Ancestors to be proud of

2013-10-11 00:00

“IT’S an impressive building, full of Victorian self-confidence, and a wonderful testament to William Henry Powell’s design skill and his eye for detail,” said a clearly impressed John Powell from Britain, after visiting Pietermaritzburg’s Colonial Building, which was designed by his great-grandfather.

The visit was just one highlight of a day spent showing John, and his wife Jill, the various sites in Pietermaritzburg associated with his ancestor — a day that had its beginnings back in 2002, when John’s late father, Geoffrey Powell, contacted me from the UK requesting assistance in researching his grandfather, William Henry Powell.

Despite his stature as an architect, information about Powell proved hard to come by. No obituary appears to have been published following his death in 1900 and many of the better-known buildings he designed in Pietermaritzburg and Durban have been demolished.

The Colonial Building is Powell’s main legacy, but there is also the remarkable story of his life prior to his coming to South Africa, which reads like a Victorian novel. That story is told by his son Sydney in an unpublished volume of autobiography, Each to His Taste, kindly sent to me by Geoffrey Powell in 2004.

Sydney was born in 1877, the second of five sons born to Powell and his wife, Anne, who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, where he also ran a flourishing architectural practice.

At the age of nine, Sydney was sent to a preparatory school in Worthing, Sussex, while the family home moved to Elstree in Hertfordshire, just outside London. Sydney’s father accompanied him on the train to Worthing “and with us went another boy and his mother”, recalls Sydney. “I had never met the boy before, nor his mother, but my father seemed to know her well.”

This arrangement was repeated at the beginning of each term. “In the train they used to pay little attention to us, but [seemed] to be taken up with themselves. At the age I was then, I was innocent enough to draw no inferences from this.”

Sydney’s school friend enlightened him: “His father … told him that he must think no more about his mother; that she had gone away and he would never see her again. She had become a bad woman, and he was taking him away from the school because it was my father who had made her bad, and he wished to part his son from the son of that man.”

At the end of term, Sydney travelled to Elstree where he was told his father was now living in London. “My mother had not said a derogatory word of him and I noticed no change in her appearance or manner. Grown-ups being a law unto themselves, I did not probe into the question of my father’s absence.”

Several years later, his elder brother William, told Sydney what had happened: “My father had bolted with the lady. It looked, as my brother said, as if he had gone temporarily out of his mind, for after staying a week with her on the Channel Islands, he returned home. Whether they quarrelled, or whether he simply told her that all was over, I never learned.”

The cuckolded husband sued successfully for divorce and the case made headlines in the London press. “For my father, the result was professional ruin, for people then were more particular than they are now, and he was a well-known man ... He hung on until he saw that he had no hope of living the scandal down, then decided to go to South Africa, which was booming owing to the discovery of gold there. Almost at once he was on his feet again and in less than two years had built a comfortable practice and acquired a second reputation. But what he had lost could never, in South Africa, be regained, for he had been on the threshold of a great career.”

Powell set up an architectural practice in Field Street in Durban, where he was joined by his elder son, William. After an initial separation, Powell’s wife yielded to her husband’s “pleadings for reconciliation. But she had taken a hurt which was never quite to heal.” She, together with Sydney and his two younger brothers, Owen and John Stewart, followed a year later. Another son, Norman, was born in Durban.

Among the structures in Durban designed by Powell is the dining room of the Durban Club, the public swimming pool and the first Blackmore House at Durban High School. All, bar the club dining room, have been demolished.

Powell was appointed architect of Pietermaritzburg’s Colonial Building in 1895 after winning a competition for the design. Powell did not live to see its completion in 1901: “My father’s health had been failing for some time past,” says Sydney, “and in 1900 he died — at the age of 53.”

After Powell’s death in 1900, his widow, Anne, returned to England — “[she] had never liked Natal”, according to Sydney, taking the younger children with her. William followed at the end of the decade.

Sydney joined the Natal civil service but his heart lay in writing. The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901) provided him with an opportunity to break “through my confines” and he served with the Indian ambulance corps in the campaign to relieve Ladysmith.

“The poorly nourished Indian bearers suffered greatly,” he noted, “but a young Indian barrister pulled them through. He was one of our leaders, and he took my attention at once by his gentle, bright manner, his aliveness, and his complete unselfishness. His name was Gandhi. I met him afterwards in Durban, and — believe it or not — we had a drink together. In a public bar.”

Thereafter, Sydney pursued a life of travel and adventure. His wanderings took him to Southern Rhodesia, Australia, Tahiti and New Zealand. During World War 1, he was severely wounded at Gallipoli, and later married his nurse, Margaret. They settled in Australia, where Sydney made a living writing novels. In 1925, he decided to move to England to further his literary career. Prior to his death in 1952, he had published 15 novels, two volumes of memoirs and a collection of verse.

Sydney’s nephew Geoffrey Powell (the son of Owen Powell and John Powell’s father), also took to the pen, but not before enjoying a distinguished career as a soldier — serving with the Green Howards and winning a Military Cross at Arnhem — as well as a counter-intelligence officer with MI5. His books include Men at Arnhem, Plumer: The Soldier’s General and Buller: A Scapegoat? He also wrote The History of the Green Howards, later updated in collaboration with his son John, then colonel of the regiment.

Geoffrey died in 2005 and when John retired from the Green Howards in 2007, he began to delve into his family’s history. “I began to appreciate the importance of visiting South Africa, where my family had such a powerful colonial experience in the relative heyday of late Victorian Natal … I wanted, especially, to see what remained of the buildings my great-grandfather designed and hopefully to find where the family lived, and where my great-grandfather was buried.”

And so I found myself driving John and his wife Jill to Pietermaritzburg where, via the good offices of John Deare, chairperson of the Family History Society and the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa, we found the grave of William Powell located in the Anglican Section of the cemetery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street. Unfortunately, there was no headstone or, indeed, any marker.

From there, we went to the Colonial Building where John and Jill were shown around by Nick Grice, the architect in charge of the restoration, which was completed successfuly in 2011, despite interruption by a devastating fire in 2009. “It was encouraging to know that the building has been so professionally restored and that it is in full occupation, rather than being neglected and allowed to fall into disuse,” said Powell.

“I felt very proud of my ancestor. He might not have a gravestone, but this wonderful building is his monument.”

The day held one more surprise for John. While working on the Colonial Building, his great-grandfather and his family had lived in Alexandra Road, and the sons of school-going age — Owen and John — had attended Maritzburg College. When visiting the college, we parked close to the World War 1 memorial in front of Clark House. John walked across the lawn towards it, suddenly exclaiming: “There’s John Stewart … I can’t believe it.”

Later, John said it was an emotional moment coming across the name of his great-uncle, John Stewart Powell, on the school memorial. “He was mortally wounded on the Somme on July 1, 1916, serving as a captain with the Hampshire Regiment, and died the next day in a field hospital … I was named after him.”

It was a fitting end to a day that united four generations of the Powell family.

• Check out A tale of two phoenixes: The Colonial Building and its architect William Powell


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