Friday, May 18, 2012

Deceased estates, probate records and missing persons

The South African method of dealing with the estates of dead persons is different from, and much fuller than that in most English-speaking countries, and can often reveal a surprising amount of information about people who were never physically in South Africa.

The main advantage of the South African system is the Death Notice, which gives much more information than the normal death certificate, with which it should not be confused.

The easiest way of seeing how the system works is to see what happens when a person dies. The nearest relative or connection of the deceased should complete a death notice, which is sent to the Master of the High Court (the South African equivalent of a probate court). The information given in the death notice varies at different periods, but generally one may expect to find the following:
  • full names of the deceased
  • names and addresses of parents, and whether they are alive or dead
  • names of surviving and predeceased spouses of the deceased, and places of marriage
  • date and place of death
  • normal residence of the deceased, and occupation
  • names of all children of the deceased, and whether major or minor
  • if there are no children, names of brothers and sisters of the deceased
  • whether the deceased owned movable or immovable property
  • whether the property was over a certain value
  • whether the deceased left a will
  • name of the informant, and whether the informant was present at the death

The death notice, the will (if any) and an inventory of the deceased's property should be sent to the Master of the High Court within fourteen days of the death. If executors are appointed in the will, and the will is accepted, the executors will be given Letters of Executorship to deal with the estate. Without such letters, the executors will not be able to deal in any of the property of the deceased -- banks, for example, will not release funds held in the name of the deceased. Therefore even a person who had only a few cents in a savings account would be likely to have some record at the Master's Office.

A person who owned nothing more than their personal effects, or whose property consisted only of cash or cattle, might not be recorded. The family would simply divide up the estate among themselves as amicably or otherwise as they saw fit, so not everyone who died has a death notice on file.

If the person died intestate, or if no executors were appointed in the will, the Master will convene a meeting of interested persons to appoint an Executor Dative to administer the deceased's estate in accordance with the laws of intestate succession, or the will if there was one.

The executor then has to submit a second inventory, advertise in the newspapers to call on creditors to submit claims, and on debtors to pay what they owe. After paying the debts and legacies, the estate accounts have to be open to public inspection in the area where the deceased lived, and at the Master's office, for three weeks. If there are no objections, the accounts are accepted and filed in the Master's Office. If the executor is not a child, spouse or parent of the deceased, he also has to lodge security with the Master equal to the value of the estate - this is usually done by means of fidelity insurance.

The estate files may be seen in the Master's office, which makes them a very valuable genealogical source. They are indexed alphabetically for each year.

What makes them even more valuable is that the older estate files (usually those more than twenty years old) have been removed to the archives of the Province in which the Master's office is situated. These have now been indexed on the Archives computer system (NAAIRS), and this indexing has been completed to the end of 1986, so the indexes for all the estate files in the Provincial Archives have now been printed out in alphabetical order for the whole period. Researchers may either look at the printouts, or search using a computer terminal at one of the archives depots, or search on the Web.

If you're searching on the Web for the first time, it is best to go to the main NAAIRS site here National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System.

If you've already done searches and know how to use the system, you can go directly to the databases here National Archives of South Africa (NASA) Database Selection.

It is better to use the computer terminal or web search than the printed indexes, because the person one is looking for may be found in records other than those of deceased estates. Several million archival documents are in the computer index, and the number is continually being added to. A second advantage of using the computer is that one may easily find a name which would not be found in the alphabetical printout - the maiden surname of a married woman, for example.

Search is by key word, and various combinations of keywords may be used to narrow the search. One may enter the name ``green'', and look at a list of all the documents in which that word occurs. To narrow it, one may enter "green and thomas" which would find the documents in which both names occur. Or one may enter "thomas adj green", which would find the documents containing the words "Thomas Green" or "Green, Thomas". Entering "thomas and green", however, would also find a document such as "ANDREWS, Thomas William; predeceased spouse Edith Mary Andrews, formerly Brown, born Green", but might also bring up lots of references to the colour green.

This system of recording deceased estates had its origin in the early days of the Cape Colony, when it was ruled by the Dutch East India Company. An "Orphan Chamber" was set up to look after the interests of widows and orphans, and to see that they were not cheated of their inheritance, and to protect the interests of creditors in deceased or insolvent estates. In 1827 the "Master of the Orphan Chamber" or "Orphan Master" (Dutch: Weesheer) became known as the "Master of the Supreme Court", and more recently Master of the High Court.

There are now Master's offices in Cape Town, Grahamstown, Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Tshwane, and Pietermaritzburg. Namibia and Zimbabwe follow a similar system, with Master's offices in Windhoek and Harare respectively (though their indexes are not on the South African NAAIRS computer index).

The Provincial Archives, to which the earlier estate files have been removed, are in Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein and Tshwane. The Namibian Archives are in Windhoek, and those of Zimbabwe in Harare.

In some of the earlier Cape Town estates, the death notices, estate accounts and wills were filed separately when they were transferred to the archives, which makes searching more difficult. Fortunately, it was realised that the other estate papers, such as the correspondence and the liquidation and distribution accounts, contained much additional genealogical and historical information, and these are now kept together with the death notices and wills, as they always have been in the other provinces. From the estate accounts, for example, it is sometimes possible to find where the heirs were living, and if they had married since the will was made. If they had died, their children are often shown as inheriting. Sometimes there are birth or baptism certificates of heirs (particularly if they were minors) to prove that they were entitled to inherit, or that their guardians were entitled to receive the inheritance on their behalf.


There is even information about people died outside South Africa, or who never lived in South Africa at all, but who may have inherited property from people who owned a few shares in a South African company. A couple of examples show the kind of information that may be found in these records, which may be of interest to people who are searching for families which have only very tenuous connections with South Africa.

The case of Absalom Henry Beaglehole

All South African law students are familiar with RE BEAGLEHOLE, a case that made legal history and is the basis of the South African law of missing persons.

On 3 March 1904 William Richard Beaglehole died intestate at Leydsdorp, Transvaal. He was unmarried, and his estate was divided between his brothers and sisters. One brother, Absalom Henry Beaglehole, could not be found, and the executor paid his share in to the Guardians Fund of the Master of the Supreme Court.

In 1908 two of his sisters made an application to the Supreme Court for Absalom Henry Beaglehole to be presumed dead, and for his share to be divided among the remaining heirs. He had last been heard of fifteen years before his brother's death in 1904, and had been a miller working in Somerset, England. The plaintiffs argued that in English law there was a rebuttable presumption that a person was dead if he had been missing for seven years, and that therefore the money should never have been paid into the Guardians Fund in the first place.

The judge disagreed, and would not grant an order.

He said it was undesirable to divide the estates of missing persons unless exhaustive enquiries had been made. At the time of his disappearance A.H. Beaglehole would have been only 31 years old, and at the time of the application he would have been only 46. He did not work at a particularly dangerous occupation, and so it could not be presumed that he was dead. The application was dismissed.

That, for most lawyers, is the end of the story of Absalom Henry Beaglehole. For the family historian, however, the story continues in Deceased Estate file No 23343 in the Transvaal Archives, the file of Absalom Henry Beaglehole.

His whole estate in South Africa was the 100 pounds in the Guardians Fund from the estate of his brother. He had never visited South Africa. He died at the workhouse infirmary in Newmarket, Cambridgeshire, England on 8 July 1913.

In his death notice, the names of his parents were simply recorded as "deceased", but there was a death certificate, showing the death of Absalom Henry Beaglehole, also known as Harry Richardson. There was a sworn declaration from someone who had known him for ten years as Harry or Henry Richardson, and who said he travelled around Eastern England from place to place, wherever he could get work as a millstone dresser. Another sworn declaration, from Ernest Stephen Heasman, in charge of the workhouse, said that the deceased had come from eight miles away to the workhouse infirmary, and that, just before he died, he had revealed that his real name was Absalom Henry Beaglehole, that his father was John Beaglehole, a farmer of Menheniot, Cornwall, and that he had a brother and sister still living there. He had gone under the name of Henry Richardson for some fifteen years past because he had "come down in the world".

There was another sworn declaration by his brother-in-law, William Kelly, to say that his deceased wife Emma was the sister of Absalom Henry Beaglehole, that his three children, Phyllis Mary Kelly, aged 15, John Beaglehole Kelly, aged 10, and Frederick Cowling Kelly, aged 8, were the heirs.

Another sister, Catherine Jane Beaglehole, died in Johannesburg some years later, in 1922. She was unmarried, and in her will she left her property to her nephews and nieces, whose names were all recorded. The final liquidation and distribution account revealed that one of the nieces, Phyllis Mary Kelly, had married six months before her aunt had died, and there was a sworn declaration to that effect, giving the name of her husband as William Henry Mortimer Roberts of Haye Barton in the Parish of St Ive in the County of Cornwall and the date of marriage as 25 January 1922.

Thus from two estate files and a law report it is possible to build up a fairly comprehensive picture of three generations of a large family, most of whom were living in England.

I wonder what might have happened if he had been found and received the 100 pounds from his brother's estate in 1908. It might have enabled him to "come up in the world" again. 

Frederick Thomas Green

In contrast to Absalom Henry Beaglehole, there is a good deal of published information about Frederick Thomas Green. The problem here is that much of it is inaccurate.

He appears in the Dictionary of South African Biography as Frederick Joseph Green, and was well-known as an elephant hunter and explorer in what is now Botswana and Namibia. Several published sources describe his father as "Robert" Green. His father was, in fact, William John Green, who was born in Quebec in 1790, and came to the Cape Colony as Deputy Assistant Commissary General in about 1846.

William John Green and his wife Margaret Gray had fifteen children, and their descendants are scattered all over the world. One son, Henry, was British Resident of the Orange River Sovereignty in 1854, while another, Edward Lister Green, saw military service in India, China and Ireland, and eventually settled in New Zealnand.

Frederick Thomas Green went to the Lake Ngami area of of what is now Botswana, and then to Damaraland (now part of Namibia). He married Catherine Anne Agnes Stewardson, and had seven children, four of whom died young. He died near Walvis Bay in 1876. In those days Namibia was not one country, but had several independent rulers who were sometimes at war with each other. Most of these rulers kept no written records at all.

With the computerised index, however, it was a simple task to find the record of the estate of Frederick Thomas Green, in the Free State Archives in Bloemfontein. Shortly before setting off for Lake Ngami, Frederick Green had worked as a clerk in the Commissariat in Bloemfontein. When he died, some 25 years later, his widow did not file a death notice. His property consisted of his cattle, wagons and hunting equipment, and there was no system of probate where he was living. She soon remarried, to George Robb, and they went to Cape Town.

Some ten years later, it was discovered that Frederick Green had owned a plot of land in Bloemfontein. A death notice was filed, but as there was no will, the Master in Bloemfontein wanted the names of all the children, and proof of their age. So in the estate papers are baptism certificates for the surviving Green children, showing that they were baptised in Damaraland by German missionaries of the Rhenish Mission Society. As each of the children reached the age of 21, they were able to claim their share of the proceeds of the sale of the land from the Guardians Fund, which was all documented in the Estate File. This showed that by the time the youngest child had turned 21, the family had moved to Johannesburg.

In this way, family tradition and dubious published material was confirmed or corrected. The life of a Canadian hunter, who lived a wandering life in the wilderness of South West Africa, passing through the territories of several independent African states, was documented in the records of the Orange Free State Republic (Oranje-Vrijstaat).

Though Absalom Henry Beaglehole was no relation of ours, Frederick Thomas Green was my wife Val's great-great grandfather, and if you are interested you can read more of his story at In the steps of Fred Green | Hayes & Greene family history.

Searching from overseas

Since the computer indexes to the South African estate files are available on the Web, it is simple for a researcher in England, for example, to find a reference. Unfortunately it is no longer possible to get photocopies of most of these records, as the many of the estate files are bound into books, and putting them in a photocopier damages the binding. But there is a South African genealogy mailing list, and many people there are willing to do a couple of lookups in the archives.

For more information, including how to join the South Africa genealogy mailing list, see Conrod Mercer's South African Genealogy pages.
This article originally appeared in the September 1989 issue of Family Tree magazine (Vol 5, No 11, p. 28). Since it was a long time ago, many people may not have read it, I'm posting an updated version here.


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