musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Month: July 2012

Lets go to the Library

I was fortunate when I grew up, I was literally surrounded by libraries. There was one in Mayfair and Brixton and the Central Library in Johannesburg (aka Town Library). 
Mayfair Library in Central Avenue

Mayfair Library in Central Avenue

My parents were “library people” too so there was always an abundance of “library tickets” to use at any of these facilities.  The Central Library in town however was special. Housed in a magnificent old building close to the Cenotaph, it had a large adult and children’s lending library, as well as an extensive reading room and reference library. Catching the bus into town was easy too, because the bus literally stopped outside the door in Market Street. The terminus being in Loveday Street. 
The building first opened in 1935 and during my time as a regular library user the area in front was  known as the “Library Gardens” with fountains and open spaces. This also became a focal point for many marches and demonstrations. However, as a youngster I wasn’t really interested in marching or demonstrating, I just wanted to lay my hands on the books inside.  I was also not really interested in photographing the building because in the days of print, taking pics of everything was just not something you did. However, the first image I do have of the library I have marked as being taken in 2007.
 

The adult lending library was a wonderous place, with an amazing collection of non-fiction that was very Euro-centric. The books that interested me usually were on engineering, shipping, warfare, railways and aircraft (and that is still true today). The Johannesburg library had a lot of them, and they had such a wide variety that I probably never did read them all. Central to the whole ‘system” was that wonderful old card based catalogue that I had learnt to use in primary school (Thanks Mrs Van Der Merwe), and I was equally at home in the adult or children’s section. 

The foyer of the library used to be used for exhibitions, and the upper floors housed the Afrikaner Museum with its tired and dusty collection of exhibits that did not interest me, and the beautiful Geological Museum that was wonderful to see, but not the sort of place you went to look at all the time. On the mezzanine above the reference library (and close to the loo) was a beautiful builders model of the RMS Balmoral Castle that I used to gaze at in adoration each time I popped upstairs for a quickie.

When I moved to Hillbrow in the middle 80’s  I started attending the Hillbrow Library as well as the one housed at Von Brandis Square, which later moved into the Johannesburg Sun Hotel. By then I had my own collection of books and I became less of a library user. It is possible that the last time I actually went into the Central Library was when myself and a fellow Titanic enthusiast went to the reference library and drew April 1912 copies of magazines. 
 
Apart from my pic in 2007 I had never been back until 2012. 
 
The library closed for extensive renovations and upgrading in 2009 and re-opened on 14 February 2012. Since its re-opening I have been wanting to go back and finally I did. 
The results are astounding.  The building is so familiar, yet so different. What I do recall is that there was almost a cathedral-like silence in the building which had a very majestic but old and dusty feel about it. The building of today is beautiful, it is light and still majestic, with decorative friezes and artistic elements that still give it a feel of opulence without being ostentatious. The foyer is still there, but now it leads into escalators that carries users to new areas that I never even knew existed.
 
The renovations not only cleaned the building up, but brought it a bit closer to the digital age with facilities for students and internet access. My beloved Balmoral Castle is till intact, although it seems a bit smaller now than it did when I first saw it so many years ago. 
 
Climbing the staircase I was able to glimpse some of the spaces that used to house the Afrikaner and Geological Museum. These are really beautiful spaces just crying out to be used.
   
The main lending library space also seems smaller than I recall, but I suspect it has lost some of its original space and been made smaller. A gallery has been added and there is no sign of that wonderful old catalogue. The whole space is just so much nicer and lighter than it had been before.  The biggest concern when I was a child was to encounter the dreaded “Ann Smith” who was supposedly the head librarian, and whose reputation preceded her.
 
My real aim was the reference library and the reading room. I do recall they used to have a motorised railway of small containers that used to serve the cavernous basements below where an amazing collection of material still exists. Unfortunately though, there are limitations on what can be done in the reference section, and the microfilm machine in the reading room is broken, as is the miniature railway. I did look at some of the old maps that were available in “The Stack” and they are well worth trying to reproduce, but the logistics of it just escape me.  According to the staff there is still a lot that has to be done here, many collections are not available, and as usual parking does not exist. Also, the lack of facilities to duplicate material is a problem, photography is the answer, but alas the rates are steep to do it.  I did not look at the books in the lending library but I bet many of my beloved engineering books are long gone. Ironically when I was young some of those books had been taken out twice in all the years that they had slept on those shelves.
 
The Afrikaner and Geological  Museum are both gone too, and are now housed in Newtown at Museum Africa. Sadly that museum is not as great as I would have liked. There is a lot of space, but the exhibits are sparse.
Museum Africa on Mary Fitzgerald Square

Museum Africa on Mary Fitzgerald Square

 
The Library is one of those places to revisit. I have research to do there, and there is a lot of material to do it from. It’s the logistics and cost that really are going to be limiting factors. But I hope to go there again and spend more time and visit the Balmoral Castle and see the magnificent stained glass window.
 
And maybe knock on those beautiful bronze doors, 
 Or maybe think about who would incorporated this wonderful primate into the decor….
 
A quick bit of reading revealed that architect John Perry was the person who created this “Mediterranean Classic with undertones of Art-Deco”. He did a fine job, and I suspect in 2035 this building will still rank as one of the true beauties in Johannesburg.
 
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:11

Delville Wood

The Battle of Delville Wood is probably one of the most important, and most wasteful in terms of the South African military. It is also the first major engagement of  the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front and in terms of casualties the brigade also lost 80% of its strength. I am not able to describe that battle, which is described as “..the bloodiest battle of Hell of 1916” , in fact I don’t think anybody could really describe the carnage and devastation that was inflicted on that small portion of France.
 
My own interest in Delville Wood comes about as a result of my late grandfather being one of the few survivors of the battle. He was wounded on the 18th of July 1916, and was probably evacuated to a casualty clearing station and onwards for treatment.  He was luckier than most. 
 
 
Today the wood is home to the South African (Delville Wood) National Memorial Longueval, and while it has been replanted, the wood still holds the remains of many who never came home, or who have no known grave. It is a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the Western Front battlefields, and on my list of ever I do get to France one day. 
 
 
 
My work with the WW1 record cards will often bring forward the card of a casualty of the battle and I do keep a special eye open for them. 
 
Unfortunately, surviving Delville Wood was no guarantee of a safe passage back to the Union; in fact many survivors of the battle would loose their lives later in the war, or die of Spanish Flu when they  returned home. Our family was one of the lucky ones.
 
In South Africa there are a number of interesting Delville Wood memorials and artefacts, the most obvious being the Delville Wood Memorial at the Union Buildings, and in Cape Town. I know of two Hornbeam trees that were planted from cuttings from the last surviving tree at Delville Wood, and The National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold has a number of artefacts on display, the most poignant being a lantern that was recovered from the battlefield. It still has the stub of the original candle inside it. 
    
That tiny light must have been a small comfort in the mass of death and destruction all around it. If only it could tell us what it witnessed in those fateful days. 
 
A lot has been written about the battle, and a lot of photographs of the battlefield and memorials have appeared in recent years. My personal favourite is the Official Website of Delville Wood, and I have found it to be an extremely helpful source because it gave me the final clue to finding my grandfather’s military records.
 
My grandfather never spoke about what happened to him, and while he was alive I never knew what questions to ask either. Only now do I have a new appreciation of what he may have gone through, but that probably pales into insignificance when viewed with hindsight 96 years later. 
 
The Chapel at St Johns College in Houghton has many links to the battle, the walls of the church still bear the insignia of the 4 South African Infantry Regiments from World War 1. Fr Eustace Hill served as chaplain to SA forces in Luderitzbucht, German West Africa, before ministering to the SA Brigade in Delville Wood, The crucifix he had made arrived at the college in 1917. 
 
The Transvaal Scottish Museum has an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from World War 1, and they also have an original Delville Wood Cross, one of at least 3 in South Africa. There is also a Delville Wood Cross in Durban, and the famous “Weeping Cross” in Pietermaritzburg.

Delville Wood Cross in Durban. Image by Eleanor Sue Garvie

Many MOTH Shellholes also have Delville Wood memorabilia, much of it donated by members who served during the Great War, and who were survivors too. But, I think that lantern still says so much about the lives that were extinguished so young, and the silent rows of graves are a reminder that the folly of war should always be avoided at all costs.
 
 
 
©   DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016, some images by Brian Roberts. 
 
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:12

The National Archives in Pretoria

Having done a bit of genealogy in the past few years, I know about the National Archives and the potential they have for research. There are a number of archives in South Africa, and each houses material pertaining to activities in their provinces. It’s difficult to really describe what they are about though until one actually goes there and draws a file.  Most genealogists or researchers use what is loosely known as “Naairs” (National Automated Archival Information System  to look up files in the archives. It’s a slightly finicky way of doing things, but it is all that we have. The results returned often do not really say very much. An example would be:
 
TAB is the National Archives Repository (Public records of the former Transvaal and its predecessors, as well as of magistrates and local authorities), and it is in Hamilton Street, Pretoria.  There is a very good explanation on the Naairs website as to what all that mumbo jumbo in the results actually means. 
 
It is best to request files before heading to the archive; in my case I faxed them the day before and confirmed that they received the list and that would have as much ready for me as possible. The reading room contains desks and tables where researchers are able to photograph or collect information.  I was really there to take photographs of files for later research, and that is what I did. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the Cape Archives (KAB) which really makes things very complicated. 

What really amazed me was the information that is there if you really look for it or know what you are after. Amongst the material I was after was pre Boer War era material and one item I saw was a petition to Paul Kruger for a pardon. I did not really explore it more, but I am sure somewhere amongst the many signatures on it I  would have found that of Paul Kruger himself. 

 There we also a number of interesting old maps that somebody had requested. And amongst them was one from Johannesburg, dated 1896 and loosely described as “The Residents’ and Strangers’ Friend”.
 

It is a wonderful glimpse into Johannesburg of the past, and this was probably the original. It is interesting to see how the city had grown from when it officially became one in 1886 till then, and of course Braamfontein Cemetery was in use, and its register from that era is equally interesting.  

What I did find interesting is how well developed the machinery of filing and bureaucracy was, with its arcane language, revenue stamps and formal forms of address. SMSspeak did not exist in the civil service, and proper spelling was extremely important. You also “humbly begged to be your obedient servant” and signed your name with a flourish. Of course the occasional gem can also be found in those reams of  formality…
139
 
To say that my curiosity isn’t piqued would be an understatement, there is so much to discover at the archives, but like most things you actually need to have a distinct purpose when calling up files; whether they are for genealogy or curiosity, randomly choosing a file may not really be fruitful, and I am already contemplating what to look for next. 
 
I did find the staff very helpful, and the experience was an interesting one. There is much to see, and so much to discover hidden in that building that it should be a compulsory exercise for children in school. I just wish we had been able to do this when I was young. 
 
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:13

Angel of the North.

Museum Africa had been in my mind for quite some time, and I was very curious as to what it would be like. I believe the museum was an amalgamation of the old Afrikaner Museum, and the Geological Museum that used to be in the Public Library.  The building it is housed in is the former old market next to the Mary Fitzgerald Square. 

The problem with those two museums was that they had a dusty and stuffy feel about them, and frankly did not really interest me as a child. The new museum is light and airy, but seemed to be sadly lacking in substance.
There was lots of space, but there was not much on display. I did like the photography exhibit they had on, but apart from that saw very little to interest me. However, I am going to return as I believe that do have a lot of very interesting readables in the library section which was closed.

Then it was off to my next destination:

One of the reasons for my return to the Constitutional Court complex was to photograph the “Angel of the North” statue, which I had glimpsed from the ramparts of The Fort when I was last there. There was also a wooden artwork close to the old Governors House which I wanted too, but had missed last time around as I had not walked in that area when I had been there in March 2012.

I parked at the bottom of the court and was pleasantly surprised to find a very nice carved artwork of something from your nightmares. I have no idea what it was, or who made it, but it really is quite a stunning piece of work.

I moved to the top of the parking and walked down the alley towards the governors house. The artwork I was after seem to be loosely called “Governors House Trees” and are by Americo Guambe, Ngwedi Design and Trinity Session. I had seen them from the ramparts as well, but had not realised that they were there in the first place. 

From the Fort ramparts

Unfortunately though, I was not really able to get close to have a good look at these works as the space was too crowded with too many youngsters.

 


Angel of the North was a few metres away.

From the Fort ramparts

From the Fort ramparts

The statue is by Winston Luthuli, and it stands on the corner of  Queens and Kotze Streets in Hillbrow. 

That concluded my afternoon ramble, and a quick pause for one more statue grouping at the Constitutional Court…

 
I have seen quite a lot of the public art in Johannesburg, and they keep on adding to it all the time. What I like is that so much of it is indigenous, and some of the work is really beautiful. One of these days I will do a “Top 10”, unfortunately though, I keep on finding new pieces that tickle my fancy, and frankly that is a good thing. 
 
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated and links changed 25/03/2016
 
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:13
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