Fast-slow, fast-slow, fast-slow.
Family history research often stutters along as we uncover our ancestors’ stories one source at a time. Often we experience the story in non-chronological order, finding odd windows into their lives at random times depending on the particular sources we uncover – a little like that episode of Doctor Who where David Tennant’s Doctor boards a spaceship which has a number of literal windows into the life of Madame du Pompadour. As for the Doctor, it can be frustratingly difficult to understand the overall picture until one crucial piece of the puzzle falls into place, then there’s a flurry of activity as many of the pieces we’ve already seen slot into place and the full picture, or at least the fullest version we’ve yet seen, comes into focus.
This was what happened in researching the story of my wife’s aunt, Gonda van Raalte. What’s that I can hear you say? But Phil, you have a wonderfully unique name for your research subject, surely that would’ve been easy? Well if Aunt Gonda had been as easy to track down as I’d hoped then she wouldn’t have made an interesting case study for this article!
Finding the birth and early life of Gonda was easy. The problem was that she just seemed to disappear from the record. Whatever had happened to her?
I’m happy to say that I have married very well, both in genealogical and matrimonial terms. My ancestors are almost all north country agricultural labourers and factory workers. However, my wife’s ancestors come from very different stock: titled nobility, land owners, newspaper barons, industrialists and the Victorian super-rich. That not one penny of this great wealth trickled down to my wife and her siblings is one of life’s great ironies. But the genealogical riches are great indeed!
Who were the van Raaltes?
My wife’s van Raalte line stems from a Dutch Jewish immigrant, Marcus van Raalte, who migrated to Manchester from Rotterdam as a young man in the early 1850s, when Manchester was the most industrialised city in the country and known as “Cottonopolis”. He came from an influential and well connected Dutch Jewish family with banking and mercantile links across Europe and the world. With the support of his family he set up a mercantile and broking business in Manchester and enjoyed rapid commercial and personal success. Marrying in 1856, he had a single son, Charles van Raalte, who went on to even greater success as a stock broker in the City of London. By the age of just thirty Charles had married and was able to take a lease on a large country estate and mansion house in Hertfordshire.
By the age of forty-five Charles had purchased a house in Grosvenor Square and the whole of Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, complete with its mansion house. At Brownsea they entertained the wealthy and influential of late Edwardian society, including a certain Lieutenant General Baden-Powell, hero of the siege of Mafeking in the Boer war, who, at the van Raalte’s invitation, ran an experimental Boy Scout camp on Brownsea Island, so launching the worldwide Scout movement (of which I was an enthusiastic member in my youth).
Charles van Raalte and his wife Florence, had three children, Noel, Margherita and Gwendolen across the late 1880s and early 1890s. The two daughters went on to achieve great social acclaim – Margherita, known in the family as Margo, married in the aristocracy in the person of the Baron Howard de Walden, while Gwendolen, nicknamed “Poots”, married the equerry to the Prince of Wales, becoming a confidant of the flawed and doomed Edward VIII. The eldest and only son, Noel, educated at Eton and Cambridge, was obsessed with motor engines, whether on boats, cars or aircraft. He became an engineer and spent the first world war producing aero engines for the war effort – for which he was given special leave to resign his RNVR commission.
Noel was a talented engineer and enjoyed considerable private wealth after the untimely death of his father Charles, while he was still at Cambridge in 1908. He had a passion for racing motor boats and motor cars – he is known to have raced in the 1915 Indianapolis 500, several times at Brooklands, and was the purchaser of the very first Bentley motor car in 1921.
His talents didn’t extend to marital happiness however, being married no fewer than three times. His first marriage, to Iris Graham, lasted six years and produced two children, Gonda in 1913 and Iris Charmian in 1916. It ended in an acrimonious divorce, after which he briefly married his ex-wife’s best friend, Beryl Gibbons, in 1920, producing a son Charles Henry in 1923. He eventually settled down to a stable marriage with Hope McMaster, herself a divorcee, in 1928.
It appears that, after the dust of the divorces had settled, Noel was able to maintain good relationships with his two daughters, Gonda and Charmian. His son Charles Henry, known as Harry, had no meaningful relationship with either his father or his half sisters however – so much so that Harry’s children were unaware of the existence of their aunts Gonda and Charmian until I discovered them.
Who was Aunt Gonda?
The first mystery about Gonda is why Noel and Iris gave her such an unusual name. Online sources agree that the name is primarily Dutch in origin, tying in with the van Raalte family heritage, however I’ve been unable to find any prior relation on the Dutch side of the family tree sharing the same name. Even in Holland the name is rare. Still, one family’s unusual choice of baby name can be a genealogists boon!
Gonda van Raalte was born in London on 22nd September 1913. Being of a wealthy family, the birth was announced in The Times three days later. She was christened at St Mary’s church on Brownsea Island the following March. And then the records dry up … for almost twenty years. How? Why? With such a distinctive name, how could she apparently disappear?
The obvious first place to look from today’s perspective (though not an option when I first started researching her) are the 1921 census and 1939 register. None one of my wife’s van Raalte’s are found in the 1921 census. Why is that? Probably because they were wealthy enough to travel abroad and took the opportunity to do so as frequently as possible. She is found in the 1939 register, but more on that later.
A good way to track down the upper classes in the early twentieth century is through newspapers. The British Newspaper Archive has done a tremendous job of digitising vast quantities of newsprint, all of which is searchable. Alas, the name “van Raalte” seems to get bowdlerised more frequently than others by the search engine, but I was nonetheless able to find a reference to Gonda and younger sister Charmian (“Carmen”) entering a Gymkhana at a fete in Theddingworth, Leicestershire in July 1923. Gonda, aged nine, managed to win the children’s “Bending Race”! But the British Newspaper archive had little else to report on Gonda for many more years.
If I was going to track Gonda down I was going to have to get more creative about the sources I searched. With a name as distinctive as Gonda, unusually broad searches would at least be a possibility.
A Google search found that the front cover of Country Life of 7th May 1932 was dedicated to “Miss Gonda van Raalte”:
Aged eighteen, sporting fashionably short hair and looking like she’d walked from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel, she was about to be presented at Court as one of the season’s debutantes. I really must go along to the British Library some time and look up the article about her inside the issue, which would likely provide some significant colour. (This issue has been for sale on various online sites, but the prices asked are somewhat more than I’m happy to pay. Sadly, the British Newspaper Archive has yet to digitise Country Life.)
Other newspaper clippings from 1932 tell that Gonda was being presented by her aunt Margo, the Lady Howard de Walden, along with Margo’s daughter Bronwen Scott-Ellis. In late May there was a ball for the two girls at Seaford House in Belgrave Square, Mayfair, the palatial mansion of Howard de Walden’s, which was one of the highlights of the London “season” that year.
Beyond social gossip in newspapers, I was still finding very little detail about Gonda, other than that she seemed to spend much of 1932 and 1933 living with the Howard de Waldens at Chirk Castle, their country seat, or at Seaford House when in London. Then I chanced upon a cutting in The Tatler from 9th August 1933:
This led me to search an unusual source at Ancestry: Royal Aero Club “Aviator’s Certificates”, i.e. flying licences. Lo and behold, Gonda had actually won her flying licence the previous year, aged just eighteen:
So, alongside her wealth and privilege, Gonda had an adventurous spirit, attaining a flying licence three months before her nineteenth birthday.
The next evidence I found of Gonda was in an incoming passenger list. On 7th May 1935 she arrived at Southampton on board the Arlanza from Lisbon, apparently travelling alone. How long she had travelled on the continent and with whom is unclear.
Later the same year she announced her engagement to Eric Saunderson-Morrison, a medical doctor eleven years her senior, who was Master of the Westerby Bassett hunt in Leicestershire. Being the niece of Lord and Lady Howard de Walden, her engagement was reported widely in the newspapers. The Bystander presented a professional portrait of Gonda alongside the announcement:
The Tatler printed an official engagement portrait of the couple surrounded by hounds, presumably from the Westerby Basset hunt:
Sadly, it’s a classic photograph of upper-class discomfiture, with neither party seeming especially pleased about the engagement. As later evidence hinted, this may well have been true of the marriage itself.
The wedding took place at St Paul’s church, Knightsbridge on 19th November 1935. It was widely reported in the newspapers, but sadly the scans of photographs in the British Newspaper Library are very murky. I was able to find a couple of thumbnails of the original images in an online photograph archive, though they are watermarked:
The couple were spotted and photographed the following summer in Biarritz, The Bystander presenting this scene:
After the holiday in Biarritz, the newspaper clippings dry up for many years. The next sight I gained of Gonda was in the June of 1939 when she renewed her flying licence. The picture this time was very different:
I found the photograph genuinely shocking. Gone is the neatly coiffured hair, gone the relaxed smile of the 1932 portrait for her first flying licence. Here, it seems to me, is an unhappy woman.
I next find Gonda in the 1939 Register:
She appears to be living with, or at least staying with, her cousin and fellow 1932 debutante, Bronwen Scott-Ellis, now Mrs Lindsay, in a country house called Pimbury Park near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Coming from Dutch-Jewish ancestry, the war with Germany and the threat of possible German invasion must have been deeply unsettling for Gonda.
Gonda’s husband, Eric, isn’t found in the 1939 Register. As medical officer for the Leicestershire Yeomanry he had most likely been called up to active service at the outbreak of war four weeks earlier.
So what happened to Gonda during the war years? It’s difficult to say for sure, but the next newspaper clipping I find for her from the Leicester Evening Mail on 10th May 1946 provides a substantial clue:
It appears that Eric was posted to Egypt during the war and that Gonda went with him. Whether there were fault lines in the marriage before then is moot, though the body language in the photographs above suggest it may’ve been the case. Whatever the situation, the marriage clearly broke down during their time in Cairo and Gonda found solace elsewhere.
From then on I could find no newspaper clippings at all for Gonda Morrison or Gonda van Raalte. What had happened to her after the war? Here my search got stuck for many months, which turned into years.
Going back to ship passenger records I eventually happened upon an incoming passenger record from South Africa aboard the Arundel Castle in June 1955 which stated the following:
Name of Ship: R.M.S. “Arundel Castle”
Owner or Agent: Union-Castle Mail S.S. CS. Ltd.,
Date of Arrival: 10th June 1955
Whence Arrived: Durban & Cape Ports
Name of Passenger: MORRISON Gonda
Date of Birth: 22.9.13
Married or Single: S
Address in the UK: 30 Montague Square, London W.1.
Country of Citizenship: England
Country of last permanent residence: S.A.
Country of intended future perm. residence: S.A.
So while she gave an address in Mayfair as her UK address, she had clearly been living in South Africa and intended to return there permanently. I had spent years trying to find her in England after the war without result. That an incoming passenger record could tell me both where she had been and where she was planning to return was a huge surprise.
My next step was to investigate records in South Africa, a country I had little knowledge of and no prior experience of performing genealogical research in. My starting point, as with researching any new location, was to consult the Family Search Research Wiki: FamilySearch Research Wiki. If you haven’t used the research wiki before I highly recommend it. It introduces you to the record types that might be available in the country/location of interest and guides you to appropriate collections, sometimes at Family Search, sometimes elsewhere. It’s an invaluable resource.
After researching South Africa as a country and the records available, it seemed that FamilySearch was indeed the best source for records. I searched marriage records without success and then death records. Armed with the very rare first name of Gonda, I did eventually find an official record which told me, once and for all, what had happened to Aunt Gonda:
She died in Wynberg, a suburb of Cape Town in August 1964, when my wife, her niece, was just a few months old. She was aged just fifty, taken far too young by breast cancer. She was younger even than her father, Noel, who had died at fifty-one.
But there were positives here too. She had clearly remarried (the marriage record still eludes me!), worked as an artist and lived in a remarkable old Dutch Cape style house called Westoe which dated back to 1785. A search on the property name yielded a page on South African History Online (Westoe, Westoe Road, Mowbray | South African History Online (sahistory.org.za)) with an image of the building and a sketch of its history:
I had finally answered the question: Whatever happened to Aunt Gonda?
Fast-slow, fast-slow, fast-slow.
Sometimes it can take years to bring together all the threads and tell the complete, or near-complete, story of someone’s life.
In the case of Gonda van Raalte it was years of frustrations and brick walls, but I got there in the end. I was able to understand what had happened to her and why she apparently disappeared from traditional genealogy records after 1939. It’s been an fascinating case that has stretched me as a family historian and made me think creatively about the sources and records that I use.
Most importantly, it has enabled me to show my wife and her family the unusually named aunt they never knew.