Somerset West – The cabin the plot & going to Rhodesia

While I have been writing these anecdotes I started to realise that my memories are reasonably accurate but my memory of the TIME LINE for all these things is a bit out of kilter. (Remember I was a child aged between about eight and eleven when all this took place). So allow me some licence and know that these things all happened – in spite of the odd contradiction the eagle-eyed reader may pick up.

However, the time line for:

the plot being bought;
starting to camp there;
building the cabin followed by its extension;
arrival of the animals;
moving into the partly complete house and, finally;
moving into the house proper…

has all become a little fuzzy. The careful reader of these anecdotes will notice these anomalies but I trust it does not detract from the stories. A quick resume…?

Here is a picture of me in my first year of school at Maitland. I was at boarding school in Maitland until the end of 1955 when I finished Standard two and nine years of age when I started at Somerset West Primary at the beginning of 1956, in Standard three.

I would have been coming home from boarding school to the little flat in Moullie Point and later Sea Point and the plot trips may well have started while we were living in one of those places. I think I remember getting the train from boarding school to Somerset West a few times on a Friday. Children could safely do that in the mid-fifties.

The memory of those train trips also suggest that my parents may well have moved to the plot before I finished at boarding school.

The plot on Irene Avenue was a little over an acre in extent, bought some time before building of the house commenced.

We started going there for weekends and holidays almost at once. At first we spent weekends in a huge tent that Cyril had had made. After a time we had a chap from the Transkei, Marikane, working for us and staying on the plot.

Cyril helped Marikane build a small (well-built) shack for himself and made sure he had the basics of life (probably more than he had ever been used to). I think these basics were a paraffin stove, some pots, crockery and cutlery and a bed and table and maybe a few other bits and pieces and several sets of overalls, courtesy of Prices Candles I think. There was water laid on to the plot so that was never a problem.

Marikane dug two long drop toilets – one over towards his shack and one nearer our tent site that was more or less in the middle of the plot. Cyril made sure to site these very carefully and ensured that there was plenty of lime on hand to treat them.

After some time of staying in the tent at weekends (we could leave the tent up because Marikane was there to look after it), Cyril decided to build a cabin. Ever thorough, he must have done some reading and research and a delivery of timber, nails, cement and rolls of malthoid arrived at the plot. Malthoid is/was a waterproofing material for roofs. A tarry, slightly flexible grey/black sheeting probably two or three millimetres thick.

Construction of the cabin started by digging a number of holes in a square arrangement. He then planted what I seem to remember as 4 x 2 timbers (roughly 100 x 50mm in cross-section) in the holes. Marikane mixed a batch of concrete to fill the holes around the poles. While the concrete was still wet, Cyril very carefully checked that all the timbers were correctly aligned and vertical using builders lines, levels and all those good things!

I won’t bore you with the details but in a fairly short time the one-room cabin was finished. It was about six or seven metres square so not much bigger than a decent bedroom but adequate for weekends.

My memory is a bit woolly about this period but I THINK my parents may have moved out to the plot BEFORE the house was completed and while I was still at boarding school.

I do know that the cabin became a bit small for us and that the animals had already started to take up residence at the plot and the two black bunnies were still spinsters. I remember the bunnies because one day Cyril had had one or two libations too many, as was his wont, and had fallen asleep on my bed in the ANNEX. He had been petting the two rabbits when he nodded off and they were climbing all over him. They had donated a generous helping of droppings on his sleeping form and he and the bed looked as if someone had spilled chocolate-coated raisins over them. In spite of her annoyance, my mother couldn’t help laughing at the site of this slumbering man with two black rabbits hopping all over him, pooping as they went. This sketch is the extended cabin with notes.

Cyril had built the original cabin really well using tongue and grooved timbers for the walls and floor. It was raised a couple of feet above ground at the front and quite near the ground at the back, or uphill end.

The later extension to the cabin was not nearly as elaborate. Instead of tongue and groove, the outer walls were made of less robust planks done in a shingle fashion. This meant that there were slightly more uprights but the walls were flimsier. The floor was hard-packed earth that I think either duckboards, or some kind of linoleum, had been laid on. The roof was similar to the original cabin and covered in malthoid.

To connect the two rooms Cyril removed a section of the original cabin wall.

We had a paraffin primus and when not used for cooking we had a big, brass reflector that could be fitted to it to turn it into a very efficient heater.

Showering was a matter of timing. We had an incredibly long hosepipe. We ran water through it then closed the sprayer. After it had been lying in big loops in the sun, we connected it to a spray rose in our outdoor shower cubicle. Water on, get wet, water off, soap up, water on and rinse. It meant waiting a while between showers while the water warmed up but – it worked.

Finally, we had a fridge, electric lights and a few other mod cons, as utilities were connected and made available on the plot.

When building on the house started, Cyril had the builders complete the garage and servants quarters first. We/my parents moved into that part of the house while building on the main house proceeded. It is entirely possible that we were living in the cabin or the completed servants’ quarters when I started at SW Primary School…but I THINK we may already have been in the house.

One thing that I do remember was that Cyril got to know people and made friends in the village and the general area. Even before the house was completed, we had some great braais. Most of these I never saw the end of, having nodded off and been carried – or led off half asleep – to my bed.

I think we had been living in the house proper for about two years when Cyril mentioned that his employer was talking about transferring him to Central Africa. This was discussed off and on for a while but really only became serious in early 1958.

One thing that has always stuck in my mind was my thoughts on the matter as I lay in bed one night. Cyril had, on a couple of occasions threatened to leave me behind in South Africa. This would occur on those occasions – fairly frequent occasions – when I had done something that annoyed him and, of course, he could be equally annoyed if I had not done something.

Anyhow, one night as I lay in bed I got to thinking about this potentially life changing move and how it would affect me. I got to thinking about life and mortality and the thought of the year 2000 crept into my eleven-year-old mind. How old would I be in that year? I would turn fifty-four in 2000 and that would be unbelievably ancient. What would I be like, what things would I think about, and what would I be doing and what would it be like to be so unbelievably OLD?

As I am sure everyone knows (and for the information of those who may not), the little boy is still there, inside my head and inside me. That little boy is the grown up me, (71 years of age in pic taken 30 May 2018) and the grown up me is the little boy and I defiantly wear a badge on my everywhere jacket that proclaims:

Growing OLD is inevitable, Growing UP is optional.

 I try to keep my sense of wonder that allows me to ask daft questions and be interested in all kinds of things that GROWN UPS should apparently not show they care about. I try really hard to hold onto that unconscious naiveté that children have that allows them to see things without our faux sophistication. Does that make sense?

I drifted away there!

Prices Candles transferred Cyril to Rhodesia as Manager, Prices Candles, Central Africa, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in mid-1958. I was to turn 12 in August of that year.

We had left Cape Town station on the 30th of April or the 1st of May and arrived in Gwelo on the 3rd of May 1958 at about midnight. It was a wonderful trip and we were well looked after by the cabin staff and the conductor. My mother was to tell me later that it was because Cyril had slipped the conductor five pounds and the chief steward had received something as well. Five pounds at that time may have been half a month’s wages for a railwayman I suppose?

Within three years our life, our way of life, was to be destroyed due to a number of factors but mainly due so something that, in those days, was deemed a nervous breakdown as a more genteel way of not acknowledging that someone was an alcoholic.

I will write of that in other posts. The signs had been there for a while with a couple of NURSING HOME stays before the transfer. With hindsight I think the transfer to Rhodesia was a LAST CHANCE for a very talented and capable man. It was a time when no one openly discussed or dealt with the demon, and the stigmatizing of people with alcohol problems was quite awful. Of course, one has to acknowledge that it – alcohol – CAN be beaten but it is not easy and certainly with the attitudes of that day and age perhaps more difficult than today, when we tend to be more open and less condemnatory.

My stepfather died in a car accident on the 11th of June 1961 aged just 38 – he was passenger in a touring car that overturned one evening when, we believed, the driver had fallen asleep. His children, my brother and sister, were just two years of age and three months old respectively.

My mother was not yet 38. She took us to Cape Town after the funeral but decided that life would be easier for a widow with three children back in Rhodesia. We left Cape Town to return to Rhodesia on the 5th of September 1961, my mother’s 38th birthday.

There will be a few more anecdotes of my time in Somerset West. Of course, the time I spent there was comparatively short. Three years in a child’s life is a long time, not so much for an adult!

Perhaps a few of you may enjoy exploring my site and seeing how my life panned out…and a bit about how it was BEFORE Somerset West!