistic, but not particularly successful. He had his ups and he had his downs with two bankruptcies and a prosecution for embezzlement. He pleaded guilty but was pardoned by the judge without a conviction being recorded. Amazingly.

He lived out his life with his son and daughter-in-law on their farms in the Witsieshoek and Kestell areas of the Free State.

He valued the comradeship of his first great adventure and was a regular attendee at Isandlwana and Natal Mounted Police reunions. He was remembered as the last survivor of the nine Mounted Policemen who escaped Isandlwana.

His story has taken a lot of work to put together because there were no family records and only sketchy recollections of his life. When I started out, all I had was what my father had told me: his name was Richard William Stevens; he was from England and had fought at Isandlwana; he had married Kate Norton (who was Jewish and possibly called Nortonovski) from Barkly East; he lived with my father’s family on their farm for many years; he liked his reunions and died aged 85 on the way to a reunion; he was never without his fob watch on its chain; he swore by a good suit; and there were his medals. But only some of this was true. Kate Norton, for instance, was baptised and confirmed in the Dutch Reformed Church!

His only remaining mementos are his medals and a fob watch chain that was his pride and joy. It is an interesting story of a young man from a privileged English background who embarked on a colonial adventure. And if he hadn’t managed to avoid the warriors that fateful day in January 1879, it would have been a very short adventure, and I wouldn’t be here to tell what happened to him.

The full story with transcripts of his letters, a detailed explanation to what he said, plus details of his earlier and later life and marriage, can be found HERE.

©Alun Stevens 2023

Why Granny was in the concentration camp

Granny Sarah Alice Liddell; Bluegumbush farm, Witsieshoek, Free State, South Africa; Harrismith Concentration Camp

I posted an article in November 2020 discussing my granny’s internment in the Harrismith Concentration Camp during the Anglo Boer War and why the family had not spoken of it to succeeding generations. I could answer that question, but not why my granny’s family went to the camp. Nor why her uncles, aunts and their families went to this and other camps. I could make educated guesses from the information I had, but could not say for certain. I now know the answers.

I have at last obtained the claims for compensation that most of the families lodged after the war. My enquiries were held up by air conditioning failures at the Archives in Pretoria and then by Covid-19 lockouts, but these are now past and the documents have arrived. Over 500 pages of statements, receipts, military passes, letters, forms and the rest. These provide the reasons in the words of the people themselves.

This has required a major rewrite of one section of the article in order to correctly describe their experiences and to replace many “might haves” with “dids”.

The key revelation with respect to my granny is that she, her siblings and her mother were forcibly driven off their farm, Bluegumbush, by Boers of the Harrismith Commando because her father had begun working for the British military. They were given a day to leave with only what they could carry on a single ox-wagon. They went to Harrismith and sought safety in the “Refugee Camp” as some of its very first inmates.

Other families were forcibly removed from their farms to the camps by the British. Their British sympathies were no protection.

Everyone suffered depredations by Boer and British forces alike. Horses, cattle and sheep confiscated. Stores confiscated. Equipment deliberately damaged to render it unserviceable. Grain, fodder, crops and buildings burnt. One uncle rode around his farm with a British officer watching the farm being burnt. And he was regarded as a British Subject and had spied for the British.

The rewritten section can be found HERE.

The full article can be found HERE.

©Alun Stevens 2021


Harold “Carrots” Ayliff with his friend Frikkie Brink; Harold with his sister Margaret “Meg” in the cockpit and her friend “Beery” de Beer; Charlotte “Charlie” Ayliff

My great uncle, Harold “Carrots” Ayliff, wrote a short, and incomplete note with his reminiscences of his time in the Royal Air Force at the very end of World War I, and also his involvement in World War II. I was given a copy by his great-granddaughter, Georgia. Some time later, when visiting my cousin, Janet, in New Zealand, she showed me the photograph album that her grandmother, Charlotte “Charlie” Ayliff, Harold’s sister, had kept of this same period during World War I. I was struck by the overlap between the written record and the photographic record. The photographs brought life to the story and the writings put the photographs in context.

I was particularly struck by the photograph, in the banner above, of my grandmother in the cockpit of one of Harold’s training planes. She was obviously thrilled.

I was reminded of the reminiscences and photographs recently when I read this article on powered flight at Hermanus. Harold’s story is not that different from that of Henry Luyt of Hermanus.

I had already created an album combining Harold’s story with Charlotte’s photographs and felt that it would be good to publish it on our web site for everyone to see. Here it is with links to many of the places and events that Harold mentions. Please click HERE.

©Megan Stevens 2021

My Granny was in a concentration camp

Granny Sarah Alice Liddell; Bluegumbush farm, Witsieshoek, Free State, South Africa; Harrismith Concentration Camp

A few years ago, Megan found a reference online that indicated that my grandmother, Sarah Liddell, had been interned in the British Concentration Camp at Harrismith during the Anglo Boer War. This was a big surprise. My grandmother’s family were English and my father and grandmother had never mentioned anything like this. My first reaction was that someone had made a mistake. My surprise turned to shock when I discovered that it was true. My grandmother, her parents and her siblings had indeed been interned in the Harrismith concentration camp. Two of my grandmother’s sisters had died there from typhoid. And a number of my grandmother’s Liddell aunts, uncles and cousins had also been interned and other children had also died.

This was not a little event that had slipped from memory over time. This was a big deal. It would have been firmly imprinted in the minds of all who were involved. But it had never come up in family conversations. I checked with my brother. He too is sure that these events were never discussed. I checked with my cousin, daughter of my father’s elder brother. She too is sure that these events were never discussed by our grandmother or her father.

What happened? Who knew? Why was it kept quiet? All the protagonists are now dead so we will never know all the answers, but there are a lot of records and some people who remember things. There was a lot to know, but I now do know what happened and have a good idea why no one talked about it.

The investigation was quite difficult because I essentially knew nothing except that my grandmother was a Liddell from Witsieshoek in the Free State who had grown up on a farm called Bluegumbush and that her parents, my great-grandparents, were James Greaves Liddell and Sarah Eleanor Clark. I now know a lot, lot more, but that is thanks to meeting a number of fellow Liddell descendants online. Descendants who, unlike me, actually knew something – and had an interest in family history.

The reason why no one discussed the war is, strangely, quite simple. The reasons why they were in the camps are not. They were caught up in some of the major, chaotic events of the war and these need to be understood in order to understand why they were where they were and did what they did. I have set out the family background and experiences in some detail. I have also provided a summary of the historic context for those people, like my children, who have not grown up in South Africa.

The article can be found HERE.

©Alun Stevens 2020

Our complicated family tree

The story of Megan’s and my shared ancestors can be found in our article Shared Ancestors and Shared Experiences. Whilst this is fascinating, it does not show all the complexity of our family linkages. Mere descriptions cannot adequately portray the extent of the complexity which was impressed on me when I tried to construct the family trees that I used in the article. I was forced to keep only the simple and direct lines of connection and present only those people who I discussed. But I still needed multiple descendant charts just for the main family connections.

I wanted to put everything together so that the true complexity and extent of the interconnectedness could be seen at a glance, but the family tree applications are not up to the task, and the online services are even less useful. There are just too many cross linkages in our families: cousin marriages; multiple children of a marriage separately linking to us; these children linking at different generational levels; people marrying multiple times with children from each family linking to us; these linkages being at different generational levels.

I turned to a package that is used for genetic mapping and analysis. This suffers a little from the opposite problem to the family tree packages in that it is designed for analysing massively complex networks and doesn’t have the most elegant charting interface. Nonetheless, it was able to arrange the families and generations into optimised layouts with the least overlapping which I could then adjust to get more readable images.

I have constructed two layouts. The first replicates, as far as possible, the standard hierarchical network that is usually used to show ancestral lineages. Megan and I are at the top with earlier generations in layers below us getting wider and wider as we go down thirteen generations. The second shows us at the centre (more or less) of a spider web of ancestors clustered in families with the earlier generations further and further from us. The first is better for visualising the generational linkages. The second is better for visualising the familial linkages.

Both trees are too complicated to lay out for a web page so they are presented in PDF files. If you click on the links below, they will open in a browser window and allow you to see the overall structure. Most browsers, however, will not allow you to zoom in far enough to see all the detail. For this you will need to download the file to your computer and then use Adobe Acrobat Reader (PC or Mac) or Preview (Mac). You can do this by saving the image open in your browser. Every browser does this differently so I leave it to you to figure it out. You can also right click on the links below and select the Save/Download option.

The hierarchical family tree
can be found
Right click to download
The clustered family tree
can be found
Right click to download

The information is presented in successive layers of Parents/Couple/Children using boxes and arrows as below.

Dates are birth years.

Red stars highlight interesting ancestors who appear in the discussion.

The grey ellipses highlight individuals who were either slaves, people of colour, or illegitimate. The detail is in the square brackets:
* – a parent of colour
S – a Slave
I – Illegitimate.

Megan’s and my mothers are just shown as “wife” because their maiden names are used as security questions. (The times we live in?!)

Hierarchical layout

The layout is pyramidal rather than the usual square layout because it goes down to thirteen generations before us. The lower levels would be far too wide with a square layout. The structure is quite well ordered down to Level 8 below us when connections start crossing generations and linking the right (Megan’s ancestors) to the left (my ancestors). Levels 9 and 10 are then a spider-web of cross hatchings which thin out in Level 11, mainly due to us not being able to trace all the ancestors back to this level.

The complexity of the interlinkages can be seen by considering the Snyman family that is used in the example above. If you open the hierarchical family tree, you will find them at the bottom in the middle. Their story is here. Christoffel Snyman was born illegitimately as a slave to Catharina van Paliacatta. He was freed when his mother was freed and he was legitimised when his mother then married. He, in turn, married the aristocratic Marguerite de Savoye and they are shown at Level 12 with connection lines radiating upwards cutting across the ordered structure.

Their daughter, Elsje Snyman (born 1697) connects to both Megan and me. She married Jacobus Botha (born 1692) and their daughter, Catharina Botha (born 1714), married Marthinus Jacobus van Staden (born 1706). The Van Staden’s linkage to both of us is discussed here. Their daughter, Catharina Maria (born 1739) links to me via the Ferreira’s making Elsje Snyman my 8th great-grandmother by this route.

Their older daughter, Aletta Maria (born 1731), links to Megan via her marriage to Johannes Lombard (born 1725). He was the son of Elsje Snyman’s younger sister, Johanna Snyman (born 1699), who had married Anthonie Lombard (born 1693). One sister’s son married the other sister’s granddaughter. Aletta Maria and Johannes Lombard link to the Bruwers, the Van Eedens, and Megan’s Ouma via their daughter Aletta Lombard (born 1752). Johanna Snyman is Megan’s 7th great-grandmother by this route, and her sister, Elsje Snyman, is Megan’s 8th great-grandmother.

Their youngest sister, Elizabeth Snyman (born 1706), interestingly, is Megan’s 5th great-grandmother via her marriage to Jan Hendrik van Helsdingen (born 1696) and the marriage of their daughter, Anna Susanna (born 1740), to Christman Joël Ackermann (born 1728) and then on to Megan’s Oupa.

As a result of this, Christoffel and Marguerite Snyman are independently Megan’s 6th, 8th, and 9th great-grandparents, and my 9th great-grandparents! Lots of cross links just from one couple.

Clustered layout

This layout does not attempt to keep track of the generations. It is designed to show the linkages within and between families. Linkages that span the breadth of the hierarchical chart, like Elizabeth Snyman, are frequently close to each other in this chart format.

The software has arranged the family groups around the end point – Megan and me – with the minimum of cross linkages across the chart. We can be found towards the bottom left with a red circle to highlight us.

The high level view shows that the connections within the family groups are fairly well ordered as are those between families that are closely associated like the Rossouws and Van Eedens, and the Mullers and Ferreiras. My ancestors are mainly down in the bottom right while Megan’s, much more extensive group, fills the top half of the diagram.

The more complex interlinkages criss cross across the centre of the diagram. For instance, the Potgieters near the middle who link to the families on both the left and the right. The Bothas and Van Stadens are also key linkage points and do the same.

©Alun Stevens 2020

Shared ancestors and their shared experiences

Cape Town from Table Bay 1778

Megan and I are 8th cousins because of our shared 7th great-grandparents, Johannes (Jan Harmensz) Potgieter (1674-1733), Marthinus Jacobus van Staden (1706-1746) and his wife Catharina Botha (1714-1781). As I indicated in my last post, there is more to tell because there are interesting people with colourful stories associated with these ancestors. I have spent a few weeks putting those stories together.

The stories go back to the earliest years of European settlement at the Cape in the mid 1600s for which there are surprisingly good records. The records required some hard work in order to extract the stories because quite a few are in Old Dutch script and use an antiquated Dutch language. The perseverance was worth it and has revealed a rich group of characters.

The most impressive amongst them are the young slave women taken to the Cape from India, Madagascar and Africa. Yes, we have slaves as ancestors. Some died young. Most survived their enslavement and went on to prosper and to found a number of prominent Afrikaans families. Also impressive were the contemporary attitudes that allowed these ex-slaves to take their place in society. One was granted a block of land on what is now Castle Street in the middle of the Cape Town CBD. One owned Camps Bay. Another owned Groot Constantia.

There is the free settler from Cologne who received one of the first grants of land, but was murdered just outside the Castle on what is now the Grand Parade.

There is the rifleman from Rotterdam, with a green thumb, who married the murdered man’s thirteen year-old daughter, but only after he had fathered a child with a slave at Groote Schuur. You guessed it. He was a Van der Merwe. But not a Koos.

There is the young man, born a slave to a slave mother, who married an aristocratic Huguenot woman and had to rescue other Huguenot ancestors from a murdering soldier who took them hostage.

There is the young man’s father, a soldier from Germany, who kept running foul of the law and was banished to Robben Island.

There is the young man’s mother who washed Jan van Riebeeck’s clothes.

There is adultery and divorce and some very choice language.

There are ancestors that we don’t share, who jointly helped an Empress grieve the death of her son.

And more.

The stories are intertwined and complicated in places, but I have provided them with references and links to maps that hopefully help explain them and put them in context. Thanks to the internet, I was also able to source a number of fascinating old maps and pictures from the Netherlands Rijksmuseum and Nationaal Archief that provide a contemporaneous flavour to the stories.

Please have a look HERE and let me know what you think.

©Alun Stevens 2019

My Cousin Megan

The old Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk at Glen Lynden built in 1828 by Thomas Pringle.

Despite my distinctly British heritage, my great-grandmother’s ancestry provides a link to the earliest settlers in South Africa; some European; some not; some free citizens; some not. My great-grandmother was baptised Catharina Louiza Norton in the Dutch Reformed church at Komga in the far Eastern Cape province. Her father, Benjamin Norton, was born in South Africa to Jewish 1820 Settlers. He converted to Christianity and married Aletta Maria Muller, a young woman with a long Afrikaans pedigree. Tracing this pedigree has been fascinating, but quite complicated.

We initially struggled with tracing the ancestors. The Suid-Afrikaanse Geslagsregister (South African Genealogical Register) (SAG) proved very helpful. SAG was the product of a project of the Department of Home Affairs to map the familial connections of the Afrikaans population of South Africa using church records. This showed Aletta Maria’s parents as Cornelis Johannes Muller and Agatha Catharina Ferriera and provided links from them right back to the original Muller and Ferreira settlers in the early 1700’s – the Stamvaders. With Megan having links to the same founding families, we established that we are in fact related.

This was wonderful, but problems soon began to emerge with the narrative. Agatha Catharina could not have been the second wife of the Cornelis Johannes nominated for her, because his first wife was reliably recorded as having married a second time, as a widow, and having a second family whose descendants clearly exist. There were also doubts as to Agatha Catharina’s parentage. Generations of Ferreira descendants show her as being the daughter of a different Ferreira father and mother than SAG does. All very confusing and annoying and would Megan and I still share ancestors?

I had researchers photograph documents in the South African National Archives. I visited all the websites – eGGSA, Ancestry, Geni etc. I interrogated the people who maintained family trees and profiles. None was able or willing to provide solid documentary evidence to support their propositions. Agatha Catharina’s parentage, however, began to firm up as being Thomas Ignatius Ferreira and Aletta Maria Potgieter. Naming conventions would have seen Aletta Maria Muller named after her maternal grandmother so this seemed quite probable, and there was a convenient gap in the family tree in SAG. This link, however, brought the quandary of Agatha Catharina’s sister, Susannah Elizabeth, who is well documented everywhere as also marrying a Cornelis Johannes Muller, but with some commentators suggesting that this Cornelis Johannes was actually the one who had married Agatha Catharina. This was just more confusion.

Then Megan found links to two document collections on the Family Search web site. The first is for church records from the Dutch Reformed churches in the Cape and the other is for the official death notices for the Cape Province. These yielded three critical documents that settled the questions of where Agatha Catharina fits in and who her husband was.

The first is the baptismal record for Agata Catharina Feraire who was born in 1817 to Thomas Ignatius Feraire and Aletta Maria Potgieter. So SAG was wrong and the Geni profilers had got it right.

The second is the death record for Cornelis Johannes Muller who died in 1844 on the farm Mak Fontein in the Somerset district of the Cape. It shows that he was married to Agatha Catharina Ferreira and was born in 1812 to Cornelis Johannes Muller and Johanna Catharina van Rooy(en). This is the Cornelis Johannes Muller who is shown in SAG and on virtually all the websites as having married Susannah Elizabeth Ferreira. They all have it wrong.

The third is the marriage record for Susannah Elizabeth Ferreira and Cornelis Johannes Muller who were married in 1841. This provided the second confirmation that the Cornelis Johannes Muller everyone was showing as Susannah Elizabeth’s husband could not have been so. The record shows that both parties to the marriage were Minderjarig (Under Aged) – ie less than 21 years old. On the wedding date, the nominated Cornelis Johannes, born as he was in 1812, would have been almost 29 years old and therefore definitely not Under Age. Susannah Elizabeth’s husband was clearly one of the many other Cornelis Johannes Mullers living in the area at the time.

We knew that Agatha Catharina’s and Cornelis Johannes’s second child, Cornelis Johannes, was baptised in the Anglican church at Port Elizabeth. The collection yielded the baptismal records of their younger children; all at the old church at Glen Lynden (near modern day Bedford) where they would have been baptised by the Scottish dominee, Alexander Welsh. These showed an extra daughter not recorded on any of the websites or on Cornelis Johannes’s death notice. She clearly died as a young child.

Their oldest child, Aletta Maria, was born in the Gamtoos River area south-west of Port Elizabeth on 3 October 1832 – ten days before her parents were married with her mother just 15 years old!

The confirmed marriage and parentage of Agatha Catharina has allowed us to revisit the connections between Megan and me. Looking back over twelve generations we have a number, because there was only a small population pool which intermarried extensively – especially amongst the French Huguenots to whom we are both connected. Our closest common ancestors are our shared seventh-great-grandparents, Johannes (Jan Harmensz) Potgieter (1674-1733), Marthinus Jacobus van Staden (1706-1746) and his wife Catharina Botha (1714-1781).

We are officially 8th cousins.

More to come. There are some interesting characters.


After posting this, I examined all the death notices for Cornelis Johannes Mullers and found one for 1860 showing Susannah Elizabeth Ferreira as his wife. The notice named his parents and gave his age, which enabled me to find his baptismal record. He was born in April 1822 which would have made him just 19 at his wedding in April 1841. His father was also Cornelis Johannes Muller and his mother was Anna Margaretha Vogel. So we had two Ferreira sisters who both married Cornelis Johannes Mullers each of whose father was also Cornelis Johannes Muller. To make it even more complicated, my Cornelis Johannes’s grandfather was yet another Cornelis Johannes Muller. No wonder there was confusion as to who was who.

I can’t fix SAG. I have fixed the Geni website and have tried to fix the Ancestry website, but to no avail.

©Alun Stevens 2019

Descendant Charts

Megan’s family history database now holds information on over 13,000 people including the wider interconnected family and people important to their stories. It is not possible to make this information available in the form of family trees and the like because these require programming and other infrastructure beyond the scope of the blog hosting service we use.

Nonetheless, understanding how all the people link up between generations and within generations is important to appreciating their stories. We have therefore constructed Descendant Charts for selected people in the Drake, Marshall, Benthall and Ayliff families using the Reunion genealogical software that Megan has used since the 1980s to hold her information.

These charts show summaries of the parents and children of various generations of these families. The families have been selected so that the charts follow the generations. The charts can be viewed concurrently so that the generational linkages can be explored.

The Stevens charts will come at another time.

The charts can be found under the new “CHARTS” item in the menu or you can click HERE

Glengallan Orchard being re-created

The following post has just been made to the Glengallan Homestead Facebook page. It will be lovely to see an orchard again similar to what was laid out in the 1850’s.

It will undoubtedly take some years before we see the fruits of their labour, but we look forward to the result.

NewsMail also published a story about the orchard on 4 September 2018 which can be found HERE

The Journey Begins

East Perth Cemetery

The image is of the East Perth Cemetery and the Purkis Family tomb

Welcome to Down Rabbit Holes.

Our site is called Down Rabbit Holes because I have been fascinated by family history for many years and the process of finding out who is who, what they did, where they did it and who they knew is much like exploring a rabbit warren.

We already have a lot of information about our families and will be posting it as we convert it to a format suitable for publication on WordPress.

©Megan Stevens 2018