Filling the Ancestral Void

by: Andy Westmoreland

My father had no knowledge of his family. No family history, no grandparents, no Christmas cards from uncles or aunties. The only two facts my grandfather, who died in 1978, ever shared about his past were; that he came to England from South Africa and; that he had had a brother, Edwin, who had been killed in World War I. Then one day I happened to come across the Commonwealth Graves website and discovered a memorial to an Edwin Westmoreland. The commemorative information stated that Edwin left behind a wife, Dorothy, in Johannesburg and that he was born to C.E and A.A. Westmoreland in Melbourne, Australia. Suddenly I had great grandparents, the first step up the ancestral ladder, even if they were only initials!

To my surprise the next step was remarkably easy, courtesy of the Public Records Office in Victoria, Australia, who have made their registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages available on the Internet. A search of these archives soon provided my great grandparents with full names, birth dates and places, and even turned up a great aunt Sybil and a great uncle Jack. Another generation was also added in the form of my great great grandfather, William.

My great grandfather, Charles Edwin and his father, William, migrated to Australia in 1883 from England. Tracing my ancestral lines back involved fairly straightforward genealogical legwork, but there was still a noticeable gap where the descendants of my grandfather's siblings should have been. There was only one place they could be - South Africa! Searching the Internet threw up nothing, the foot of Africa clearly lags behind the antipodes in the use of modern technology.

After a few extremely hopeful, but yet unanswered, letters to the South African Department of Home Affairs, the Military Records Office and random Government Officials, I discovered the Genealogical Institute of South Africa (GISA), a major turning point. I sent off an e-mail to them bemoaning the frustrations of trying to find even so much as a telephone listing for "Westmoreland" in South Africa. By return, I received a copy of the 1989 Electoral Register, upon which were the names, addresses and birth dates of thirteen Westmorelands living in South Africa in 1989.

With no time to lose (at least four of the people listed were in their 80's), I dispatched more speculative letters to the thirteen addresses. Two weeks later, jackpot! A letter arrived from Edwin's grandson living in Cape Town. Not only had I traced my ancestry back to the 1750's, I had now actually found somebody with whom I shared my great-grandfather! Alas Edwin, who had died so prematurely in World War I, had left behind a young son, Ivor, who he had never seen. The genealogical Pandora's box was open and skeletons were rattling the cupboard door!

A month or so later I received a letter from Paddy, the widow of my grandfather's son, who was living in Johannesburg. Confused? I was. It transpired that my grandfather, Harry, upon returning to South Africa after World War I, aged 21, married and had two children. But then a few years later he mysteriously left his family and, together with my grandmother, boarded a ship to England where he started a new family, mine. His family in South Africa never heard of, or from, him again, until I made contact 73 years later. In England he took the secret of his first family to his grave.

It had taken me less than a year to fill the family history void, I even found a few names where previously there were no blanks. Suffice to say it has provided my father with a few interesting moments! END

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Originally from the south west of England, Andy has been working as a Tunnel Engineer in Europe and South East Asia for the last 18 years. He currently lives with his wife and two children in Hong Kong.
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