Some memories of Westville in the 1940s

I recently reestablished contact with an old friend through Facebook (one of the things Facebook is good at), and posted a school photo in which both he and I appeared, but where I couldn’t remember the names of most of the other people in our class. A few days later someone posted a link to this article, on The Roots of Westville’s Historic Tree, which prompted me to write a few memories of Westville, near Durban, where I spent my early childhood.

I was born in Durban in 1941, and lived in Westville until just before my 7th birthday. We lived at 2 Woodlands Avenue.

2 Woodlands Avenue, Westville, 1930s

This is the house we lived in, though the picture was taken before I was born, and there were more trees in my memory. The upstairs window on the right was my bedroom, and the one on the left was my parents’ bedroom, and the one in the middle was my mother’s sewing room — she had a business making baby clothes and toys.

Behind the house, down the hill at the back, lived Mr & Mrs Morning, an elderly couple my mother and I used to go to have tea with. My main memory of those teas is of their art deco teacups, octagonal, and decorated with nasturtiums, and the stained glass in their front door.

To the right of our house (as pictured here) was the road that led down to the Mornings, and on the other side of that road, also in Woodlands Avenue, lived Dr and Mrs Levy, who had no children. Behind their house, again going down the hill, lived Mr Brinzer. His place was surrounded by a high wall, surmounted at intervals with plant pots, behind which he kept goats. We kids were dead scared of the goats, which we never saw, but which we knew lurked behind the wall. According to my mother Mr Brinzer wore a hair net, but I don’t recall ever seeing him, with or without a hair net.

If one continued to the right down Woodlands Avenue. past the Levys’ house, one came to the Main Road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, later known as Jan Hofmeyr Road, but then it was just the Main Road. There my mother and I would wait for the bus to go into Durban. It was a single-decker Durban Corporation bus, painted grey. At one point Corporation workers cut all the trees along the Main Road, and then we got a double-decker bus. The bus passed various landmarks — an isolated shop on a bend advertising C-to-C cigarettes, passing through 45th cutting to Sherwood, then down the hill to Mayville, where there was a trolley bus terminus. Then down Berea Road, which in those days had trams, and islands in the middle with flamboyant trees. It ended up at the bus station in Pine Street, between the municipal telephone exchange and the station, with flower sellers at the station end.

On one occasion, when I was about 4 years old, my mother told me to wait for her outside the library, which was in the city hall building a couple of blocks away. She seemed to take forever inside, and I got bored and decided to go home, so walked over to the bus terminus and got on the bus. Some kindly person paid my fare, as I had no money, and I took myself off home, while my other frantically searched for me.

Back in Westville, on the other side of our house, Woodlands Avenue continued level for a short distance, with vacant land on either side, and then went down a fairly steep hill, where it joined another road. On the left was where my friend Clive Witherspoon lived (the one I recently made contact with on Facebook). and on the right lived the Hargreaves family, and they had three children, Peter, David and John. We spent a lot of time playing together. At one point there was building activity on one of the vacant plots of land, and a lot of drainage pipes were delivered for the builders. We had great fun laying out a drainage system with the ceramic pipes, but the builders were not impressed, and complained to our parents.

Somewhere beyond that was a stream, which flowed through a dam, and then over a small waterfall, and away through fields. We explored the stream as far as the dam wall, but were forbidden to go to the dam itself, because if children went there they would drown. By 1950 the dam and stream had disappeared under the new main road that replaced the old one, which was then renamed Jan Hofmeyr Road. Beyond the stream the road went into open country, with a cattle dip, where we sometimes watched the cattle going into the milky white water to rid themselves of ticks, and come out bellowing and dripping. A bit past that was the “mile-away-house”., which my father told me was a mile away from our house. And beyond that, at the edge of the world, lived another friend, called Roy. I forget his surname.

Only the main road was tarred, and all the other roads were gravel. Every few months the Corporation sent a grader, pulled by a caterpillar tractor, to smooth the roads. Great was our joy when one night the Corporation workers left the grader at the side of the road, to come back and finish the next day. We clambered all over it, raising and lowering the blade, and adjusting its angle. Other regular visitors to Woodlands Avenue were a Dodge bakkie that delivered milk, and a vegetable seller, called a sammy, who carried two baskets over his shoulders connected with a pole. He would haggle with housewives up and down the road over the price of his fresh vegetables.

In 1946, at the age of 5, I went to school. One of the children in the neighbourhood, Annabelle Dougal, had a governess, and her parents had built a classroom at their house, and so several children from the neighbourhood went to school there. It was known as Westville Kindergarten School,. and the teacher was M. Murray. Subjects taught were Letters, Counting, Singing, Poetry, Drawing, Story Acting, Modelling and Folk Dancing. My only surviving report says I was very good at counting and poetry and pretty mediocre at everything else.

In 1947 I went to Westville Government School, which was held in an old farm house. The headmaster was Mr Lumsden. I went into Class I, where the teacher was Miss Stockill. The classroom was next to the veranda of the old farmhouse, and so was rather dark and gloomy. After a term it was decided that my time at Westville Kindergarten School had made me too advanced for the class, so I was promoted to Class II, where the teacher was Miss Selfe. At some point one of the older kids came and asked me “Car or Cliff”. I thought I liked cars better than cliffs, so picked that, and found my self in the car house for the purpose of school sports. Now that I am older I think the houses were probably named for some worthy people with the names Carr and Cliff, but that didn’t occur to me at the age of 5.

I used to walk home from school, usually with my friend Clive Witherspoon. One day we were passing Mr Brinzer’s place (with the goats behind the wall). It had been raining, and there was a strange animal in a puddle in the road. it was slimy, greyish-black in colour and had a long thin tail. Clive thought it was a scorpion, with a sting in its tail, so we kept well clear of it. For a few years afterwards that creature provided my mental image of a scorpion, until I saw a real one, which was about a tenth of the size. I later realised that the thing we saw in the puddle that day was a chameleon, not a scorpion, but childhood legends die hard.

Westville School

Westville Government School Classes 1 & 2, 1947

In the class photo, the only people I remember for certain are myself (2nd from right in back row) and Clive Witherspoon (4th from right in front row, sitting). The blonde girl second from the left in the second row from the front was called Ruby, but I don’t remember her surname. The girl on her left with the white ribbon may have been Morag Turnbull, whose father was a doctor, and they later moved to Umtata. There was also a girl called Janet who occasionally came to school riding on a pony, but I don’t remember which one she was. If anyone seeing this picture knows who any of the people are, and what subsequently became of them, please write about it in the comments section below.

For more on Durban childhood memories see Evocation of a Durban childhood | Notes from underground and Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground

 

 

Family visiting and nostalgia trip

Yesterday we had to take our son Simon to work in Johannesburg, and as Val had a couple of days’ leave we decided to visit her cousin Margaret, who, we had recently discovered, lived much closer than we had thought. After catching up on family news we drove through Krugersdorp to Magaliesberg, where I went to school from age 9 to age 11.

I went to the Mountain Lodge Prep School, which was one of those private, for profit proprietary schools, and illustrated both the best and worst features of capitalism in education. The best was that we had small classes, and some interesting and exxentric teachers who might not fit in with all the rules and regulations of official government schools. The worst was that the school went bankrupt, and closed at the end of 1952, throwing the teacvhers out of work and the pupils out of school, amid rumours that the bursar/proprietor, Mr Burnford, had absconded with the funds. The school buildings are now used as a Salvation Army hostel, but there I a high wall, so it was hard to see whether there had been many changes in the buildings.

Some things had not changed much, though. The approach road was much the same.

The road to Mountain Lodge School, 58 years later

The trees may have been chopped down and grown again several times, and the three-phase electricity may not have been there, and there was probably a farm-line telephone wire there in its place, certainly the school was on a farm line, and the phone was a big wooden box fixed to the wall with two bells in front.

And the view was much the same as well.

Westen Magaliesberg

That was the view I saw most days for three years. The hill with the pimple on top is the western end of the Magaliesberg, and acording to my atlas is 1588 metres above sea level. And we used to ask each other what we would do if a hundred or a thousand or some number of fierce armed North Koreans appeared over the edge of it rushing towards us. The North Koreans were the foe du jour (that, like the hills and the trees, hasn’t changed much). as we learned from publications like Popular Mechanics, which showed by means of diagrams how the American air force dropped napalm bombs at each end of railway tunnels while a train was in the tunnel, thus suffocating or incinerating the people on the train. I later discovered that one of my Cottam relations was killed in the Korean War. He was John Frederick Oliver Davis, whose grandmother was Lily Cottam, sister of my great grandmother Maggie Cottam. He was in the No 2 Squadron of the South African Air Force (the Flying Cheetahs), and went missing on 10 March 1951.

Then we drove back to Pretoria, stopping at Catalino’s restaurant at Hartebeestpoort Dam for lunch, with the syringa trees all in bloom.

Hartebeestpoort Dam, west of Pretoria