Maritzburg's flying farmer

2008-05-29 00:00

Margaret von Klemperer

THE death of Joyce Holmes last month at the age of 96 will mean change for one of the city’s historic homes — Hlatshana, at the corner of Hesketh Drive and Murray Road.

In April 1951 The Witness carried a story about the centenary of the farmhouse, built of shale quarried on the farm which, at the time, extended over 700 acres almost to Bishopstowe. Hlatshana (meaning little bush) had already been in existence for 30 years when the Foxon family bought it from the Tomlinson family, and changed its name from Lark Hill.

Now 38 acres of the farm remain, where until three years ago Holmes kept a herd of Jersey cows and a dairy. When she was almost 90 she was tossed by her Jersey bull, and although her shoulder was badly injured, it would take more than that to make her give up her cattle.

Indomitable seems to be the word that would have best described Holmes. On my recent visit to Hlatshana to meet members of her family who are now deciding the future of the property, the stories sound almost like fiction. But as we walk through the large, white-carpeted rooms, with peacocks, geese and swans outside in the garden, it becomes easier to visualise the teenage parties her nieces attended, the bull-tossing incident, or Holmes driving off to the Hayfields shopping centre in her white Jaguar — which is still in the garage — and wearing her white-framed sunglasses to do her shopping. She continued to drive until a couple of years ago.

Holmes, whose maiden name was Tarboton, was educated at Girls’ Collegiate in the city, and trained as a teacher. But her ambition was higher — in 1938 she went to England to learn to fly, and qualified as a pilot. During the war, Holmes joined the airforce and was stationed at Valhalla in Pretoria where she trained pilots on simulators for the the Airspeed AS.10 Oxford, the twin-engine aircraft used for training aircrews in navigation, radio-operating, bombing and gunnery.

In 1940 she married Siege Foxon (so named because he was born during the Siege of Ladysmith) and came to Hlatshana as a bride. She stayed in the airforce until her son, Tony, was born in 1943, but kept up her pilot’s licence and continued to fly from the Aero Club at Oribi until finally the regulations said she was too old. Her husband died when her son was only five, and with Hlatshana entailed so that it would eventually be inherited by Tony, the male Foxon heir, she continued to run the farm — the home she loved — as well as teaching at Girls High School for 10 years, and continuing to fly.

It was a passion her son shared. He joined the South African airforce and qualified as a pilot of both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. Tragically, in 1967 when flying Water Board officials over what would be the site of Hazelmere dam, his helicopter collided with unmapped power lines and crashed, killing all on board. Holmes would later campaign tirelessly for the introduction of warning devices to make power lines visible to pilots.

Shortly after Tony’s death, his mother married Neville Holmes, a judge in the Appeal Court, and would then fly herself to Bloemfontein when the court was sitting. They made various alterations to the farm house, including adding an upper storey, built from the same shale.

Now more changes seem inevitable. The house is empty, and its future undecided. While the main farmhouse has been altered, there are outbuildings on the property — stables and other smaller structures which date back well into the 19th century. Family legend states that one of them was used to store ammunition during the Anglo-Boer War. But what will happen next remains unknown.

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