From royals to bathing beauties

2009-08-07 00:00

“A tough and competent Natal sugar man” is how Pierre Andriès is described in Peter Gosnell’s history of the sugar industry, Big Bend. What is not mentioned is that prior to his career in the sugar industry Andriès was appointed The Natal Witness’s first staff photographer back in 1946.

“I was an amateur photographer at school,” says Andriès, who lives with his wife Joan in Hillcrest. “I did the school photos.”

When Andriès matriculated in 1940, World War 2 was well under way and he immediately joined up. “In 1938, a shooting accident had left me deaf in my right ear and with partial sight in my right eye. That ended my dream of being a pilot, but I joined the air force as an aerial photographer.”

During the war, Andriès saw extensive service photographing much of Egypt, Tripolitania, and Italy from the air. He also contributed photographs to service magazines such as the 60th Squadron’s Shifti — “it’s Arabic for ‘take a look’ ” — mainly portraits of the local people. “I’ve always liked photographing faces” — as well as a dramatic shot of a water spout rising out of the Adriatic.

During the course of the war, Andriès met his future wife Joan but once hostilities were over and he returned to South Africa he faced unemployment. “Having gone straight to war after matric I had nothing to come back to after five years in the air force,” Andriès recalls. “A young man’s career post-matric is the most important part and I’d missed all that. The war was over, I was without a job and without qualifications.”

Andriès was busy job hunting when he got a call from Harry Ellis, editor of a weekly Natal Witness supplement of the time titled the Natal Farmer. “Harry Ellis was from Vryheid where I grew up, so he knew me. He knew I was looking for a job. He said: ‘I don’t know if you’re interested but there’s a job going at The Witness’.”

The job was for a photographer and Andriès applied. He was interviewed by the managing director of The Witness, James Craib, and given the job.

“There were no facilities for a photographer and I supplied my own camera,” says Andriès. Prior to his employment, The Witness had used the services of Henry Murray, a photographer who had a shop-cum-studio next to The Witness in Longmarket Street. “He kindly allowed me to use his darkroom until The Witness had a spare office converted into half an office and the other half a darkroom.”

“An old-school gentleman,” is how Andriès recalls Craib. “Joan said he made her feel like a queen. Walking down the passage he would take off his big hat and bow down to her.”

Craib could also display a Scottish thriftiness (he is described as being “tightfisted” in Simon Haw’s history of The Witness). “We wanted to get married but couldn’t afford to. So I went to see Craib and told him I wanted to get married. I’d worked out I needed to earn £45 a month, whereas at the time I was earning £37.”

Craib said he was pleased with Andriès’s work and that he met the requirements of earning £45. “I was so excited I went to see Joan and said we can get married now and we did. But to my horror when I opened my next pay slip it was only £38. The next month it was £39. He paid me an extra pound a month up to £45 — the old so-and-so stretched it out.”

Andriès spent three years at The Witness and among the highlights of that time was photographing the British royal family during their visit to South Africa in 1947. They were also the subject of what Andriès remembers as the “missed opportunity of a lifetime”.

The royal family, King George and Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, together with South African prime minister Jan Smuts were staying at the Natal National Park (it later became “Royal” courtesy of the visit) in the Drakensberg and a photographic session had been arranged for the press.

“I was at a hotel in Bergville the night before. The news editor Bill Ashburner phoned me and said: ‘Don’t go to the Natal National Park, there is an exclusive story. They’ve caught the Chieveley murderer — wait for me I’ll be coming.’”

This man had killed the parents of Boy Louw, a well-known rugby player of the time and because of that their murder attracted a lot of attention.”

Andriès had photographed the murder scene at the time of the crime. The killer had subsequently evaded capture and fled to Lesotho (then Basotholand). Now he had been apprehended and was due to appear in the Bergville court.

“So, much to my sorrow I missed the royal photo session,” says Andriès. “Instead, we waited for the court to open but when they brought the man out they wouldn’t let me take a photograph, so the whole thing was a flop.”

But later that day, Andriès had better luck. The royal family had travelled by car from the Drakensberg to Frere to board the royal train. Andriès was there and tried to take a photograph but the position of the royal visitors meant he had the sun shining right into his lens. “Princess Elizabeth saw this and she called out ‘Captain Ritchie! We will turn around for the photographer if he would like us to.’ Which they did and I was able to take a photo of the King and Queen, the two princesses and General Smuts. It was so good of them to do this. And I couldn’t get over her command tone, it was one of authority.” (Captain Lewis Ritchie was the royals’ press secretary.)

A less royal occasion was taking the photograph of Claire Griffiths, a Miss Hibiscus on the Natal south coast, modelling the first strapless swimsuit seen in South Africa, which had been sent to her by her boyfriend, surfer Ernie Thompson, who was in the United States being fitted with a prosthesis after having one of his legs bitten off by a shark.









Right: Claire Griffiths, a Miss Hibiscus of the forties wearing the first strapless one-piece swimsuit seen in South Africa.

Andriès left The Witness in 1948 and joined the Crawford Irwin photographic studio in Durban as manager. A few years later he gave up photography and went farming. “There wasn’t much money to be made in photography and Joan’s dad persuaded me to give it up and take up farming.”

Above: A young couple with their two young children in the gardens of the old Supreme Court, now the Tatham Art Gallery, in 1948. The city hall is visible in the background. They are reading the edition of The Natal Witness which reported the election results that saw the National Party come to power. Apartheid was just around the corner. This picture was not posed.

Andriès went on to enjoy a notable career in the sugar industry. On taking early retirement at 55 he was offered a 20-year-lease on a sugar farm on the south coast which he ran successfully before finally retiring to Hillcrest.

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