Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Last Voyage of the RMS Teuton

The Last Voyage of the RMS Teuton
Sharon Warr


RMS Teuton in port
RMS Teuton - Photo courtesy of the National Archives of South Africa : Western Cape Repository
On the evening of August 30th 1881 the Royal Mail Ship Teuton was steaming at a steady 12 knots off the Cape south coast en route to Algoa Bay in South Africa. Since her departure from Table Bay at 10am that morning, conditions had been most favourable and many passengers had taken advantage of the mild winter afternoon to stroll on the sunny deck and enjoy the view of the coastline some 6 miles distant. By 7:20pm the passengers had already enjoyed a hearty dinner and were being served coffee. Captain Edward Manning and his Chief Officer Eugene Wardroper were still in attendance in the dining saloon.
Suddenly there was a tremendous grinding crash and the ship shuddered and heaved, sending dishes and cutlery flying from the tables. Pandemonium ensued as passengers lurched to their feet. Chief Steward Purkis joined Mr James Rose-Innes, the ship’s Chief Surgeon, in an effort to calm the passengers and make sure they exited the saloon in an orderly fashion.
Now on the bridge, Captain Manning ordered the ship about and, as damage reports began filtering in, he made the decision to head back to Simons Bay, some seven hours away. As a precaution he ordered the 2nd officer Mr Charles Forder to provision the lifeboats and to assemble the passengers on the poop deck under the direction of the Chief Surgeon. The ship’s carpenter, Samuel Roberts, reported that two of the holds were shipping water. Whatever they had hit had damaged the port side of the vessel.
The Teuton was sturdily built and had recently undergone major refurbishment. Captain Manning was therefore confident that by controlling the water levels in the holds, the seven bulkheads would stand firm and they could reach Simons Bay. As a further precaution he gave orders that the cargo be jettisoned in order to lighten the ship. Male passengers took turns at the pumps but even though these were continuously manned, the water gained steadily and the Teuton slowly began to settle at the bows.
On the poop deck, the passengers talked quietly among themselves. Of the 157 passengers on board 95 were women and children and it could not have been an easy task to maintain order under such alarming circumstances, yet calm did prevail.
By 9:30pm the situation was dire. The water had already reached the passengers’ cabins and luggage was floating in the companion ways. The bows were now so far down that the propeller was clear of the water. The Captain ordered the engines stopped and the steam blown off.  At about 10.15pm the lifeboats were lowered and the women and children began to embark. This was no easy feat as there was a ground swell which made it difficult for the inexperienced passengers to get into the boats. Apart from that, conditions were fine. The sky was clear with bright moonlight bringing everything into silvered relief. Only a slight white haze hung over the distant horizon.
One of the lifeboats carrying women and children was already afloat but its ropes had become entangled in a pilot ladder. The crew was trying to free it when without warning the Teuton flipped almost vertically. With a sudden rush of air and spiraling debris her bows plunged beneath the water and literally within a minute she disappeared into the swell and was gone.  Of the approximately 242 souls on board only 27 lived to tell a horrified world what had occurred on that beautiful moonlit night. 

Wreck of the RMS Teuton 1881
The sinking of the Royal Mail Steamship Teuton
Illustration attributed to P H Siems – Courtesy of the National Archives of South Africa : Western Cape Repository
 Three lifeboats survived the sinking but they bobbed uselessly upside down in the water with poor wretches clinging as best they could to the keels. Roberts the ship’s carpenter managed to put one to rights and a number of exhausted survivors clambered in. They then got to work rowing towards the sounds of cries for help in the water. The sea was thick with debris making it difficult to navigate but in the bright moonlight they managed to pluck some 20 other half drowned souls from the water. They rowed around until the sun came up looking in vain for more survivors but at last, they had to give up. After setting the other two lifeboats to rights they redistributed the passengers between them and set sail for Simons Bay. Two boats reached the village of Simonstown the next day and the other, after missing the entrance to the bay, put into Table Bay the day after.
The survivors were given every comfort and sympathetic support by the good citizens of Cape Town. Within days a Court of Inquiry into the disaster was convened at Simonstown with J Campbell Esq. R M and Captains Penfold and May presiding. It lasted several days and most of the survivors testified. Their stories bear testimony to the courage and discipline of the passengers and crew.

 Eyewitness accounts

Mr John Cooper, an emigrant who had chosen to leave England in search of a better life in Algoa Bay had come up to the poop deck after his stint at the pumps and joined his wife and five young children there. They were frightened and his young daughter Alice began singing Abide with Me and was soon joined by the other passengers. “We all went down together,” he later told the court, “my wife and children in my embrace just as we were standing…but somehow we became separated and I saw them no more.”
Mr Bernhard Kromm, a South African hotelier who had embarked at Cape Town on his way to Algoa Bay recalled that he was on the poop deck when the Teuton began her death plunge. He could not swim but some instinct made him jump as the ship slid “at lightning speed” under the surface. Twice he was sucked under by the vortex of the sinking ship but managed to grab hold of a wooden bollard cover which took him to the surface. Shortly thereafter he heard voices and saw one of the lifeboats heading his way.
Mr Joseph Allen was sitting on deck playing the concertina when the ship struck. His wife was below putting their three little children to bed. He had previously had ten years at sea as a ‘sailor boy’ and knew that there was big trouble ahead after the collision. He immediately offered his help and was put to work jettisoning cargo.  At 10:15pm the boats were lowered and he saw to it that his wife and children were ready to board. “About 15 minutes later,” he testified, “I heard a rumbling noise forward. There was a wild rush of air and I saw the water come over her bows. I saw her nose go under. I jumped into the sea, was taken down, came up to the surface about 100 yards astern of the ship. I saw a boat and was taken on board. I did not see the boat with my wife and children but we picked up about 19 or 20 other passengers.”  He was never to see his family again.
Out of 95 women and children only one survived. She was 16 year old Lizzie Ross who together with her parents and tiny sister had left Glasgow for Cape Town in search of a better life. In a cruel twist of fate however, her father, on reaching Table Bay, had somehow not taken to the town and decided to continue on the next leg of the journey as far as Knysna. They were all lost and Lizzie was left alone on a strange continent with all she held most dear at the bottom of the ocean.
Mr Charles Forder the 2nd officer testified that they had passed Cape Point at about 2pm and that compass verification had been done at Bellows Rock. The ship was doing 12 knots most of the way. The captain had personally checked the ship’s heading before going down to dinner and thereafter 3rd officer William Diver had the bridge.
The Court found that the loss of the Teuton was directly attributable to the “injudicious navigation adopted by the Captain.”  They also found that the Captain’s initial decision to make for Simons Bay was a fair one but given the rapidly altering circumstances, it should have been evident that this could not be achieved. It was therefore a “grave error of judgement” that the Captain had not taken steps sooner to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew. The court acquitted 3rd Officer William Diver who was in temporary charge of the ship when she struck.
To all intents and purposes, the tragedy had been explained, blame had been apportioned and the case closed. But for every person on that ship, someone had been left behind. Wives, mothers and children had been left without breadwinners.  Some entire families had simply ceased to exist.

 Tragic Aftermath

The aftermath of the loss of the vessel was far reaching.  Hundreds of families lost loved ones and many were left without breadwinners. In Victorian England it was nothing short of a calamity for a wife with young children to suddenly find herself without the means to support her family. The list of some families of crew members recorded in the Times of London bears testimony to the tremendous tragedy of this event.  
Mr Purkis, the Chief Steward left behind a wife and 5 children, the eldest being 10 years old and the youngest just 5 months. His promotion to Chief Steward had been the cause of so much celebration in their home not a month previously.
Mr George Corbin (51) the first waiter left a wife, Elizabeth (43) and 5 children. The Pantryman, Mr George Still (32), left a wife Annie (35) who was due for confinement and 4 young children.  Mrs. Hayes, a stewardess, left an invalid husband and five children behind. The youngest was only 2 years old. The stories go on and on.
A fund was set up by the Mayor of Southampton for the relief of the widows and orphans to which many South Africans also contributed. Amongst the thousands of donors was Captain Manning’s elderly father, Mr Charles J Manning, who contributed the substantial sum of 100 guineas “on behalf of his surviving family and his dear son”. But at best, the relief could only have been of a temporary nature. One can only imagine what trials lay ahead for these families.
And then there was the enigma of 42 year old Captain Edward Manning himself. Here was a man who was spoken of in the most respectful terms. According to all accounts he was a capable navigator. He was “of careful turn of mind and unassuming and kindly in his manners.” He had been with the Union Company for 15 years of which 6 were as Master of the Teuton. He had sailed the route from England to the Cape on countless occasions and no doubt knew every weather condition, every bay and every rock along the route. His Chief Officer Eugene Wardroper similarly had years of experience as did the other officers.
What then had gone wrong?  We know now that the vessel had struck the outermost rocks off Quoin Point. We know that these rocks were charted and that Manning knew of the submerged dangers in the area. He had sailed past them numerous times every year. We know that he had checked the heading of the ship before going down to dinner and had made a slight alteration to that heading.  What we don’t know is why he did not pick up that the heading was incorrect. Was it incorrect? Could the instruments have been faulty? Were the earlier compass verifications inaccurate and if so why had no-one noticed?

Southern coast of Africa and the site of the wreck of the RMS Teuton
 Another witness at the Inquiry was Mr Alfred William Brooke-Smith, an experienced mariner who had previously been captain of the Teuton. He verified that the course and heading of the Teuton’s last voyage would have taken them “two and three quarter miles clear of the outermost point of the land at Quoin Point.”  He also stated that given the same circumstances he too would have considered it safer for the passengers to remain on board than to be in the lifeboats. This was because the lifeboats would have been severely overloaded. Making for the shore would have been dangerous as the coast was too rocky for the lifeboats to land. Beaching the Teuton would have been out of the question for the same reason. He could not say why the ship was off course and put to the court that an error by the helmsman could have been a factor but this could not be proven.
We will never know now. One thing is certain however. The gentle and kindly Edward Manning was accountable for whatever happened that night. His unfailing faith in his vessel clouded his judgement and he ignored what to many observers in hindsight was an inevitable outcome. And so he perished and his hitherto unblemished and solid reputation went down with his ship.
Ironically, his was the only body that appears to have been recovered. His remains were brought to Simonstown after they were found by a fisherman on a nearby beach. He was interred in the presence of Mr Fuller and a few other representatives of the Union Company. Later it was reported that his remains were removed and transported to Southampton, England on the Union Steamship Roman. “A funeral knell was tolled at Holy Rood Church previous to the departure of the train” which took his remains to London. There he was buried at Highgate Cemetery in a quiet ceremony which was conducted “in a strictly private and unostentatious manner.”
Little is known about what happened to the survivors after the wreck of the Teuton. Most of the surviving crew was taken back to England a short while after the disaster. Mr Bernhard Kromm continued his hotel business and died in Kimberley in 1895 aged 61 years. Mr William Oswald Diver, the 3rd Officer on the Teuton, went on to have a distinguished career in the mercantile navy and received a medal and ‘a binocular glass’ from the Board of Trade in 1898 “for gallantry in saving life at sea.”  At the time he was 3rd Mate on the SS Lisbon which assisted in the rescue of the crew of the Steamship Newminster from the icy waters of the Bay of Biscay after gale force winds had wrecked their vessel. His brave efforts were no doubt spurred on by the memory of his own helplessness as he had floundered in the sea off the South African coast nearly 20 years before.

The story of the RMS Teuton is little known today. The research and writing of this article serves as a modest memorial to those who perished and also to those families whose struggle for survival only began after this tragic event. 

Sunday, August 19, 2007

First hand accounts of life at the Cape...Part 1

A final update in the saga of Jan Blanx. Quite simply he disappeared from Van Riebeeck's Journal after his last misdemeanour. I can only assume that Commander Van Riebeeck was only too pleased to get rid of this irritating thorn in his side and packed him off to the 'Fatherland' on one of the many ships returning from the East. The only way to continue a search for him would be to consult documents relating to the Company's employees e.g. discharge papers or further trials, for I don't think that our Jan would have changed his ways much on leaving the Cape! This I will leave to someone else! There are so many interesting things in Van Riebeeck's Journal and it is a must for anyone researching the earliest settlers as well as the future history of the settlement.

In fact journals and diaries remain one of the richest sources of life in general for any family historian and there is a vast array of them to be found that were written in the early days at the Cape. The most famous of these would be those of Van Riebeeck and later that of Lady Anne Barnard, written between 1797 and 1801. Apart from being an accomplished writer, Lady Anne was also an interested and adventurous observer of life in all its facets. She obviously loved people and her great love of animals and her compassion for them is evident throughout her letters and journals. She tells of a buck in the following manner: "I reared him myself, without a mother, and he seems now to regard me as one, following me like a dog, and begging hard at night for Barnard's [her husband] permission to sleep on my feet." She also had a couple of secretary birds and a sea calf which she says "I gave in charge to a slave, with orders to seize the golden opportunity of his bleating to insert the spout of a teapot in his mouth and give him his bellyful of milk." Then there was a penguin "the penguin is half the day in the pond with the calf and the other half of it in the drawing room with me." She had two jackals which were 'the delight of the dogs in the garrison...and allow themselves to be chased all round the flat topped wall of the fortress for about 2 hours," before they hid for the night in a cellar in the Castle. She also had two wild cats, a horned owl and a green chameleon from Madagascar..."but the buck possessed my heart."

Lady Anne left a vivid account of life at the Cape. She mentioned people in detail, she travelled far afield and wrote about who she met and the places at which they stayed. She wrote about the price and quality of food and wine and laughed at those who sneered at the local wines. Her sense of humour is evident throughout her letters most of which were addressed to her great friend Henry Dundas, First Viscount Mellville. She was curious and down to earth when it came to interacting with 'local' people. Politically she was aware of the nuances prevailing at the Cape between the Dutch and the new British occupants and made sure that she did not heed the snobbery of some of her countrymen when it came to socialising.

All in all this is a fantastic read - but there are other diaries which you will find just as fascinating. More on these later.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Story of Jan Blanx Part 2

You will no doubt be pleased to know that Jan Blanx did indeed survive being keelhauled in the icy waters of the Cape, a truly unpleasant experience even for the most hardy of creatures. If one did not drown while being dragged underwater from one side of the ship to the other, one's body would be scraped to pieces by the hundreds of barnacles clinging to the bottom of the hull. But our Jan was a stout fellow and he made it. He also made it through 150 lashes from the Cat-o' nine Tails. One wonders at the staying power of certain individuals but...let's see what happens next.

The third part of Jan's sentence was to "to work as a slave in fetters for 2 years" but fate was to smile upon him and his fellow prisoners. On New Years Day 1653, after only two and a half months in chains, they were all released "through the intercession of various persons and on promise of amending their conduct". I would imagine that they would have promised anything to get out of those chains!

And that should be the end of the story but alas, Jan Blanx seems to have a penchant for mischief. Just over a month later on February 21st 1653 he and his partner in crime from the previous misdemeanour, Willem Huijtjens were found to have slaughtered a calf belonging to the Company. They made a fire and braaied the meat "in the dunes behind the Lion Mountain" and according to reports this had happened a number of times before. As food was pretty scarce and Commander van Riebeeck was trying so hard to build up his herds, this latest escapade was not well received and they were clapped in irons once more. But this lasted only a few days "as we have so few men who are fit for the necessary work on the Company's fortifications...it has been decided that these men, who are the most robust of them all, should be released upon trust on Monday next and be kept at work until the arrival of the Fleet from India, when their case can be taken in hand again and be settled."

Well to cut a long story short, our Jan was not going to wait for any Fleet from India. He, together with four others, decided to run off again, this time by stealing a galiot (a small boat) and some sheep but before they could carry out this ambitious plan they were ratted on by Jan van Leijen "who previously deserted but now behaves himself better". Blanx, Huijtjens and Dirckssen were caught and 'confined' probably in irons again. The other two escaped but handed themselves over later because they were starving. In the entry in Van Riebeeck's diary for the 19th March 1653 the following sentence was passed:

"Today the Commander and Broad Council for the return of ships came ashore and the cow and sheep thieves were sentenced most mercifully by the same: three were to fall from the yard-arm with 100 lashes and 1 year in irons and 2 also to fall from the yard-arm with 60 lashes and for half a year to do the common labour, in chains." The sentence was carried out on the 21st March. This time they would remain in irons until the 12th August 1653 "after numerous intercessions, and more particularly because they had acquitted themselves with diligence and willingness at the Company's works."

By today's standards that sentence is not merciful at all but once again we should not judge out of the context of the time. I have now read through the second volume of Van Riebeeck's diary and have found no further mention of Jan Blanx but....there is one more volume to go. Our Jan either turned over a new leaf or he left the Colony on one of the many ships that stopped over in Table Bay. I hope we can find out what happened to him.


The above extracts are taken from the Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck - edited by H B Thom for The Van Riebeeck Society and published by A A Balkema, Cape Town, 1952. Well worth reading!


I used the following website in my research:
Galiot

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Wheels of Justice in 1652 - The Story of Jan Blanx Part 1

On this day in 1652, some 355 years ago, an entry was made in Jan van Riebeeck's diary concerning punishment meted out to one of the men under his command at the fledgling settlement at the Cape. It makes for interesting reading - they certainly did not mess around with discipline in those days!

The full entry for the day reads (the square brackets are my own inserts):

" 8th July 1652
Fine, bright, sunny weather, wind as yesterday [gentle north westerly breeze]. Have once more had some carrot seed sown in the soil prepared for it. These last 7 or 8 days of dry weather have again made the ground so hard that picks and mattocks can hardly penetrate the surface. This makes the digging of the moats and the filling up of the points and the ramparts [of the fort] slow and irksome work.

Today Jan Planx, arquebusier on the yacht Goede Hoope, for having wilfully and petulantly defied the captain, was condemned and sentenced by the Council to fall from the yard-arm and receive 50 lashes, as can be seen more fully in the sentence book under today's date."
An arquebusier was a soldier who carried a gun or arquebus, the forerunner of a musket or rifle.

This sentence was not a pleasant one by any means but this did not seem to deter our Jan, who did not appear to be a happy sort of a chap. His hair raising experience dangling from the yard-arm of the yacht did little to prevent him getting himself into hot water again. In little over 2 months he was one of four men who absconded from the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. On Wednesday 25th September 1652 our Jan (in this entry his surname is spelt Blanx) together with Willem Huijtjens of Maestricht, a sailor; Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen of Maestricht and Jan Janssen [later called Verdonck] of Leijden both soldiers "departed from the Cabo de boa Esperance in the evening and headed for Mozambique." This quest was, to say the least, quite ambitious seeing that the distance they had to travel was in the region of 1622kms or 1008 miles, and that is as the crow flies! They took with them 4 biscuits, fish, 4 swords, 2 pistols and a dog and set off on this epic journey which, alas, lasted all of 6 days. It is not surprising that things got a bit rough for these lads because within 7 miles of the Fort they were charged by two rhinoceroses and lost a sword. Before that their dog had chased a porcupine and was wounded in the neck. According to the journal kept by Jan Blanx and later copied into the journal of Jan van Riebeeck, the 4 deserters marched about 25 miles altogether, facing many dangers along the way, before reaching what is believed to be the Hottentots Holland mountains near Gordon's Bay on the 29th September. Jan Blanx writes [we were]"intending to cross the mountains. When we did not meet with much success, Jan Verdonck [Janssen] and Willem Huijtjens began to repent. Nevertheless on the the 30th we continued until the afternoon, when Gerrit also grew tired. I could not manage by myself, so decided to return to the Fort in the hope of receiving ''compassion and mercy'. In God's name."

Fat chance of that I'm afraid. Although they all surprisingly escaped the death penalty, their punishment was extremely harsh. The entry for 10th October 1652 states that Jan Janssen (or Verdonck), who it turns out was the first to suggest absconding, was "to be tied to a pole and have a bullet fired over his head. Jan Blanx, the guide is to be keelhauled. Also to receive one hundred and fifty lashes, and in addition, together with Jan van Leijen [Verdonck], to work as a slave in fetters for 2 years doing the common and all other dirty work. Willem Huitjens and Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen, who allowed themselves to be persuaded by Jan van Leijen to abscond are only sentenced to 2 years in fetters as above." The sentences were carried out the very next day.

One wonders if Jan Blanx survived being keelhauled in the freezing October waters of Table Bay when the water temperature would have been about 13 degrees Celcius and if he did, what he must have looked like after 150 lashes to his body. I have yet to see any further mention of him in the translated diary - will let you know if I do.

The above extracts are taken from the Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck Volume 1 - edited by H B Thom for The Van Riebeeck Society and published by A A Balkema, Cape Town, 1952. Well worth reading!

I also used the following websites in my research:
Distance between destinations
Arquebusier

Monday, June 04, 2007

Earthquakes at the Cape of Good Hope

I recently thought about the earthquake that hit the Western Cape when I was a child in 1969. We have not had a major earth tremor since then and I got to wondering how often these things happen in our part of the world and whether they have ever been documented. To my delight I found that there is an historical list of quakes and tremors and on examining it found the data very disturbing. Why? Because according to the patterns displayed in the data, we are long overdue for another 'significant event'. Let's take a look.

On the website of the Council for Geosciences there is a list of known events dating as far back as 1620 when a ship which was becalmed off Robben Island reported "two startling sounds like thunderclaps". The next recorded incident of significance was in 1695 when there was a"loud noise like thunder, earth trembled, no damage, no injury". Modern experts estimated that this tremor would have measured approximately 4.5 on the Richter Scale to produce this kind of effect.

In 1739 there was one that registered 4 on the Richter Scale and in 1766 a "Strong tremor, noise like thunder, at Simonstown, hospital beds knocked against wall, people frightened, only damage caused was that old cracks in walls and gables opened again." That one was estimated to be about 4.3 - 4.8 on the Richter Scale.

In 1809 an earthquake almost identical in intensity to the 1969 quake shook Cape Town. "Three strong quakes, second most violent on 4th [December], loud reports, everybody frightened, fled to streets, tremendous noise continuous few minutes, no wave-like motion, all buildings suffered numerous cracks, water spouts etc. in places. Another 4 tremors from 5th to 12th, some strong" It registered 6.1 on the Richter Scale. Another of 5.6 followed in June 1811: "Two loud reports and shocks, second about same violence as first shock of 4 Dec 1809, strange unusual motion felt, last 5-6 seconds, everybody ran outside, walls cracked, some unsafe, urns again tumbled from parapets"

In November 1835 a tremor measuring 4.8 rumbled through the Cape. "Smart shock, rumbling sound lasted 30 seconds, residents awakened and alarmed, furniture moved, water shaken from glass, windows rattled, no damage to buildings" There was a tremor of similar intensity in 1857. Then there is a bit of a gap until 1902. There could be two reasons for this - either it was a 'quiet period' geologically speaking or quite simply no reports of tremors have been found.

Then in 1912 and 1920 two big quakes measuring 6 and 6.2 on the Richter Scale were experienced and were felt all over South Africa. After this quakes measuring 4 and more were recorded every 2 - 5 years, right through the rest of the 1920's up to the fateful day of 29th September 1969 when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale rocked the Cape. I remember it well. The comparison to loud thunder is justified and I seem to recall that this roar continued for what seemed like ages. Our family tried to get outside but the floor was shaking so much that we slipped and stumbled around until it was over.

It is now almost 40 years since the 1969 quake - if one looks at the full list on the Council for Geosciences website one can't help noticing that this is quite a long stretch of time without a major incident even though the Ceres fault is quite active and minor tremors are recorded often. Mmmm...makes one think doesn't it?

Another great site to visit is The US Geological Survey website which has a 'Latest earthquakes in the World' map and one can zoom in and see what's been happening.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Window to the Past

Recently I had occasion to go through some newspapers from the 1880's and it was an eye opener to read about day to day life from that time. Apart from the political and social aspects of the paper there were many reports of incidents concerning the local folk.

There were some amusing items as in the case of the rowing team from Cape Town who were visiting East London to compete in a race. A few days later the local newspaper reporter stated that he did not doubt that the clothing worn by the Cape rowers might be all the rage in Cape Town but it was a little risqué in East London! He was also shocked to the core that one of these rowers had dared to appear in front of a group of ladies dressed in these rowing shorts!! It's a good job they can't see the spandex items available today!

As with all newspapers, reports on accidents always feature prominently. Bad news sells, right? Accidents involving horses and guns as well as drownings were amongst the most prevalent types of accidents reported on and virtually every edition had some kind of bad luck story.

There was the incident involving a 9 year old lad who, instead of saddling up the horse he was going to ride into the village, tied an old sack over the animal's back instead and climbed on. The horse bolted and the boy fell. His foot got caught in the handle of the sack and he was dragged for miles over walls and ditches until the horse was caught. Of course the young lad was quite dead by this time. As I read this article I was shocked at how a young boy of 9 years had been allowed to ride an animal unattended into the village. What were the parents thinking etc etc. but of course things were different then and one cannot judge out of the context of the time. Children grew up around animals in those days; this after all was the main form of transport and all boys would probably have been riding from the time they were knee high.

Accidents involving guns happened more often than one would think for an era when having a firearm was an essential part of the household, especially, on the frontier. One story involved a man who was killed when the trigger of his loaded rifle hooked on a part of his saddle, fatally wounding him. Another story once again involved two young boys who had gone hunting in the veld. On the way home one of the boys put the rifle across his shoulders, behind his neck, and draped his arms across the stock on the one side and the barrel on the other. As they made their way over the rough ground, the rifle discharged a round killing his cousin who was walking next to him. It was reported that the surviving youngster was so traumatised by the incident that the doctor had ordered him to take to his bed. How tragic!

Alex Bowker, a member of the Bowker clan of 1820 settler fame, almost came to a gruesome end while handling a revolver. He did not know it was loaded and pulled the trigger with the barrel facing his head. The bullet missed his head by a squeak but was fired from such proximity that the powder burned his left eye!

On a lighter note there was the report of a farmer's wife who took down her husband's rifle from where it hung over the fireplace and accidentally fired a round right through that outraged gentleman's derrière leaving him unable to sit for quite a while. Bet he thought twice before leaving a loaded gun hanging on the wall. On second thoughts, I suppose that in those dangerous times on the frontier, having an unloaded gun would have been considered to be foolhardy in the extreme.

Drownings were quite a common occurrence. A well known farmer in the frontier area was on his way to another town with a wagon of supplies drawn by four oxen. With him were his wife, two Fingo servants and another gentleman who had come along for the ride. They reached a river only to find that it was running higher than usual. The farmer decided to risk crossing as it was getting late. He forged ahead and was about half way across with the water up to the necks of the oxen, when the two lead oxen's harnesses unhooked from the yoke and they swam away. The two remaining oxen were unable to move the wagon by themselves and the current overturned it sweeping everyone downstream. Only the farmer's two Fingo servants survived to tell the tale and a verdict of accidental drowning was handed down at the official inquiry. This however did not help the 8 minor children the couple left behind.

Unprotected water cisterns on private properties was another common cause of drowning especially of children. Many an article in these newspapers related the sad details of children who went missing only to be found floating in these cisterns. After a few of these accidents one would think that more care would have been taken with their construction.

Reading through newspapers from times gone by is an invaluable tool for reconstructing what life was like back then. They not only give us an insight into the social norms of the day but cover everything from court appearances (in detail sometimes), political events and the day to day happenings which affected the lives of our ancestors. This is the news they would have read and possibly discussed at the dinner table.

The National Library of South Africa keeps copies of the majority of South African newspapers either on microfilm or as hard copies. Spend a day looking through some of them. You will come away with your mind reeling!

Until next time...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Aliwal Road Primary School

I cried on my first day of school. My Sub A teacher at Aliwal Road Primary School (ARPS), Mrs Blomerus took me by the hand and led me to the Sub A classroom where she sat me down, gave me a little wooden board and big dollop of green clay and in her kindly voice soothed away my sadness and helped me to make a little clay figure. She was amazing. The years that followed were the happiest of times.

I have the fondest memories of Mr Haupt the headmaster, or 'Hooftie', as we called him and of Mrs Blomerus who were firm but kindly in their manner. The vice principal, Mr Naude was a bit intimidating and no-one intentionally got on the wrong side of him and although corporal punishment was not used at ARPS, Mr Naude had his own way of dealing with naughty pupils. He had the "Look"! I shudder to think of what would happen to some of the kids today if they ever had to experience the 'look' from Mr Naude. He could wither a child on the spot with one of his stares and, especially the boys, would feel the effect of one of his controlled but scathing tongue lashings if they stepped out of line. He did not brook any bad manners or bad form when it came to the classroom or playground.

Hooftie on the other hand was like a kindly grandfather. If you were ever summoned to his office for a misdemeanour you felt so bad about it for disappointing him that you made sure you never did it again. He would talk softly and make you understand why you should not do things like that. We all loved him. Assembly was held every morning when Hooftie would read from a children's Bible and we would sing things like "Jesus loves me this I know" and "All things Bright and Beautiful". Then Mr Haupt would give us a little talk. He retired in 1970 after many many years as principal of the school. On his last day the school presented him with a cheque for R400.00 which he was going to use to spend time caravaning around the country. Sounds such a little now but back then it was a small fortune.

The school itself was founded as a School of Industry for Girls in 1836 by Lady D'Urban, wife of the Governor of the Cape. In 1909 it became co-ed and changed its name to Aliwal Road Primary School and continued until 1988 when it was forced to close due to dwindling numbers. I remember hearing of its closure with great sadness.

Because of its great historical value, the building has been preserved and it is now an education museum as well as a Centre for Conservation Education currently under the curatorship of Ms Sigi Howes. Part of the museum's function is to collect as much archival material as possible on schools all over the country. They have for instance the most amazing collection of school brass bells and very old classroom desks and equipment. Some schools are very well represented and have box files full of photographs and even items of uniform dating back years and years. The first time I visited the museum I eagerly looked for the box file on Aliwal Road school and to my great disappointment found only a handful of items in the box. For one of the oldest schools in the country it saddens me that all that history is 'missing'. I immediately went home and looked through all my photos and old report cards and made copies which I gave to Sigi the next time I was there. I even have my old Prefect's badge and house badge (blue for D'Urban - the other house was Van Riebeeck which was yellow...more orange really) which I am a bit loathe to give up just yet.

Please please....if there is any body who went to ARPS please contact me. I will co-ordinate any material and hand it over to Sigi who I am sure will be thrilled. She is planning to write a comprehensive history of the school and is busy collecting information. Without your input a valuable part of Cape history could be lost forever. I will include a photograph of the school taken in the 1960's shortly.