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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind - 14

Barbara Durlacher coninues the recollections of William James Symons of life in South Africa in the early days of last cventury.

“… Next came Cawoods Butchery, where the troops were supplied with their rations. I should have mentioned the office of the ‘K W Town Gazette’ previous to Cawoods. Then came Cross Street, at the two corners of which later on the Amateur Dramatics strutted their little our on the stage. Next G P Perks, watchmaker, then E J Meize, Chemist. Then came a building which rather opened my eyes as to what could be done in the way of house building. It was built of wattle and daub, the same as a Kaffir hut, but instead of glass, the apologies for windows were of oiled calico. The roof was made of yellowwood planks covered with brown paper and coated with tar. This in the main street of a town which the inhabitants considered quite an important place.''

Reference to “pensioners cottages” and “pensioners” does not, in this instance, mean an elderly person who has retired. The pensioners William James Symons refers to are soldiers of either the German Legion or the British Military Garrison who, after they had served their period of enlistment, were pensioned from the Army and given allocations of land on which to establish their small farms and homesteads. Very little other help of any kind was either offered or given to these early settlers and it was expected that, despite their lack of farming or agricultural experience, they and their families would thenceforth become totally self-supporting either from the produce of their farms or through other forms of employment.

His account continues ....

“At the end of this side… the place consisted of the old town; to the south the pensioners’ cottages were being completed and beyond them came the German village, so called because the plots in it were allotted to members of the German Legion, who were sent out as military settlers as the Crimean War, for which they were raised, was finished before they were completely ready for service. Each of these men had forty pounds to build a house on his lot, and one I saw which consisted of a dug-out of about 10 feet square with the earth thrown round the top to form an addition to the height, yellowwood planks laid over nearly level, a wheelbarrow wheel for a window; and the floor being about four feet below the level of the surrounding ground, he simply made a few steps in the earth to gain access to his forty pound mansion….”

At the date to which these random recollections refer we had only one English mail each month, and were never quite certain as to the time of its arrival, but on the night it was due those who expected news wended their way to the Garrison Post Office, which was situated in a wooden building at the side of the garden belonging to the Commandant’s residence, afterwards the residence of the Magistrate; it has since been destroyed by fire (the P.O. not the Residency).

The Garrison Sgt Major was the Postmaster, and of course all the mail matter for the military was first distributed, the civilians coming last, and the manner in which they were treated was particularly abrupt and uncouth: in fact, you received anything but civility. This so aroused my spleen that I wrote a letter to the “Gazette” complaining of the same. In reply there were several letters, severely castigating the writer, and having discovered that I was working in the Commissariat Department, they prophesised that they would daily see my fellows driven about in spans of eight by means of long whips! – rather rough on the writer. However, a writer signing his letters “Merlin,” who I afterwards found was a colour-Sgt took up the cudgels on my behalf, and civilians received a little more civility.

The matter did not end there. I was sent for by the officer in charge of the works and asked had I written the letter to the paper. I said I had. Barney Hall, as he was familiarly called, said: “Well you’ve got yourself into a mess and I don’t know how you will get out of it. You had better write an apology.” I replied: “That I will never do. I am no soldier, but a mechanic working for a daily wage, and if I have not given satisfaction, you can pay me to date and I will leave.

“Oh no,” he replied, “you are under military laws now and I don’t know what the heads of department will do in the matter. I never knew any damned Londoners that did not make things unpleasant.” I did not leave and heard no more of the matter, but I received a flattering testimonial from the Assistant Commissioner General Roath when I left their employ some 15 months later.

The letters for the surrounding towns, villages and outposts were carried by mounted men of the old Cape Mounted Rifles or cavalry of the German Legion. The latter in dresses of rifle green trimmed with yellow braid, were a smart looking body of men.

From the G P Office along the road to Brownlee’s station leading through the reserve, on the side nearest the river (the west side) were a number of thatched cottages, residences of married non-coms. Each had its garden around it, and very English and picturesque they were, with climbing roses and other plants surrounding them. On the other side of the road was the water furrow which supplied the town and on the banks of the furrow grew a fine row of willow trees. Alas, they are all gone, and the last time I saw the locality I felt quite wrath with the vandals who had removed them. The water supply to King ran in an open furrow right through the town and into a reservoir close to the mule train, through an aquaduct across Fleet Ditch, across the flat to the back of the pensioners’ cottages, thence across the German village, and ending at Mea’s Hotel. The water was brought from the Buffalo by the Rev J Brownlee, in whose memory the clock tower of the Public Building was erected.

During the Indian mutiny the only news one could get was by going into Sutton’s Hotel and obtaining a glance at the “Illustrated London News,” as in those days we had no telegraphs.

From what I have seen of the military of later years, which has not been a great deal, and also judging from what I read, there are not so many roughs in the Army today as there were in the past.

“Once I was tried for selling my kit,
Twice for desertion,
If ever I ‘list for a soldier again
The Devil may be my sergeant.”

The above is part of one of the ditties of those times. I was passing through the barracks one morning when I saw a number of the garrison paraded. On enquiry I ascertained it was a punishment parade, one of the men being flogged. I am glad to know this punishment has since been abolished.

A senseless, degrading punishment, I saw a shot drill, and it was of no practical utility. Just imagine a man having to carry a pile of cannon balls from one end of the Provost prison yard and place them at the same position at the other end, and repeat the operation for so many hours at a time without ceasing, with his comrades on duty over him to see that he did not halt or loiter on his job.

I quite pitied one unfortunate I saw drummed out of his regiment and the Army as an incorrigible. There was a full parade on the green where the reservoir above Amatola Row is, and the Provost Marshal cut off the facings and buttons of his uniform, after his sentence by court martial was read. He was then escorted by members of his regiment away from the parade ground accompanied by the drums and fifes playing “The Rogue’s March.” Some of my readers may recognise the tune as, “Oh, Poor Robinson Crusoe.”

Having sometimes as many as four thousand troops of all grades at times in garrison, it is not surprising that there were amongst them some, one might say, almost untameable in spite of discipline. I well recollect one man of the Queen’s, Humpy Leach, who for a glass of liquor would chew up with his teeth the glass in which it was served! I don’t imagine he swallowed his tit-bit but he did undoubtedly chew it up into small fragments.

A more interesting event than any of the above was a full garrison parade, to witness the bestowal of the Victoria Cross on Colour-Sergeant Peter Leach for bravery in the Crimea. In the assault on the Redan Battery the officer was shot down and Leach led on to victory.

It was the practice of the Home authorities to make the Cape a sanatorium and halfway station between England and India, troops being landed here to become partly acclimatised on the voyage out, and to recuperate on the return voyage. I recollect a couple of regiments, the 73rd, I think was one, which landed in King in a very weak condition as to health, having suffered badly from fever.

A few days after the arrival of a regiment in barracks the Sgt. Major, accompanied by drums and fifes would parade all the main streets and cry down the credit of the fresh-coming regiment, informing all and sundry that if they gave credit to its members they did so at their own risk, as their money would be irrecoverable.

After the lapse of all these years I can look back with pleasure at the hours enjoyed with many others, listening to the various military bands playing on mess nights, when the vicinity of the officer’s mess, if the nights were fine, was thronged with listeners. Each night at first post the brass band used to play, and I and my partner of 53 years, and the sharer of my trials and pleasures, have sat and listened to the tunes “Will you love me then as now,” and other old songs now forgotten, and can still talk with pleasure tinged with regret that alas, those times are past recall, yet we still are spared to each other, and have seen the young of our flock grow up and become scattered, and they all have pleasant recollections of their childhood and youth in King Williamstown, or as some say, “ Dear old King.”

With regard to a letter from “Dua” in your columns challenging my statements, I can only say the building grant to the Legion of forty pounds was the amount spoken of at the time, and I never heard it contradicted. Re the grant of land to pensioners and their families, a member of my own household is one of a family of five, the head of the family being a pensioner, and they each had a grant of 10 acres, 50 in all, at Balassi, the ground afterwards and now, I believe, in possession of a family named Nicolson.


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