A Window to the Past

Posted by on Jan 3, 2014 in Blog | 2 comments

A Window to the Past

Recently I had occasion to go through some newspapers from the 1880′s and it was an eye opener to read about day to day life from that time. Apart from the political and social aspects of the paper there were many reports of incidents concerning the local folk.

There were some amusing items as in the case of the rowing team from Cape Town who were visiting East London to compete in a race. A few days later the local newspaper reporter stated that he did not doubt that the clothing worn by the Cape rowers might be all the rage in Cape Town but it was a little risqué in East London! He was also shocked to the core that one of these rowers had dared to appear in front of a group of ladies dressed in these rowing shorts!! It’s a good job they can’t see the spandex items available today!

As with all newspapers, reports on accidents always feature prominently. Bad news sells, right? Accidents involving horses and guns as well as drownings were amongst the most prevalent types of accidents reported on and virtually every edition had some kind of bad luck story.

There was the incident involving a 9 year old lad who, instead of saddling up the horse he was going to ride into the village, tied an old sack over the animal’s back instead and climbed on. The horse bolted and the boy fell. His foot got caught in the handle of the sack and he was dragged for miles over walls and ditches until the horse was caught. Of course the young lad was quite dead by this time. As I read this article I was shocked at how a young boy of 9 years had been allowed to ride an animal unattended into the village. What were the parents thinking etc etc. but of course things were different then and one cannot judge out of the context of the time. Children grew up around animals in those days; this after all was the main form of transport and all boys would probably have been riding from the time they were knee high.

Accidents involving guns happened more often than one would think for an era when having a firearm was an essential part of the household, especially, on the frontier. One story involved a man who was killed when the trigger of his loaded rifle hooked on a part of his saddle, fatally wounding him. Another story once again involved two young boys who had gone hunting in the veld. On the way home one of the boys put the rifle across his shoulders, behind his neck, and draped his arms across the stock on the one side and the barrel on the other. As they made their way over the rough ground, the rifle discharged a round killing his cousin who was walking next to him. It was reported that the surviving youngster was so traumatised by the incident that the doctor had ordered him to take to his bed. How tragic!

Alex Bowker, a member of the Bowker clan of 1820 settler fame, almost came to a gruesome end while handling a revolver. He did not know it was loaded and pulled the trigger with the barrel facing his head. The bullet missed his head by a squeak but was fired from such proximity that the powder burned his left eye!

On a lighter note there was the report of a farmer’s wife who took down her husband’s rifle from where it hung over the fireplace and accidentally fired a round right through that outraged gentleman’s derrière leaving him unable to sit for quite a while. Bet he thought twice before leaving a loaded gun hanging on the wall. On second thoughts, I suppose that in those dangerous times on the frontier, having an unloaded gun would have been considered to be foolhardy in the extreme.

Drownings were quite a common occurrence. A well known farmer in the frontier area was on his way to another town with a wagon of supplies drawn by four oxen. With him were his wife, two Fingo servants and another gentleman who had come along for the ride. They reached a river only to find that it was running higher than usual. The farmer decided to risk crossing as it was getting late. He forged ahead and was about half way across with the water up to the necks of the oxen, when the two lead oxen’s harnesses unhooked from the yoke and they swam away. The two remaining oxen were unable to move the wagon by themselves and the current overturned it sweeping everyone downstream. Only the farmer’s two Fingo servants survived to tell the tale and a verdict of accidental drowning was handed down at the official inquiry. This however did not help the 8 minor children the couple left behind.

Unprotected water cisterns on private properties was another common cause of drowning especially of children. Many an article in these newspapers related the sad details of children who went missing only to be found floating in these cisterns. After a few of these accidents one would think that more care would have been taken with their construction.

Reading through newspapers from times gone by is an invaluable tool for reconstructing what life was like back then. They not only give us an insight into the social norms of the day but cover everything from court appearances (in detail sometimes), political events and the day to day happenings which affected the lives of our ancestors. This is the news they would have read and possibly discussed at the dinner table.

The National Library of South Africa keeps copies of the majority of South African newspapers either on microfilm or as hard copies. Spend a day looking through some of them. You will come away with your mind reeling!

Until next time…

2 Comments

  1. 2 August 2016 – As I live in Australia, I am so looking fwd to seeing Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and any South Africa Newspapers placed digitally. Is there any possible date for this plz? My ancestry from SA. during 1850 onwards, includes this major player – Michael John Rourke from Killarney Ireland with 87th Fusileers, then Kildea, Shelley, Rynn, Heron. The St Marys Cathedral, Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth, Caledon st Cape Town,The Post Office Cape Town, St PieterMaritzburg, Blomfontein,Trains, and train accidents,Mining engineer drivers,etc…

    • We live in hope, Lynda, that all SA newspapers will eventually end up being accessible online but as far as I know, there is no date set for this. It would take a huge burden off of resources at the National Library and related archives but, as ever, funding for a venture of this size is a challenge.

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