My Draaifontein Great Grandmother: Mary Ann Beckley

Normally women during this era were hidden from the purview of subsequent generations. Whether they are remembered – if they are recalled at all – is through the deeds of their husband and not for what they achieved themselves. But Polly – Mary Ann’s sobriquet – was different. She survives not through some outrageous deed but rather her wistful letters and poignant poetry.

Main picture:Joseph James and Mary Ann Beckley with their youngest daughter Grace on the front verandah at Draaifontein.

Mary Ann Waspe commonly known as Polly, or Maria Anna by the family in Argentina, was born on 20th December 1847, in Ludlow, a town near the Welsh border in the county of Shropshire, England. Her parents were Robert and Anna Waspe nee Howard. This county was also known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, which as we know, would have been one of the reasons they emigrated.

The Waspe’s emigrated to the Cape Colony and became tenant farmers – one who farms on rented land – in the De Stades River area. For many years they were neighbours of the Beckley families.


Due to the difficulties experienced with farming, both families were attracted by the incentives offered to farmers willing to relocate to the Argentine.  It is was a clarion call to a land of opportunity and prosperity. It was now that the two youngsters – Ann Mary Waspe and Joseph James Beckley – who must have known one another already, decided to get married and join the emigration wave to the sparsely populated land of Argentina, South America.

Several days prior to their families’ departure for the greener pastures in South America, Mary Ann Waspe and  Joseph James Beckley were betrothed on Monday 16th March 1868  in the Anglican Church of St Paul’s in Albany Road, Port Elizabeth. Having barely returned from a short  honeymoon, the young couple then set off for Argentina. There is also an unsubstantiated report that they were married in the Evangelical Church of Helvetia (a Swiss colony) close to Alejandra, Argentina in 1869. This may have been a reaffirmation of their wedding vows.

In 1868 the Beckleys, Waspe’s and I assume other Port Elizabeth families from the local farming community chartered a sailing vessel and migrated to Argentina, where during the 1860’s and 1870’s there was a massive land boom and immigration was being encouraged from all around the world.

Marauding Indians

What the enticing advertisements did not state was that these frontier lands were subject to intermittent raids by enraged Indian tribesmen who resented the intrusion of farmers into their traditional homelands. Mary Ann had two brothers,  one of whom, Henry, wrote a journal of their experiences and the other, William, was killed at the hands of marauding Indians in Argentina.

On the morning of April 6, 1870 her two brothers William and Henry Waspe travelled into the nearby hills to cut and gather fire wood, when unexpectedly they found themselves surrounded and set upon by a band of 15 hostile Indians (“Colonia Alexandra, Un lugar del Pájaro Blanco” by Guido Abel Tourn Pavillion, 2001. p39, p99).

Fortunately their horses were tethered close at hand enabling them to hurriedly mount. Leaning into their saddles they lunged forward at full gallop their mounts heads pointed in the direction of the small distant fort and safety. From behind as the brothers raced side by side down the track towards the small fort, they could hear the war-like cries of the pursuing Indians. Spurring their horses at full gallop in a frantic attempt to keep ahead and outrun the Indians, Williams frenzied mount stumbled, fell and rolled throwing him from the saddle. While still dazed and struggling on the ground the Indians caught up, man and horse were overwhelmed. Showing no mercy the Indians brutally murdered him, stabbing him repeatedly with their thrusting spears, hacking and then mutilating his body. They took his scalp and left him to die in the Chaco.

Henry with the stronger and faster mount was fortunate enough to outrun the Indians, escaping with his life by taking refuge in the fort.

In a story related by Richard Morgan at the time: “The Indians stabbed him sixteen times with their lances and stole all his clothing.”

Return to stable greener pastures

Within six years some of these families had decided that the grass was not greener on the other side. Because of William’s death, the world economic crisis and other natural agricultural events and cycles, they returned to the relative safety of South Africa and the Port Elizabeth farming community of de Stades River. The entire Waspe family which included Joseph James Beckley, his wife Mary Ann, and their immediate family all returned, leaving the bulk of the Beckleys in Argentina.

Spare a thought for Mary Ann who at the age of 21 years gave birth to her first child and over the next 27 years gave birth to 11 more. All together six sons and six daughters: Enief Harriet (1868), Joseph James (1870), William Henry (1873), Mary Ann (1875), Thomas George (1877), Matilda Anna (1879), Elizabeth Daisey (1882), Robert Sidney (1884), Ebenezer Edgar (1886), Ethel Frances (1889), Albert Howard Morton (1893), and Grace Lilian (1895).

As this area was sparsely populated and the mode of transport so slow, the number of other people who one would be in contact with or even encounter on a day to day basis was very restricted. It was probably this restriction in the availability in the number of the members of the opposite sex which resulted in three of Mary Ann’s daughters  selecting three McCleland as their life partner.

Mary Ann was a strict disciplinarian, being small in stature, about 4′ 10″ in height with a neat trim little waist, quite remarkable after having borne twelve children. She was well read and fond of writing poetry, which was usually filled with great melancholy, as the poems below indicate.

Mary Ann passed away 19 years later on Wednesday 30 December 1931. Both her and her husband, Joseph James Beckley, are buried in the St. Albans Church Cemetery, on the farm Draaifontein, Port Elizabeth.

Poem dedicated to William Waspe

William Waspe, Mary Ann’s brother, was killed by marauding Indians in The Grand Chaco (Argentinian wilderness).

Original hand written version of the poem by Mary Ann Beckley on the death of her brother William

Mary Ann (Polly) Beckley nee Waspe, 1900. Aged 53. This photograph originally sent from South Africa to Argentina in 1900 was sent to me in Australia from South America almost 100 years later in 1994. It was part of Marie Rosalie Beckley nee Meister’s photograph collection and is signed on the reverse:

The threat of frontier Indian raids along with the unfamiliar language. The loss of several crops to a plague of locusts. A world economic crisis. The tragedy of Williams death and the burning of their homestead had a profound impact in shaping the future for Joseph James and the Beckley family. The hardships and uncertainty of wild frontier living proved insurmountable and overwhelmed the Waspe family. After setting out in 1868 with aspirations of a new life in a new land they came to a decision to return to South Africa. Port Elizabeth by comparison was an area of relative safety, already rurally quite well established and without the hardships of frontier living

It must have been a difficult decision for Joseph James to reach. Stay in Argentina with the Beckley family or, return to South Africa with the Waspes. Ultimately Joseph James Beckley returned to South Africa.
Below is an extract of Port Movements published in O Globo a local Rio de Janero newspaper on 31 August 1874 where the Beckley and Waspe families were listed as passengers on board the Bessü. From the publication date I can only assume that they either sailed on the day or within days after for South Africa.

It was also about this time that the remainder of settlers in California Colony and the Beckley family permanently sold up and moved to the newly founded, more prosperous neighbouring English Colony of Alexandra. It promised to be a safer more secure place, especially for the women and children, not to mention the opportunity to socialise with english speaking people who shared the same religeous faith.

extract of Port Movements published in O Globo a local Rio de Janero newspaper on 31 August 1874 where the Beckley and Waspe families were listed as passengers on board the Bessü

Poem about the farm Draaifontein

This is the description of the farm Draaifontein penned by Mary Ann (Polly) Beckley.

The old Draaifontein school in the background

In the second stanza on the third line she refers to a “crash” which possibly, is meant to read “crush” the dictionary defines this as a narrow funnel shaped fenced passage along which individual cattle are driven for handling or treatment.

A Letter by a Grandmother to her Granddaughter on her Engagement

Top L-R Thelma, Mr Clemence, Daisy Bottom L-R Kathleen, Maureen & Clifford

In March 1926, the 19-year-old-Kathleen Mary McCleland took the momentous step of getting engaged. No one understood what attracted Kathleen to the 33-year-old George Wood but whatever it was, she was smitten. 

To congratulate her and offer some sound words of advice, her grandmother, Mrs Mary Ann Beckley, sent her this letter. Having been born in Ludlow, Shropshire, England on the 20th December 1847, Granny Mary was 79 years old. 

Letter to the enraptured teenage                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Draaifontein

                                                                                                Sunday afternoon

My dear Kathy,

Your uncle Ebbie

Ebenezer Edgar Beckley

Your uncle Ebbie [presumably referring to Ebenezer Edgar Beckley] told me the great news of your being engaged when he came home from your place last month. I did not expect to hear of your going off before Thelma.

Well my dear child, you have my best wishes & prayers for your future happiness. I hope that your married life will be an easier one than your poor mother’s has been. I hear that your boy is a very nice young man & I hope that he will turn out a sober & loving husband. But as the little rhythm says:

There is never a day so sunny

But a little cloud appears

And there is never a life so happy

But has its time of fears

Kathleen Wood

Please give my kind regards to Mr. G [George] Wood. I may meet him one day I hope, so goodbye dear. I thank you for the Christmas Card you so kindly sent your old granny.

Your loving Grannie

Mary Ann Beckley

Letter by Mary Ann Beckley to Kathleen McCleland on her engagement
A young Kathleen on the rocks at Schoenmakerskop

A Mother’s Final Letter to her Daughter

Mary Ann Beckley nee Waspe

A letter by Mary Ann Beckley nee Waspe to her daughter Elizabeth Daisy McCleland shortly before her death on 30th December 1931



My Dear Daisy,

Just a line my dear one, to wish you & all your dear children a happy & prosperous New Year. Thank you & the girls for their Christmas Cards. Tell them from old Granny. Hands shake too much to write letters now, but I can still pray to the good Lord to take care of them all.

Mary Ann Beckley nee Waspe

Mary Ann Beckley nee Waspe

I never go anywhere now. I am too old & shaky to go anywhere now. I am just waiting for my call to come & lie beside dear old Dad [Joseph James Beckley]. Do not grieve for me when that time comes. I have no more pleasures in life, only aches & pains.

Joseph James Beckley

All the people here are fairly well. I am glad to say I am afraid you are feeling this hot weather. It has been so dreadful lately.

Goodbye my dear one with all love of your old mother’s heart from you & your dear children

St Albans Church at Draaifontein where Elizabeth Daisy McCleland married Harry William McCleland on 11th May 1904

St Albans Church at Draaifontein where Elizabeth Daisy McCleland married Harry William McCleland on 11th May 1904

Ever your loving old


Letter by Mary Ann Beckley nee Waspe to her daughter Daisy McCleland


Rosemary MacGeoghegan – two letters

Photos – Michelle Beckley

In their Footsteps: A Beckley Family History by Tony Beckley. Unpublished

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