099: African Heirs, 1887-1892

The eighth Earl of Stamford in England settled in South Africa. He had children by his black housekeeper Martha Solomon or Solomons, including a son John in 1877. The parents married in December 1880 and had a legitimate daughter Mary. The Earl died in 1890 and the inheritance of the title became subject to two legal systems. Roman-Dutch law (South Africa) legitimised all the children of a couple when they got married, whereas English law legitimised only children born to a married couple. The African daughter became Lady Mary Grey but her illegitimate brother was not permitted to became the ninth Earl. The earldom passed to the deceased’s cousin, in 1892. The House of Lords report was published in the Times (London) on 4 May 1892, p 3. Richard van der Ross, The Black Countess was published by Ampersand Press, Cape Town, in 2008.

On the death of the somewhat reclusive Roger, tenth Earl of Stamford (1896-1976) the earldom became extinct. Lady Mary Grey’s mother Martha died in 1916. Lady Mary Grey married the English poet Roland Meredith Starr/Herbert Close (1890-1971) in 1917. Divorced in 1930 she died in 1946. They had two sons Gordon Starr (1918) and Meredith Starr (1923) in England: the former was a Major in the British army in North Africa and his brother served in the Navy. John, who had failed to inherit the earldom, married – and had one son (born 1905) who is thought to have been a solicitor and a Lt-Colonel who settled in New Zealand. The date of John Grey’s death is not known.

In 1887-1888 the chancery division of London’s law courts considered the inheritance of an estate in Rise, Yorkshire which had been owned by Christopher Bethell who after Cambridge settled in Mafikeng (Mafeking) as a shop keeper. When war broke out between the British and the Boers he joined the Bechuana Mounted Police, and was killed on 31 July 1884. He had married Tepo Boapile according to Barolong traditions and had made a will stating that any children should be educated in England and, if male, should join the ‘English army’. Within two weeks of his death his daughter was born. Lawyers tried to see if she could inherit her father’s ‘considerable property in Yorkshire’.

The nature of his marriage was considered. Was it on the basis assumed by English law (‘voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’)? Bethell had not mentioned the marriage in letters to England, and the Baraolong were seen as polygamous and heathen. So the court decided it was not a marriage in English terms. The Bethell estate had to pay the legal costs, and the court indicated it thought the inheritors should make an adequate provision for the child. Grace Bethell was to attend the blacks-only Lovedale College in South Africa, married an Englishman and in 1910 was living in Bulawayo (then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). Her father’s family disowned her.

Several British newspapers reported the Bethell case in December 1887 (Aberdeen Weekly News, Leeds Mercury both 16 December; The Times 21 December 1887, p 3) and The Times 16 February 1888, p 3. The legal decision text is at http://www.uniset.ca./naty/css/38ChD220.html. Andrew Manson, ‘Christopher Bethell and the Securing of the Bechuanaland Frontier, 1878-1884’ is in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 24 No 3 (September 1998), pp 500-507.


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