Shields link to circus folk and diamond diggers

Johannes' ancestors who took part in the great South African gold rush.
Johannes' ancestors who took part in the great South African gold rush.

I have been contacted by a chap in South Africa, who is researching his family tree – and believes there is an ancestral link with South Shields.

His family’s story is a truly remarkable one, involving diamonds, travelling circuses and the breeding and training of horses.

Johannes, right, and the oldest person still digging at Bakerville, 91-year-old Uncle Jimmy Millar.

Johannes, right, and the oldest person still digging at Bakerville, 91-year-old Uncle Jimmy Millar.

But despite having unearthed quite a bit of detail, Johannes van Zyl, is still missing some key pieces of the puzzle, particularly the South Tyneside connection (which he discovered by way of an article which appeared in the Shields Gazette in September, 2007 – more of that later.)

As a result, Johannes, who lives in Pretoria, South Africa, is calling on Gazette readers to try to help him fill in the blanks.

This is his story:–

“I am doing research on the Van Zyl family, also spelled Van den Seijl, van Seijl, van Zijl or van Zÿl.

“My grandfather, Johannes van Zyl was married to Catharina Maria de Raedt.

“My great grandfather, on my grandmother’s side, Philipus Edmond de Raedt, was married to Catharina Maria Ferreira, and his father, also Philipus Edmond, were known as the Circus People or the man with the merry-go-round.

“Apparently he was the only person in South Africa at that time who owned a merry-go-round.

“Also according to family stories, he was one of the few people in South Africa who was breeding and training horses at that time. They were apparently a very wealthy family.”

Johannes’ great grandfather, on the van Zyl side, Johannes van Zyl, married to Catharina Sophia Sussara Jacobs, and became diamond diggers.

It is said that Pieter van Zijl and his brother Albert van Zijl were cattle farmers and hunters who trekked away from the Cape in a western direction.

The generation after them trekked further north and settled in the Lichtenburg district where, in 1825, diamonds were discovered.

“The one-time farmers and hunters, now became diamond diggers, and part of the diamond rush of 1925-26.

“My grandfather and his brothers and sisters were all musicians, and with a town rising from nothing due to the diamond rush, saloons started springing up everywhere.

“Together, they started a band, and made music dubbed Boere musiek.

“I always wondered how my grandfather and grandmother met. He was a farmer, digging diamonds, and she the daughter a wealthy man. (I was still young when they died).

“I found my answer in a document which read ‘and there were even a man with a merry-go-round’ which happened to be Philip Edmond de Raedt.

“I think that it is obvious to assume that the young daughter of Philip Edmond visited some of these dancing halls where she met my grandfather and they fell in love.

“My father was one of 11 children, most of who grew up in the Bakerville area, digging for diamonds. From these 11 children, only three are still alive today,” reveals Johannes, who is the eldest of 32 nephews and nieces.

l Next time: How the link to South Shields came about.