The McGregors in South Africa

15 01 2009

by Tony McGregor

Two Scottish clans came together in South Africa in the 1860s and started a South African dynasty.

The Robertsons

An unknown artist painted a full-length portrait of the Rev Dr William Robertson, which was cut down to leave this portion.

An unknown artist painted a full-length portrait of the Rev Dr William Robertson, which was cut down to leave this portion.

The first was the Robertson clan, established by the Rev Dr William Robertson, born on 13 July 1805 on his father’s farm Burn Riggs near Inverurie, near Aberdeen. He went to study at King’s College, Aberdeen at the age of 13. Three years later he had to abandon his studies as he became very ill with tuberculosis.

At about the same time, many nautical miles to the south, the new English governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, was keen to do something to improve the educational facilities available to people living in the colony, and also to address the shortage of properly trained and qualified ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church. He looked to Scotland to find people to assist in both these areas of work.

Lord Charles Somerset

Lord Charles Somerset

Somerset commissioned an English minister, the Rev Dr. George Thom, who had joined the Dutch Reformed Church and was on furlough in the United Kingdom, to find suitable people in Scotland. Dr Thom visited Aberdeen and there engaged Church of Scotland minister the Rev Andrew Murray and, as a teacher, William Robertson.

And so in February 1822 William Robertson, then still Mr. Robertson, in the company of the Rev Andrew Murray, set sail from London for a four month journey to South Africa in the 180 ton brig Arethusa. They arrived in Table Bay on 2 July, some 17 weeks after leaving the United Kingdom.

Robertson’s first posting was to Graaff Reinet, where he was to open the Free English School. Andrew Murray was also sent to Graaff Reinet to become minister of the Dutch Reformed Church there. For the first two years Robertson stayed in the pastorie (parsonage) with Rev Murray.

Robertson, in spite of his being only 17 years old, was very energetic and soon had the school up and running. The town at the time had a population of about 1800. On the advice of the Landdrost, Mr Andries Stockenstrom (later Sir Andries) Robertson started an evening school called the Evening Academy for Secondary Education.

After five years, when his contract expired and his health had improved greatly, Robertson returned to Scotland to resume his studies at King’s College, Aberdeen, where he graduated with his M.A. in March 1828. He then continued studying divinity, first at Aberdeen and later at Edinburgh.

Robertson was ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland in January 1831 after which he went to Utrecht in Holland to improve his Dutch, which he had started to learn in the Cape Colony.

By October of the same year Robertson was back in the Cape Colony where he was ordained as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and appointed to first the church in Clanwilliam and two years later to the church in Swellendam.

He was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by King’s College, Aberdeen, in October 1840.

Eliza Truter

Eliza Truter

Meanwhile Dr Robertson married Eliza Truter, daughter of a well-known Cape family whose founder had arrived there in 1722 and was for many years the master gardener of the Dutch East India Company.

Dr and Mrs Robertson had ten children, of whom nine survived. The one of relevance of this story is Elizabeth Augusta Robertson, born in Swellendam in 1839.

This brings us to the connection with the other clan in our story, the McGregors.

The McGregors

In the town of Golspie, Sutherland, in the far north

The tombstone of Alexander McGregor, merchant of Golspie

The tombstone of Alexander McGregor, merchant of Golspie

of Scotland, a merchant called Alexander McGregor ran an enterprise called “The Emporium”. He had a son, Andrew, born in 1829, who entered the Church of Scotland as a minister of the Free Tolbooth Church in Edinburgh.

Dr Robertson was in Scotland in 1860 looking for more Scottish ministers to serve in the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony. Andrew McGregor joined the group of ministers Robertson had recruited and arrived in South Africa in 1862. He went to work in the Robertson parish. This parish was in the village called Hoopsrivier, which had been renamed Robertson in 1853, in honour of the great Doctor.

Three months after his arrival in the Cape Andrew McGregor married Elizabeth Augusta (fondly known in the family as “Lily”) and took his new bride to live and work with him in Robertson. They lived there until Rev Andrew retired in 1902, when they moved to Cape Town, to live in the house he named “Rob Roy Villa” in Hillside Road, Tamboerskloof.

While ministering in Robertson Andrew was very actively assisting in a neighbouring parish in the little town of Lady Grey. As a result of his work this parish became a separate congregation in its own right. The village was renamed McGregor in his honour in 1902.

During their time in Robertson Andrew and Lily had ten children, of whom four died in childhood. All of the surviving children were interesting in their own rights.

The first son was Alexander John McGregor, born in 1864. He was an outstanding scholar and rose rapidly in the legal profession after obtaining degrees at the South African College (the forerunner of the University of Cape Town) and Oriel College, Oxford. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple and then returned to South Africa where, in 1889, he was

Rev Andrew McGregor (Snr) and his wife with (standing Lily, Andrew, Hetty and Mina and sitting to the right of the picture Alexander and, in front of him, John

Rev Andrew McGregor (Snr) and his wife with (standing Lily, Andrew, Hetty and Mina and sitting to the right of the picture Alexander and, in front of him, John. They are on the sidewalk in front of the pastorie (parsonage) in Robertson. Taken circa 1895.

admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony. Thereafter he became Staats Procureur (State Attorney) of the Orange Free State, later becoming a Judge under first the Republic and then the British colony and finally in the Union of South Africa after 1910.

Judge McGregor married Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of the President of the Republic of the Orange Free State, President Jan Brand, in 1891. Their only son William (Willy), a Rhodes Scholar, was killed in action in Flanders during the First World War. Their oldest daughter Sybil married an Inner Temple barrister, Alan Corbett, who for many years was Commissioner for Inland Revenue of the Union. Their son Michael eventually became a judge himself and later the Chief Justice of South Africa.

Gerrit and Mina du Plessis

Gerrit and Mina du Plessis

Andrew and Lily McGregor’s first daughter, born in 1869, was also called Elizabeth and also known as Lily. She married a Beaufort West farmer Mauritz de Villiers and they had five children before Mauritz died at the age of 37. Their first son Frank was a banker in Springfontein. Their second son Maurice studied at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, UK., and came home to South Africa to join the South African Army. During the Second World War he rose to the rank of Brigadier. The three daughters of Lily and Mauritz were Elise, who married John Otway Hayes (their son and grandson made names for themselves as professional golfers); Laetitia, who married Reginald Charles Rand, a Durban businessman; and Pansy, who married Allanby Henderson-Jones, a banker.

The second daughter, also born in 1869, to Andrew and Lily was Mina Hepburn Wallace McGregor, who married the Rev Gerrit du Plessis, a dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church in Calitzdorp and later Army Chaplain in Namibia (then still South West Africa) during the First World War. They had no children.

My own family

Two Revs Andrew McGregor

Two Revs Andrew McGregor. Not sure who the little boy is.

Now we come to my direct line of descent, with the second son born to Lily and Andrew McGregor, also called Andrew, second name Murray after the well-known Andrew Murray of Graaff Reinet, who was also his godfather. He was born in 1873 and after gaining his BA from the South African College studied at the Theological Seminary in Stellenbosch. After serving in the ministry in Cape Town he went on to minister to the concentration camp in East London during the Anglo-Boer War. From there he was called first to the church in Oudtshoorn and later to Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town. He retired from this church in 1939 and answered a call from the Presbyterian Church in Oudtshoorn, where he ministered until his death in 1943.

Andrew and Miemie McGregor

Andrew and Miemie McGregor

Andrew McGregor Jnr married Maria (Miemie) Hofmeyr, who was the daughter of Ds Arend Hofmeyr of Hanover, Cape.

Report of the death of Rev Andrew McGregor (Jnr) in the Cape Times, 21 September 1943

Report of the death of Rev Andrew McGregor (Jnr) in the Cape Times, 21 September 1943

Miemie and Andrew Jnr had five children, four girls and one boy, who all graduated from the University of Cape Town. The oldest, Louise, married Alex Kirstein, a physiotherapist and farmer, who also happened to be blind. He was a most amazing man who bred race horses, introduced peanut farming to the then Transvaal (now North West Province) and was the last United

Alex Kirstein with one of his horses. The young men are Chris McGregor on the left and I think Jan Kirstein on the right

Alex Kirstein with one of his horses. The young men are Andrew Kirstein on the left and I think Jan Kirstein on the right

Party Member of Parliament for Klerksdorp, being succeed in that seat by the forgettable Peet Pelser.

Louise (usually called Lucy) and Alex farmed on the farm Dennegeur, near Klerksdorp, where I spent many wonderful holidays with my cousins Andrew, Jan, Marie, Helena, and Alex Jnr (usually called “Oubaas”). I remember Uncle Alex pulling a peanut plant out of the ground and explaining its features to me, my brother Chris and our father. This must have been in 1949 or 1950. I also saw him stitch up a long gash in the leg of one of his horses which had made an ill-considered jump over a barbed wire fence.

Lily McGregor

Lily McGregor

Elizabeth, the second daughter, married Tielman Roos, the Parliamentary Librarian. This was the sister who was idolised by my father. She had studied in the United States before her marriage, and died after having one son, Johann. I never met her but knew Uncle Tielman and cousin Johann very well.

The next daughter was Isabel Henrietta (Hetty) who became a teacher and later a lecturer at the Teacher Training College in Paarl. She never married, and after her father’s death her mother came to live with her there. She lived in three different houses over the years that I knew her there, and I came to know each of the houses very well. My brother Chris also boarded with her after he had completed his training on the SA Training Ship General Botha. He went to Paarl Boys’ High to write his matric prior to going to the South African College of Music in Cape Town.

Murray McGregor, my father, was born in 1908 in Worcester, Cape Colony, and was the fourth child of Andrew and Miemie. After schooling at Sea Point Boys’ High and two years on the SA Training Ship General Botha, he went on to the University of Cape Town where he obtained first

Hettie, Murray, Lucy with Miemie McGregor on the occassion of her 90th birthday. Paarl.

Hettie, Murray, Lucy with Miemie McGregor on the occassion of her 90th birthday. Paarl.

a BA and then a B. Ed degree. His thesis for his B. Ed was a history of the amamFengu people of the then Transkei, which showed the way his mind was moving even then. He married Margery Morris, daughter of James H Morris, a pharmacist from George, in the Cape Colony.

The youngest member of the family was Mary, who qualified in medicine, went to work at a mission hospital in the then Transkei, whyere she met and married John Smithen, a teacher at an Anglican mission school in Mthatha. They had three children, Louise, McGregor and Andrew.

Miemie McGregor (left) with "Big" Aunt Hettie in Paarl.

Miemie McGregor (left) with "Big" Aunt Hettie in Paarl.

Back to the older generation of McGregors: Andrew and Lily McGregor’s last daughter, born in 1878, was Henrietta Maria, always known as Hetty. To the family she was “Big Aunt Hetty” to distinguish her from “Little Aunt Hetty,” my father’s sister, although “Big” aunt Hetty was physically very much smaller than “Little Aunt Hetty! This Hetty was in one of the first classes of women students to graduate from the South African College, in I think 1906. She did not marry, as it was thought that she was too frail to marry, although she outlived by many years all her siblings, dying in 1979 just before her 101st birthday. She was the family historian and all her life collected material relating to the family, most of which has been passed onto the Jagger Memorial Library at the University of Cape Town.

Lily and Andrew’s last child was John Robertson, born in 1880. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Dublin and became a general practitioner in George. It was on a visit to his Uncle John in George that my father met my mother! John married Marion de Wet and they had four sons. Two of their sons practised law in George, one joined a financial institution and one followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor, practising on the mines. John died in 1938.

Tony McGregor


15 January 2009