My Roots

In order to understand my artwork, it helps to know a bit of my background, so in the next few posts I will be unearthing a little family history and will explain how I came to be born in Africa, the continent that is so central to my work.

On my father’s side, I come from a long line of pioneers, and as they were responsible for bringing us to Africa, this seems an appropriate place to start.

The history of my father’s mother’s side of the family can be traced back as far as the 14th Century to Robert the Bruce and the Royal House of Scotland, and through the female line to the Royal House of Norway, but for the purpose of this story, we begin in the 19th Century in the Orkney Isles, where my great, great, great grandfather, Benjamin Moodie, a larger than life character and the last Laird of Melsetter on the Island of Hoy, was preparing to leave for Africa.

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney Isles – owned by the Moodies from 1500’s – 1820

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney Isles – owned by the Moodies from 1500’s – 1820

He set sail in 1817 for the Cape Colony of South Africa with three shiploads of artisans from N. England and Scotland to start a new life on a continent he knew little about. Shortly after he landed, many of the artisans abandoned him for better opportunities, but despite this disappointment and the financial implications, he settled on a beautiful farm called Groote Vadersbosch, near Swellendam and helped establish Port Beaufort (now known as Witsand) on the Breede River.

Groote Vadersbosch, Swellendam

Groote Vadersbosch, Swellendam

Benjamin Moodie's grave, Witsand

Benjamin Moodie’s grave, Witsand

Benjamin had three sons, the eldest of whom, James, fell ill and was nursed back to health by Susannah van Zyl from Cradock. They fell in love and moved to Grahamstown, where they were married, and from here they moved to Bethlehem in the Free State.

The Pioneer Trek to Melsetter

James’s son, Tom, and daughter, Margery and her husband Edmund Coleman, were part of the famous Pioneer Trek to Melsetter in Gazaland (now Zimbabwe). With them on the trek were Margery’s daughter Sarah and her husband John Nesbitt and their three young children, one of whom was my grandmother, Josephine, who was 3 years old at the time. We have a fascinating account of this experience written by Sarah, (after whom I am named), as she bravely set out in an ox wagon into the unforgiving wilderness with her husband, children, livestock, a few personal possessions and Persian cat.

The trekkers stop for a picnic on the banks of the Shashe River

The trekkers stop for a picnic on the banks of the Shashe River

The 17 wagons and 59 members of the Trek finally reached their destination eight months after having set out on this treacherous journey, with Tom settling in Melsetter, (named after the Moodie family estate in the Orkneys) in the Eastern Highlands and Margery, Sarah and her family going on to Salisbury (now Harare), which at that stage was made up of a few mud huts. An extract from Sarah’s diary says: “There were only eight women and a few children in Salisbury then, not counting the R.C. nuns and sisters”, so they truly were amongst the first pioneers to arrive in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).



According to Sarah’s diary, her mother Margery lived in a pole and dagga house and started the first boarding house in Salisbury. Meanwhile, Sarah and John Nesbitt went to Umtali, where he became the District Commissioner, but he died in Penhalonga of Malaria, and soon after that Sarah moved back to Salisbury.

The family’s first home in Salisbury

The family’s first home in Salisbury

Josephine, Sarah and Norah

Josephine, Sarah and Norah

Meanwhile, on the male side of my father’s family, my great grandfather, Harold Edward Stidolph, who had been living in Ealing, UK, was also having thoughts of leaving for Africa, and in 1884 he immigrated to South Africa with his 6 children, including 7 year old Alan, his aunt and sister-in-law. His wife Ada had died in childbirth in 1879. Harold was an organist and Professor of Music and they settled in Cape Town.

In the early 1900’s, Alan Stidolph, who had trained as a land surveyor, bid farewell to his family and moved north to Rhodesia. He soon met and married Josephine Nesbitt, and they settled on a farm, which they named Tudely, (after the family home in Kent,UK) situated in the Avondale/ Mt.Pleasant area of Salisbury. Part of this area is now occupied by the University of Zimbabwe.

My father, Reginald Stidolph, was the third of five children born to Alan and Josephine. He was a bright and rebellious spirit, and after leaving school, against his father’s wishes, went to Britain to train as a pilot. His brother Jack also became a pilot and they both participated in WW2. Jack was killed during the war, but my father went on to become a highly decorated Bomber pilot, earning himself a Distinguished Flying Cross, and becoming a Wing Commander by the time he was 28.

My father, Reginald Stidolph

My father, Reginald Stidolph

It was while he was training to be a pilot that he met the lovely Monica Bridgen, sister of his best friend, Harry. She was to become my mother, though at the time they met, was a shy 16 year old schoolgirl.  The relationship blossomed and they were married in 1940, the year she turned 20.

The war continued for another 5 years, with my father being away much of the time. My eldest brother Patrick was 2 1/2 years old by the time my father saw him for the first time! Fortunately my mother was a strong and resilient woman, characteristics that stood her in good stead for the journey that lay ahead of her.

Wing Commander Reginald Stidolph at Shepherds Grove 1945, seated in second bottom row, directly under the nose of the Lancaster Bomber

I will be taking a look at my mother’s family in my next post.

Categories: Background | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “My Roots

  1. Bev Fourie

    Sally, what an inspiration you are! My daughter, Nikki plan to visit Molteno in December. My great grandfather was the founder of the town. B&B enquiries have brought offers of tours to places we might be interested in, a tea has been arranged so that I can meet some ‘old’ Molteno people, a book is being loaned for me from the library and arrangements have been made to open the Museum. I am very keen to write up the family history and now can’t wait to get started. Enjoy your trip as I am sure we will enjoy ours! Much love

    • This sounds fantastic, Bev. I love visiting places that are connected to our family history, and find it exciting retracing their steps so many years later. It gives one a sense of belonging and an idea of where one has come from. Enjoy the trip and start writing!

  2. J


    I’m in New Zealand and helping Stidolphs with putting together a big family tree. I have a compiled book on Stidolphs who settled down in NZ. Could I contact you by email so I can share my info with you and ask you some questions on the family tree on your side of the family? I promise not to trouble you too much.
    A Stidolph in Canada said he already did lots of research on Stidolphs throughout the world and seemed keen to find out about the Stidolphs in Africa and put together a big family tree.
    I would appreciate it if you could pls post your email address if it is OK?

    • Hi and great to hear from you!I’d be very interested to read your book on the Stidolphs of NZ and am very happy to answer any questions you may have about the Stidolphs this side of the world. If you click the ‘Contact’ button in the menu bar at the top of the page, I will receive your email and we can take it from there.
      My brother, who lives in Australia, has done a lot of research on the family tree, so he could probably help you too.
      I look forward to hearing from you.

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