Stewart Bain was born in Wick, Scotland on 9 September 1854. He and his brother James came to South Africa in 1878, to Durban. They soon trekked inland to the metropolis of Harrismith in the Oranje Vrijstaat, an independent sovereign state at the time. Britain had recognised the independence of the Orange River Sovereignty after losing at Majuba, and the Vrijstaat officially became independent on 23 February 1854, seven months before Stewart was born, with the signing of the Orange River Convention. This history is important in view of many of Harrismith’s inhabitants’ conduct in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899.
The brothers found work building bridges for the railway line extension from Ladysmith up the Drakensberg to Harrismith; We fondly imagine they built the beautiful sandstone bridge across the Wilge River at Swinburne.
Settling in Harrismith, Stewart bought the Railway Hotel and changed it to the Royal, while brother James built the Central hotel uptown, on the central market square.
Stewart married Janet Burley in Community of Property in Durban, I’m not sure whether that was before moving to Harrismith or after. She was born in Hanley, Staffordshire, England in 1859 of David Burley and Caroline Vaughan. They had __ children between 18 __ and 18__ . . . the fifth child being our grandma Annie. Funny, we would never have called her Ouma!
Stewart became Mayor of the town and ‘reigned with the gold chain’ for years, becoming known as ‘The Grand Old Man of Harrismith.’ To their grandkids they were always ‘Oupa’ and ‘Ouma’ Bain;
He pushed for the building of a very smart town hall. Some thought it was way too fancy – and too expensive – and called it ‘Bain’s Folly.’ Did Stewart have the tender? Was he an early tenderpreneur? Was it an inside job? *
Here’s a lovely 3min slide show of the building of Bain’s Folly – completed in 1908 – by Hennie & Sandra Cronje of deoudehuizeyard.com and thanks to Biebie de Vos, Harrismith’s archive and treasures man. Thank goodness for all the stuff that Biebie ** has saved and rescued!
Here’s that impressive building in a dorp on the vlaktes!
Opskops probably had to be arranged to justify the place, and at one event in this huge hall – an Al Debbo concert! – Stuart’s grand-daughter Mary met her future husband. Maybe that was the Mayor’s intention all along?
Janet died on 15 January 1924; Her daughters Jessie & Annie (who was then aged thirty) were with her when she collapsed. They summoned Dr Hoenigsburger, but Ouma died within minutes. The Harrismith Chronicle article reads in part: ‘Ex-Mayoress’s Death. Sudden demise of Mrs S Bain. The news which stunned the town on Tuesday morning of the painfully sudden death of Mrs Stewart Bain, evoked a feeling of deepest sympathy from all who knew the deceased lady, not only in Harrismith and the district but in places far remote.’
When the dust settled, the townsfolk must have quite liked the result, as when Stewart Bain died in September 1939, the town pulled out all the stops for his funeral; These pictures were taken from the balcony of his Royal Hotel, with ‘his’ Town Hall visible in the background, and ‘his’ mountain behind that. All Harrismithers and Harrismithians regard Platberg as ‘theirs.’
Snippet: Old Mrs Batty was Stewart Bain’s housekeeper at the Royal Hotel. Mum’s cheeky cousin, Janet Bell – later enhanced to Hastings-Bell – asked Mrs Batty one day, “Why do you say ‘somethink and nothink?” Back came the reply, “Cause I aren’t eddacated.” Mrs Batty lived around the corner from the Royal, on the same block, in a little house right on the pavement.
I thought I remembered that, despite every dorp in South Africa seeming to boast a ‘Royal Hotel’ – from whence ‘hier sirrie manne innie Royal Hotel’ – the Harrismith Royal Hotel was one of only two in South Africa that could officially call itself ‘Royal’. Sister Sheila, family Keeper-of-the-Archives, has hereby confirmed that I have a flawless memory. Well, something along those lines:
Couldn’t resist this close-up so enthusiasts can read which cars were around in 1939:
A young post office worker left his little 1935 Morris in that garage in the care of the owner Cathy Reynolds, while he went off to war, ca 1941; When he returned around 1946 it was waiting for him. He then met Mary, second daughter of Annie Bland, nee Annie Watson Bain, Stewart’s fifth child. Their first date was in the Town Hall. Best and luckiest thing that ever happened to him. They got married in 1951. He was Pieter G Swanepoel, originally from Pietermaritzburg, and my Dad.
Details of the 2007 refurbishment of the Town Hall
* Shades of our Moses Mabida stadium in Durban for the 2010 soccer world cup – ‘Do we need such a big, fancy stadium!?’ I called it the Moses MaFIFA stadium. Americans call it a boondoggle.
** See where Biebie was born.
opskops – parties, shindigs, events, pissups, balls, dances, concerts