Voss Family Collection, National Archives, Pretoria

Voss Family Collection, National Archives, Pretoria

There are two archive boxes of letters and four boxes containing cards, papers, appointment books and diaries composing the Voss Family collection in the National Archives of South Africa.

There is no inventory. However, the collection is formed by papers from two families joined by relationship, friendship and marriage, the Vosses and the Du Toits. The Voss family was originally from Britain but various members were living in the Hopetown area near Orange River Station in the 1870s. The Du Toits were originally from the Western Cape, but by the 1850s or 60s owned the farm Doornbult in the Hopetown area. The appointment books and diaries are those of the academic Dr Vivian Voss, who appears to have inherited the other papers from different members of his wider family, perhaps because he was the last of a group of siblings to die.

The collection

There are around 600 letters in total, dating from around 1880 through to the 1960s. They are completely lacking in organisation and have just been tipped higgledy-piggledy into large envelopes in each box. There are three main groups of them:

a) Those to, and some by, Vivian Voss’s mother Jacoba Helena du Toit (known as Cotie, Lotie, Cobie and some other nicknames), her family and particularly the sister close she was closer to, Hester Aletta (who confusingly married into another branch of the Du Toits), and also the man Cotie married in 1882, Thomas James Voss. After their marriage the Vosses lived mainly in Pretoria, with their other family members either remaining in the Hopetown area or moving to other places, elsewhere in South Africa, southern Africa and also Britain, Australia and the USA.

b) Those to, but mainly not by, Vivian Voss’s elder brother George du Toit Voss, a lawyer and advocate who moved away from home at an early age. He became Attorney General of Namibia and then a Supreme Court judge in South Africa, with his still a well-known name in legal circles.

c) Those to, but mainly not by, Vivian Voss. The youngest Voss sibling, he was a physicist, studying in Britain and gaining his PhD at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. He became a stalwart of the University of Pretoria (earlier, Transvaal University College) physics and mathematics department until retirement in 1974 and was a proponent of Afrikaans medium teaching; in the 1940s and 50s, he translated a number of textbooks into that newly-enhanced language.

There is neither inventory for the Voss collection nor any information about the collection’s provenance or concerning the family connections of the letter-writers or addressees, so these have to be worked out via the detail of, in particular, the letters among the collection’s contents. This is, however, by no means an easy task, for four main reasons.

Firstly, the letters are confusing to read even when all of them have been perused, because of the prevalent use of nicknames for people, who indeed sometimes have a number of different nicknames, and also the frequent practice of letters being addressed to and/or signed off in terms of relationship rather than personal names or even nicknames – ‘Dear Sister… Baby and Baby’s illness… your loving Sister’, for example. And there are further complexities regarding how such matters are connected with other letter-writers who write about similar things but in possibly different handwriting and possibly from different addresses.

Secondly, these are family letters and are highly elliptical in a specific sense. They are focused on and most of them deal largely with the minutiae of family persons and small happenings – who has seen whom, who has had babies or experienced illness, holidays that were taken and so on – and with the people concerned often referred to with nicknames or in relationship terms.

Thirdly, significant numbers of the letters are not dated and nor do they include the places where they were written from. This adds to the complexities of making sense of them.

And fourthly, both the Du Toit and the Voss components frequently married cousins with the same surnames and did so down a number of generations, so that surnames provide little or no guide, and in addition personal names are repeated across the generations as well. Numbers of people sign themselves J or P or H Du Toit, and there are at least two Norahs, three Pollies, four Hesters and four Georges among the letter-writers and recipients, for example.

The result is that to read these letters is like ending entering a cloudy vortex. It is easy to become immerse in the unfolding detail in each letter, while every now and then it is realised with a jolt that who various of the letter-writers, recipients and people mentioned are remains opaque. The emphasis on the quotidian detail of family life and its doings and relationships is a shared characteristic, including both men and women, young and old, those who were born Du Toits and Vosses and those who married in. It is surprisingly rare to come across letters concerned with wider topics, even when it is clear the writer and/or their addressee were in contexts involving wider events. The exceptions are infrequent and can be listed: there are a few organisational letters and one or two family ones that concern the early work-life of Tom Voss, and in two or three letters Cotie Voss briefly mentions difficulties about food and people’s movements during the South African War.

As a consequence, even basic information is not known about various aspects of the lives, births and deaths of many of the letter-writers and their addressees. Another important aspect of the overarching focus on family detail by the letter-writers is that the material context of people’s lives and the world of events and occurrences – wars, attempted coups, momentous political changes – are just in passing background or else entirely absent. The letters also provide few clues as to the household composition and other arrangements that these people had, nor do they contain much about hopes, aspirations and feelings of the letter-writers. A notable example here is that during the South African War 1899–1902, the Du Toit farm Doornbult became the site of a concentration or internment camp (not to be conflated with the later German work or extermination camps), referred to in official records as Orange River Station. Over this period, there would have been constant arrivals of people and a resident camp population of some hundreds of women and children, and there was also a large adjacent military camp. However, nothing of this is mentioned in letters of the time (of which there are few due to the wartime circumstances) or in subsequent letters to and from Doornbult (of which there are many).

Family quotidian detail

To an outside eye, these letters overall remain very much on the surface, a surface of family detail but detail of a particular kind. This raises another important feature of the Voss Family letters: they are almost entirely elliptical, because they presume insider-readers, readers who will have full knowledge of who the people referred to are, the places where they are present, the kind of happenings being related, and so this information does not need to be indicated on paper. This is very unlike other collections of family letters researched in the WWW project, where there are usually some elliptical aspects but with the distances and separations of time and place between writer and recipient meaning that many matters are explained in a way that provides contextual information to the addressee. Teseh other collections have elliptical aspects and inscribe figurational knowledges, but nonetheless present-day readers can fairly easily discern basic things including who is who – which is not always so with the Voss family letters even with a large amount of work in diligently reading across the whole set and supplementing this with information from external sources.

The detail in these letters is nonetheless fascinating because opening up a window into the family life and concerns of ordinary white South African family members of the middling sort over an approximately ninety-year period. Their interesting features include their very ordinariness, their focus on family minutiae in the specific insider way sketched above, their silencing of ‘external’ matters concerned with the world of the events, and also of many aspects of the everyday lives of the letter-writers and their households, including regarding matters of race and ethnicity. They are also interesting because, they provide a rare example of family letter-writing that shows changes over time in the language medium of expression and consequently interesting information about the increasing use of Afrikaans can be gained from them.

The Voss Family letters are predominantly in English. In the earlier period covered, there are just occasionally letters that are wholly or in part in Dutch (an example is a letter by ‘Sister’ in English on one side of a sheet of paper and on the other a letter by ‘Papa’ in Dutch). By the 1910s and 20s, there are letters which mix early Afrikaans and English, mainly by including idiomatic Afrikaans phrases. The number of those purely in Afrikaans then increases, and for some letter-writers as time goes on they write only in Afrikaans. Language was key to the growth of cultural nationalism in South Africa and its enshrinement of more overt forms of racism. Here an exception to the general rule of silence about ‘external’ matters is a letter by Cotie Voss that expresses her passionate support for nationalism as patriotism.

By the early 1890s, Tom and Cotie Voss had moved to Pretoria and he was working for the Transvaal government. Dutch language primers are among their remaining papers with dates from this period in them. Later their son Vivian spent a significant part of his academic life in translating textbooks into Afrikaans and he did so working in a University – Pretoria – that is particularly associated with promoting Afrikaner nationalist ideology and specifically that of apartheid. Finding family letter collections that are in Afrikaans or have some degree of letters in Afrikaans is very difficult. Consequently the Voss collection is particularly interesting in this connection. The reasons for the dearth of family letters collections in Afrikaans seems to be connected with the fairly late development of written Afrikaans, coupled with the illiteracy of many Boer farming people who spoke the taal polyglot that later became Afrikaans, contrasted with the considerable literary skills of many English-speaking columnists and their inheritance of a long tradition of letter-writing even amongst people who were functionally literate only. Also to be taken into account here are the collections policies of archives and the focus on those of political figures of the South African archives most likely to contain such materials (and this is discussed more fully elsewhere).

Race matters

There are some interesting things to note about the race and racism aspects of the Voss Family letters. ‘Notable for near absence’ is a succinct summary. Most of the letter-writers and addressees were South Africans and lived in areas including Hopetown and Orange River Station, where it can be anticipated they were not only surrounded by African and Coloured people, but also used their labour including in intimate domestic contexts. Various of the family members in Britain had earlier lived in South Africa and so were certainly cognizant of its racial composition of its society. However, there are very few mentions let alone anything more detailed about people not white. An example involves a general comment from Tom Voss’s mother Eliza in Britain about disturbances in Grahamstown, with just two more specific comments. One of these is about a young nursemaid called Dinah in an adjoining house being ill-treated, while the other mentions ‘my little servant’ being with Cotie and her children when they were having a holiday.

In effect, very little can be directly gleaned from these letters about over time changes occurring to the racial order of South Africa, because the eyes of these letter-writers are turned away from this. They do not ‘see’ it and they do not ordinarily represent it, even though for the majority of them it would have been the context for everything they did and said and wrote. But of course, this tells the latter-day reader a good deal about the racial order as it was seen, or rather as it was represented, by white people. The privilege of whiteness is to be able to treat this as the way things are and to see all else as ‘other’. It relatedly involves the failure to recognise that this is a blinkered and limited way of seeing and comprehending the world and other people. This white small world-ism is inscribed through its representational practices, while the labour that went into perpetuating the small world has been rendered invisible apart from in some brief tantalising glimpses, of which the comments about Dinah and the little servant girl are examples.

A provisional ‘who’s who’

The information that appears here is provisional and incomplete. It will be added to at later stages as information about the Vosses and the Du Toits accrues.

There were four Du Toit sisters. Their parents were Stephanus Abraham du Toit (1825–1889) of Hopetown who in 1856 married Hester Aletta Sophya van Niekerk (1839–1873), with their father’s family originally from Worcester. In no known order, the sisters are: Jacoba Helena, known generally as Cotie, but also Cobbie, Lotie, Cootie and Cotsie; Hannah, also called Hannelie and Hannie; Hester; and Susanna, called Susie and also Sukie. In the late 1870s/early 1880s they were living in the Hopetown area, while the sisters attended school at the Worcester Seminary as older girls, Hester in around 1880.

Jacoba Helena du Toit (1861–?1918, generally known as Cotie) married Thomas James Voss (1856–1908, known as Tom) in 1882. He was a book-keeper and accountant in private practice and also worked for the Transvaal Government. His parents were George Voss (1823-1899, a seaman and Coast Guard) and Eliza Dawe (c1826-1923), who lived for a period in Graaff-Reinet and Hopetown, then in c1898 they settled in Britain, first in Belfast and then Southampton. It is likely that the Vosses had arrived in South Africa as a family in the 1860s or 70s, and were perhaps attracted to the Hopetown area because of the discoveries of diamonds there. After they married, Tom and Cotie Voss removed to Pretoria; Tom died in 1908, probably from cancer.

Hester Aletta Margarietha du Toit (1866–1940) married Petrus Johannes Daniel du Toit (1865–1937, known as Piet and Oom Piet, and also Riet, Dwear Riet) in June 1890. He was a farmer who part-inherited and worked the family farm Doornbult near what was then called Hope Town, Orange River Station. His father was probably Johannes Petrus Du Toit (1830-1897), a younger brother of Stephanus Abraham Du Toit, and his mother Hester Fouche (1843-1884), although this cannot be substantiated. He and Hester seem to have had children, but their names cannot be traced with any certainty.

Hannah du Toit (?-1895, Hannie, also called Hannelie) married Christian Vlok, who in early adulthood was a missionary. They married in 1892 and she died in 1895 after childbirth. Their son, Sony Vlok, was largely brought up by his aunt Susie; he remained close to all his cousins and particularly the Vosses; he was married to Thelma, who ran a shop business.

Susanna Francina (?1871-1913, known as Susie) married Melt van der Spuy (?1863-?1953), whose occupation is not known. They had two children, Stephanie (1892-?), and Leonardo Marthinus (known as Leo, 1893-?). Melt’s sister was the nurse Leonora Elizabeth (known as Leni, also Lion and other nicknames) van der Spuy, who appears in many letters.

The children of Tom and Cotie Voss in birth order are: Hester Eliza (known as Tatta, 1882-1922); George du Toit (1884-1980), who married his cousin Hester Aletta Margaret du Toit (1892-1981, known as Hettie) in ?1919 (and they had at least one child, the pioneering anaethetist Thomas Voss); Helena Letitia (1886-1895); Kathleen (1891-1970); and Vivian (?1894-?1988). Vivian Voss married Ida, they had a son, Bobbie, and later separated. Any marriages and children for the other siblings have not been established.

Vivian Voss’s grandparents and Tom Voss’s parents George Voss and Eliza Dawe (c1826-1923) had ten children: William (known as George) 1850-1894; Mary Jane (known as Polly, 1851-1933); Thomas James (1852-1854); Robert Dawe (known as Bob, 1854-1937); Thomas James (known as Tom, 1856-1908); Joseph Henry (known as Geoff, 1858-1914); Ann Elizabeth (1860); William Dawe (known as Willie, 1862-1904); Harriet Dawe (1864); and John Edward (1866-1925). Important correspondents in the Voss family letters include Tom Voss’s sister Polly and his brother Bob, aunt and uncle respectively to the Voss children. Bob’s first wife Aggie Brown and second wife Beulah Martin also figure large. Bob Voss’s children with Aggie can be listed, but whether the siblings married and if they had children is not so easy to retrieve.

Robert Dawe Voss (1854-1937, known as Bob and uncle Bob) was married twice, to Agnes (Aggie, 1853-1927) in 1878, and to Beula Martin (1882-1960) in 1930. Bob and Aggie’s children were: Jesse Helen (known as Za, 1879-1960), Charles Alfred (known as Bo, 1880-1900), Mary Chalmers (known as Chilly, 1882-1945), Roberts George (known as Bob, 1885-1946), Eliza Jane (known as Liza and Di, 1887-1974), Fergus (1888-1973), and Norah (b.1892, m.1945). It seems that Bo, Fergus and Norah did not have children while the other siblings did, although the detail cannot be established.

Other presences in the letters include: Harry Patterson, a Belfast cousin. Annie Rothman, later Van Zyl, who was at school with Hester and Cotie and remained a life-long friend.


Last updated: 8 February 2017


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