Your guide to Durban in 1899

2013-12-13 00:00

“FROM a municipal point of view, the town of Durban gives little cause indeed for complaint, and may justly claim the title, often applied to it, of the model borough of South Africa. For this not only the energy and enterprise of the town council, but the keen interest which the burgesses as a body take in public affairs, must be held responsible.”

A glowing paragraph taken from the introduction to Durban — The Sea Port of the Garden Colony of South Africa, priced at one shilling and published in 1899, which is said to be the first guidebook to Durban. A 99-page softcover, the book provides a history of the city as well as featuring places of interest in and about Durban — Mariannhill monastery gets a chapter to itself — as well as a guide to “Hotels and Boarding Houses” and “Statistics as to the Progress of the Town and Port during the last Twenty Years”. Curiously, despite the industry, not to mention the fulsome prose, that went into the book’s production, no author’s name is attached to the publication.

The book is also extremely rare. You’ll only find one copy in Durban — and possibly the country — at the Don Africana Library. The cover image accompanying this article is that of the copy belonging to the Powell family in England, who have always understood the book to have been written by a relative, Sydney Walter Powell.

Powell, who died in 1951, wrote several novels and two memoir-cum-travel books, one of the latter, Adventurers of a Wanderer, first published in 1928, was reissued in 1986 with an introduction by Powell’s nephew, Geoffrey Powell, who records that his uncle “contributed to a Durban paper and also wrote the first guide-book to Durban”.

Powell was born in London in 1878 and came to Durban in 1892. Two years previously, his father, William Powell, arrived in the city to start a new life after his role as co-respondent in a much-publicised divorce case ruined his reputation and ended his successful career as an architect in London.

Powell senior set up an architectural practice in Durban, where he was joined by his elder son, also William. His wife Anne, together with Sydney and his two younger brothers, Owen and Stewart, followed a year later. Another son, Norman, was born in Durban.

In an unpublished volume of autobiography, Each to His Taste, Powell recalls his youth in Durban where the Powell family lived in a house in Ridge Road on the “extreme edge of the Berea” and the teenaged Sydney attended Durban High School.

“With my father and brother I walked of a morning to a bus terminus; and we took first the bus and then a tram for town. I brought my lunch with me and sometimes had it at my father’s office [at 29 Field Street], which was a large block that he had built. His reputation was growing.”

In Durban, Powell senior designed a building at Durban Boy’s High School and the public swimming pool, both since demolished. In Pietermaritzburg, he designed the Victoria Hall at Maritzburg College and the recently restored Colonial Building in Church Street. The building was completed in 1901 but its architect did not live to see it.

“My father’s health had been failing for some time past,” writes Sydney, “and in 1900 he died — at the age of 53.”

Powell’s widow, Anne, returned to England — “[she] had never liked Natal” — taking the younger children with her. Sydney’s elder brother, William, returned to England a few years later.

Back in 1894, at the age of 16, Sydney Powell had intended becoming an architect like his father but when the time came for him to be articled “my father told me that he feared we were too much alike in character — by which he meant too self-willed, I think — to pull together in the same office”.

Powell refused to be articled to another architect: “This was not from filial affection … but because I knew that as an architect he had no equal in South Africa.”

Powell then decided to try for an exhibition to gain entrance to university at Oxford in England, but this plan came to an end due to problems at school, which led to a violent quarrel with his father. In the meantime, Powell had begun writing. A sonnet was published in the London magazine Temple Bar. Powell’s father was so proud he had copies of the sonnet printed and handed them out to his friends at the Durban Club. “It was a happy incident,” says Powell, “and I can’t remember that we ever quarrelled afterwards.”

Powell finally embarked on a career in the civil service with the help of his father. It was not an exacting job: “The hours were from nine till four, and [we] did not do a great deal in them.”

But there was a major advantage: “Here was the very occupation in which to indulge my literary tendencies … in the civil service I should not only have the time but the surplus energy to write.”

So Powell moved to Pietermaritzburg where he wrote for local newspapers, a Cape Town magazine and presumably also found the time to write Durban’s first guidebook. But he longed to break free of his confines and saw the advent of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901) as the ideal opportunity. Via a friend, he was granted leave to join the Indian ambulance corps with which he served 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.”

When Ladysmith was relieved, the corps was disbanded and Powell joined a mounted irregular corps but when they were not sent to the front he resigned and then began his wandering years. They would take him to Southern Rhodesia — and a stint in the British South Africa Police — then to Australia, Thursday Island, New Zealand and Tahiti. In 1914, he returned to Australia and enlisted with the 4th Battalion of the 1st Australian Division. He fought at Gallipoli where he was badly wounded. During his recovery in England, he fell in love with his Scottish nurse, Mary.

Powell subsequently returned to Tahiti before joining Mary in Australia where they married. Powell made a living writing potboilers for the New South Wales Railway Bookstall series. According to his nephew Geoffrey, with “a small legacy [the couple] bought an isolated cottage in the Blue Mountains, where their nearest neighbours were Norman Lindsay, the artist and writer, and his wife.”

The two men “both in their way recluses, became intimate friends although they could quarrel fiercely, usually on literary questions”.

Powell began working on a literary novel and an impressed Lindsay recommended Powell send the manuscript to a London publisher where, says his nephew, “it was accepted with enthusiasm. A literary career beckoned, and England seemed the only place to develop it. In 1925, he and his wife sold up and left.”

In England, Powell and his wife led a migratory existence moving from cottage to cottage, “sometimes around Salisbury, sometime in Bournemouth”. Powell continued writing, and during his lifetime published 15 novels, two volumes of memoirs and a collection of verse.

Today he is best known for Adventures of a Wanderer. And Durban’s first guidebook.



A well-developed sense of irony is evident in Sydney Walter Powell’s two published memoirs. He seems to have employed it to exaggerated effect in Durban — The Sea Port of the Garden Colony of South Africa as these extracts show.


To the overworked business man, grown sick with the eternal dust and turmoil of the new Jerusalem — that golden city of the Transvaal; to the sea-borne traveller, whom a long voyage has wearied; to the dweller on veldt and farm and in up-country town, the sight of Durban must indeed (if the reader will excuse a biblical parallel) impart a thrill similar to that experienced by the desert-weary children of Israel on their entry into the land of Canaan.


The Musgrave Road, especially, where are to be found the dwellings of most of Durban’s “aristocracy”, is a paragon of well-groomed comeliness. Soft green masses of foliage form a subdued and soothing background to the brilliant hues of flowering shrub and creeper which dazzle the eyes on either hand, and exquisite glimpses of the sea are caught here and there through the trees and at cross-roads … Were the Berea in Europe instead of Africa, a school of painters such as made famous the Forest of Fontainebleau must have assuredly settled in its midst.

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