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Many families in South Africa have long and proud histories. Find them here!

The Symons Family History.

An 1820 Settler Story

 Reproduced with permission from a limited circulation document “Symons Brown History” prepared by Merryl Symons.

 The history of my paternal grandfather (Robert Symons) has been documented in the scrapbook.  The history of my paternal great grandmother has been documented in the coffee table book called “Story of a frontier family” by Wendy Beal Preston. Edith being descended from the 1820 settlers through  her mother Susannah Miles and father Stephen Brown.

  Great grandfather, William Symons was born in 1815? Could be December 1814? (baptised on the 8th of January 1815) and lived at Mt Edgecombe, Devon on the border of Cornwall.  His first wife (whom he married in the parish of  Stoke Damerell, Plymouth in Devonshire) was Mary Jane Dobson they had 8-10 children two were born after they emigrated.  William was the first.  

William worked as a carpenter in Plymouth dockyards.

 The family were in London (from Mt Edgecombe) attending a court case in connection with titled land when our grandfather was born  (their 8th child).  He was born there on the 16th of December 1853 at 25 Bromley Terrace Bromley in the district of “Bow and Bromley” in the county of Middlesex. Born within the sound of the bow bells, therefore born a cockney.   

 William Symons and family left Portsmouth on the 6th of September 1857 on the “Lady Kennaway” and arrived in east London on the 23rd of November 1857  my grandfather was 3 (3 weeks short of his 4th birthday.  A 9th baby had arrived.

 The Lady Kennaway (emigration ship) was built in Calcutta in 1817 her owners being the British firm of Teiglie.  A trim little 584 tons sailing vessel.  It came to grief at the mouth of the Buffalo river 2 days after its arrival after safely landing her 153 young unmarried Irish emigrant women, 21 Englishmen and their wives, 33 children and 4 young men. ( see newspaper article for further information.)

 Our great grandmother ( Mary Jane) died and  great grandfather William  remarried  the second marriage produced a further 8 to 10 children.  With all these relations it will be a hard task to work out a family tree.  I shall just concentrate on our grandfather Robert Symons.

Robert Symons born 16th December 1953 at 25 Bromley Terrace London,  died   8th April 1923 aged69  from cancer of the tongue buried in KingWilliamsTown cemetery.

 1st marriage to Sarah Ann field.  Date=

 He wooed her at her father’s farm in the Thomas river area during his services as a blacksmith on the east London to Queenstown railway.  Sarah died in 1900 in a Birmingham nursing home where he ( Robert)  had taken her for a serious operation to her throat. Her remains were returned to king Williamstown and interred in the local cemetery.  The font in the Holy Trinity Church, KingWilliamsTown was presented to the diocese by our grandfather (Robert Symons) in  memory of his first wife Sarah Ann Field.

 They had two children a daughter Ethel and a son Robert Edward (Bobbie) who died at the age of 7 from lockjaw.

 Ethel married twice.  She died in Salisbury Rhodesia predeceasing her father

 Her first marriage to -------  Winsor an officer of the imperial forces in 1902. He died on the 1st of January 1903

They produced a son Sylvester Martin Winsor who married Rita Stephenson they had two daughters Ann and Jean

 The Symons family from the second marriage considered Syl more as a brother than an uncle (being almost their age). Syl settled in Salisbury (now Harare) Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) with his mother and stepfather.

Most of the Symons clan (except for the 3 oldest sons) from the second marriage settled in Zimbabwe. (I think in the early 1930’s)   they were all one big family and celebrated weddings etc together.  Living in Zimbabwe at that time was wonderful. 

Ethel’s second marriage was to Evan Evans  they moved to Salisbury with Syl. Their marriage produced  5 children. 

 4 sons and a daughter.

  1. Arthur married Wyn Shepherd.

Children – Ripley, Glendin and Arthur.

  1. Harold never married and died early
  2. Victor married Vera Cartwright

Children - Barry. Keith and Jenny (married John Day)

  1. Doreen married Basil Craig

Rona ( m. John McIntosh),  Rona  (m. St John Grant)

 Diana married Van Zyl

  1. Robert married twice first to Joy Lawson Children:
    1. Kevin,
    2. Lorna (married Martin Benkenstein  a good cricketer. children : twins  a girl and boy, and a 2nd son.) Their sons were very good cricketers one captaining Natal Their daughter ( a very beautiful girl) married David Campese who was a brilliant Australian rugby player.  Their wedding was covered in “new idea’’ a woman’s magazine in Australia.  Lorna and family were all represented in the spread. Martin Benkenstein managed Michael Procter’s finances. Michael played for South Africa. Captained Gloucester in England ( it was called Procter shire)  he  is now very involved with cricket internationally.  Something went pear-shaped (forgotten)
    3. and Desmond.
  2. 2nd marriage to Sheila Dowdeswell mother of Colin.

 Robert Symons’s business.

 “Buffalo Works”   (after the local river)

Carriage Makers and Cartage Contractors.

Established in October 1878 when he was 24 years old.

 There is much written about his business which I have included in the scrapbook.  It makes very interesting reading especially the newspaper article which appeared in the Mercury on Thursday February 16th 1989.  (by Just Lynn)

 An excellent article was sent to me by “Just Lynn” titled

“Commercial KingWilliamsTown”.  There are other articles which I shall enclose in this history.

 It was quite by chance that I found out about our grandfather’s carriages displayed in three halls of the KingWilliamsTown museum.

 Mike’s brother Ian and family live in KingWilliamsTown. one day i mentioned our family history to Sheila his wife.  It was a coincidence that their 4 year old son had been on a kinder outing to the museum and seen a “carriage”!!!!!. We rushed down and to my surprise there were in front of me our heritage. the beautiful carriages and tools  from “buffalo Works”.  He well deserved being known as “the best in the business”.  

                         This is how it all began      --------------

 Robert’s stepmother (frustrated with taking on 9 or 10 stepchildren and also bearing 9 or 10 of their own) ordered him out of the home, calling him a “ne’ar do well. at the age of 14!!! The story goes that he walked with a friend “through native infested territory”) to KingWilliamsTown. from east London. (nb. this same stepmother ended her days in Robert Symons’s home.) Here he found work as a blacksmith on the East London to Queenstown railway. 9 years later in 1977 at the age of 23 he fought in the 9th “kaffir” war. (from East London to KingWilliamsTown by car takes 30-40 minutes.)

A year later at the age of 24 in October 1878 he started the wagon works. This developed into the “buffalo wagon and carriage works”. He had 3 farms which stabled horses, cows donkeys etc. for his carriages.  He also planted trees especially bluegums. He was known as “bluegum bob”.

The cartage business started in 1900 when he won the local railway cartage contract and it remained with his firm until 1950 (carried on by his son Oswald), except for 5 years after 1910.  His wagons went to the Argentine, India, Rhodesia  East Africa (Angola).  His firm built hearses (one is in the museum) fire wagons etc. The carriages were mostly canopied.  There is a beautiful stinkwood one in the Bathurst museum.  The Standard Bank (South Africa) one year used a photo of one of his carriages on a Xmas card. There were examples of carriages from other firms as well.

 The firm (which employed about 80 men)   developed into engineering works.  Robert owned the first motor car in KingWilliamsTown. This car had large wooden spoked wheels and hard rubber tires. To start the engine it was cranked up on the side.   It was no bigger than a motor bike engine of today and a chain drove the back wheels.  He then entered into the motor trade by running a garage in Taylor Street.  He captured the franchise or agency for the ford company in the days of the old model T. Later he also held the agency for the Hudson for a short while and the Nash.

 After grandpa’s first wife died in Birmingham England in 1900 the business was well established and profitable.  There have been reports he was a millionaire. He married our grandmother (Edith Brown from Vaalkranz farm Cathcart area) on the 12/2/1902. She was 25 and he 49 years old (the same year his first daughter married) Life carried on, 9 children were born (more later) until Robert Symons’ death in 8/4/1923 aged 69 from cancer of the tongue.  Oldest son was 20

 None of the children (except Oswald on the cartage side) were groomed to take over the business in particular on the finance side.   It resulted in the accountant ( name?)  Making off with (stealing) all the money leaving the family destitute.  The family tried to summons him but nothing was proved. I did hear he disappeared. The very spoilt Symons clan who had everything had to start again.  Which was a sad ending.   Or was it ???????

 The Family History of Edith Brown  born  - 24/6/1877

 My paternal grandmother             died  -    /   /1944

 She was descended from the 1820 settlers, the emigrants who were all from England.  The Napoleonic wars had ended in 1815 and life was not too good in England, poverty no jobs etc. (Editors note: Sounds like 2009)  Settling in South Africa (a British colony). Buying and owning cheap land was a pleasant temptation for young families.  South Africa had been founded in 1656. 

G-g-g-grandfather Stephen Brown married Sarah Hillman in 1815 in Chelsea, England. They sailed in the “Weymouth” with William as 1820 settlers and joined the Cock’s party.

This was Stephen’s second marriage (first wife’s name unknown)  he had two children Nathaniel and Sarah.  Nathaniel joined him in South Africa later.


  1. William born 29th February 1816 in Chelsea England
  2. Edward born  20th October 1820
  3. Harriet born 1822
  4. Hon Thomas Hillman Brown born 1822

G-g-grandfather Edward Brown married Charity Hobbs (Daughter of Phillip and Charity Hobbs)

He farmed at “Reed Fountain” +/- 10 miles from Port Alfred.


  1. William born 15th January 1848 married Elizabeth Emma Miles.  ( buried Hilton Cathcart district)
  2. Stephen Brown born 1849 married Susannah Catherine Miles at Hilton. Settled on the farm Vaalkrantz near Cathcart.  Both buried at Hilton.
  3. Susannah born 17th August 1851 died at 19 months 1853.
  4. John Edward  born 21st August 1853 married Alice

            Jeanette Miles   settled at Craigcross farm, Cathcart.

 g- grandfather Stephen Brown born 1849 married Susannah

        Catherine Miles.   Born 1850 died 1947, aged 97. 

    Susannah ( an 1820 settler descendant.) Died after her daughter Edith Brown who died in 1944 there is a photo of 4 generations ( Susannah, Edith, victor and ken) at Vaalkrantz  where she lived with her son Martin .


  1. Oswald Ernest Brown married Adelaide Marshall  lived at “The Dales” farm Cathcart. Had 4 children.
  2. Edith Brown married Robert Symons a widower  lived for years at buffalo villa, buffalo road, KingWilliamsTown
  3. Arthur Lawrence married Harriet Gibbons had 6 children lived “Glengotha Farm” Cathcart district.
  4. May Brown married Emil Schaefer they had 2 children.
  5. Laura Brown, a spinster who lived the longest.
  6. Percy Edward married twice. 1st to Athlie Dell they had two children then he married Ethel  ?  Lived at “Stanmore Farm” Cathcart district.
  7. Sidney Allan Brown married Margaret Gibbons they had four children Percy, George Ralph, and Mollie.  They farmed at “Ellington” near Cathcart.
  8. Martin Miles Brown married Ida Armstrong they had 6 children Enid, Wilfred, Alma, Bernard, Florence & Winifred.  They lived at the original family farm “Vaalkranz”. Where g-grandmother Susannah lived and died.

Ken and i have visited ‘Vaalkranz”  I remember rocking in a huge bent-wood rocking chair and going over backwards.

  “Ellington”:  Uncle Sid and Aunt Maggie’s farm.

 Ken and I have happy memories of “Ellington.” When our father was alive we often visited. Ken likes to tell the embarrassing story about me giving the sheep a concert in the barn.   I was 6 or 7 years old and had just started ballet. Somehow I ended up in the barn (I thought by myself) the sheep were all looking at me. So I gave them an impromptu performance. I danced and sang and really enjoyed myself.  I then looked towards the window at the back of the barn and Ken’s fair head was there with the biggest grin on his face.  I have not performed since and he has not stopped eating out on that story.

 I (alone) spent a two week holiday there when I was about 13. Cathcart was an old little village whose one grocery store sold everything. Sugar, flour weighed and sold in Brown paper bags etc.  Rolls of material on shelves.

  George (Uncle Sid’s second son) ran the farm then. I think two of his brothers died in World War II. now his son Peter runs it. Their eldest boy Malcolm died when he was about 12 from a cricket ball blow to his head.  He was a super little guy.  He, Peter and I all rode one horse round the farm, poor horse. 


I’d read stories to them while George and the employers sheared the sheep.  After classing the wool (it is spread over a table like a blanket) they’d throw it into a huge sack. (Think of a silo) when the next wool blanket arrived we’d stamp it down and I’d continue to read. We were very oily afterwards from the lanolin.

 We would collect the hen’s eggs. They had artificial eggs placed so that we knew more or less where to look. No such thing as battery operated chickens. You ate what was on the land. When I was there the peaches were ripening and that is all we had for supper, peaches and home cooked beautiful bread. Auntie Maggie and Pearl took it in turn every night to make bread. It sat rising the whole night (near the black coal stove) by morning it was huge and smelled delicious. Uncle Sid and Auntie Maggie were still alive then. 

George and Pearl( going to press) are still alive in Cathcart. Auntie Geraldine sends them Xmas cards. I believe George is in a wheelchair now.  Very happy times.


Robert Symons born 16/12/1853 died 8/4/ 1923, married Edith Brown born  24/6/1977 died  19 44

  They met where and how?  I wonder.  They married on the 12/2/02.  She was 24 and he was 49 (quite old to be married in those days).  I don’t know how far away Vaalkranz was from KingWilliamsTown, not too far by coach as after she married Edith visited her mum frequently. The whole family visited her brothers on their farms.  They had their own buggy.

 Percy the last child arrived in 1920 when grandpa was 66 and Granny was 42.  Percy was three when he lost his father.  He said “I did not lose a father I gained 6!!! ” (his brothers).


Some snippets i picked up from the aunties.

Jesse SymonsJ      Percy would be in the bath, Edith anxious to use the bath (getting ready for a date)  took Percy out the bath.  Oswald would come along and take Edith out the bath and put Percy back .

 Robbie, being the eldest was given the best.  He went to St. Andrews in Grahamstown the others went to Dale in KingWilliamsTown.

He was sent to America and England.  I have a photo of him in a rugby team for one of the counties receiving his cap.

 They were all good at sport and played rugby for Border. Victor ( B.Sc) and Lawrence (B.Com honours) were sent to Rhodes University.  I know my father boxed, ran and played 1st team rugby for Rhodes in the early 1920’s  he received plenty of silver cups which my mother gave back to Rhodes.

Granny Symons sat on a Tuesday evening darning 56 pairs of socks (8 boys + 7 days). They were all hand knitted.   They had a roast every night, the best way to feed 10 people. 

Oswald was very fond of animals especially poultry which he bred for shows and won many medals he was also a judge. My mum said he took eggs to bed with him like a broody hen.

 There were lots of fisticuffs but the brothers were very close and made a point of seeing each other over the years. They liked to argue and none of the stories were the same.

 Robert and Edith Symons’s children    

  1.  Robert Stephen Symons born 4th January 1903, died 1968.  Chief health inspector of east London.  Married Vida Phillips  born 20/8/1907. They had one child a daughter Marion ( pharmacist) born 10/3/1929    she married Reg Jones children:- 3 daughters Glynis, Angela and Susan. She divorced and married again  (Bryson )  
  2. Oswald born 21st April 1904-  married Mabel Webber. No  children.   Cartage Contractor
  3. Victor Edward born  26/8/1905  B.Sc headmaster. Married Veronica (Vera) Billing born 11/10/03  piano teacher L.T.C.L,  U.T.L.M. 1934 in Kimberley. two children Kenneth born 27/1/37  Merryl born 5/2/43
  4. Lawrence John Symons born 21st April 1907  B.Com. Died 29/12 79 he was 72. Assistant auditor general in Zimbabwe. Married Thora Evelyn Dixon born 7/8/1911.  3 children. Lynette born 19/1038.  Sylvia born 22/7/ 41 died 25/3/69, John 24/9/ 43
  5. Edith Symons born 26/9/1909 in KingWilliamsTown. died 15/2/1993 in Natal. Married Robert Dudley (Uncle Dudley) Hampton O.B.E. head of Domboshawe Agricultural College.  Died 3/6/1982. In Natal, 3 children-  Maureen born 18/9/38, Robert 31/5/42. Brian 25/1/45
  6. Twins Phillip and George Symons born  20/3/1912. Phillip married Jessie Margaret Kable born  8/4/09 Phillip died 23/2/64 aged 51, jess died 27/6/76 . Aged 66. Children Penelope born 6/12/1944 and Moira 26/10/46
  7. George : born 20/3/1912   died 13/3/1950 in Harare aged 37. First married Eileen Button ended in divorce. Second marriage Thelma Fisher born 25/1/1924. One daughter Georgina Dale born 29/6/49 died 2/11/ 1949, 4 months before her father died, very sad.
  8. Doris May born 13/3/1918  -  died  25/3/ 1918  lived 12 days.
  9. William Percy  born 22/3/1920  died 14/2/1978 Married geraldine hood born  1/4/1924. One child Carol Anne Symons born 11/3/1957


  Symons Brown Families

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