A window into times past

2010-11-03 00:00

PEARL Scotney is adamant that her book Sutton Diaries is not a biography of Sir George Sutton, but a review or digest of his diaries held in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

The diaries cover the period 1872 to 1898 and Scotney has completed the story by detailing events in Sutton’s life until his death in 1913.

Sutton played a significant role in the development of colonial Natal. Born in 1826 in Lincolnshire, England, the Sutton family later moved to London where Sutton was employed as a draper’s assistant.

At the age of 19 he emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago where he lived for 13 years, returning to England once to marry. In 1867 he and wife Harriett and their two sons, Willy and Morris, returned to Britain, settling for a while in Jersey where a census described him as a “retired merchant”.

Advised to take his wife Harriett to a warmer climate for her health, the family emigrated to South Africa in 1872. Sutton bought farmland in Howick­, Unit 6 of Stocklands and Oatlands, naming the property Fair Fell. The following year he bought the farm Everdon. Sutton soon made an impact in the fields of agriculture and politics­. He was a pioneer of modern farming methods and a leading figure in the wattle bark industry. For more than 20 years he wrote the “Country Notes” column in The Natal Witness under the pen name Agricola. In politics­ he fought for Natal to attain Responsible Government which was granted in 1893. He became prime minister of Natal in 1903 and was knighted the following year.

As well as dealing with political and agricultural matters Sutton’s diaries also provide a window into the social life of the Natal midlands of the late 19th century and the accounts of family­ matters and church affairs are filled with surnames still familiar today­.

Scotney and her family lived in Howick­ for nearly 30 years and her book is a labour of love that she has been working on since the late seventies. In 1975, as curator of the newly established Howick Museum, which she had been instrumental in establishing, her first task was to gather together the history of Howick. “I soon became aware that many settler personalities played significant roles in the development of the area, including men such as James Archbell, James Erasmus Methley, Charles Barter, Edwin Parkinson and George Sutton.”

In 1979, the centenary of the Anglo-Zulu War, Scotney consulted the Sutton­ diaries lodged in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository. “I discovered that immediately after the battle of Isandlwana a defence laager had been built in Howick. The instigator and supervisor of this work was none other than George Sutton.”

The same diary also recorded the death of his beloved wife, Harriett, a week after the battle. “She was only 44 years old at the time and left behind two young sons and a grief-stricken husband,” says Scotney. “I was intrigued and wanted to know more of how George overcame his sadness and returned to a more balanced life.”

Scotney was encouraged in this by Sutton’s great-grandson, the late Bill Sutton, a member of Parliament representing Howick. “By then I had realised that Sutton’s daily diaries were a treasure trove of information, but also appreciated that it would be a mammoth task. Bill had proposed that he would write up the political aspects since he had ready access to parliamentary records and reference material such as the Hansard publications.”

But the Scotney’s move to Port Elizabeth­ and the death of Bill in 2005 placed the project in jeopardy. “My resolve to continue was at a very low ebb until Bill’s son David, living in the U.S., made contact and encouraged me to complete the project.”• ‘Sutton Diaries’ by Pearl Scotney is privately published. Copies are available from the Howick Museum.

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