Arthur + Ethel: A South African Marriage
South Africa poses some challenges when tracing your family history. Like Australia and New Zealand, census records are non-existent, and the government department in charge of vital records—Home Affairs—can take months (if not years!) to fulfill requests for birth, marriage and death certificates. But it’s not all doom and gloom; in fact, South Africa has some of the most interesting and genealogically rich documents and records for family history research, if you know where to look. And like all times and places across history, newspapers can offer a rare glimpse into the world of our ancestors.
For just over a year now, I have been researching my Bell family who emigrated from England in about 1880. In particular, I was seeking the marriage record of my 3rd-great grandfather and grandmother, Arthur Jephson Bell and Ethel Rawson. Frustratingly, they apparently married in an early Pietermaritzburg church which no longer exists, the Drill Shed Church (see image to right). I could find indexes to their marriage but not the register entry itself, so I set about using other record types to confirm the details of their South African wedding.
Finding the original marriage register
When online records proved scant, I eventually enlisted the help of an on-site researcher through Upwork (a cheaper option than hiring a specialised record agent or genealogist, by the way—just make sure the person you pick shows some familiarity with searching in the record set you’re interested in). The freelancer I hired visited the Wits University library in Johannesburg on my behalf and viewed the original marriage registers on microfilm (which hadn’t been digitsed by FamilySearch). Unfortunately, the record for Arthur and Ethel was blank, with the exception of their signatures—and those of the witnesses to their marriage—at the bottom. I don’t have an explanation for why this is the case, but it was certainly discouraging!
A chance discovery on familysearch
As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a very relevant database on FamilySearch while browsing the website’s holdings of Natal records. And there it was on image 250 of the ‘Marriage Declarations, 1847-1888’ database—Arthur Jephson Bell and Ethel Rawson, signed with a date that I had earlier seen repeated in some online trees, 9 July 1885. The marriage declaration contains more than just a date, though, and it confirmed other information already known about the couple:
Name, Arthur Jephson Bell
Age, 22 Years
Where born Derbyshire
Name, Ethel Rawson
Age, 21 Years
Where born, Yorkshire
The fact of this document also leads me to believe that Arthur and Ethel’s marriage was quite rushed (a declaration is provided in cases where banns aren’t published), which corresponds to some written family history suggesting that Ethel, furious that her sister had allegedly became pregnant to her fiancé, ‘vowed to marry the first man that asked, which happened to be Arthur Jephson Bell’. (1)
Transcriptions vs originals
Another piece of evidence came from Michael Scogings’ transcription of BDM notices from the South African newspaper Natal Witness, hosted on the virtual/online branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa (eGGSA) (2). As any decently experienced genealogist knows, transcriptions are a good finding aid but originals should generally be viewed as well.
So I set about trying to see a copy of the newspaper myself, and eventually found that the University of Adelaide’s Law Library is the only Australian repository which holds copies of the Natal Witness on microfilm. I organised for my local library to loan several reels from the university, including the one which would contain the notice as transcribed by Scogings. Upon reviewing the newspapers on microfilm, I found not only the notice of my 3rd-great grandparents’ marriage (curiously listed under the heading ‘Domestic Intelligence’) but several ads for Arthur’s brother’s nursery and seed shop in Church Street, Pietermaritzburg.
BELL—RAWSON.—At the Drill Shed on the 9th inst., by Rev. D. Soames, Arthur J. Bell, to Ethel, second daughter of Mr. Thomas Rawson, Berg St., late of Tickhill, Yorkshire.
I had some inkling that I would find such advertisements, but I was delighted to see them in the flesh, printed and published for prosperity. I have several more inter-library loans pending, so I will be returning to the library again soon to look at more of the Natal Witness. I thoroughly enjoyed expanding my research even further through this process, and it is interesting to access and experiment with more ‘obscure’ records in my genealogy research.
It is thanks to the combination of the marriage declaration, Scogings’ transcriptions and finally seeing the Natal Witness marriage notice itself that I can conclusively say Arthur Jephson Bell and Ethel Rawson married on 9 July 1885 at the Drill Shed Church in Pietermaritzburg.
South African Genealogy
One of my favourite South African genealogists (and someone who co-moderates the wonderful South African Genealogy Facebook page), Matthew Bode, has a great series of YouTube videos discussing various aspects of South African family history. I highly recommend anyone interested in finding their South African ancestry to check out his tutorials, especially starting with ‘A Beginner's Guide to South African Genealogy’ and ‘Utilising FamilySearch for South African Genealogy’.
Edwards, Dorothy Adeline. 1996. My Life. Unpublished autobiography. p. 2.
Marriage announcements. South Africa. 1885. Natal Witness. 14 July. BELL, Arthur Jephson and RAWSON, Ethel. Transcription by Michael Scogings. Collection: South African Newspaper Extracts (https://www.eggsa.org/newspapers/index.php : accessed 16 August 2019), Natal Witness > Natal Witness 1885 BDMs + Natal Education Results.