One of the minor mysteries of Natal history in the 1850s has been the identity of a mysterious Alfred Francis Dawson, who is described in Shelagh O’Byrne Spencer’s British Settlers In Natal:
Wine merchant. Dawson and his wife Octavia (?c. 1832-24 May 1852, Durban) emigrated to Natal on the Dreadnought. There are many unanswered questions about this family. To begin with, it is uncertain as to what their surname was — Dawson or Francis. In the burial register of St Paul’s there is an entry for their son Frederick, dated Mar 1850. The child was buried under the name Dawson, but an asterisk has been put next to the surname and the annotation ‘Francis not Dawson’ has been added, and signed by Revd W.H.C. Lloyd. The other entries in the St Paul’s registers (Apr 1851, Jan 1852 and May 1852) all give the surname Francis. Despite this, Dawson went by the name Dawson in Durban society. The only inkling of anything different comes in a letter from Thomas Roberts, J.C. Byrne’s confidential clerk, to the Government in Nov 1850, in which he refers to ‘Mr Dawson alias Francis’ (Spencer 1989:93 ff).
When I read this a few years ago, I wondered if it was the same person who had married Agnes Green in Australia. It now seems probable that it is, and we can construct an outline of the life of Alfred John Francis, alias Alfred Dawson Francis, alias Alfred Francis Dawson.
Alfred John Francis was born in or near Liverpool, Lancashire, England, about 1820, and his father was John Francis. In 1842 he married Christiana Fox Dean, and their first son, Dean Francis, was born in 1843. Another son, whos name may have been Alfred, was born about 1844, but this is uncertain. A third son, Frederick Thomas Francis, was born in 1846, again, in or near Liverpool. Then in 1847 Christiana Fox Francis died.
Two years later, in about July 1849, Alfred John Francis remarried, to Octavia Cecilia Waring, also in Liverpool, and the following month they seem to have boarded the Dreadnought, sailing from London for Durban. The Dreadnought was an emigrant ship, carrying Byrne settlers to Natal, but Alfred and Octavia Francis travelled cabin class, which means that they must have paid for their passage, and not been part of the Byrne settlers party. They also travelled under the name of Mr & Mrs Dawson, and on arrival in Natal were known by the name Dawson, though, as Shelagh Spencer notes, some knew their real name.
The children do not appear to have travelled with them, and Shelagh Spencer notes that two Masters Francis arrived on the Hannah from Cape Town in February 1850. These could have been Dean Francis, then aged 7, and Frederick Thomas, then aged about 4. The third child may have been the mysterious Alfred, who would then have been aged about 6. The question arises, then, why these children did not travel with their father and stepmother, and where they stayed in the mean time. Who looked after three children under 10 on the voyage? Did they stay in Liverpool and leave later? Did they travel to Cape Town and stay there for a while? If so, with whom? Were Alfred and his new young bride wanting to enjoy a honeymoon voyage without the kids? The youngest child, Frederick Thomas, died in May 1850. Octavia then gave birth to Fairfax George Francis in December 1850, but he died just over a year later.
Dawson/Francis was cited in a divorce case by John Ross Melcolm Watson, who said his wife had committed adultery with Alfred Dawson of Pinetown. The Watsons had arrived in Durban on the Hannah, the ship that has brought the Francis children. According to Shelagh Spencer, Alfred Dawson/Francis had several other extramarital affairs, and may have left some illegitimate children when he left Natal. Mrs Watson, however, was more than a match for him. After Alfred Dawson/Francis had left Natal J.R.M. Watson went into business with my great great grandfather Richard Vause at Tugela Drift, which they named Colenso after the Bishop of Natal. The Watsons later moved to Ladysmith, and Mrs Watson also had an affair with Isaiah Solomon before eloping with Herbert Stanbridge from Ladysmith in April 1860, accompanied by her daughter Theresa who eloped with Frederick William Beningfield.
Octavia Francis was very ill in April 1852, and had no sooner recovered than she was drowned in a boating accident in Durban Bay on 24 May 1852. Spencer notes
Dawson was still in Natal early in July 1852. There is no sign of his departure from the Colony unless he was the Mrs Francis who with two children left in Aug 1852. They sailed for Algoa Bay in the steamer Sir Robert Peel.
Alfred John Francis then went to Australia, and on 9 January 1858 he was married to Margaret Agnes Anne Wilson, a widow, according to the rites of the Episcopalian Church, at Gundary in the district of Broulee, New South Wales. He is described as a farmer, and one of the witnesses to the marriage was his eldest son from his first marriage, Dean Francis, who would then have been about 14. Alfred is recorded in the marriage register as Alfred John Dawson Francis.
He was later a miner and storekeeper, and went insolvent in 1860. Four children were born to the marriage, though there is some doubt about the last, Louisa Francis, as she was born after her father’s death, and possibly conceived in his absence.
Alfred John Dawson Francis left his wife in the Bodalla district (on the south coast of New South Wales) and went to Sydney where he lived for four months before committing suicide by taking cyanide on 8 March 1864. He is buried in the Camperdown Cemetery, New South Wales.
One of their sons, Arthur Walpole Francis, went to Johannesburg, and after the First World War farmed at Mariental in what is now Namibia. Their descendants went to East Africa, Germany, South Africa and Canada, and possibly several other parts of the world as well.
Their daughter Edith married William Throsby Bridges, a soldier, who founded the Duntroon Military College near Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (and where his mother-in-law had been a teacher many years before). Their descendants live in Australia, South Africa and the UK.
Louisa, the youngest, whose parentage is in some doubt, has descendants in Australia, among them Bob Cowley, who has done much research on the Australian side of the family history, and to whom I am indebted for much of the information in this and other posts on this family.
Here is a summary of the information we have on the family:
Family Group Report For: Alfred John Dawson Francis (ID= 945) Date Prepared: 11 Nov 2011 NAME: FRANCIS, Alfred John Dawson, Born ??? 1820? in Liverpool, England, Died 5 Mar 1864 in Sydney, NSW at age 44; FATHER: FRANCIS, John; He married Christiana Dean and had three children in Liverpool. She died and then he married Octavia Waring, and almost immediately sailed for Durban on the Dreadnought, with the children following later in the Hannah. In 1852 he went to New South Wales, where he married Agnes Wilson (born Green). MARRIED 9 Jan 1858 in Gundary, NSW, to GREEN, Margaret Agnes Ann, Born 8 Dec 1835 in Nova Scotia, Died 26 Dec 1902 in Marrickville, NSW, AUS at age 67; FATHER: GREEN, William John (Goodall), Born 28 Aug 1790, Died 9 Apr 1866 at age 75; MOTHER: GRAY, Margaret, Born 18 May 1795, Died 11 May 1844? at age 48; Witness: Dean Francis. He was a widower, she a widow, both of Bodalla.; Came to Cape Colony at age of 11 with father and brothers. Married William Wilson while still young and emigrated to Australia. MARRIED 31 Jul 1849 in Liverpool, LAN, ENG, to WARING, Octavia Cecilia, Born ??? 1832, Died 24 May 1852 in Durban, Natal at age 20 MARRIED 14 Jul 1842 in W. Derby, LAN, ENG, to DEAN, Christiana Fox, Died Nov 1847 in W. Derby, LAN, ENG CHILDREN: 1. M FRANCIS, Dean, born ??? 1843, died ???; Married 24 Jan 1865 to BOOT, Eliza Angelina Hopkinson 2. M FRANCIS, Alfred, born ??? 1844, died ??? 3. M FRANCIS, Frederick Thomas, born May 1846 in W. Derby, LAN, ENG, died Mar 1850 in Durban, Natal 4. M FRANCIS, Fairfax George, born Dec 1850 in Durban, Natal, died Jan 1852 in Durban, Natal 5. F FRANCIS, Ada Anne Angeline Fairfax, born 10 Mar 1859 in Bodalla, NSW, AUS, died 9 Nov 1938 in Ashfield, NSW, AUS; Married 1 Aug 1894 to WHITE, William 6. M FRANCIS, Arthur Walpole, born 7 Jan 1861 in Moruya, NSW, died 8 May 1921 in Mariental Dist. SWA; Married 2 Nov 1887 to DONOVAN, Ida Miranda Willoughby; 3 children 7. F FRANCIS, Edith Lilian, born 20 Aug 1862 in Yarragee, NSW, died 13 Oct 1926 in Melbourne, Vic. Aust.; Married 10 Oct 1885 to BRIDGES, William Throsby; 7 children 8. F FRANCIS, Louisa, born 3 Nov 1864 in Queanbeyan, NSW, died 18 Mar 1943 in Tenterfield, NSW; Married 24 Dec 1883 to COWLEY, Percy; 10 children
Some mysteries still remain:
1. Why they travelled to Durban under the name Dawson.
2. Why the children travelled separately
3. Who looked after the children (all under 10) on the voyage to Durban.
So research continues…
Spencer, Shelagh O’Byrne. 1989. British settlers in Natal, 1824-1857: a biographical register. Vol 5. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.