Register of note

2010-04-16 00:00

TODAY at 10 am in the ­Olympia Hall at the Royal Showgrounds, Shelagh Spencer will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in recognition of her work documenting English emigrants to Natal in the 19th century.

British Settlers in Natal. A Bio­graphical Register, 1824-1857 published by the University of of KwaZulu-Natal Press now extends to seven volumes. The nomination motivation for her doctorate describes them as “essential aids to the study of the region” that “make up an invaluable contribution to the historiography of colonial Natal ... and although the Biographical Register concentrates on a particular group, it nonetheless involves the total population, and without a richer knowledge of the British settlers our understanding of the colonial process as a whole is ­necessarily limited.”

As the motivation acknowledges, her work has made this Pietermaritzburg resident “internationally known as the foremost researcher and genealogist of colonial Natal.”

The idea of a project documenting British settlers to the province first ­occurred to Spencer in the early sixties when she was doing her honours in history while working at the library on the local campus. “I would visit the archives and there were all these Shepstones — Theophilus, Henrique, Offy, Wesley but no way to really find out who they were.”

So Spencer decided that once her honours was completed she would do a biographical register. “After my honours I had a year’s break — I’d been studying since schooldays — and then I got going in 1963,” she recalls. “I thought it would take me 10 years. And here I still am.”

Spencer chose 1857 as a cut-off date as thereafter large government­sponsored immigration schemes were introduced. “There was a whole new clump of people, so that was a good place to stop.” Prior to 1857 people had either come under their own steam or via schemes such as those set up by J. C. Byrne, Henry Boast and a host of smaller schemes.

“I first went through George Russell’s The History of Old Durban and made a note of every name. Then I went through Alan Hattersley’s books and did the same.”

Spencer also investigated the possibility of publication via the local university press showing them a dummy ­version with fictionalised biographies to provide an idea of how the finished book might look. “I ran the sample past them and asked if they would be interested, they said yes they would. At that stage I envisaged a page per person.”

And then the real research began — sifting through church registers, cemeteries, old newspapers, shipping lists, deceased estates and birth and death certificates. It was nearly twenty years before the first volume was published in 1981. “A very little one,” says Spencer, but as her research advanced so the information increased that had to be included. The biographies in the register are published in alphabetical order and the last volume covered those people with surnames beginning with G. “There are now 175 Gs,” says Spencer. “But there are 275 H’s, so that will have to be two volumes.”

The first volume was typewritten. Spencer now works on a computer though her research material is still ­paper-based. “I use the standard five-by-eight cards and each has same size paper attached. The thickest file I have is on Henry Fynn (thanks to his many children). I don’t believe half of what he said and even less of what his son said.”

The nature of Spencer’s research has inevitably turned up skeletons of various kinds hidden away in family closets. “Some families have balked,” she says, “but most have been open-minded.”

Quite apart from her research subject Spencer is well known for her affinity for the colour purple — “I like that colour,” she says, and she is nearly always seen either wearing purple or with a purple accessory. Today, when she is awarded her honorary degree, will be an exception. “The gown is red, purple would be an absolute clash.”


AN extract from the original nomination for the conferring of an honorary doctorate on Shelagh Spencer:

“The enormous amount of work involved in the production of these volumes is immediately striking. As we move through the modern world we leave our traces behind and Shelagh Spencer has chosen to search these traces out for the middle decades of the nineteenth century. She has done this with a commitment and a doggedness rare even in the world of professional historical scholarship. And this is not just the work of a genealogist. The concentration on detail, the extraordinary range of documentary material, the cross-checking of references, not only confirm biographical facts already advanced, but uncover information hitherto not known. While much of this increases our knowledge of those who were significant, the statesmen, bureaucrats, lawyers, businessmen, the Biographical Register is also rich in information about those whom history usually ignores: the poor, the unsuccessful, those who failed the demands imposed on them by the hard 19th-century world. As a result the Biographical Register is much more than a source of information. It is also an often poignant record of the past.”

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