Robert Douglas          1875 – 1948

Elisabeth Keet           1878 – 1947

 

Our grandfather Robert Douglas was born in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1875.  His father, who drove a train between Carlisle and Glasgow, was married three times, a kindly cheerful man with many children.

Robert was the eldest child from marriage number two.  When he was twelve his mother died in agony  from appendicitis.  He remembered well the drama and horror of that event.  Late into the night his father realised that they were running out of candles.  He sent his son out to get some from the church.  There was a storm and the boy was frightened by the thunder and flashes of lightening.  Entering the church he ran up the aisle and grabbed some candles, turned round and saw what appeared to be a shadowy figure sitting in a pew.  He did not stop to look further but ran past as fast as he could.  To his horror his sleeve was pulled and he tore off his jacket, running for his life.  The next day his father returned with him to the church, where they found his jacket sticking to the newly varnished pew.

 

 

Robert wanted to be a vet when he grew up, and saved enough money to pay for his first year at University.  At the end of that time he was unable to continue as his father simply had too many children to be able to help.  Robert trained as an engine driver.

The Boer War broke out and Robert joined the army.  He went out to South Africa and drove a train supplying the British side with men and arms where they were needed.  At the end of the war he stayed on and married Elisabeth Keet, a piano teacher. 

 
                                                                                  

Elisabeth’s ancestors in South Africa were Dutch, German and French, and can be traced back to 1755.

By the time the young couple met, her family had become rather English in outlook, her mother Maria Isabella having married a second time to an Englishman.  He was a wealthy hotelier who lost much of his property  during the war.  She had been married to her cousin at 16.  She grew to dislike him intensely, and it is said that they divorced.

After a few years Robert longed to go home to Scotland.  He had been ill with some African fever and felt that the country did not suit him.  He and Elisabeth sailed for Scotland where he set up a ‘pay on instalments’ clothing business in Glasgow.

It must have been a depressing shock to Elisabeth.  It was said that she could not even boil an egg.  She had three children, Sylvia, Jessie (Tess) and Terry, and then had an early stroke, followed by more strokes.  She was bedridden for years and never saw her beloved South Africa again.  As a child her daughter Tess thought she was beautiful but sad.

Robert lived to the age of 73. He died in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire where he lived out his last years with Tess and her family. 

 

The eventful part of his life had belonged in his past. Apart from the Boer War  he also took part in the First World War, in The Royal Engineers.  A story he would tell us, his grandchildren, was about being in the troopship SS Aragon which was torpedoed off Alexandria.  He was an athletic man, and an excellent swimmer, but many of the soldiers could not swim.  Some panicked, jumping on to the heads of others in the water as the ship sank .  Others seemed stunned and paralysed and made no attempt to save themselves.  In any case there were not enough lifebelts.  My grandfather was in the water for many hours without a lifejacket before he was rescued, one of very few who survived.  He was given two pairs of trousers with holes in them, so the story goes, and sold one to pay for a telegram home to his wife.

 

Elisabeth Keet & Robert Douglas

 

Newspaper article about the sinking of the troopship SS Aragon

 

Unsigned letter from a survivor