© Andrew Summers Kerkham, 2005
(email kerkham at gmail dot com)
"This is partly a family history, partly a history of the times and partly a collection of memories of times which will too soon have been forgotten, times when tension was a word applied to stress in materials, not to the human mind, times when there was a contentment with what we had, an ability to find and produce our own entertainments, with memories going back to days when motor cars were rare, when there was no radio or TV and the films were silent." W.A.K.
These reminiscences were originally published as Forgotten times : Cape Town in the early twentieth century, Cape Town, Friends of the South African Library, 1990, and long since out of print. They evoke a vivid picture of life in Cape Town during the early years of the twentieth century which formed the background to William Kerkham's early family life, starting with his father's emigration to the Cape of Good Hope in August 1890. The original manuscript, written about 1980-1987, consisted of notes in various stages of completion. There were several versions of some sections, while other sections were incomplete, but the whole has been combined into a single narrative using the original wording as closely as possible. Measurements in the old Imperial measures have been left as such, and prices are of course in the non-decimal Sterling of the day (pounds, shillings and pence £sd). To clarify family relationships referred to in the text, a brief family tree is given below. Note that although William Kerkham's father and brother both had the name Fred, he consistently refers to his father as 'Father' and to his brother as 'Fred'. A.S.K.
The Kerkhams come from the marshes and fens of Norfolk and Lincolnshire to the west of King's Lynn, where for centuries men have battled against the marshes, the sea and the rivers to reclaim the land and use it to grow crops in the rich silt.
The Kerkham family can be traced back to Richard Kerkham who was born at Long Sutton about 1758. He married Rebecca Ratcliffe in 1783 and had at least three sons. The eldest, Joseph, was the ancestor of the Kerkhams in South Africa. The second son Richard married Jane Allen and emigrated to Tasmania in 1825 and his descendants still live in Tasmania and Australia. The third son was Francis; he married Ann Chapman, and their descendants still live in the King's Lynn area where they farm The Rhoon, The Laurels and Banklands.
Joseph Kerkham was born in 1783 at Fleet, Lincolnshire, where he married Mary Ann March in 1809, and later farmed at Long Sutton. They had a daughter Anne, then a son Joseph. After his premature death, his widow married Samuel Ratcliffe and they had seven children.
Joseph the younger married his cousin Rebecca Kerkham, daughter of his uncle, Francis Kerkham of Terrington St Clement. He was dark, she was tall, fair and very beautiful. He took a business at Oundle, Northamptonshire, where the people looked with wonder at the handsome pair. Later he returned to Norfolk, and from about 1845 he conducted business as a Linen & Woollen Draper at 82 High Street, King's Lynn.
Their son, my grandfather, John Thomas Kerkham (1843-1918), also became a draper and went into business with his father. He lived at 21 London Road, King's Lynn, where my father, Fred Kerkham, was born in 1869.
Soon after this John Thomas Kerkham and his family moved to Hammersmith near London where he ran a drapery business at 337 King Street West. There the family faced tragedy; his wife Anna Flatt died on 14 December 1876 when my father, Fred, was about six and a half years old.
The family now comprised six, one having died in infancy. William Andrew was the eldest, and my father was especially attached to him. Then came Edith Emma, my Aunt Edie, a very prim and proper ultra-conservative. I remember about 1946 when she wrote to us how she referred to the very wet and cold summer, but what else could they expect with a Labour government in power! Third was my father Fred, who complained that he had only half a name. Then followed a sister Emma, and Elinore who died in infancy. Then there was Walter Harcourt and Margaret Amy.
When nearly fourteen years old Father was apprenticed to Thomas Kitchen, Linen Draper and Silk Merchant of 89 & 90 High Street, Eton, the papers being signed on 2 May 1883. The employer contracted 'to teach him his business of a Linen Draper and provide him with bed and lodging'. Part of the 'lodging' was topside of beef every Sunday until he could never face it again - Mother always had sirloin on the bone or rolled beef if beef were on the menu.
The contract also had the proviso that he should 'have the power to discharge him should he not conduct himself with Honesty, Morality and Sobriety or be guilty of any direct action of Insubordination or Disobedience'. The contract was signed by his father, himself and the employer. It is interesting to note that Father's signature at fourteen years bears good comparison with that in later life.
No wages were paid; his father had to pay a premium of £30, half at the end of the period of probation and half at the middle of the apprenticeship.
The 3-year apprenticeship was one of hard work and long hours which told heavily on the health of a rather delicate fourteen-year-old. Nevertheless it was a thorough training in a high-class establishment serving the Eton College boys and the elite of nearby Windsor. His employer was highly satisfied with him, and commended him in a testimonial for his 'integrity and thorough knowledge of the trade and business habits'.
His next employer, George Stroud, Draper Costumier and China and Glass Dealer of High Street, Lewisham, London, also gave him a very good testimonial which testified to his 'honesty, respectability and good business habits', and commented on being very sorry to lose his services.
So Father learned the business well, but in the fog and chill of London winters, one wonders if he did not long for the freshness of farm air in Norfolk. Although three generations from the land, Father retained a great attachment to the countryside. As a boy he used to spend holidays with his grandmother Flatt and often spoke of how he enjoyed the country. His attachment to Norfolk remained such that when he came to build a house in Cape Town, Norfolk was its name. He loved his garden and the wild flowers of the country; he loved flowers in great masses growing free and unconfined. He used to tell a story against the traditional garden flower beds: Cecil John Rhodes had been invited to visit the garden of a newly rich business man, where he found small rectangular beds. 'Humph', said he, 'Just like a retired linen-draper's garden!' Had Father ever had a garden sufficiently large, it would no doubt have been a huge rose garden, for this was his favourite flower.
Now tragedy struck the family again; his elder brother to whom he was so closely attached died. I still have his last present to his brother which he prized so much; a walking stick with bone handle and a silver band bearing his initials and the year of the gift, 1887. I was also named William Andrew after his brother, although he was always called Andrew, whereas I was called Willie and later Bill Bill could not be used in my youth because of the war with 'Kaiser Bill' of Germany!
Then came the death of his sister Ellen in 1889 and simultaneously Father's own deterioration of health which led to the doctor's verdict: either he must live in the south of France or he must emigrate to the Cape.
Knowing the conditions of the time long working hours, cold smoggy winters breathing the sulphurous fumes of thousands of coal fires, no antibiotics or other powerful drugs to cure disease so easily passed from one to another in crowded conditions, houses having but little ground of their own it is easy to see how health could deteriorate in London. It is difficult for us today to realise the risk of illness without modern drugs, but even in my own youth I can well remember the sense of impending doom when hearing that someone had pneumonia double pneumonia was regarded as fatal for all but the very strong. Father had in fact come from a strong and healthy family his grandparents on his mother's side had also been farmers, and his grandfather Flatt was reputed to be able to stun a horse with a single blow, while grandmother Flatt had the keenness of eyesight to do petit point tapestry. One of her larger works testifies to this; it shows Mary Queen of Scots at the Battle of Langside after she surrendered to the English, and the colours are still as brilliant as they were a century ago.
Father with his youngest brother Walter and sisters Margaret
and Edith, taken just before he left for the Cape c.1890
Father's choice was to go to the Cape, so collecting testimonials from his former employers and with a visiting-card introduction to Mr John Garlick he started what must have been a great adventure for a sickly lad not yet 21 years old.
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The ship has now been replaced by the aeroplane, but in those days it was the main link between the Cape and the rest of the world. There was of course cable communication which kept people up to date as far as major events were concerned, but the ship was the main contact, conveying people, mail and goods. The arrival of the weekly mail boat was one of the major features of Cape Town life. Everyone knew the names of the boats; regular travellers even knew the names of the captains and chose to travel on certain boats only. Two lines shared the mail contract in 1890, the Union Line and the Castle Line, and their mail boats sailed on alternate weeks. The two rival companies amalgamated in 1900 to form the Union-Castle Line. This mail service continued for many years, eventually ending with the voyage of the Windsor Castle from Cape Town in September 1977.
In addition there was an 'intermediate' service with smaller, older ships which sailed in the middle of the week and which were slower and cheaper. Occasionally a boat would sail round East Africa, so enabling people to use the East Coast route and to see the ports of what today would be called Third World countries. Mail boats normally called at Madeira, while intermediate ships called at the Canary Islands, Las Palmas or Tenereiffe, and occasionally at St Helena. Ships to England often called at Plymouth, from which a boat train took passengers to London, so saving time compared with remaining on the ship until it docked at London.
The mail ships were so important to the life of Cape Town that the newspapers published a log of the ships' journeys with extensive details and a passenger list. Every day the Cape newspapers carried advertisements of the two mail lines and a number of other shipping companies which called at the Cape on their way to and from the East P & O, Blue Funnel, British India, etc. The mail contractors usually showed the next four departures, giving dates, names of ships and names of captains. The Cape Times on the day of Father's arrival at the Cape gave the names of the following ships:
Mail ships: Garth Castle, Hawarden Castle, Grantully Castle, Drummond Castle, Norham Castle
Intermediate: Conway Castle, Warwick Castle
from post card dated 1930
It was a normal pastime to go down to the docks to see the mailship leave, and this practice continued well into the twentieth century. As boys we often went down after school on Friday afternoon to see the ship leave. Thousands of paper streamers were thrown from passengers to those on shore it did not matter if you had never met the other person and as the ship edged out with the band playing, the streamers would break. Ships were not closely guarded and interested people simply walked up the gangway of a ship in dock. On many occasions I was taken around by a sailor, even onto the bridge. The mail boats served tea and cake early in the afternoon and this was not restricted to passengers.
When Father came to the Cape he travelled on the Castle liner Hawarden Castle (pronounced 'Harden', named after Hawarden in North Wales, residence of William Gladstone).
It was 1 August 1890, a clear fine day with a moderate breeze (Cape Times 23/8/1890). On the deck of the Hawarden Castle at Dartmouth stood a pale young man, not yet twenty one years old, looking at his homeland which he must leave because of his health. He had been warned that another English winter could prove fatal. A passenger seeing him remarked to a friend, 'Another young man going out to the Cape to die!' Years later he was told of the remark and it was indeed fufilled, but only a few days before his 84th birthday!
The boat sailed from Dartmouth at 1.47 p.m. and in fine clear weather reached Lisbon on 4 August. This was an unusual extra stop of a full day. It left the next day with 'light airs and dense fog', and arrived at Madeira on 7 August. Here the stay was short, which must have been a disappointment to the local traders who brought merchandise to the ships, including the beautiful Madeira lace. Now they experienced moderate to strong south-easterly winds from Cape Verde, and then moderate south-westerly winds and moderate seas, arriving in Table Bay at 10.52 a.m. on 22 August 1890. The length of the passage had been 20 days 18 hours 45 minutes.
What did passengers do on a journey of nearly three weeks? During the day there were bucket quoits (rings of rope thrown into a bucket), deck quoits (heavy discs of rubber thrown to a set of concentric circles marked in chalk on the deck I well remember a deck hand on the Garth Castle in 1926 who could draw a perfect circle on the deck freehand), deck cricket (nets were put up to prevent balls going overboard). Another occupation was, of course, to simply lie in a deck chair and sleep off the effects of eating too large and rich a meal. Meals were of excellent quality and even by the end of the nineteenth century had reached top hotel quality. The lounges were luxurious and evening entertainments were arranged. There were also the the fancy dress competitions and dances, the daily sweepstake on the estimated distance travelled, special children's competitions, a tape-cutting derby (the object being to cut down the centre of a tape with small curved nail scissors until cutting to the edge ended your attempt). On Sundays the captain conducted a service in accordance with the Anglican Book of Prayer.
In those days the Cape Town docks consisted only of the small Victoria Basin (then known as the New Dock), and it was not until the 1930s that work began on the present docks.
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The Cape Town of 1890 was a beautiful town. Prof. G.E. Pearce in The Cape of Good Hope 1652-1833, considers that the town reached its peak of beauty in the mid-nineteenth century, but many of the late Victorian buildings contributed much to its attractive appearance.
Adderley Street, Cape Town from a post card dated 1904
Adderley Street, Cape Town from a post card dated 1921
During the first half of the twentieth century many architectural gems fell into decay and were foolishly demolished in the name of progress. As a boy I walked from Tamboerskloof through to the South African College (the junior school was then at the top of the Avenue where Cape Town High is today, and the senior school in Orange Street). There I was walking through history, yet little was ever told me about the area and its history. I knew that the Lion Gate in the Avenue was once the entrance to a zoo, but was told little else. I learned lists of Governors and details of slave laws and what not, but almost nothing of the irreplaceable cultural heritage of my surroundings. It is little wonder that my generation, untaught as to its architectural and cultural history, destroyed so many fine buildings. How thankful one is that this attitude has now changed.
So Father saw Cape Town just before the wreckers moved in and defaced its beauty, much of which was the work of the trio Thibault the architect, Anton Anreith the sculptor and Schutte the builder. These three had been largely instrumental in transforming the Cape from a village (De Caabse Vlek) into a town of beauty known throughout the world. The canals carrying the mountain streams had by then been covered over, but the streets were still tree-lined, and there remained many residences in what is today the central business district, lovely dwellings with their high stoeps with steps jutting out onto the pavement. Often he saw the young bloods of Cape Town speaking to the society ladies on their stoeps in Strand Street.
In his first few years he was to see great developments. In 1893 the old Commercial Exchange Building was demolished and the new General Post Office built on the site now occupied by the OK Bazaars in Adderley Street. By 1897 the population of Cape Town was 60 000 of which 28 700 were white. In 1902 the foundation stone of the City Hall was laid.
Newspapers at the time of Father's arrival have advertisements of many of the major establishments which I knew later as a boy - James Robertson's hardware store in Plein Street, D. Isaacs & Co. furniture manufacturers and upholsterers of 90-92 Longmarket Street, Chas Ayres (later merged in Starke-Ayres) the florist at 46 St George's Street, Fletcher & Co. of 2 Darling Street, later to become Fletcher & Cartwright who built the famous Cartwight's Corner building, Arthur Künne, Pork Butcher & Sausage Manufacturer at 19 Plein Street. Then there was Hilliards, 'under the Old Fir Tree' at the corner of Church Square and Spin Street, the fir tree being the one under which slaves had once been auctioned it stood on the edge of the pavement, a mere stump when I was a boy, and now with the road widened its position is marked by a plaque on the centre island of Spin Street.
Prices were low, as were wages, of course. At Thorne & Stuttaford tennis racquets were from 6s 6d, while at the Co-operative Stores in Plein Street they had 500 boys' tweed suits ranging from 2s for size 00 to 7s 6d for size 10. It was the day of patent medicines for which extensive claims were made. Heynes Matthews describe themselves as agents for G.E. Cook of King William's Town producers of 'Osmond's Great African Remedy (extract from Cape roots)' which it was claimed was for 'fevers, blood diseases, liver affections, dyspepsia, urinary organs, chronic rheumatism and the universal weaknesses of children'. With a medicine which covered such a wide spectrum of diseases, it would hardly be necessary to diagnose one's complaint!
Food was cheap a snoek for a few pence, 'tickey beer', and on a Saturday one could attend a 'Free and Easy' at the London Tavern at the corner of Buitengracht and Hout Street and enjoy a plate of tripe and onions for sixpence.
People were much the same as today, and world news was not so different, with quarrels and tensions between nations. There was fear of a fresh revolution in Buenos Aires, the weekly meeting of the Town Council noted items on which expenditure had been exceeded, the manager of Knysna Consolidated Mines (at Millwood) had been fined £5 for selling liquor to his employees without a licence. Technology has not changed the character of man, it has only given him new ways of acting according to character.
Cape Town was still small, for the suburbs would not be incorporated for another 23 years. The Gardens and Tamboerskloof were at the beginning of their development previously the area had consisted of small farms and estates such as Oranjezicht, Leeuwenhof, Bellevue, Leeuwenvoet, Tamboers (formerly Abraham's) Kloof.
"Tambours Kloof with Lions Head"
from a post card dated 1904
Streets were dusty in summer and muddy in winter. Public transport was by horse tram (introduced in 1860), for a public electricity supply was not to come until 1896 when the Graaff Electric Light Works on the south-west corner of the Molteno Reservoir area was opened. (There were, however, private electric light plants at the docks and the Houses of Parliament.) For individual transport, the horse-drawn hansom cab remained popular well into the mid-1900s. 'Mr Hansom's Patent Safey Cab' had first appeared in Cape Town in 1849, having been imported by Sir Robert Stanford.
The railway to Wynberg had been opened in 1864, and by December 1890 the line had been extended to Fish Hoek and Simon's Town. The railway to the North was pushing ahead, reaching Mafeking in 1894 and Bulawayo in 1897; but little did Father know that his future father-in-law was the accountant for the construction company Pauling & Co. who were building the line. In 1902 the Caledon line was opened, and shortly afterwards Father and some friends went on a day excursion to Caledon. On Sir Lowry's Pass the locomotive broke down, so the passengers jumped out and walked along the line picking wild flowers (they were not protected then) until the locomotive had been repaired and caught up with them. There was a proverbial story in those days that an engine driver on this line saw a coloured washerwoman carrying her heavy bundle, and he stopped and offered her a lift. 'Nee, meneer,' she replied, 'ek is haastig vandag' (No, sir, I am in a hurry today).
The first motor car appeared on the streets of Cape Town in 1898, a Royal Enfield Quad imported by W.M. Jenkins manager of Garlick's Cycle Supply (a department of John Garlick's well known store), and sold to Mr (later Sir) Alfred Hennessy. As he started off from in front of the Garlicks store in lower St George's Street, he lost control and charged the crowd. An Irish policeman is reputed to have admonished him: 'When next you intend to go motoring I suggest you leave that machine behind.'
On 6 August 1896 the first electric trams ran, the line running as far as Mowbray, and less than a year later on 22 June 1897 there was the first tram accident, caused by failure of the brakes at a crossing.
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A new arrival in Cape Town needed accomodation, and for anyone of limited means this meant a boarding house. Indeed, with people regularly coming out to visit or to settle, Cape Town seemed to be a city of boarding houses. In Juta's street directory of 1897 there were no fewer than 19 boarding houses in Bree Street, 9 in Loop Street, 5 in Strand Street, 4 each in Long Street and Kloof Street, and 2 in Wale Street. One of them, Bertram House in Government Avenue, run by a Mrs Kish in 1897, has now been restored as a museum.
So Father settled down in a boarding house, first in Mill Street, later trying various establishments, one of these being listed in the 1898 Juta's directory Mrs R. Norris, Boarding House, 47 New Church Street. Incidentally, at that time New Church Street did not run through to Kloof (now Kloofnek) Road, as there was a house across the end of the street.
Father told some amusing stories of his experiences in these boarding houses. The boarders would all sit at a long dining room table with the proprietor at the head and the the proprietress at the other end, so everyone talked across the table and all conversation was heard by the proprietors.
Autumn was the penguin egg season, and since penguin eggs were then even cheaper than hens' eggs, one year they had had penguin eggs daily for breakfast. At the table was an American who in his nasal twang asked the proprietor where these penguin eggs came from. Innocently, the proprietor replied that they came from Dassen Island. 'Waal,' drawled the American, 'I guess there must be a rare lot o' them birds there!' The next morning they had hens' eggs back at the breakfast table.
At another boarding house, run by a Mr Tutt, a discussion on the origin of surnames arose. After some discussion the proprietor expressed curiosity about his own name, and Father rather unwisely suggested that the origin was a man who kept on saying 'Tut-tut!' Needless to say, he was in disgrace for some time after that.
Having found accommodation, Father set about finding employment. He had good testimonials from his previous employers, and also an introduction to Mr John Garlick in the form of the personal card of Mr F.M. Matthews of the London import/export agents Hollingsworth & Matthews with whom Garlicks dealt, with 'Mr John Garlick, Cape Town' written on the back. However, he was first employed at W.J. Jardine at 52 Adderley Street. The firm had been established in 1863, and some years after Father was there the shop was rebuilt. It remains a fine example of Victorian architecture, and includes the building in Castle Street where the CNA was situated for many years, at the back of which is a fine old turned-baluster staircase.
In one of the boarding houses where he stayed he met Mr W.J. Spracklen who had established his well-known drapery business in Plein Street. Later Father moved to Spracklens and remained there until he was approaching 80 years, in his latter years going in only for the mornings.
With improved health Father made one effort to return to England, but his health again deteriorated and he had to return to the Cape permanently. Thus finally settled at the Cape, he married Bertha Lydia Howes, the daughter of another immigrant, and brought up a family. The delicate young man going out the the Cape to die, lived on into his eighties.
Grandpa and Grandma Howes
with Mother as a young girl. 1891.
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Father and Mother married on 19 March 1907 and lived in Avenue Des Huguenots, Fresnaye, where my brother Fred was born. Later they moved to 5 St Bede's Terrace in Antrim Road, Three Anchor Bay. This terrace of houses is still there, and no.5 has been well maintained and bears the original name plate. Grandpa and Grandma Howes were living in Hatfield Road, almost opposite St Bede's Terrace.
As was quite common practice at the time, I was born at home. Father used to come home for lunch on the Sea Point tram,and he said that he knew I had arrived as he heard me crying as he walked up Richmond Road from the tram stop.
When I was about two years old, we moved to 13 Park Road, off Kloof Street. This was a conveniently situated house, as it was possible to walk to town hitch hiking was unknown then or the tram which ran down Kloof Street could be used. There were very few motor cars then.
11 & 13 Park Road c.1980
Park Road does not appear in maps of the early 1890s, but is listed in the 1897 Juta's directory. There were seven houses on the left-hand side, including that of Dr Marloth the famous botanist. Numbers 11 and 13 were a pair of semi-detached cottages built in front of an earlier pair known as the Elsie Cottages. Access to these cottages (later numbered as 15 & 17) was by means of a lane between number 13 and number 19. Numbers 11 and 13 were probably built around 1905, as they do not appear in the 1903 directory.
Number 13, the house in which we lived, consisted of four rooms of equal size with a passage down the centre. The kitchen, servant's room, bath room and a store room were separate from the living rooms, access being from the back stoep. The two rooms on the outer side had beautiful cast iron fire places leading to a common chimney. These fire places were imported from British foundries, which also supplied the cast-iron poles and balcony decorations so characteristic of the period. These fire places never smoked and threw out the heat far better than many modern ones. Over the fire place was the customary marble mantle shelf.
These houses have since been 'Chelseafied', with one fire place retained, and are quite attractive. The front garden has had to be replaced by brick paving and part of the front wall removed to provide off-street parking. Considerable modifications have been made to the back room and to the back stoep.
Gas was used for cooking and lighting, and the gas meter was just behind and above the front door. The meter was operated by putting shilling pieces into a slot and the Gas Company's man came at intervals to collect the money. The front door had an electric bell operated by two Leclanché cells, the forerunner of the modern dry cell battery, but in liquid form in a square glass jar.
In the roof was a square iron water tank with a ball-cock valve. The tank was filled by the mains and was necessary as there were regular water shortages every summer until the Steenbras Dam was completed in about 1922. During acute shortages the water supply would be cut off and each area given supply for an hour or more, the flow being often a mere dribble. During this time your ration of water would build up in your tank and that would have to last over until the next day. When the house was recently modified, I asked one of the workmen if the old tank was still in the roof, and he replied that it was.
The house had sash windows, but no shutters. However, we were able to keep the windows partly open at night by fitting a screw which coupled the top and bottom windows together. In any case, burglaries were rare and molesting of people unknown. In summer residents often slept on their back stoeps, sometimes even the front, without any fear of intruders. Those were the days of police foot patrols (there were no squad cars), and everyone knew the local policemen. There was then a police station higher up Kloof Street at the corner of Nichol Street.
The two front rooms were used as bedrooms, one being used by Father and Mother while Fred and I had the other. The dining room was at the back. My earliest recollection is of my third birthday, and I clearly remember standing near the window of the dining room. Strangely, I cannot recollect what I was doing which would make such an early recollection so clear.
The bathroom was literally a bath room, having no wash basin and only cold water. We used to heat our bath water in four-gallon paraffin tins to which we fitted handles. This was done on the gas stove in the kitchen which was next door to the bathroom. Washing of hands and face was done at the wash stand in the bedroom. This was a cupboard standing on legs to bring it to table-top height. It had a marble slab as top and on this was a large porcelain basin, a jug or ewer containing water, and a small matching container for tooth brushes. At the back was a board with a mirror in the centre and decorative tiles on each side of the mirror. The heavy porcelain chamber pots, necessary with a toilet down at the back of the garden, were kept in the cupboard section of the wash stand during the day.
Our landlord was a Mr Lewis Moss who, according to directories, lived at 102 New Church Street and conducted a business as a curio dealer at 19 Plein Street.
Opposite our house was the United Tobacco Company with its loading platform in the yard where horse-drawn waggons would draw up to load and unload. Popular cigarette brands were C to C, Officer's Mess, and Westminster. Pipe tobacco (mainly Springbok brand) was sold in little cloth bags with a draw-string to close them.
Shortly after we had moved to Park Road, Grandpa and Grandma Howes moved nearby to 12 Faure Street. Before I commenced school Grandpa used to take me for walks, and he used to stop at the little cobbler's shop at 2 Rheede Street and chat to the Jewish shoemaker, J. Zagalichinski a name I learned and never forgot! According to directories Mr Zagalichinski retained his shop until at least 1926.
In 1918, toward the end of the First World War, a disastrous influenza epidemic swept round the world. It was particularly bad in Cape Town, resulting in 4021 deaths by October 1918; Grandpa Howes and his son, my uncle Arthur Howes, were both victims of the epidemic.
Cape Town was then still a small town with a very scattered suburban population. The population in 1918 was 171 830 of which just over a half were white. Wynberg was still a separate municipality, being incorporated in 1927.
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When the Eaton Estate was cut up Father bought a plot in Kloof Road (now Kloofnek Road). This was part of the earlier Woodside Estate which extended from Kloof Street to Kloof Road and from Upper Union Street through to both sides of Eaton Road. In 1924 Father built a house which he named 'Norfolk' after the English county from which his family had come.
The architect was E. Seeliger, one of the first South African-born architects. He was born at Paarl, had received practical training in Cape Town and then furthered his studies in Germany, returning to Cape Town in 1890. He designed a number of buildings in town, including a block of offices at the corner of Keerom and Leeuwen Streets for South African News that later housed the editorial department of Die Burger. His office was at 1a Leeuwen Street, while his residence was Im Busch, 43 Camp Street, quite near to our house.
The house was in Cape Dutch style with a gable and a stoep at the front which also ran down part of one side. It had teak sash windows with teak shutters. Father insisted on having the floor level above the street level in spite of the steep backward slope of the plot. This increased costs, but led to a superior appearance. The site was covered with tall pine trees which had to be felled and the stumps removed. In one place a particularly large tree and a boulder lay across an interior foundation wall. To remove these would have left an enormous hole, so the problem was solved by building an archway with concrete beam over it. The high floor level made this possible. In addition, a concrete beam went right round the whole outside of the building at the level of the tops of the windows, thus avoiding cracks due to subsidence.
The builder was a Mr Ledbury who certainly did a fine piece of work. Very hard bricks known as Bellville Blues were used. The high floor level made it possible to have a workshop and servants' quarters under the house at the back, and later a spare room was added under the large dining room. Ceilings were lofty, resulting in cooler rooms in summer, and the rooms were large enough to take the heavy furniture of the time.
The Woodside Estate had been fenced with an Australian jarrah picket fence. This wood is so hard that a hole must be drilled for a nail, and it was used for railway sleepers; even termites cannot eat it. There were a few palings missing, but as there had to be a gap for a front gate there was sufficient material to restore the old fence. Father then grew a tecoma hedge just inside. He clipped this hedge so regularly that it was always neat, but then we never had any flowers on it. Today the jarrah fence has been replaced by a brick wall.
We moved in during the June school holidays of 1927. Now we enjoyed electric light, but although Father had allowed for plugs in all rooms, Mother was cautious of electricity. We had a gas stove, and what Mother had always longed for a coal stove. The Dover coal stove started well, but gradually fell out of use, and it was eventually replaced, first with a small electric stove, and then with a large Westinghouse range with a side oven and cupboard space for storing pots below. It just filled the coal stove recess. My only memory of the coal stove is of hot scones straight from the oven on a cold wintry day. The edges were crisp and light brown I can almost taste them as I write.
When we moved in, the noise of the Camps Bay trams seemed deafening. There was only a single line then, but there were crossings at intervals and one was just outside Norfolk. Trams left Adderley Street at twenty-minute intervals in alternate directions round the circular route. Our crossing was ten minutes from town and Mother used to tell the time by hearing the trams cross one another. The one coming down had a straight run, so would travel slowly until he saw the other one come round the lower corner, then full speed ahead, through the points with a great clatter and a puff from the powerful air brakes and Mother knew the time! The last tram down at night did not have to cross another, so came down at maximum safe speed, and Mother knew it was nearly 11.10 p.m. and time for her to retire. She was a poor sleeper and never went to bed early. After some months we got so used to the noise of the trams that we did not even notice them, and Mother had to look at the clocks again.
Gardening on a slope was not so easy, but the front garden was filled in level, and by building a long rockery to use up large stones we were able to get a good-sized level lawn at the back. Father spent many Saturday afternoons using up the small stones for pathways, pouring thin cement mortar into the spaces between them.
At length Father had a rose garden in the front with climbers in front of the stoep. In the back were a few vines which were not a great success, but the fig tree, bearing luscious figs with flesh like strawberry jam, was well worth climbing. I have not seen figs like that again, but the curator of the Malay Museum in upper Wale Street told me recently that the old fig tree in the back of that beautifully restored building is just like Father's tree.
Mother, Father, Fred and I in the garden at 'Norfolk' c.1930
Father in his rose garden
at 'Norfolk' c.1930
At the back we kept chickens. Never did chickens live such an ideal life. We talked to them, petted them, enjoyed the eggs, and because Mother could not face eating our old friends, when they stopped laying they were pensioned off to live a lazy life of luxury. If there were too many pensioners, one would be given to Eliza, our elderly African charwoman who had worked for Mother in the Park Road days and who continued to char for Aunt Lily after Mother's death. The family saw Eliza's children and grand-children grow up. The days of the faithful family retainers seems to have gone.
When we moved into Norfolk there were still empty plots on either side. At one stage they began to take down some trees on the plot near the corner of Eaton Road, abandoning the job after digging away soil round the roots of one tree near the pavement. Some time later, on a Saturday evening, there was a south-east gale and the tree began to sway dangerously across the pavement. Father telephoned the police and they roped off that section. Later in the evening the tree fell across the electric wires and we were without lights right through that night and Sunday. We were thankful that we cooked on gas!
There were many fine houses built in the early 1900s on very large plots. Opposite us lived the Grodzinskis, and their grounds were sufficiently large later to accomodate a block of flats.
Eventually buildings were erected on both sides of us; on the lower side a block of flats built unnecessarily close to Norfolk, and on the other side a cleverly designed house which somehow passed the single-dwelling restrictions yet became two houses on completion.
In 1926 when Father bought a car, a garage was built on the upper side of Norfolk. In the original plan provision was made for this, so there were no serious problems, but it did reduce the size of Father's rose garden.
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Transport has changed completely since my childhood. Then there were very few cars; petrol pumps were introduced in Cape Town only in 1924, and prior to that petrol was bought in four-gallon tins. Thus it was in the early 1920s that the motor car became a regular means of transport. Most cars then were 'tourers', i.e. with a canvas roof which could be folded down, the sides were open and in wet weather screens of celluloid were erected to keep out the rain. The 'sedan' as the Americans called it, or the'saloon' as it was known in the UK, eventually ousted the tourer in the later 1920s.
My first car ride was in a Standard tourer which belonged to Mr Cowell [c.1920], a friend of the family who was fairly well-to-do. He had originally lived in a house named Westcliff in Carisbrook Street (then known as Seir Road). Later he sold this as the area was required for a school which was called Westcliff. He built a row of houses on the west side of the top of Bree Street between Carisbrook Street and Victoria Street, but today a warehouse stands on the site. The Westcliff School site extended right through from Carisbrook Street to Park Road, and in recent years it was used by CAPAB (Cape Performing Arts Board) as their workshops.
In 1926 Father decided to buy a car, and being a strong supporter of British industry, he could not buy an American car, so it was a Clyno tourer. It was an 'overseas' model with the standard wide track, but it had the narrow body of the British model, so there was a gap between body and rear mudguards! Father never learned to drive, so Fred became the first driver and I followed later.
Perhaps some of our enthusiasm for British cars stemmed partly from a trip to England the previous year to visit relatives. My recollections of the British Empire Exhibition which was held in 1925 and 1926 are not very clear, for there was too much to take in at one time, but I well remember the huge globe with every Empire country in red. A light shone on it and above were the words 'The Empire on which the sun never sets'. Little did we realise how soon would be the sunset.
In those days before there were so many cars the streets belonged to the people, particularly on special occasions. On a Sunday night at one time, Adderley Street was a menace to any motor car, and at Christmas time and New Year it was closed off while the crowds made merry with their rattles and teasers. Adderley Street had always belonged to the pedestrian, even from the early days when the elite strolled along the side of the canal or 'gracht' of the Heerengracht. In the Victorian age the canal had been closed, but the trees remained until the 1930s when the motor car began to take precedence over the pedestrian. However, even today the true Kapenaar pedestrian still claims prior right when crossing the street even at the risk of his life; to motorists, of course, pedestrians are not royal game, but mere vermin! And so the war of the streets continues despite regular attempts by the Traffic Department to bring people into line.
In the early days we usually walked to town or to friends, as Cape Town was still quite small and time did not seem to matter so much. Otherwise, our means of transport was by tram. While at Park Road we used the Kloof Street tram which had its terminus high up near Bellevue Street. When the line was opened in 1897 it ran only as far as Camp Street, but by my time the area higher up had developed considerably. Later when we moved to Kloof Road (present day Kloofnek Road) we had the Camp's Bay trams right outside out door, and the Tamboerskloof trams nearby at the corner of Burnside Road. The Tamboerskloof line had been built in 1901. It ran along Buitengracht Street, turned up Burnside Road and then into Brownlow Road as far as the corner of Milner Road.
Kloof Road tram
from a post card dated 1911
Camps Bay tram
from a post card dated 1922
The Tamboerskloof trams were double-deckers with only four wheels and a short wheelbase which enabled them to negotiate sharp corners as the roads were narrow. Downstairs there were seats on each side of a central aisle. The seats were well upholstered, finished in woven cane, and as the trams were not reversed at the terminus the backs of the seats could be tipped over to make them face the opposite direction. Downstairs there were windows which slid up and down, but the upstairs was roofed but open, and in wet weather canvas blinds could be rolled down to protect the passengers from the rain. The blinds had little rectangular peepholes covered by flaps so that the passengers could see where they were. The driver had no protection from the weather and wore waterproof clothing with a thick rubber cape.
The Camp's Bay trams were long single-deckers. The earlier models were open-sided, while later ones were hybrid models with the centre enclosed with windows and the ends open. In the open parts seats were right across the full width of the tram and the conductor had to walk along the step clutching the vertical members in order to issue tickets, a seemingly hazardous business.
The trams had powerful air brakes and the headlamp was an electric arc lamp which was very strong and invaluable on the Camp's Bay side where the tramlines ran along a mountain track. The Company also built the upper Oranjezicht line although it was operated by the City Tramways. In town the Camp's Bay trams ran on the City Tramway lines from the intersection of Kloof Street and Kloof Road to the Round Church which stood in the intersection of the Sea Point Main Road, Regent Road and Kloof Road. They also operated two freight cars which were used for transporting sand which was taken from the beach at the Sea Point end of Camp's Bay.
Round Church, Sea Point
post card dated 1906
On all steep routes the tramways used sand on the rails to increase friction. The Camp's Bay company had a little box-like trailer which had brakes but no motor. In the corners were small pipes to feed sand onto the rails. It would be hauled up to Kloofnek from Camps Bay and then uncoupled to run down on its own to the bottom of Kloof Road. Then it would be hauled back to Kloofnek and allowed to run down on the other side. Now this trailer had a schedule which brought it to the corner of Belle Ombre Road just when we came out of school and the sand man would kindly slow down to let us climb aboard and ride down to the top of New Church Street.
On public holidays we would pack a picnic basket and go by tram to Camp's Bay. The Company had its own power station, and somehow toward evening on a holiday the electricity supply would fail and we would find ourselves in a vast crowd at the Camp's Bay terminus waiting for the supply to come on.
In the late 1920s bus companies sprang up like mushrooms and there was fierce competition until regulations and amalgamations sorted out the chaos. This led to the opening up of the Warren Street route. The Camps Bay trams had never carried short-distance passengers, and we had always used the Tamboerskloof tram, catching it at the corner of Upper Buitengracht Street and Burnside Road.
The Cape Marine Suburbs which had tried to develop Camp's Bay had not succeeded and eventually the Camp's Bay trams were faced with bus competition on the Sea Point route. The service was much reduced and the last tram ran on the evening of 16 February 1930. The City Tramways ran a service using the small single-decker California trams as a service was necessary for residents in the upper parts of Kloof Road and for the Table Mountain cableway passengers.
Later, Kloofnek Road (as it was now called to avoid confusion with Kloof Road in Sea Point) was reconstructed and there was a fine trolley bus service to Warren Street and also to Kloofnek.
Alas! the silent trolley buses were eventually taken off and today one can travel only in evil-smelling diesel buses which grind up the hill in a lower gear such is progress!
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We found that tobacco bags made fine containers for our marbles. Marbles went by various names: chalkies, which were soft, stonies, and sodies, which were from the old sodawater bottles.
These bottles have now become collectors' pieces. They had a constriction in the neck in which was a glass marble. The gas pressure held the marble in place against a washer, and to open the bottle a wooden cap with a centre pin was placed over the top and struck downwards with the hand. The centre pin pushed the marble down and released the gas pressure so that the sodawater could be poured out. Ginger beer was sold in stone bottles with a stopper held down by a wire gadget with a lever action.
Children seemed to have plenty to do with quite simple toys. I was never bored, neither before going to school nor later in school holidays.
Of course, there were household chores to do, like polishing knives before stainless steel knives were brought out. This was done on a board surfaced with a piece of leather. On this one sprinkled Goddard's Knife Powder and then rubbed each side of the knife on this until it shone. In the process the knife was sharpened, hence the complaint later that stainless steel knives were always blunt. Eventually the tip of the knife would be worn away, and one had a short knife for peeling vegetables!
Many other items have disappeared in the course of progress. Paraffin came in four-gallon tins with two tins in a stout wooden box. These boxes made wonderful cupboards if stacked together with a curtain in front.
Without refrigeration, keeping water cool was a problem solved by putting it in a 'water monkey', a bulbous red earthenware container with a narrow neck and an earthenware stopper. This was placed in a cool, breezy place and the slight amount of water seeping through the earthenware led to evaporation which cooled the water. They needed regular scouring out with sand to remove algae, otherwise they could be a health hazard.
Butter was kept in a butter cooler which was made of earthenware with a rim at the base for water to keep the outside damp and keep the ants away.
A meat safe made with gauze sides was used to keep foods from deteriorating rapidly. It was customary to stand it near the pantry window or on a cool back stoep with blocks in the corners, the blocks standing in old floor polish tins containing water with a little paraffin to keep the ubiquitous Argentine ants away.
There were no aerosol insect sprays, instead a pump-type fly spray was used and the insectide was bought in concentrated form and diluted with paraffin. Flies were also controlled by 'flypapers', rolls of sticky paper which were hung from the ceiling. When a fresh sticky one was put up and there were plenty of flies about there was quite a buzz as the unfortunate insects stuck to the paper and tried to get free. Flies were, of course, plentiful with so many horses in use.
Clothes were ironed with flatirons heated on the gas stove, while flat items like sheets were put through a mangle. This consisted of two rollers with adjustable distance between them and a huge cast iron wheel which turned cogwheels to turn the two rollers in opposite directions. Mother did eventually get an electic iron when they became available, but she waited six months before using it!
Metal protectors for leather heels and toes were in common use. We bought them on a card, and there were differently shaped ones for different positions. They had sharp points and all that was necessary was to hammer them into the leather. We had a cast iron shoemaker's last, so this was easy. It had three arms, one with the end in the shape of a heel, the other two being shaped like a sole, one large and one small.
Then there was the popular blotter consisting of a flat piece of wood and a curved piece with a wooden screw to hold them together. A pad of blotting paper was put round the curved part and the ends clamped down using the flat piece and screw. Blotting was necessary as we used dip pens or sometimes fountain pens (but not for children). The fountain pens were filled by a pump action, the 'self filling' ones with a lever on the side came later.
Quite a few household items have disappeared or are little known today. There was Monkey Brand scouring soap in a block for cleaning pots and pans before scouring powders appeared on the market. Then there was Zebo Stove Polish for polishing up the coal and wood stoves, which can still be bought.
Furniture was large and heavy. We had a huge dining room table which could seat two at each end and three or four along each side. This was covered with a thick, green plush cloth with a fringe of bobbles around the edge. Across the centre would be a fancy table runner about 45 cm wide and then a large flower vase in the centre. At meal times a huge snow-white cloth would be put over the table. Then there was the large sideboard with two cupboard doors at the bottom and two drawers, one for cutlery and one for serviettes and cloths. At the back was a full-width mirror and a fancy top for trinkets and decorations.
In the drawing room we had a chaise longue, the forerunner of the settee. It had a low back and one end curved up while the other was open. Several people could sit on it, or it could be used to lie down and have a rest except that the upholstery was rather firm.
Spring mattresses had not yet been introduced. Ordinary mattresses were firm, being stuffed with coir (coconut fibre). There were softer mattresses stuffed with feathers (you could just about disappear into one of those), or wool, and in the country districts everlasting flowers were used.
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Advertising was very different in the first decades of the century, for the Victorian liking for rhyme and jingle was still there. The old dipping pen was still in everyday use, so we were told that
come as a boon and a blessing to man
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen
One rather crude jingle in English magazines just after World War I was that for Nestlé's condensed milk. It showed a fat black cat sitting on a wall next to a transparent ghostly cat. Underneath was the moral
ghost of Tabby fed on skim
Is all the war has left of him
Nestlé's is full cream to the brim
Wherever there was a site vacant for any length of time a huge hoarding would be erected with large advertisements, similar to those we now see on the railway stations. Many bore the famous picture of a happy-looking man in striped pyjamas riding a rough sea on top of a huge Bovril bottle with the motto below, 'Bovril prevents that sinking feeling'.
Shops kept different hours according to the street, thus Adderley Street shops closed on Saturday afternoons, but Plein Street shops closed on Thursday afternoons and remained open on Saturday afternoons. On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve Plein Street shops remained open until 11 p.m., and Father came home about midnight, so Father Christmas only came to our house in the early hours of Christmas morning.
Shopping was not so hurried and chairs were provided for customers to sit on while choosing their goods. Even the shop assistants had chairs, for a regulation of 1899 made it an obligation for a shop owner to provide chairs behind the the counter for lady assistants.
Chemist shops were fascinating places with huge bottles filled with coloured water as decorations. The dispensary had rows of drawers, all neatly labelled, with rows of bottles on shelves above. Most prescriptions had some three to five ingredients which the pharmacist mixed up, put into a bottle, closed the bottle with a new cork and wrote the label by hand with the heading 'The Mixture'. He then wrapped the bottle in white paper, sealing the ends with sealing wax which he melted in a small gas jet.
It was the era of the tearoom; Cartwrights and Stuttafords had their popular balcony tearooms, and Markhams tearoom was large and very popular with a small orchestra which would play special items at the request of customers. For those less affluent there was Joe's Cafe, first in Long Street and later in Longmarket Street, where you could get a good plate of 'Steak and kidney pud with two veg' for sixpence.
Sweet shops specialised in their own home-made lines. The largest sweet shops were Van Sitterts and Bartels. My Aunt Susie Howes (widow of Mother's elder brother who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918) worked at Bartels in Church Street and later set up her own business in Lower Main Road at the Observatory end of Salt River. Here Aunt Lily (Mother's sister) later joined her and eventually took over the business.
In the 1920s there was a craze for collecting soap coupons. Each bar of soap had coupons wrapped with it and theoretically, if you could collect enough, you could buy a car with them. Cigarette cards followed, with albums for pasting in each series. The series on wild flowers probably did much to encourage the modern interest in our flora and the cultivation of indigenous plants.
Fish could be bought from the fish carts or from the fish shops, but better still from the fish market at Roggebaai. This was on the west side of the entrance to the pier along the side of Dock Road. All this area was later reclaimed from the sea and today the sea is far away. The boats were drawn up on the sand here, and sailed out each morning using oars and sails, for there were no motors then. In the afternoon you could buy the fish which had been swimming in the cold waters of Table Bay earlier that morning. When plentiful, they sold for sixpence to nine pence per pound, and Father could remember when snoek could be purchased for thrupence a fish, but those were the days before World War I led to inflation.
Cape Town Fish Market
from a post card dated 1912
In the 1920s prices were low compared with today; a newspaper cost only two pence, and I can remember one summer when we bought a box of peaches for 1s 6d and while on holiday at Gordon's Bay we purchased small spanspek (sweet melon) at a penny each. In the Argus of 18 November 1926 Stuttafords were advertising suits made to measure for 79s 6d, while Garlicks advertised grey flannel trousers for 21s 9d. Cars were cheap; the Whippet Six, 'world's lowest priced 6 with a 7-bearing crankshaft', was advertised in 1928 for £252 10s to £302 10s, while the Baby Austin (Austin 7) was £185. Beef and mutton cost 9d to 1s a pound, and hotel accommodation was about 10s 6d to 25s per day. The depression at the end of the 1920s caused many prices to drop, and even in 1937 when we moved to Port Elizabeth we paid only 10d per pound for leg of lamb. In December 1937 we paid 7s 6d for dinner, bed and breakfast at the Albertinia Hotel.
Most foodstuffs would be delivered by the dairy, grocer or greengrocer, though there were the small shops, often on a strategic corner. These Victorian 'corner shops', which had largely been built in the nineteenth century, were often double-storey buildings with the shopkeeper's family living above the shop. Quite a few were run by Indian traders, There were also the 'Greek shops' run by Greeks which sold mainly fruit, vegetables and sweets.
Because of the lack of home refrigeration the milkman delivered twice a day, morning and afternoons. His cart was horse-drawn and clattered down the road as he called out 'Melk! Melk!' (The use of horse-drawn transport was advantageous to the garden, as we could slip out in the evening with dustpan and trowel and collect manure.) In the cart was a large milk churn into which the milkman dipped his measure on a long handle and then poured the milk into your jug. Our milkman was a Mr Momsen who lived in St Michael's Road. I can recollect cows grazing on the lower part of Signal Hill near Military Road which I think belonged to him. Later, individual small milk churns were used and finally we graduated to glass milk bottles with cardboard discs which were pressed into the top to seal them (aluminium foil caps came much later).
Grocers called regularly for orders. We dealt with R.D. Irwin whose shop was in Waterkant Street. Their traveller came with horse and trap and called regularly, the items being written down in our order book which was returned when the groceries were delivered. At the end of the month, Mother went to pay the account, and in school holidays Fred and I would accompany her. Children always received sweets on such occasions. At Christmastime the family grocer gave each customer a present. On one occasion R.D. Irwin gave us an imported Christmas cake it is surprising how much was imported prior to the First World War. The cake had very hard icing to protect and preserve it. Father tried to cut the cake with a knife, but the icing was too hard, so he tried a carving knife. This however made no impression, so he ended up using a saw to cut through the icing.
Later we gave up having groceries delivered and dealt mainly with the nearby shops which kept a full range of supplies. There were a few items which Mother preferred to have purchased in town, so Fred and later I made a Saturday morning visit to Fletcher & Cartwrights where we bought bacon. We would ask for half a pound of streaky bacon; 'Danish or Colonial?' the man behind the counter would ask. Then he would put the side into the machine and turn the handle and cut to our requirements. The entrance to the grocery section was in Longmarket Street. Round the corner, where Braams Butchery [now Sams Meat Centre. Ed.] is today, was Lewis Simms who sold poultry and fish. The two shops were connected internally so that one could walk through from one to the other. Father always ordered the Christmas turkey from Lewis Simms.
There seemed to be far more characters and wags in those days - it was the day of the individual rather than of conformity. One colleague of Father's went into Fletcher & Cartwrights and asked for 'a dozen eggs that the cocks laid'. The assistant queried this strange request, so the man said that if he could come behind the counter he would pick them out eggs were loose then, not boxed. So he went behind the counter and picked out the largest eggs, as eggs were not graded. 'But,' said the assistant, 'you are picking out the biggest.' 'Yes,' was the reply, 'those are the ones the cocks lay.'
Penguin eggs were plentiful at Easter time and were sold in the the grocers' shops. Father and I enjoyed penguin eggs, while Mother and my brother disliked them. We had them hard boiled, shelled and cut open; sprinkled with salt and pepper and a dash of vinegar to offset the fishy taste, they were really delicious. The white is in fact a pale sea-green, clear like a jelly, and looks rather like jellied seawater; the yolk is a normal yellow. Slowly they became more scarce as it was realised that they were being harvested to the loss of future penguins. Later, under strict government control, they were sold only in boxes of two dozen, and even a shop could purchase only one box. Finally they came off the market altogether as the need for environmental control was realised. In the later 1940s when living in Port Elizabeth I managed to buy a box the last penguin eggs which I am ever likely to taste.
Hens' eggs were cheap compared with today's prices, but the price fluctuated very much with the season. There were no battery chickens then, they were all living a fairly natural life, so had seasons of broodiness with no eggs. Usually the price went up just after Easter as the chickens had been laying from the spring and nature taught them to prepare for the next generation. When eggs were plentiful we always preserved some in water glass (a syrupy solution of sodium silicate). We used a four-gallon paraffin tin, and after checking that all the eggs were clean, we gently lowered the eggs into the water glass solution. They would keep for months, but the shells were sealed and no longer porous. Thus they could not be boiled, and even frying was not satisfactory as the texture of the white changed. They were excellent for cooking, and cakes in those days often had plenty of eggs in them sponge cakes often contained six eggs. There was a small book Cape cookery by A.G. Hewitt which contained a recipe for 'Predikant's Taart' which commences 'beat up the yolks of 12 eggs'. This interesting book proved popular over a long time. Crayfish or 'kreeft' were cheap and plentiful, so there were six crayfish recipes; also such recipes as 'To Roast a Koorhaan', 'To Prepare a Porcupine', 'Macaroons for a Regiment' (requiring 500 sweet almonds), various konfyts, and even various liqueurs including Van der Hum. The latter recipe concludes, 'These are the proportions for 1 bottle of brandy, but it is the same trouble to make a gallon at a time.'
Although items such as eggs were used in larger quantities in individual recipes, the total number used was not so great because luxury items were not eaten every day. Cake was a Sunday treat, or brought out for visitors during the week. One Sunday, Father was sitting at the dining room table waiting for the meal. In front of him was the weekly cake and a fly kept trying to settle on it. Father chased the fly with a knife. Eventually the fly settled, Father brought down the knife swiftly, and the fly was cut in half!
Mother used eggs freely in milk puddings, and she also put them in tapioca and sago puddings (how I have always enjoyed sweet, gooey tapioca!). Another favourite was an egg custard which was served in special custard glasses, which were long-stemmed with a large, bowl-shaped top.
Fletcher & Cartwrights were well known for their cherry cakes, once sold for 1s 6d. They were thick with cherries. Another speciality was their wonderful selection of home-made chocolates at moderate prices, including marzipan fillings (this was real marzipan made of ground almonds, not apricot pips and almond essence). Apricot kernels were regularly used in apricot jam, and they were delicious. The only apricot jam we knew was golden-yellow, whole-fruit jam with a sprinkling of white kernels.
Thinking of pips reminds me of the 'dennepitte', the nuts from the cones of the pine trees with their faint turpentine flavour from which the Malays made the tameletjie sweets. When we moved to Kloofnek Road there were pine trees on both sides of us, and of course also along the upper parts of the road there were the pine forests. There are few scents more delicious than the scent of pine trees on a hot summer day, few sounds more lovely than the sough of the north-west wind in the pines on a cold winter's day.
Mother followed in Grandma Howes' footsteps and made her own bread. She used a raisin yeast, a little of the old batch being kept to start the fermentation of the next. Then the night before she added flour to form the sponge and placed this in a Ball jar. (Most bottling was done in Ball jars imported from the USA with screw tops and rubber sealing rings.) Often the sponge would be bubbling out under the lid of the quart Ball jar by the morning. To the sponge was added the flour and salt in a bread mixer. This was a metal trough with a clamp-on crosspiece which held the dough hook turned by a handle. Often I would turn the handle while Mother added the flour. Then the dough would have to rise, so it was placed near the stove. Later it was put in the loaf tins, allowed to rise a second time and then baked.
We seldom had toast in those days as Mother regarded toast only as a way to use up stale bread, and there was little stale bread in a home with two growing boys. To toast fresh home-made bread was anathema to Mother's ideas of good housekeeping, though in winter when we had a fire in one of the old cast-iron fireplaces in Park Road, we sometimes toasted bread on a fork attached to a stick in front of the glowing coals. It was only later when Father bought an electric toaster that toast was made regularly.
All home and small shop refrigeration was by using blocks of ice. These blocks, some four feet long and a foot square, were made in a factory using a compressor and ammonia gas which chilled a brine solution, which in turn chilled and eventually froze fresh water into blocks of ice. An ice cart brought the blocks to the butcher shops and houses which had an icebox. This was an insulated cabinet with a space on top which took a half-block of ice. Big burly black men, with sacks on their shoulders, carried the heavy blocks into the shops. Cutting a block was simple just a few skilful taps with a chisel or ice pick neatly cracked the block. As the block broke splinters of ice would break off and as children we would gather around the cart to gather these. Small portions of ice could be purchased from the butcher for sixpence or a shilling.
We had Grandma's ice cream churn, so sometimes bought ice in order to make ice cream. The churn comprised an oaken bucket in the centre of which was a metal cylinder in which a custard mixture was placed. Inside the cylinder was a paddle which stirred the custard. Across the top was a clamp with a handle which rotated the paddle and also slowly turned the whole cylinder. A freezing mixture of broken ice and coarse salt was packed around the cylinder and after much turning of the handle we were rewarded with delicious smooth ice cream. We could also buy ice cream from the Greek shop which kept both normal ice cream and 'water ice', which was a frozen fruit syrup.
We had an icebox in the early twenties at Park Road. Soon after moving to Kloofnek Road, Father bought a large Westinghouse refrigerator which served us well for many years. Its life ended when it sprang a leak in the piping to the freezing unit. In the early refrigerators sulphur dioxide was still used. By that time (in the 1940s) I was married and living in Port Elizabeth, but the leak occurred when we were on holiday in Cape Town. We had to call for help from my brother Fred who then lived higher up Kloofnek Road so that we could move the refrigerator out onto the back stoep. The event had two strange effects freshly-bought strawberries were bleached white by the sulphur, and a mouse which had eluded all traps was killed. Mother had an amazing sense of smell and could tell if there was a mouse in the house; after having gone out, she would step over the threshold and say, 'There's a mouse in the house!', and she was always right.
Other home-made products were ginger beer and hop beer. These were made to an old recipe of Grandma Howes' using yeast and bruised dried root ginger, or hops which were bought in a highly compressed cake. Grandma had made this in large quantities in the 1890s when Grandpa had been in Pauling's employ on the construction of the Bulawayo line through Bechuanaland. He was accountant and paymaster, and from time to time had to travel up to the end of the constructed line, and in the hot dry climate he enjoyed Grandma's cooling refreshment. After bottling we tied the corks down with string. They had to be checked, for if fermentation went on too long, the corks would distort and perhaps in the middle of the night there would be a 'pop', with subsequent mess to clear up in the pantry the next day. Well did it deserve the old name 'ginger pop'! Unless very freshly bottled we would always take the precaution of opening the bottles in the back yard, and I sometimes achieved the feat of shooting a cork across the full length of the yard.
Foods have changed considerably in form and use. Gelatine used to be purchased in the form of sheets. From these one would break off the correct weight, breaking it into small pieces, and then dissolve them in hot water a tedious and time-consuming process, but then time seemed to go much slower in those days. I can well remember Mother's pleasure when granulated gelatine came on the market.
Condensed milk, today almost a luxury food, was cheap and was used by poorer people instead of fresh milk in tea and coffee (in which it is particularly delicious), as without refrigeration it meant that milk was always available.
Apples, which today are exported in large quantities, were grown only on a small scale. We loved the little red local Wemmer's Hoek apples, but large apples were imported each year from Canada.
Food tastes were also more simple. How we enjoyed white bread cut into cubes with hot milk and sugar, also boiled rice with milk and sugar. Even better, of course, were rice pudding made with milk and egg, and other milk puddings such as sago and tapioca. In winter boiled puddings were a favourite suet pudding covered with golden syrup, ginger pudding, and a bright yellow one which we called 'canary pudding'. After all these starchy foods, is it any wonder that as we grew older a weight problem arose? except for my brother Fred who seemed permanently thin and tall, while I grew short and wide after the style of Grandma Howes' family.
Breakfast cereals were imported from the USA or Canada in cardboard packets, so were not so commonly used as today. Porridge was the standard breakfast food.
Potato crisps in packets were unknown, and I cannot even remember Mother making potato chips. Vegetable oil for frying was not available until the 1930s, and frying was done in dripping or lard. As there were no automatic stoves a Sunday roast could not be put in the oven while we attended morning service. In fact Mother always did a pot roast. So we used to have the roast on Saturday, and Sunday dinner was cold meat and 'bubble and squeak' - left-over vegetables and rice fried in the pan. This is really a delicious dinner.
Sweets were cheap. Favourites of mine were 'fried eggs', which were marshmallow in white and yellow made to look like a fried egg. Sherbet was in packets with a liquorice tube through which we could suck it up plastic tubes were not to come for many years. Smaller sweets and monkey nuts (as we then called peanuts) were often put into a cone of paper called a 'kardoesie'. Such paper cones, quickly made from a rectangular sheet, were often used by grocers when they sold small quantities of sugar, salt, etc. Even a penny could buy quite a reasonable amount in those days. The penny was often called an 'oulap' by the Coloured people, a word understood only in the Western Cape.
There were no supermarkets. Most supplies were bought over the counter from the little corner shops, or delivered by the larger grocers. This was the day of the hawker; every day we heard the street cries and the fish horn. The fish horn heralded the cart with fish freshly caught that day and landed by the boats at Roggebaai just below Dock Road. There was also a large fish market there which we visited occasionally when a friend of Fred's was sent by his mother.
In early summer there was the strawberry man with his bushel basket over his shoulder, calling 'Aa-aabries', a coalescence of the Afrikaans 'aarbeie' and English 'strawberries'. He would take the cloth cover off the basket, and inside around the edge were small baskets well lined with oak leaves and then filled with strawberries, the price being per small basket. These little ones were refilled from the bulk supply in the large basket. The strawberry season was much shorter than today, as it was the introduction of new varieties that has extended the season. Also, the price relative to other fruit was rather high.
Then there were the fruit and vegetable carts with the hawkers' loud cry, 'Waa-atermelons, bananas, spaanspek, lekker peaches eight for a bob'. Potatoes and onions were sold by the bucket a small galvanised iron bucket which later became a legally standardised measure as the buckets began to shrink in size! The hawkers' horses seemed to be bilingual, as the standard cry to bring them to a halt was 'Whoah! Hookhaai!'
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When it came to the year before going to school Father and Mother taught me the alphabet. Father printed the letters on a large sheet of card, and before school started I could say the alphabet forwards and backwards. What the advantage of a backward alphabet was, I never understood!
I commenced my schooling at Tamboerskloof Public School in Belle Ombre Road which had been founded in 1903, the main building being built in 1905. When I commenced, the main building was the original single storey one; the upper storey was added in 1936. The kindergarten and 'sub-standards' were in the old house which stood where the present hall has been built. This house was used when the School was founded until the main building had been completed. After that, according to directories, the house was let as a private dwelling until about 1914, by which time the School had grown so large that the extra accomodation was needed.
Tamboerskloof School c.1905
The kindergarten class was in a large room formed by knocking down a partition wall between two rooms. Our earliest writing was on slates with a slate pencil (now very difficult to find). My main recollection of earliest school days is the smell of Jeyes Fluid in the water in which we dipped the rag to clean our slates.
On fine days we sometimes had classes outside, seated on two strong planks between two oak trees. By this time Mother had taught me to tell the time, and I was very proud of the fact that the teacher would send me to look at the clock to see how the time was progressing. Apparently they did not pay junior teachers enough to afford such luxuries as a watch.
In Std 1 and 2 we were in the main building. The first two classrooms on the playground side were connected by folding doors as there were no halls in schools then.
By that time we were using dip pens with inkwells in the desks. The ink was mixed up from ink powder. We wrote first in copy books which had a line of letters or words printed at the top, then a line of dotted letters over which we wrote, and then blank lines for us to write a fair copy. Needless to say desks acquired ink marks and spots during the year and at the end of the year on the last day we had to bring a small bottle of vinegar and a packet of salt and clean the ink off our desks with this strange mixture.
I started school at the end of the First World War, and can well remember the peace celebrations with a concert for children held in the City Hall. I still have the programme and one of the well-known entertainers of the time, Mr Madden, sang a song 'The farmer's boy'. I remember that it was at this concert where I first saw a conjuring show. We all received a Peace Medal and commemoration booklet, plus a box of jelly sweets.
Each year Tamboerskloof School had a school concert and prize giving in the City Hall, and I still have the programme for 1919.
Little boys' clothes up to school age were very much like girls' clothes, and when I first went to school I was still wearing a tunic, but was soon put into shirts which were then being used regularly by most boys in the class.
In my days the School took boys up to only Std 2, after which I went to SACS (South African College School), the Junior School being near Wandel Street where the present Cape Town High is situated. It was housed in a motley collection of buildings a modified house plus two other buildings. To get there I walked along Rheede Street, through the old University grounds, crossed the Avenue via Anton Anreith's lion gates and then across the Paddock. No one seemed to worry about local history then; at school there was no study of our own historic part of town. Little did I realise then that I was walking through Cape history on my way to school. Of course, I knew that there had once been a menagerie there and that was why there were lions on the gateway, but little beyond this.
There had been no sport at Tamboerskloof School and there was not very much even at SACS then. I tried my hand at cricket, but was not very successful. Mother frowned on football of any kind as a rough game, but I enjoyed the inter-class soccer matches in the second half of lunch time, playing a rather insignificant part as right half. School was in two sessions with an hour lunch break, so I could run home, bolt my lunch and run back to play soccer and Mother never knew that I played!
About this time some educationist had a strange idea that we should write in a round, almost square, hand. This to me was mere printing; it was not adult writing like my Father's, for he had a clear flowing handwriting. The consequence was that my writing was always described as poor and my writing marks were low. Fortunately, this style was corrected within a few years and my writing was then considered to be good and clear.
One outstanding Junior School master influenced my academic life considerably. 'Nobby' Knowles always took a group through both Std 5 and 6 (the latter then being in the Junior School). He was an artist, and taught us to illustrate our work, do most of the School magazine, and write poems. We learned history and geography by the Dalton system of self-education; we had a bookshelf of reference books in our classroom from which we could gather information, and were given weekly assignments, usually about four at a time, so that we could run ahead if we wished. Here I learned to study on my own and also the basic principles of research for information.
The High School was in Orange Street on the edge of the University complex, with the old Rosedale playing field at the side of Grey's Pass at the top of Queen Victoria Street where the NGK Sinodesaal now stands. In the High School I discovered a new interest debate and logical thought. Again I ended this period with an outstanding master named Griffiths Old Griff as he insisted on calling himself. If he sent a boy on a message to another master, he would instruct us, 'My boy, go to Mr , give him Old Griff's compliments, and ask him ' Here I learned the beauty of precise use of English, and the desire to learn purely for the sake of knowledge. There was so much knowledge from the past from which we could benefit, so much more to discover.
In those days school started with a short Scripture period and this was followed by English as this was Old Griff's subject. We drifted from his favourite readings in the Proverbs 'the words of the wise and their dark sayings' as the King James Version reads into English by analysing the sentences in the Scripture reading. Here we learned that knowledge was of little value if we could not express our thoughts in precise and majestic English, here too we learned that knowledge without wisdom is dangerous.
I took a strange course in matric for one who was to study engineering at university: four languages, English, Afrikaans (by then an official language I had started with High Dutch), Latin and Greek, plus Mathematics and Physical Science, a true academic grounding which has been a source of pleasure to me all my life. I took Greek instead of History, as school history with its long lists of dates, kings, governors and suchlike were to me mere boredom. Strangely, I probably passed the Greek matric exam mainly on my knowledge of Greek history, for this was real history the lives of great thinkers and statesmen, the clash of world empires, the erection of buildings and the development of thought that would last for millennia and leave its influence on civilisation for all time.
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We always spent our holidays at Gordon's Bay. The village dates back to 1855 when part of the farm Gastrow was sold. A photograph of the village in the early 1900s is in the Ravenscroft Collection in the Cape Archives and shows scattered houses in the central area. One of the early houses built by Peter Korsten in 1862 still remains, restored but altered, as 137 Beach Road. In the early 1900s Gordon's Bay was a favourite place for honeymoons, much as the Wilderness later became when transport improved. It was here that Father and Mother had spent their honeymoon in March 1907, staying at the Hotel Gordonia, still called Holloway's in those days.
Changes in place names seems to be a local disease. Gordon's Bay was originally called Fish Hoek. The Strand was originally Mostert's Bay, then Hottenots Holland Strand or Somerset West Strand, and in the the 1890s when proclaimed a municipality it was Somerset Strand, this name continuing until eventually shortened to the Strand. When we were youngsters there was little development towards the Melkbaai area; a few old houses were to be seen along the beach road, but development was rapid after Dr D.F. Malan had acquired a house in the area.
My recollections of the village of Gordon's Bay would commence just before 1920 and continue through to the 1930s, although by then visits were only possible in university vacations.
Preparing for the holiday was great fun. Special cream biscuits were prepared, and Mother stored up her magazines. Her favourites were Home Notes and Home Chat; the format of those magazines, some 20 by 14 cm, was far more convenient for reading in bed or on a windy beach than the modern glossy publications. Then as the day approached the Gladstone bags were taken out, dusted and aired. The Gladstone bag was a leather bag which opened up at the top with a division in the centre dividing the space lengthwise into two compartments.
We went away twice a year, Father taking two weeks about Easter and again in September, coinciding with the school holidays, but as the school holiday was shorter than this, Fred and I had special permission to have a few extra days.
Then came the great day. A taxi took us to the old station in Adderley Street. In those days the suburban line section was on the present Golden Acre site, while the main line section was set back from Adderley Street and approached by a short extension of Strand Street. Large blackboards in front of the suburban line section with smaller ones on easels in the concourse bore outstanding coloured chalk drawings, which advertised places that could be visited by rail. These drawings were the work of Mr M.H. Haupt who died in 1949.
Arriving at the station Father purchased our tickets, and the heavier luggage was weighed and put in the guard's van, while we would find a suitable compartment. In the early 1920s there were only a few trains to the Strand a couple in the morning, one after lunch and then a couple after 5 p.m. On Sundays there were only two, but there were special evening trains (including one at 11.16 p.m.) on the first Saturday of each month. The line to the Strand was a spur from Van der Stel (now joined to the eastern end of Somerset West, but then a separate small village) on the Caledon-Protem line. It ended there 'pro tem', the intention being to continue it through to Swellendam, but circumstances changed and it was never completed. The line as far as Caledon had been opened on 29 July 1902, and the spur to the Strand was opened on 14 December, and it greatly helped the development of the area.
In the 1920s the old steam locomotives made good time only just over a quarter of an hour longer than today's express electric trains. We would take train 925 which left at 5.24 p.m., arriving at the Strand at 6.49 p.m. We loved the journey with the smell of smoke, the clatter of wheels, for living in Tamboerskloof we seldom rode in a train as we could walk to town or use the tram. Once past Bellville, then little more than a country village, we felt we were really on holiday. Then the train stopped at Kuils River, Eerste River, on to Faure, Firgrove (called Helderberg Siding in earlier days), arriving at 6.30 p.m. The sun would be setting by now, and there was just the short stop at Van der Stel and then the Strand, or Somerset Strand to give it its full name in those days.
Trains at the Strand were met by two rival taxi owners and sometimes there would be considerable argument as to which passengers each was to carry. Father forestalled this problem by writing beforehand and booking our taxi. The taxis were Ford Model T tourers, black of course, since Henry Ford had decreed that his customers could have any colour they liked as long as it was black.
All cars then had a goodly space between the bonnet and mudguards, and into this space luggage was packed, plus more roped onto the outer running board. With a smart swing of the starting handle, the engine burst into life and with a roar and a rattle the journey began. By some strange co-incidence, the southeaster was always at gale force on the evening of our arrival, and so with Father and Mother clinging to their hats (which were always worn for special occasions) we had a trip along what must be one of the most windswept four-mile stretches in the country. Over fifty years ago they were attempting to sell erven there, and there has been only modest development in the past half century.
We always stayed at Mrs Maree's boarding house in Van der Byl Street, immediately behind Van der Byl's boarding house on Beach Road. In later days the two properties were amalgamated, becoming Thelma's Guest House. The old entrance to Mrs Maree's has been bricked up, but its position can still be seen. The building was T-shaped with rooms along the tail of the 'T' while one half of the cross-stroke represented further rooms and the other the kitchen.
Old Mrs Maree (at least, she seemed old to me) ran her establishment with the help of her two daughters, Miss Minnie and Miss Susie. She kept a cow, so we had real creamy milk, and the table was excellent with generous portions. There was home-made bread, and freshly-caught fish every day except Sunday when the boats never went out. Meals were served in the large, rather dark dining room, lit at night by hanging oil lamps which could be raised or lowered. At the end of the room was a pendulum clock, ticking out the seconds and marking the hours with slow and mournful chimes. Above the clock was a picture, even more mournful than the clock, showing a young lady (Ophelia?) in flowing white dress and with long golden hair, drowned and floating on a lake. Possibly it was intended to be a warning to visitors to take no risks, for the coast beyond Gordon's Bay is notorious for its sudden giant swells that have often swept fishermen off dry and apparently safe rocks.
Being the first night, we would all go off to bed in good time. We always had the two rooms at the far end of the stoep as they had an interleading door. Candles were our only light, and we always put them in front of the mirror so that it could act as a reflector. The beds were iron-framed with old-fashioned woven wire springs and coir mattresses. In my youthful innocence I had once embarrassed an elderly guest at home, when I recounted that while on holiday the bed had pinched Mother after all where else would a bed pinch anyone sitting on its edge except on that part of the anatomy which in those days was never mentioned in a drawing room!
There was no bathroom, after all there was plenty of sea, though if we had wanted a fresh-water bath I suppose we could have borrowed a zinc bath and used it in the bedroom. On the marble-topped wash stand was the usual large wash basin and a jug or ewer. Cold water was good for the complexion, so they said, though a jug of hot water was brought each morning for Father so that, having stropped his cut-throat razor, he could lather his face with a badger-hair shaving brush and shave. Later, when safety razors were introduced I asked him when he was going to get one. 'No, my boy' he replied, 'I'd be afraid of cutting myself.'
Father loved soda water, and this once caused quite a sensation. He had a Sparklet syphon, one of those using a small 'bomb' containing the gas. Now the old ones did not have a metal exterior as they do today, but were made of glass covered with a protective wire mesh. On this occasion, the syphon must have been knocked in transit, although he always packed it wrapped in thick newspaper and well surrounded by clothing in a Gladstone bag. On the night of our arrival Father filled his syphon, inserted the bomb and screwed it down. There was an almighty bang as it blew up, water cascading onto the floor, but the wire mesh fortunately contained the thousands of pieces of glass. In the quiet of that little village one wonders what terror may have been struck in the hearts of the nearby residents by the great nine o'clock bang. On future occasions he always wrapped his syphon in a towel the first time it was used.
Miss Susie tended the garden and she had a very fine collection of geraniums growing in the ubiquitous four-gallon paraffin tins. There must have been some sixteen or more tins along the edge of the stoep. She and Father exchanged geranium slips and they had several with double flowers. We called them rosebud varieties as the flowers were like miniatures of the old fashioned cabbage roses. One of these was variegated in white and vermillion, very attractive, but difficult to grow. Once, Father had worn one of these flowers in his buttonhole to work and dropped in to see the man in Ayres florist shop (then in St George's Street, the firm later became Starke-Ayres). He insisted that the flower was artificial, but on being convinced that it was genuine, he said that they had once imported a similar variety, but it had proven unsatisfactory. I often wonder if, hidden in some country garden, there is still a plant of that white and vermillion double geranium. How I would like to have one of those fascinating plants again.
In those days the houses at Gordon's Bay were clustered in the few blocks behind the main beach, and then strung out along the road through to the Hotel Gordonia. The main store was Robertson's Magnet Store, a typical old country store with wide heavy counters on which were jars of fascinating sweets and rolls of strong tobacco. There were the long sugar sticks in brown and black stripes, 'mottoes', strap liquorice, boiled sweets and Triple-X mints. From the ceiling hung bicycle wheels and lamps, behind the counter were groceries, gardening tools, clothes and materials, and on another part of the counter the cheese with a strong wire with two handles for cutting it and bacon to slice by hand. What a fascinating combination of smells those old stores had.
In the sheltered bay at the southern end of the main beach and opposite Robertson's, the fishing boats were launched. They were sailing boats at first and I well remember the first motors being installed. They never went out on Sundays and remained ashore if the weather was windy or stormy, for the coast is quite treacherous in bad weather. They had to be carried well up on the beach, especially at spring tides. An equinoctal spring tide with a strong westerly wind would bring the water right up onto the roadway, and before they built the concrete retaining wall for the road as it rises toward the Dutch Reformed Church, I can remember the water splashing even across that part of the road. The present harbour was built during the Second World War as a crash-boat harbour.
The post office was at that time next to Robertson's. There was a library in what was apparently once a coach-house at the corner of Van der Byl Street and Beach Road. Later the library moved to more spacious premises, and before the building was demolished it was used as an artist's studio. The Village Management Offices stood on the green next to the tennis courts and the new ablution block, opposite the bottom of Van der Byl Street. This was the age of the seaside boarding house of which there were many along Beach Road.
We bathed at the nearby main beach, one of the finest bathing beaches for children that could be found anywhere, as at low tide it is protected by a reef of rocks which breaks the waves. As one who prefers warm water, I can still appreciate how warm the water is before the tide turns and brings in fresh cold water again.
I believe there are local names for different parts of the beach, but we gave them our own names. One favourite place was the rock pools near the S-bend on the way to the Hotel Gordonia. We called it the Little Bay, and here we fished with a piece of cotton and periwinkle bait, or turned over the stones at low tide to investigate the marine life in the large pool which still contains some of the finest and brightest sea urchins.
Mother's favourite place to sit was Ye Old Rocky Tree which overlooked the beach so that she could see everything. The old tree is still there on the edge of the first parking area on the right after climbing the hill at the southern end of the main village.
Up until the 1920s Cape Town suffered severe water shortages and the position was sometimes critical, but the problem was solved for many years to come by the construction of the Steenbras Dam in the mountains behind Gordon's Bay. The pipes came through the mountain down to the pipe track (now Pipe Track Road). This gave us an interesting walk and we used to go regularly as far as a clump of fir trees next to a stream where arum lilies grew.
Father and Mother on the old pipe track,
Gordon's Bay c.1928
Another favourite walk was along the road to Sir Lowry's Pass. It was, of course, a gravel road then, worn into two tracks by the wheels of cars with a 'middelmannetjie' between the tracks and loose stones on each side. Now and again there would be the chugging of a car coming past and all the time the singing of the telephone wires in the wind. There was a profusion of flowers in the veld and tadpoles in the pools in the roadside ditch.
At other times we walked along the road toward the Strand. Here the ground was more level and water lay about for weeks after rain. In these low-lying pans of shallow water would be freesias and lachenalias in profusion each spring. We used to pick wild flowers, for then there was no control and everyone thought they would last for ever. Some we took back to plant in the garden, but with little success, for not much was known then about the cultivation of indigenous plants.
Each holiday we walked along the beach to the Strand and back. We crossed the 'first river' as we left the village; its course has now been altered and it flows through the caravan park today, but the old bridge remains. Further along were high sand dunes at the back of the beach. Removal of the scrubby bush and gnarled trees has resulted in these dunes disappearing. Then we came to the 'second river'. At the Strand we always went to the Strand Café, upstairs facing the beach, and had tea and cakes on the balcony. This gave us the energy for the return walk which in turn worked up an appetite for a good lunch.
We spent many a happy morning at what we called the 'second river'. This came through the dunes, then turned south along the beach and finally towards the sea. It was a slow-flowing stream at this point, and Fred and I would build a dam of stones and sand across it, inserting lengths of kelp to carry the excess water through. There was a flat stretch of beach on which we played cricket. Today, Mother in her voluminous ankle-length dress would be considered a strange batsman!
Not every day was fine, for rain must be expected in autumn and spring. Then we would sit on the stoep and watch the driving rain sweep along the mountain. At 11 o'clock there would be steaming cups of coffee and perhaps real country-style 'mosbolletjies'.
Sometimes the rough lemon tree in the front garden would be golden with a huge crop of fruit. Then we would have lemon puddings each day for midday dinner lemon jelly, lemon sponge, lemon pie but we did not mind as the food was always good. Supper often consisted of soup and fish, followed by cold meat and sweet potatoes baked in their jackets, baked to perfection in a big coal range. We always tried to eat up all the sweet potatoes, for we knew that the balance would be served the next day with cinnamon sauce as a pudding, but we never did win, as there was always a reserve supply in the kitchen. Perhaps because we ate so much each time they baked more the next time! Besides after a morning on the beach and a long walk, anything wholesome and filling was good even sweet potato pudding.
It is a spring night, mild and scented with garden flowers. The moon is full and the marguerite daisy bushes in the garden are an iridescent white. In the distance the frogs are croaking, millions all the way to Sir Lowry's Pass and the Strand, in the roadside ditches and the shallow pans. But there comes the chugging sound of the Ford Model T and the chorus stops. Then all is safe, and as if controlled by a conductor, the frogs start up again in unison. How do they all stop and start with such precision?
The holiday is nearly at an end; tomorrow we must be in good time for the 3.10 p.m. train to Cape Town, and we shall be home by early evening. But why worry? When you are young you cannot imagine that anything will change; you know that there will be another holiday in this carefree little fishing village, and another, and another
Things did change. In 1926 Father bought his first car, and this meant we could go further afield. Fred, who was the driver, started working at the bank, and he would sometimes take us to Gordon's Bay and then go back again. I began studies at the University. The sleepy village too was waking up. Father and Mother continued to go there, taken down by car either by Fred or me, and when Maree's closed down they went to Thelma's. However, after I married in 1936 and moved to Port Elizabeth, their connection with Gordon's Bay ended, as they began coming to Port Elizabeth for their holidays.
A family picnic at Gordon's Bay c.1935
Deep in my heart is still a love of that little village, now grown into a municipality with tarred streets, a fine harbour and the General Botha Naval College. Seldom seen but never forgotten.
Considering William's love of caravanning it is surprising that he makes no mention of caravans in these reminiscences. He learned this love from his father-in-law, Frederick Browning, whose first caravan is pictured below at Hermanus, c.1928. [A.S.K.]