Famous old home on the market

2008-08-04 00:00

Brookby in Morcom Road, one of Pietermaritzburg’s famous old homes, is currently on the market. It has been the home of Deanne Lawrance for almost 20 years as well as being the site of the pioneering Brookby Learning Project and the Brookby Education Centre.

Brookby was built in 1884 by the Morcom brothers, Richard and William, both of whom were born in Cornwall, coming to Natal with their parents in 1861.

William initially worked for The Natal Witness under its founding editor David Dale Buchanan before embarking on a career as a lawyer and a public servant. According to the Dictionary of South African Biography (DSAB) he was regarded as an authority on Roman-Dutch law and on international and constitutional matters: “Fearless and independent, he had an acute and logical mind; but by disposition he was morose, studious and retiring, and never enjoyed the confidence of the Natal public even though people were impressed by his common sense.”

Presumably it was his common sense that saw him appointed as adviser to Sir Garnet Wolseley during the latter’s time as acting Lieutenant-Governor of Natal in 1875. Morcom also joined Theophilus Shepstone’s mission to annex the Transvaal in 1877 and was duly made State Attorney of the newly acquired colony. However the DSAB notes that he “was not a success in the Transvaal, which seemed to bring out his worst qualities. His arrant Toryism found expression in fits of prejudice and animosity, and in fiery diatribes.”

In 1881 after the retrocession of the Transvaal, Morcom returned to Pietermaritzburg and concentrated on his legal practice. He was acting Attorney General on several occasions before being appointed to the post in 1889. This entitled him to a seat on both the executive and legislative councils. He proved, according to the DSAB, “a poor speaker and a poor statesman. Morcom seemed a pedant who regarded the law as more important than justice.” He retired in 1893 and in 1897 became the member for Pietermaritzburg in the Natal parliament, holding his seat until his death in 1910.

His younger brother Richard seems an altogether more self-effacing type who stuck to his profession as a lawyer. The Natal’s Who’s Who of 1906 lists his hobby as reading. That same year saw Brookby sheltering refugees during the Bhambatha Rebellion in the spacious basement under the main house.

The two Morcom brothers appear to have combined forces to build Brookby, presumably naming it after a Cornish connection as there is no brook or stream in the vicinity. “Brookby provided something of a not-too-distant country retreat for them,” says Lawrance. “At the time they lived mainly in Morcom House in upper Loop Street.”

Today the house is bedded into suburban Prestbury but in the 1880s Brookby stood alone on a dairy farm bounded by Brookby Crescent. Horse-drawn carriages would have brought residents and visitors to the front door via a circular drive. “The social life of the city in the 1880s was being extended outwards,” says Lawrance. “Mayor’s Walk led towards the Botanical Gardens, and further up the hill, residences in the Sweetwaters and Hilton areas were developing.”

Brookby was designed by one of the leading architects of the day, German-born but UK-trained Albrecht Halder, best known for having designed Sans Souci in Pentridge. “Certain of Brookby’s features are unmistakably his,” says Lawrance. “Although a few owners over the years have made unforgivable alterations, the pressed-steel moulded ceilings and sanded windows still epitomise the original style.”

There are also light-giving glass doors, many still with their original patterned and coloured glass. They provide a soft light for the interior with its lofty ceilings and wide passages. Although most of the verandah has been bricked to waist height, some of the original full-length wooden pillars remain. As do parts of the original air-conditioning system including the cowling on the roof and the air vents in the ceilings of various rooms.

As it was the first big house in the area, Brookby contained a small chapel, entry to which was along either of two passages framed by peaked arches. “The lancet window frames are identical to those of the Macrorie House chapel in town,” says Lawrance.

Growing attendance required a larger space and the services were moved to the bay-windowed front room with its yellowwood ceiling. “We would not have known that but for an elderly gentleman who walked in one day, asking if he might look at the room, where he recalled having attended services for some 50 years,” says Lawrance.

Pietermaritzburg historian, the late Ruth Gordon, identified the tapestry hooks along the ceiling in the same room, evidence that it had been used for musical entertainment. “The tapestries improved the acoustics,” says Lawrance.

During her period of ownership Lawrance says one of her aims was to provide programmes that would draw interested people to the house. “Life-improvement courses have been the focus in recent years, attendees always commenting on what a conducive atmosphere the house provides,” she says. “A monthly meeting, for instance, of ‘The Searchers’ focused on some profound discussion of spiritual issues.”

Looking back over her time at Brookby, Lawrance says it consists of three cycles. “The first saw lodgers with spiritual inclination providing meditation and related focuses,” she says. “The second was devoted to running an alternative school. Our third cycle, under the auspices of the Brookby Centre, saw regular gatherings of people interested in alternate philosophies and complementary healing.”

Lawrence sees her time at Brookby as one of custodianship rather than ownership. “It has been a privilege to be custodian of Brookby, for that is always how it has felt,” she says. “Now I hope other custodians will come and continue to let it fulfill both its family and home role, while respecting its larger one.”

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