In the mid-1990s Jim produced a short biography which he called ‘Memories’; here is the text in full.
On the 11th August 1925 at 8am I was born at Bernera, Rose Hill, the same house in which my father had been born in 1890. Bernera, Rose Hill was my grandfather’s house which he had bought after retiring from the sea in 1887. It was a French colonial house having been built more than half a century before and was probably standing when Matthew Flinders spent his unhappy imprisonment in the island in the time of General Decaen, Mauritius having only become British in 1810. The house stood in a garden which ran down to the river (La Rivière Sèche). There was a waterfall and a pool below it in which my father and his brothers had a rowing boat when they were boys. Behind the house was the famous tower built by grandfather with his crow’s nest on the top to which he retired everyday after lunch and emerged again at teatime. In his room at the top was a telescope which allowed him to survey the sea ten miles away and watch and identify any ships entering Port Louis, his hammock for his rest and his Gaelic Bible on the table which he read everyday and annotated. After his death this was sent to his cousin in Carloway, Isle of Lewis. I was shown this on a visit there while staying with the McLeods at Scaliscro in 1946. Few were invited up to the tower. The tower was built of stone, the attractive blue basalt, which covered the island, and which proved so profitable to grandfather. When he retired for the sea he was appointed Lloyd’s Surveyor of Shipping in the island. At that time, his old friends, the captains of the ships would arrive in Mauritius with cargo and then take on sand ballast (when there was no sugar) to go further East to pick up cargo before returning home. Rangoon harbour was being built and there was little stone in the silt at the mouth of the Irrawaddy. Mauritius was covered in volcanic stone, the bane of the planter’s existence. Grandfather hit on a scheme: ‘Why not sell stone instead of sand to the ships for ballast and the captains could then sell this to the builders of the Port of Rangoon?’. Why not indeed? He approached the planters. Anyone fool enough to take away the stones from the fields, ‘of course we would pay’. So grandfather organised railway trains from the estates to Port Louis and was paid at both ends. (Rangoon, the capital of Burma, is situated on the left bank of the Rangoon River. In 1880 Rangoon was detached from Hanthawaddy district and formed into a separate district of its own. It became the 3rd seaport in British India behind Calcutta and Bombay. Rangoon is 21 miles from the sea and is in communication with the great river navigable for 900 miles beyond it. It is also the centre of the Burmese railway system. Captured by the British in 1824 and then again in 1852.
The room at the top of the tower was built in wood and the hammock was about the size of a single bed with stretchers to accommodate a mattress, beautifully made by a sail maker with fancy rope work. During the winter months, July, August and September, the family would move to Soulliac to Taobh-na-Mara (The house by the sea). Grandfather had chosen Soulliac and built his house on the top of a cliff exposed to the South East Trades. The casuarinas trees here were all twisted and bent by the wind and near the edge of the cliff were no taller than bushes. Unlike the trees inland their needles were fat and salt-laden and delicious to suck. The coral reef at this point was close into the base of the cliff and the great breakers would come thundering in, crashing of the reef below the house. As a small boy, I remember staying there each year and being unable to get to sleep for the first three nights or so until I got used to the noise. The first thing to be installed – of course – when the family moved down was the hammock.
Taobh-na-Mara was a traditional Mauritian ‘campment’ of those days. Built on a stone and cement base with a wooden framework filled in with ravinal (travellers’ palm) panels. It had a glazed front verandah facing the sea and the wind and an open back verandah. The roof was thatched with sugar cane leaves. The servants’ quarters (dependences) and kitchen were of the same construction in the yard behind the house.
The accommodation was pretty basic; no-one kept anything ‘good’ at the sea in those days. There were the termites, the nine months of the year when the house was unoccupied except for the occasional visit on Sundays and the cyclones which were inclined to take bits of the roof off and deluge everything within. However, enough luxuries were taken in ‘the lorry’ each year to make life more than pleasant and the food was invariably good. There was enough room for Granny and Grandfather, Uncle Cecil and Aunty Kitty Jackson, Andrew and Stewart, my mother and father and myself and there always seemed to be ‘visitors’. Grandfather’s routine was simple. Up at 6 with morning tea. Then down to the beach at Gris-Gris for his bathe alone. It was rumoured that he never wore a bathing costume. Salt water was his cure for all ills and when he grew older and was unable to go to the sea we always had to bring a bottle or two of saltwater home for him. If his eyes were bad he was bathe them in it, if he felt out of sorts he would drink it, if he had a rash he would apply it. He would have breakfast at 10am. Usually paw-paw followed by curry and rice followed by pudding. There would be tiffin at 1pm which was relatively light, but always hot. He would then have a rest until teatime at 4. A long walk and then drinks and dinner at 8 which was pretty standard European, roast or a stew. He always managed elevenses which was Madeira and cake, but I can’t remember when that was slipped in, probably after breakfast.
Grandfather smoked Burma cheroots. 100 a month were sent to him by Uncle Lewis who at that time was a pilot on the Hooghly and based in Calcutta.
These stays at the sea were paradise for a young boy. Walking on the reef when the tide was out, collecting shells, fishing in the rock pools and endless bathing in the sea. To go out with a torch at night around the house was to enter a fascinating new world of hermit crabs and nocturnal friends.
By the time I was 5 Grandfather’s solo excursions to the beach in the early morning were causing concern. ‘You must talk to your father, Kenny’, said my grandmother….’ ‘Oh, no, not me,’ said my father. No-one ever did. It wasn’t the first time his habits had caused concern. When on holiday in Britain, some years before, the family had taken a house on the front in Brighton. Grandfather, not one to be put out of his routine, took to the beach at 6am. A passing policeman went to his rescue thinking that he was committing suicide and was told where to get off. Thereafter there was always a policeman on duty at 6 am to make sure he didn’t get into trouble.
Granny also wrote to Uncle Lewis saying that she thought that Grandfather was smoking too much and to cut down his allowance to 50 Burma cheroots a month. He did so and got a vitriolic letter from Grandfather asking if he was suffering from senile decay, loss of memory or inability to count, which indeed was serious in one who was entrusted to the piloting of ships up one of the world’s most hazardous waterways. Uncle Lewis gave in and left any rationing to Granny after this. (This story was told to me by Uncle Lewis).
But to return to Bernera, Rose Hill. My first two years were spent happily there, looked after by my mother and my nenene (Ayah) in my pram below the letchie and mango trees. In 1927 my mother and I left for Britain (home) to stay with my maternal grandmother at 14, Victoria Terrace, Musselburgh overlooking the racecourse and golf course. We travelled by the Intermediate Union Castle Steamer, The “Gaika”, through the Suez Canal to Tilbury.
The days of Bernera, Rose Hill were numbered. When we returned, it had been sold. Granny and Grandfather had built on a new wing to Bush Elms, Vacoas, the Jacksons’ house, where they lived until they died and we had built Bernera, Vacoas, next door.
Bernera, Rose Hill had been a real family house. Granny and Grandfather had spent most of their married days there. All their children, except Uncle Lewis who had been born aboard the “Sir Lancelot”, had been born there. It had withstood storms and cyclones. In the great cyclone of 1892 the roof had been blown off the Taylors’ house nearby. Aunty Hestor had been born in the middle of the cyclone and Aunty Lizzie Smith told me that she was in the room with Aunty Kay and the new baby when the roof blew off. Uncle Alec and Grandfather took a door off its hinges and using this as a stretcher carried Aunty Kay and the new baby to safety in Bernera.
The old colonial houses had high ceilings and tall roofs, they were designed to be airy to combat the heat of summer. The houses were timber frame with planked walls and built on high stone foundations. The windows of the main structure were provided with heavy wooden shutters which swung outwards when not in use, but when a cyclone struck the island these would be closed and secured with a heavy iron bar. There were these same shutters on all the outside doors as well. This system would keep the house safe, but if a door or a window blew in, the force of the gale would build up inside the house and tend to lift the roof. It was important to get battened down before the gale hit. Bernera, Rose Hill was rather different from Bernera House the family house on the Island of Bernera, Lewis where Grandfather was born and spent his early life and which passed out of the family when his father died. We are fortunate in having a very good description of the house. William Black, the Victorian author, visiting Lewis fell in love with Isabella, Grandfather’s younger sister and wrote the romantic novel ‘A Princess of Thule’ around her and also gives good descriptions of old John Macdonald ‘MacKenzie, the King of Borva’ and his way of life. Isabella, Sheila in the novel, eventually married Dr. Ross of Lewis and their daughter, Isabella, ‘Aunty Lab’ married Dr. Norman MacLeod of Skipton, also a Lewis man. I remember, while staying with them during the summer holidays at Scaliscro on the mainland of Lewis looking out to Loch Roag and Bernera hearing the odd stories about old John Macdonald, who seemed rather a proud and fierce old man. Norman MacLeod, who was a small boy at the time remembers staying with him, and one of the Mathieson boys from Stornoway Castle visited them. John Macdonald gave him a £5 note. Norman MacLeod had never seen so much money in one lump in his life before and this left a lasting impression on him, and he told me the story several times.
But back to the house. ‘They drove along the high land that overlooks a portion of Loch Roag, with its wonderful network of islands and straits; and then they stopped on the lofty plateau of the Callernish, where there was a man waiting to take the wagonette and horses…..they made their way down the side of the rocky hill to the shore; and here was an open boat waiting for them…The King of Borva took the tiller, his henchman sitting down by the mast (Duncan Macdonald, the gillie)…. In the gathering twilight a long grey curve of sand became visible, and into the bay thus indicated, MacKenzie turned his small craft. This indentation of the island seemed as blank of human occupation as the various points and bays they had passed; but as they neared the shore a house came into sight, about half way up the slope, rising from the sea, to the pasture land above. There was a small stone pier jutting out at one portion of the bay, where a mass of white rocks was imbedded in the white sand….A narrow road led to the house. It was a square, two-storey substantial building of stone; but the stone had been liberally oiled to keep out the wet, and the blackness thus produced had not a very cheerful look. Then, on this particular evening, the scant bushes surrounding the house hung limp and dark in the rain; and amid the prevailing hues of purple, blue-green and blue, the bit of scarlet coping running round the black walls was wholly ineffective in relieving the general impression of dreariness and desolation. The King of Borva walked into a large room, which was but partially lit by two candles on the table and by the blaze of a mass of peats in the stone fireplace. Then he went to a cupboard, and put out on the table a number of tumblers and glasses, with two or three odd looking bottles of Norwegian make- consisting of four semicircular tubes of glass meeting at top and bottom, leaving the centre of the vessel thus formed open. He stirred up the blazing peats in the fireplace. He brought down from a shelf a tin filled with coarse tobacco, and put it on the table’.
Borva is William Black’s name for Bernera, or rather Greater Bernera, little Bernera being the burial ground. The decanters he describes are interesting being the same as the whisky decanter we were given as a wedding present by Mrs. Lamb and Mrs Wilson who said that it had been in the family for many years and I found the same type of decanter being made in Copenhagen when I visited there in 1962 and bought one for J. D.
In the above excerpt William Black is painting a somewhat bleak picture, because MacKenzie had just been left on his own and the description is of him returning to the house after seeing Sheila off on the boat from Stornoway. But just as bleak it most certainly can be particularly in the treeless landscape in winter with only a few hours of daylight. Just as in summer it can be idyllic, with dusk and no night and the white sands in the shallows making the sea green, very like Mauritius in fact. The only place in the British Isles where I have stopped bathing because it was lunchtime and because I was cold had been in the outer isles.
Just after the War, in the late 1940’s when I spent summer holidays with the MacLeods at Scaliscro it was an overnight trip from Kyle of Lochalsh to Stornoway by boat. Now it is a three and a half hour trip by ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway, but in those days the ship started from the Broomielaw in Glasgow calling at Greenock and Oban on the way to Stornoway and could be joined by train at any of these ports. Grandfather would join the train at Oban as he was always in a hurry.
Long before my time and before the railway was built and when Grandfather was active in Port Louis the family would take a quarter at Cannoniers Point during the winter months to live by the sea. Soulliac at that time was not a practicable proposition since it was at the other end of the island from Port Louis and certainly before the railway was built it was a long haul by horse and carriage. The railway was built in 1897 at about the same time as the Trans Siberian. Cannoniers Point had been built as a quarantine station by the Government, together with another similar quarantine station on Long Island. This latter however, was more effective since no-one could get off the island except by the regular government store boat or by special tender. The station at Cannoniers Point became a seaside resort. The quarters there were let out, the first pick always going to those ‘in government’ however the family seemed to go there each year and this included the extended family of the Taylors and Smiths as well. When last I visited Mauritius Aunty Lizzie Smith told me about these visits. They would change horses at Solitude and she remembers the cariole (gharry) losing a wheel on one occasion at Triolet. Grandfather however had his own transport which would get him to Port Louis faster than by carriage. He had a gaff rigged yacht which he named the Shiela after Black’s heroine.
I was two years old. I do not remember anything of the voyage home on the “Gaika” although my mother tells me that Stromboli had recently erupted and the sunsets in the Mediterranean were fabulous.
My first memory is being met by my Uncle Allan at Tilbury. He had brought sandwiches and as we got into the boat train I was offered one. It had mustard in it and I have never taken mustard since. We were in a compartment in the boat and a man had the nerve to sit in the same compartment. I was accustomed to space, something which has stayed with me all my life. He sat beside me and although separated by an arm in a first class compartment, I immediately complained that he had touched me, much to everyone’s consternation. The seating had to be rearranged.
I remember my Grandmother’s house in Musselburgh very well. I particularly remember the bedroom, which I tried to go round without touching the ground. The bath, a large cast iron one with pine panelling round it, the stairs which I fell down, the garden with the summer house which had a wasp’s nest in it, the glorious basement which was a racetrack for my tricycle and where the kitchen was. The piano stool in the sitting room which wound up on a screw and I used to use as the steering wheel of a bus. I remember my Nanny, Ina, who used to take me out each morning onto the golf course to find my appetite. I used to look assiduously for this in all the bunkers and below the gorse bushes, I never found it. It was only later that I was able to explain why. I must have remembered something about Mauritius because it was a pineapple that I was looking for. I remember the harbour at Musselburgh and the fishermen and their boats. They were my heroes and I acquired a strong Musselburgh accent. When my father arrived home, I greeted him was ‘allo feyther’.
I have strong memories of my Grandmother, Aunty Margaret and also Uncle Gerard and Uncle Bill Smith at this time; they were special, they wore plus fours.
We sailed from Southampton on the “Arundel Castle”, a beautiful ship with four funnels. I remember little about the voyage to Cape Town except on board was Esmy Domissay who was going to be married in South Africa. I took a fancy to her and I remember a mock wedding rehearsal when I was her page.
In Cape Town we were met by Uncle Tom and the Reids. Uncle Tom was at that time a minister of the Church of Scotland in Mowbray. A. B. Reid was Lord Mayor of Cape Town. I remember little of this except that I was comfortable.
We then took the Tin How to Mauritius. I remember the Tin How well. These were the days before refrigeration in the lesser ships and there was a farm on the fo’castle. I remember going to see the animals each day and they got fewer and fewer.
We returned to the new house. Bernera, Vacoas. The Jacksons’ owned Bush Elms which must have been in about a ten acre site. They had sold off one corner to ourselves for Bernera to be built and another corner, diagonally opposite to the Duncan Taylors’ who built there The Chase. This in no way impinged on the garden on Bush Elms and there still remained a rough area behind The Chasewhich was grass and planted with eucalyptus trees. The three gardens communicated with each other, they were all in ‘The Family’ which meant an unrestricted playground. Bush Elms was a spacious house and there lived Uncle Cecil, Aunty Kitty, Andrew and Stewart. Granny and Grandfather lived in their wing and also the newly appointed Church of Scotland Minister, Mr. Neil McCall who became a great friend of mine. In The Chase lived Uncle Duncan, Aunty Muriel, Rosemary, Donald and Dorothy. Kenneth was big and was soon to be sent off to school anyway and so did not figure much in my environment, Stewart was also a bit big. However, it was a small set up which could have hardly been bettered for a small boy. There were also about 20 servants and their families in the compound, there was plenty of room, plenty of people around and plenty to do.
My routine was a happy one. Long walks with Nenene, playing with ‘the cousins’ visiting Grandfather in the mornings at Madeira and Cheroot time. He was always smart: dark suit in winter, white suit in summer, but invariably a white waistcoat and buttonhole.
When anyone came to call, and the leaving of cards on arrival in the Colony and the leaving of P.P.C. cards was de rigeur, he would skirt round from his wing and confront them. He would ask if they could play chess, draughts, spoke Gaelic or had an interest in the sea. If the answer was no, he would disappear. If the answer was yes, they would be taken to his room and not seen again for hours.
This was different from when he had some say over the invitations to the house as in the old days of Bernera, Rose Hill. Aunty Kitty told Andrew that shortly after she had returned to Mauritius after being at school in Scotland she ran for her life and refused to leave her bedroom until the visitor stepping from the carriage had left. He was wearing high, folded over boots. Round his waist was a bright red and yellow scarf holding a knife with a similar scarf on his head. He had a big black beard and huge earrings. After this, Granny warned Grandfather never to invite such a type to Bernera again.
Characters, in those days, particularly in the stories that come down to us appear larger than life. The local paper printed a cartoon of Uncle Alec Taylor. I can’t remember the gist of it, but Uncle Alec got into his carriage and off to Port Louis, demanded to see the Editor, felled him to the ground and walked out. Grandfather thought this a tremendous joke. ‘Fancy Sandy taking such offence. His sense of humour must be deserting him, poor old chap’. (Alec Taylor was his brother-in-law married to Clara O’Keefe, Aunty Kay). Some weeks later the same paper, I think it was the ‘Planters Gazette’ produced a cartoon about Grandfather which put him in a volcanic rage. Off he went to Port Louis, but the Editor this time was taking no chances, he bolted out of the back as Grandfather came in. Uncle Sandy thought this a tremendous joke after all the ribbing he had got from Grandfather. Grandfather, however, would not be appeased. The cartoon in question was of Grandfather sitting on an island in the middle of the pool behind Bernera with a telescope to his eye. The caption read ‘Matelot di lo Doux’ which translated means ‘Freshwater seaman’. Grandfather was a Blue water man and he reckoned that this was a stain on his honour and professional character.
The paper was probably getting at what some thought was the unholy alliance between Grandfather and Uncle Alec. Grandfather was Lloyds Surveyor of Shipping in the island and Uncle Alec owned the shipyard which did repairs.
The story goes that when the “Dalblair” went aground on the reef at Pointe d’Esney in 1902, it was considerate enough to do so almost immediately in front of the Taylor-Smith Campment. With the cyclone raging the two brothers-in-law set off by carriage to help rescue and with an eye to salvage. They remained there looking after their interests and, cyclone or no cyclone, dressed for dinner each night. The remains of the wreck of the “Dalblair” were a prominent landmark all through my young life, we always pointed her out and talked about her and approached her with awe.
When Catherine and I last visited Mauritius in September 1974, the wreck was still there, looking much as I had always remembered her.
Whatever else they got off the “Dalblair” they certainly got the ship’s bell, because this was shown me by Dennis Taylor when we were staying with Dennis and Shelagh in 1974. The bell was at the house at Pointe d’Azur. Dennis was very upset because this bell had been used on the “Lady Lizbet” and he thought that this was a shocking thing for Uncle George to do, he considered it was unlucky, however the “Lady Lizbet” survived.
Not exactly a wreck, but another shipping remain, which we always noted when we passed was the bow section of the “Booldana” at the mouth of Grand River and easily seen from the old road to Port Louis.
The “Booldana” was a B.I. ship (Uncle George said it was the first) and captained by Captain Archie Clark, who married the third Keefe sister, Auntie Ali. The “Booldana” was a sail assisted steam ship with a fiddle bow and it is this part which could still be seen in 1974, again always very much as I remembered it. After her service at sea, her superstructure was removed. (her saloon was brought ashore and formed the sitting room of the campment at Pointe aux Sables). And the hull was retained as a rice hulk in Port Louis Harbour. When she was no longer of any use she was towed out of the harbour and beached at the mouth of Grand River. North West.
The O’Keefe’s were Irish and came originally from County Cork. Uncle George maintained that they were landowners and there was some story about lawyers trying to contact the family, but it was during the First World War and things went by default.
John O’Keefe was a sail maker in the Port of London. He married Elizabeth Findlay who was born at 4 Eagle Lane, Forest Gate. Her father had a farm at Sam’s Green, Theydon Bois. The Findlays came originally from Northumberland. The O’Keefes lived in Ilford.
According to Uncle George, John’s solicitor got in touch with him from Liverpool suggesting that there was a good opening for a sail maker in Mauritius. The family sailed from Liverpool for Mauritius in 1870 on the barque “Bellesize” at the time Paris fell to the Prussians.
The journey to Mauritius took 109 days. The family settled in Port Louis where John O’Keefe set up in business again as a sail maker in the building I remember as Rogers & Co.’s offices. The first floor was the sail making loft which eventually made an excellent open plan office, very airy in the heat of Port Louis and only needing the teak partitions to be altered when any office rearrangement was required. I remember Dad telling me as we stood in the office that the sails for the “Sir Lancelot” were made where we were standing.
The O’Keefes had a house on the north side of the Champs de Mars near the cathedral. They lived there until after Aunty Ali was married to Captain Clark in St. Andrew’s Scots Church, Port Louis. She was married by the Rev. George McIrvine M.A., who was minister of the Church of Scotland in Mauritius from 1856 until 1910.
John O’Keefe died at the age of 48 and is buried in Bois Marchand cemetery.
After Aunty Ali, the third Keefe sister, was married, John Keefe’s wife Elizabeth went to live with the Taylors, and she must have lived to a ripe old age because Uncle Percy told me that she died of ‘appendicitis’ at Richmond Lodge, Curepipe, and one of his earliest memories was of the cortege leaving Richmond Lodge when he was aged 4.
Auntie Ali died in childbirth onboard the “Booldana” and was buried at sea. Her daughter, Hilda, was brought up by the Clarks who lived in Port Glasgow in one of the houses on the hill looking across the Clyde to Dumbarton Rock. I have a small water colour of the “Sir Lancelot” lying in the Clyde off the Clarks’ house painted by one of the Clarks.
Uncle George told me that Captain Archie Clark was lost off Réunion in a Cyclone, but said nothing further. There is however an element of mystery here. Tommy and Joan Collingridge suggest that he took up with another girl whom the family didn’t approve of. This is borne out by Andrew’s story of meeting a Staff Sergeant by the name of Clarke during the war who said he had relations in Mauritius by the name of Macdonald. Andrew mentioned this to Granny who said that he could come and see her but ‘she would tell him his origins’. Dad used to mention the Clarkes in Port Glasgow and particularly Hilda Clarke, whom as far as I know, never married. I know that Dad stayed with the Clarkes when he was in the shipyards in Port Glasgow before the First World War.
When staying with Uncle Lewis in the Isle of Man in 1947 after he had retired from India he did say that he had visited the Clarkes, but that he had found them very difficult. He felt that they carried a large chip on their shoulder as far as we were concerned. There was obviously some feeling between the families.
In 1932 when we were living in Greenock, which is almost continuous with Port Glasgow, I was never taken to see them and they never came to the house although I do remember Dad pointing out to me where they lived.
We left for ‘home’ on the SS “Tasman”, a Dutch ship of the K.P.M. line. The K.P.M. ships were very comfortable the food particularly good. I remember sitting on my bunk looking out of the porthole at St. Denis (Réunion) the morning after leaving Mauritius and eating the most marvellous green apple with morning tea. Although the fruit in Mauritius was excellent, at that time we didn’t get very good temperate fruits and an apple like this was quite an experience.
We loaded cloves at Zanzibar and the smell from the lighters was delicious all through the tropical night. Every time I get a sniff of cloves, I still think of Zanzibar.
At Durban we transhipped to the “Carnarvon Castle”. We did not go ashore at East London, which was a great disappointment for a small boy. At that time there were no deep water quays at East London and to go ashore you were put into a large wickerwork basket, about the size of a small lift, the door was shut and this was then hoisted over the side by the ship’s derricks on to a tender below and this then took you into the port. I watched with envy and a great deal of grumbling. Uncle Roddy was in Port Elizabeth at this time and piloted us in. It was always a great thrill to see the tug coming out with Uncle Roddy on board. He would leap from the tug onto the rope ladder and climb up the side of the ship, be met on deck by one of the officers and taken straight up to the bridge.
At Cape Town we were met by the Reids and taken to Avenue House.
In those days the Mail Ships were divided into first and second class and third class or steerage. We were travelling second on this occasion, the only time I have travelled second on a ship and it didn’t impress me. I may add that this was particularly for my benefit since the Creamers were on board. He was ‘in Government’ I think in Customs in Mauritius, they had a son Geoffrey, about my age, and two daughters and it had been thought that it would be nice for me to have someone whom I knew onboard to ‘play’ with. Geoffrey and the girls didn’t amuse me much; I usually preferred my own amusements. Mr. Creamer would settle us down and read the Doolittle stories, which I found extravagant, unreal and deadly dull and so I used to suck sweets loudly and with gusto, which put him off.
Uncle Percy was onboard, in first class, and so I used to nip off and see him as often as I could. There was more space there and on rough days you could look out over the bows and watch the spray. We always seemed to travel with Uncle Percy whose ‘leaves’ seemed to coincide with ours. He was a bachelor in those days and was going to learn to fly on that leave, he also got married.
I was impressed by the lavatory at Waterloo, never had I seen such a big one with such an expanse of white tiles.
My ambition on leaving Mauritius was to travel in a bus where the driver sat in his own little compartment up front beside the engine and also to travel in a train with a corridor. On the way up to Glasgow, I stood in the corridor, opening and shutting the double doors into the compartment playing at being a lift boy until I was exhausted and then climbed up into the luggage rack, which was a good imitation of a hammock, and went to sleep.
The house in Greenock looked out over the esplanade and the Tail of the Bank, this was a great source of interest because all the liners anchored there. We could also see Helensburgh and its pier and watch the Clyde boats.
I was put to school at this time at Greenock Academy, which must have been a walk of about a couple of miles from the house. I had been taught to be punctual, I have been punctual all my life, and for the whole year I was at Greenock Academy I was only late once. I arrived in after roll call and in front of the whole junior school I was asked by the Headmistress what my excuse was. My answer was three words ‘The Monarch of Bermuda’. This was a completely satisfactory excuse to me, it however caused a titter of laughter and I was sent outside in disgrace to await the headmistress for being cheeky. By the time I saw Miss Logie, she was annoyed and I was affronted. It was a convoluted story. The Lucy Ashton, one of the Clyde Paddle Steamers, which the bridge between the paddle boxes abaft of the funnel, an old design even in those days, was as regular as clockwork on her run. I would watch from the window of the house, I hadn’t bothered to learn to tell the time by the clock which I found a bit muddling, and as she left Helensburgh pier I would leave school. I knew all the big ships by name and the “Monarch of Bermuda”, a lovely vessel with a grey hull and three red funnels, had anchored in front of the house, slightly up stream of her usual station. She blotted out Helensburgh pier and to my horror I saw the “Lucy Ashton” coming round her bow making for Greenock pier, which put me a good ten minutes late. I explained all this to Miss Logie in righteous indignation that anyone should question either my word or my system. She could hardly contain herself and we parted on the best of terms. She returned me to Miss McGillivary’s class with my excuse accepted, much to the disappointment of the class, who were experts in such assessments and were convinced that I would get ‘the strap’. This was the ultimate punishment; one had to sit writhing in anticipation all day until the end of school when you were paraded before the class with your hand out at leathered. The technique was to pull the sleeve of your Jersey down as far as possible because it was all right on your hand, but hurt on your wrist. I learned the technique, but never needed to put it into practice.
I had now real friends of my own age; I found them boring and noisy. I preferred the company of adults and walking to the and from school I always walked with the older boys whose conversation I found more interesting.
There were the Steeles who lived nearby, Hamish was my own age, but I found Alasdair, Oean and Elspeth much more interesting. All the boys wore kilts which was a sore point with me because I didn’t have one.
This was the time of the depression and many ships were laid up in the Gairloch. I found this a very sad sight and couldn’t understand it because ships were a very important part of my life, what with Grandfather, my uncles and Dad all having been at sea.
One of my early memories of Mauritius, probably about 1928 was the servants being interviewed by Dad in Mauritius and being told that they would have to either accept a cut in wages or some of them would have to go. They all stayed.
I remember, when Dad joined us, being taken to see Cunarder No. 534 on the stocks at John Brown’s on which all work had stopped. Later she was to come the “Queen Mary”.
I was happy enough, but I might have found a friend of my own age if I had known at that time that Catherine was staying during her holidays with Uncle Duncan Drysdale only two streets away in Johnston Street.
I used to be taken to picnic and play at the rocks at Ashton and I remember that all I wanted for my birthday was a rope so that I could abseil in my own way down these. I got my rope and spent many pleasant hours there.
Granny was of the old school and preferred a carriage to motor cars, it was more seemly, and I remember going to church each Sunday at Greenbank church, where Uncle Tom was now minister, in a carriage. I found it less smooth than a car, especially when the horses had to be whipped up the brae. I was surprised to find a carriage so jerky.
There was great excitement at this time. Uncle Allan, who had just served on H.M.S. Hood, was a romantic figure, would he become engaged to Aunty Floss? He did. What was more he had a Riley 9 with wonderful performance and road holding (National benzine at 1/3d per gallon, I remember at the service station at Port Glasgow).
Uncle Allan was thinking of sitting for his D.P.H. at that time and when Dad joined us we were taken round the sewage works in Glasgow, a highlight.
I was also taken round the Glebe sugar refinery and the local printing works and came away with lots of coloured paper cards.
Uncle Percy had been ill in London, was nursed by Aunty May, proposed to her and was accepted and I remember Mum and Dad going off to the wedding in London.
We were just about to return to Mauritius. I had a pain and complained. ‘What is it at school today?’ I was asked. ‘Dictation’. I loathed dictation, it was so slow that my attention wandered. ‘Off to school’. This was Thursday. The next day I again complained of pain in my tummy. ‘What is it at school?’ Again something that bored me. ‘Off to school’. The next morning was Saturday. Again I complained of pain. This had never been known on a Saturday and I was in Johnny Nicol’s surgery in no time. Appendicitis and up to Glasgow to see Bob Tennent. Sure enough, the diagnosis was appendicitis and so into Miss Macdonald’s nursing home in 4 Park Circus Place.
I was wheeled into the anaesthetic room. I asked to see the knife. I was shown this and it disappointed me, I expected something like a scimitar. Then I extracted a promise from Bob Tennent that he would keep my appendix, which he did, pickled in alcohol which I kept on my chest of drawers for many years.
Shortly after I was on my feet again and we were on our way back to Mauritius. During the anaesthetic for my appendectomy I dreamed of the engine room on the Tin How.
Dad had bought me a wonderful electric train set, which I couldn’t wait to get back to Mauritius to get installed. It was a Hornby ‘O’ gauge, with one electric engine, The Royal Scot, and a clockwork engine.
We left from the Central Station, Glasgow by the night sleeper. It was a winter and I remember the hot steam rising between the carriages. At the door to each first class sleeper was an attendant in the maroon livery of the L.M.S. I was very worried that Aunty Margaret who had come to Glasgow to see us off would be carried away by mistake to London and I remember pushing her out of the carriage.
We were met in Southampton by Uncle Allan and taken to the docks. Mum had very bad lumbago and could hardly stand.
We travelled first class on the “Edinburgh Castle” and had the Kylsant Suite, looking out over the fore deck. It was very rough indeed in the Bay of Biscay, I was ill, Mum was ill and Dad was about the only passenger to eat in the saloon with the officers for the first three days. I remember feeling very sick and playing with a rather fine cruiser I had built in Meccano. It had lights on it port and starboard and masthead. It also had a signalling light on the bridge which could be worked from a morse key given to me by Uncle Lewis who had visited us in Greenock. At that time he was on leave from India and was in Helensburgh with Aunty Jeanette, Catriona and Ailsa. On the second day out Dad thought it would be a good idea if I came on deck for a bit of fresh air. I came up the companionway from our suite and took one look at the horizon going up to the limit of my vision and then falling away again and back to my bunk.
After that however it was a lovely trip. There were not many of us in first class and I was the only child. The grown ups organised a children’s hour each day before lunch when they all did what I wanted to do.
As the weather got warmer a canvas bathing pool was erected on the deck and we had many happy hours there.
There were many interesting people, there was the engineer who had erected the bridge across the Zambezi and he was going back to have a look at it. There was Phyllis Bedells, the ballet dancer, who gave ballet lessons. I was intrigued by the way in which she did her steps and got her to perform endlessly on deck for me. She had studied under Pavlova and had established a very successful dancing school. She was the first British dancer to be accepted by the ballet public and died at the age of 91 in 1985.
In the saloon, above the painting of the “Edinburgh Castle” was the inscription ‘Life is full of shadows, but the sunshine makes them all’ which I thought was very deep. There were also quill toothpicks on the table.
An hour before dinner the bugler came on deck and sounded the dressing for dinner call, followed an hour later by ‘Come to the cookhouse door’….
At Cape Town Dad left us because he had business in South Africa and we embarked on one of the smaller K.P.M. ships, the Roggerveen. We had had a nice stay in Cape Town with the Reids and on leaving I remember the cabin was full of the most delicious grapes. These were covered in ants when they came onboard and had to be kept in the basin, which was one of these collapsible affairs which went up into the bulkhead when not in use.
Uncle Roddy was on his own in Port Elizabeth, the family being in Mauritius. He had a house built round a courtyard in which there were orange trees and I remember sitting under these eating them, warm from the sun.
We also visited the snake park which impressed me greatly, especially seeing the keeper extracting the venom from their fangs.
Dad joined us shortly after we arrived back in Mauritius.
In Durban harbour the “Arundel Castle” was about to leave and waving to us were Uncle Duncan, Aunty Muriel, Rosemary, Donald and Dorothy on their way home. She was a lovely sight with her four funnels. Just after that a Japanese tanker, very high out of the water, since she was light, came sideways across the harbour nearly hitting us. Durban was difficult with the winds in some directions because they were funnelled in by the Bluff. I thought it was typical of a Jap, the only people who should have such big ships were the British who knew how to handle them.
When we got back, part of the compound was deserted, because the Duncan Taylors were on leave. There was interest however because while they were away the drive was being concreted, Uncle Duncan was a great one for cement, and the new lounge was being built along the whole of the west side of The Chase. Yzaak was his clerk of works and I went to see him daily to see how things were getting on.
Also Aunty Isobel, Rhodabelle, Helen and Ross Macdonald were living next door with the Jacksons. Rhodabelle was a great favourite of mine and we did everything together, not so much the other two, who were younger.
Aunty Isobel had a lovely voice whenever she came over to our house I would get her to sit at the piano and sing Sarie Marais and Annie Laurie.
When last I met Helen she said that she remembers me sending off on some errand and then disappearing in the car to the Mare Aux Vacoas with Rhodabelle. I was upset at this, not because of my lack of chivalry, but because I didn’t remember it, but it rings true.
The Macdonalds returned to South Africa and Uncle Duncan came back to Mauritius ahead of the family. He brought back with him a new maroon Morris 25 which was lovely and I had a great pleasure clambering over the new structure with him at The Chase.
Grandfather was still very much to the fore. I visited him regularly and he would tell me stories, I wish I could remember them, but my demands were simple, I only liked the ones about cyclones and shipwrecks.
Granny told me about being in the “Sir Lancelot” in a cyclone and after hours of gale force winds and mountainous seas they hit the centre of the storm when all was quiet, you could light a candle on deck and there were birds and foliage which had been blown hundreds of miles in the storm and then the centre passed on and it all started again. This may have been the same cyclone that Andrew tells me about in a letter: ‘During one dreadful cyclone in the Indian Ocean, the cabins were flooded with seawater and they had lost their lifeboats, all sails had gone from the masts, the man at the wheel had to be tied to it. Granny didn’t see Grandfather for 48 hours. They were six months in Bombay after this refitting’.
Grandfather is still remembered in Stornoway as a seaman. An extract from the Stornoway Gazette of November 1984 which was sent to me by Dr. Willie MacLeod, who always refers to me as ‘cousin’ when I meet him reads as follows: ‘Malcolm Macdonald, 15 Kirkabost, was one of his crew and on one of his voyages he remembers coming home with a cargo of tea up the west coast of Africa with a very strong trade wind behind them. The wind was a gale force and they had every bit of canvas on the yards possible. Captain Macdonald’s orders were ‘No sails be furled, every inch of canvas to be kept aloft’. As can be expected, the ship was travelling at a terrific rate and at one stage she shipped a lot of water. The first mate was on watch and being alarmed he sent Malcolm Macdonald to get permission to shorten canvas. The captain’s reply was as follows: ‘Not one inch of canvas is to be shortened, for there is a stretch of ocean ahead of us and if we don’t get over it within 24 hours we shall lose the wind and be becalmed for a fortnight’. It so happened that there was another clipper close behind. They shortened canvas when they reached the spot which captain Macdonald was so anxious to avoid because of the gale force winds. The result was that the ship which shortened canvas was becalmed for a fortnight. Captain Macdonald was in London fourteen days before them and thus his weather forecast proved correct’.
Also in a letter Andrew says that Grandfather used to speak very highly of the sight of a full rigged sailing ship at sea.
On one occasion the “Sir Lancelot” was becalmed in the Indian Ocean. Nearby was another ship not moving. He signalled enquiring who was the captain. He knew him and so lowered a boat. They had a yarn and a few drinks and he was rowed back. That night the wind got up and he never saw his friend again.
Andrew met Captain J. Murray Lindsay, author of ‘Sailor in Steam’ a book of his life at sea. On page 55 he says: ‘I was still not very long out of sail myself, so I listened with great interest to the yarns of one of the passengers, old captain Macdonald who travelled with us quite often. The old man never slept in his cabin; he preferred to sling his hammock on the poop deck after nightfall. And he was never without his clay pipe….Macdonald had been the last man in command of the well known China Clipper “Sir Lancelot” which had ended her career sailing out of Mauritius. He told me that the “Sir Lancelot”, even at the end of her career, was the flier that she always had been, and was known locally as ‘The Yacht of the Indian Ocean’.
As captain of the “Sir Lancelot grandfather was asked to visit the O’Keefe (or Keefe) household. He was attracted by Elizabeth Harriet, the eldest daughter. He invited her for a walk and they climbed Signal Mountain. He proposed to her on the top. Her answer was that if he had climbed all that way to propose to her, he could wait for an answer until they got down. She accepted.
It is interesting that the tower he built at Bernera, Rose Hill had a view of Signal Mountain. At midday the time ball would drop on the mast, he was there to see it and always set his watch by it.
While in Brighton the watch was dropped in the sea and it stopped. He sent it back to the manufacturers saying what had happened, but he did not expect this of it, since it had weathered all that had come its way on the “Sir Lancelot”. They replaced it.
Grandfather’s life, the survival of his ship and the lives of his crew had so often depended on his reading of the weather that he was pretty good at it and trusted his own judgement. He was in Port Louis on the morning of the day that the great cyclone of 1892 broke on the island. He looked out to sea and didn’t like the look of it. He telephoned the observatory and they said that there was nothing to worry about. He said that in his opinion the mother and father of all cyclones was about to hit the island. He abandoned what he was doing and got into his carriage and told his coachman to go hell for leather to Bernera where he closed the shutters and battened down the house and waited. He was right and that was when he had to rescue Aunty Kay and the new baby from the Taylors’ house when the roof was blown off.
On that occasion the Raz-de-Marée which followed the cyclone deposited lighters from the harbour almost to Government House in Port Louis.
He was a Victorian Gentleman par excellence. Sure of himself, all that he stood for and God’s will, which came to the same thing. Mauritius was a British Colony and he never learned French. The only French words he was known to utter were ‘Non’ and ‘Allez’. When the telephone was installed, if the operator dared to ask ‘qui parle’ he would crash the receiver down, often breaking the set, and mutter ‘no known language’. However he had many friends among the French community and was respected.
This attitude must have rubbed off on me to a certain extent because as a young boy I was absolutely convinced that if anyone dared to insult either me or ‘the family’ King George would instantly send a cruiser to the island to sort things out.
When the navy visited the island, this was something to look forward to. We entertained them and there were balls at Government House, these were things I heard about, but were nothing to the childrens’ parties they held onboard. They dressed up for us as buccaneers, they put on shows, they built chutes from the bridge down onto the forward gun turrets and they launched the seaplanes or the ‘Walrus’ flying boats from the catapults and we were taken out and back to the cruisers in the naval launches because they were too big to come alongside quay ‘D’. When the party was over we would be returned to the customs wharf where the cars were waiting. I would get in and tell Lionel, the chauffeur to wait until all the cars of my friends had left and then instruct him to ‘pass the lot’ which we usually managed by the time we reached Vacaos although the Morris 25 of the Taylors was often a hard nut to crack.
The Silver Jubilee of King George V was memorable. There was a trade fair at the Champs de Mars, illuminations and fireworks. The Chinese community paraded a dragon through the streets with great green eyes powered by twelve-volt batteries in its head and these rolled. The tail lashed from side to side of the street.
Shortly afterwards the King died and this made a great impression on me. The schoolroom at The Chase was within earshot of the military camp at Phoenix. The gun boomed and we stood to attention for two minutes until the bugle sounded the reveille.
I had a vivid dream, repeated on several occasions at this time. It was the King’s soul being washed ashore on the beach at Gris Gris. This took the form of a large raft covered in maroon velvet surmounted by the Imperial Crown.
On returning from Britain, life had been somewhat spoiled by having to continue with school. I was first of all sent to Miss Dick’s school in the camp as my parents thought that the education would be better there. This did not suit me. I did not like the foreign atmosphere and anyway the meal times were different, we had to work until lunch time before quitting. Several generations of ‘the family’ had always been educated by Miss Brocus, a dedicated lady of rather thin and forbidding appearance of Portuguese descent whose family had fallen on hard times. The ‘school’ moved round from house to house of ‘the family’ from term to term and anyway it observed the proper meal times of breakfast and tiffin. I didn’t see why I should not follow in the tradition and eventually after a lot of grumbling, I did.
I joined the school at Umona the Haigh’s house and remained with it until my departure for Britain in 1936. At first I was only half-time and the full-time with Rosemary, Donald, Dorothy Taylor, Olive and Paul Haigh and Joan Taylor.
Eventually Uncle Duncan built a permanent school house in the grounds of The Chase and we stopped moving around.
This arrangement was very satisfactory, but there was only one fly in the ointment. I had been enrolled to start at the The Edinburgh Academy in 1936. Latin was needed and Miss Brocus did not do Latin. The Rev. Roderick Mackinnon, M.A. (Aberdeen) had replaced the Rev. Neil McColl as minister of the Church of Scotland in Mauritius and he was a Latin scholar. He was engaged to teach me Latin. This was a bitter blow because it meant that I had to do an hour of Latin each morning in what I considered my spare time before going off to school. Mr Mackinnon had a Morris Minor of uncertain vintage with an exhaust system that was never known to be au point. We lived at the top of a hill and as he changed gear at the bottom this gave me ample warning. By the time he appeared at the house I was usually nowhere to be found and all the servants had to be organised in a search party to winkle me out. The result of this was that I was never any use at Latin and even my last tutor before taking school certificate had to start me at the very beginning and was quite dumfounded when the examiners thought fit to give me a pass.
Apart from the evil of school, life was very pleasant. Up at 5:30 or 6 with tea and fruit. The car would come round to the front of the house sharp at 8 and we would see Dad off to work.
My own amusements until breakfast at ten and then off to school. After school long walks with nenene and these were particularly interesting during the sugar crop with the siding to Réunion Sugar Estate just below the house. Dad would return about 4 and he and Mum would go off to the club to play tennis or golf. I would have my dinner early and then sit with them to recount our ‘days’. This was very important because I would have to recount in detail what I had done and I would hear what Dad had done and where he had been. This was of particular interest when he had been to any of the sugar estates or if a ship had come in to the harbour with difficulties. If any had come in holed after hitting a reef, I would be taken to see them under repair. I was taken to see the Marienberg in dry dock. Then there was the Aloe which came in on fire and had to be beached and Dad was out all day and night. If any of the factories had got into trouble with their machinery I was taken to see them.
On Saturdays Uncle Duncan would take Donald and I to the Yard for the morning to see what was going on there. Uncle Duncan was a craftsman with a well fitted out workshop in The Chase. Whenever he came on leave he would get a set of plans of some ship from the British Museum and would then spend the next three years making a model of it. These were real works of art and got more and more ambitious ending up with the “Victory” and the “Sirius” which had taken part in the battle of Grand Port.
On Sundays we would go to church at 9 am and then on to the ‘beach’ for a whole day with a picnic. First of all to Soulliac, then Flic en Flacq, Belle Mare and eventually always to Grand Sables. There were always plenty of people there on these picnics and they were great fun. Lunch was always set on linen tablecloths with solid silver. I would come back bleary-eyed from the salt in the sea water complaining that it was school the next day.
Holidays were great fun especially when Dad took me to the sugar estates and in the winter, when Taobh-na-Mara had been sold we would take Chavin’s campment at Soulliac. This is where at a very tender age I learned to drive the car. The chauffeur and I would be sent out along the coast to buy fish, there was no traffic and this was ideal. While at Soulliac we would go for long walks in the afternoon through the cane fields, eventually ending up on the road to meet Dad coming home from town (Port Louis).
I had a dog called Dingo. He was a rogue. He would be away for days on end and then come home very sorry for himself, thin, was lacerated ears and bleeding from various points after having been in one almighty fight. He would then be caught by the gardener and scrubbed and dowsed with flea powder before being allowed in to the house to be fed and resuscitated before wandering off on his next spree. We got Dingo from the Symonds (Mr Symonds was the manager of Anglo-Ceylon, to be taken over after the war by Lonrho). Their dogs had originally been fox terriers, but by the time Dingo came along the strain was difficult to discern. He was large and looked like a Dalmatian with brown spots. When he was caught and brought down to the sea he was remarkably faithful, probably because he didn’t know the terrain. He was very much of a mongrel and Dad thought that a mongrel stood up to the climate better and had fewer fleas. Dingo and I were great friends on and off and sometimes I would think that he was the only one who understood my problems.
I also had Punch. He was a pure bred fox terrier from Uncle George Smith. He didn’t last long however. He was run over by a taxi while chasing a cat.
Grandfather tried to interest me in playing draughts. He was too good and I always lost and so I lost interest because I was a very bad loser. I would love playing games as long as I was winning and would dissolve into tears and blame everyone about if I was losing. If I was winning, Dad would sometimes kick the table and upset the game which infuriated me, but I suppose it was just what I needed.
Andrew played draughts with Grandfather, but says that he never remembers winning.
When ‘home’ was mentioned, it didn’t mean home at all, after all I was a second generation Mauritian, it meant Britain and in our case Scotland in particular. There were in fact very few resident English speaking families in the island, but a large population of English speakers what with the army and ‘Government’. Particularly with the latter, home was pretty rose tinted and it was where everything was ‘done right’. The food was better, a judgement I very much doubted when I saw them picking at a curry and rice and complaining that it was hot. Staff at home were marvellous, to listen to the conversation at my mother’s bridge parties and embroidery classes with Miss Baudot, who moved round the houses like Miss Brocus used to and had quite the longest red nails I had ever seen and seemed to use them as accessory tools as she ran them down the seams or repositioned an errant stitch. The servant problem weighed heavily. My own experience did not bear this out. Our own servant population was very static and they were my friends. It was from them that I learned to set a table with delicacy and symmetry. The chauffeur taught me about cars and I learned a great deal from the cook and in the garden, all good basic education which has stood me in very good stead. The servants were mostly illiterate which meant that they relied heavily on their memories. I remember asking the fisherman if he had been to school. ‘Oh yes’ he said ‘but when I had learned enough to know my figures so that I was able to choose my hooks, I left’. Their clear memories made them interesting. Nenene, originally a Hindu, turned Catholic, would tell me wonderful stories in the Hindu tradition of Rajas’ sons and beautiful princesses, treks through impenetrable jungles full of wild beasts, particularly tigers, wicked old women who would try to kill the Raja’s son by filling his mattress with broken glass and his lacerations being healed by magic poultices made from the dung of holy cows. She would tell me about ‘Les Temps Margoses’ (The olden days) when money was money and was made of gold and when there were Sepoys in the camp. Mauritius being a healthy climate it was used as a rest station for the Indian army. She had been married for the first time at the age of 12 in the Hindu tradition. All this made the servants very interesting and they looked after me very well. I formed my own ideas and reckoned that they were of a far higher class than indoor servants ‘at home’ who had been to school, were full of complaints and never had anything interesting to talk about. Chauffeurs, gardeners and gamekeepers were in a different category. Gamekeepers in particular tended to be rather fierce, but they had interesting stories. They always carried guns and had to be handled carefully, unlike rabbit catchers who were a jolly crowd and tended to poach.
The ‘Camp’ was near us and we would hear the bugle calls. Malaria was a problem in the island and we all slept under mosquito nets. It was because malaria was more of a problem at the coast as opposed to the higher ground in the hills. The other ranks quarters were barracks built on stilts because it was believed that mosquitoes did not fly above a certain level and so they did not need mosquito nets. The officers’ quarters were typical military bungalows built round the officers’ mess where the unmarried officers lived. The O.C. troops was Colonel Hutchison who had a particularly nice daughter by the name of Diana. We were great friends and she and her governess Miss Hutchinson used to come to the sea with us. Colonel Hutchinson was a good watercolour artist and we still have some of his paintings. There were several others: Major Spottiswood’s son John; Capt. Humphrey’s daughter Irene, and Captain Coates’ daughters whose names I forget.
The Commissioner of Police Colonel Dean, a grand figure with a monocle and his wife was a beautiful pianist. She had been a harpist in her youth and was going to perform in New York, but for some reason her trip was cancelled and she missed travelling on Titanic, because of this I regarded her as very special. They lived in a lovely property at Beau Bassin which had a swimming pool. This was special because the only two swimming pools in the island were at Colonel Dean’s and at the Governor’s residence at Le Reduit. The Dean’s garden was beautifully kept , plenty of labour, lots of convicts from the prison next door. The Deans however were friends. The arm of the law was epitomised by Sergeant Marsh of the local police station. He was a different kettle of fish, tall, erect with a waxed moustache. He instilled the fear of death into all the locals and the suggestion that he might come and fetch me if I was bad was warning enough.
There was no stone crushing machinery in those days and the macadam for the roads was provided by the convicts. The stones were collected from the fields and then broken into requisite size, 2” square, by the convicts whom we would see at the side of the road which was being repaired. They would sit with the large stone between their feet and hammer it until the macadam of the right size had been produced.
While we used to spend our holidays at the sea at Soulliac, the Taylors and the Smiths would spend theirs at Pointe d’Esney. This was also on the south coast and about an hour away by car. The Taylor-Smith compound consisted of a group of bungalows, one for each part of the family, with a central kitchen and dining room in a separate building. There was plenty of room, I have a photograph of 48 people in front of the dining room. I liked going there because it was different. The reef was much further out which meant that sailing was possible inside the reef. Also the children had a small clinker built rowing boat called the ‘La Coque Pistache’. Uncle Duncan and Uncle Percy had speedboats powered by outboard motors which they would race causing a great deal of fuss and commotion from Aunty Muriel and Aunty May.
During the depression Uncle George had built a cabin cruiser in the Taylor-Smith yard called the “Lady Lizbet”. It had taken some time to build since he used it to employ his key workers during the intervals when there was no other shipbuilding work going on. While they were at Pointe d’Esney the “Lady Lizbet” would sail round from Port Louis and would be moored at Vieux, Grand Port in the estuary of Grand River, South East. It was great fun going out in her over the waters on which the Battle of Grand Port had been fought and the French had defeated the British. On our honeymoon in Paris I showed Catherine ‘Grand Port’ inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe.
In the early days of the compound at Pointe d’Esney, before the days of ‘The Lorry’, Aunty Lizzie told me that the furniture etc. would go down by bullock cart taking two days.
Near Grand Port were the remains of the old Dutch and French Forts.
The first one of the family to break away from the tradition of holidaying at the south end of the island and the first to leave the Taylor-Smith compound at Pointe d’Esney was Uncle Duncan who bought a campment at Grand Baie between the Leclézios and the de Spévilles. He had also built the ‘Blue Rhythm’, in my view a speedboat of prodigious performance. These were the days before water skiing, but the Blue Rhythm towed an aquaplane which worked on much the same principle. The aquaplane was attached to the boat by a rope, you stood with your feet apart and held on to a toggle attached to the board. It looked and was tremendous fun, but a great disappointment to both Donald and myself because we were too light to hold the board down on the water. Uncle Duncan had also built a small diving platform for Grand Sables, our favourite bathing place across the bay from his campment.
Originally it had been thought that the north end of the island ‘wasn’t healthy’. That was certainly the thinking when the Grandfathers had built at Soulliac and Pointe d’Esney and had abandoned Cannoniers Point when the railway was built. First of all the railway had made the south end comfortably accessible to Port Louis (there was no railway to the coast at the north end) and also at the south end the houses faced the South East Trade Winds which were thought to blow the mosquitoes away from the houses on the coast inland. Cars made the North end much nearer and more convenient for Port Louis and although hotter with no regular on shore breeze it didn’t turn out to be any more ‘unhealthy’.
Malaria was rife in the island and source of concern. I had caught my first bout of malaria when still quite small riding on a giant tortoise at Le Chaland where Anglo-Ceylon had a campment on Mon Tresor-Mon Dessert sugar estate. We would find these giant tortoises in the woods. On our approach they would draw everything in under their shells. The technique was to pick up a small stone, mount the tortoise and start rubbing the top of its shell with the stone. The tortoise seemed to like this, out would come its head and feet and off you would go for a ride. On this occasion it took me into a swamp and I got bitten by the anopheles mosquitoes. The anopheles could always be distinguished from the culex, which was harmless, by the fact that when it bit and started sucking blood it would put its head down. The largest species of anopheles known is the Anopheles Mauritiana, but it did not carry malaria and preferred cattle.
Because of malaria it was always thought better to take home leave, for part of it at least, to coincide with the worst winter weather. This was bound to bring on an attack of any dormant malaria and ‘get it out of the system’.
When that same swamp at Le Chaland was drained during the war as part of the malaria eradication programme it yielded many interesting bones of the tortoises and the Dodo and of some extinct turtles.
After he retired to Mauritius Grandfather visited Britain on three occasions, in 1901, 1908 and 1923. I have a Lewis magazine with a photo of him with Lord Leverhulme at the unveiling of the war memorial at Tolsta Chaolais. The Mathiesons had sold Stornoway Castle to Lord Leverhulme, who tried to do a great deal for Lewis. He tried to reorganise the fishing industry and built the port at Leverborough, but he was too impatient and his pushing ways were resented by the islanders who always persisted in calling him Lord Leverhullum.
The 1901 trip was to bring the boys and Aunty Kitty home to school. Dad was at Nicholsons’ Institute in Stornoway for a couple of terms, then at Elgin Academy and finally at Eltham College. The Taylors also came home to school at that time and the two families took Mar Lodge, a commodious house on the outskirts of Elgin where the two families stayed, the Grandmothers taking it turn about to remain at Mar Lodge to look after the combined families.
In Mauritius Dad had started school at Miss Snelling’s, Beau Bassin then Miss Rogers School, Rose Hill. He went on to The College School, Rose Hill (a building I knew as the Central Office of the Education Department) and then on to The Royal College at Curepipe. This was before the present Royal College was built and the school was in the building I knew as Dr Abel Celestin’s house in Botanical Gardens Road, Curepipe.
When he had to travel to Curepipe, with his brothers, they would go by train, travelling in the double-decker trains. I would often look at model of these carriages in the Museum in Port Louis and think that they looked much more fun than the single decker things of my day.
Dad was neither studious nor academic. He would only learn those things for which he saw a practical application. The children had a pony cart at Bernera, Rose Hill, the pony had bolted on one occasion throwing him into the pond in front of the house and he had hit his head on the fountain. He had been concussed and cosseted for a little after this and whenever asked to do something he didn’t want to do he would say that it was impossible to concentrate because of the bump on his head. He looked rather like Uncle Lewis when they were young and whenever possible he would put the blame on Uncle Lewis and beat it before the muddle could be sorted out. Uncle Lewis was more studious and conventional.
When they were living in Elgin the boys had a boat at Spey Bay. A man wanted to cross to the other side and the boys took him over, that is Uncle Lewis and Dad. At the other side they were thanked and offered a tip. Uncle Lewis by this time was a cadet on the “Conway”, a very proper young gentleman, and refused the tip. Dad had no such scruples and pocketed both tips. This is all very interesting in view of the work Murdo did at Edinburgh University for his thesis on the difference between first and subsequent born.
Dad loved bread and gravy, particularly if the gravy was from a good roast. Mar Lodge was on three stories on a slightly sloping site with a basement below and facing the back. The kitchen was in the basement. Dad would hover around the kitchen and when he considered that by the aroma the gravy would be rich enough he would say to the cook. ‘There is that butcher’s boy, again at the front’. The cook would rage ‘How many times have I told him to use the tradesman’s entrance’, and would climb the stairs and make for the front door. There was of course no-one there, but by the time she got back, the spoon had been in the fat gravy, the bread had been anointed, Dad was off and nowhere to be found.
Playing truant was particularly sweet, especially when the bulls were being sold at the Auction Mart. Elgin Academy had a system of control. This took the form of Willie, the truant spotter or ‘Whipper In’ as Dad called him. Willie had plenty of time during the day for this paid work, since he was a notorious poacher. Dad eventually came to a satisfactory agreement with him. He would attend school if Willie would take him out at night.
I have seen two letters written to his father by Dad while he was at school. The first complaining about Latin, which he found impossible, and the second saying ‘I’m now 16. I have had enough school, I want to become a Marine Engineer’. His father agreed and he went to The Clyde Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. (Later James Lamont & Co. Ltd.).
He served at sea from 1911 to 1917, gaining the Extra First Class Certificate as an engineer, I understand that he was the only one to get this that year (1918).
At the outbreak of war he enrolled in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. When this was discovered, he was immediately told that he was too valuable at sea, it only lasted a few hours and he sometimes referred to the Argylls as his old regiment.
All this service at sea was in the Clan Line and he was in the convoy of 38 ships from Australia in November 1914 and remembered the H.M.A.S. “Sydney” leaving them to steam off and sink the “Emden” at the Cocos Islands.
He told me a rather sad story. Lying in Colombo Harbour one day he was struggling with some maths he was doing for his next exam when a bum boat man came to his cabin trying to sell some fripperies. He was a black as black as your hat and in a poor way. He asked Dad what he was doing, Dad told him. ‘Oh I can fix that,’ he said, ‘I am a B.Sc. Engineering’.
About a day out of port on one occasion the steam pressure was obviously falling and the revolutions of the propeller getting slower and slower. He went to see what was happening and there were the stokers on deck, their eyes standing out on stalks, they had seen a ghost and wouldn’t return to the stoke hold. Dad went down and a white form darted across the stoke hold. It was a white goat, somehow it had got in the coal and had been loaded onboard. It had obviously been stunned and when it eventually woke up had begun darting about.
Paying off the Pakistani hands at Karachi was also a performance. They would only accept proper money, and that was silver rupees. They would then sit on the metal deck ringing every individual coin to make sure that it wasn’t a fake.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica was our ultimate reference. Whenever I asked questions either I was told to go and look it up or we would look it up together. At that time I had decided that I was going to be either an engineer or a doctor, a doctor for no better reason than all the doctors I knew had nice cars.
Cars were a source of everlasting interest. The first car I remember was the Essex which looked like a greenhouse on wheels. Then there was the Renault. ‘The worst car we ever had’ according to my mother. It was open and had the typical snub nose of the Renaults of those days. I remember it breaking down at the Mare Aux Vacoas one day, just before we were getting rid of it, the chauffeur couldn’t start it, Dad lifted this grotesque bonnet and fixed it. I thought this was a great feat of engineering. We then had a four cylinder Ford which was rather plush, but after that one of the first Ford V8s in the colony. This was wonderful. The V8 engine was a masterpiece and made no sound at all, what was more it would pass most other cars in the colony and would top the hill at Lapère at 50 miles per hour which was quite unheard of until then. The hill at Lapère was our test of performance. Thereafter we had a series of V8s. At this time I remember visiting the Mount Sugar Estate with Dad. After business at the mill we had breakfast at Ville Bague, a beautiful French Colonial house, this was something in itself. The conversation turned to cars, Baron de Rosnay had just bought a new 6 cylinder Dodge and neither he nor Dad would give way, Dad thought the V8 and engineering masterpiece so there was nothing for it but to try both out. Baron de Rosnay was a dapper old gentleman with a white waistcoat and goatee beard. The three of us sat in the back of each car in turn while the respective chauffeurs did their best. Neither Dad nor the Baron convinced each other: ‘What a day’.
During the holidays I would enjoy visiting the sugar estates with Dad, particularly during the crop and when the mills were crushing. The cane would arrive either by bullock cart or on the narrow gauge railways. Bundles of cane would be hoisted by the cranes on to the conveyors, they would first be cut into slices by the rotating knives and then through the successive mills. After the last mill the bagasse would be quite dry and conveyed to fire the furnaces generating steam in the boilers. The can juice or ‘fangourin’ would then be delivered to the evaporators and when the crystals of sugar appeared the mother liquor would be delivered to the centrifugals where the sticky brown raw sugar would be separated from the molasses. The sugar would be delivered into a loft and then filled into gunny bags for transporting to Port Louis. The mother liquor would then be distilled into rum and the residue put on the fields as fertiliser. As far as I remember all the mills (40 in my day, 125 before the First World War and now I think about 20) were connected to the railway system to Port Louis except Bel Ombre which had its own jetty and a fleet of sailing coasters.
The gunny bags for the sugar were made in the local sack factory near Quatre Bornes of which Dad was a director. They were made from Fucroya Mauritiana, a local variety of sisal, but rather paler green in the leaf than sisal. I seem to remember that the main source of this was in the north west of the island near Pointe au Caves where I saw the leaves being harvested, soaked in open tanks, bleached and shredded and then made into fibre to be delivered to the sack factory.
The bags of sugar were loaded into covered wagons on the railway and transported to the harbour at Port Louis. There they were unloaded on the backs of the dock workers into lighters which were towed out to the ships lying in the harbour. There they were loaded into nets and hauled aboard by the ships’ derricks to be stowed in the holds again by the dock workers who used large evil looking hooks to manhandle the sacks. Taylor Smith were also stevedores and I would often watch the harbour end of things, usually with Uncle Percy, going out to the ships onboard the “Tommy”. The “Tommy” was a harbour launch, but I didn’t like it so much since it had a tiller and wasn’t as smart as some of the others with a brass wheel up for’ard.
The harbour was full of interest, there was the loading and unloading of ships. The principal tug, the “Maurice” with tow lesser tugs the Paul and Virginia. I was intrigued by these because I had been told that their propellers rotated in opposite directions, their engines having originally been installed in a larger twin screw tug. There was the steam pilot cutter ‘The Princess of Wales’ with her twin yellow and black funnels, side by side. She had decks like a lifeboat. There was the “Sir Henry” which I had watched being built at the yard and seen launched. At the launch we children had been convulsed with laughter, because after she had been launched by Sir Henry’s wife whose name I have forgotten, Uncle George got mixed up with his French and instead of asking her if she would like to do a little tour of the ship in fact asked her if she would like to pee on the deck.
There was Tom Doyle, in charge of customs, with pure white hair and large black eyebrows, but more important he had an Armstrong Siddley with pre selector gears, the only one on the Colony. There was Captain Betuel, the Port Captain, a very smart figure in his white uniform.
A smaller boat, the predecessor of the “Lady Lizbet”, was the “Vixen” on which we spent many happy hours in spite of the fact that I was always sick when I went to sea on either the “Vixen” or the “Lady Lizbet”. One day when I was in town with Uncle Duncan and Donald, Mike Currie had taken the “Vixen” out for a day’s deep sea fishing. It was getting late and there was no sign of him. Uncle Duncan got worried and phoned to the signal station on top of Signal Mountain. They could see no sign of the “Vixen” and so out to sea we went onboard the “Maurice”. Eventually we sighted the “Vixen”. Mike Currie had got into an enormous fish which he had been playing for 5 hours. As we came up on the “Vixen” the line snapped and we never knew what it was.
Below the Taylor-Smith office in the Post Office square across the road from Rogers & Co., was Pearmain & Co., where Uncle Douglas Pearmain and Uncle Jim Haigh presided over the electrical equipment and electrical repair side of things for shipping.
Between Rogers and Taylor-Smith was a road and the railway along which occasional goods wagons were shunted. Whenever an engine was coming a bell would ring and the engine would puff gently across the square preceded by a man with a red flag.
The ship repair yard was originally set up by the Blacks. It became Black & Smith and eventually Taylor Smith and the telegraphic address of Taylor Smith is still Blacksmith, Port Louis.
The Blacks, the Smiths, the Mitchells, and the Ritchies all came from near Garmouth, near Spey Bay. Alexander Taylor came from Kingston-on-Spey and was a trained shipwright. He married Clara, Aunty Kay, the second Keefe sister.
George Black built the Scots Church (St. Andrew’s) at Beau Bassin, the church in which I was baptised and in which Grandfather was an elder. I was baptised by the Rev. John Rober de Lingen Kilburn B.D., an interesting character, but considered somewhat eccentric. He went beyond being ecumenical. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland, became a Roman Catholic, a Muslim and then a Buddhist.
Jimmie Smith married one the Black sisters and, according to Uncle George, was a libertine, and spent a fortune.
One of the Black sisters married a Wilson. The Wilsons were two brothers who came from Falkirk, they came from farming stock and they planted sugar and ended up owning Benares and Bel Air. The other brother married a widow in the island, Uncle George said that she was coffee coloured and this is probably the origin of the slight prejudice against the Wilsons which I remember. They had two sisters, one took to the bottle and the other married the minister of the Scots Church, Samuel Honeyman Anderson.
Samuel Honeyman Anderson was born in 1845, probably in Mauritius, he was ordained in Paris in 1870 and was minister in Mauritius from 1870 to 1883. He translated the Bible into Creole. At first sight it seems odd that he should have been ordained in Paris, but not so. The Minister of Port Louis when he was young and who founded the Church of Scotland in Mauritius in 1851 was also founder of the Church of Scotland in Paris and after leaving Mauritius was senior chaplain to the forces in New Zealand during the Maori Wars. He died in Brighton in 1904 and wrote ‘Creoles and Coolies, or Five Years in Mauritius’.
Grandfather used to sit in the front pew on the right in St. Andrew’s Church, Phoenix. Being old he considered it his privilege not to stand up during the singing of the hymns.
For as long as I can remember, Dad was treasurer of the church. Whenever the soldiers came, or the Navy was in, I would watch him empty the collection bag with great interest, the Navy in particular yielded a variety of foreign coins and brass buttons.
When the Navy came to the island this was interesting, quite apart from the childrens’ parties onboard. I particularly remember the cruisers “Emerald” and “Hawkins”, and seeing the “Hawkins” firing a salute, probably for the King’s birthday. When the Navy came in they would put on a ‘show’ in the Garrison Hall.
When labour was getting restive on one occasion and there was talk of a general strike a cruiser appeared and the ship’s company marched through Port Louis with fixed bayonets. No more was heard of the strike after this bit of good gunboat diplomacy.
Cruise ships sometimes came. I remember the “Andorra Star” on several occasions and another even bigger with a buff and black funnel whose name I forget. These tourists were a queer lot, they seemed to commandeer all the taxis in island, wore old clothes, were noisy and had no style, so they were quite properly refused admission to the club. (The Mauritius Military Gymkhana Club, which was run by the Army).
In port the “Emerald” or “Enterprise” would rig a verandah sticking out from the stern for the Captain. A particularly grand officer once came and he had his own car and driver onboard. It was a black Vauxhall and he was admitted to the club. I made friends with his driver who taught me to draw flying boats.
Mum was a particularly good golfer and filled the house with cups and medals with regularity. I had my own set of clubs and was allowed on the course in the mornings, I was however much more interested in the long orange squash at the end of the round. The greens were cut by mower, but all the fairways and roughs were cut by scythe. One day I managed to hit a scythe which cut the ball in half which was interesting. The cattle were kept indoors and after the grass had been cut this would be made into large bundles to be carried home on heads of the women for the cows.
Jimmy Wilson had married Anna d’Avray and they lived down the road from us in Vacoas. He was a millionaire which impressed me somewhat. She was an invalid when I remember her, usually lying on the verandah. She had a sweet and generous temperament and the saying went, that millionaire that he was, he refused to let her have a cheque book in case she gave too much away. They tended to have food fads and verged on being vegetarians and it was there that I was first given a potato baked in its skin, I didn’t like it and have never liked them since.
We liked good meat and this was not always easy to come by. There were no real cattle herds on the island and we depended on getting cattle from the southern end of Madagascar near Ambovombe. These would be loaded by the ships of the Colonial Steamship Company, the “Zambesia” and the “Carabao” and be brought into Port Louis. The ships would then come inshore near the Trou Fanfaron, a harness would be put around the cattle, then they would then be hoisted into the sea by the ship’s derricks to swim ashore. They would then be herded at the north end of the island until slaughtered.
We were very dependent on ‘ships’. When one arrived in the harbour, the word would go round and things could be brought in the shops, particularly in Port Louis. The itinerant merchants who came round to the house on bicycles piled high with wares would have interesting things like apples and apricots and oranges to see. ‘Fec Arrivee’ (just arrived was an important selling point). Uncle Cecil (Jackson & Co.) would tell us what had come and the car would arrive with crates of Chivers jam and tinned fruits and other delicacies which would be stowed and have to last until the next ship came. Gin and whisky, wine and sherries too.
This meant a lot of planning ahead because I disliked being given useless junk for my birthday and Christmas. Such things as Meccano, items for the Hornby train and Dinky Toys had to be ‘ordered’ and ‘brought in’ and so my desires had to be made know well in advance.
Such days were nearly at an end. The time was coming near for my exile to school in Britain.
In 1935 Mum and I left the island onboard the S.S. “Houtman”.
When I was young and feeling out of sorts, the universal cure was to be given ‘a purge.’
Since retiring in August 1985, I have found it a little difficult to settle. I have written this essay and hope that it will act as a purge and now I can get on with something more constructive.