Skollie – a young tearaway hooligan
Snik-snik – haltingly through tears
Imperial coinage – a shilling (twelve pence) converted to ten cents and a sixpence was five cents when decimal coinage was introduced.
Tuppence – two pennies (colloquial)
This is actually NOT a Somerset West story because it took place in Observatory, Cape Town. We were, however living in Somerset West when it happened (I think we were and if not we had already bought the plot and started spending weekends there so maybe it counts?) I am sure people who know the area will relate.
My stepfather, Cyril, worked for Prices Candles in Observatory. Sometimes in school holidays, he would take me to work with him. I would get filthy playing and walking around in the candle factory and climbing all over the high, dirty stacks of bagged paraffin wax. I used to enjoy those days – something different for an eight or nine-year-old. I learned how candles were made.
We usually took sandwiches to the factory and from time to time there would be food prepared in the offices where there was a relatively small staff working.
On the odd day we would get in the car and go to a café in Salt River to have tea and sandwiches or a light meal.
One day Cyril was busy at work and it was late morning so he asked me if I would like to go for a walk and buy us a packet of sandwiches.
I was a bit bored with the factory and was happy to do something different. The streets were quite safe during the day so off I went with three shillings in my pocket. Two and sixpence was for the sandwiches and I was to have a soft drink out of the sixpence (and probably have tuppence change). I would wait while the sandwiches were freshly prepared.
They made three generous sandwiches for me, two rounds of egg and one of polony. They cut them diagonally and wrapped them in greaseproof paper. The sandwiches were then placed in a large brown paper bag for me to carry them back to the factory. The distance I had to walk was probably a mile – say one and a half kilometres?
Like all children – and many others I imagine – I loved looking in all the shop windows. There were many different shops in the area from bicycles to hardware, jewellers, small grocers, pawnshops and many others. I dawdled along looking at this and that until I got close to the factory when I turned off the main road.
There were a couple of quiet side streets with houses and small yards with non-retail type businesses in them. Car and bicycle repairs, small scrap dealers that kind of thing. It was very quiet in these streets as I got closer to the factory and I was probably not even a block from my destination when it happened.
I stopped to look at something that had caught my attention, holding the bag of sandwiches in one hand. As I stood there a young coloured man, probably a teenager, came loping up the street towards me. I was only absent-mindedly aware of him.
As he got close to me, he seemed to put on a spurt, dodged half a step towards me and snatched my precious bag of sandwiches! Stunned I turned and shouted “Hey!” I think he glanced over his shoulder and laughed, he may have shouted something rude, I don’t know. He turned the corner and was gone.
Getting over my initial surprise, I felt hurt and angry but mostly just shocked, I suppose. “How could someone do that?” my innocent mind seemed to ask rhetorically.
Flowing directly from that thought was my apprehension over how Cyril was going to react! Knowing how unpredictable he could be, and already in tears, I walked (maybe I ran?) the remaining distance to the factory.
Cyril surprised me. He crouched down and put his arm around me, and told me to tell him what had happened. Snik-snik, I told him about the skollie, and the stolen bag of sandwiches.
He told me not to worry, wash my face and hands, and we would go and get another bag of sandwiches.
We drove out of the factory gate and he said we would drive around a bit and see if we could see the skollie. I don’t think we saw him at all – or if we did he quickly vanished down some alleyway.
After getting the sandwiches, we went back to the factory and at last had our tea and sandwiches.
Writing about that now, I remember that factory rather clearly. The streets in the area were clean with very little litter. One drove in the gate by the offices and the yard was spotless.
Inside the factory though, things were dirty because of the type of work and the railway line that ran past the back (the factory had its own siding too). Steam trains were still common with the attendant dust that they produced.
We moved to Rhodesia in mid-1958 when Prices transferred Cyril to manage the Gwelo factory. For reasons that I will talk of elsewhere he soon left the company.
Then, sadly, in 1960, we heard from my aunt that the Prices Candles factory in Observatory, Cape Town had burned down in a spectacular fire. Considering the raw materials that would have been in stock, it must have been quite a blaze.