Something old, something new

Bubbles Segall acknowledged my inquiry within 24 hours, alerting me to new sources of information including passenger lists, the National Archives of South Africa on whose site was reference to several documents about Harris, archives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and those of the University of Cape Town (UCT).  I could follow these up on my own.

She had independently found the following:

  • Details of Harris’ birth, death and place of burial from the South African Jewish database held by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and research at UCT
  • An extract from Avrom’s essay about Harris’ migration to South Africa
  • Details of his attendance at the South African College

The first item confirmed what I already knew of key milestones in my grandfather’s life.  The second was, of course, familiar to me and has since been quoted repeatedly in the course of my dealings with others.

It was the third item that caused me to pause a while.

Bubbles had extracted this information from the Ancestry 24 site although it appears on Findmypast and other sites too.  The citation reads as follows:

  • Name: Harris Saltman
  • Start Year: 1895
  • End year: 1898
  • Source: The History of the South African College Vol 2 by Prof W. Ritchie
  • Collection Name: SACS Alumni

While new information is always exciting, the dates mystified me.  Firstly, unless Harris had been a singularly slow learner – a prospect I was reluctant to contemplate – this would have made him 22 years old by the time he had completed his schooling.  An unlikely candidate for tertiary education and even less one for a career in the law.

I knew that the South African College – from which the University of Cape Town evolved – had offered courses in tertiary education towards the end of the nineteenth century.  Harris may quite reasonably have attended the latter as a tertiary student, an insight I shared with Bubbles, carefully adding that it would be worth making inquiries of SACS (school) alumni as well.  She agreed.

But the thing that troubled me the most was the commencement date, that is, 1895.  If this was correct, then my father may have been wrong in believing that his father had migrated to South Africa in 1897.

Bubbles had lived up to the promise of her name, but had thrown a new riddle into the mix.

It was time for some more cold-calling.

Adventures of a cold caller: Part 1

I resigned from my secure public sector job in 1988.  This was my ‘Bicentenary Moment’, coinciding with 200 years of European occupation of Australia.  A milestone marked by chest-beating events across the nation, of which my decision to abandon regular employment was one of the least known and un-championed by anyone other than myself.

More than two decades of having had to source my own work has taught me a few things.  In addition to being operations manager, I now had marketing (finding work) and finance (getting paid to do it) to look after as well.  And while I would far prefer that the work came to me – who wouldn’t? – the reality is that this doesn’t happen without a bit of effort.  And part of that effort includes cold calling.

I was about to put more than a decade of cold-calling experience to the test.  I knew the risks.  The modern-day filter for cold-calls is voice mail; email is even easier to ignore.

My first challenge was to find Avrom.  The default port of call – the Internet – proved to be fallow ground.

I turned to his publisher: JCR-UK (Jewish Gen and the Jewish Genealogy Society of Great Britain),a  link conveniently provided on the last page of the essay.  I asked for his contact details, explaining that I was a relative and that my late father had contributed content to the essay.

That was around ten years ago.  Days, months and years passed without word from JCR-UK.  I should have given up then.

But there were loose ends to tie up as well as an urge to uncover new evidence.  Avrom had also mentioned a photo taken of my father in London in 1936.  A photo I really wanted.  Badly.  So I tried again, this time towards the end of 2012.

I had previously noticed a citation about copyright on the last page of the essay, for some reason repeated twice:


I thought it polite to let JCR-UK know that I intended to quote from the essay in my blog.  At the back of my mind hovered the thought that the topic of copyright – notwithstanding that I was on reasonably safe ground – might be the prompt to draw out a response.

I was wrong.

Twice defeated, it was time to put my search for Avrom to one side for the time being.  There were two reasons.  My obsession with finding Avrom was starting to overtake the search for Harris.  I needed to regain perspective.  I also had other fish to fry.

I had decided that the best place to start looking for help was right here in my backyard: the Sydney branch of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society (AJGS) and its president, Jeannette Tsoulos.

Less than 24 hours had elapsed before Jeannette replied to my initial inquiry.  And while she was unable to help with my research, she passed to me the name of and contact details for an AJGS member in Victoria, Bubbles Segall, who might be better able to help.

Would Bubbles live up to the promise of her name?

The tyranny of distance

I read about others’ ancestors who stayed put and am envious.

Imagine researching the life of someone who never strayed further than a few miles from the place they were born.  In this place our fictional ancestor completed their schooling and went on to obtain a trade or tertiary qualification.  Perhaps they joined a guild or professional association.  They married and had children.  The local telephone directory  listed their name and address.  Every time the Census came around, they completed a return.  All these events were recorded and, ideally, whatever information was not available online could be obtained from one or more places in close proximity to each other.

I was out of luck.

By the time Harris was born, a predisposition to travel had already been hard-wired into his DNA.  He moved several times between cities and towns, and once between countries, leaving an uneven trail behind him.Evolution-Cartoon1

I had exhausted the capabilities of the local library, genealogical society and the Internet. Two options presented themselves: follow in his footsteps and connect with the places where he lived or the journeys he made, or try to find those who could source the relevant information for me.

I had always been – and continue to be – lukewarm about pursuing option one.  Below is one of the reasons

Even if I wanted to get myself to England on a regular basis, I would have to face a flight of almost 24 hours that crosses 10 time zones, and covers a distance of some 17,000 kilometres or 10,500 miles.  The flight to South Africa is only marginally less confronting.  Some people cope easily with the demands of intercontinental travel.  I am not one of them.

My primary reasons for travel are about recreation or reconnecting with friends and family. There have been times when I have used the opportunity of being in a place to try to add to my knowledge of particular interests, including family history, and I leave the door open to this in future.  My past efforts have had mixed outcomes and I am cautious about pursuing leads which – if misdirected – not only leave one with an empty feeling, but bite into precious holiday time.  There are also certain things that I cannot, or don’t have the time to do now.

Option two came up smelling of roses.  I would put most of my eggs into this basket.  But I had to start somewhere.

Seeking help invariably involves ‘cold calling’ or ‘cold emailing’.  And like all new pathways, the road can take unexpected turns.

True or false, or somewhere in between?


A friend of mine recently discovered an ancestor who was gardener to a king of Norway.  I asked her how she knew this and she replied that she had written documentation as well as a photo of him standing in the king’s garden.  She provided other details which I no longer recall, but the story sounded sufficiently convincing at the time and I have no reason to believe otherwise.

Who wouldn’t want an ancestor with links to a royal family or who had achieved in his or her own right?  Someone whose invention may have brought electric power to remote communities or whose philanthropy helped make available a cheap version of a life-saving drug?

An ancestor, however, doesn’t have to be noteworthy solely on the basis of having done noble deeds.  Notoriety can be an equally attractive quality.

Until a few decades ago, Australians hid their jail-bird background out of shame.  Now it has become fashionable to claim convict ancestry.  In the eighties, I recall several of my newly acquired Australian friends – all of them law-abiding citizens – wryly referring to a distant forebear who had arrived on Sydney’s shores “dragging his or her chains behind them.”  Those who could claim a famous convict ancestor were doubly blessed.  One view is that this shift in attitude arose to differentiate “old Australians” from “new Australians” such as myself. [see, for example, Sue Ballyn, The British Invasion of Australia. Convicts: Exile and Dislocation 2011, page 24]

There is a strong urge to have our ancestors stand out from the crowd.  Special characteristics – be they good or bad – make our relatives look interesting and set them apart from the common people.  By association, they set us apart and make us look special too.

I am as guilty as the next person in wanting to believe certain things of my chosen ancestor, that he might have amounted to something, that he was different.  But not all that we learn through oral history or even from official records is necessarily accurate.  To quote cousin Avrom, a former professor of history and whose opinion has some authority:

“…(a) recurring theme… is the frequent inaccuracy of all sources of information relied upon by the amateur and professional genealogist – even the evidence of their own eyes!  This inaccuracy is usually the consequence of carelessness and indifference rather than the product of deliberate deception.  These strictures apply to official sources, just as much as, if not more than private records or memories…the more varied the sources, the greater the confusion.” (To be buried in Grimsby, page 4)

A barrister I once worked with suggested that there are five possible answers that a Court expert can give under cross-examination, one of which is “I don’t know”.  Anyone who has given evidence in Court will know how hard it is to resist the urge to blather on in some vain hope of answering a question.  This is exactly what the opposing side’s barrister hopes for and when the expert least expects it, will jump in with the killer punch.  Less is definitely more.

My great-niece recently asked me two leading questions:

  • Why are there shoes hanging from the overhead wires?
  • Is the tooth fairy a lie?

One possible answer to the first question is that there might be a drug dealer in the area.  I was disinclined to explain to a six-year-old what a drug dealer does or why it would be undesirable for her to mix with such a person.   I did not know the answer to the second question at the time and decided to play it safe by saying “I don’t know” to both questions.

To return to our ancestor, there is no shame and certainly no sense of failure in being unable to account for every detail of his or her life.  In fact, it can be quite cathartic to let go of a particular line of investigation that is going nowhere and move on to other areas.

Lack of information doesn’t mean that we cannot try to imagine what life might have been like for our relatives.  There are many informative texts that we can draw from and while these may not paint a complete picture of our ancestor’s circumstances, they can at least provide some context.

I have since learned the correct answer to the tooth fairy question: “if you believe (in it), your wish will come true.”

And the other four stock responses my barrister friend shared with me are: “yes”, “no”, “could you please repeat the question?” and “that is outside my area of expertise”.  I needn’t tell you how hard it can be to stick to those answers!

My internet gem throws me a curveball

My father, Philip (or Phil as he was known), maintained a correspondence with Avrom for several years, contributing content to the family history.

I was amused to read that Phil used to look up Saltmans in the telephone directory when he was travelling overseas and call them on the off-chance that they might be related.  I can see him thumbing through the Edinburgh White Pages while my mother agitates about visiting yet another art museum.  My father did not share her love of museums.  The argument they had following a visit to the Prado in the 1960’s was heated enough to have razed Madrid to the ground.

Regardless of whether calling up potential relatives was some kind of delaying tactic, Phil was regularly rebuffed and eventually gave up the habit.  Perhaps in today’s world of social media, he would have had more success.  I smile as I think how my father’s Facebook page might have appeared.

Phil revealed that Harris had emigrated to South Africa and qualified as an attorney, facts of which I had known for many years.  He did not disclose a port or country of embarkation.  But he did mention a date of emigration: 1897.

This had me confused.  If Harris had only left Britain in 1897, then surely he would have been enumerated in the 1891 Census?

I revisited the Censuses of England, Wales and Scotland for that year.  Had I missed something?  No, I had been correct the first time.  There was no evidence of my grandfather having lived anywhere in Britain in 1891.  It entered my mind that he might have visited Ireland, but even this was a remote possibility.  And if he had ventured across the Irish Sea, it would have been almost impossible to prove as records of both the 1881 and 1891 Censuses in Ireland were destroyed during the First World War.

Phil was known for his photographic memory and attention to detail. But had he made a mistake about the timing of his own father’s movements?