The future meets the past in historical house, Villa Sans Souci

2012-11-14 00:00

VILLA Sans Souci was built in 1884 by my great-grandfather John Harwin, whose family has a long history in KwaZulu-Natal. John’s uncle, Richard Harwin, had come ashore at Durban with his mother in 1842 at the age of 16 after his father, a marine surveyor, died at sea while charting the South African coast for the British government. Richard set up the department store in Durban, which was later to become the well-known Greenacres and Harvey. He was to return to England in 1861.

John arrived in Pietermaritzburg in 1862 (150 years ago this year), on the prompting of his Uncle Richard, on board the ship Isabella Harley after a 120-day sea journey from England. He and his wife set up a shop called Harwin and Co in Pietermaritz Street, as a direct importer and draper. It was later to become John Orrs. In the 11 years prior to the building of Villa Sans Souci, he became a very successful businessman, having interests in the Kimberley diamond mines, and establishing a transport business moving supplies and equipment between Durban and Kimberley.

As a now wealthy man, John launched two major projects. He commissioned his son-in-law Clement Scott — an architect — to design and supervise the building of Harwin’s Arcade in the centre of the city. And he decided to build a huge and beautiful new home at the end of Alexandra Road, to be called Sans Souci (French for “without a care”).

No expense was spared. He commissioned an architect from Germany, Albert Halder, who employed craftsmen from Italy and France to do the building. The house covers 1 000 square metres, and the main passage was designed wide enough to drive an ox wagon down it. The veranda, which encircles the house, would ensure that there was always one part of it sunny enough or cool enough to use. Intricate iron railings were imported from Scotland, and pressed steel ceilings and stained-glass windows of the finest quality were installed. Originally, all the water for the house was rolled in barrels from the uMsunduzi River several kilometres away, but when this became “too impure for human consumption” (even then!), he and a neighbour laid cast-iron pipes from the Dorpspruit. The house took four years to build and was completed in 1884.

John and his wife, Elize, had five children. My grandfather, Oswald, was born on January 22, 1883, and learnt to walk and talk at Villa Sans Souci. His father sent him away from home to England from the age of eight to complete his education. In 1908, he qualified as a mining engineer at Wits University and was involved in building bridges in many parts of South Africa. He served as an officer in Engineering Corps during World War I and was later to farm coffee and citrus on a farm he acquired in the Nkwaleni Valley, near Eshowe, before retiring to Villa Sans Souci. He died peacefully at Villa Sans Souci, 92 years later, in 1975.

My mother, Joan Harwin, was born in this house in 1922 and got married there in 1945, as a young school teacher, to my father John Clacey. He was a doctor in Estcourt and he died at Villa Sans Souci at a very young age in 1962 as a result of a heart condition, when I was only three years old. Much of my childhood was spent living there. At that stage, the property reached down to the railway line, and across to Alexandra Road. My grandfather ran a herd of about 25 dairy cows, which I would help milk in the sheds above the house.

I used to ride my tricycle around the veranda with my cousin — we were assured that 10 times around was a mile — listening to the strains of the viola being played by my grandmother, Elsie Harwin, in the music room. She hosted bridge parties in the sitting room — long smoke-filled afternoons with much chatter and endless trays of cakes and sandwiches. We all lived in terror of what lay hidden in the huge basement, which inspired many games of dare and hide and seek. As a teenager, I was allowed to shoot the inhlazi (mouse birds) that used to raid the large fruit and vegetable garden.

In 1978, the house was used as a location for the film Zulu Dawn. In 1979, after Elsie had died there, the family sold the house to the architect Louis Grove, who did a wonderful job of restoring it. It was to have one more owner before it was acquired by the Ingonyama Trust Board.

For me it is particularly significant that the trust has found its new home there. I was closely involved in the setting up of the Ingonyama Trust Board when I was appointed by the Minister of Land Affairs to serve on the original interim and first board of the Ingonyama Trust as provincial director of Land Affairs between 1996 and 2000.

The Harwin family feels most honoured that Sans Souci will now become an official part of our rich heritage in this province. As the home of the Ingonyama Trust Board, and as the public resource that it should be, Sans Souci will serve to bring together the diverse tapestry of our collective past and the common destiny of our future as a province.


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