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?

A little distraction

My parents took me to Paris, London, Brussels and Rome in January 1971.  I’m not sure if this was a reward for completing high school or an attempt to curtail the amount of time I would otherwise have spent working on my tan and trawling for dates on the beach below.

Beaches in the Peninsula_Clifton Beach No.4 looks similar to the Spanish coastline

Clifton Beach, Cape Town (

The London leg opened up an opportunity to connect with an English line of the family: Dinah Silverstone (nee Saltman), her husband Mark, their children and grandchildren.  Dinah was my grandfather’s first cousin and the closest in generation that I would ever get to Harris.  She was in her seventies by the time I met her and all  I can remember is how small she seemed.  If this was an indicator that Harris may also have been short of stature, then it didn’t occur to me at the time.

I should have paid more attention to Dinah.   But my interest lay with someone much closer in age to me: her granddaughter, Esme.

Esme – or Tabetha, as she preferred to call herself – was everything that I wanted to be.  Slim, pretty and clad in the latest fashion: a flower print dress pinned at the waist, its hem rising just above knee-high leather lace up boots.  Boots that I could only dream of wearing as the thickness of my calves prohibited their progress beyond the realm of my ankles.  Tabetha – with a cigarette perched between her elegant fingers, smoke coiling upwards – was so cool that whatever shred of self-esteem I might have had evaporated altogether upon meeting her.  And to make matters worse, she was such a nice person!

Compared with this picture of perfection, I felt like a lump of lard from the colonies, my thighs jammed into too tight trousers, a baggy sweater hanging off my broad swimmer’s shoulders, mismatched colours screaming at each other.  An example of how not to appear in any company let alone that of newly acquainted relatives.  What must they have thought, I wondered?  And why had my mother – who had worked for many years in the rag trade – not made any attempt to make me look like a mensch in front of these people?

In the wake of this encounter, my parents took me to the Kings Road and bought me a trendy black leather coat with fur trim at the hem and cuffs.  If this was designed to lift my spirits, then they had succeeded.


My father, I and the black coat on the Grand Platz, Bruges

I still have the coat even if I have little opportunity to wear it in a city where night-time winter temperatures rarely dip below 6C.

Several years later, I approached Dinah’s other daughter, Hermoine Berton, the keeper of that family’s archives.  She was unable to shed any light on my grandfather.  I regretted that my brief encounter with her mother – by then deceased – had been an opportunity lost, but the time hadn’t been right for me to ask questions.

At this point, I shall return to the proposition that Winston Churchill stayed at Saltman’s Hotel in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, in 1899.

I have since consulted the most reliable source of information available: Churchill himself (see Young Winston’s Wars, The original despatches of Winston S Churchill, war correspondent 1897-1900, ed Frederick Woods, 1972).

Churchill’s despatches make no mention of his having spent any time in Johannesburg in 1899.

For most of his time covering the Anglo-Boer War, Churchill was in the company of the British army led by General Sir Redvers Buller.  On their march to Pretoria in early June 1900, the British troops halted in Johannesburg for a couple of days to rest and reprovision.  At this time, it is possible that Churchill may have sought out quarters separate to those of the troops.  But his despatches do not specifically disclose his living arrangements and the possibility that he may have stayed at Saltman’s Hotel remains just that: a possibility.

Joining a few dots

My little internet gem brought together and made sense of a number of things.

I knew that my great grandfather had brothers and sisters because I’d found records of them in the British Censuses of 1881 and 1891.  There were at least six siblings: Israel (my great grandfather), Mira Liba, Harris, Pearl, Samuel and Joseph.

It puzzled me that my own grandfather should have borne the same name as a living relative: his uncle Harris.  In Ashkenazy Europe, the custom was to name a new born after a family member who had recently died, often a grandparent.  In my own case, I was named after my paternal grandmother who died seven years prior to my birth.    As explained by my parents, the rationale behind this is that by naming a child after a dead relative, the child is likely to take on the characteristics or soul of that person.   From what little I know of my grandmother, it appeared that her talents lay in the arts – music, needlework, etc.  She was a good home maker, but had no head for business, something which I like to think I do have.  Irrespective of whether I’ve inherited any of her characteristics, for most of my early childhood I privately cursed her for having exited this world in such an untimely fashion because I would have far preferred to have been called Peter. (For the first half dozen years of my life, I had desperately wanted to be a boy.)

The riddle of uncle Harris was solved by Avrom who noted that, around 1884, this Harris had anglicised his name from the original Hossel.  As this was eight years after my grandfather’s birth, any blame for naming a child after a living relative was easily absolved.

The Saltman siblings and their descendants divided equally between England and South Africa.  In South Africa, there was, of course, my own line.  There was also the line of my father’s second cousin, Harry Bloch, son of Mira Liba and a shortish man whom we fondly referred to as “South Easter” for his booming voice.  The South Easter – also known as the Cape Doctor – is the strong dry wind that blows over the Cape Peninsula in spring and summer.  Anyone who grew up in Cape Town and experienced this wind would remember it with a fair degree of irritation.

Then there was Joseph, the youngest and possibly most colourful sibling, who was rumoured to have made a fortune in gold and diamond mining (not necessarily all of it legally) and whose hotel in Fordsburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, proudly boasted the name “Saltman’s Hotel”.   Apparently this would have been little more than a pub with a room or two that would not have rated a mention on Trip Advisor. Yet it is alleged that Winston Churchill stayed at Saltman’s Hotel in 1899.

Churchill was in South Africa covering the Anglo-Boer War for the London Morning Post at this time.  Between the time that he arrived in South Africa on 1 November 1899 and the time that he was captured on 15 November 1899, it would seem that he was either in the Cape Province or in Natal.  Following his capture, Churchill spent time in prison in Pretoria, managed to escape after a short period and made his way to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique.  He returned to the British lines in Natal at the end of December of that year.  [Source: Kinsey, HW ‘Churchill and Ladysmith’ Military History Journal vol. 7, no. 3, June 1987]

I am skeptical that Churchill’s travels would have taken him via Saltman’s Hotel in Fordsburg, deep in enemy territory of the then South African Republic.  But something is compelling me to delve further…if only to confirm that this event never happened.

The Internet throws up a gem

Like someone panning for gold, I can spend hours sifting through great quantities of mud in the hope of a shiny particle or two, better still – a small nugget.  It’s a clock-ticking pursuit – the internet is my biggest time thief – but when something shiny appears, it makes all that trawling through the mud seem worthwhile.

I regard myself as an introvert, but I’m not ashamed to say that I periodically put my name into Google.  My top hits are mostly related to my erstwhile rankings in ocean racing and pool events.  There’s not much else there to distract a reader, that’s if you could even call my swimming prowess an item of interest to anyone other than myself.

The genealogical gem I was hoping for revealed itself about 10 years ago.

It is an essay written by an unknown relative, Avrom Saltman, and titled “To be buried in Grimsby” (April, 1998).  It is chock full of information about my family line, some of it supplied by my late father.  Information not only about who they were, but where and how they would have lived.

Avrom’s essay confirmed much of what I already knew.  I knew that my great grandparents, Israel and Sarah, had married in Sheffield in 1875 and had produced a son less than a year later.  That they had not originated in Britain.  I knew that my paternal great great-grandfather, Zelig Saltman, was a “traveller” and that he, too, had not been born in Britain.  I knew that my maternal great great-grandfather, Marcus Marks, was a shopkeeper in Sheffield, and had been born in Russia as had his daughter, my great grandmother.

The essay revealed a birthplace for Zelig: the town of Kruky in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled places like Lithuania and others in the Pale of Settlement for a better – and more egalitarian – life in countries such as the US and South Africa.  And while I am not abreast of the full extent of the suffering they endured at the hands of their Russian oppressors, I do recall that my maternal grandmother – the only grandparent I was lucky enough to know – was, at the age of 15, illiterate due to education laws at the time which precluded up to 90% of Jewish children from gaining a place in schools.

Zelig was widowed, probably about 1872, his wife (Esther or Esther Rivka) having died in Lithuania.  Shortly afterwards, Zelig, who never remarried, came to England, presumably with his son Israel.

Zelig settled in Grimsby and was a hawker in glass or travelling glazier, a fairly common Jewish trade at the time.  The ancient town of Grimsby, England’s largest fishing port, had recently undergone dock improvements which not only greatly increased the number of vessels using the harbour and the amount of fish being handled, but spawned a range of ancillary industries which provided economic opportunities for capable middlemen.  Litvack glaziers, such as my ancestors, were no more than hawkers who sold glass across the surrounding countryside, returning home for the Sabbath.  Theirs was not an easy life.  The Jewish glaziers had to face a certain amount of discrimination or anti-semitism, even if trivial compared with what they had experienced in the Russian Empire.  According to the Jewish Chronicle of October 20, 1875, a glazier with his own premises did not require a licence to trade, but Jewish glaziers were being fined for hawking glass without a licence (cited at page 29).

Zelig died in April 1900 at the age of 79 or 80 and appears to have left no estate.  He outlived his eldest child Israel, my great grandfather, by almost 24 years.  His tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Grimsby reveals an unexpected bonus: the name of his own father, Judah Arie Saltman i.e. my great-great great-grandfather.

I knew that Israel had called himself a commercial traveller and it is possible that he also dealt in glass.  Unbeknownst to me, my father had also supplied the following information to Avrom about Israel (refer page 9): “Seven months after his son, Harris, was born Israel died of a bowel inflammation at Everton (near Liverpool) while on his travels.  Sarah later married a man called Edelman.  They went to Edinburgh and had at least four sons.”

I now knew the cause of my great grandfather’s death.

Unfortunately, if my father had discussed a time frame within which my great grandmother had remarried and relocated to Edinburgh, it is not recorded in Avrom’s essay.

Making sense of the Census

Every five years Australia takes a Census.  The results form perhaps the single most important source of socio-demographic information for anyone who is trying to imagine the future.  How has the population changed from one period to another?  Is it growing or declining?  Is there a bulge forming in a particular age group?  Are we becoming more culturally diverse?  Do we work fewer or more hours than we did five years ago?  Are we better educated and wealthier?  Do more of us use the Internet?  Are we increasingly doing voluntary work or caring for others?  Such indicators and trends are a key part of an urban planning professional’s tool kit because they help tell us how to provide physical infrastructure and human services.  The Census is my crystal ball!

Thankfully, I would not need to delve into South African Census records where the history of Census taking has been patchy at best and the reliability of data questionable, at least during the apartheid era.  The Group Areas Act, which mandated racial segregation from the mid 1960’s until 1990, not only resulted in the forced removal of communities with long ties to urban areas, but also skewed Census results by significantly under-enumerating people who chose to live and work illegally in the cities.  Such people would understandably have been reluctant to admit a Census official into their homes, let alone complete a form, for fear of being repatriated to a rural homeland where work opportunities were less abundant.

I have turned to the British Census in the first instance.

Great Britain has taken a Census every ten years since 1801.  Under the “100 year rule”, access to details such as names, addresses and marital status is granted once the records are a century old.  This is a valuable source of information for family history researchers.  For me too.

I began by looking for Sarah and Israel in the 1871 Census for England and Wales.  They are not listed there, nor do they appear in the Scottish Census of the same year.  From this I infer that they had most likely migrated to England after that date and prior to 1876.

The 1881 Census is more forthcoming.  Sarah is now living at 17 Gildart Street in the suburb of Islington, Liverpool, reinforcing the notion that she and Israel may have already moved to Liverpool by the time of his death.  Her place of birth is identified as Russia and her occupation as “hawker”.

Other occupants of the household are:

  • Harry (Harris), five years old and identified as “scholar”
  • Joseph Edleman, son, aged one and born in Liverpool
  • Samuel Marks, Sarah’s father, born in Russia and a hawker
  • Fanny and Sammy Freedman, Sarah’s sister and nephew respectively, the former born in Russia and the latter in Ireland
  • Isaac Fine and Raphael Rome, each born in Russia, hawkers, and boarding at this address

Harris now has a half-brother, Joseph.

Sarah goes under the surname of Edleman.   Her relationship to the head of the household is cited as “wife” and her marital condition (sic) as “married”.  There is no evidence of her husband residing at this address or at any other in Great Britain at that time.  Interestingly, Sarah’s brother in law is also absent.  Perhaps he and Mr Edleman were travelling abroad at the time the Census was taken?  I shall never know.

Sarah’s father is referred to as Samuel, rather than Marcus.  Family history researchers are constantly plagued by name changing and I was not to be spared this challenge.  Marcus may have changed his name for any reason ranging from language difficulties to hiding from debt collectors.  Or perhaps he simply preferred the name, Samuel.

I would have to wait until the 1891 Census to learn more.

In this return, I located a Sarah Marks, widowed and living alone in Fairclough Lane, West Derby, Liverpool.  Her occupation is stated as “stocking knitting”.  The record shows that she is born in Russia and her estimated year of birth is 1855, both of which align with my great grandmother’s date and place of birth.  But the surname change puzzles me.  If this is Sarah Edleman, formerly Saltman, nee Marks, why is she using her maiden name?  Was this to attract another suitor? (this Sarah was only 35 at the time).  And where are her children?

Irrespective of whether this person is my great grandmother, one thing about the 1891 Census is very clear: there is no record of Harris or Joseph residing in the United Kingdom at that time.

Births, deaths and marriages

I’ve always been grateful of a relatively uncommon surname.  And while over the years I’ve had to endure a variety of misspellings including Saltzman, Saldsman, Sultman and even Saltram – the latter being an Australian variation which borrows from a winery of that name – I have never more so valued its uncommonness than when searching for ancestors.

I knew Harris’ age at and approximate date of death.  Working backwards, this told me that he had been born in 1875 or 1876.

Back at Rumsey Hall, I browsed the St Catherine’s House Index for these two years, checking all four quarters for each.  It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for: an entry for Harris Saltman between April and June 1876, the birth registered in the district of Sheffield in the county of Yorkshire West Riding.

There were no other entries by this name over this period.  I’d hit pay dirt.

I now had a three month window for a birth date, for which I would need a copy of his birth certificate.  And for the equivalent of five pound sterling, the Society could order one on my behalf.

It arrived three weeks later.

As well as a date, the certificate identifies a place of birth: 37 Shepherd Street, Sheffield.  This address is also given for Harris’ parents, Israel Saltman and Sarah Saltman (formerly Marks).  The certificate had yielded up my paternal great-grandparents.

Israel’s occupation is listed as “commercial traveller”, a travelling salesman in contemporary parlance.  What goods did he deal in, I wondered?  Did he have allocated territory?  Did he spend long periods away from home like most travellers did then and can still do today?  How would this lifestyle have sat with a young wife and new baby?

Israel’s and Sarah’s son was born on 22nd April 1876.  For ballet buffs, this is also the day on which Tchaikovsky completed Swan Lake.

Encouraged by my find, I decided to look for registration of Israel’s and Sarah’s marriage.  I browsed the indexes at Rumsey Hall and found an entry in the third quarter of 1875.  I pondered whether theirs had been a shotgun wedding?  Had Mr Marks had to put the hard word on Israel?  Only the certificate could tell me so I handed over another five quid to the Society and waited the obligatory three weeks.

The marriage certificate shows that Israel and Sarah were living in Sheffield at the time they married, less than a quarter of a mile apart and in the same general area as Shepherd Street.  Their respective fathers are identified on the certificate: Marcus Marks, Sarah’s father and a shopkeeper, and Zelic Saltman, traveller.  I had inadvertently discovered two great great-grandparents.

Their date of marriage was 7th July 1875.  Israel’s age is stated as 20 and Sarah’s as 21.  And while it wouldn’t have mattered to me, I deduced that Harris had not been conceived out of wedlock.

But any satisfaction I may have derived from learning about this family unit was short-lived.  Further review of the indexes revealed that Israel had died in the third quarter of 1876 in Liverpool (West Derby).

Israel left behind a wife who had barely emerged from her teens and a son who would never know his father.


The end of the world is nigh


A unique time to be alive, to be able to say that you were present when the ends of the decade, century and millennium were about to converge.  It was surely a time to celebrate, to look forward to new beginnings, to have hope for the future.

Not so.  If the doomsayers’ predictions were to run their course, then the global community was in for a bumpy ride.

Years that end in zero are well known for causing fears that the world is about to end.  As the first millennium drew to a close, European pilgrims moved in droves towards Jerusalem where Jesus was expected to appear and deliver the last judgment on the final day of 999.  Many had given away their worldly possessions in the hope of guaranteeing a place in heaven when the end came, but thousands died before even having reached their destination.  On the day of destiny, those who had made it to Jerusalem climbed to the top of Mt Zion awaiting the appearance of Jesus and their salvation.  They were doubly disappointed.

Almost a thousand years later, it was a microchip that had difficulty interpreting the year 2000 that would turn the world upside down.  The “Y2K crisis” or “millennium bug” was predicted to cause all manner of disasters ranging from the failure of essential infrastructure to the disappearance of food from supermarket shelves.  A disaster of seismic proportions was around the corner.

Back in Sydney, while we had one eye on the pending havoc that the millennium bug might wreak, we were probably more – and quite reasonably so – preoccupied with getting ready to host the 2000 Olympic Games.  The Games were being held in Sydney for the first time ever and for only the second time in the southern hemisphere.  We dared not mess up.  With the venues completed on time and the Games’ “green” credentials well established, the remaining potential obstacle to earning that all important endorsement of “the best Games ever” would be our ailing public transport system and, in particular, our temperamental rail network.  Right up to the Opening Ceremony we worried that when called to account, it would throw a tantrum (it didn’t).

Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I had managed to carve a small role for myself in writing the planning documentation for two Olympic venues, one of the most remarkable breaks of my career.

But by late 1997, this work had run out and I was in what I euphemistically refer to as my “between jobs” phase.  The more familiar term for this state of inactivity is unemployment.

Enter Rumsey Hall, an unassuming two storey building located at the northern end of Kent Street in Sydney’s historic Rocks district, and home to the Society of Australian Genealogists’ overseas resources.  I had found the Society in my cyberspace wanderings and decided that its resources would be of use to me.

It was October, with daylight saving assisted long evenings minus the heat and cloying humidity that would follow a few months later.  Fragrant Chinese star jasmine was in full flower and the jacarandas would bloom shortly, populating the metropolitan landscape with splashes of purple.  One of the loveliest times to be in Sydney.  And a good time to do a bit of research.

I signed up for a year’s membership to gain access to the Society’s resources.  On my first visit, a volunteer gave me a quick tour of the various indexes and records, and how to use them.  I quickly established that the St Catherine’s House index of births, deaths and marriages in Britain – bound volumes of hard copy which had to be booked in advance – was a logical starting point.  After a quick browse of the bookshop downstairs and armed with my booking, I walked out onto Kent Street, to return another day.

Half facts are worse than no facts at all

Remembering dates has always come easily, dates of any description – birthdays, marriages, deaths, special functions and the rest –  and that extends to pets as well as humans.  And if I did start with some talent in this department, then it was certainly honed by the history teaching methods of the time where knowledge of dates reigned supreme.   And by a history teacher who insisted that half facts were as useless as no facts at all.

At school I became a walking compendium of dates for European and South African history.  I knew all about modern European history, some American history and what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of South African history.  Disproportionate because it seemed to focus so narrowly on the interaction of the Afrikaner people with the British in the nineteenth century.

The manner in which it was taught in the 1960’s could be likened to one of my favourite Clint Eastwood spaghetti western movies.  The Afrikaners – or trekkers as they were known – were the “good”, the colonising English from whose control they were trying to escape were the “ugly”, and the African tribes into whose lands they wandered were the “bad”.  Bad because unhappy events befell many a trekker in his encounters with the African peoples who, quite reasonably, weren’t convinced that a bible was a fair exchange for their land.

The French Revolution was a standard history text in South African high schools in the 1960’s.  Many years later, I pondered the irony of a regime which simultaneously legislated separation of races while allowing its youth to learn about methods of dealing with inequality.

My all-time favourite history acronym is the Duke of Marlborough’s “telephone number”, BROM 4689.  This equates to the victories led by the Duke at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709) in the war of the Spanish Succession.  It wasn’t part of the school syllabus.  It was taught by my father, a man of some preciseness.  Had it passed down from Harris?