Granny Vere’s father was a reprobate, but Granny May’s father, E.B.J. Knox, was not. When he came to South Africa from Britain, it was in answer to the call of diamonds. E.B.J. was the seventh son of well-born and wealthy parents, but too far down in the line of succession to inherit a major share of the wealth. He had to go to the colonies to secure for himself the basis of his lifestyle – land or money or both. Having arrived, he quickly bought a claim – a piece of the Kimberley Mine, now the Big Hole.
I was unaware of this except in the vaguest way until one day, walking past a diamond dealer in St George’s Street in Cape Town, I saw in a display advertising their wares a map of the Hole at that time, and on it was a rectangle bearing his name. When gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, he moved in quickly, and bought, at four-and-a-half pennies an acre, a farm called Doornfontein, now a large suburb completely absorbed into the city of Johannesburg. He must have lived well, and in the family it was said of him that he never in his life removed his own boots – there was a man who did it for him. Who this footman was is not told, nor whether he was one faithful retainer or a succession of hired servants. However E.B.J. managed it, the life of a Rand-Lord was, in its details, not very different from the life of a squire – the glassware, cutlery, crockery, clothing, food, technologies, conversations, literature, even coins would not have been very different from what the other Knoxes back ‘home’ were enjoying. Architecture had adapted British styles of building to local conditions, but many of the ingredients of the rooms, the pressed ceilings, the various mouldings, the dark furniture, the faux-Persian carpets, the chintz drapes, were the same throughout the Empire, and were made in Sheffield, Birmingham or Manchester. Also the same were the candles and paraffin lamps, illuminating with equal power the same kinds of rooms.
E.B.J. Knox met and married Maria Czerny, a Prussian woman who had been orphaned at an early age. She was brought up by her cousins, the Krupps, the same family that armed Germany for the two wars. For a while they enjoyed the comforts that great wealth brings, having persuaded others to extract it from the earth on their behalf.
The settlers who came to the White River area in the 1920s were of a similar class – high-level colonial officials, third and fourth sons of land-owning families in the south of England. They too were seeking for themselves the necessities of the life of squires – land, money and servants.
In South Africa, these were still to be had cheaply, especially in the newly opened-up Lowveld. The 1919 census, according to Claire Nevill’s book, White River Remembered, shows 175 ‘Europeans’ and 1011 ‘natives’ for the entire district, extending from the Lydenburg area and including Barberton and Nelspruit, although how these figures were derived it does not say. Land prices had risen to around £1 an acre. I do not know what the average wage was then for the black worker in the Lowveld, but Jack’s biography of the Communist leader W.H. Andrews, Comrade Bill, records that black mineworkers, who were labour aristocrats by comparison with their rural relatives, earned £3 1s 1d per month in 1895 – a wage which had decreased by 1s 6d fifty years later, in 1945. When I lived at Plaston, it was a common custom for young black men to go to the mines, where, although it was understood that conditions were harsh, they could earn enough to send things like blankets and sacks of mielie-meal back home. White mineworker were of course far better paid, and each one enjoyed, like E.B.J., the status of a squire: he was provided with a ‘boy’ – a black worker who carried his tools and equipment and did all of the heavier work.
E.B.J.’s years of prosperity were ended by the Anglo-Boer War, when his property was confiscated and he and other uitlanders were rounded up and put on trains for Moçambique, where he caught malaria and died. Maria Czerny survived, and lived out her life on the Cope family farm.
At this point in the writing, my hand goes to the drawer in my desk, immediately below the computer on which I work. I think that what I am doing is looking among the large photos and drawings that I know are in there, to find a family tree that Jack prepared before he died. The family tree has never been kept there, but I look among the papers nevertheless. What I find among some photos is a crumpled carbon-copy of a typed letter, in a typeface that I recognise as Jack’s. It seems vaguely familiar.
My dear Marjorie, reads the letter dated 5th November 1981:
Here is the branch of the family gum-tree as far as I have dug it up some generations back. It’s probably inaccurate in places and there are a lot of details missing or put in as approximations, especially dates. You will have to fill in local details, particularly the younger generation.
I expect George has told you at one time or another about some of the family legends going back to the Stockers and Knox’s. Granny May (my mother) used to go on about her family but I must admit I wasn’t very interested at the time and it mostly went in one ear and out of the other.
Briefly, the story on the Cope side goes back to Charles Stocker. The Stockers were university people, parsons, doctors, lawyers etc for a good many generations. Charles took holy orders at Oxford in the early 19th century and became a don at St John’s College. The college at that time was strictly celibate and when Charles got married he had to leave Oxford. His wife was from a French family settled in England and her father was Vice-Provost of Eton College. Charles was found a living on Guernsey Island but eventually wangled a much more lucrative living at Dreycott-on-the-Moors in Staffordshire. I have a painting of the rectory which is an enormous double-storey house with about twelve bedrooms, which was necessary in those days; country parsons having time on their hands and not much entertainment usually gave their wives a rough time and produced hordes of children. The parish was wealthy and a lot of the country people were freeholding yeoman farmers owning their own land and not tenants or labourers under the squirearchy as in most of England. Frances, one of the younger daughters, did the unmentionable thing of falling in love with a yeoman farmer, John Lymer Cope, and the old rector refused her his permission to marry him as he was ‘beneath her station in life’. I don’t know how long the romance lasted but Granny was twenty-eight when they eventually decided to elope and get married without Papa’s permission. They did this and sailed off to Canada in 1862. In retaliation Charles in his will cut Frances off with one shilling. They settled at the lakeside near Toronto and the three boys were born there, the last being Charles (Carol), your grandfather. About this time the old Rector died and Frances was duly paid 1s. out of his estate. Her older sister Emily (I’m not sure about the name, she was usually known as Auntie Turner) had married and lived in Natal at Warley Common, the next farm to where you used to live. She offered to share her inheritance with Frances, but Granny was so hurt by what her father had done that she refused to accept a penny. So Auntie Turner bought Rudolf’s Hoek and gave it to the latest baby (Carol) as a christening present. Just at this time while John Lymer, Frances and the family were in church one Sunday something frightened their horses which were tethered outside and they bolted with the trap and went kerplonk into Lake Ontario and were drowned. The family were finding farming in Canada hard and winters freezing and they took the accident as a sign from God. So they accepted Auntie Turner’s plan and left Canada to settle on the Hoek, 1874, the owner of the farm, Carol, being three.
On Granny May’s side, the Knox’s came of a landgrabbing Scottish family ‘planted’ in Ireland in the 17th century. On a terrible scale these planters either killed or dispossessed or starved the Irish peasantry to death and seized their land. By the mid-18th century the Knox establishment had carved for themselves big land holdings in County Dungannon and Thomas got himself elected a member of the English Parliament, in the Tory interest. For his services to the government he earned a title as Viscount Dungannon. This did not permit him to sit in the House of Lords. By some means he acquired a Scottish peerage as the Earl of Ranfurly. The Ranfurlys were from that time entitled to sit in the Lords, though there is no record that they ever distinguished themselves there or even spoke in the debates. One of them, the 4th Earl, one Uchter John Knox, was for a time in the late 19th century Governor-General of New Zealand and I am sure he looked well in his scarlet uniform. The present Earl has his name in the London telephone directory and I believe is on the board of various City companies.
Granny’s father, E.B.J. Knox, was an architect and engineer and came out to the Cape to do architectural work for Rhodes. He lived in one of the houses on Groote Schuur estate and must have done some of the restoration on the old Cape-Dutch houses bought by Rhodes. He met Lena Czerny when she was on a health trip from Germany to Africa and they were married in the old Lutheran Church in Cape Town. Granny used to say her father never put his own boots on in his life and always had a valet to do it for him. That’s blue blood all right! Of course in the Cape he had a coloured valet and a coachman who drove his carriage. After the discovery of Gold on the Rand E.B.J. arrived on the diggings with his coachman and valet in a Cape Cart. For a short while he was the Town Engineer of Johannesburg, being called in when the first Town Engineer turned out to be a crook who bolted with the cashbox. As an engineer he was much in demand and he bought and lived on the farm Booysens which is probably worth hundreds of millions today. E.B.J. is said to have made and lost two fortunes. At the outbreak of the Boer war he and other British were evacuated from Johannesburg to Lorenço Marques in open cattle trucks and he fell ill and died there. Grossmütter was a lovely old lady, about 5ft tall and we all adored her, especially your dad. She was born in Düsseldorf and lost both her parents when still a young girl. She was a cousin of Alfred Krupp of armaments fame and was brought up in the Krupp home near Essen which is now a museum. To her dying day she spoke terrible English and she used to laugh away when we kids teased her about it.
I have two different names: On my birth certificate registered at Estcourt it is Jack. The family later had me baptised Robert Knox. The story goes that my parents after three boys in succession lost hope of having another girl to replace Nancy who died in infancy. Then four or five years later they had another try. Dr. Parker rode out from Mooi River for the confinement and a family midwife came up from Maritzburg by train. We were all born on the farm. Well, Doc Parker came out on the veranda where Dad had been marching up and down chewing his handlebar moustache.
‘Congratulations, Carol. All’s well,’ he shook Dad’s hand.
‘What is it? A boy or a girl?’
‘Not one, but twins! And both boys.’
‘Oh Damn and Blast!’ said dad, not very welcoming to the strangers. So they were called Damn and Blast. I was Damn. But the old midwife wouldn’t hear of anything so awful. She said – ‘They are such dear little things and I am going to call them Jack Tar and Tommy Atkins.’ It was 1913 and the war clouds were getting thick. When Dad rode in to Estcourt to register us they hadn’t thought of any other names and he said – ‘Put them down as Jack and Tom.’ I did not discover this until long after I left school when I had to get a birth certificate and the registrar couldn’t find a Robert Knox but only Jack. Tom was struck by lightning on the farm when he was 20.
I hope all of this history of old times does not bore you. All the best and love
followed by the blank space on the copy where my father’s signature would have been on the original.
I read the letter as if for the first time, for much of the information is ‘new’ to me and contradicts the ‘true’ story which I tell myself and others. But whose hand remembered the placement of the document in the drawer not five centimetres below the keyboard where I now work, and who fetched it at exactly this time?