beginners-guide-to-famiy-historyWhen the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu coined the phrase “Rainbow Nation”, he was referring to the huge cultural diversity that exists in South Africa today. It is a heritage that has its origins in the constant flow of immigrants, settlers, refugees and slaves who interacted with the indigenous people at the Cape from the time of the first permanent European settlement by the Dutch in 1652. Since then only two nations, the Dutch and the British, have governed the Colony until it became a Union in 1910. Britain’s links with South Africa span more than two centuries, beginning with the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795. It will come therefore as no surprise that there are many thousands of British families who have ancestral ties with South Africa.

Getting Started:


1. National Archives

The National Archives of South Africa is generally the first place to begin your search for any archival documents pre 1956. Apart from early colonial government documents, there are also maps, photographs and other historical material relating to the Colony from its earliest settlement. You can also find wills, estates, divorces, inquests and death notices here. A Death Notice should not be confused with a death certificate which is issued by a medical practitioner and which only gives cause of death, address, age and, more recently, an identity number. Death Notices are particularly important sources of information as they can provide you with the deceased persons name, age, place of birth, occupation, marital status, spouse’s name, place of marriage, the names of the deceased person’s parents, children’s names and whether they are majors or minors. Bear in mind that some Death Notices might not have all this information; it depends on what details were known when the document was filled in. I offer a  comprehensive service for all archives.

2. Finding Material

The National Archives has a number of repositories scattered throughout the country but there are six main repositories in the major centres: Cape Town (Western Cape), Pretoria (Transvaal), Pietermaritzburg (Natal), Durban (Natal), Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape) and Bloemfontein (Free State). Each repository is responsible for archiving all documentation relating to the province in which it is situated. The question is how do you know which province to look at? Fortunately the National Archives has a powerful, free, on-line search facility called NAAIRS (which rhymes with stairs) and is short for National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System.  It assists researchers to find material and to identify the repository in which it is housed.  The content of the document is NOT viewable but a short description is provided, together with the relevant dates and reference numbers. Once you have found your document you can request assistance from the repository itself or acquire the services of a private researcher.

3. Master of the Supreme Court

More recent documentation relating to deceased estates is housed at the Master’s Office.  Search for deceased estates here. Here you will find death notices, wills as well as liquidation and distribution accounts for deceased estates. As in the case of the National Archives, each province has its own Master’s Office repository and each has its own date of commencement. In the following main centres they start as follows:

  • Cape Town Masters – 1997 onwards
  • Grahamstown Masters – 1962
  • Pietermaritzburg Masters – 1975
  • Transvaal – 1978 onwards are in the Pretoria Masters Office until 2003 when the Johannesburg Masters came into operation.
  • Bloemfontein Masters – 1951

To obtain a copy of a document you can contact me for rates.

4. The Department of Home Affairs

This government department keeps records of births, marriages and deaths (BMDs) but the physical records are not accessible to the public for research purposes. To access information you must apply in writing to the Department of Home Affairs or, if you live outside of South Africa, you can apply through a South African consulate or embassy in the country in which you reside. There are two types of certificates: an abridged or a full certificate. Always specify ˜full certificate’ or  a vault copy as it contains more detail and will be of greater use to the family historian.I t is worth remembering that civil registration began at different times in the various provinces:

Province Births Marriages Deaths
Cape 1895 1700 1895
Natal 1868 1845 1888
Transvaal 1901 1870 1901
Orange Free State 1903 1848 1903


5. Delays

Expect delays! The Department is very understaffed and it can take anything up to a year before a certificate is issued, however, if an identity number is supplied, the waiting period is reduced to approximately 3 months. There is a charge for all certificates issued by the department. You cannot apply for or on behalf of anyone else unless you have a offficial letter of instruction.

6. Church Records

As in any other part of the world, church records play an important role in research in South Africa. All religions are represented in the country today but the earliest records are those of the Dutch Reformed Church, which date from 1660, and the Lutheran Church from 1784. Anglican Church records began around 1806 and Catholic records in 1820. One of the problems you will face in looking for church records is finding where they are housed. Whilst quite a few churches are still custodians of their own registers, some are not even held in the Provinces in which the churches are located. To illustrate this phenomenon, the University of the Witwatersrand in Gauteng (Transvaal), or Wits as it is known, houses many Anglican registers from all over the country including those of the Island of St Helena and some Cape parishes. A complete list of their collection can be found at: Registers of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town for 1834 – 1900 are held at the Cape Town Archives but later records can be consulted at the Cathedral itself. The church Registers for St. Georges Cathedral, St. John’s ( Waterkant Street, Cape Town) and St. Paul ‘s Rondebosch and St. Francis in Simonstown can be browsed at FamilySearch.  Should you need copies of entries from these registers I  will provide the relevant copies for a fee. A search fee for the registers is also required.Catholic registers are generally not open to researchers and you should write to the diocese concerned for the relevant records. The bulk of Methodist Church registers are housed at the Cory Library in Grahamstown. They also have Presbyterian, Congregational, Catholic, Baptist and Hebrew registers for certain areas. A full list of their collection can be viewed on their website.

7. Passenger Lists

You will not find many indexed lists of passengers travelling to and from South Africa. The exceptions are settler parties like the 1820 Settlers and aided immigration schemes which are very well documented. However, a few random passenger lists have been transcribed by individuals who have come across them in old newspapers or magazines but these are widely dispersed and no alphabetical index of either the ships or the passengers exists.  The information is further limited by the fact that only 1st and 2nd class passengers are named; the plebs in steerage, to all intents and purposes, did not exist. The South African Weekly Journal from 1889 published many 1st and 2nd Class passenger arrivals and departures. Copies of the Journal can be found in the National Library of South Africa, but once again, if you don’t know the date, you are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. If you need passenger records search contact me.

8. Aided Immigration Schemes

Britain initiated many aided immigration schemes to South Africa over the years. The simple reason for this was that the abolition of slavery precipitated the Colony into a labour crisis which the Colonial Government had to address. One of the first schemes to materialise was The Children’s Friend Society. Its mission was to recruit destitute street children in English cities and send them to South Africa as apprentices to farmers, merchants and private households. Much controversy surrounded this scheme as it was felt that these children simply replaced slave labour and that in some cases they were not treated very well. In the 1850’s another wave of immigrants brought skilled artisans to the Colony many of them destined to work on the construction of the railways and others as domestic or farm workers. All in all many thousands of British immigrants ended up in South Africa and their descendants are still here today. Information on immigrants can be found at the National Archives in the section dealing with the Colonial Office correspondence. I can help you with your assisted immigrant ancestors.

9. Military Records

Records for British soldiers serving in South Africa prior to 1910 will be found at the Public Records Office in Kew whereas a large amount of information on locally raised regiments can be found at the National Archives of South Africa. You should therefore be very sure when searching for a military ancestor whether he was in a British regiment or a local or Imperial regiment. Information on military personnel dating from the formation of the Union Defence Force in 1912 can be found at the Documentation Centre of the Department of Defence in Pretoria. This includes information from personnel files, medical records as well as information on volunteers who fought in both World Wars. Enquiries can be made to The Deputy Director, Documentation Centre (Personnel Archives) Private Bag X289, Pretoria 0001. Tel /Fax: +27-12-323 5613

10. Monumental Inscriptions

Monumental Inscriptions are receiving a lot of attention in South Africa at the moment. A project by the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) is underway whereby systematic transcriptions are being undertaken in all the major centres. They have already produced a CD which contains a broad range of material and another is in production. Or you can search Findagrave as well as right on this very website.

11. Census Returns

Detailed census returns are not available in this country and no amount of gnashing of teeth and lobbying of the authorities will get you even a glimpse of one because all have been destroyed once the statistics have been extracted. The closest you will get to a list of significant portions of the population is a Voters Roll. There are drawbacks to using these however, as property ownership, age, race and income were just some of the exclusive criteria used to define electoral eligibility over the years, so your ancestor might not be represented. The earliest Rolls date from around 1870 and are available at the National Archives. The 1878 Voters Lists for the Western and Eastern Cape, 1902 Voters Roll for Cape Town as well as 1989 Voters are available. I can search these records for you.



Check Your Distances! – South Africa is a big country covering 471,445 square miles (over 9 times the size of England) and anyone planning a research trip would be well advised to check the distances between research centres. For example, Cape Town is a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg and by car it can take up to 16 hours.


  • Language Difficulties – Early official documents in South Africa were written in Dutch but with the coming of the British in 1795 many documents were written in both languages. From about 1810 documents were in English so there should not be a problem with understanding the language. Understanding the handwriting is often another matter!


  • Anglo-Boer War 1899 – 1902 – It turned out to be one of the biggest and most destructive conflicts in British Colonial history. A total of 450 000 British troops served in South Africa, leaving behind 21 000 dead and another 52 000 injured, in a war politicians thought would be over in just a few months. Details of various conflicts, including this one, and their Rolls of Honour can be found by me.


  • Striking it Rich – Around 1870 diamonds were discovered on a farm in South Africa sparking off a rush for claims that attracted people from all over the world. It is not surprising that a few people took the opportunity to disappear. The Colonial Office in Cape Town was inundated with ‘Missing Person’ letters from wives and mothers looking for errant relatives. More detail on Kimberley and the Diamond Fields can be found in the Colonial Government Gazettes at the National Archives will uncover the many entries for missing persons.


12. The British Military at the Cape

The Dutch were the first to recognise the merits of the Cape as a refreshment station for their ships because it lay halfway along the strategic sea route between Europe and the East. When war clouds blanketed Europe in the late 18th Century, the British occupied the Cape to prevent it from falling into French hands. Apart from a break of about four years, they remained for over a century. Thousands of British troops were garrisoned at the Cape during that time and whilst their military records will not be found in this country a lot of detail pertaining to their families can. Some soldiers married local girls and many whose families had accompanied them to the Cape had their children baptised at local English churches. One of the main sources of military baptisms is St George’s Anglican Cathedral Church, Cape Town, whose wings fell under the garrison at the Castle. Another is St John’s Anglican Church, Wynberg situated near the large garrison at Wynberg Camp. St George’s Cathedral records pre-1900 can be found at the Cape Archives and on this website whilst the St John’s records in Wynberg are kept at the church.

13. 1820 British Settlers

The British government started the Cape Emigration Scheme in 1819. Its intention was to aid British families to emigrate and settle the Eastern frontier regions of the Cape Colony thereby creating a deterrent to troublesome Xhosa tribes crossing the colonial boundary. It was a rough and dangerous undertaking but post-Napoleonic war England had a high unemployment rate and the idea of being given 100 acres of land and a free passage was attractive. In 1820 therefore, about 1000 British families settled in the Eastern Cape.  Some were more successful than others but in general, their impact on the history of South Africa was enormous. One of the Settlers, Thomas Pringle, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland won the battle against Lord Charles Somerset in attaining the freedom of the Press in the Colony. The history of the 1820 Settlers has been well documented and is kept very much alive by their descendants.

14. The Cape Town Family History Society

Although the Cape Town Family History Sciety was only established in April 2002 its rapidly growing membership already boasts members from as far afield as Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It has a progressive, go-getter approach to family history research, with the emphasis firmly placed on getting to know the historical context in which one’s ancestors lived, what influenced their decisions and what kind of people they were. The Society also provides members with a quarterly News Letter.

Further Reading

Aided Immigration from Britain to South Africa 1857 – 1867 by Esme Bull published by Human Sciences Research Council, 1991 (ISBN 0 7969 1014 6)

British Families in South Africa “Their surnames and origins by C. Pama published by Human & Rosseau, 1992 (ISBN 0 798129 57 3)

British Residents at the Cape 1795 to 1819 by Peter Philip published by David Philip, 1981 (ISBN 0 908396 46 5)

Children’s Friends Society by Geoff Blackburn published by Access Press, 1993 (ISBN 0 949795 73 9)

Cornish Immigrants to South Africa by Graham Dickason published by A.A. Balkema, 1978. (ISBN 0 86961 103 8)

Irish Settlers to the Cape by Graham Dickason published by A.A. Balkema, 1973 (ISBN 0 86961 036 8)

South African Genealogies Vol’s 1 – 9 by J.A. Heese published and edited by Genealogical Institute of South Africa

The Scottish Settler Party by J. Rennie (4 Vol.) published by National English Literary Museum, 1991. (ISBN 0 958318 02 6)

The Settler Handbook by MD Nash published by Chameleon Press in 1987 (ISBN 0 620 10940 8) details 1820 British Settlers

Children of Bondage. A social History of slaves at the Cape by Robert Shell published by University Press, 1994 (ISBN 0 1868142 75 2)

This article was published in the British magazine Your Family Tree in March 2004 and written By Heather MacAlister & Sharon Warr