Charles Frederick Sepp (1885 – 1912)


   1. His childhood

Charles Frederick Sepp, my husband’s great-grandfather, was born on 1 October 1885 at Whitehaven, Cumberland (now Cumbria), England to Gustav Sepp (1846 – 1912) and Mary Elizabeth Stitson (1851 – ?). The family initially lived at 4 St Georges Terrace Bransty but by 1899 they lived at 5 Henry Street, Whitehaven. Charles was from German-English descent and had eight brothers and sisters; John William, Ada Maria, Percy Bernard, Louisa Mary, Louisa Fredericka, Lena, Gustave and Clemens (uncertain).1-3 Since their parents always rented out rooms to working class lodgers, the children were used to living in a house full of people.4-6

Nothing more is known about the childhood of Charles Sepp in Britain. What level of education Charles received is also unknown. His older bother, John William was already working as an ironmonger apprentice at the age of 16 years, giving an indication that their schooling was not to highest possible levels.5,6 Being from the lower-middle class, financial pressure certainly had a dominating presence in their lives that influenced their decisions. Charles and his siblings lived during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) who ruled from 1837 until her death in 1901.7,8

The Victorian era saw the expansion of the British Empire through the colonization of Africa, Australia, Canada, Middle East and Asia. This time period is often referred to as Britain’s ‘golden age’, an era of peace and prosperity, industrial, engineering and technological revolution, as well as medical discoveries and religious revival. Better living conditions and improved medical and schooling systems emerged. Living and health standards improved. Some large segments of Victorian English society, particularly among the middle-class, were increasing both in number and power. Social inequality, however, continued to exist.  Numerous poorer working class families barely survived and many of the middle class had to compete for jobs or even lose them due to the exploding population and influx of immigrants.7,8

   2. His wife

Rose Mary Stitson, niece and wife of Charles Frederick Sepp, was born on 14 April 1888, Keighley, Yorkshire, England as the daughter of Samuel Stitson (1848 – after 1911) and Elizabeth Ann Wood (1859 – 1948). Rose had one half-brother Henry, and nine brothers and sisters: Ernest Walter, Henry William, Havelock, Violet May, Lily, Samuel, Hannah Eliza, Alfred and William.9-11 READ MORE on the Stitsons.

Charles and Rose wed in 1910 at Cullingworth, Yorkshire.11,12 Soon thereafter, they left for the British dominion at the southern tip of Africa and here their first and only child was born in Johannesburg. Tragedy struck with the untimely death of Charles in 1912. The young 24-year old widow was left in a foreign country having to care for their baby, with little money in her pocket. Rose remained in Johannesburg and probably lived with her parents-in-law, Gustav and Mary Sepp, who stayed in Denver, a suburb just east of the centre of town.12 Just five months after her husband’s death, misfortune struck again when Rose’s father-in-law died on 8 November 1912 at the age of 66 years.13

In 1914, Rose married Richard Hewitt Rowlinson (1886 – 1967) from Johannesburg. The couple had four more children of their own: John Hewitt (1915 – 2012), Richard (1918 – 1987), Olive (1921 – ?) and Ernest (1923 – 1987). 9,10,14 READ MORE on the Rowlinsons.

Rose Mary died at the age of 78 years and 3 months on 10 July 1966 at Boksburg-Benoni Hospital, Boksburg, Transvaal, South Africa. The cause of her death was gall bladder cancer. It was diagnosed six months prior to her death.10

   3. His career.

Nothing is known about the kind work Charles did back in Britain. He probably did not have the highest possible level of schooling and might have worked as a tradesman or took on casual employment as opportunities arose. Growing up in Whitehaven in England, such opportunities were plenty. There were surrounding coal and hematite mines, a sizeable commercial port and a nearby steam locomotive engineering works where one could find employment. By the end of the 19th century, however, the prosperity of the town started to dwindle as trade was diverted to other larger ports such as Bristol and Liverpool.3 Could this be a motivating factor for the Sepps to seek their fortune elsewhere such as in South Africa? The news of the discovery of the extensive and ‘endless’ gold deposits in 1886 on the Witwatersrand in the then Zuid-Afrikaansche Boer Republiek (South African Republic) must have reached them by then. In the 1900s, many deep-shafted mining companies were already operating in the Rand area, creating abundant job opportunities for Europeans, Black natives and other foreigners alike. The repatriation in 1910 of the imported Chinese working force of about 64 000 indentured labourers who worked the commercial mines since 1904, created even more job opportunities.15-17Arriving in Johannesburg, Charles found employment as a gold miner.12 It is uncertain whether Charles worked in the mining industry in Britain, but there was a high demand for skilled workers with deep-level mining experience. These people were mostly immigrants from America, Australia, Eastern Europe and especially Britain.15,16,18 By 1911, Charles and Rose  lived in Malvern, a suburb 5 km east of the town centre. They later moved to stand (building plot) 519 at Denver, just south of Malvern.12,19 The suburb, Denver was established in 1897 for the white middle and lower-middle working class.16,17 His parents also lived in Denver at 16 Main Reef Road.12,13 His brother John William, an ironmonger by trade, lived with his own family near the mines at Belgravia, a suburb just west of Denver.20What was life like living in a fast-growing settlement that was initially established to be a temporary mine camp?  What was work like in the deep-level gold mines in the 1910s?

By 1910, when Charles and Rose Sepp arrived, Johannesburg was a well-established town and the largest in the Transvaal, with a population of ca 215 000 people residing in the various suburbs. Open-cast outcrop diggings of the prospectors had disappeared and larger mining companies, with hefty capital resources bankrolled by investors, were operating deep-level shafts in order to mine the rich gold deposits from deep seams. The tents and temporary prefabricated iron-and-timber houses had been replaced by permanent brick-and-mortar multi-story offices, shops and houses. No longer were only entrepreneurial and skilled miners the only inhabitants but also cheap-labour mine workers, both native and foreign, as well as shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors and nurses, bankers, barbers, street hawkers, hoteliers and waiters, craftsmen, gardeners, ox-wagen drivers and tramway workers. Racial and cultural diversity was an obvious feature as well as the extremes of wealth (mine owners, engineers, and managers) and poverty (countless miners and migrant labourers). The professionals and businessmen, including the Randlords, lived in the classy northern suburbs such as Parktown, where the weather was also more pleasant and warmer. The poorer working-class lived near the mines along the reef. For Charles Sepp and his family, living on the mines were harsh and not overwhelmingly comfortable. Dirt, dust, the fear of germs and the noise from horses, ox-carts and mine stamp batteries crushing gold-bearing ore day and night, were their daily portion. At least by then, electricity was available, and the supply of potable water, factory-made food and mining equipment had improved dramatically due to the sunken boreholes, improved roads and connecting railways with coastal ports. Surrounding farmers also delivered selected food items.15-18, 21-23The deep-level miners had a dangerous task under difficult working conditions, with exposure to dust, gases, heat, clamminess, poor air ventilation and inadequate safety provisions. Miners worked long hours, often for wages that could be considered exploitative. Mine bosses tried to keep wages as low as possible, to ensure the highest possible profits.15,17,22,24

Charles and Rose witnessed the birth of the Union of South Africa on 31 May 1910 when the four independent British colonies, Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal amalgamated.12,25 Louis Botha (1862 – 1919) was appointed first Prime Minister of the Union and Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870 – 1950) was elected Minister of Mining.25

   4. His death

Charles died on 16 June 1912 at Johannesburg Hospital at the age of 26 years and 10 months. The cause of his death is not known. Did a mining accident or an illness claim his life? In his will, dated 10 July 1911 at Denver, he bequeathed all his belongings to his wife and appointed his brother John William Sepp as executor of his will. His estate included only furniture to the value of 25 pounds.12

Charles Frederick Sepp died a young man in the prime of his life. Nine years later, John William died at the age of 46 years, still fairly young.20 When I was researching the lives of miners on the Witwatersrand, I came across several articles that referred to a disease that caused and still causes havoc among South African miners, but it is also prevalent globally. This progressive and incurable disease is known as silicosis (previously known as miner’s phthisis). It is an occupational lung disease, particularly among miners and agriculturists and is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. As a result, nodular lesions form causing inflammation and scarring in the upper lobes of the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness/pain, persistent coughing, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss and bluish skin (cyanosis). Dying from silicosis is similar to dying from emphysema – it is a slow, debilitating and ultimately fatal means of suffocation.26,27There are three main forms of this disease: 1) acute silicosis, 2) accelerated silicosis and 3) chronic or simple silicosis. Acute silicosis develops within a few weeks to 5 years after exposure to very high silica dust concentrations. The onset of symptoms is very rapid and severe. Sufferers can sometimes die within a year. Accelerated silicosis develops 5 – 10 years after first exposure to high silica dust concentrations. Onset of symptoms is later but the disease still progresses and symptoms worsens rapidly. Complications such as tuberculosis, fungal infection and lung cancer are common. Chronic or simple silicosis is associated with long-term exposure (10 or more years) to lower concentrations of respirable silica dust. Symptoms gradually appear 10 – 30 years after the first exposure, and progresses slower than the two other forms of silicosis.26,27

Only in 1912, did the South African government start to grasp the seriousness of the miners’ plight on the Witwatersrand and slowly initiated action. Below is an excerpt from a 1916 governmental investigative report on this matter, which later was also published in the January 1917 edition of the Monthly Review of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 28 It is very likely that Charles Sepp could have died of pulmonary tuberculosis which was rife among the miners, or acute or accelerated silicosis – the latter based on the assumption that he may have been working as a coal miner in Britain at Whitehaven before continuing as a gold miner in Johannesburg. His granddaughter also mentioned the possibility of dysentery or typhoid fever. The probable cause of death of Charles Sepp, therefore, is at this point merely speculation based on circumstantial and deduced evidence, and should not be interpreted as a confirmed fact.

   5. His children

5.1  William Gustave

Charles and Rose’s only child, William Gustave “Willie” Sepp was born on 20 April 1911 at Johannesburg, Transvaal, Union of South Africa.12 Sadly, Willie had little memory of his biological father as he was only fourteen months old when his father died in 1912.

Willie’s new stepfather formally adopted him and he became known as William Gustave Rowlinson, my husband’s grandfather. He married Isabella Plenderleith Smorenburg in 1936. The couple had a son and a daughter. READ MORE on Willie Rowlinson.


  1. Charles Sepp.
  2. Mary Sepp.
  3. Whitehaven.
  4. Gustav Sepp. 1881 England and Wales Census, Bradford, Yorkshire-West Riding. National Archives, London, England.
  5. Gustav Sepp. 1891 England and Wales Census, Whitehaven, Cumberland. National Archives, London, England.
  6. Gustav Sepp. 1901 England and Wales Census, Whitehaven, Cumberland. National Archives, London, England.
  7. The Victorian Period.
  8. Victoria Era.
  9. Rose Sepp.
  10. Death certificate, death notice & will of Rose Mary Rowlinson. National Archives & Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria. TAB MHG 6423/66, 1966
  11. Elizabeth Stitson.
  12. Death notice & will of Charles Sepp. National Archives & Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria. TAB MHG 20404/12, 1912
  13. Death notice & will of Gustav Sepp. National Archives & Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria. TAB MHG 21900/12, 1912
  14. Rowlinson in All Collections.
  15. Potenza, E. All that glitters – The glitter of gold. South African History Online.
  16. History of Johannesburg.
  17. Johannesburg. 24 February 2016. South African History Online.
  18. Colonial history and development of Johannesburg. 28 April 2016. South African History Online.
  19. Christening of William Gustave Sepp. Baptism: “South Africa, Church of the Province of South Africa, Parish Registers, 1801-2004,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 6 November 2014), Charles Frederick Sepp in entry for William Gustave, 20 Aug 1911; citing Baptism, St Patrick, Cleveland, Pretoria, Transvaal, South Africa, p. 72, William Cullen Library, Wits University, Johannesburg.
  20. Death notice & will of John William Sepp. National Archives & Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria. TAB MHG 47715/21, 1921
  21. Chinese in the Rand Mines. National Archives & Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria. TAB Photo 3888
  22. Harington, J.S., McGlashan, N.D. & Chelkowska, E.Z. 2004. A century of migrant labour in the gold mines of South Africa. The Journal of The South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
  23. Cripps, E.A. 2012 Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886 – 1906. Masters dissertation.
  24. The elusive Neilson brothers – Early 20th century deep-level mining photographers.
  25. Prime Minister of South Africa.
  26. Silicosis.
  27. Ehrlich, R. 2007 A century of miners’ phthisis on the South African goldmines. Ant end in sight?
  28. Miner’s phthisis on the Witwatersrand, Transvaal. Monthly Review of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 4, No. 1 (JANUARY, 1917), pp. 102-105.