The people and the places

Joseph Plaskett Liddell; Contemporary map of York showing Bestershoek farm; Wesleyan graveyard at York; Witsieshoek valley with Qwa Qwa on right, Patricksdale on left, and Malutis in the distance.

YOU ARE HERE: Boer or Brit ► The people and the places

Die Vryheidsoorlog ◄ ● ► The war and concentration camps

Whilst this story is primarily about my grandmother’s family, the Liddells, it also draws in the families to which they were linked by marriage and amongst whom they lived. At the start of the war, they were all living in the Free State Republic, in the town of Harrismith and the mountainous areas further west near the borders with Natal and Basutoland/Lesotho. This is important because these areas were perfectly suited to the guerrilla warfare tactics adopted by the Boers. The area was therefore a focus of Boer and British military activity.

My grandmother and her direct family lived in the district of Witsieshoek. This is also where my father was born and grew up. A number of her Liddell uncles and aunts lived further west on the outskirts of what is now Clarens, and her uncle was the Town Clerk of Harrismith – the centre for British military operations in the area during the war.

This photograph, which was taken by Liz Finnie, shows the area looking towards the east down the valley of the Little Caledon River towards Witsieshoek from above the town of Clarens. The prominent headland Qwa Qwa can be seen in the middle distance above the mist filled valley at Witsieshoek. The ridge beyond that on the right is the Drakensberg mountains that form the border between the Free State and Natal. On the right is the valley of the Caledon River with the snow covered Maluti Mountains beyond. Harrismith is just out of picture at the top left. It is easy to see why the area was suited to guerrilla warfare.

Clarens to Harrismith
©Liz Finnie 2020

The farms and features of interest are annotated in the satellite image below.

Clarens to Harrismith

The Liddell and associated family farms, Bethel, Clifton, Letsoanastad, and Verliesfontein, are shown in the foreground on the outskirts of Clarens. The area was called Naauwpoort (Narrow Pass) at the time of the war because of the narrow pass through the Rooiberge (Red Mountains), just out of picture on the lower left near the boundary of Bethel. The town was named in 1912 after the town in Switzerland where Paul Kruger, erstwhile President of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek, had died in 1904. Kruger had led a Commando from the Transvaal to assist the Free State in their war with the Basotho that established the Free State’s control of the area during the late 1860s. One of the battles took place in 1865 at Naauwpoort Nek and one of the protagonists was the Basotho chief Lesaoana, a nephew of King Moshoeshoe. 1  (Riep 2011)

The Liddell and other farms of interest in the Witsieshoek district are in the distance behind the headland of Qwa Qwa.

Harrismith is visible at the top left at the base of Platberg (Flat Mountain). The two areas are connected by the valley of the Little Caledon River with the Golden Gate at its far end. The Caledon River forms the border with Lesotho and also the southern boundary of the farm Verliesfontein.

At Witsieshoek, the large Patricksdale property was owned by Julia Cronje. This satellite image, looking north up the valley of the Elands River from the Natal border to Qwa Qwa, shows Patricksdale in the foreground. Witsieshoek (Witsie’s Corner) is named for the Kholokoe chief Oetsi/Wetsi/Witsie who had controlled the area until displaced by the Boers. Qwa Qwa is a much older Khoisan name meaning “whiter than white”. The name was applied to the area in general, but more specifically to the massif on Bluegumbush that dominates the area. The Khoisan language is a language of clicks and the “Q” is a hard click so the name is not pronounced “Kwa-Kwa”.

Witsieshoek Valley from south

Patricksdale was a 5,000 morgen property and was divided into five 1,000 morgen sections for individual sons – Mountainview, Patryskamp, Comet, Zwartwater, and a section retaining the name Patricksdale. The farm was originally much larger and had been allocated to one Patrick Lind in the time of Harry Smith’s Orange River Sovereignty (1848-1854). Lind had sold the property to Adoplh Cronje, Julia’s second husband, sometime between 1873 and 1877. The border with Natal is just below the bottom of the picture.

To Patricksdale’s north were farms that had originally been part the earlier, larger, Patricksdale. At the far northern end of the property, a 3,000 morgen section, Bestersvallei (also called Bestersvlei), had been sold to Lucas Cornelis Jacobz – date unknown. He had subdivided the 2,000 morgen Bluegumbush from Bestersvallei in 1878 and this was purchased by my great-grandfather, James Greaves Liddell, sometime between 1880 and 1882. At the time of the war, James Greaves Liddell’s parents-in-law, the Clarks, were renting and living on Bestersvallei.

The 1,000 morgen section of Patricksdale, between Bluegumbush and Mountainview, was sold to the Smith brothers in 1879. They subdivided this into three equal portions in 1883 to form the farms Greenwood, Castle View and Rydal Mount.

Qwa Qwa and Bluegumbush from Rydal Mount. Bestersvallei peeping out on right.
©Liz Finnie
Patricksdale and Comet from Mountainview.
©Liz Finnie

This is where the families who make up this story were living when war broke out. The Liddells, Clarks and Smiths were all from England and had migrated to Natal. They later moved to the Free State where they encountered the Cronjes, who had moved up from the Cape.

The families in Natal

The Liddells were from Lancashire. My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Plaskett Liddell, was born in 1818 into a farming family at Adlington in Lancashire. At fourteen, he was apprenticed as a calico printer to a master who was a very staunch Wesleyan/Methodist and Joseph became a keen preacher himself. He then joined a furniture maker, James Greaves, who operated in the Bolton/Stockport area just south of Manchester and was soon made a partner. He married his partner’s daughter, Eliza, in 1839. The furniture business unfortunately went bankrupt in 1849, despite Joseph injecting his own capital. He reverted to his earlier trade of calico printing, but struggled as the textile industry came under pressure. So, in February 1861, the family left Gravesend on the Barbados headed for Port Natal where Joseph intended to grow cotton for the Coates mills. (Liz Finnie Pvt. Comm.; Williams 1972)

They arrived in June with their ten children, Alice born 1840, Robert Jesse born 1842, James Greaves born 1844, Thomas William born 1846, Mary Grace born 1847, Alexander Watson born 1850, Eliza Jane born 1852, Isabella born 1854, Elizabeth born 1856, and Emma born 1860. They settled in Pinetown, but the cotton seed did not arrive, so they moved up country and settled in the area of York and New Hanover, between Pietermaritzburg and Greytown. Map. It was here that their youngest child, Jabez, was born in 1868.

Another family of staunch Wesleyans and missionaries was already living in the area. Leonard Clark had arrived in Natal with his parents and siblings on the Lady Bruce in 1850, aged 15. They were a working-class family from Yorkshire escaping the difficulties of the industrial revolution. Also arriving in 1850, but on the Haidee, was Sarah Elizabeth Ward and her sister. She was 21 and also from Yorkshire, but her background was more middle class. Her father was a renowned Marine Painter. Leonard and Sarah were married in 1855, at Pietermaritzburg. They had eight children, but the two who link into this story are their second child, Sarah Eleanor “Nellie” born in 1857 (my great-grandmother), and their youngest, Edith Esther “Edie” born in 1871. 2  (Liz Finnie Pvt. Comm.)

The Smiths were a third family who had migrated from England. I know very little about them except that father James Smith had married a second time in 1839 to Eliza Ann Greenwood. Their son, William Greenwood, who is pertinent to our story, was born in London in 1841 and his sister, Edith in 1847. Their next child, Herbert Wicksteed, was born in 1851 in Durban. Shipping records are only available from 1850 and they don’t record the Smiths, so it seems that they moved to Natal some time between 1847 and 1849 and settled in the Westville region of Durban. They had two further sons in Durban: Edward Shelly Ebbs in 1853 and Heber Rix in 1858.

A fourth family relevant to our story had a distinctly South African heritage. The Cadles linked the 1820 English settlers to the Eastern Cape with the much earlier settlers to the Western Cape. George Ellis Cadle was the son of 1820 Settlers and was born in Salem, Eastern Cape, in 1824 a few months after his father drowned. His mother married again, twice, in 1825 and 1827 and settled in Port Elizabeth. George appears to have had issues with his home life because he disappeared in 1837, aged 12. His mother thought that he might have been abducted or alienated by a local family, but after some months, George wrote to say that he was in Natal. He had stowed away on a Voortrekker wagon, and when discovered, too far from home to be returned, the family took him to Natal. He decided to stay in Natal and became known as the Afrikaans Cadle. 3  (Strachan 2009) In 1849, he married Martha Maria Bruwer at the Dutch Reformed Church in Pietermaritzburg. She had been born in 1827 in Swellendam, Western Cape, into the long line of Bruwers going back to the earliest Cape settlers to whom my wife is connected. She and her family had also trekked to the Umvoti/Greytown region of Natal. Of their ten children our interest is in their eldest, Anna Margrieta, born 1850, and their ninth, Aletta Petronella, born 1865 who together provide one of the links between the Smiths and the Liddells.

The marriages and the moves to the Free State

As was to be expected, the Liddells and Clarks were heavily involved together in the local Wesleyan church. Joseph Liddell is recorded as being present when Leonard Clark’s father, John, laid the foundation stone for the Wesleyan Chapel in York in 1867. The Liddells and the Clarks were farmers. John Clark owned Mount Pleasant, Joseph Liddell owned Besters Hoek. Leonard Clark farmed Clifton, moved to Sterk Spruit by 1868 and then to Groen Kop by 1874. All in the York/New Hanover area. (Liz Finnie Pvt. Comm.)

The Liddells also operated a timber mill and a Native Store and, at some point, together with the Clarks, became involved in haulage – which in those days meant ox wagons. The discoveries of diamonds in 1868 and gold in 1884 created a massive demand for goods and material of all descriptions. The railways did not reach either place until into the 1890s so transport riding would have been a lucrative business. Three sons, Robert Jesse, James Greaves and Jabez, gave their occupations at various times as “Transport Rider” and others were undoubtedly involved too.

The Liddells moved away from Natal to the Free State and this appears to have happened in the late 1860s and early 1870s. The reasons are not clear, but the finalisation of the border disputes with the Basuto probably played a part. Joseph Plaskett petitioned for bankruptcy in 1869 and Bester’s Hoek was repossessed by the mortgagee but the settlement of the bankruptcy included the discharge of a £1,500 debt that Joseph owed to a James Barlow in England. 4  The involvement with haulage might have also been a prompt because the farms, Clifton that Alexander Watson “Sandy” Liddell purchased in 1870, and Bethel, that he purchased at about the same time, were well positioned to supply the mines. (Jeff Leader Pvt. Comm.) The move was, therefore, probably driven by opportunity. It set a base for the Liddells in the Free State, but they clearly maintained their connections to Natal, which would have been facilitated by their involvement in haulage as this would have seen them moving regularly between Natal and the Free State.

Bethel with Mount Horeb
©Liz Finnie
Original Walls on Clifton
©Jeff Leader

Sandy Liddell went back to Natal to marry Elizabeth Annie Cooper from New Hanover in 1878 at Pietermaritzburg, giving his occupation as a farmer from Bethel. 5  James Greaves Liddell also went back to marry Sarah Eleanor Clark in 1879 in her father’s house which by then was on the farm, Colworth. This lay just below Van Reenen’s Pass on the route between Ladysmith and Harrismith. He gave his occupation as a Transport Rider from Bethel. 6  James Greaves and Sarah then lived on Bethel because that is where their first child, Isabella Jane, was born in 1880. 7  By the time of the birth of their third child, Laura Margaret, in 1882, they were living and farming on Bluegumbush at Witsieshoek. 8  

The older Liddell children had married in Natal before the move. The eldest, Alice, married Joseph Lyons, an engineer, also from Bolton, in January 1863 at York. His move to South Africa was sponsored by Leonard Clark and he had come to Natal six months previously. 9  He was living on the Liddell farm, Besters Hoek, at the time of the marriage. 10  With the short period between his arrival and marriage, it seems likely that Alice and Joseph had known each other in England before moving to Natal. Their exact movements are not known. Their children were all born in Natal between 1865 and 1876, but they too moved to Clarens and by 1893 had purchased the farm Verliesfontein to the south of Clifton.

Verliesfontein homestead view towards Clarens
©Gilian Symons 2021

Alice’s younger brother, Robert Jesse, was farming in the Umvoti/Greytown area when he married Anna Margrieta Aletta Cadle in 1868 at the home of a Mr Hogg in Greytown. 11  His farm, Mispa, on the outskirts of Greytown, lay, and still lies, nearby the Cadle farm, Weltevreden. The timing of their move to the Free State is also not known. They were still living on Mispa in November 1871 when Anna Margrieta’s father died. 12  By April 1876 they were living at Bester Street, Harrismith when his sister, Mary Grace, married William Greenwood Smith in their house. Robert Jesse was registered on the Voters Roll as a Transport Rider, but was a horse breeder and the Town Clerk. (Strachan 2009, Strachan 2015)

The Smith brothers also moved to the Free State sometime in the 1870s, and also had a connection to the Umvoti. When William Greenwood Smith married Mary Grace Liddell in 1876, he gave his occupation as a farmer from Witsieshoek. 13   It is not clear where precisely he was farming, but he and his brothers took possession of the farm Castle View in 1879 which was subdivided into three equal portions with William Greenwood owning the Greenwood portion which adjoined James Greaves Liddell’s Bluegumbush. His brother, Heber Rix Smith, owned the next section which retained the Castle View name. Heber married Aletta Petronella Cadle, Anna Margrieta’s sister, in 1884 on what by then was her brother’s farm, Weltevreden, in the Umvoti district. The Smiths were therefore directly linked to the Liddells via Mary Grace and indirectly via the Cadle sisters. The third brother Herbert Wicksteed Smith farmed the final section, Rydal Mount, with his wife Susanna Maria Pretorius about whom we know only a little.

Living on Clifton and Bethel, as they did, the Liddells came into contact with the Walker brothers who owned the adjoining farm Letsoanastad. Alexander Walker, born 1848, and William Johnstone Walker, born 1847, were from Scotland and had come to South Africa in 1870 because of Alexander’s chronic pneumonia. They called their farm Saint Fort (St Fort) after the area of Fifeshire on the banks of the River Tay across from Dundee.

Farmhouse on St Fort and view from the house.
Footloose Scribbler
Original Walker farmhouse on St Fort.
Country Life – Cannibal Trail

On 14 May 1879, at the farm house on Bethel, Emma Liddell of Bethel married Alexander, farmer, of St Fort 14  and, at the same time and place, Elizabeth Liddell of Bethel married William Johnstone Walker, farmer, of St Fort. 15  After the joint wedding, the couples both settled on St Fort. Almost exactly nine months later, on 11 February 1880, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Bessie Marian Johnstone Walker. This joy was short lived, however, because on 16 February, Elizabeth died on St Fort, probably from puerperal fever linked to the birth.

The clan had rallied around because Elizabeth’s hastily executed, deathbed will was witnessed by her father, three brothers (Thomas, James and Alexander), brother-in-law, Joseph Lyons, and his two sons. William Walker did not play a major part in his daughter’s life. After his wife’s death, he went back to Scotland where he married Isabella Elizabeth Blake in 1883, and then returned to South Africa. Their son was born on St Fort in 1884, but in 1885, they migrated to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, without Bessie. William died there in 1912 and Isabella in 1916. It is not clear why Bessie didn’t go to Canada. She was instead taken in and brought up on Bethel by her two aunts, Eliza Jane and Isabella. Neither of them ever married. They devoted their lives to mission work and teaching amongst the local Basotho community, and, undoubtedly, to looking after Bessie.

Emma gave birth to her first child on 25 February and went on to have ten children.

Thomas William Liddell seems to have moved around a bit more. He is shown as a trader from Witsieshoek when he married Johanna Wilhelmina Meyer at Prince Albert in 1875. Prince Albert is near Oudtshoorn so a long way from Witsieshoek. His wife was from that area, and by accounts had been adopted by the Meyers as the orphaned child of Scottish immigrants who had died at sea. It is unclear whether the couple met by Thomas going to Prince Albert or Johanna going to Witsieshoek, but they settled back in the Free State and the births of their children provide some indication of their movements. The eldest was born in the Harrismith district in 1876, probably at Witsieshoek. The next three were born in the Bethlehem district between 1877 and 1883, probably on Bethel because that is where their second child died of poisoning aged 18 months in 1878, and where Thomas was at the time of his sister’s death in 1880. 16  The next two daughters were born on the farm Vogelstruisfontein in the Heilbron district in 1884 and 1886.

Jabez Liddell and Martha Louisa Roux
Jeff Leader

The youngest Liddell, Jabez, grew up on Bethel and Clifton. His exact movements are not known, but he did work for his brother, Sandy Liddell, as a Transport Rider hauling goods and produce to the Transvaal gold mines via Bloemfontein. He undoubtedly worked on the farms growing up. In 1892 he married Martha Louisa Roux in the Dutch Reformed Church at Senekal. She had been born in the Albany district near Grahamstown, Eastern Cape into one of the old, Huguenot families. Her father had moved to the Free State with the ultimate aim of moving to the Transvaal, which he later did. (Jeff Leader Pvt. Comm.)

From this we can see that by the time of the war there was an interlinked group of families across Harrismith, Witsieshoek and Clarens. The extended family clearly kept in contact with each other as is demonstrated in a lovely photograph that survives of the wedding of Robert Jessie Liddell’s eldest daughter, Martha Maria, to Charles Davie in 1892.

Wedding of Martha Maria Liddell and Charles Davie
Alun Stevens

The photograph shows the bride and groom with her parents and her three younger brothers. The bridesmaids are her sisters, Alice and Eliza, and her cousin, Bessie Walker, from Bethel. Behind them are her cousin, Willie Lyons, from Verliesfontein and her uncles and aunts from Witsieshoek, James and Sarah Liddell, and Heber and Lettie Smith. Her aunt Lilly Ross (Elizabeth Susanna Elsie Cadle), also from Witsieshoek, is on the left. Dr Porteous was the celebrant and Annie his wife.

Joseph Plaskett Liddell and Eliza Greaves did not survive to experience the war. They both died at and are buried on Bethel. She, in 1881 and he, in 1889. Although James Greaves Liddell’s parents did not survive to see the war, Sarah Liddell’s parents did. Family records show that at the time of the war, Leonard Clark and Sarah Ward were leasing and living on Bestersvallei, next door to James and Sarah. The circumstances and timing of their move to the Free State isn’t known, but they are shown as living at Dalhanna, a portion of the Smith farm, Greenwood, at the time of the marriage of their daughter, Frances Alice, in 1888. Their daughter, Laura Ward, also died in childbirth at Dalhanna in 1885 so they may already have been living there by then. Their youngest daughter, Edith, at the time a young widow with a small child, was also living at Witsieshoek at the time of the war. She does not seem to have been living with her parents because she recounted stories to her descendants of going up into the mountains on Patricksdale with Susanna Cronje where they discussed their “sweethearts”. In Edith’s case this was Cornelis Cronje, Susanna’s half-brother, and in Susanna’s case it was Theophilus Liddell, James Greaves and Sarah Liddell’s eldest son. (Liz Finnie Pvt. Comm.)

The Cronjes were an interesting family. The family traced its origins to Pierre Cronje from Normandy, France who arrived at the Cape in 1698. At the time of the war, the Patricksdale farm was owned and controlled by the matriarch of the family, Julia Cronje. She was a Muller, born in Oudtshoorn in 1844 into the same Muller family that is in my family tree, although she was from a different branch from mine. She was my 3rd Cousin 4 times removed. Her father was another Cornelis Johannes Muller. She had married two Cronje brothers in turn. She married Andries Cronje in 1861 and they had five children – Hester, Elsie, Izaak Adolph, Cornelis and Andries Petrus. After Andries’s death in 1872, Julia married his brother, Adolph Johannes (who purchased Patricksdale), and had five more children – Julia, Adolph Johannes, Susanna, Antonie Michael and Christina. All were living on Patricksdale at the time of the war. The sons and daughters, Hester and Susanna, are relevant to this story.

The interconnected families are shown in the following chart. Not all the children are shown because of space, but they too were caught up in the progress of the war and will be discussed in more detail in due course. The grey shaded boxes show the families and people who went to camps. The orange shaded boxes show men who became prisoners-of-war. The war clearly had a wide ranging impact across the families.

Family Chart
©Alun Stevens 2020

Die Vryheidsoorlog ◄ ● ► The war and concentration camps

©Alun Stevens 2020

One comment

  • Thank you so much for this interesting piece. My great Aunt x3 is Eliza Greaves Liddell. Her brother Wright Greaves was my Great Grandfather x3.

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