Anecdotal midlands history

2008-10-02 08:05

GHOSTS and family scandals, fires, floods and eccentric characters. They are all there in An Historical Meander through the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, a new book by Bill Bizley and Pat McKenzie, published by the Midlands Meander Association.

The book is not a history of the Meander - its 21-year existence and the events that led to its founding as a loose organisation of artists and crafters are only mentioned in a postscript. What it deals with is how the area developed from the middle of the 19th century and acquired the characteristics and flavour that made it the kind of place where the Meander could grow.

The book came about after Bizley was asked to give a talk on midlands history, and Glenn Cowley of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press said to him afterwards that there ought to be a market for a book on the subject. And so Bizley and McKenzie went to the Meander Association to see whether they would be interested in something of the kind. The association came up with a small grant and the project was off the ground.

Bizley did most of the writing, but there are a number of sections headed “PM remembers”. These deal with things McKenzie recalls from his midlands childhood as well as local folklore and stories that have been handed down.

His is also the only authenticated first-hand account of an encounter with a midlands ghost. When he was a schoolboy at Kings School in Nottingham Road in the forties, McKenzie claims that he met the ghost of Dr Robinson who lived there and died in 1906 at the age of 36 - and is said to haunt the school. McKenzie says that he met him near the washrooms one night, although he admits that with steam rising from the hot water pipes, there could possibly be a more earthly explanation.

“What I am proudest of about the book is the way it is organised,” says Bizley. The authors have not gone the chronological route, but arranged their history thematically. It is anecdotal history, perfectly suited for dipping into.

The opening chapter does start with the first white settlers - the strong contingent of Yorkshire Methodists who came to the area. “We were interested in the tension,” says Bizley. “First they were missionaries, but then their interests became more pecuniary.” A settler like the Reverend James Archbell became one of the toughest businessmen and landowners in colonial Natal.

Bizley says they were concerned that the book would have a kind of “whites only” look. The whites who came to Natal in the early and mid-19th century arrived in an area suffering the effects of Shaka's Ndwandwe Wars. “The whole period has been re-interpreted,” says Bizley. “It was a temporary phase, but it was a fairly empty land at the time of their settlement.

“Inevitably it is mainly colonial history, but we did manage to unearth some interesting stories.” One of these, in the section dealing with indentured Indian labour, includes perfectly preserved documentation of an indentured Indian woman taking her employers to court. The woman - Valliamah - brought a complaint against the Smythe family's farm manager in 1892 for hitting her with a sjambok. The book also deals with South Africa's most protracted labour dispute - the Sarmcol strike in Howick in the eighties.

A great deal of the research for An Historical Meander was done in the Howick museum - “they really made the book possible”, says Bizley. And it was from the collections of family papers and photographs, as well as from folk memory that some of the best stories have come.

“One of my favourites, from Pat, is the story of the woman on the telephone, in the days of party lines and the inevitable eavesdropping,” says Bizley. “She referred to her neighbour - who was listening - as a bitch.” And so there was a monumental row. Eventually the user of the word had to visit the neighbour and try to explain that, in her family, bitch was a term of endearment. Unsurprisingly, it seems the row did not end there. “Maybe, if there is a second edition, we'll be brave enough to name names,” says Bizley. But maybe not. A number of the original families are still around, and it might be a mistake to re-ignite old feuds. Many names are there, including Boston's naughty vicar, the Reverend Arnold Lingley.

KZN historian Shelagh Spencer checked the final manuscript and then Bizley and McKenzie took it to the Meander Association and made a presentation. From that came the publication of 1 000 copies.

• An Historical Meander is available from the Midlands Meander Tourism office in Howick (near the Howick Falls), and at a number of Midlands Meander outlets. For more information, contact the Meander office at 033 330 8195 or e-mail

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