THE DOLL HOUSE

In 1924 my grandfather made a dollhouse for his only daughter, my mother, for her fifth birthday. He used a wooden packing case to build a doll’s house with four rooms, each with a glass window, meticulously crafted wooden stairs, and a bathroom upstairs with a door on tiny hinges. To that was added a pitched roof. This was in Johannesburg.

Over time, the dollhouse was sent by rail to cousins in the Karoo where it resided until I was about five years old. My mother decided it was time for the doll house to ‘come home’, which it did from Aberdeen in the Karoo to the Sheba siding in the then Eastern Transvaal.

While I was at university, my parents moved to live at our farm permanently and the doll house moved to the De Kaap Valley and was played with by all the grandchildren who visited them there.

At last, I had a daughter. So, in due course, we loaded the doll house onto our truck and brought it down to the Eastern Cape. Here it was also well used by my grandchildren.

Then … my daughter had a daughter … and we loaded the doll house onto our truck and took it all the way to Cape Town …

… Not bad for a doll house made from a packing case 98 years ago!

A DISCOMBOBULATION

My father was fond of using the word ‘discombobulate’ when relating events that had happened during his working day: so-and-so was discombobulated by the change in the time of the shift, for example. Little did he know that the day would come when he would be disconcerted and confused by something he wasn’t even aware of happening at the time!

Let me give you some background to provide the context for his discombobulation. In our family home we had several framed watercolours painted by his aunt, May Taylor Morgan. My father, an orphan, came to southern Africa when he was seventeen years old and these paintings were sent on to him from England years after we had all been born. This is one of the two less colourful ones that I now have in my home. The caption was written by my father on the back of the frame:

Caernarvon: This shows Queen Eleanor’s Gate where the first Prince of Wales was shown to the public, The picture shows the old slate warehouses at low tide. This is a very true reproduction and was painted by May Taylor Morgan.

Also important to know is that my father was the Mine Captain and his stand-alone office was situated close to the mine shaft. The shift bosses would gather there before or after their underground shifts to give a verbal report or to discuss events that had taken place. On this particular Monday morning, the mine carpenter happened to be in my father’s office when the skip spewed out the miners. As was usual, it wasn’t long before my father’s office was filled with shift bosses, whose language usage would have proverbially turned the air blue.

The carpenter remained after the departure of the shift bosses and said quietly, “These men would not have used such dirty language had they known there was a lady present.”

My father looked around at the office with only the two of them present. “What lady?”

“She was standing behind your chair.” The carpenter went on to give a detailed description of the old woman who had stood there quietly. I can no longer recall the details, other than that she had very white hair. My father absorbed all of this and realised it could only have been his long-deceased Aunt May, who had lived in Caernarvon.

His discombobulation was still evident when he related this encounter over lunch. “It had to be Aunt May,” he explained. “She is the only person I know who looked like that!” Why would a woman who had died in Wales decades earlier appear in my father’s mine office in South Africa? Who can tell? The mine carpenter was not one to play jokes. “Besides,” my father insisted, “there is absolutely no way he could have known what she looked like and yet he described her to a T!”

Caernarvon: The old brick works by May Taylor Morgan.

My father noted in his unpublished memoir, A Brief History of the Currors that “she must have been rather shocked as she had picked a real ‘Blue Monday!’”

A VERY LARGE TEA CUP

Willow patterned items come in every shape and size you can think of; in different hues of blue; and with variations of the traditional pattern. There is a story behind my acquisition of this very large teacup that is displayed in my lounge.

A fellow student, who happened to hail from Rhodesia, gave me his cup – very similar to this one – to look after during one vacation. It obviously meant a lot to him and so I packed it carefully and took it home with me to the Eastern Transvaal. It proved to be a great hit with my parents and I served tea in it for my father – it holds the equivalent of four ordinary tea cups.

I fell in love with the cup and saucer and, once I had returned it to its rightful owner, set about looking for one of my own. During the early 1970s, Pietermaritzburg boasted several interesting second-hand shops tucked away in delightful winding lanes in the city centre. You can imagine my delight when, after much trawling, I found exactly what I was looking for!

The R5 I willingly paid for it in 1971 might sound laughable now, but it was a lot to me then – this is no wonder when the inflation conversion table I consulted tells me that it was the equivalent of R345 now! I would not fork out that amount now, yet this cup and saucer has given me great pleasure for over fifty years.

WILLOW PATTERN CROCKERY

I am feeling a little nostalgic today so found myself thinking about my long association with Willow Pattern china. My first encounter with the legend relating to the pattern must have come from a children’s encyclopaedia. I was enthralled both by the story and the attractiveness of the design and have always been determined to own something decorated with such a pattern.

First the story, which will be familiar to most of my readers: it basically involves a beautiful girl who was the promised bride of an old, yet wealthy, merchant. Her father was a Chinese Mandarin who lived with his family in a magnificent pagoda with a lovely fenced garden containing both a willow and an apple tree.  The daughter, Kwang-se, had the misfortune to fall in love with her father’s clerk. The young couple decided to elope across the sea to the cottage on the island. Naturally enough they were pursued and caught. As the father was about to have them both killed, the gods transformed them into a pair of turtle doves. Some versions have them escaping and living in harmony for some years before their home was torched and they were turned into doves. What does that matter? It is a romantic story that captured my very young heart.

At last, when I was already ‘too old’ to play with toy tea sets, I found a china tea set in our local toy shop in Barberton. It remained in its box for years until my parents moved to live on the farm permanently. My mother then set out my little tea set on her Welsh dresser – how lovely the pieces looked against that dark wood!

Some years later, she purchased a willow pattern dinner service which was railed down to her from Johannesburg. She too had a great fondness for the willow pattern and was pleased that I could share her joy.

We were camping in the Tsitsikamma area many years ago when we had to go to the supermarket in George to purchase supplies. My eye was caught by a willow patterned dinner service displayed on a shelf. Camping or not, I simply had to have it! Fortunately each set of four servings was packed in a sturdy square plastic container – the two of which remained packed in the back of our truck until the end of our camping trip.

Since the death of my mother, the remains of her set has mingled with mine. I use the pieces only for special occasions, such on those now all too rare times when some of our extended family can sit around the dining room table.

My mother’s set is a darker blue than mine, which reminds me that although all willow patterns may look alike, small details may differ according to the various manufacturers in terms of the colour, the number of apples, the figures on the bridge and the design of the crooked fence. Ours seem to differ only in colour.

https://nationalmuseumpublications.co.za/the-willow-pattern/

DUNDUFF FARM

I last visited our family farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley near Barberton about thirty-four years ago. This was a sad visit for my father had died some years earlier and my mother, having sold the farm, had already made great progress with sorting and packing in order to move into town. The memories of that farm remain with me still – and even more pleasingly, it is remembered by my children too. I have written before that the house burned down long after we’d left and of my sadness that the entire farm has been turned into an orchard of nut trees that have obliterated all the roads, buildings and trees that meant so much to us. Clearly, I have nothing to go back to.

This Google map shows the dirt road that we used to drive along, having turned off the tarred road at the Caledonian station and passed several other farms before reaching that curve in the road you can see so clearly. The farm gate was not far from there and our house was more or less where the red pointer is on the map.

The original farm house – which had been added onto over many years – was constructed in 1910, mainly of wood and iron. Some of these materials – I imagine especially the corrugated iron – had been brought in by ox wagon from Delagoa Bay, which is on the south-east coast of Mozambique.

This undated photograph shows one of the most pleasing features of the house, the cool, cement-floored veranda that ran along three sides of the house. This is a perfect architectural feature that wards off the main heat of the Lowveld summers. It kept the bedrooms cool and proved to be a wonderful place to sit to catch the breezes and from where one could look over the farmlands, across the De Kaap Valley towards the town of Barberton nestling in the foothills of the Makhonjwa Mountains.

The water tank on the right was essential as we relied on both rain water and borehole water for our needs. Two tanks were perched on very high tank stands in the back garden. These were filled from a borehole behind the house and sported clear markers so that my father could keep an eye on the water levels and know which tank required filling. We learned from a very early age not to waste water – a good lesson, given that where I live now we only get water every second day!

It was on those steps leading up to the veranda that late one afternoon we came home to wonder who had left the garden hosepipe there – on closer inspection this proved to be a black mamba which my father got rid of once he had made sure the rest of us were well out of the way.

The windows on the right is where the lounge was – also commanding a beautiful view across the valley. The wooden walls consisted of tongue-in-groove panelling as was the floor and ceiling. It was a lovely room to sit in – the original sash windows were replaced by metal framed ones. The single window on the left is where one of the bedrooms was. This particular one had two sash windows while the one next to it only had one. The back section had been added on with bricks and all of those windows (bedroom, bathroom, dining room, scullery and kitchen) had metal framed-windows.

An enormous white mulberry tree provided shade on the left-hand side of the house. The leaves of an African tulip tree are in the foreground of this photograph. Silky oaks dominated the rondavel outside the kitchen; there were also syringas and an elm tree in the garden. One side of the driveway was lined with poinsettia trees and on the other was a coffee tree, an oak tree and even some pawpaw trees. A very productive vegetable garden was behind the house.