The first recorded polo game in South Africa took place in October 1874 at the King Williams Town Parade Ground between the Gordon Highlanders and the Cape Mounted Rifles.
The Military Ninth Division played during the 1880s at Harrismith, Orange Free State.
Polo was played in Cape Town in 1885 at a club formed by army officers, and in Natal by the officers stationed at Fort Napier, in Pietermaritzburg; a year later, they formed the Garrison Polo Club.
Play in Transvaal began in Johannesburg in 1894, when the owner of the Goldfields Hotel founded a polo club. The game was dominated by the military, but civilian clubs sprouted in several places.
Someone must have the history of Harrismith polo. I hope. The first polo field I remember was in the sixties on the far side of the railway tracks; you drove under the subway to get there. Across the road was the sportsfields: a hockey field and then the cricket oval. Legend has it that Jimmy Horsley once hit a famous six across the hockey field, across the road and onto the polo clubhouse roof!
During a recent visit to Harrismith I spotted this on good friend Bess Reitz’s passage wall: Her Dad and Ginger Bain in the winning team!
Way back around 1968 a new book appeared at 95 Stuart Street Harrismith. I was fascinated. Nearly as fascinated as I’d been when cousin Jack read Valley Of The Dolls from the big wooden bookshelf in our long, dark, carpeted passage. That novel must have been good, as Mom actually physically took it from me, saying ‘You can’t read that’! Oh? Oh, well, back to the bird book:
I was fascinated by the orange Cock-of-the-Rock on the cover. Fifty years later the book was on my bookshelf in Westville and I was sad recently to discover other bookworms also liked it and had got into it in a big – and deep – way. It was riddled with holes. I copied the pages with the plates I remembered best before turfing it out. Hopefully a whole family of borer beetles went with it!
Valley of the Dolls – by Jacqueline Susann was about film stars, their raunchy pecadilloes and their use of ‘dolls’ – amphetamines and barbiturates. Time magazine called it the ‘Dirty Book of the Month,’ probably thinking ‘that’ll kill sales,’ but that and other anti-reviews made people think ‘that sounds interesting,’ and the book was a runaway commercial success, becoming the best selling novel of 1966. I mean, a review saying ‘Dirty Book of the Month’ might have made Mom Mary not buy it, but it likely had Dad head straight for the bookstore! So there it was: From one metropolis to another – New York to Harrismith – in no time.
By the time of Susann’s death in 1974, it was the best selling novel in publishing history, with more than 17 million copies sold. By 2016, the book had sold more than 31 million copies. In 1967, the book was adapted into a film. Like the book, the reviews were scathing, but it was an enormous box-office hit, becoming the sixth most popular film of the year, making $44 million at the box office. Author Jacqueline Susann had a cameo role in it as a news reporter, but she said she hated the film, telling director Robson that it was ‘a piece of shit.’ – wikipedia
Birds of the world: a survey of the twenty-seven orders and one hundred and fifty-five families, by Oliver L. Austin, (1961); Illustrated by Arthur Singer; Edited by Herbert S. Zim, New York, Golden Press; Many reprints were made and it was eventually published in seven languages over many years. I think ours was the 1968 edition published by Paul Hamlyn;
bookworms: The damage to books attributed to ‘bookworms’ is usually caused by the larvae of various types of insects including beetles, moths and cockroaches, which may bore or chew through books seeking food. Mine were little brown beetles. Buggers. I’m procrastinating about checking all my other books! Must do it . .
You know that mansion Mal Jurie is building on his farm? It’s a harem!
A HAREM! A place where you keep lots of ladies in rooms and they lie around swimming and eating grapes and looking beautiful. When they do have clothes on its not clothes like your mother wears. He says he’s going to bring French dancers to his harem from the Moulin Rouge in Paris! A lot of French ladies in Harrismith in the Vrystaat!
Aag, man, You Lie!
No, I swear. He told me himself!
This is how an Urban Legend – in this case really a Rural Legend; or, as historian Leon Strachan calls them, a ‘Lieglegende’ – got started.
First of all, it’s true. Jurie Wessels DID say that. His neighbour wasn’t lying.
But what Jurie was really saying was ‘Leave Me Alone!’ ‘Los My Uit!’ ‘Mind your own Business.’
Jurie was a successful farmer, an intelligent, interested man, married to an outgoing and attractive woman and he was building her a home unlike any other in the district. His problem – his sin – the reason he was called Mal Jurie – was that he was an introverted and eccentric character. He didn’t ‘play by the rules.’ And for that you get punished in most communities, maybe more so in small communities. And Harrismith would have been no exception.
For starters, Jurie had brought his lovely engaging wife from far away. People didn’t know her mother and her grandmother. She was actively involved in the community, well liked, and often entertained; but still . . she was from far away. And also, often Jurie wasn’t at her gatherings, preferring to keep to himself, even when she entertained at home.
So when Jurie got Italian stone masons to start building a large sandstone structure on the edge of a hill above his ordinary homestead, overlooking the Wilge river valley and the west end of the dorp, the people started wondering . . and talking.
But it was when a consignment of beautiful and really big wooden windows and doors arrived from Italy at the Harrismith spoorwegstasie that the rumours started building and gathering momentum. From ITALY? Nothing from ITALY arrived at the Harrismith stasie! Where was Italy, anyway? This was weird! Just what WAS Mal Jurie up to? Here was evidence, not just skinner, that Mal Jurie was mal.
Well, he was actually building a beautiful home, but he didn’t want people sticking their nose in his business. People always asked too many questions! So when his neighbour asked, he deliberately gave what he probably thought would be an obvious exaggeration. And it would have been taken as just that, had his reclusive behaviour not made him ‘suspect’ – ‘different.’ And so the rumour – the legend – grew wings and became ‘the truth.’
My mother Mary grew up with one of his sons, Hugo. Hugo was a popular, good-looking and talented Harrismithian who would go on to qualify as a medical doctor, then come back to farm and practice medicine as a GP on the farm. He and Mom matriculated in the same class of 1945 and both did well in their exams. Here’s Mom on the piano and Hugo enjoying her playing and getting ready to sing at Mom’s 45th birthday party in 1973:
And here’s one of his sons, Max Wessels, who played rugby with me in primary school:
The beautiful new home never got finished. Jurie joined the 1914 rebellie – a rebellion against the government. He was angry – mad as hell – as were many others, that this blerrie government was joining the blerrie British to fight World War 1! Hadn’t the blerrie Engelse just been killing them a mere twelve years before? Hadn’t they locked up their women and children in concentration camps, starving them and killing them off through disease? Why the hell was South Africa fighting WITH those invaders who had ruined the country just a short decade ago, burning their houses and killing their livestock?
Building on his lovely home ceased. Today the impressive ruins of the home Jurie wanted to build for his wife still stand:
Thanks to Leon Strachan for keeping Harrismith’s history alive – and for the photos. For more and better info, read his book Blinkoog. He wrote four: Blafboom; Blinkoog; Botterbek and Bergburghers).
See this excellent blogpost by former Harrismithian Sandra Cronje, where she wrote a longer, better story with the help of Harrismith historian Leon Strachan – :
A large gathering of the Goor Koor – that assembly of happy inebriates led and accompanied by virtual-teetotaller Mary Methodist, our Mom, gathered together – assembled, amassed – on the occasion of Mom’s 45th birthday. Usually there were far fewer of them gathered at any one time, an occasional Lubricated Quartet perhaps, but this was a special occasion!
And Sheila – thanks goodness! – took pictures. She was in matric at the time, I was in Oklahoma, Barbara in Pietermaritzburg.
. . and here – precious picture! – Mary at the keyboard and Hugo Wessels right there, ready to belt out a number! Two very talented people, 45 years old, who were in matric together in 1945. And this fun gathering happened 45 years ago, as Mom is now 90! I think all my stats are right . . .
Wonderful memories of crawling down the long passage to get nearer to the sound of Mom playing the piano; Also of sundry ‘choir members’ over the years, belting out popular songs with high enthusiasm and various degrees of talent. If spotted by any of the choir it would be ‘Hello Kosie!’ – if spotted by Mom or Dad it would be ‘Get back to bed!’
Also memories of the smell of ash trays! Always plenty of ash trays. Ours were from tyre companies, so they were glass inside miniature Dunlop or Goodyear tyres!
Dad: “Victor Simmonds was a lovely chap and a very good artist. He was a little man, grey, a lot older than me. What? How old? Well, I was probably 35 then and he was grey. He was probably 50. He lodged with Ruth Wright (later Ruth Dominy) on the plot next door to ours, Glen Khyber. I doubt if he paid them any rent, they were probably just helping him out. He moved to the hotel in Royal Natal National Park where they allowed him to sell his art to the guests and that probably paid his rent.
“He was a hopeless alcoholic, unfortunately. He used to come to me begging for a bottle of brandy late at night, his clothes torn from coming straight across to Birdhaven from Glen Khyber, through the barbed wire fences. (Mom and Dad owned a bottle store, liquor store, in town) I said ‘Fuck off, Victor, I won’t do that to you,’ and sent him away. I wish I had bought one of his paintings. Sheila found these four paintings he gave me for nothing. He said he did these as a young student. As I took them he said ‘Wait, let me sign them for you.'”
So I went looking and found a lot of his work available on the internet. Once again Dad’s memory proved sound. Victor was born in 1909, thus thirteen years older than Dad:
I knew this scene! To me this looks like the stream above the Mahai campsite in Royal Natal National Park – So I went looking and at lovecamping.co.za I found this:
A number of his paintings are available for sale. I’d love to see his ‘The Gorge, Royal Natal National Park, Showing the Inner Buttress and Devils Tooth’ but I’d have to subscribe for one day at 30 euros! That one was apparently painted in 1980, so he kept going for at least 23 years after he stayed in our neck of the woods. That would have made Victor around 70 and his liver a resilient organ.
Long long ago Annie said to me I should get her beloved husband Frank’s oak desk. We never knew Frank. He died when Mom was just fifteen or so, still in school. Annie had five grandkids and I suppose her reasoning was the only grandson should get it?
So now Mom’s in Azalea Gardens and Dad will be joining her soon, so it was time to fetch the desk. Dismantle, ship on the back of and inside of my Ford bakkie and re-assemble in my office.
It looks good.
Very importantly, the key is in the top drawer, attached to a label ticket. Written in (I suppose) Annie’s handwriting: “Key of Frank’s Desk.” Interesting, as there’s no lock or keyhole in the desk, nor any of its drawers!
Harrismith had a very successful sportscar designer! Sheila reminded me on her facebook. He was a big mate of Polly du Plessis. They called each other Sissel Pud (du Plessis backwards) and Tweedie (de Witt backwards). Verster was captain of the rugby team and Mary Bland’s boyfriend. He dopped a few years and was in JC when she wrote matric. A real gentleman, says Mary. When she left to go nursing he said, ‘My fear is that we don’t meet again – worse, that we’re living in the same city and we don’t even know it.’ Sensitive soul.
Here’s the story of Verster de Witt – or the parts I could fish out:
Two Stellenbosch university pals wanted to make a great sportscar. They were Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner. In 1958 Meissner went to England and saw a new technology called fibreglass. He wrote a letter to Bob van Niekerk asking him to come to England to study fibreglass crafting. Bob hopped onto a Union Castle ship and joined his mate. In those days that was called ‘instant response’: The letter took a week; the response took a week; the ship took a month; Bang! Two months later there his mate was, ready to help.
Bob recalls: ‘We had full confidence in our ability to produce the mechanicals and a good chassis, but needed someone to put a ‘face’ on it – a good looking design. As luck would have it, Willie knew a lady Joan, nee Peters, who was married to a stylist working at Rootes who would hopefully stop us from producing a mediocre, unattractive body.’
His name was Verster de Wit, an ex-Harrismith boykie and good friend of our Polly du Plessis and Mary Bland-Swanepoel. He very soon had them building quarter-scale models with plasticene during the week in their one-roomed flat in Earls Court while he was off working in Coventry on the Sunbeam Alpine. Fridays, Verster would come down to London to inspect the work they had done. When they got to scale model number 13, it suddenly all came together, and ‘a unanimous decision was made to progress to full-scale.’
‘We rented a garage in Gleneldin Mews in Streatham and built the mock-up using wooden formers and plaster of paris. The first body came out of the mold in April 1957 and was sold for 75 pounds, which helped to pay for my trip back to Cape Town where Willie had started the Glassport Motor Company (GSM).’
They considered what to name their cars: Cheetah, Mamba, Simba, Zebra, Kudu, Lynx or Tyger? Eventually they called the open top the GSM Dart and the hardtop the GSM Flamingo. On returning to South Africa, they built four prototypes in 1957, and the first production car rolled off the line in early 1958. In total, 116 GSM Darts and 128 GSM Flamingos were produced from 1958 to 1964. Actually, the GSM club tracked down many of them and reckoned there were a few more than that.
The GSM cars were astonishingly quick and agile and won a lot of races. In their first nine hour in JHB, a Dart beat Sarel vd Merwe in his Porsche into second place; they were followed by an MG, another Porsche, a Volvo and an Alfa Romeo!
But perhaps the best story was after they had sold 41 cars by 1959, for racing and road use in Cape Town, they decided they could also be sold in England and Bob set sail with a complete body and chassis kit on the Union Castle liner. In England Bob was introduced to Mr John P Scott at Windsor Garage, West Malling in Kent. Scott agreed to give him a place to build a car and fund all the parts on condition that Bob built the car in 10 days! AND that he entered it in a race at Brands Hatch! AND that he won the race! What a tall – almost impossible – order!
Bob accepted the challenge and worked day and night to complete the Dart by the Friday before the race. On the Saturday, April 18, 1960 Bob found himself in the middle of the grid on an unfamiliar circuit in a brand new and untested car. He steadily worked his way up into first place and won the race! He actually did it! Setting a Brands Hatch lap record that stood for seven years! A delighted Mr Scott then established a GSM production facility in a 5000 square foot factory behind the Windsor Garage to produce the first batch of cars. They couldn’t call them Dart in England, so they used ‘Delta’. Records are vague – it seems somewhere between 35 and 76 GSM Deltas were made in Kent.
The little cars developed a legendary winning reputation in the UK, Europe and SA. To show they weren’t only about racing, the Flamingo was marketed as the road-going version:
In 1964 they ran out of money.
Aftermath with Verster de Wit: 1976
A GSM club was formed in JHB and they tracked down Verster at his home in Kosmos on the Hartebeespoort Dam. He and his new wife Eva hauled out a suitcase full of his photos and sketches of his design days in England and in SA. They regaled the club members with tales of the hours of dedication and hard work Verster had put into his automotive design career. Another well-known design he had also been involved with – in addition to the Sunbeam Alpine – was the Humber Super Snipe.
In the 1980s the design got another lease of life when Jeff Levy got Verster to help him make a series of accurate replicas known as Levy Darts.
First run in 1921 – or in 1926 ? – over 3200m for a stake of 2000 pounds sterling, the Gold Cup is Africa’s premier marathon for long-distance runners. It boasts a proud history and captures the public imagination. The race starts at the 400m mark in the short Greyville straight; there’s much jockeying for position as the runners pass the winning post for the first time before turning sharply right and heading towards the Drill Hall; normally many runners are under pressure before they turn into the home straight; the race is known to suffer no fools when it comes to fitness and stamina, and it takes a special type of horse and jockey to win the event.
And away they go!
Usually the final big race meeting of the South African racing season, the Gold Cup is often decisive in determining the Equus Award winners for the season. Initially a Grade 1 race, the Gold Cup was downgraded to Grade 2 in 2016 and to Grade 3 in 2017. Nevertheless, it is still the most important horse-racing marathon in the country.
The distance and unforgiving conditions that prevail as the field go past the Greyville winning post twice, are great levelers and a look at the list of champions beaten in the Gold Cup is a long one, with less-fancied runners carrying less weight often winning.
Sun Lad won the first running in 1926. He raced in the silks of leading owner-breeder Sir Abe Bailey. The Gold Cup was one of just two wins for Sun Lad that season. He is frankly unlikely to be regarded as one of the race’s better winners.
The first horse to win the Gold Cup on two occasions was Humidor, who was victorious in 1933 and 1935.
And so to us:
Harrismith’s winner was the horse Rinmaher (pronounced ‘Rinmahar’) owned by the George Shannons of Kindrochart. What year? Probably 1932 or 1934?
Mom and Dad both tell the story of raucous parties on the Shannon farm where at a suitably ‘sensible’ stage the Gold Cup would be taken off the mantelpiece, filled with champagne or whatever hooch was going, and passed around to the ritual comments from the more sober of “Here we go! We’re drinking moths and mosquitoes again!” At least it had lovely handles to give an imbiber a good grip!
Later: Sheila rousted Colleen Walker, granddaughter of George Shannon, who straightened me out on some Gold Cup details. She even had an earlier pic of Jack and Suzanne the Shetland. More questions: Is that Kindrochart? Is that George?
Mom tells me that after I had me tonsils out at about age three, she took me to Kindrochart for recovery for the poor little tender chap. I clung to her skirts and wouldn’t go to anyone, but once when lovely friendly Betty Stephens – a huge fan of us kids – offered to carry me up a hill after I’d run out of poof, I condescended.
Mom also tells that I told on Ma Shannon! She had appeared on the stoep in her nightie and I hastened to tell Mom ‘Ma! Shannon’s got none clothes on!’ Apparently Ma Shannon tried hard to get me to call her Nana, but I’d not call her anything but ‘Shannon.’
On the way back to the big smoke, driving on the gravel road towards Platberg, Mom was telling Betty about a book she’d enjoyed reading about a Belgian nun – The Nun’s Story – I had the book in my hands on the back seat and was disappointed in it. So I piped up, ‘and it’s got none pictures.’
May 2020 – Mom sent a message that I must phone her! She wants to tell me the full story of the brothers Shannon. Phone Me Soon does not mean that her cellphone will be on, or charged, or answered; so it was a full two days later I got hold of her;
And away they go! She took a deep breath and set off:
Jim and George Shannon left Ireland on a ship bound for South Africa. Somewhere on the journey they had a fight and fell out; They never spoke to each other again!
They reached Harrismith where they both became ‘rough riders’ – breaking in horses for the British army – I guess also for anyone else who wanted horses broken in and/or trained? Somehow and sometime, they both ended up as farmers, George on Kindrochart and Jim on Glen Gariff.
George married Mrs Belle Stephens who came complete with two daughters Betty and Bobby. Then they had a son Jack – some called him Jock – who also featured in our lives as a friendly, lean, handsome, side-burned, smiling, pipe-smoking, pickup-driving, genial figure in khaki. We loved Uncle Jack! He married Joan from Joburg – Mom Mary and her older sister Pat went to the wedding. Later Bobby married a mine manager and some people thought that was very important. Betty never married, stayed on Kindrochart, worked in town and became a beloved young-in-spirit ‘auntie’ of ours, always a smile and always a tease and some fun. We called her Betty Brooks.
Meantime Jim on Glengariff married Amy, and they had three kids, one of whom they named George, despite the feud ongoing! Maybe there was a prior ancestor George? Other kids were Marshal (died young, not sure what of) and Sylvia. George married Betty McGore and they had sons Jim and Patrick who we knew in Harrismith in the sixties. Handsome lads, Patrick maybe too handsome for his own good!
When the second of the original Jim and George died (I think it was Jim), Jack contacted young George, son of Jim, and said ‘We’re having a party. You and Betty should be there.’ And so a reconciliation took place and they normalised family relations. Up until then, their mothers Belle and Amy had been forbidden to talk to each other! She remembers that after a good few drinks and a meal and another good few drinks, the Gold Cup was taken down off the Kindrochart mantelpiece, filled with wine and passed around! George offered his wife Betty first sip and after a gulp she exclaimed ‘George! It’s full of moths and mosquitoes!’
No doubt there’ll be other versions of this tale – and much more detail. But this is how 91yr-old Mother Mary fondly remembers the story of these good friends from days of yore.