Location: Battlesden, Capetown, Grahamstown
Surname/tag: Attwell, Labrum
A Bedfordshire Family in South Africa By David Attwell As published in The Bedfordshire Magazine, Vol 20 No. 159, Winter 1986
In 1819 Richard Attwell, aged 48, his wife Ann, aged 45 and six of their children emigrated to South Africa. He had farmed in Battlesden, near Toddington and all the children were baptised at Toddington church. Battlesden, in the early nineteenth century consisted of a manor house, four farms, ten labourers’ cottages and a small church. It has not changed very much since. The family set sail on 9th December on the Nautilus from Deptford near London, joining Lieutenant Crause’s party from Kent. Their sea journey almost ended before they left English waters as they were nearly wrecked on the treacherous Goodwin Sands. After four months at sea – a journey not without further mishaps – they put into Capetown for repairs to the ship, which had been badly damaged by winter storms. They then carried on to their destination in Algoa Bay, the eastern frontier of what was then the Cape Colony. Port Elizabeth now stands at the south-western point of the bay, but there was not even a village there in 1820. The Attwell family, like the other settlers, were allotted their hundred acres of land by a ‘grateful government’ but little did they realise that they were being used as a buffer between the warring Xhosa tribe and the colonists to the west. The land that had been allotted was on the banks of the Fish River, but things did not go well from the start and the family suffered many privations. They endured cattle raids by the Xhosa tribesmen: looting: and failure of their crops because of drought and were unable to pay their ever-increasing debt to the government, which had loaned money for food, shelter, farming implements and seed.
So the family sought refuge in Grahamstown, capital of the ‘settler country’ and took up the traditional trades of baking and shoe-making to make a living. Here the family split up: the two oldest sons, William and Richard Labrum, both in their early twenties, went to Captetown: Edwin, the third son, went to Graaf Reinet on the edge of the Great Karoo: the second daughter, Sarah, married: Brooke the youngest son, settled down to shoe-making. James was the only one who returned to farming, specialising in citrus fruits.
William and Richard Labrum (his unusual second name was his mother’s maiden surname), bought out a small bakery in Capetown. The bakery thrived, they bought new premises and became the ‘Attwell Bakeries’, which is still flourishing today (1986). William died in 1832, aged only 35. Richard carried on alone and when he died in 1872, his son continued the business with his brother-in-law. They soon became leading grain merchants, too and were appointed corn merchants to the Capetown garrison. They also marketed a ship’s biscuit of their own, which was revolutionary in that it withstood all climatic conditions. Since the bakeries were so successful, the brothers-in-law decided to invest in a steam operated flour mill, the first of its kind in South Africa. ‘Snowflake’. The trade name of what was now the South African Milling Company, was first registered in 1864 by Attwell and Company at the deeds office in the Cape of Good Hope. In 1895 Richard Labrum’s son, James William Attwell (my grandfather) was elected Mayor of Captetown.
After a successful year of office, he came on civic duties to London, where he caught bronchial pneumonia and died in 1897. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, but later re-interred in his home country. He was a self-educated man, having gone into the business at the age of twelve. He was held in high esteem and his generosity was a byword especially to the church – he was a staunch Methodist. His sons and daughters lived and died in Captetown, with the exception of my father, who came back to this country (England) and died at Ringwood in Hampshire. Tere are other Atwells or Attwells in this county but I have yet to find a branch related to the original Battlesden emigrant. I seem to be the last surviving Attwell of Richard Labrum’s branch. Some of William’s descendants – who eventually moved to New Zealand – have come back to England and now live in London. The family is quite well known in South Africa: the Settlers’ Museum in Grahamstown has a wealth of information about them. There are well over 1,500 known descendants of the original Battlesden family. The Attwell Bakeries and the South African Milling Company are still in existence (1986), but they are now part of a big group known as the Pearl Mills of South Africa.
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