Findlay Family Letters

Findlay Family Papers, Historical Papers, Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand

The Findlay Family Papers, A1199

The Findlay Family Papers is a very large collection with contents spanning the two hundred year period from 1777 to 1978, and is part of the collections in Historical Papers in the William Cullen Library at the University of Witwatersrand. It consists of letters, other documents, photographs and sketches, press clippings, pamphlets, and other miscellaneous items.

The collection as a whole numbers in excess of 10,000 documents across the two hundred year period. The main letters it contains (there are some scattered among the other documents) run from 1820 to 1933 and are consecutively numbered from 1 to 5711. White Writing Whiteness work on the collection has focused on this main body of letters, although biographical and other information has also been drawn from its other components. Although referred to as a family collection, as with many other South African archival collections this oversimplifies contents, with the letter-writing involved containing inextricably-linked business, political, religious and inter-personal aspects.

The Findlays became connected through marriage with the Schreiners (and thence the Hemmings, Rollands and Orpens), and also the Stuarts, Niemeyers,, Earps and Rose-Inneses. There was also a close association through business with the MacRoberts and through friendship with the Marais.

The collection was accumulated through the informal ‘family archivist’ role that a number of people across the generations played in not only keeping their own letters but also those of other family members. Successively, this activity is particularly associated with:

George Findlay maximus
Kate Findlay nee Schreiner
George Findlay junior
Bessie Findlay nee Niemeyer
Hudson (John Hudson Lamb) Findlay
Joan Findlay nee Rose-Innes

Joan Findlay also published a book about the early history of the Findlays using family letters; redistributed some materials to the Schreiner, Hemming and Earp collections; carried out preliminary archiving work on the reminder; and arranged donation of the collection to Historical Papers at the University of Witwatersrand, as there was a family association with its founding.

As with other collections in the Wits Historical Papers, there is an excellent and full Inventory for the Findlay Family Papers, which can be accessed online as well as in paper-form in Historical Papers ( ).
The letters, letter-writers and addressees

There are 5711 reference numbers allocated to letters in the collection, in date terms running from 3 items in 1806 to 26 items in 1933, but with the numbers for some years being over 200 items. While very large, this is nonetheless an under-count of the actual letters in the collection. There are many letters ‘between the numbers’, in the sense that some items have a number of letters attached to them; and as noted above, there are also letters located in other parts of the collection as well.

On a crude count, there are 475 letter-writers and 128 addressees represented in the Findlay letters. Given that letters are written in order to be dispersed and many are sent considerable distances, it is to be expected that there will be more letter-writers than addressees. However, the connection between letter-writers and addressees is tighter than this suggests. Firstly, a number (around 30) of the addressees are represented only because having written letters that were passed on by someone else for information purposes. Secondly, a significant proportion (around 15%) of the 475 letter-writers are responsible for one-off letters only. And thirdly, a large number of people appear as both a letter-writers and as addressees, some 75 of them, although this probably under-represents the overlap because there are a large number of letters signed with personal names only and there was a family tradition of handing down names which means it is difficult to work out which Kate or Kati , which John out of three, which George out of three, which Margaret or Maggie and so on is at issue, so these have been rounded down.

The 75 people who appear as both letter-writers and addressees contribute large numbers of letters by them and also have large numbers addressed to them. This is a very dense network of letter-writing, and it involves in particular:

• People who were born Findlays, over a number of generations, and also a number who married in

• Members of the Schreiner family, of which Katie Findlay was the oldest child, including the Schreiner parents, most of the siblings and also a number of members of their wider family, drawing in Hemmings, Rollands and Orpens

• The Earp family, with one of the daughters of Katie and John Findlay, Emma, marrying into this

• The Stuart family, with the eldest daughter of Katie and John Findlay, Kate, marrying into this

• The MacRobert family, with John MacRobert a close business associate of Hudson Finley and his wife Annie a Findlay cousin

• The Marais family over three generations, with friendship bonds between a number of them and members of the Findlay family

• Members of the Niemeyer family over three generations, connected by business interests, friendship, shared religious views, and also marriage between a Niemeyer daughter, Bessie, marrying Hudson Findlay

• The Rose-Innes family, with the eldest daughter, Joan, marrying George Findlay junior, a son of Hudson and Bessie

Given the long time-period covered by materials in this collection and the very large number of people involved as letter-writers and as addressees, not surprisingly it is difficult to generalise about the character of the collection. Some preliminary observations are as follows.

Initially, the Findlays were associated with merchant seafaring, then becoming tobacconists and shopkeepers in Cape Town; there was also a movement in the next generation into trading, then farming and timber milling in the Fraserburg area of the Cape; some of the family then became established in Pretoria, with this generation and that following being Transvaal professionals of different kinds, with some distinguished attorneys and lawyers among them. This is just to focus on male members, while there were a number of women across the generations who ran or were otherwise involved in substantial parts of family business activities, including the initial shopkeeping enterprise in Cape Town, then in farming, while in the generations of the 1890s on, some women in the family entered the nursing and teaching professions. However, economic life and its relationship to the personal life and also the involvement of women as well as men are certainly more complicated and more diverse than this summary makes it sound.

Until the end of the 1850s, there are just small handfuls of numbers in any one year, with just over 200 for the fifty period 1806 to 1858. While annual numbers fluctuate, with the largest number being 270 and the smallest 6, there are generally more than 100 letters, and sometimes a lot more, extant for any one year. Upsurges are generally linked to specific events, in particular the deaths of children, outbreaks of violence, periods when key family members are away and, following the ‘invention’ of greetings cards, also marriages as well.

Letter content

In general, it is difficult to categorise the letters in the collection in terms of them being personal, business, political and so on. While obviously some letters do fall under these discrete headings, many do not and mix content in a way that reflects the complications of the relationship existing between the letter-writer and any particular addressee. Thus, for instance, letters between Katie Findlay and Gustav Niemeyer express the friendship bonds that existed between the two families, while in particular they combine these matters with their shared strong religious views. In an earlier generation, letters between the merchant ship captains John Findlaison and George Findlaison certainly rely on the bonds of their brotherhood but are more especially concerned with the commandeering of one of the brothers into the British navy and then matters concerning trade. And in a later generation, letters by George Findlay junior to his many friends are particularly concerned with political matters unfolding around the rise of Nationalism and more overtly racial attitudes and regulations in public life, rather than friendship seen as separate from such topics.

There are many interesting facets regarding the content of letters in the Findlay collection. Some broad aspects include:

• The earliest letters provide insight into the very early period of colonial settlement and the role of business in this. They throw particular light on family and business in Cape Town in the 1820s to 50s.
• As the numbers of letters increase following the marriage of Katie Schreiner and John Findlay, so they detail many aspects of life and events in the small, growing upcountry town of Fraserburg. Family life, its small events, tragedies and ups and downs over the period of the 1860s to the 1890s are well-covered.
• In the period of the 1860s through to approximately the 1880s when there were many small children, they provide exceptional information about the work of a woman, Katie Findlay, who was responsible for managing a large and growing household which included both family members and the people who worked for it in a range of capacities including in the home farm area of the homestead.
• At times it can seem that the letter-writers and addressees lived lives that were largely insulated from knowledge concerning external events of a political and social kind, although economic changes appear to have had more direct impact. However, there were points when such events did erupt into the fabric of quotidian everyday life.
o In the 1890s and early 1900s, the key example concerns first the Jamison Raid, then the South African War 1899-1902, and the sharp, not to say bitter, political differences concerning these matters between different members of the figuration.
o From the early 1920s on, the key example concerns the rise of Nationalism. In particular, this involves its impact on the conduct of public life in Pretoria and the Transvaal area more generally, as well as regarding the attitudes and behaviours of people both as individuals and as members of particularly networks.
Last updated: 5 April 2017


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