The History of NIFHS/KZNFHS

History of Natal Inland Family History Society (now the KZN Family History Society)

The history of organizations always seem to be so boring, with lists of committee members and events. Fortunately we have the minute books which record events except for the first few years of our genealogical existence from 1982 to 1989. Neil Bloy has managed to find early newsletters amongst his records that help to fill in some gaps and Mike O’Connor has tested his memory cells. This could be considered a work-in-progress as information is added as and when members remember items. What was going to be a two page article has now increased to many pages even leaving out a number of reminiscences. I have also prepared a list of office bearers for each year and a schedule of other events we participated in.

In September 1982 Prof. Eleanor Preston-Whyte called a meeting in Durban to be addressed by Mrs. Lorena Rosbotton, a well-known professional genealogist from London, and to form a Natal branch of the GSSA. Prof. Preston-Whyte was surprised at the great interest and consequently with  Oscar Holness  arranged a meeting in Pietermaritzburg which was well attended and led to the formation of the Midlands Circle. A Natal branch was formed with two circles, in Pmb and in Durban. This proved unworkable and the two circles developed into two full branches.

Mike O’Connor became interested in genealogy in 1983 and joined the Society in about 1984 when Jock Anderson was chairman and Oscar Holness the Secretary. Other members of the committee were Prof. Iain Behrmann and  Mr. Johns who wrote the book on the Quested family, a copy of which is in the Society library.

A newsletter, which in those days was called “The Family Tree” , tells us that at the third AGM in 1985 where 28 members were present; Prof. Iain Behrmann was elected Chairman; with Vice Chairman Mr.C.C.W. Johns; Secretary/Treasurer Oscar Holness and members Jenny Duckworth and Mr. R.W.Anderson

The first minutes of a meeting in our files are for a meeting held on the 2nd. December.1989. However, those minutes refer to previous committee meetings held on the 1st. August, 16th. September and 18th. November 1988. So  records of the first five years are missing.

Those minutes indicate the chairman as Dr. MJ O’Connor with Prof Behrman, Percy Stirk, Rodney Coyne, Grant Nurden, Oscar Holness and Dianne Scogings on the committee. It is sad that those early minutes were not saved. There are however files of correspondence dated  from March 1983 from which we see R.W.Anderson was chairman in 1984 with Oscar Holness as Secretary.

In an early newsletter there is a reference to the branch participating in a Hobbies Fair held at the YMCA in 1985.

In 1986 the chairman was Prof. Behrmann with vice chairman Mike O’Connor and the treasurer Percy Stirk with Oscar again as secretary. The newsletter tells us that the Durban branch were due to hold a general meeting on the 20th January to discuss whether the branch should continue to function.  In May a meeting was addressed by Prof. Peter Beighton, Head of Department of Human Genetics at the University of Cape Town who spoke on “Genealogy and Inherited diseases”. Attendance was 66 including many of the City’s doctors.

The branch held an exhibition in the Grand Hall of the University on the afternoon of 23 August. Exhibited were the IGI; the use of Computers in Genealogy; The Cemeteries project; The Parish Register Project; Sources of information and in particular the Pietermaritzburg Archives and a display of Family Trees. There was also competitions for other exhibitors. No mention is made of the attendance.  Once more the Society exhibited at the 3 day Hobbies Fair held at the YMCA. The newsletter reported that this was an outstanding success with our Genealogical books being a star attraction.

Membership in 1987 stood at 80 and the total membership for The Genealogical Society of South Africa was 1 040. In 1988 Mike O’Connor was chairman and in 1989 we see Miss. M. A. Baxter as secretary and Grant Nurden as assistant to the secretary. New on the committee were Diane Scogings and Rodney Coyne. On the 19th. October 35 people attended a meeting at St.Peter’s Church where Mr and Mrs. Scogings and Miss. E Pechey conducted a tour and Shelagh Spencer spoke about Bishop Colenso and the old Cathedral.. In November Mike O’Connor spoke about his work on the O’Connor family.

1989 must have been an extremely busy year for the branch for they, upon the suggestion of Oscar Holness, decided upon and staged a “Day of Genealogy” combined with the Durban branch where there were 145 attendees . Mike O’Connor had been corresponding with Kathleen O’Neill, who ran a genealogical research agency in Northern Ireland, and it was agreed that Mike should ask her if she would come and be guest speaker. Kathleen agreed provided her air fare was paid. South African Airways was approached and they agreed to donate two return air tickets and so it was that Kathleen and her husband Don came out to Pietermaritzburg to be the guest speaker. Kathleen and Don were hosted my Mike and Hettie O’Connor during their stay in Pietermaritzburg. Kathleen not only delivered two talks  but also brought out material related to the O’Neil’s in Ireland which was displayed in the foyer. Members were asked to provide a plate of eats so that the Society could offer a finger lunch. Members rallied around and a substantial meal was provided. Beryl Lang, who was in charge of the Family History Centre of the Church of The Latter Day Saints in Durban also delivered a talk. This event was held at the Agricultural faculty of the University despite a power failure and other problems. John Deare, then a relatively new member,  helped with the admissions.

The 1989 Annual General Meeting was held at the hall of the Women’s Institute in Stranack Street. This was preceded by a cheese and wine party. The committee for that year included Miss Margaret.A.Baxter as secretary and there were 91 members. Although I remember attending meetings at that hall, maybe it was the Christmas Function, the minutes state that monthly meetings were held at the YWCA Hall in Pietermaritz Street.

Although Peter Holden of GSSA had initiated a cemetery recording project, it was Oscar Holness whom initiated a project to record the names in the Commercial Road Cemetery. Oscar divided the cemetery; first the Methodist and Dutch Reformed sections; into blocks and designed and produced a form on which to transcribe the tombstone inscriptions. Members formed work parties and transcribed the information.

Thanks to Diane Scogings, her son Michael, and Jill Tatham the records were computerized and printouts made available to the then Natal Society Library and to the Municipality amongst others.  Many members were involved, including Wendy Hoole, to check data before Diane Scogings and her son Michael typed and collated the data.  All the cemetery maps were combined and a book of maps compiled by Neil Bloy, copies of which are held by NIFHS, Anglican Archives and Natal Archives. Jenny Duckworth single handedly did the Catholic section and Mr. David Buckley (ex Natal Society Library) was responsible for the Methodist section   [Neil Bloy’s comments]

 Work parties were also organized to visit outlying cemeteries and our library contains the results of all this effort. Some members; notably Neil Bloy and Jenny Duckworth; approached churches and either transcribed or photocopied baptismal, marriage and burial registers. Oscar Holness managed to obtain a microfische of the 1989 Voters Roll. Microfische readers were obtained and are still available in the library.

I am not going to list the committee members for each year but perhaps highlight any new addition or changes. The minutes tell it all for those who need the detail. In 1990 it is recorded that Oscar Holness, branch researcher, brought in funds of R170 and that in the days before e-mail. Up to 1990 the newsletter was a joint production with the Durban branch. In that year Pam Barnes was approached and agreed to edit our own newsletter. In June of 1990 there was a Hobbies Fair at the YMCA Hall in Durban road and the Branch was well represented there. Also in 1990 saw Wendy Hoole elected to the committee and Don Dunlop co-opted.

Reading those early minutes we find that the branch committee, particularly Oscar Holness and Rodney Coyne, were generally very unhappy with the way the National Executive of The Genealogical Society of SA was operating. This unhappiness was also expressed by the Durban Branch and Eastern Cape Branch.  There was contention about the way the finances were handled and that the Natal area was almost completely neglected. The total subscriptions paid by members were forwarded to the National Executive who then returned a small portion to the branch to run its affairs.  Apparently a computer belonging to the Society had been given to an assistant secretary of the National Executive in lieu of payment and to avoid that person having to declare income for tax purposes. There were contentious changes to the Constitution proposed at the AGM and these proposed changes had not been circulated to branches prior to the meeting. Oscar Holness and Percy Stirk traveled to the AGM in the Transvaal to express the branch point of view.  This was not well received by the National Executive and on the 19 November 1990, a Special General Meeting was proposed by Oscar Holness and Rodney Coyne when it was decided to form the Natal Inland Family History Society. It was an unanimous decision, records the minutes. Despite this development, NIFHS agreed to run the GSSA branch on a curatorship basis. At the time it was thought that NIFHS was a sort of temporary measure until GSSA national executive came to its senses. Another worry at the time was that the National Executive could demand that a branch must send their library material to Johannesburg to form a central library for all branches to use.

The Memorandum of agreement between the two parties is in the minute book.

Members who wished to receive Familia could belong to both Societies or if they wished could remain members of GSSA without becoming members of NIFHS and they would be welcome to attend the combined meetings of the two Societies and use the facilities of the library which now became under the control of NIFHS. Books which had been donated to the Inland Branch were returned to the donors who were asked to make a permanent loan of these books to NIFHS.

The AGM in January 1991 had to be re-scheduled as insufficient members attended. In that year Mrs. J. Wright joined the committee and a Family History exhibition was staged at Epworth School, thanks to Don Dunlop who worked there at the time. A number of members giving talks. In 1992 Don Dunlop is elected Chairman and Neil Bloy joins the committee. The highlight of 1992 was the awarding of Genealogist of the year to Shelagh Spencer.

A National AGM was held in Pietermaritzburg at the Boshoff street Methodist Church Hall on the 27th March 1993. In 1993 a seminar was organized for the National Women’s Register and again members gave talks. What Was this Register? The Women’s Institute??

In 1994 Wendy Hoole and Neil Bloy combined their family trees.

Oscar Holness died in July 1994. As can be seen by the foregoing Oscar had played a vital role in those early years. We are fortunate that his family donated his Genealogical files, and a number of his books to the Society. These serve as a constant reminder of his input.

New committee members in 1995 were Chris & Jenny Osborne and Mrs Kerith Chalmers. In 1995 the Society was involved with a National Heritage Day event held at the Pietermaritzburg Archives. I suspect this was the origin of the Msunduzi Heritage Forum.

In February 1995 the Society was informed that they would have to remove their cupboards from the YWCA. Percy Stirk said the Chess Club was using the Natal Carbineers Drill Hall and Neil Bloy volunteered to talk to the RSM.

At that time Neil Bloy was an active member of the Natal Carbineers Athletic Club (based at the Drill Hall) and was aware of the Carbineers Sports Association, an initiative of the Carbineers, to become more active in the community and to have the facilities at the Drill Hall in greater use. Although NIFHS / GSSA could probably not be described as a “sports club” (although a lot of the members may be described as “good sports”?) he approached the then RSM, John Hall about the possibility of hiring premises at the Drill Hall. Both John and his successor as RSM, Nick Cloete, were enthusiastic and helpful about us finding a “home” at the Drill Hall, and until the current room (originally part of the stores) became available, the societies “squatted” in Nick’s office. (He was a CSM at the time).

In 1996 we saw a new committee chaired by Neil Bloy. Vice Chairman was Eckhard von Fintel with Wendy Bloy as secretary and Percy Stirk as treasurer. Cemetery project coordinators were Cynthia Giddy and Don Dunlop. Don also made the unique speakers lectern that graces our meeting room and will be a constant reminder of his involvement. Don also began an index of shipping records that had appeared in The Natal Witness from 1846. Wendy began recording the domestic intelligence that appeared in The Natal Witness also from 1846. Members were asked to take a volume of the old Natal Witness files and extract the passenger lists from these volumes which Don then computerized. Unfortunately Don used a now obsolete computer programme and the records are virtually impossible to access on more modern equipment. Don Dunlop moved to Mpumulanga in 1998 which was a great loss to the Society. John Deare joined the committee in that year as librarian.

The AGM of the National Council of GSSA was held in Durban on the 2nd March 1996. Although it appears I am skimming over events, the branch always had a full programme of speaker evenings and involvement in national projects.

In September 1998 a strategy meeting of GSSA was held in Pietermaritzburg.

The year 2000 saw an exhibition at St. Peters Church which ran from the 26th to the 29th September. Also in 2000 was a Heritage expo in the City Hall Supper Room.

In 2001 Eckhard von Fintel was elected chairman with new committee members Keith Knight, Lizanne Cockbain , Don Ecob and Louis Eksteen.  In 2002 Grant Nurden became treasurer. After six years as Editor of the newsletter Wendy Bloy resigned  and an editorial team was formed to assist with Eckhard as a temporary Editor. In that year the Society exhibited at the Heritage Fair held at the Voortrekker Museum.

In 2003 Dr. Mike O’Connor was elected Chairman with Eckhard von Fintel Vice Chairman, and Vanessa Ford as secretary. The only change to the committee the following year was John Deare elected as Vice Chairman. In 2006 Ron Wedderburn was elected as Vice Chairman. We need to record our indebtedness to Neil Bloy, who throughout his membership has contributed in many ways. Of particular note was his arranging sponsorship of photocopying of cemetery records and newsletters.

There had been a ‘chirp’ from some members in those years that we should have a computer in the clubhouse. In 2002 Grant Nurden who was then employed by SARS said that we should tender for the purchase of their old computer equipment. We put in a ridiculous bid and soon were advised to collect the equipment. It turned out to be several bakkie loads. Most of it was networked equipment which had to be junked but amongst it were several 486 models and early Pentiums. With the help of Don Ecob we sifted through the load and selected two computers for the Society and sold the rest to members and at a Saturday sale outside the ‘clubhouse’. This brought a few thousand rand of much needed revenue allowing us to purchase more books for the library. Sad to say the computers are still there and never used. Technology has moved on and now some members bring their lap-tops or Blackberries to meetings.

Around the same period we purchased an overhead projector and a slide projector.

I need to add that Eckhard von Fintel is always on the lookout for second-hand books suitable for our library and in more recent years Janet Moore who is involved with the Hospice bookshop has been a valuable source of books.

Our contribution to the 2004 Heritage Fair was Mike O’Connor’s brilliant talk on “The Red Brick Building of Pietermaritzburg” which was held in the Chapel of Project Gateway. Members contributed time and effort in supporting the Fair.

In 2005 we supplied material for a static display at the Tatham Gallery. A highlight of that year was Brian Spencer’s talk on the Maritzburg west-enders given during the heritage day celebrations. This was published in a later newsletter.

In September 2006 we again participated in the Heritage Fair at Voortrekker Museum and organized a speaker. The Fair attracted 150 visitors.

Prof. Ian Behrman , one of our founder members, was killed when hit by a taxi in West Street.

John Deare was elected Chairman in 2007. This seemed to upset the National Executive of GSSA because at that time he was not a member of GSSA although a member of NIFHS for some years. Obviously the National Chairman of the time had not studied the branch history nor was aware of the mutual agreement between the two societies. Independently he then arranged a public meeting at the Voortrekker museum which was attended by two people. His plan was to either close the Midlands branch down and allocate local members to Durban or to form a new committee. The local committee invited him to a special meeting of GSSA members where they expressed their displeasure at his action.  The whole situation was amicably resolved.

In 2008 Ron Wedderburn was elected Vice Chairman and the treasurer was Mat Stevens. Dr.Krish Moodley was elected to the committee. Again the Society participated in The Heritage Fair held at the Voortrekker Museum. John Deare takes over as Editor of the newsletter .

The committee was unchanged in 2009. It was an active year with the Society putting on displays at the Baynesfield Hobbies Fair and a display at the Deutsches Haus during the Royal Show. Eckhard von Fintel received an Award of Excellence from the Genealogical Society and an Award of Excellence from NIFHS. In September National President of GSSA, Hendrik Louw visited the Society and gave a short talk at the Heritage Fair which that year was held at Project Gateway. That year the Heritage Fair was poorly publicised and an absolute waste of time. Eckhard later ran a successful new members workshop which is something we should do each year.

In 2010 we sadly lost Ron Wedderburn to cancer. New additions to the committee were Val Spearman and Malcolm Brown. Malcolm who is an IT specialist set up a web page for NIFHS. In that year Shelagh Spencer was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the University of KwaZulu Natal for her work in producing the volumes of “British Settlers to Natal”. The Society participated in a Heritage Display at the Liberty Midlands Mall which, because of adequate publicity, proved to be very successful. A stand at an Indian Cultural ‘Girmit” event in Howick, to celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of Indentured Labourers was not a success as it failed to attract local residents.

However, the display in 2011, in a different position at the Mall and without sufficient publicity was not a success. At the AGM in February Malcolm Brown was elected as Vice Chairman. Shelagh Spencer was named as a fellow of The Genealogical Society of South Africa and awarded honorary membership of NIFHS. It was a busy year with involvement in the Photographing of genealogical information in Family bibles at The Voortrekker Museum and participation in the photographic recording of Immigration Records at the Pietermaritzburg Archives. We again participated in the Baynesfield Hobbies Fair.

The establishment of a group in Howick which meets once a month resulted in 17 new members. In keeping with modern trends Malcolm Brown set up a Web page and Facebook presence for NIFHS on the Internet. Percy Stirk, who is recorded in Society records from 1983 and had been a very active member, particularly in the earlier years, passed away on the 5th November.

The period 2012 to 2019 is being edited and will be available soon!

At the AGM on the 20th February 2019 it was resolved to change the name of the Natal Inland Family History Society to the Kwazulu-Natal Family History Society.