The Billing/ Hennessy family
Compiled from notes by Desmond Billing and Merryl Howell
Matilda Mary Hennessy (nicknamed Tilly) was the eldest daughter of
Mrs. Mary Hennessy (born winter of Hamburg, Germany ) and John
Dennis Hennessy (born 29th August 1873) in Mile road,
Tilly had an amazing flare for music and at the age of 16 was
appointed organist of the Brompton Oratory London. She had 4
sisters and 2 bothers.
In 1891, at the age of 18 years, Tilly and her sister Nellie (16
years) migrated from London to Kimberley to stay with an aunt (Mrs.
Hoggenheimer) who kept a pub in De Beers suburb. In Kimberley in
those days ( the first diamond was found in 1870) there was, a pub
on every corner. On discovering that they were expected to work in
the pub, as bar-maids, the two girls ran away and found refuge at
the Dominican convent. Tilly taught music and Nellie taught
dancing. They put on many concerts and operettas to raise money for
the Catholic cathedral building fund. The cathedral they helped to
build has since burnt down and was replaced by the present
The Kimberley Club adjoined the convent and the two sisters, Tilly
and Nellie, were often invited to give special performances of their
concerts and operettas for the benefit of the members of the club.
Such famous people attended as Cecil John Rhodes, Barney Barnato,
Alfred Beit, Rudd and Robinson to name just a few.
In1896 their mother and the rest of the family migrated from
England and joined them in Kimberley. It was always intended that
Tilly and Nellie would be the “trail blazers”and the family would
Their cousin, Alfred Hennessy, who was later knighted for his
services as founder of the Royal Automobile Club, accompanied the
family but remained in Cape Town for health reasons (his doctor gave
him only six months to live). By this time he had recovered his
health, and took out the first driving licence in Cape Town and his
car carried the number plate, CA 1. He drove his CA 1 car until a
few days before his death, in November, 1963, at the age of 88. The
CA 1 number plate was then handed over by his family for the use of
the mayors of Cape Town. As founder of the Royal Automobile Club he
saw South Africa’s cars grow from one to over one million ( from- “I
heard the old men say” by Lawrence G Green)
****NB. Robert Symons is also mentioned in the same book.
The Hennessy family were all in Kimberley when the Boer War broke
out (1899-1902) and were confined within its perimeters during “the
siege of Kimberley” which commenced on the 10th
October1899 until the relief column broke through the lines on
February 10th 1900. They were subject to all privations
of water rationing and then reduced to eating horse and donkey meat.
The ration was 4 ozs. per adult and 2 ozs for a child. Every three
days adults received a vegetable ration comprising 5 carrots, 4
small parsnips and 9 beetroot. Eggs fetched 1 pound per dozen on
the black market.
The Boers shelled the town at arranged times and the majority of
the population descended down the mines for safety. The shelling at
the start of the siege was rather ineffectual and at one stage from
a count of 700 shells that fell on the town only one casualty
resulted. When the Boers introduced their special cannon, “Long
Tom,” and started to fire indiscriminately, it was a different story
and the inhabitants built their own bomb shelters as the protection
offered by going underground in the mines took from 5 p.m. to after
midnight to accommodate the crowds and the ventilation was chronic.
At the time of the siege the white population numbered 25,000.
George Ernest Billing.
He was the son of William Taylor Billing and Hannah Jane Billing
(nee Bone) and was born on the 4th March 1871 at 13
Woodchester Street, Paddington, District Kensington in the county of
Middlesex. His eldest brother was Alfred and he had 4 sisters,
Emily, Gertrude, Ethel and May.
Not a lot is known about George’s subsequent movements but it is
thought that he and his elder brother, Alfred, migrated from England
in about 1886 and that George, then aged 15, left the ship at Cape
George proceeded to Kimberley but eventually he thought he would
seek his fortune in Johannesburg where the gold rush, that gave
birth to the town in 1885, was at its height. He traveled to
Johannesburg on one of the first ox-wagon trains (might have been
made by Robert Symons???) that rolled between Kimberley and the
goldfields. What with makeshift tracks that doubled as roads and
various cattle diseases, the journey of about 450 miles took almost
three months to complete.
From photographs of George, taken by Duffus brothers of
Johannesburg, which depict a well-to-do young man in his early
twenties, taken possibly on his 21st birthday(i.e. 1892)
one must assume that he stayed a few years on the reef.
It is known that at the outbreak of the Boer War, and with it “the
siege of Kimberley,” George was very active in the defence of
Kimberley and was serving full time in the militia in the rank of
sergeant. Part of his military duties would have been the
escorting of the citizens of Kimberley, during the Boer shelling,
He could well have met the Hennessy family in the course of his
duties. He was wounded in his right leg in a major skirmish with the
Boers at Carter’s Ridge and as Tilly Hennessy’s volunteer concert
troupe frequently entertained the militia, and in particular the
sick and those convalescing, it is likely that their romance started
in that area.
George Ernest Billing and Matilda Mary Hennessy were married in the
Catholic Cathedral , Kimberley – the cathedral that she helped to
build - in 1901. They lived all their married life, which lasted
for twenty happy years, at 65 Central Road, Beaconsfield. They had
four children. Vera (11th October 1903) and three sons.
Trevor ( 5th February 1906) Eric (3rd June 1906) and
Desmond (13th March 1911).
George was employed by De Beers Diamond Mining Co. Ltd at Wesselton
mine and he soon became a staff member in the capacity of head
timberman, in which post he was responsible for the timbering and
supervision of the two 1000 foot mine shafts and the tunneling on
the various levels.
Matilda Billing (our grandmother) was the organist and choir
mistress at St Augustine’s Church, Beaconsfield, a continuation of
the work she started at Bromptom Oratory, London at the age of 16
years. She also taught music. Theory and practical and entered her
pupils for the Trinity College examinations from England ( the
examiners traveled out to South Africa) from first steps right up to
licentiate (L.T.C.L.) Each year her pupils gained good results.
George Billing was a keen all round sportsman. At rugby he coached
school and junior teams and also first league teas. He himself
played rugby in the forward position and represented Griquas in
provincial tournaments right up to the age of 40 years.
In swimming he was proud to boast nearly every child living in
Beaconsfield between the years 1900-1925 had been taught to swim by
him. He also trained the water polo teams and was an official of the
Griqualand West Swimming Association and acted as time-keeper at
most galas. He was not only a qualified coach in athletics but he
also participated in the annual veteran’s race at the Griqualand
West athletics championships and won the coveted first prize
consecutively for four years. The veteran competitor had to be over
the age of 45 years and was given one yard start for each year over
He was a keen coach at cricket and laid emphasis on the need for of
care of all equipment from bats to matting and nets.
He was an active official of the Griqualand West Turf Club in the
capacity of honorary time-keeper.
Matilda Mary Billing died of a heart attack on the 22nd
August 1926, one week short of her 52nd birthday, while George
Ernest Billing died from an attack of pleurisy on the 12th
April, 1929 at the age of 58.
The Billing/Hennessy connection
John Dennis Hennessy
Born 29 Aug 1873 Married Mary ------ of Hamburg, Germany. They had
Hennessy married George Billing in 1901 they had 4 children: .
Gwendoline Billing (Vera), (our mother) married Victor Edward
Symons (born 25th August 1905 – died 11th
May 1953). They married 24th September 1934. Our
mother went to Springfield convent in Cape Town and said how
conscious she was of saving money. For example, putting the
cakes in her bag after taking mum out to tea, or Mum’s brothers
collecting the coal on the railway line etc. They had two
Kenneth Andrew born 27th January 1937
and Merryl Janet born 5th February 1943
Patrick Billing- born 5th February 1908 died 4th
July, 1972. Married Mary Brophy –born 1st May 1913-
married 1st December 1934- Two children
Roger George born 7th January 1936 died 24th
May 198o -- married Lilith Emslie born 1st April 1936
Roger and Lilith divorced (before he died). They had two children
Alison Emslie born 19th April 1963 and
Ian Trevor born 9th July 1965
A daughter Denise who never married. She was a nurse and lived in
Billing --- born 3rd June 1908 –died 4th
July 1982 married Thelma Wiehann born 3rd March
1919 died 21st January 1980. Married 1939
1 daughter Jennifer born 27th Feb. 1942 married Michael
Christie 1 son Ian born 9th Jan 19652nd
married Walter Valkhoff in 1980. Walter had 2 daughters and a son
from previous marriage.
Eric and Thelma had 2 sons they lived in Joburg. Terence born 27th
Feb. 1946 lives in Joburg and Peter born 14th Nov 1950.
He married Aileen and have a son called Aidan Ross born January
1981. Lived in Cape Town
Desmond Billing born 13th March 1911 Grace Married
Eveline Tyzack in St Edwards Catholic church in Que Que on 5th
August 1939. They had 4 children.
Margaret Mary married Roland Wright and in 2009, still lives
in Harare. Divorced 1970 2 daughters
Deborah Ann. born 7th Sept 1964 married and lives in New
Zealand with 3 children.
Sharon Gail born 5th June 1966. Married and lives in
England - had 1 daughter.
David Anthony born 31st October 1941, Died 14th
Feb 1976 (shot by Zimbabwe terrorists during the war which ended
1980) married Alexandra Munro had 2 sons. Ronald born 28th
Sept 1967 and Gordon born 29th March 1970 divorced 5th
Dec 1974 . Alexandra has since died (2009)
Kevin John -born 16 March 1949 married Margaret Cooper (
since deceased) 3 sons
Nathan Andrew born 20th June 1977.
Adrian Neil born 20th February 1979.
James Phillip born 19th Sept 1981. Lives in Kenya.
Michael born 8th Sept 1952 . Lives in America I think in
San Francisco. Married then divorced no children.
Hennessy married Melville Mackenzie. There were 4 children
Hennessy married Aggie……….. 4 Children
Sir Alfred Hennessy*)
Harry Goddard. Children Nellie, Norman, Victor and Cyril
Hennessy a bachelor died in his 20’s
Victor Dodd. Children and
(Katie) married Albert Heslop. He was a dentist and wealthy.
Lived on an estate in upper Claremont (Cape Town) called
Middleberg, which became a nursing home. They also had a holiday
home at St James. Their daughter -Yvonne (our mother’s
god-daughter) married Sir Michael Gull. When we were living in
Cape Town in the 70’s Yvonne died from cancer. I once was
introduced to the second Lady Gull at a fund raiser and sent our
regards to Sir Michael. I know of one daughter called Cathy. Not
sure about other children.