Following on from my previous post, I am continuing with the African theme. Much to my surprise, in the course of preparing this post I have discovered a closer connection between the two, which will be revealed in due course.
The reason for the long gap between posts is that I have been spending all my free time recently typing up the content of one of the travel journals in the family archive, pictured above. This notebook came to us from Derwen along with the rest of Auntie’s effects. Auntie, as we called her, was Mabel Zoe Watson, cousin to my maternal grandfather. Mabel’s mother was Hephzibah Harrison, sister of Eleanor Harrison, my great grandmother. Hephzibah married Alfred Watson, a very wealthy but miserly man, who became blind in later life. They had two children: Mabel, and a son who died young in a riding accident after emigrating to Australia (long before this trip). Mabel was expected to be her father’s carer and as such was never allowed to marry (although, knowing what I do of her life, it’s quite possible that she never wished to marry anyway). Her mother suffered from poor health so the family did what most British people of their class and time did under those circumstances: they travelled to warmer climes to avoid the damp and cold of the British winter. This journal is an account of one of those journeys, a winter spent in Cape Town in 1922-23. They travelled there and back by cruise ship, a journey lasting approximately one month each way.
I found much of the journal’s content to be somewhat disappointing. On reflection it is a shame that most of the writing falls to Hephzibah: being an “invalid” (to use the common terminology of the time: I do not know what her specific ailment was), she is not capable of much activity. Most of her entries therefore concern the weather conditions and the fact that “Alf & Mab went a walk” (sic). It seems to be Alf and Mab who are having all the adventures, but apart from one detailed description of a walk to the top of Table Mountain written by Mabel, there are no first-hand accounts of their activities. So we are left to imagine most of the action, mentioned briefly by Hephzibah as if glimpsed tantalizingly in the distance. Perhaps the “invalid” was tasked with writing the journal to give her something to do. However, having read through and typed up the whole journal (or most of it: Hephzibah’s handwriting is quite shaky so a few words remain indecipherable), it does give an interesting glimpse of the life of such people at this time and place in history.
I had to prepare myself to encounter the terrible racist attitudes of British people at that time. Even though the Watsons were liberals in outlook, coming from a Quaker background with a history of anti-slavery campaigning, they are still guilty of the appalling colonial attitudes of their own race, class and time. Thankfully there is very little of this to be found in the journal; the worst is Hephzibah’s statement that the black people “make very good servants“, and she probably intended it as a sorely misguided compliment! Describing a walk to Clifton-on-Sea, she mentions in passing: “On the left were the Lion’s Head & the 12 Apostles mountains. On the right blue, blue sea with frothy waters breaking on pure white sand, and immense rocks & boulders with little shanties dotted all amongst them anyhow, without any regard to order. Men & boys were having a cricket match on the sands, which are far below the good motor road we were on.” Otherwise, African people hardly feature in the journal at all.
What follows are some selected highlights from the journal; those passages I found most interesting.
The family begin their journey on November 2nd 1922 in London, meeting friends Lily & Rose for tea at Lyons and spending the night in the Sorrento Hotel on Tavistock Place. The next day they take a train to Tilbury and board the Balranald cruise ship, where “there are over 900 passengers, some very nice and others very nasty – noisy & rowdy. Fortunately Mab has particularly nice people in her cabin – a clergyman’s widow and daughter”, the Howards. It seems that lost luggage is not a modern phenomena restricted to bargain airlines: “To our dismay we found that Mab’s cabin box was missing. There was supposed to be a thorough search for it but it did not turn up”. On the 8th of November, the “wanted” (on voyage) luggage is brought up from below but still no sign of the box. Then “Miss Howard heard quite casually that the cabin trunk was downstairs in another cabin! The chief steward had declared that the ship had been thoroughly searched & it could not be traced!! There is a good deal of bad muddle on this ship”. I wonder if this monogrammed suitcase belonging to Mabel may have been the box concerned?
The voyage is mostly uneventful. They all suffer illness at some stage and the heat drives them to sleep on deck; Hephzibah also enjoys the relief of daily “delightfully refreshing”, “delicious” cool sea water baths. This puritan family disapprove of most of the entertainments on board (drinking, dancing, gambling, sports), but they enjoy occasional orchestral concerts, hymn singing with the Salvation Army, and fancy dress balls. At one of the latter, “A big (very fat) man in the cabin next to ours went as Cupid … He had nothing on but white cotton stuff from arm just to half way down thigh & in a very short time returned to cabin to dress. Stupid man! For he has a very bad cough.” They also borrow books from the ship’s library and attend lectures and church services. Schools of porpoises and flying fish swim alongside the ship; flocks of albatross follow. There are glorious sunsets and the weather becomes hotter as they approach, then cross, the equator. On Friday 17th November they hear “First news of Wednesday’s elections. Cons 325, Labour 130, Asq. 58, L.G. 45″. By November 20th the voyage is becoming tedious:
” The end of our voyage is getting very near. For a few things I shall be very sorry but for the greater part, glad. It will be good to have a bedroom one can turn around in & a proper bed & pillows. And a good walk on terra firma will be a treat. But we shall be sorry to part from the Howards. I am afraid we are not likely to meet again”.
The next day, tragedy strikes the Balranald:
” While we were on deck this morning a girl was carried by on a stretcher to the hospital, and this afternoon we were told she is dead. Only ill 2 or 3 days, a girl of 16. It was quite a shock & threw a gloom over everything. There was to have been a concert tonight but of course it was postponed”. No further information is given, although there is a word added in brackets which I can’t quite make out but may be “Pneumonia”.
Three days later on Friday 24th November they finally dock at Cape Town, but are refused permission to disembark: “The Board of Trade Chief medical officer … said Alf could not land on account of his blindness!” They produce a letter from a P & O official in London and are eventually allowed to come ashore later that day.
Hephzibah’s descriptions of Cape Town mostly concern their lodgings at Concordia, a “quaint old Dutch house” on Bree Street, where they are horrified to encounter bedbugs on their first night. They are told that all the old houses in Cape Town have “those horrid things”. Hephzibah then falls seriously ill for a few days and writes of her experiences later, whilst she is recovering. “Mabs, poor girl, waited on me hand and foot” (the “poor girl” would have been 41 in 1922). She is rushed by ambulance to a nursing home where a doctor diagnoses “influenza first, ending in inflammation of the lungs, with tearing cough … the nurse flitted in every few minutes, with medicine, milk, brandy, Oxo, etc.”On her release they move to new lodgings at Villa Pretoria, Three Anchor Bay, where they remain for most of the rest of their stay. Here, Hephzibah rests and recouperates, spending most of her time on the “stoep” enjoying the view: “Everywhere the lovely blue of sea & sky & the brilliant atmosphere. It is so like Bordighera at its brightest. There was a glorious sunset, the colouring deep tomato red & bright gold, fading into pale pink & mauve”. By 20th December she is fit enough to take her first walk by the sea:
“Delicious down there. We saw the new moon this evening & I exclaimed ‘Why it is the wrong way round!’ & Alf explained that it was because we are on the other side of the equator. There is one star in the E tonight that looks bright green, just like a great emerald.” (Later, in February, she describes the moon as “like a great orange balloon hanging over the road as if it did not belong to the sky at all. Wonderful sight”).
Christmas Day brings more sunshine and celebrations: “A morning reminding one of Leightons’ “Flaming June”. A crystal atmosphere, & deep blue & glorious sunshine everywhere. A flow of greetings & good wishes from everyone. Some of the children were about at 5 o’c searching for their stockings. Great delight & excitement all day with new toys. We three went up the hill at back of house, Signal Hill, & while we were out Mrs Marx’s son arrived with chocolate, flowers & an invitation to tea. Dinner was supposed to be at 1.30 but was 2.15. (Turkey, suckling pig, plum pud., & mince pies). It made rather a rush for us as we started at 3.30. Reached the Marx’s at 4.30, had a very pleasant time, & delightful music from Mrs Marx, & then a walk thro’ the lovely gardens to tram. The others walked home. Supper at 7.30, then music, & a merry evening. Mab played & sang. We retired about 11 but we hear it was kept up in one of the rooms till after 1 o’c.”
On 27th December Hephzibah remarks “Just imagine! We have not used an umbrella since leaving England!” Most of her diary concerns the weather and views, but she also makes observations about the local flora and produce, such as: “Mab brought back some mangoes. They are very nice but very clumsy things to eat. They are like large yellow eggs, & only have a thin layer which is eatable as the centre is like a cuttle fish bone.”
January 2nd is a poignant date for her, marked by a tribute to her lost son: “Our darling boy’s birthday. The day he was born .. has come back so forcibly today!” By now she is strong enough to go for long walks on most days, taking trips to museums and galleries and scenic spots. On January 19th she and Alfred walk to the docks where they see “Several large ships in. Edinburgh Castle, Nestor, Berwick etc.” Struck by the name, I Googled the HMS Edinburgh Castle and, sure enough, it was the very same vessel on which my Uncle Murray was stationed when he lost his life 20 years later. Murray would have been a baby of just 15 months at this moment, when his great aunt and uncle stood looking at the ship that was to take him to his death at the age of 21. Discovering this simple coincidence sent shivers down my spine.
Mabel, meanwhile, has been on an all-day trek to the top of Table Mountain, with a group of friends and a small dog called Kim, which she recounts in some detail. A man named Ralph features significantly in her account; he picks her a bunch of flowers and carries her knapsack for her. He also comes to her rescue when she gets left behind at one point: “I quite lost sight of them among the big boulders, & felt lost on the mountain! I thought they couldn’t hear & began to descend, so decided to skirt a big boulder on my left, & a yard or 2 further on discovered R., who had turned back to look for me. ” On the way back down, however, they “had a difference of opinion as to the right track, & I went on, I very quickly got out of sight of him as well as all the others” – this is more like the feisty and fiercely independent “Auntie” I remember. There are also some interesting details about the hike, with mentions of the Mountain Club facilities such as a hut with a “big black kettle on the wood fire “ where they encounter other climbers, and “the ‘kitchen’, a spot where there are large protecting boulders, so that one can easily make a fire, & there is water“.
The Watsons have an active social life, visiting friends’ houses for musical recitals and tea, although Hephzibah is often left to rest at home and reports brief details second hand: “A Russian prof. with a ‘voice like thunder’, Alf said”; “Alf & Mab went to hear the band in the park after tea”; etc.
In March they move to another part of town and enjoy a change of view, looking over mountains instead of sea. As Hephzibah’s health has improved they pack in a lot of sightseeing, as they have booked their return journey on the Ballarat for March 29th. They walk to de Waal Park, attend an exhibition of watercolours by Elizabeth Drake, and visit Cecil Rhodes’ house and Memorial, which she admires very much:
“It is a most impressive spot. Grand to a degree of magnificence. The splendid background of mountain, the simple but massive monument, and the lovely, peaceful nature setting. Not a sound to be heard up there among the pines & oaks, beautiful views all around, & the fine bust of Rhodes himself looking down on it all from the arch ….Watts’ ‘Physical Energy‘ is just splendid. He (Watts) presented it & wished it put just there & on either side are 3 bronze lions.”
On their final day in Cape Town, Alfred and Mabel are taken to visit the Parliament House by a Mr Wilcox, a member of parliament who has been sharing their table at the Roslin Hotel. “They sat in the gallery for distinguished guests. Afterwards he took them downstairs & gave them refreshments. They enjoyed it all very much.”
The following morning they board the Ballarat for the journey home, which is relatively uneventful compared with the journey out, and certainly quieter: “A very much better class of people than when we came out”, as Hephzibah remarks. On Easter Sunday, April 1st, “There was a notice put up this morning saying that ‘All passengers possessing tea pots were to take them to the office for examination at 9.30’. April fool day!”
Early on the morning of April 7th, Hephzibah suffers some embarrassment, when “At 4.30 one of the Africans came rushing into our cabin to shut the port hole as it was raining. We were having our early tea & I was sitting on the side of my bed in my nightie!” There are concerts and sporting events and they attend lectures on diverse subjects, such as Life on Other Worlds, Socialism, and Magnetism. When they dock at Las Palmas on April 12th there is much excitement as “A heap of men came on board with fruit, parrots, chairs, jewellery, drawn thread work, &c &c….Oh, the noise & din! The deck set out with all kinds of pretty things & fruit, & the bargaining going on! This went on till 10 o’c & then from the boats surrounding the ship, the things bought being sent up in a basket attached to a rope & the money sent down in the basket. The shouting & din went on till 11 o’c when we started again”.
There is an outbreak of measles on board, but no fatalities this time. In fact, the voyage home is blessed with the birth of a baby, born on board on the night of April 16th. This brings the story of their voyage to a very pleasing conclusion, as the Ballarat docks at Tilbury three days later, bringing the Watson family home.
Post script: 75 years later, in 1997, I travelled to Cape Town myself, whilst on an unforgettable journey around South Africa with some friends. My experience of this wonderful country was very different to theirs: I flew in just 10 hours to a new democracy, post-apartheid, which we 4 single friends (2 male, 2 female) were free to explore by car. It was the adventure of a lifetime for me, and it’s fascinating to compare my own memories with this parallel story from across the generations of my family. And, yes, I kept a diary.