My stepfather’s name was Cyril Williams and from now on, I will refer to him by his first name.
Cyril was born and brought up in the coal-mining area of the Rhondda Valley in Wales, in the UK. From what I can gather, it was a mostly rural area but at about the age of fourteen, which would have been in about 1936/37) he was enlisted into boy service in the Royal Navy where he completed his schooling to GCE O level I believe.
He served in the RN during WWII and I think spent time in the middle east but I am not really sure other than some of the few times he spoke of his service he mentioned that region, the heat and having to accompany shore parties into the desert.
Cyril had been brought up in an area where game such as wildfowl, some deer and rabbits were part of the normal fare along with mutton, pork and beef.
The Rabbits – I have written briefly about this in my first article but, just to enlarge on it…
I think the rabbits – two black ones that we got – were bought for, or given to, me but Cyril decided that we should breed them. Accordingly, with the help of Marikane, our general factotum from the Transkei, he built an enclosure of split logs on our plot in Helena Heights.
In spite of his supposedly KNOWING about rabbits, Cyril forgot that they are burrowing animals but, at first, the burrows that we saw in the enclosure were just curious and interesting. Within a day or two, we realised that they were ESCAPE tunnels and we were chasing the bunnies all over the plot. He then built new enclosure that had a wooden floor topped with about a foot of soil so that the rabbits could burrow but not escape.
…and we waited. After several weeks, our very happy little bunnies were still playing house but showing no sign of breeding. Having befriended a chap named Bill Prince in the village, and knowing that Bill had a number of rabbits himself, Cyril asked him what he thought the problem could be. The bunnies (my mother and I had probably given them names by this time), were examined by Bill who with great amusement, informed us that the rabbits had not been breeding because we had two does (girls).
A buck rabbit was introduced to the mix and the stage was set for him and Cyril to start the commercial supply of rabbit to the local butchers and specialty restaurants. (There were none of the latter in the area although they did exist in Cape Town – I think).
Cyril was very good with his hands and particularly good at woodwork. He bought a supply of timber and built some very professional cages that were about six hundred millimetres deep by about a metre wide and perhaps six or seven hundred millimetres high. They had mesh front, back and sides and a mesh floor so that droppings could fall through. Under each floor was a slide-in drip tray the size of the cage, that he had had made out of galvanised steel. I think there were about 12 cages in all.
As our two girls started to produce offspring the cages soon filled up (and Cyril added some new livestock I think) and it fell to me to clean the cages. As a city-raised child of nine or ten this was not something I took to with relish and there were often some vigorous exchanges about the poorly cleaned cages and drip trays. Cleaning was more difficult because the bunnies, usually two to a cage, produced prodigious amounts of droppings – mostly in one corner of the cage where all the droppings would clump together and stick in the mesh like tar. I was not strong enough to wield the wire brushes to good effect nor tall enough to get into the higher cages. My mother would then get stuck in and clean the cages out. Cyril would come home, see how well mom had done the job and come looking for me. (This may have occasioned the lone pine tree incident that I spoke of elsewhere).
I mentioned before that my mother and I would not eat rabbit, if we had raised the creature, but if it came from Bill as ANONYMOUS meat we condescended to consume the meat – rabbit is delicious by the way.
As to the commercial viability of the venture I seem to remember it fizzled out…The pelts were meant to be a by-product of the venture but I only remember a couple of pelts ever being properly cured while the rest turned hard and ugly. I think Marikane did cure a few pelts for himself and he got the odd rabbit to slaughter for his own consumption.
I believe that Bill Prince ended up with all the rabbits and their cages because, unlike Europe and Britain where rabbits are largely regarded as livestock, in South Africa the white people tended to think of rabbits in the category of domesticated pets. Black and coloured people would have gladly eaten rabbit but not at the kind of prices that these were being offered.
Cyril was very good with wood, and I picked up many ideas and some technique from him but because of his impatience with me, the experience was sporadic and came to be something that I would avoid.
Having decided that we should fence the plot Cyril bought a huge pile of raw pine split logs and made up sections of fence that looked roughly like this.
Each section was about 2 to 2.5 metres long with the ends about 1,800mm high and the middle about 1,400mm high. Each pole was about 100mm wide and 100mm apart and he nailed it all t0gether with 100mm nails which, for the first couple of prototypes he did not drive all the way in – leaving the rather big heads projecting for about 5mm. The sketch I have created is NOT to scale of course. The fence needed quite a few of these sections. In a 2 to 2.5 metre section there would have been twenty to twenty five uprights – a considerable weight of timber.
In order to be able to see these sections while getting the pattern right Cyril needed the sections upright and I, still aged nine, was roped in and made to sit on the ground and hold a section so that it could be viewed to see the effect.
One section of fence was MUCH heavier than I was so all I was doing was precariously balancing it in an upright position. I was taking some flak from Cyril as usual, not getting anything right according to him. My arms were getting tired when an errant gust of wind caught the structure.
I valiantly tried to hold the section but it pivoted to the horizontal on my outstretched arms. For just a moment I was supporting the entire weight of the section before my arms collapsed. The structure fell on me, driving one of the protruding nail heads into the centre of my head. There was pain, surprise, a not-inconsiderable amount of blood and, I was nine, remember, howls of pain as I lay flattened under the section of fence.
“Bloody fool, why didn’t you hold the bloody thing up…useless idiot.” …words to that effect were directed at me but I think he had a fright because he soon had the thing off me and my mother was out with a cloth and warm water – and some words for Cyril. I think we went down to the hospital where they determined that apart from a sore head and a severe, shaved, bump – accompanied by a wound that was soon to scab over I would be OK. I was young enough, and my skull was still flexible so there was no skull damage. I do have a slight concavity on top of my head though, that perhaps might not have been there otherwise.
The finished front fence (I think Marikane was pressed into service – or someone was hired to complete it) was quite smart looking.