Janet Burnside Soga was born on 18 March 1827 in Hutchesontown, Glasgow. She was the eldest daughter of Alan Burnside and Isabelle Kirkland. The 1851 Scots census indicates that the family was then living in the Saltmarket area of the city which, at that time, was one of the worst slums in Glasgow. The family members were all involved in the weaving industry. Soga herself was a yarn winder. Her father was a weaver her mother a dressmaker, and her one sister, Anne, worked in a gingham warehouse, while the second sister, Margaret, was also a yarn winder. Soga and her family were members of the Hutchesontown Relief Church and Tiyo Soga was studying at the United Presbyterian Church College in Edinburgh. He was supported financially by the John Street Church in Glasgow.
It is not known how a girl from the slums of Glasgow met and married the first black man to be ordained to the Christian ministry. Scottish social history shows that, just prior to this period, many weavers were well educated and prosperous and it was the coming of mechanization that led to their downfall. It is possible that the Burnsides fell into this category, which would make the alliance more feasible. Tiyo Soga and Janet were married by Revd John Kerr at Ibroxholme, Glasgow on 27 February 1857. They sailed for South Africa on 18 April 1857, accompanied by Revd Robert Johnston and his wife, on board the 'Lady of the Lake,' arriving in Port Elizabeth on 3 July of that year.
They established a mission at Mgwali and lived in poor, damp huts while raising money to build the church. Charles Brownlee laid the foundation stone on 23 July 1861. It had cost them £1 464 to build. Soga gave birth to eight children, five boys and three girls; the second son, Alexander, was stillborn.
William Anderson Soga was born on 5 January 1858. He and two of his brothers, John Henderson and Allan Kirkland, left the country in 1870 to be educated in Scotland at the Dollar Academy. John Henderson Soga was born on 10 February 1860 and in 1863 his mother took him to Scotland to be treated for paralysis, returning to South Africa the following year. He walked with a limp all his life. Allan Kirkland Soga was born on 20 November 1861 and was the third brother to attend the Dollar Academy. Isabella McFarlane was born on 10 May 1864, Jotello Festiri Soga in 1865, Frances Maria Anna in 1868 and Jessie Margaret on 21 August 1870.
The Soga family moved to a new mission station at Tutura in the Transkei after responding to an invitation from the Gcaleka chief, Kreli. It was there that Tiyo Soga died on 12 August 1871. Janet Soga did not return to Scotland immediately, but went to Emgwali, where Tiyo's aged mother, Nosutu, was living. She was keen on the children becoming proficient in Xhosa before receiving their Scottish education. On arrival in Scotland, she settled in Dollar, where all the children received their education at the academy. Once their education was complete, all the children, with the exception of Jessie Margaret, returned to South Africa. Janet seems to have moved to Glasgow, where she died of heart failure on 1 September 1903 in Glasgow, at the age of 76, which is remarkable considering the hard life she had led.
Even more remarkable is the legacy that she and Tiyo Soga left behind. Three of the four sons paid her the compliment of marrying Scots girls and the fourth, Allan, married Ellen Mba from Kentani in 1923. The eldest son, William Anderson Soga (1858-1916), qualified as a medical doctor at Glasgow University. He attended the United Presbyterian Church Divinity Hall and was ordained as a missionary in 1885. He returned to South Africa and established Miller Mission in Bomvanaland, where he served as a medical missionary until 1903 before going into private practice.
John Henderson Soga (1860-1941), also a missionary, established a mission at Mbonda, near Mount Frere, before succeeding his brother at Miller Mission. He wrote two significant books, AmaXhosa life and customs and South-Eastern Bantu. Allan Kirkland Soga (1861-1938) studied Law and Humanities at Glasgow University and on his return to South Africa was an assistant resident magistrate in the Transkei and later a newspaper editor.
Jotello Festiri Soga (1865-1906) trained at the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College in Edinburgh and became the first ever South African to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. On his return to Africa he worked with David Hutcheon to try and overcome the rinderpest. He was a founder member of the Cape Veterinary Association. Little is known about the daughters in the family Isabella McFarlane (1864-1884) was born at Inverkip in Scotland. She died at Cunningham Mission, Toleni, Transkei on 16 March 1884.
Frances Maria Anna (1868-1942) worked for the mission in South Africa and was closely involved with the Girls Association (as secretary) and the Womens Manyano. She died at Darabe in the Elliotdale district on 20 September 1942. Jessie Margaret (1870-1954) qualified as a music teacher and taught music privately in Glasgow. She died at the age of 83 of cardiovascular disease while residing in a home for the aged in Glasgow.
Janet Burnside Soga deserves to be admired for her courage in defying convention and marrying the man of her choice, toiling with him in very difficult situations, and, after his early death, raising their children to be the fine people they became.
Sonderling, N.E. (ed.) New Dictionary of South African Biography, v. 2 , Pretoria: Vista University