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The Byrne Settlers and Natal – Part 2

St Katharine's Docks, a historical picture from British History Online.
St Katharine's Docks, a historical picture from British History Online.

In part 1 of this post, we wrote about the conditions on ships which brought the British Byrne settlers to Natal (1849-51), and the condition of the land they purchased.

In part 2, we expand on this and some of the the land settled once the immigrants arrived in then-Natal.

In AF Hattersley’s book, The British Settlement of Natal – A Study in Imperial Migration, he writes: “Internally, most of the ships left much to be desired. The smaller ones had two decks; if not, a temporary deck was made by laying planks along the beams. Berths, each containing from two to six beds, would be fitted along the sides.”

Intermediate was not much improved from steerage (lower cost travel), and was “usually a portion of the steerage separated from the rest by a temporary partition”.

“Shipmasters were prohibited by the 1849 Act (Passengers Act) from berthing passengers on the orlop deck (lowest part, where cables were often stored).

“Ventilation was required and inspected in port. Nevertheless, even when the hatches were open, it was commonly so poor that lanterns burned with a blue flame; and in bad weather, when the ship was battened down, the atmosphere below deck was overpowering.”

No doubt, the situation the passengers found themselves in was ripe for the spreading of disease.

St Katharine’s Docks. Picture:

Hattersley went on to say that embarkation was at St Katharine’s dock, London. There, and at Liverpool and other ports, the emigrant was liable “to be harassed by ‘runners’ and ‘crimps’, who gave misleading information on the sailing of ships and might offer to arrange accommodation at boarding houses”. The emigrants were given manuals warning about their scams.

There were often delays, which ended up costing the emigrants, one way or another.

There were some horror stories about the conditions on ships, but others were better equipped and with more empathetic crew and captain, wrote Hattersley.

Bad weather

“On ‘The Aliwal’ the steerage was simply the hold fitted with two rows of bunks. Baggage, chests and utensils, containing rations issued at weekly intervals were placed in the centre. When bad weather struck the ship, there was neither ventilation nor, except for a central lantern, light. For days on end it might be impossible to carry bedding on deck to be aired.

“But, where both master and surgeon were conscientious, the voyage might not be comfortless. On ‘Henrietta’ Dr Hulme attended to the necessity of ventilation and provided medical comforts for the sick. The ship carried a schoolmaster, and Byrne had supplied books which were to be the nucleus of a library in Natal.

“Scotsmen on ‘Ina’ paid generous tribute to the excellent order on the ship and the kindliness of the officers. On ‘Nile’ Dr Samuel Gower did what he could for the emigrants in his charge. Nevertheless, even cabin passengers on ‘Ina’ were called upon to assist in rotation in the galley.”

Now read: Impressions of a colony circa 1900

Byrne was aware, wrote Hattersley, of the threat to life when there were large numbers of children on board; for this reason, the regulations did not allow more than four children under 14 to accompany their parents.

“On ‘King William’ there was an unusually high percentage of children; and, until a bulkhead had been broken down to provide more air, little could be done to halt the ravages of scarlet fever.”

Eighteen people died on the voyage.

But there were no cases of cholera on the Byrne ships and, for the most part, the passage was dull and uncomfortable, rather than painful and dangerous.

Social entertainment

“There was generally a school on board for the children, and some attempt at social entertainment. On ‘Henry Tanner’, the master allowed the ship’s cook to assist even the steerage passengers, and Leonard Wright’s wife recorded that he baked her pork and flour into palatable bacon cakes. George Potter noted that provisions on ‘Haidee’ were good and abundant, and the captain kind, steady and obliging.”

Wreck of the ‘Minerva’ by J Forsyth Ingram.

The major disaster among the ships was the loss on July 3, 1850 of the Indiaman, ‘Minerva’ at Port Natal (Durban). Hattersley wrote: “In an easterly wind, which however was not particularly strong, she dragged her anchor. When the second anchor was dropped, she was drifting at three or four knots and the chain snapped, the ship driving on a ledge of rock off the Bluff. Donald Moodie, who witnessed the occurrence thought the wreck ‘unaccountable’.”

Hattersley notes that the master of the ship, Moir, was a capable and “gallant” commander, “who, the previous August, had rescued the crew of the Dutch ship ‘Gertruyda’ in a storm”.

The Minerva wreck: Captain Bell’s role

“The enquiry into the disaster produced no very definite conclusions. Anchorage off the port is good, and the sea room is ample. The only ship which had driven at the outer anchorage was the ‘King William’, which was badly found in anchors and cable. It is clear that the ‘Minerva’ lay too close on shore and at single anchor; but the ‘Henrietta’, which had arrived the day following, lay even nearer to the Bluff, and was brought up on the first sign of drift within two cables’ length of her first position.”

Hattersley writes that no lives were lost on ‘Minerva’, among passengers and crew – although a sailor who had corageously gone to help drowned. Almost all the baggage of the emigrants was lost, but they escaped with their lives.

Dissatisfied with land

As discussed in Part 1, land was a contentious issue. Once an immigrant had arrived with family at Port Natal, hopefully all safe and sound, many were not satisfied with what they’d bought, or been allocated.

Customs House of Port Natal, 1851.

“Men dissatisfied with their allotments could obtain privately owned farms, either by purchase or on very easy terms for a period of years. A condition of earlier grants of Crown land had been that it should be under bona fide occupation for at least seven years. In order to fulfil this condition, proprietors were glad to offer use of the land on quite nominal terms.”

Hattersley writes of a Leonard Wright, “the Little Kelk farmer”, who was offered a seven-year lease of a 6000 acre farm, with the valuable right to cut wood, without rent.

“He preferred to accept what he considered a better bargain, a two-year lease at a rental of 40 pounds of Sheriff Zietsman’s farm, within eight miles of Pietermaritzburg. Though only 10 out of 6000 acres were actually under tillage, the farm was well stocked, with fruit trees, wagon, span of oxen and 40 milking cows.”

Karkloof Hills

A snippet from Charles Scott Shaw’s well-known title Stories From the Karkloof Hills, under “Settlers’ Own Stories”.

Shaw writes that Effie Smythe, daughter of the Hon. Charles Smythe had this to say: “The first British people to settle in this district (Nottingham Road area) were the Kings. They came to Lynedock in May 1850. They arrived in Durban the previous October in the “Henry Tanner” – a vessel of 350 tons and a crew of 11. The voyage lasted nearly four months and there were 169 people on board besides the crew.

“Among their fellow passengers were the Henwood family, many of whom were connected with the early days of Nottingham Road. Most of these people came under the Byrne immigrant scheme by which every man, woman and child had a 20 acre plot allotted to them at Slang Spruit near Maritzburg. The voyage was not a luxury cruise. Every able bodied man had to take his turn at the pumps. Passengers had to provide their own utensils for table use and bed and blankets and linen.”

She wrote that food was poor and some passengers suffered greatly from scurvy.

“Miss Helen Ellis lost all her teeth from this. The King party were Mr and Mrs King and a son. Mr James Ellis and his two sisters, the Misses Ellis.”

Effie Smythe reckoned that to stay on the plots they had been allocated in Maritzburg area was out of the question and they stayed six months until they bought Lynedock and the Ellis’s bought Balgowan.

“They trekked there in an ox-wagon and until a wattle and daub was built, lived under a tarpaulin stretched over poles. Luckily they brought warm clothing with them in winter. There was a little baby by then of three months. Lynedock was then the most westerly occupied farm in the country. Bushmen there must have been, for a cache of flint arrow heads was found at Lynedock, and there are still paintings to be found in the district.

“Balgowan was the portion of the Ellis’s. Mr James Ellis persuaded his sisters to sell Balgowan to Mr Jaffray for what was considered a very good price in those days. The sisters never saw their share of the sale and in a committee room of the Natal Society Library hangs a tablet in memory of this Mr Ellis who made a donation to the society. He was a ‘most disagreeable man and would do his own people down at every turn but generous to a fault to those who had no claim on him.”

Prevailing prices

Back to Hattersley, he writes that terms for sale of farms close to Pietermaritzburg were considered attractive.

“A 6000 acre farm in reasonable proximity to Pietemaritzburg might fetch 300 pounds.”

The Natal Witness advertised in 1850 a farm of 12000 acres, 14 miles from the capital, at a rental of just 30 pounds, with the lessee having the right to use the full stock of the farm.

The conclusion was: “The contrast between Byrne’s charges and prevailing prices explains the total inability of (his agent John) Moreland to effect sales in Natal, once the real value of land was appreciated.

“A return of land forfeited to government by Byrne settles under ordinances of 1849 and 1851, which required them to take occupation of their allotments, showed that nearly 12000 acres of rural land and 165 village and suburban allotments were refused.

“The immediate necessity of those who settled on their land was a roof over their heads. Free-stone of good quality is found in many parts of Natal, and whin-stone (hard, dark-coloured rock) is quarried in the neighbourhood of Pietermaritzburg. At Durban, stone was originally obtained from the Bluff, but the needs of the harbour works caused this source to be closed to private enterprise.”

Universal roofing material

Durban bricks were poor in quality, wrote Hattersley. Bricks from Pietermaritzburg clay were not of the popular brindled colour and, without the addition of lime, proved to be lacking in durable qualities.

“Local thatch provided an almost universal roofing material, until the ravages of lightning and the insistence of the Natal Fire Assurance and Trust Co moved citizens to replace it with tiles or iron. Tiles of a sort were made in the capital in the 1840s by Carl Pistorius. In 1851 a better quality of pantile (a roof tile, curved to make an S-shaped section), and ultimately some Broseley tiles, began to be manufactured by two Lincolnshire men, James Smarfit and Henry Chatterton, who came out on the ‘Haidee’.”

Chatterton discovered clay north of the town, and “his handsome pantile, some of which are still in use on older cottages in Pietermaritzburg, came on the market in 1853 at 7 pounds per 1000”.

In the next history blog: More on Lynedock, Lidgetton and Fordoun


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