Soon after the sale of family shares to Barlow’s in 1974 the new owners set about a pruning of non-timber assets and amongst these was the Head Office building at the base of the causeway to Thesen Island with its attendant warehouses and stores. The main strong room in this building had always been the repository of family and business archives and records. These ceased after 1974 and Barlows’ local headquarters of Thesen and Company were relocated to Thesen Island. The strong room was emptied and all records were sent to Cape Town where they remain filed and classified in the Government Archives at this time of writing.
1999 (coincidentally the date upon which C.W. Thesen’s Hill House became one hundred years old) was by accident, the last clearing out time of old suitcases in the strong room. The reason why these were left behind is that the railway container booked to receive the collection arrived at short notice and was due to depart at a prescribed time. The sheer volume of heavy ledgers, account books, letter press books and dusty documents tended to overwhelm the two family members and their assistants who were overseeing the transfer and some personal boxes were overlooked and left behind.
When the final clearing out was undertaken and Harald’s and Leonard’s papers examined a case of letters came to light and they contained such interesting domestic detail that it was felt necessary to write this Part II of the family history. Most of these letters had been kept by Bessie Thesen or by her eldest son Leonard. This personal correspondence from various members of the family is well-preserved and in most cases clearly hand-written. There are letters from Bessie to her sister Kate Hare; from Kate in reply; from her mother Marie Louise Millet Harison to her; from her husband Charles; from her children; from her brother Launcelot Harison and others, mostly connected to Bessie by either marriage or blood ties.
Bessie Thesen’s and Katie Hare’s only brother became a Magistrate, resident in often then isolated outposts of the Colony. The letter from him concerning the death of his small son (Jackie) when he was resident in the Northern Cape (Barkly West) and with his wife in the throes of a nervous collapse is very moving and is included as Bessie is the recipient as she was of a multitude of family matters. She appears to have been much loved and trusted: a solver of problems and a confidante and her strong Christian belief a palpable and recognized force to those close to her both rich and poor.
Launcelot Harison is a great-uncle to the present grandchildren of Charles Thesen. Theodore Thesen was the eldest son of Hans Thesen (the second-in-command of the Albatros) and from the many letters he wrote to Bessie when in his late teens and in the Cape Town office, it is apparent that she was a guiding light in his life. Fred Bertelsen was a Thesen relation (his mother was the daughter of Mathias Theodore Thesen). Letters from these as well as those more intimate ones from her husband and young children when she was in Cape Town for medical treatment, are recorded with no attempt at editing.
Bessie’s sister, Kate Harison, married Leighton Hare, who was the son of a local Doctor and they left South Africa some years later to settle in England. He had either inherited a property or taken up a new (low Church) ecclesiastical posting or both. Katie’s letters from England concerning her domestic and religious duties are many and varied but are all relevant to this history.
Bessie’s children’s letters to her in Cape Town and to Leonard after her death are charming, funny and revealing and they have been recorded with all their idiosyncrasies intact: “On Sunday we went for a walk up to the fort (the late residence of Mr. C.W. Thesen!!)”, Harald writes during the Boer War, showing a glimmer of his adult sense of the ridiculous. The interests of the younger ones are those of country children: fish; “cows laying calves”; the garden; the weather and they all express concern about the fate of the monkey which accompanied Leonard on his over-sea journey.
The one event none of these children can bring themselves to mention is the death of their mother, and the shadow of this sadness was to influence all their lives until the end.
Some surprise has been expressed at the speed with which the shipping firm of Thesen and Company (Stavanger, Norway) re-established itself in its new African setting. The family had no major asset other than the schooner Albatros, but that they made rapid progress is apparent in the last paragraph of a letter written - not it would seem without a hint of pride - by Hjalmar Thesen to his brother Peter who was then in Port Elizabeth.
Peter, soon to be joined by his younger brother Charles, was working for a firm of import merchants and gaining essential business skills which, it was hoped, would prove of benefit to the family firm when he returned.
That all was not plain sailing in the shipping business however the main bulk of the letter will show, but the pattern was set: cargoes of wagon wood out of Knysna and every conceivable item of household commodity as well as farming and industrial goods filling the ship’s hold on her return journey. Albatros could, it appears, carry her own value in cargo when fully loaded and did so repeatedly. As will be seen from Hjalmar’s letter to his brother Peter in 1872, the ship’s full scale activity was of vital importance to the fledgling South African enterprise:
“First of all a happy New Year to you. I certainly hoped for a letter from you today to say how you are faring.”
“Christmas and New Year we have spent very quietly here. The whole family spent one day at Xmas with Hans and his wife who came to us for Xmas evening.”
“Uncle Theodore [M.T. Thesen] was not present. He won’t speak to Hans for the reason that the Albatros is doing so badly and God knows the position is certainly very bad.”
“She has now been in harbour for 25 days and at present she is still at the Heads.”
Probably in the shelter of the Feather Bed Bay anchorage waiting for a favourable wind and a smooth bar. The letter continues:
“After loading, she lay for four days alongside the jetty as they were unable to work off on account of the strong wind. During this time, she could have crossed the bar and naturally, would have found a fair wind outside. Now it is blowing from the North West and the bar is rough.”
Hans, the only son of Mathias Theodore Thesen and working captain of the ship, had been married to a local lady, Alida Berg during the intervening period of two years between the Albatros’s first trading voyage to Knysna from Cape Town and the date of this letter. His new domestic duties may well have been at odds with those to his ship!
“Delays will cost £95 of which £8 will be covered from insurance so the loss is heavy. From the Mauritius trip nothing remains as they deducted for short deliveries before coming to Knysna and God knows what else besides.”
There are no records of what was involved in this trading journey to Mauritius:
“For the rest we have earned with the business here – that is with wood and the shop – as much as with our first settlement. Each party has been paid £150.”
While A.L. Thesen and his brother would in all probability have had some knowledge of conditions in New Zealand in 1869, it is unlikely that they would ever have heard of Knysna or its forests. With the topography of New Zealand lending emphasis to sea transport as the major commercial link along the coast line and between the two islands, taking a ship to New Zealand would have been a logical thing to do. Who knows but that the storm which drove Albatros back to Cape Town was not a fortuitous event in settling the destiny of the family? Their enforced stay and the subsequent need to bolster family funds resulted in enough of a glimpse of a different and possibly richer avenue of enterprise to cause them to change their long established plan; as the earliest trading voyages of the Albatros began to reveal the wealth that lay in the extensive and only partly explored forests of the Knysna region.
A fact not fully appreciated (even today) by many people in the Northern Hemisphere is that practically the whole of Africa south of the equator is either arid savanna, grassland, Karoo or mountain grassland, a vast range of habitat but one lacking in timber useful for anything other than firewood. Apart from one or two isolated pockets, the only notable forested region lies in the far south and this is the comparatively tiny coastal fringe between George and Humansdorp with Knysna at its centre. Timber in those days – and especially hardwood – was not only an essential furniture and building raw material but a necessity to settlers, explorers, miners and farmers for whom animal drawn transport was the only means of sustaining civilised life.
Wagons and carts of every shape and size, with the exception of axles, iron wheel rims, brake screws and connecting parts, were made entirely of wood. In Europe and North America the timbers used would have been Oak, Ash, Beech, Elm, Yew, Maple, Hickory and others, each species having its traditional and proven place in the make up of the wagon and demanded by every reputable blacksmith, carpenter or wheelwright.
In southern Africa with no such tradition and no large sustainable forests other than those in the Knysna area, it was a matter of trial and error until a pattern emerged and finally became set in stone so that for hundreds of years, every wagon, whether carrying an official of the Dutch or British East India Companies, the Voortrekkers to new lands in the North or explorers to undreamed of zoological wonders, would have had its many parts made out of or replaced by a specific Cape hardwood species.
For the foretong (the heavy axe-carved, baulk to which the disselboom was attached ) a single piece of ironwood was preferred. The felloes making up the circumference of the wheel were of Hardpear, Stinkwood, Safraan or Without; the spokes were of Kershout or Assegai (elastic Assegai was the acme of spoke timber and denoted when ordered by blacksmiths with three crosses, like strong beer!) The hubs from which the spokes radiated were Yellowwood; the schamel, bearer and draaibord upon which the wagon bed rested, were Ironwood for strength; the brake blocks were White Els (a soft timber to wear and bite deeply into the wheel’s rim) and for the rest, the wagon bed and side planks of the body were usually of Yellowwood.
The preparation of these timbers -- pit-sawn or hand-adzed in early times, the chopping into standard length billets for lathe turning of spokes, the hand cutting and shaping of Ironwood or Assegai tongs, even the hand carving of little known Rooihout for personalised axe handles became part of a traditional way of life for the woodcutters. Rooihout, a comparatively rare species of small diameter tree, was sought out and the handle shaped by means of an axe into a shaft with the thickness, curve and length tailored to the individual woodcutter’s arm. The distinctive offset in the shaft was to ensure that fingers were not pinched against the baulk to be worked. When carving an Ironwood tong, the axe would be gripped with one hand close to the blade and used in the way a butcher would use a meat chopper. The woodcutters often camped where they worked and exploited the forest as it suited them; a hollow Pypsteel twig for the replacement of a broken pipe stem; a mattress of soft, springy Hotnotskooigoed for a bed; a fire of Kershout (Candlewood or Cherry as preferred) and charcoal-impregnated string as a marker for cutting lines. They also trapped and shot creatures such as wild pigs, bushbuck, bluebuck, loeries, and genet cats for their spotted skins.
What follows is a description of the forest in an undated article by an un-named author who is presumed to be a forestry officer in the light of his obvious knowledge and understanding of the area. It is quoted in some detail as the facts contained are relevant to the early years of the Firm’s growth as well as to the family itself in the comments the author makes about Capt. Christopher Harison, Charles Thesen’s father-in-law, and great-great-great Grandfather of the fifth generation of the Knysna family. The essay, unsigned and undated, is entitled:
“A Brief Note of the Forests of the George, Knysna and Humansdorp divisions.”
“The Batavian Government gave the forest area immediate attention, but control measures were once more interrupted when in 1806 the Cape came permanently under British rule.”
“One of the first steps under this regime was the establishment of the Office of ‘Inspector of Government Lands and Forests’, and in 1811 Admiralty interests were once more pushed to the fore when Captn. Jones R.N., was asked to investigate and report on the suitability of the indigenous woods for naval purposes. He appears to have been enthusiastic and enormous tracts of forests were definitely reserved for the Crown. In 1817 Sir Jahleel Brenton proved in a practical way that some of the woods were definitely suitable. By 1882 however, adverse reports were received from the dockyards of England and Admiralty interests waned.”
This adverse report may easily have been the opinion of a single individual – a chief petty officer ships’ carpenter who was not keen on change. “Hearts of oak are our ships…..”! It is interesting to speculate how matters in the Knysna forest might have developed in terms of forest and nature conservation (elephants and buffalo) as well as how the economy and demographics of the area might have been altered had the report been otherwise. The forester’s essay continues:
“From then up to almost 1846 the forests were officially neglected. Admiralty opinion did not however influence the Colonists who during this period worked the forests extensively for wagon and cart woods as well as for building purposes. Many wagons were required by the migrating farming population, and extensive workshops opened up at Humansdorp, Paarl, Wellington, Swellendam, etc. The woods established a reputation for strength and durability which they have not lost to this day. The Voortrekker wagon owes its efficiency to the Knysna woods, and it may thus be claimed that Knysna played a great part in the development of the country as a whole, and the exploration of the then unknown North. Although this period, 1822-46, has been regarded as the reign of the vandals in so far as forest conservation is concerned, it was not without its blessings. During this time the Pioneer discovered all the virtues of our unparalleled woods – virtues enhanced by time.”
“Every effort to enforce regulations were about this time countered by prescriptive claims, vested interests etc. and further large tracts of forest lands were alienated or simply taken possession of by private individuals. The claims of the woodcutters were sponsored by the more enlightened members of the community, and to such an extent was this policy pursued that not only did the woodcutters themselves become to consider that they had a grievance, but the authorities became alternately bold in the publication of some drastic regulations then frightened to the extent of parting with more and more wooded tracts. Nobody in authority seems to have known what precisely was to be done, when there appeared on the scene, in 1856, an ex-Captain of His Majesty’s 73rd regiment, the redoubtable Captain Harison, the first and greatest Conservator of Forests we have known in this country. He held office up to 1888 when he was transferred to Cape Town. In 1895 he returned to Knysna where he died and was buried two years later.”
“Captain Harison was a strong advocate of a definite forest policy – intelligent exploitation, protection and the reservation of all woodlands as national assets. It will take up much space to travel with Harison through the uncharted kloofs and dense thickets, how he stuck tenaciously to his principles, and how he finally triumphed. If there were others who supported him in his efforts to preserve these forests for posterity, history makes little mention of their names. Indeed the Rex family and Mr. Dumbleton of Oakhurst were open defenders of the policy advocated by him. No doubt there were others pulling the strings but the atmosphere was such that any one defending the Conservator was regarded as an outsider or crank.”
“Well, as stated, the redoubtable Captain won in the end. He convinced the Government, but it was not before 1880 that he could feel sure that such Forests as remained to the Crown could be regarded as a permanent property of the people of this country. And what was his first step after this? He was not a trained Forester and magnanimously he recommended the appointment of a trained man to place the control of the forests under scientific forest management. Thus in 1880 the Comte. de Vasselot de Regne came to South Africa from France and laid down the basic principles of management which with little variation prevail to this day.”
When Albatros was wrecked in 1874 en route to Cape Town she was carrying a cargo of prepared wagon parts and sawn wagon timbers. Her loss obviously came as a shock and the following letter written by Hjalmar on 6th April to his two younger brothers who were now both in Port Elizabeth gave the sombre details of how she had come to grief:
“You have probably already heard the sad fate of the Albatros. She went ashore near Agulhas on Thursday 24th March only three days after leaving here. There was good weather and fair wind so that it was sheer stupidity and bad seamanship on Knud’s part. Last Thursday we got the first news and that only one line….
‘Albatros lost at Agulhas all hands saved.’ ”
“From Ackerberg we received no letter that day. We were thus painfully anxious all Friday and until noon on Saturday when we received a telegram from Ackerberg dated Thursday:
‘Albatros wrecked off Struys Reef Crew and Passengers (Antoinette and 2 children, Mrs. Brant and 2 children) saved arrived here this morning cargo drifting ashore Quoin Point. Sale 10th Buffeljachts River. Bredasdorp District. Barry Danvers & Co. Agents.’ ”
“Yesterday afternoon we had a letter from Ackerberg and from Knud from Cape Town. It has been a bad affair. They struck a rock, came off again. With the impact the rudder was wrenched off and swung backwards and forwards, part of the stern came out of the water bumping so frequently that they feared she would sink rapidly and they took to the Boats, by which they landed late at night on Dyer Island. The only thing that was saved was Uncle’s old chronometer. They had no other clothes than those they wore when they came out of their cabins and had nothing to eat the whole day.”
“Before the rudder broke they were able to keep the vessel afloat by means of the pumps and out of the breakers – in the same way as they would have saved the vessel if they had not struck a rock!”
“They remained on Dyer Island for 3 days (where they met some fishermen) until they were able to get across to the mainland and so overland to the Cape.”
“And so ends our old Albatros. I almost cry when I think about it….All the blame is certainly on Knud allowing the vessel in good weather and fair wind to sail right on to the shore in such a place is just stupidity.”
“The ship valued at £800 was only insured for £250….All the cargo was ours: M.T.T. and T.& Co’s. Insured for £800, whereof £400 for us, £250 for Ragna (Ragnvald) and John and £150 for Uncle. The day before Knud got to Cape Town the Consul received a telegram from Barry Danvers, Bredasdorp, that Albatros was wrecked on the coast at Quoin Point and driven ashore and the cargo of timber was being washed ashore. Knud had been quick to leave the ship but about this one cannot find anything to say considering the position in which he found himself at 2 o’clock on a dark night.”
“The letters and telegram are now with Uncle; when we get them back we shall send them all to you.”
“We have nearly 100 tons of timber ready here so that we have asked in a letter to the Captain of the Ambulant whether he would touch on here.”
“We have today written to Barry Danvers at Bredasdorp asking them to get as much as possible out of the ship. We must realize that as the Assurance covers little more than one-third the Assurance Company receives only a like amount from anything that results from the sale. The remaining two-thirds we get.”
“In closing our letter to these gentlemen I have said:
‘We are very anxious to receive all the particulars you can give about the state of the ship, when and in what state she was found and how she lays, etc. The very least thing concerning the Albatros will have interest to us, the ship having served us for a time of 25 years, brought our large family from Norway to this distant country and now for little more than 4 years served us so well here on this Coast, so we are the more concerned in the loss of the old ship.’ ”
“When we received the telegram on Saturday Theodore was immediately sent off to Wittedrift. Uncle had already heard the same rumour as we had here on Thursday. Yesterday Theodore got back again. We must naturally see that we buy another suitable ship. Uncle suggests sending me to Norway to buy a suitable ship. That as you can well believe I should like but father doesn’t approve. It would cost a lot and take a long time. Uncle says we must have a ship again; he can never allow that we should be dependent on various people in Knysna.”
In this letter and over and above the personal tragedy that the loss of the Albatros seemed to have been for all the members of the family, there is still the fact that the cargo she carried (in value, as much as she herself was worth) was under-insured by two thirds and that as a consequence, most of the cargo of timber and wagon parts which washed ashore as flotsam, was the property of Thesen and Company.
Ackerberg was Thesen’s agent in Cape Town and his telegram states that “The cargo of timber was being washed ashore,” It is not difficult to imagine the bounty which this free harvest of felloes, spokes, naves, bed planks and brake blocks and all the rest, represented to the local population adjoining this bleak and un-policed coastline.
It is likely that the freshly-sawn Ironwood products would not have floated and would only have been washed ashore some time afterwards, but it is certain that little if any of the cargo would have been recovered by the owners, given the circumstances and location of the wreck in those times. There are no records of any salvaged timber or wagon parts having been returned to Knysna over two hundred kilometres to the East.
Many years later when Charles Thesen was in his late seventies, he began to make enquiries concerning the fate of the Albatros along the coastline where she was wrecked.
He wrote to a Mr. J.R. Clingen whose address was Cape L’Agulhas, Bredasdorp, and received a reply dated 26th March, 1934:
“Re enquiry concerning wrecked schooner ‘Albatros”. I ascertained from a very old fisherman down here that she was wrecked at Ratel River, about halfway between L’Agulhas and Danger Point Lighthouses, and to test this old boy for the truth I just simply asked him to name me all the wrecks that he could remember in his time when he came to a “Klein Skippie” loaded with wagon wood, and practically gave me the right date, he says no lives were lost, and he assisted salvaging the timber. At the same time I am communicating with the present owner of the farm ‘Ratel River’ (marked on navigating chart as Bredas’s farm), and if he could give me any information, I shall only be too pleased to let you have same, as I am rather interested myself in old ships and wrecks.”
The next letter was from a Mr. A. Hans of Elim dated 10th July, 1934. It was written in Afrikaans and this is the translation:
“ I received your letter, as well as the Piece of Wood, and I wish to thank you for same.
“ It is a pleasure to me to be able to help you in connection with this ‘Remembrance’.”
“ I am also pleased to have the stinkwood in exchange, as I can now mend my Cart with same, and it will thus be a Remembrance for my children in the future, as I am also over 71 years old. When the ‘Albatros’ was wrecked, I was only 11 Years old, and thus do not know very much about it, except that the Ship was wrecked at Buffeljacht. It was broken to pieces. I was present with my late Father at the Sale of the Wagon Makers’ Wood, and my Father then bought the broken Ship, and all that washed up on the Beach. He gave £11 for the Ship, and did very well out of it.
The Anchors and Chain were also lying there. As there is no Fishery there, I understand that these were not made use of.”
This was followed by a letter from a Mr. R. Schmidt who wrote from Genadendal (a Missionary Station) on 12th July, 1934:
“ Many thanks for your letter dated 7th July.”
“ At your request I wrote to Mr. A. Hans, Elim, for the information requested. I will let you know the contents of his reply.”
“ As a reply to a letter from Mr. M.T. Thesen I informed Mr. Thesen that my father bought a ship mirror from the ‘Albatros’, and that this mirror is in my possession.”
“ My father never told me, that he and the father of A. Hans of Elim bought the wreck of the ‘Albatros’. In one of our Church Magazines I found the following; free translation:
‘1873 an American ship wrecked in the new years night near Ratel River not far from us (Elim). The cargo as well as the wrecked ship came on sale on the 13th January. Several Cape Town people arrived from Cape Town for this sale, and some of them stayed over for the night at Elim.’ ”
“ It is further remarked, that people of Elim were engaged at the sale as labourers.”
“ All the same I will write to Elim Mission to enquire, if anything was bought that time from the Mission.”
The correspondence ends with a letter from Charles Thesen to Mr. Schmidt dated 28th July, 1934:
“ I am greatly indebted to you for the information in your letter and the reply, and I have also received similar communications from Mr. M.T. Thesen, Cape Town, which you were kind enough to send to me, and when I next go to Cape Town per motor car, I shall try and make a call on you.”
“ I have received a letter from Mr. A. Hans of Elim saying that he has received the Stinkwood plank I sent him, and I shall be pleased, at any time, to hear of any further information you have collected as regards the ‘Albatros’.”
“ Again thanking you for what you have done,”
Arising out of all this, Charles was able to obtain two mementoes of the Albatros: the one being the cabin mirror mentioned in the correspondence and, more importantly, the ship’s name plate which had been turned into a coat rack but otherwise is in good condition with ALBATROS in large gold painted letters clearly visible. Both the items were in Thesen and Company’s Head Office for many years and are now to be seen in the Maritime Museum in the Old Gaol.
Bearing in mind what Hjalmar had said to his two brothers, the firm was not long without its own vessel and on the 26th July 1874, their father,
A.L. Thesen bought the hundred ton brig Ambulant in Cape Town for £2,625. His initial caution had no doubt soon been overtaken by younger enthusiasms and stronger nerves and the firm was once again on its way.
From the time of the purchase of the Ambulant, there was steady progress in an obvious and proven pattern of expansion. The accent was upon forest products - the manufacturing and sawmilling of them - the acquisition of forest land and the ships to move cargoes from Knysna. Charles Thesen was very much a driving force in all this and the following pages and extracts from letters are intended to reflect a more personal account of him and his growing family and less of the progress of the firm.
To his grandchildren – now all into their sixties and seventies – he is remembered as a tall, slender man, aesthetic in appearance, his dignified bearing seemingly enhanced by a goatee beard and his rather formal way of dressing. He is often recalled as an upright figure, hands clasped behind his back, black suited with waistcoat and stovepipe trousers, black boots and a wing collared shirt with a thin black tie. Soft spoken and seldom if ever showing signs of anger or agitation, his counsel and wisdom were sought and he was rewarded with a variety of positions of leadership in local government and business. These chairmanships and directorships are well documented and need no repeating here, but the fact that he was reappointed to positions of responsibility until near the end of his life, bears testimony to both his abilities and absolute integrity of character.
His marriage to Bessie Harison in 1881 gave him a new focus and perspective on his life in South Africa especially after the birth of his son Leonard in 1882. He was by now a naturalised South African citizen with few memories of Norway and those only of his boyhood and of his father when in his prime. His home language was now English and his outlook one shared by his wife Bessie – predominantly that of an English Colonial South African.
As a general rule immigration to British Colonial territories and particularly North America was undertaken by parties of men and women who tended to remain in their national groupings after they had landed as this natural tendency provided both security and a cultural cohesion through language. Marriages within these language groups would obviously have been the norm as well.
In the case of the Thesen family coming to South Africa in 1869, this would not have applied. In the first place they came alone, unaided and under their own steam and in the second, there was no Scandinavian group in the southern Cape region.
Bessie’s father, Christopher Harison, who has already been mentioned, mainly in the context of his place in the history of South African forestry and conservation, was the youngest of twelve full brothers and sisters. The males of this family all had careers in either the Navy, the Army or the Church of England. His elder half-brother, William Thomas Harison, inherited the family estate Sutton Place in Seaford, Sussex and was a Battalion Major in the 8th Hussars. With the focus mainly on Charles and the influences on him and his family, we must mention also Captain Harison’s wife, Charles’s mother-in-law. She was christened Marie Louise Millet Moorman and her father was a career officer, a Commander in the Royal Navy who had fought with Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar. Born in England, unlike her three children, Kate, Bessie and Launcelot, who were born in South Africa, she would have been conscious of the status from which she had come, especially now that she had moved to the Colonies and with her husband Christopher Harison no longer of the home country, land-owning gentry or a regular British Officer with all that those two stations implied in those days.
Christopher Harison had shifted from his independent position when his hopes of successfully farming in South Africa had not materialised. His wife Marie Louise would have found herself virtually marooned on farming and forest stations in lonely, and by English standards, virtually uninhabited regions with few neighbours who spoke her own language. Thrown upon her own devices and surviving, as well as maintaining the outlook on life that she, like so many of her country-women were able to do in similar circumstances, she was to provide a solid background for her three children. In Bessie’s letters particularly we see not only an unusually high standard of writing, but also a certain wry humour, not at the expense of the indigenous population or the other non English-speaking inhabitants, but a sympathy and understanding with them and the rural South African situation and for this, we must give credit to her mother who would undoubtedly have played a part in her education. Marie Louise had French ancestry on her mother’s side and it is probably in memory of her that Bessie and Charles gave the name “Louise” to their eldest daughter.
In reflecting upon the standard of educated English used by all three of the Harison children in their correspondence, it is very likely that they had had a resident Governess of some ability. What may also be deduced is that this tutor was Scottish in upbringing which would explain the use by both sisters of terms such as, “little laddie,” “wee bairns,” “for á that,” and others.
Their mother Marie Louise – at home in French – makes use of French expressions in her letters and the girls none, which seems to suggest at least that their mother was not wholly in charge of their education.
Marie Louise Harison may well have appeared a trifle snobbish to those around her who were colonial born and bred and it can be said with some certainty that she instilled a hearty class consciousness into her two daughters at least! Perhaps she was overcompensating in a quite natural desire to protect them from the local population of poorly educated white and coloured people in such a sparsely settled and remote region as Coldstream in the Tzitzikamma where her husband was based initially.
It is fortunate that Leonard on his travels kept the letters written to him by his family. The fact that he did, shows the extent to which he was involved with his brothers and sisters and also something of his homesickness. We can only speculate with sympathy on the wretchedness and sorrow he must have experienced so far from home, at the news of his mother’s death. These letters were amongst his possessions when he died and were duly taken into custody by his brother Harald (also childless) to appear only in 1999 when Harald’s last personal suitcases were opened.
From her letters it is clear that Bessie’s interests, besides the immediate concerns of her large household (eight children at the time of her death) were very much in line with those of an educated Victorian woman of strong will and character. These were: a campaign against “the demon drink” and concern for the less fortunate in life. She would not have made much material progress given the poverty, illiteracy and prejudice pertaining in the region, nevertheless, there was a good relationship between white and coloured people in the Outeniqua area and Bessie’s actions and attitude would no doubt have played a part however small, in the goodwill which exists to this day. Of corresponding interest is the thought that Bessie would have been a strong influence in her husband Charles’s attitude to labour, both coloured and white as he was destined to become a major employer in the district.
Regarding the racial mixture in the Knysna area, it is worth remembering that the ‘coloured’ population was almost entirely made up of Khoi-San-descended people with very few Xhosa-speaking blacks to be seen.
For what it is worth, this is his interpretation of the Khoi Khoi name Outeniqua. Amongst the few words of the local Hottentot dialect ever recorded and translated by early travellers before the indigenous language vanished completely to be replaced by Afrikaans, are the terms “Dini” meaning honey and “Qua”, the name for a woodland or forest. “Honeywood” or “Honeyforest” would be an aptly descriptive name for the district and said rapidly with the two words “Dini” and “Qua” flowing into each other, could easily have been heard as “Diniqua” and written “Outeniqua” possibly because of a prefix-lateral click.
Attesting to the fact that the dark-skinned Xhosa people were not yet settled en masse in the area is the entry in the business diary of the firm Thesen and Company dated 1878:
“A message was sent to the Chief Constable that a large number of Bantu were assembled on the beach … All three constables went down with long kirries in their hands and Mr. Nelson, the gaoler, called out Messrs. Lloyd, Klerk, Munnik, Bainbridge, Crockett and all the other people at that end of the village. Mr. Breach called at Morgans and waited there for further information. After an hour a number of men returned to the jetty, including Munnik with a loaded pistol, Klerk with a large sword and life preserver, Breach with a bowie knife, Pick, Marks and Crockett with large sticks, also Fleming. Mrs. Klerk and family had taken refuge at Lloyds…… All were listening eagerly to the sounds from the seafront, but after some time the strangers seemed more friendly. When the above-mentioned people came up, all the Bantu went home.”
“Some days later an afternoon meeting was called by the Resident Magistrate on the initiative of a Mr. Mortimer ‘to consider matters connected with the Frontier War’. Mortimer wanted to know:
1: Whether we should do all we could to induce men to volunteer.
2: Whether nothing could be done to ascertain what the Kaffirs were supposed to be doing who were squatting in our district.
3: Whether we could not get up a subscription list for those wounded in the War or to fit out those who were going there.”
The term Kaffir in those days was not used in the pejorative sense. The facial features and skin colour of the Nguni people was so different from those of the indigenous Cape people, that they, the Khoi-San descendants themselves used the term to describe the eastern seaboard tribes. Bessie, a model of political correctness and Christian principles used the term when describing the attendance at her meetings for the poor; she seems surprised and delighted to see some of them at her gatherings and remarks upon the fact in a letter to her sister Kate.
The Border Wars against the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape Colony and the Zulus in Natal, were obviously then very much to the fore in people’s minds but we have no record of how the local Khoi-San descended members of the community felt about the conflict. A great deal of intermarriage has taken place between the Whites, Khoi-San and Xhosas since then, but it is nevertheless true that a certain amount of mistrust exists between the newly arrived Xhosa and local “coloured” to this day.
When Charles and Bessie were married in 1881 he was twenty-five and she eighteen. Bessie’s strong religious convictions and opinions can be seen in the letters she wrote to her sister Katie. Kate was some years older than Bessie and had it seems, played an important role in her upbringing -- at least in the religious sense.
The first recorded letter from Katie is dated 1878 and it appears from what she says here that she was even then honing her missionary zeal on her youthful captive audience. However, a very strong bond of love and affection must have existed between the two sisters and neither of them ever lost their faith in the value of good works or each other:
“My own little sister, Little no longer, in actual fact, but in my mind from old association you will be always my little sister. I can hardly believe you are really fifteen years old, it doesn’t seem nearly as long since I first held my baby sister in my arms, only a little girl myself. One thing I must tell you about that, that always makes you seem to belong to me. First of all, you must know, my first ideas of God in any way, was of a great Being who would hear and answer prayer, and so, as I used to ask for all kinds of things, I thought how nice it would be to have a little sister, and often I prayed for one, so that when you did come I was hardly surprised, only very glad! And ever since then girlie, you have seemed to be given to me in some way, and still as then, I can thank my Father for His good Gift: and pray, that I may claim her again when we meet in another Home. More I want to say to my darling, while I still have you; though God grant we may never in heart drift away from each other however separated otherwise, something more that I can’t talk about (we are alike in that and keep our sacred feelings, sacred; perhaps it is better so now, though not always). I feel sure that you do love our dear Lord, and it has made me happier than any thing; only cling close to Him, as a real, personal Saviour all your life, and if you are earnest and real about it, by and bye, you will find lots of little things to do for Him. You are much braver and stronger in every way than I am, so if you only don’t trust too much to yourself it will be easy for you to keep straight. I was always weak willed, and frightened of a word even, and if it hadn’t been for His grace, and having been kept in quiet ways, should never have held on. One thing more: don’t think little of prayer. Never mind what you hear or read, God does hear, and answer too! It may be a mystery that weak mortals should have power with Him, but surely not greater than His for us, and we have our Saviour’s words to go upon…………………………..”
Correspondence between Charles, then in his early twenties and Bessie, on the verge of turning eighteen, began in 1880 before their marriage. A note from Charles dated 30th August 1880 reads:
“My Dear Bessie, I shall not be able to come up tonight, not being very well. I think I’d better stay at home but hope that you are improving and not in for the mumps. Yours for ever, Charles.”
This was obviously a note sent in charge of a messenger and was not intended to be a love-letter. Charles, a practical, logical man, was merely recording a fact although the “Yours for ever” is revealing, and a letter from Bessie to Charles who was away on business at the time is even more so. This letter, dated 3rd December 1880, was written four months before their marriage the following year:
“It seems so strange to have to write to you so far away, I can hardly realize it yet, but still half hope to see you down the street when I look out, and stop to listen when I hear something like the sound of your voice outside. You have had pleasant weather for your journey so far; I hope you have not felt much the worse for it my dear. Papa came home about 12 o’clock last night, we had given him up, and not having you to cheer us up a bit, had all been rather ‘down in the mouth’, - feeling rather lonely and lost so you may imagine that we none of us regretted being woken up by Papa’s knock. Pinto had let the horses go so Papa had to go home in Armstrong’s wagon. He says the Immigrants have made some arrangements with the people there to half the crops and to let them live there on some terms, - of which Hjalmar will tell you I think.”
“My dearest – it seems so long to
wait for you, and not to think after the days worries that the evening will
bring you, - and with you the rest, and the comfort and above all the love that
I want so much. Though I know that that is mine always, but it is easier to
realize when you are with me. I was very glad that my people met you going they
would have been so sorry to find that you had gone, when they came back. They
were quite tired when they came with all their exertions. You naughty boy how
could you go and run home in the sun after you left me, you made me think I had
kept you too long, don’t you do so any more! It will seem an awful long time till
I hear from you so spare me a line as soon as you can Charlie dear. I have not
seen any of your people yet but have not been down the street today. I dare say
I will go this evening to post this as our bright boy has not come yet. Poor
Mr. Jackson says he is awfully lonely in that big house by himself, I am afraid
his temper won’t improve by it! I must wind up now as it is my turn to
superintend the dinner today, I find it good education for me. I may be a
finished cook by the time you come back.
Goodbye my dear Charlie, miss me a little, my darling and believe me,
Ever your own loving Bessie.”
“Papa says he will see about the Library business, and will write to you. I can’t write half I want to say to you, but I know you will understand how difficult it is to express oneself on paper, - Goodnight again, my letters always seem to sprout out (just like cabbages) into postscripts – your Bessie.”
From this quite gay and light-hearted letter written by Bessie, presumably soon after Charles had embarked on some business trip, it would seem that he was well-known to and welcomed by the Harison household and that Captain and Mrs. Harison had seen him and said goodbye to him shortly before his departure.
Captain Harison’s midnight arrival and Bessie’s reference to the “immigrants” however does not suggest any recorded event but would probably have been in reference to the failed Italian silkworm farmers who had been settled on Forestry ground at Gouna.
The “poor lonely” Mr. Jackson is probably the resident Magistrate (in those days the leader of local Society, and with his wife, the first citizens of the town). Bessie often refers to Mrs. Jackson in her letters after she and Charles were married. Mrs. Jackson was presumably away from home at the time of this letter and from Bessie’s comments down the years, was either prone to chronic ill-health or possibly bullying by her husband. In her case and according to Bessie it was often “poor Mrs. Jackson”! Her husband was not a very popular figure in the town. In fact, Winifred Tapson in her book “Timber and Tides” records that he was so unpopular that a petition was drawn up requesting his removal! By the end of his long Knysna sojourn however, the townspeople seemed to have mellowed towards him.
The population of Knysna in 1880 is given as 1000 and this figure (as was the case in those days) would presumably have included whites only.
The letter which follows is signed “Jane Orby Harison”. She was Bessie’s aunt, the wife of William Thomas Harison and owner of Sutton Place. She is writing to Bessie on the occasion of Kate Harison’s engagement to Leighton Hare.
“Sutton Place, July 25 1881
“I have been intending replying to your affectionate letter but much business has prevented my doing so – a letter forwarded (from one of your friends) from your Mother with the news of your sisters engagement makes me at once write to say how pleased I am at the prospect of her making a very happy marriage also I am so glad you are settled so comfortably near your dear Parents – they will miss your sister much – I don’t know what I should do if your cousin Rachel left me – but at present she is not at all inclined that way – we came home the beginning of June - it is a comfort to be settled again after 10 months absence. My dear child is much improved in health and I hope also his eye – but he is kept in total darkness – he is so patient and cheerful with this great trial to him and to us all – my married Daughters were both with me [the whole time] and I am expecting Edith (Cockburn) and her Husband today – with one of her children. I [hope] should you or your sister come to England you will come and see us – you would like to see the house your Father was, I think, born in. With my best love and sincere wishes to your dear Father, Mr. Thesen and sister, believe me, your affectionate Aunt.”
Bessie writes to her newly-married sister, Kate Hare, on October 24th 1881:
“My dear Katie,
“Excuse my writing on such a scrap but note paper is scarce just now in our establishment. We were so glad to hear from Mamma that you were enjoying the dear old Bay so much and that you are so comfortable at the Hotel. Are the two clocks still in the dining room and those yellow curtains upstairs to the window that wont stay open? We talk of going down some day, Charlie and I, when we want an outspan in the daily round.”
“I hope Leighton is having a good rest, we expect you both to look quite fresh and bright when you come home. For ourselves we are all well, the dear husband has been very tired lately and so have I but we are recovering now. I think the hot weather and the excitement was all that was the matter. He is away now or would be sure to send you some message. I did not and do not now, quite realize that you are married, but I suppose I shall in time. Goodbye, and God bless you both, my dear sister and brother. I cannot wish you anything better.”
Kate and Leighton Hare were probably on honeymoon in Plettenberg Bay and it is likely that Bessie and Charles had also stayed at the same hotel after their marriage. This is another letter (undated) to her sister Katie, who was living in Knysna at the time which demonstrates Bessie’s youthful girlishness and sense of fun.
“My minds ears have been tingling for two whole days at all the hard things you have been thinking if not saying about me, so perhaps today I may be able to enlighten you as to the reason why I, like some nervous tortoise, have withdrawn into my shell, viz. my house. First you must know that I possess one of those peculiar creatures called a “Lord and Master”, mine being not of a tyrannical disposition, but only somewhat spoilt, who also sets a great value on my unworthy self and consequently would not allow me to damp those useful members call “poetjes” in the language which “Broer Willem” is so fond of indulging in. Well such being the case I submitted and sent all good wishes by my better half which perhaps he, being but half you know, did not deliver in sufficient quantity or quality. Also yesterday I had to submit to the ordinary lot of mortals to which my right worthy sister knows, prompt obedience is necessary, today also I must follow the example of my worthy friend the tortoise and not venture to poke so much as the extreme tip of my elegant nose beyond the garden gate. So my dear old Tanta will like a good sister come and see a poor “lone lost creature” like me at first opportunity I hope. I sent my maiden fair with a far superior epistle to you yesterday but she found your establishment on the spree or out so you must put up with this scribble instead.”
“I have been reading Mrs. Piozzi and from constant study I have I fear contracted a habit of never spelling the same word alike twice, as she did, what a pity that my former perfect grammer (sic) and spelling should be so corupted (sic) shocking!!”
“But to end all this rubbish I send every warm wishes for many happy years to my dearest sister, happy years of love faith and trust with each other, peaceful years with the peace that comes from love, human and Divine; joys such as only those who have it fully enjoy, fully realise; all joys, those that we reckon the best on earth and the blessing of the Lord that maketh rich, above all crowning all. It seems as if I could fear no evil for you two. As if there could come nothing to hurt you. As for us, day by day I feel how thankful, how humble, the love of one true soul makes one, how blessed we are in each other and how good God has been to us both. And we do feel it and acknowledge it in some sort, but the full knowledge and the full power of expressing it will I suppose never be known here.”
“I am feeling very well; have had scarcely any pain and am altogether very jolly now. Do – as a reward for my making so many humble apologies show me your dear countenance so that I may see if it is very different from what it was last year, I feel as if I ought to congratulate your husband but I don’t know what upon exactly. However give him my love and if there is anything of a separate wish that I ought to wish him he must please imagine it. Goodbye dear.”
In the winter of 1884 Kate, living in Knysna with her husband Leighton Hare, wrote to her sister Bessie who was away from home at the time recovering from an undisclosed illness. (Her two children, Leonard and Christopher Frederick were presumably with her. Christopher died later the same year, on Christmas Day.)
“You will be expecting a letter I know so must not be disappointed. Charlie told me he heard from you and that you liked the place. I am so glad, get out as much as you can and have all the benefit of this pleasant weather. I hope the bairns keep well and that Leonard’s spirits are recovering. We are all fairly well here, Mama is getting out for drives now, and is looking quite well again. The Christys entertainment went off very well, there were a great number of people both evenings. The songs were particularly good with the exception of two comic ones which were in questionable taste. They said the jokes of Steytler’s making were rather coarse the first evening but they dropped them the next. Mr. Edwards made a capital manager, he has such a nice voice, both singing and speaking and Willie Newdigate did well too.”
“There is not much else going on; Mrs. Jackson has begun her tennis parties for Josephine and I believe the Hermits are out of quarantine now you are gone but I’ve got Richard.”
“What do you do with yourself all day – is Leila very pleasant? Please give my love to her. Frances looks as smiling as ever though her intended has left for England in a steamer. I sent off my essay, but don’t think it was good for much, my head is not good for criticising reigns.”
“I miss you very much, and should have done so even more had I not been very busy with my dress, it is a good pattern of a skirt, but (the) body is too large. You must take great care of yourself dear one, and come back stronger and better to us – if you should feel very bad at anytime remember I will be glad to come to you, but that is not at all likely, I trust. Goodbye little sister, I have to write to England so must hurry up.”
“With dear love from us both and kisses to Len, and Baby.”
A note from Katie written on the occasion of Leonard’s birthday and undated reads:
“Many happy returns of your Leonard’s birthday wishes his Auntie Katie and Uncle Leighton. May the Lord bless and keep the dear laddie and make him all our hearts could wish. Give him some sweeties from me, he will understand those best. Don’t mind if I can’t come down dear. I have to finish my dress for tomorrow, and go and see Louie who came last night, don’t be jealous! You know you come first inside, Your loving sister, Katie.”
This is another undated letter and presumably written on Bessie’s wedding anniversary (28th April) in the middle 1880’s.
“My own dear little sister,
“Many many happy returns of your wedding day! I wish it had not been so rainy, I wanted much to see you, and give you my good wishes in person. May Gods best blessings follow you both through another year, and supply all your needs. Do you remember your text in my book, I think it is so nice:
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and for ever
“Gazing down the far for Ever
“Brighter glows the one sweet name
“Steadfast, radiant, paling never
“Jesus, Jesus! Still the same.”
“May you indeed find it so darling. Give our love to Charlie and wish him many nice things from us both. Leonard gave me such a sweet kiss last time I saw him. In haste, your loving Katie.”
The following letter was written by Amy Thesen, the daughter of Thomas Henry Duthie of Belvidere. She married Rolf Thesen and they had only one child, a daughter Irene. Amy and Rolf are buried in the Belvidere Churchyard.
“Woodburn, March 5th 1887.
“My dearest Bessie,
“ I cannot let this day pass without sending you a few lines to wish you many very happy returns of it – may you and yours spend many a year injected in the love and peace God sends His own – I am sorry you have such a rainy day, but it may be brighter in the afternoon. We got up so nicely on Wednesday afternoon thanks to the brothers! Irene is very happy and looks better already for the change.”
“We hear the Ellermans leave on Monday. I hope your Mother will come soon, it will be so nice for me. I do feel it very much but I knew I would. I wish you and Alfhild could come up on the 12th if I don’t go to Belvidere.”
“Irene is so anxious to write a letter to Leonard. We saw the steamer come in on Thursday. How soon she was off again. I wonder how your supper party went off. My love to Alfhild. I wish she would ride up with Theodore some afternoon.”
Two more letters written by Katie to her sister follow. The writing paper is black-bordered, probably indicating a death in the Hare household. Bessie was ill at the time with some contagious complaint.
“My dear Bessie
“I am so glad to hear of your making good progress to recovery, it must have been a hard time for you poor little sister. How I have and do miss you, I can’t tell you; it is a little foretaste of what it would be to be separated altogether, it doesn’t seem worth while going down the street when your house is forbidden ground. How long will it take before you are out of quarantine. I saw the bairnies passing today, so they are well, it was so hard not to go out and see them. I ought to have made you some more nice things but have been so busy lately and the boy keeping me up at nights so that I have felt rather worn out. I re-covered my sofa and chairs to my own satisfaction at any rate. There is a nephew of Aunt Mary’s (Uncle William’s wife) in the train of the Lord, a Mr. Robinson. He dropped in on us just when not expected. I was washing the baba and the sitting room all untidy, so did not feel very gracious to him, but we must ask him again to the house, or he will give a bad account of us; it is rather a nuisance his coming.”
“Take great care of yourself my dear old girlie and get quite better soon for I am longing to see you. With dear love, your sister, Katie.”
“My dear Bessie,
“I am sure you need not be afraid of writing me a note now, the infection must be all but over and I want a word from thee. Please send me my cape and also my dolman, I think I lent it to you last and am in need of one of them.”
“How are you feeling little woman? Has it taken it out of you much? Well! You are seasoned now. But for Baby, I wish I had taken it too and had it over. My cold has been a real bad one with asthma and headaches, it still aches today and such a beautiful lip!”
“I can’t realize that the dear old folks are going, it will be harder than we think to have them out of reach, for though there was not much ordinary communication in times of need they were always at hand, and we shall feel rather orphaned I know.”
“Isn’t it sad about Fred Metcalf, fancy he breakfasted with us before he left for Millwood, and was quite sane then, the next thing we heard he was quite out of his mind, it was Marion’s death that upset him I believe, but those poor girls!”
“Willie left yesterday to take over the office for Miss Metcalf, so Ley is alone.”
“You will find the laddie grown and
improved I think, he is getting so strong and full of life, and is so
“Mrs. Leith has her parents with her so I don’t see much of her now. Louie has been very ill and so has little Reggie Hare, but both are better. What a very sick time this seems, I don’t know how to be thankful enough that Ley and Baby have been kept well. Your bairns are very well, Papa tells me. I hope they will keep so. I miss you so much and want a long talk so badly. Goodbye little sister, your loving, Katie.”
“So glad to get your note dear, you see I had one written all ready to send. We could safely meet on Monday if you are going to Church tomorrow, you need not be afraid I think. So sorry to hear about Charlie, there is ‘trouble everywhere’ it seems, we can only remember the refrains ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’.”
“I can’t realize that the dear old folks are going,” Kate says. Captain and Mrs. Harison were being transferred to Cape Town and were to be based at Tokai in the regional forestry house. The year was 1888 and they were to be in the Cape until 1895 when they came back to Knysna. Captain Harison died in Knysna two years later.
Between the years 1880 and 1895 Charles was often away on business. The new South African Thesen and Company was twenty years old in 1890 and progress had been rapid thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the three brothers. Charles kept in regular contact with Bessie:
“Dock Road, Cape Town, 13th March 1889, 11 a.m.
“My Dear Bess,
“I have just returned from Tokai. I went out yesterday afternoon. Your Father had come to the station farms, found them all well, I can tell you it is a splendid place. Your Mother wants you to come up soon and bring all the children with you. Did you get my Telegram I sent it from here Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Spilhaus has invited me for Dinner tonight.”
“1.30 p.m. already and not further with my letter. I have been called away so many times. Wagon makers coming to look at wood and trade is good. You must excuse your bad boy not writing more today. Love to Leonard, Hanna and all the family.”
“Cape Town, Sunday 21st January 1893.
“My dear Bess,
“Yours dated 16 received. It looks as if they never sent you the wire I sent on Monday that I had posted my letter that day for you. Today it is 14 days since I left you. I should like to see if I could see any improvement in Eric from your letters he seems to go up and down but at the same time slowly getting better is that so?”
“Edwards wired to me yesterday to come out and see him. Yesterday (after Thwaites Dinner Friday night) I had a bilious attack and stayed in bed half the day and did not go in to Town, today I am alright again. Helen is very good to me did all she could. Tomorrow Venice leaves but I shall not return [with] her, but hope to be home tomorrow Monday week per Post Wa[gon] Mossel Bay or Swellendam. I will try if I can get a perambulator tomorrow and send per Venice. Leonard’s suit I shall wait a few days for in case you send measurements. Hanna has written me to get her a place but I don’t know that I can hold out much hope yet. Asterid was here yesterday, she is now in hopes of getting a place, she is still staying with the Borchers, on Tuesday I am going to Mrs. Lithman for Lunch. Venice leaves this Monday afternoon. I will go down and see Mrs. Jackson and Miss Barrington off. I send per care of Mr. Whitaker a little wagon for two, will that do in place of Perambulator, also 2 chairs and 1 sofa per Venice. I have not bought anything else yet will do so before I leave. Hope to be with you next Monday night per Post Cart.”
“My Love to Children and Self, Your Old Man.”
“I am waiting for news of what I must buy for you.”
“Point, Port Natal, 15th February 1893
“My Dear Bess,
“I have received 2 letters from you here and don’t expect any more now I will leave this some time next week on Thursday at the latest and if Venice goes on to East London I shall catch her if not I may go on to Mossel Bay and be home per Mondays Post or via Zitzikamma (sic) a few days later.”
“I shall wire later in the week to Port Elizabeth and find out about Venice. I wish to have one day at East London if possible. I am home sick. I am glad to see from your letters Eric keeps on improving. The Barque Borghild for us arrived here yesterday, wood trade is not very bright. I have had dinner with
Mr. and Mrs. Tennant they are here. Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Blake are also here. I have been up to their house. Both above are here representing Transvaal Customs. Don’t expect any more letters now, my dear Bess and love to children, Your Old Man.”
“Point, Port Natal, 17th February 1893
“My dear Bess,
Just a few lines to say that I propose to leave this next Thursday 23rd February per African and go with her as far as East London, land the Friday and go on board the Venice there on Saturday and will be with you if all goes well on Monday or Tuesday morning.”
In April 1890 Kate and her husband, Leighton Hare, left for England on board the Drummond Castle and her first letter to Bessie after her departure was written on board ship. This letter reflects many of the characteristics which she shared with her sister: keen intelligence and powers of observation regarding the social mores of the times, a wry but often waspish sense of humour as well as religious fervour, but all under laid by a softer side which was compassion and love for her fellow men and women.
Nowhere in the correspondence is there any indication of precisely why Leighton and Kate went to live in England – never to return during Bessie’s lifetime. Nor do we know what Leighton did for a living or what his source of income might have been.
With the servants that Katie mentions in her letters to Bessie, it can be deduced that the Hare’s were comfortably off and in one of Leighton’s letters to Charles, there is reference to an estate with farming tenants, of which it can be presumed – from what he says – that Leighton was the owner. This property may have been inherited by him as a result of the death in the Hare family.
As a profession, Leighton seems likely to have had a position with the International Union of Good Templars, a strict Temperance movement founded in 1851 in the United States of America, with Grand Lodges all over the world and fairly healthy finances. The various addresses from which Kate’s letters were written, may have been Templar Lodge postings. In one letter she mentions playing the organ at a service Leighton was conducting. Kate also implies that had there been a house available at Tosside, the estate not far from Leeds, they would have stayed there, so perhaps he had private means and conducted Templar work more as a charity. From one of his letters there is too the clear implication that he was financially responsible for his two sisters in Knysna. (They lived in the still to be seen “Primrose Cottage”).
“s/s Drummond Castle
“Thy thoughts have been with us all this while and thy prayers too I know, and now you would be glad to see how well we are faring today, Monday. We won’t say much about the first few days, bad was the best, the children worrysome, Martha constantly reaching (sic), and I sick and miserable, but the best of the three of us. My cabin opens just at the foot of the companion and the children’s dining room was there, so all Friday I managed to keep in there with them, and by Saturday, with the help of ginger ale and brandy, Martha recovered herself. But my dear girlie take my advice and don’t make a voyage with young babies, in a tiny cabin with a feckless nurse! The struggle to get all dressed in the morning is a business which tries all ones nerve and temper, and then the bad babies will put one to the blush occasionally on deck, and with such a stiff, stuck up set of passengers, it is rather aggravating, the women are the worst, the men are all good to the bairnies.”
“There are some highly swell military gents from Natal on board, who know no one of course!, although the wife of one of them is friendly enough when we are alone as she has the opposite cabin to mine, and a small baby boy too. It makes me feel slightly ruffled when I know our own father was their equal in all points.”
(Shades of her mother settling ruffled feathers here!)
“Ley (Leighton) retires so completely into his shell, and looks so sick and miserable, he makes very few acquaintances and I see very little of him myself. There are a lot of parsons, one high Anglican priest, who was awfully disappointed not to have service yesterday, but the Captain quietly conducted it himself, which avoided all clashes. However I heard him tell Dr. Muskett he meant to have early ‘celebrations’ next Sunday. He is not a bit nice. There are two Scotch parsons, and another old English country clergyman, who might be nice I think, and one other of some denomination. The Scotch wives are nice women, but not of a very high grade.”
“Sunday is hardly like a Sunday, one gets no quiet, but the Master knows and helps, only one does forget so often to turn to Him.”
“And now Goodbye for the present darling, my heart gets too full. I think much of you, and the dear Knysna home we had, nothing will ever be like it.”
“May 6th: My own dear little sister,
“A few more lines you must have today, to tell how we have sped. There is only a week more, we hope, and then we reach the much longed for shore again, which will be a matter of the greatest thankfulness to us all. We have had calm weather on the whole, though the vessel has plunged a bit the last couple of days and made many sick again, and all a little queer. Baby has been poorly with a cold, and a kind of feverish attack, she cried so much nearly all one night. I think the condensed milk, or something she ate upset her, but she is much better today, though fretful.”
“The people have thawed a bit now, and we had a concert and some sports, still there are not many nice folk. My opposite neighbour is nice and pleasant enough, and I don’t think it is pride with him, but only a retiring kind of manner like Leightons.”
“He, Leighton, has a bad cold and cough and is not bright. I wonder how you are all getting on? Sometimes sitting quiet on deck of an evening, I think about things, and the present scene seems like a bad dream, from which I shall wake at home again. We must post from Madeira, and hope to be there on Thursday so I may not write again.”
“Give our love to Charlie, and take a heartful for yourself my precious Bessie, from your loving sister. Love to Leonard and the bairnies. Tell Susan, Martha is quite well and jolly again, but will have no flirtations with the stewards much to their disgust.”
When Katie next wrote it was from a shore base, the voyage safely over and the family none the worse for its ordeal. Bessie replies as follows:
“Knysna, July 5th, 1890,
“I will do my best to write once a fortnight.
“You must not miss your letter again though it must be but a short one I am afraid and I do hope you have got one at least of mine by this time. Your last was most welcome and told me a lot of things I wanted to know. Nellie (Leighton’s sister) has also been so good in telling me about yours and Leightons letters and reading some of what the Aunts say – you have now their hearts too it seems, dear old lady and the bairnies have done the rest. Do you know I get dreadfully mixed in these aunts (the aunts Bessie refers to here are probably Hare relations and not Harisons as initially thought to be,) and I fear Nellie would be shocked if she knew how very vague my knowledge of them is – cant you draw up some sort of a genealogy for me to study. Tell me more about the old house, I want to get some idea of what such a place is – how I wish I could just fly round with you over some of that land though I know you are longing very often for this home country.”
“James (Leighton’s brother) is very keen on starting pig farming at Bracken Hill (courtesy of Charles Thesen). I am inclined to think it in some ways a good plan. He speaks most sensibly of his plans and I cant help feeling that this life in Knysna with no fixed work and every Alberts constant company are not the best for him but possibly the sisters have told you all this before.”
“Launcelot (Bessie’s and Kate’s brother) seems to expect his remove very shortly but writes in fairly good spirits.”
“Mrs. Leith, Mrs. Underwood and I believe Mrs. Brunette have joined the Good Templars. I believe it is a move in the right direction too, and only wish something could be done to give our young fellows some interest and amusement besides wandering about the streets and the billiard rooms, there is even no library open at night for a meeting place. It is a wonder they keep as nice as they are on the whole.”
“The Mortimer children have come home for their holidays so I hope there will be a little fun going on in which my big son can share.”
“Hanna (Hanna Thesen of Brackenhill, the daughter of Hans) has gone home for the holidays, honestly we all miss the child but I hope home life will do her good as she wants something to make her think.”
“Tomorrow is Communion Sunday – I shall be thinking of you dear and shall feel quite sure of your loving thoughts for me, remember I always depend on your special thoughts for us on Sundays especially. Do you remember the dear Mothers form, always first in my thoughts now, “for all near and dear to us help such in distant lands”? Farewell, love to the dear man, kind remembrance to Martha, her mother and sister were so glad to hear from her, the girls all thanked you for your messages, love to the dear bairnies and so much from your loving Bessie.”
“From Katie Hare, 2 Fitzwilliam Terrace, (Cambridge), February 1st (Circa 1891/2)
“My dearest Bessie,
“As I have been so naughty about writing lately, I had better begin today. We got nothing but a short card from Knysna this week, which was disappointing, as I was anxious to know how the dear father was, for Mama said he was still poorly and suffering pain at times. I do trust he may soon be better, though, I fear his is a complaint many men suffer from as they advance in years, the Cape is such a country for growing old in, why, men his age here are as spruce as possible, just think of old Gladstone at 84!”
“I so hope this Influenza will not come to your parts, it has been a dreadful epidemic in Europe and England, one is only thankful to have had so light an attack. It seems to have left me with a tendency to take a sort of feverish cold, and I have had a troublesome throat this time which pulls me down and depresses one’s spirits, but today, things are much better, the sun has been actually shining all morning, and I shall get out, which always does me good………………………..So Miss Dolly Saunders is married! I remember her very well as rather a forward saucy girl, but perhaps she has improved. By the way what a handsome, graceful girl your Hanna has developed into, (Hanna appears to have spent many of the formative years of her life in Charles’s and Bessie’s household. She was a second cousin to Charles and became his wife after Bessie died,) one can see that from even a bad photo, I hope some really nice man will take a fancy to her. I do like to have that group to look at, it gives some idea of the matronly sister and all her tribe of olive branches, for ‘a that’ as the Scots say you will never be other to me than my own little sister, and visions of you in the old forest days come across my memory very often, brought by some chance look or word of my wee mite.”
“Kathleen is not herself at all just now, she must be getting her last double teeth, for she cries and frets about every little thing. Baby Chris is teething too, but he is very fairly bright during the intervals, and trying hard to exercise his newly found powers of standing and walking by a chair. The new housemaid is really fond of children, and baby has quite taken to her, so in spite of slowness, and some uncouthness of manner, the mother’s heart has taken to her of course. She has an overflowing fund of good temper, and animal spirits, and is continually playing practical jokes on the two older girls. Of course May’s Irish nature responds, so the sounds that issue from my kitchen of an evening sometimes, would rather shock a respectable household.”
“I got over that stiff afternoon tea affair I told you we were giving, but envied my young cousin her perfect self-possession for I was wretchedly nervous and made some stupid blunders in introducing people, one has to be brought up young to these things, not buried in a forest for 20 years first! (The forest to which she refers is the Tzitzikamma; an interesting reflection.) Perhaps when my little Nellie is grown up, we shall manage better! But oh dear, I shall be an old lady in caps by that time, with white hair. And now Goodbye dearest Bessie, with much much love, your loving sister.”
Another letter from Katie written from Cambridge on May 5th, in 1891 or 1892, reads:
“My own dear Bessie,
“Just a few lines though I know I owe thee a letter, but am not in time today somehow. It has been a tiring morning, and a bad night last night with baby, which always knocks me over, isn’t it silly for a mother of four babies to say that!”
“I am hoping much from these bicycle rides Ley is taking, though of course man like, he is overdoing it at first, still it gives him fresh air and scenery and some interest and pleasure, as he often gets a young friend to go with him. There is need for something indeed, for he looks really ill, though there is nothing tangible to lay hold of, and seems anxious about himself which is quite a new phase. It is weighing on me good deal just now dear, but you must not think much of it, you know how often he has looked very bad, then turned the corner again. This strange, bright, warm weather continues, but one cannot quite enjoy it now, knowing that rain is so much needed in this over-crowded land of ours.”
“Have you ever read “Looking Backwa(rds)” by Bellamy, do so if you can get it, it is like a glimpse into a new happy world but too ideal for our poor humanity in this age, though one longs for it.”
“My little ones are all well. I trust yours are, sister mine, the ache for thee is strong on me today, so no more writing, only love from your own sister.” At the time of this letter Katie had four children: Theodore, Kathie, Nellie and Christopher.
“From 2 Fitzwilliam Terrace, Cambridge.
“My dearest Bessie,
“As Leighton is writing to the sisters this week, I shall be able to give all my time to your yarn. How one does long, as you say, for a real talk, I can’t bear to let myself dwell upon it! The last accounts brought news of an illness of Mama’s, what has it been? I couldn’t quite make [it] out, nothing serious I do trust. It is a comfort to hear better news of poor old Jem (James Hare), it is really no use his trying to work as a labourer, he is not fitted for it in any way, and yet head work is just as much an impossibility. Leighton is not very well either but we can’t say exactly what is wrong. Cambridge does not suit him I expect, any more than it does other men. Just now we have had a strange bout of illness among the three young ones that no one can account for. A violent attack of sickness and purging took Kathie and Chris the same night, and they were more or less ill all the next day, then Nellie began with a still worse fit of it, poor little mite! She was retching about every half hour the first night, could keep nothing down till evening yesterday, and then came a very feverish night last night which she kept waking up from troubled sleep to cry and talk so wildly. Today she is better but will take hardly anything besides water, and has fallen into her first quiet sleep this afternoon. No one can account for it, it looks like eating some bad or poisonous substance, but we can think of nothing which the rest of the household has not eaten as well, neither Theodore nor the servants nor myself being at all affected, though Leighton seems a bit upset in the same way. The poor mite has just woken up with another crying fit, so difficult to stop, still I am sure and so is the doctor that she is better, and the rest only cross now!”
“How I should like a photo of your youngsters dear! Can’t you get one some how, I hear they are such a bonnie little tribe, and would like so much to see them. I greatly fear that mine are only strong and plump-looking in early days and will grow up weakly. Theodore stoops so and looks very narrow chested, and now my bonnie old Chris has developed these dreadful bowed legs. We keep them constantly in splints, but the improvement, if any, is very slow. Still, one must just live by the day, and pray to be prepared for all God is preparing for us. Sometimes I think my hard days are yet to come for I have had comparatively easy times so far, only the sort of trials that requires patience. “He knoweth,” isn’t that a comfort.”
“ Do you see a periodical called the “Young Woman”, it would supply healthy reading for your young folks if you could get it, I must send you a copy to see when I can get about the house, but at present I am a prisoner upstairs. My little ones always turn to Mamma as the best friend and comfort in any ailment or trouble. I meant to write more but constant interruptions render it rather difficult. The weather is most dull and depressing, constant rain and damp, and hardly more than an hour’s consecutive sunshine at any time, it is the worst winter so far we have had in England yet, but I believe the rain is wanted so we must not grumble.”
“Tell me about yourselves and all your doings dear, it is an interest to me in these queer times – now dearest. Goodbye with very much love to you all. Yours loving sister, Katie Hare.”
“Katie Hare to Bessie: 2 Fitzwilliam Terrace, Cambridge, December 31st, 1893,
“My dearest Bessie,
“I believe it is your turn again for a letter, and am glad to have a free afternoon to set about it. Your last was not a very bright one, but one finds that ‘some days must be dark and dreary’ even in the brightest lives. I liked Leonard’s letter very much it was so thoroughly genuine and boyish, not a ‘sample letter’ as he called it. Give him my love and thanks for it, and tell him I will answer it soon. I hope my boy may take to something equally innocent and instructive as electricity, if not to that. I am very sorry to hear about poor Mrs. Jackson, what a sad trial it must be to her, with the love of this world so strong still. We were sorry to find Charlie is not to be Mayor any longer, I am afraid there is very little hope of any moral improvement during the reign of Metelerkamp & Co., so I suppose the old state of affairs will be revived again.”
“I had a long letter from Amy Thesen which I must answer, it was good of her to write to me.”
“We have been having very dull cloudy weather lately which does not tend to improve the spirits or the health, and measles are about so you must not be surprised to hear of its having got amongst us, though I think at present it is mostly confined to the poor people. The youngsters are back at school, very pleased to have been moved each a class higher, we hope Theodore will learn to read this term, he is very near doing so. My little Kathie has not been well for some time back, even the long change to the sea did not give her an appetite and lately she has been having a succession of small boils, and looks so white and delicate, so different from the bonny, stout girl she was before the whooping-cough. Little Chris the rogue is very well and jolly, but we were grieved to find his one leg is getting more bent, and will have to be put into splints. The doctor promised to do it this week, but did not come. I am anxious to have it over, it weighs on my mind rather, as I know the young monkey will rebel against it very much. It is most amusing to hear the way that mite can talk, he is not two years old yet, and can express himself perfectly intelligibly about anything, he never says his own name I notice, but always calls himself “Me” and talks about ‘mine’ this & ‘mine’ that.”
“My household is working very harmoniously you will [be] glad to hear, and the new housemaid really does her work, I find the rooms thoroughly done when I go to look at them, even to flowers in the drawing room vases! I am really feeling strong again, now that I get some good sleep at nights, for May helps me with the boy, she ought to be capable of minding so good a baby at her age (25)! You will begin to think I have precious little to do myself, and yet my mornings are fully occupied, there is always something to do for the little ones, besides sewing, and general superintending.”
“The days are closing in fast. We shall soon [have] Winter upon us now. Leighton has taken up his Cambridge places’ work very heartily again, I have played the hymns both Sundays for him, he has five or six of them. The attendance is much better, about 25 last evening and the people very reverent and quiet, I do enjoy those little services so much, and am getting to know the women better, some of them are such hard-working, respectable people. Actually the Cape Mail has just come in, on Friday! So all next week we shall have nothing. Now Goodbye sister mine, much much love to you and all yours. Give my love to the dear father and Mama. Your very loving sister, Katie Hare.”
In March 1894 Bessie left for Cape Town in order to have dental work done and Charles kept her informed of domestic developments. It seems that a Mrs. Van Huyssteen had been hired to act as housekeeper during her absence. He also ensured that the children each wrote her a letter.
“My Dear Bess
“Last night I received your long letter and see you are in good spirits and enjoying yourself and that your teeth are comfortable. Be sure of this before you return. I met today
Mrs. John Metelerkamp she looks quite young since she has been to Cape Town, hope you will also return quite young and spry. The children are all quite well and jolly, Eric is fat as possible. Mrs. Van Huyssteen manages very well and we could not have got anyone to do it better. Last Sunday I had dinner at your Mothers but tomorrow I think I will stay at home. You must get yourself photographed the week before you leave, get your face as fat as possible first. I hope you will go and see Mrs. Hutchins and all other friends and acquaintances. Don’t forget to go and see the Library and Museum. If you see Mrs. Joubert jun. give my regards and make some remark about the trip. Also remember me to the Gies, Reitz and others and Fischers.”
“Leonard is talking so much about the Electricity Machine he wants, if it s not too dear. Leonard has written you again, also Louie’s and Harald’s and Harry’s letters I enclose. Do you get the G. [George] and Knysna Herald every week. Eric’s parcel has not arrived yet, but may on Monday his Birthday is only on Tuesday the 10th not the 8th. I note you wish to buy Hanna a jacket, don’t go too big as she gets lots of presents from us from Jan to Dec, try to buy some boots for the children on account from Thorne Stuttaford and Co. I expect you will leave Cape Town per Saxon on Saturday the 21st or more likely on Monday the 23rd of April. I hope you won’t object to come home then, and that you will enjoy yourself as much as possible up to that time.”
“The Forest Commission will sit here next week.”
“In the mornings when there is no steamer the children generally all come into my bed for a short time. It quite fills the Bed. Louie has been sleeping most of the time with me and Eric creeps in between us about 5 a.m. every morning when he has wetted his own Bed, he has only once made our Bed wet and on that account Leonard did not like it and got Louie to change with him.”
“You better not expect any letter from me for the next Post or two as I may not have time to write next week.”
“Alfhild and Mrs. Newdigate drove out in the Judge’s Carriage to Portland on Thursday. Mason leaves on Monday to meet the Forest Commission to be their shorthand-writer at 30 shillings per day, this will be a nice perk for him. It will take about one month.”
“Now goodbye this time, I am longing to see you home again. My Dear old wife of mine. Your ever loving, Charles.”
A small flurry of letters to Bessie ensued; from her domestic servant first and then her mother and the children’s obviously written at their father’s prompting and bearing the same date in order to catch the next post by sea to Cape Town. Mrs. Van Huyssteen the housekeeper and nurse, was either a very good cook or she was under-catering as there is much preoccupation with food in the children’s letters!
“From Mary Ann Saunders, (the children’s nanny)
25th March 1894, Knysna.
“My dear Misstress,(sic)
“Just a few lines to let you know how we are getting on. We are all quite well and hoping you are the same. Realy Missus, Eric was so good all the time he has only cryed once or twice and Ella also. They have not be sick either. We went down to the heads on Good Friday. Emily Villet and Emily Compton and myself walked down and Hanna and the children went in the cart and as we were walking somewhere near Main s(treet) Mr. Villet sent Nellie to tell Emily that she must come back at once. Is it not a cool cheek and the next morning I heard why it was because we were not fit company for her to go with and since then we have hardly spoken a word, if I speak to her she wont answer me, I am sorry to say that it is not so pleasant as it used to be as I am even so afraid to speak to her as she is not my company. I will tell Missus more about it when she comes home. Ma and Mary came home on Thursday. Missus, have you seen Charlie or Dolly yet. I hope Missus is enjoying yourself. Best love from Louie, Harald, Eric, Ella and from your obedient servant, Mary Ann Saunders.”
“P.S. Eric and I are going to get married next month.(!)”
“P.S. Missus, bring me some dress stuff if it is cheep and Missus thinks I will like it.”
“From Leonard Thesen 28th March 1894, Knysna
“Dear Mother I saw your telegram which father sent onto Belvidere, saying arrived safely. How are you getting on after your long voyage. I suppose you were very ill but think no more of it. Father is sending you my report I am very sorry that I am fifth, though I would have been third had I not stayed out those two weeks (That piece at the bottom is because some days I got full marks for Arithmetic and others none). Today all the children went down to the heads in the cart. The two servants and Emily Compton walked down, which made me think of (Two toads totally tired trying to trot to Tukesberry). I went down in the Sunbeam (an early make of luxury motor car) with uncle and father. The children get on very well with Mrs.Van Huyssteen. She is very nice (and kind) and says I must tell you they are very good. Hannah is preparing for the dance. Louie will write soon. The two children were a little sad just as you left but are quite over it now. The Gentlemen had a meeting so as to get a committee to help towards it as Graham was doing too much towards it. Poor little Stephan or Farnie Van Zyl (not the one in our class) was brought up yesterday for throwing one of Piet Thomases children on the head with a stone or something very similar. (‘Throwing on the head with a stone’ indicates that the influence of Afrikaans was creeping in.) He got £1 or two weeks. His father paid the £1 and he was in school the same afternoon. Frank Moor was also brought up for hitting somebody I think it was Archie Benn (I believe Mr. Caddick brought up somebody for hitting his son). You know that little James Morcormic (sic) who was in jale (sic) for selling Dick drink? Whel (sic) his father sent the £5 to bail him out [and] his mother thought as his time was half up she would keep the money and when he came out send him to his father with it.”
“Please don’t forget my Drill Machine or Electric shocking machine. Be very nice to Uncle. Tell him about my Electricity and perhaps he might send me one. Do it in this way you see. Ask him where to get them and then say you want it for me. If not I think you could spend £1 out of my cow money, then father would only owe me £2. Do please. You don’t know what pleasure it would afford me. I could make magnets lights and other things.”
“All the children send their love. Tell Uncle Peter not to forget me. Tell aunt Helen also. Write soon. Tell me all about Cape Town. Don’t forget my ELECTRIC BATTERY. I remain your loving son.”
“From M.L.M. Harison (Bessie’s mother)
“The Hermitage, Knysna, April 4th 1894
“My dear Bessie,
“I was so glad to hear from you and to find you were well and enjoying yourself. By this time I suppose you have your teeth and are able to show yourself everywhere. How glad you must be that it is all over. I wrote you a farewell letter and Papa forgot to give it to you, brought it back in his pocket.”
“Well the Judge has been here. He is a very pleasant man and made himself very agreeable at the Dance. It was a success, there were not very many people and it was not as rowdy as usual. I did your duty, and had the honour of the first dance with Mr. Justice. He is a nice looking man and seems fond of dancing – Mr. Lake the Registrar was with him, a finished looking man, and a very good dancer. Late in the evening Mr. Jones, one of the Barristers made his appearance having had great trouble in crossing the rivers – The other two remained in George until the next day. We broke up at ½ past 2 o’clock Mrs. Mortimer and I, remaining until the end. Mr. Graham was indefatigable in his duty, but sad that Miss Lloyd was prevented being there by illness. Miss Thesen looked very well and very nicely dressed. Hannah also looked well and danced a good deal. Imar Barrington was looking her best dressed in a very pretty new dress. She came with me.
Mrs. Steytler’s dress was good, but rather subdued in colour. She was in full force and made a great deal of. Monsieur C. `a beaucoup danser avec elle. Mrs. Robinson was in black and looking as usual. Mrs. Coward, was in pink satin, plainly made. She danced a good deal. The Judge has gone to Belvidere to shoot this afternoon.”
“Mrs. Duthie gave a Garden Party yesterday. We were both to have gone but Papa did not feel very well, and preferred remaining at home. I drove round with Alfhild and Mrs. Mortimer. There were very few gentlemen as the Court was sitting.”
“The Judge gave a dinner last evening. Charles was there and a few more. Papa refused on account of indisposition. Now I think I have told you all our doings. I hope that you will be able to bring my dress with you. If you cannot get a comb, at the Hairdressers, try at Stuttafords. Will you also get me a packet of Vinolia Powder. It is so useful to me and acts like a charm, and a small bottle of Rennet, for making Junket. You can get it at any of the Chemists. The children are well. I saw Louie today, she is growing prettier every day. I hope that you will got out and enjoy yourself dear Bessie. Shall you see Mrs. Lockhart? Papa keeps well and looks so much better but does not always sleep very well. I shall be very glad to see you back, as I miss you very much. With our united affectionate love to you.
“Ever your fond Maman.”
“From Louie, 3rd April 1894, Knysna
“My dear Mother I hope you got my letter. Bessy (probably Hare, a young friend) and I went to Woodburn; we enjoyed it very much. One day we went for a little picnic to Oyster Cove. We found a lot of oysters on the stones. On Friday Aunt Allie and Aunt Nellie came and we all went to the Heads. We paddled in the water and had our dinner by the boat house. Then Bessy and I went home in the car. We were very glad to get the cards. Aunt Nellie sends her fond love. I send my love and many kisses.”
“From Hjalmar Harison Thesen (Harry) 6th April 1894 Knysna
“My Dear Dear Mother I received your letter and it was very good of you to send it to me, but I can’t find it any more. We went for a drive today. Hanna has gone to Church. We had a fowl for Dinner today. Are you going to Church on Sunday. We had Bread and Butter for supper. We will have Sausages for Breakfast tomorrow. Lulu (Louie) sleeps in Father’s Bed. Mrs. Stroebel gave us some nice Flowers and quinces to Bake. The cow is soon going to have a Calf. Harald has been eating Candle Grease. It is Eric’s Birthday on Tuesday. There is no Steamer in. Father’s store is full of Coals (?) from the Gertie. Mrs. Jackson’s children went out in a Boat today. Hennie has no more forage for the Horses. Hennie has not made your garden yet but he is cutting firewood. Mother’s fowls are quite well and the chickens are growing big. I hope you will soon write me another letter. I will have Sausage for Breakfast tomorrow. Oma was here today and Hanna gave her a glass of wine. I send you my Love. Your Loving Son.”
“From Harald Wilhelm Thesen (Harald) 6th April 1894 Knysna
“My Darling Mammie, I have received your letter with two people on it, and I was very glad to get a letter from you. You are very good to write to me. I see you get lots of Tea and Cake in the shops at Cape Town. We have all been for a drive to Old Place today and Mrs. Stroebel gave us Baking quinces Bread and Jam. Mrs. Stroebel’s Baby wanted to kiss me. Mrs. Van Huyssteen’s two children are coming up next week with the Nachtmaal wagons. Father has given (us?) Boxes with Sugar Samples. We had Smoked Mutton for Dinner today it came from Brackenhill. Captain of the Gertie has his wife staying at Mr. Youngs. She came to see us today. Mrs. Cuthbert sent us sausages today and Mr. Stroebel gave us some today and we will have them for Breakfast tomorrow. Mrs. Van Huyssteen is very good and we like her very much and we call her Auntie, and she has made some shirts for me and a Hat for Baby also a Dress. Mrs. Van Huyssteen has cut my hair. We sit on Mrs. Van Huyssteen’s lap every night. Mrs. Van Huyssteen sends her Love to you. Uncle Hjalmar sent us a load of Firewood today. I like you to enjoy your holiday in Cape Town and you can stay as long as you like but not a whole year. Are you coming back in the Saxon? Mary Ann says that Gertie is sold. Emmilie does not know anything about it. Love from all your children. Your Loving Son.”
“From Leonard April 4 1894 Knysna
“Dear Mother, I saw the pretty little cards you sent the children. Here is a sample of a battery I cut out of a book with the address which was ‘Cleghorn, Harris and Stephen, Port Elizabeth’.
Included is a drawing of a wooden box containing various wires, cogs, and a crank-handle, inscribed underneath as follows:
FOR NERVOUS AND OTHER DISEASES
This Machine is the best Article in use for the cure of Nervous Diseases including Nervous Headache, Toothache, Tic-Doloreux, Lumbago, Sciatica, and all forms of Nervous Pain &c. Also Paralysis in its various forms, from a partial loss of sensation or motion, to that of complete Paralysis; and the price brings it within reach of all. Full instruction with each. In two sizes; small 21/-large 30/-).
“But I dare say the Cleghorn and Harris in Cape Town are the same firm and sell the same things. You can buy me one for £1 10/- or 30/- out of the money Father owes me. Try and send it by the Gertie if you can. You don’t know how my heart is set on one. I would never get tired of it as I do of other things. Please do, get is as strong as you can. Perhaps if you see the Captain of the Gertie you can ask him to buy it. That one in the picture is like the doctors. Buy one of the large sort, Now. (This is enough about that)”
“The judge came here on Monday in great state. They gave the dance that same evening, and he gave a dinner in return for the gentlemen. Father went and enjoyed himself very much. The people were all tried. Piet Verera(sic) got £40 or nine months. Farnie(sic) Barnet got £20 only but he had to pay this advocate about another £20 and Statler(sic) about £10 so that it came to about £80 in the end. The others got as they were judged. Farnie Barnet would have got only £8 had he not told a lot of lies about it.”
“I got about 100 silkworm eggs. I will not tell you what my last weeks report was, though I think I will be bottom this time I will try my best if I don’t lose heart and go down, to show you it when you come home. Emily’s little brother died the other day. When are you coming home. Harald, Louie and Harry will write soon. I am writing just before school (by the time this letter reaches you I will have got a good *pack (*Pak, Afrikaans slang for a hiding.)
with a cane, that is to say if my sums are wrong). I must still do my map as I have not begun yet.”
“The Captain of the Gertie was up here on Monday evening. Love from all the children and myself. Write soon (and write a lot). Tell all about the battery..”
Hanna Thesen of Brackenhill was living with Charles and Bessie in Knysna. She was nineteen and her letters to Bessie reveal her affection for her absent friend:
“April 7th, 1894:
“My dear Aunt Bessie,
“Thanks very much for your letter received last Wednesday. I do hope you’ll get an invite somewhere in Town. It must be very awkward for you staying out at Sea Point. I went to the dance but am sorry to say it was not very pleasant. It was such a stiff affair, and so terribly cold. Yes we did see a good deal of spooning among the “young old ladies”. Mrs. C. was very nicely dressed in dark cream satin (train) was very long. To my mind Mrs. Steytler was the Belle. She had on a beautiful dress silk “Heliotrope” (is this correct) dress and her hair was very nicely done. Of course it was all Cooper (?). I did not meet the Judge neither the Barristers, they were not introduced to any young girls excepting Bertha. You should have seen her carrying on with a Mr. Lake. I believe he made a good deal of her, which made her quite mad again but on their last day here it was discovered that he had a wife and two children. Annie Lloyd poor girl fainted whilst dressing so was unable to go. Hettie Melville also got Asthma a few minutes before the dance. I vowed I should never go to another dance if you are not here. I danced every dance excepting the Galop.”
“I have been obliged to give up teaching in Sunday School and the Choir as my throat is worse again. I was rather deaf yesterday but feel better today. (Hanna became progressively more deaf as she aged.) Eric is very much excited about his birthday. I have promised to make him a cake and have a little home picnic near the cart-house. Mrs. Van Huyssteen is beginning to Grumble that you don’t talk of coming home but I think by a little begging she’ll be quite reconciled.”
“I suppose you have heard that Culpepper and Miss Goldsbury are so spoony. They will be just suitable for each other, so slow. Louie enjoyed her stay down at Woodburn. She has begun school again and finds not half as much trouble in learning her lessons as she used to. The kids keep very well, all so fat and good. Ella is learning to talk very rapidly. Harald is the only lonely one. He is so quiet, though he is very fond of Aunt Letty. Were you not amused at Leonard’s last letter? I must close now, love from all, Your loving niece.”
“From Hanna Thesen April 14th 1894 Knysna
“My dear Aunt Bessie,
“When are you coming home? Uncle Charlie tells me that the Saxon is not likely to come soon.”
“We have all been quite excited here today. Mother came in last night and Mrs. Van Huyssteen’s two children came too. She was so delighted to see them. It is very sad to see these two fatherless children. Mother had a good deal of shopping to do and of course I had to trot about with her and it is a terribly hot day. Poor little Harry has such a swollen face. We were rather anxious about it so sent for the Doctor. He says it is the result of some pain in the gums and has ordered hot water and lotion to be used. Don’t fidget about him, he is still as gay as a lark and eats well. Eric tells him mother will say he is ugly; “the image of Gordon Horn!” The rest of the children are quite happy. We let Louie and Harald go to the Bazaar. Leonard’s eyes are weak so I have kept him indoors today as the sun’s glare is dreadful.”
“I went to a dance last night at Mrs. Horns, such a delightful little party. She gave a Tennis party in the Afternoon to meet Nurse Bessie from Johannesburg hospital. She nursed Bill Lloyd there before he died and so the Lloyds are paying her a little attention. The new A.R.M. has also arrived. He has two young ladies without his wife. I met the one, she is pleasant but is rather too much like Miss (Molenu) is this right? You will see a very great change in affairs when you return. Wood is dead off Mrs. Coward and she is almost frantic. She trots up and down the streets from morning till evening. The Mortimers are staying down at the Heads for a few days. Mrs. Mortimer has not been well lately. Last week I went to see Mrs. Hofmeyer off. She was very sad to leave old Mrs. Stroebel. He is an exceedingly nice man. I was very poorly last Sunday. I thought I should have to go to the Doctor again. It is all over now. The swelling has moved lower down.”
“I feel Aunty-sick today so don’t stay away too long.
Miss Alexander has been ill too, she is suffering from pains in the body. No more dear Aunt Bessie, I must finish my darning. Love to Mrs. Peter (Thesen).”
“Your loving niece. Please give Theodore this note enclosed.” (Theodore was Hanna’s brother living in Cape Town and working for the firm.)
“From Leonard (A.L. Thesen) April 14th 1894 Knysna
“My dearest old Mother How are you getting on. I received your letter last night which of course I was glad of. The cow (Harchie!) has got a calf, a nice little black thing and so lively. (Father says if you will let me have it you need not get the battery which I should like [you] to do.) I hear you are not coming home for another fortnight, if you don’t come in the Gertie. (I wish it was rather tomorrow as I miss you very much). I am writing in the office. Have got another big sty on my eye, which is very sore. Poor little Harry’s face is swollen very much, his top lip is sticking out very far from the other, his eyes also look like Japanese. Hannah’s mother and Florrie stayed with us last night, besides Mrs. Van Huyssteen’s daughter her son is staying with Halfdan. Harald Louie and Harry will write. Am going to get a bamboo down on the causeway to make a squirt thing to shoot with, it has been very hot, the barometer was 84 degrees. What was it you said you saw, birds and your old Tiger cats, why do you call them that? Give my best love to Joe Herald. Give Harald’s also. Tell Uncle Peter he is very nasty he does not want to be my uncle any more. Give my love to Aunt Helen. Tell Uncle P. he must send me something nice with you. How is Theodore getting on? One of the whalers is here talking to Father. Harald says I must tell you to bring him something home with you. I remain your loving son.”
“From Harald Thesen April 20th 1894 Knysna
“My own dear Mother, How are you getting on? I hope you’ll come back in the Saxon. We went to fetch Aunt Amy at the Point this afternoon, and father has promised to take us up to Concordia on Sunday morning. Mrs. Van Huyssteen made you a cake and it was so nice that we ate it up in two days. Agnes gave her a pretty little doll dressed in red and blue. Mary Ann and Emily wish you to come back.”
“The Gertie is in tomorrow and Mary Ann’s young man is coming to see her. I think I am getting thinner every day. Harry looked like a “Jan Bloem Padda” his face was so swollen. Lettie is a very nice girl. She played so nicely with us. We went to the Bazaar and bought a lot of cakes. And now Goodbye, Your loving son, Haraldie.”
“From M.L.M. Harison, The Hermitage, Knysna, April 21st 1894
“My dear Bessie,
“We received your letter last evening and are so glad that you are well and enjoying yourself. Papa has been ill for more than a week. He was taken suddenly ill with “swelled testicles”, had to remain in bed for two days, and lost his appetite. I called in Doctor Clifton at once and he is still attending him. I am very thankful to say that he is very much better, able to go out again. I persuaded Papa to leave off brandy, for a time, and to take English Ale and wine, and the Doctor agreed. We really think it is doing him good. He is getting so thin that I am sure he requires something to keep him up. It has been a very anxious time for me, and at times I missed you so much dear Bessie. I am very thankful that I have kept so well and been able to nurse him.”
“Have you been able to execute my commissions? I see by Stuttaford’s catalogue of fashions that the toque [a type of] Hat is very much worn which would suit me best. I shall be glad if you have got me a black hat. Please don’t forget the Vinolia Powder. The children are all well. We see Louie every day. Charles has been up here twice to see Papa. You must not mind a short letter my dear child as I have still to write to Launcelot. Papa send his affect. Love and hopes that you will enjoy your visit as much as possible. With my fond love. Your affect. Mama. I hope that you will bring back my dress. What luck about the comb?”
Theodore Thesen writes affectionately to his adopted aunt:
“Cape Town 12th December, 1894
“My dear Aunt Bess,
“Many, many thanks for your nice long letter…….We have had some jolly hot days last Sunday being a scorcher and Saturday a terrible South Easter. Several chaps (& myself) about six of us intended going to the Strand on our machines but it was altogether out of the question; several trees in the Avenue were damaged and I did not put my nose out of the house the whole of Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning I went for a ride round the Kloof by myself for exercise and Tuesday evening too but you perspire so that you are wet all over. One feels fine though afterwards. Last night Miss B. Gie, Harry and myself went to a Promenade Concert in the Good Hope Gardens which was very jolly, I thought of the concert we went to in the Hall and Grant Fallowes’s song. Miss B. has enjoyed her trip and no mistake, by her talk and if anything, has improved, is looking very well, the trip has done her good undoubtedly. I was not quite sure on Miss B.’s arrival how matters would be, but it did not take very long to find out. She was very friendly and the same as before she left; I must confess I like the girl but dare not do more and I think she understands (hope so), this is of course strictly private for yourself only my own dear Aunt Bess, you know you are the only one I tell this to and don’t think there is one in the house that knows about it…………………………”
“Aunt Bess what would I have been if it were not for you and Uncle Charley(sic), you know if I think of it I have a lot to be thankful to you for, you my own dearest Aunt Bess that has been like a good mother to me. Can I help being fond of you?”
It seems Bessie was planning a little break away from the routine of the household and would probably have taken the children with her. She had six at the time. (Rolf was born the following year.) Donald Benn was a member of the pilot family at the Heads.
“10th March 1895
“Dear Mrs. Thesen
“…………….if you still intend taking the cottage from your date you are Welcome. 14 days will be the longest I can give,
Mrs. Jackson takes it next when your time expires but if she doesn’t want it then you can continue for another 14 days, kindly let me know.”
“I remain, yours truly, Donald Benn.”
From the following letters it would seem that Leonard was on holiday with his relations in Cape Town and judging by the tone of the last one, not a little homesick:
“Cape Town, December 26th, 1895
“Dear Mother, Are you all well at home. What sort of Xmas presents did all the children get. Have the children made ready to go with Aunt Allie yet. We went down to Mrs. Fischer yesterday for dinner, she has asked me to come and stay down there. I have had great fun in town. The other day I went into town from here. It was all I could do to find the office. I went up and down Adderley street and all over till by chance I looked over the one way and saw “Thesen and Co.” I was glad. Theo (Theodore Thesen) bought me a very nice Norfolk suit. The same colour as the other one (not nikker(sic)). Also a nice hat and pair of boots. I would not loose myself in town, my chief point is the circus, it is just by the station, so that if I could do nothing else I would take a ticket and come back to Sea Point. Theo is very nice to me. He took us to the Cathedral yesterday. It was very crushed. It did not sound like Church when that anthem began. Once the organ went like thunder and then such a sharp note. I always thought “Christians Awake” was very funny but this was worse. Love to all. Pen is bad (there are many smudges on the original letter). I remain your loving son.
“Cape Town, January 2nd 1896
“Dear Mother, How did you spend your new years day, I suppose you did not go for the usual spree not having us there. How did it go with Hendries clothes further. We spent a very quiet but still nice New year. All the Miss Fischers were up here for dinner. I am going to stay down at Fischers from today till Father comes. “Rachel is leaving Aunty.” It seems rather bad about the war in S.A.R. Of course I hear it all, being here. This Mr. Leonard that has so much to do with it lives down that way ‘in Seapoint’. Uncle Peter takes a great interest in such things and all the People in Town and here are talking about it “wherever you go it is war” I hear old Rhodes is resigning his post.”
“I have not been very well since I came here. ‘You know I am not one for sleeping’. And here I get so sleepy and also get headaches and instead of feeling better after it I feel worse. (Pen is awful and so is copying ink). I often have to wate(sic) three hours if I want to go and relieve my feelings. People are so often in baths. Train and fee here to town comes to a lot. Do not they have nice things at those Cafes – strawberries, ice, soup, etc. I go in for strawberries a lot they are so nice. I have seen peaches, grapes, pears already. Peaches and pears I have tasted and are pretty good but the grapes looked orful(sic) (that size – o 0).”
“I have not seen Uncle Lancelot yet but I will.” (Launcelot Harison was in Cape Town on legal business.) Is Father coming up soon. Tell him he must get me something nice if he comes up. You must really tell him. An (air?) gun or a Bicycle or a small toy Engine or locomotive as one sees here, (steamers too by steam). This place seems short of boys. I have only met one since I have been here. Love to all, tell Harry he must write soon. I will write to Hara (Harald) and Louie. I remain your loving son.”
“From Leonard Thesen, Seapoint, undated.
“Dear Mother, I am now staying at Fischers. The Miss Fischers are all very nice, I bought a box of crayons which I am sorry that I did. (Is Stene(sic) nice and what are the Bertelsons like). I am going to town today to buy something to amuse myself with. I don’t know what to say today. There is a nice beach here but the water is too cold to swim.”
“Have Louie and Harald come back yet did they get my letters. Harald will have a nice hand I think. When is Father coming up. I really don’t know how to find Uncle Launcelot. I will try today. Aunt Millie has been to see Aunt Helen and the Miss Fischers. I hurt my toe yesterday. It is sore but I hope to get to Town. On Saturday I had such a Headache worse than I ever had before for 2 hours. Mrs. Fischer’s Persian cat is not white it is grey. If you like I will bring you a nice little grey one for Trix has a kitten. I think it will be a very nice one. They have prayers in the morning here which I like.”
“There is great excitement here about the war. It is rather sad about Dr. Jameson (but God Knows What is Best).”
“Today is the day on which the circus comes there is really great excitement is there any at Knysna. Uncle Peter has not been well lately. He has sores on his face. The Miss Fischers take great interest in the war. Love to all at home. I am longing to be back. I remain your loving son.”
Extracts of the letter below were quoted in the first part of the family history but it is given here in full:
“From Bessie to Katie, March 27th, 1896.
“Your letter came this morning with the tidings of poor Aunt Louisa’s death – dear old lady, I always felt more warm to those two (Louisa Harison was married to the Rev. John Harison, vicar of Bishopston.) than any of the others and am always sorry you did not see them. I suppose Sutton will also have passed out of Harison hands before you ever see it as it seems inevitable at present they say.”
“I don’t think Papa will be much distressed as he can scarcely take in such things nowadays much. He is sometimes moved to tears at the first news but soon gets over it. The dear old Dad has been far from well lately. I don’t know if they told you of the fall he had the other night, not hurting himself seriously but bruising his feet rather badly and I think he got a slight shock besides – he has been getting weaker and the fall was the result which I am inclined to believe. However his speech is clearer if anything. Poor Mamma is still very unhappy about her knee. I don’t know how to comfort her except by keeping up her hope as much as possible as I fear it will never be quite strong again.”
“The sisters (Hare) have now quite decided not to come. I was at first strongly in favour of their going for Alice’s sake but now that she has got this change which will be in some ways better as she has not any charge of Nellie to give her anxiety and will get a complete change up there and get the advice and comfort from those dear people that she wants too. Nellie looks better and so much prefers to stay here now that things had better remain as they are for the present.”
“I am writing hurriedly and under difficulties. My cold is now nearly of two months standing and gets every now and then very heavy again, is today bad and I feel very stupid.”
“Thank you my poor precious sister for your loving words. Yes “there remaineth a rest” even for those who are “Marthas” in this life like myself! Now good bye dear love from thine own sister.”
“My baby boy is so splendid and sweet. I long to show him to you.” (Probably Eric.)
The Bertelsen family – mother, father and children (thought to be four boys and two girls) had come to South Africa from Norway en route to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to settle and had spent some time in the Knysna district.
Mrs. Bertelsen was the sister of Hans Thesen of Brackenhill -- her children, first cousins to Theodore (Thesen) of Cape Town and his sister Hanna. The letters which follow were written by Fred, one of the four boys, describing his journey to the north by ox wagon and his early attempts to become established in Rhodesia.
Some five years later, after the family had begun to farm, mother, father and three sons, including Fred, were killed in a raid by Matabele tribesmen. The bodies of the parents and their youngest son were suspended from the branches of a tree on the bank of the Shangani river and discovered some time later by the two elder boys, Leo and Fred, who were returning to the homestead after a shooting trip.
The boys cut the bodies down and took them back to the house where they laid them out. Surprised by the Matabele who had been observing their movements, they were cornered and killed. The surviving brother Carl had been suffering from Malaria and was away at the time in Bulawayo where he was a member of the Field Forces.
“Rustenburg S.A.R. (City of Rest) Monday 26th January, 1891
“Dear Aunt Bessie As you will see by the above address I am already on the way. The waggons left Johannesburg on Tuesday 14 inst. Leo went with them. They went over [to] Pretoria where they had to be loaded. They were to meet us in Rustenburg. Mr. Currie, the owner of the waggons and myself left Johannesburg last Thursday at 11 o’clock a.m. and going by a short cut over Krugersdorp we arrived here yesterday at 11 o’clock taking just 3 days. The distance is about 70 miles. We came with a Cape Cart and 4 oxen. It was fast wasn’t it? The waggons have not arrived yet. We have heard that they have crossed the Crocodile River but that road was awfully bad beyond and that is why they have been unable to come on. I will write you further details of trip later on. I hope you can make this out. All my ink &c is with the wagons.”
“Please tell Uncle Hjalmar that I am afraid I can’t do much for him just at present as our guns which were to come from Natal had not arrived when we left and will have to be sent after us but that as soon as I get them I will use very opportunity of getting something. With love to all.”
This last paragraph probably explains the large collection of antelope horns which was found in the cellar of the Hill house and which is now in H.P. Thesen’s possession.
“From Fred Bertelsen, Fort Salisbury, Mashonaland
10th November, 1891
“Dear Aunt Bessie, I received yours of 1 March in the beginning of September and as I have been pretty busy since then you must not blame me too much for not answering you.”
“We started as you know on the 14 January and arrived here after a journey of five months and ten days on the 24 June. As we started far too early we got the heavy rains along the Crocodile (Limpopo River) and until we got to Palapye the road was anything but pleasant and it was one continual drag thro’ slush and mud often with two or three spans of bullocks to each wagon. In one place the river rose so high that it drove us out of the road and for miles we had to pick a road thro’ the bush. As the boys were often ill Leo and I had to lend a hand at leading and driving. The day before we arrived one of the leaders died and young Currie (the son of the owner of the waggons) was very bad with Fever but luckily we got into the town and got some fowls and meal from the niggers. Palapye is Khama’s head Town, it contains about 25,000 niggers or if anything more. There are 3 stores and Blacksmith shop and a mission. After a stay of about a fortnight to allow Currie to recover a bit we took to the road again. A few days before we started 4 of the boys ran away.”
“While in Palapye there was a German trader stopping there. He had just come across Country (the Kalahari desert) from Walvisch Bay with cattle. He started with 1200 head lost 500 on the road mostly of lungsick. The trip took him 14 months. We arrived at Tuli in April. From here young Currie not feeling equal to going any farther turned back. We left again after about a month’s stay. After passing Victoria one night almost all the boys ran away and in the morning white and black we just managed to muster one man to each wagon. All the same we got along alright in fact better and faster than when he had boys in plenty.”
“When we reached Fort Salisbury we found things as far as work is concerned almost the opposite of what we expected it to be. The first thing we took to was gardening but after two months hard work chucked it up as the soil was too hard and dry and also so many people were starting the same thing that it didn’t seem likely to pay as well as we had expected.”
“At present we are taking care of 4 farms for the Maritzburg Mashonaland Exploration Syn(dicate). The farms are about 20 miles west of Salisbury, close to the Inyani River on the left hand side of the road to Hartley Hills. The Coy. find grub, plough oxen &c and we have to build huts, plough and sow. The pay is merely nominal but when we accepted things seemed to point to a bad summer and the place anyway would find grub for the wet season. Since then large quantities have come in and all fear of a famine is past.”
“Lord Ran(dolph) Churchill and Mr. C. Rhodes have honoured Salisbury with a visit. The only good as yet arising out of their visit is that the reward for the discovery of alluvial has been raised for £300 and two claims to £5000 and five claims. This will put prospectors on their metal(sic) and the thing will be found if it exists. At present the above two gentlemen are gone to Victoria to inspect the reported new finds there. When we first came in people were allowed to go and peg stands and register them thus securing the first right to buy them from the Co. when the township should be surveyed. Leo and I each pegged one, the township has been surveyed and both are in good positions and should we want to leave here we can easily raise a bit of money on them. The upset price is £25 each payable whenever the Co. can give titles presumably some time next year. As we haven’t got and are not likely to have hoof enough to pay we will sell before it becomes due. Out on the farm we are building a large hut 24ft. x12ft. and intend to make ourselves pretty comfortable. It is a Rough life of course more or less according to circumstances. It has its ups and downs but all things considered if you keep your health it is pretty pleasant, i.e. to one who likes to knock about.”
“There is a rumour in Camp that all Matabele boys have been called in. Some say there’s going to be a row – others that it is only a gathering. Mr. C.F. Selous has been made commander of Burgher forces. He has also been superintending the forwarding of provisions from Tuli.”
“Next year if we don’t get ill and if we can raise the wind we intend to have a look at Manica. Victoria seems to be getting ahead of this place in the gold line. As quill-driving is out of my line at present I’m getting rather rusty at spelling so you must please excuse mistakes if there are any.”
“20 November. Last Sunday I received yours of September 7th. Ever so many thanks for it, if there are any details to answer I will answer it in my next. Please write. Anything will do. We are only too glad to get news of any description here. Now I must close with Love and Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all the Uncles, Aunts, Cousins and last but not least, dear Aunt Bessie, Yourself.”
“From Bessie Thesen to her sister Kate, Knysna, May 30th, 1896
“And now to tell you a little about a sad thing that has happened. I think I told you sometime back our anxiety for our poor cousins the Bertelsens and their boys on the Shangani River. Today we have received confirmation of our fears, they have all (five) been murdered. This telegram is in answer to enquiries through the Chartered Co., who promise to make further enquiries. There is no help in trying to disbelieve it, it is only too probable, but the contemplation is too terrible. I dare not dwell on it. The brave little woman, her feeble helpless husband and the two noble sturdy sons, and the little son of twelve and of the poor orphan girls in Cape Town – forced to realise their loss at last. They have kind and tender hearted friends in Peter (Thesen) and his wife who have taken them home for a time. The eldest will be an efficient teacher soon, her sister is only about 14. The eldest son’s present fate is unknown, as he does not seem to have joined his parents but was constantly getting fever – poor Fred, he and our Theodore were such playmates in the old days and we always kept up an intermittent correspondence. Well dear, these are sad times in our land. God help us all, we need wisdom in our rulers, more than ever.”
“I have not been writing these last two weeks – more from having a press of work or from feeling too tired than inclination. Well since I wrote I know Mamma has written and told you how pleased they were to get your last letter though it saddened them too. The dear old man is getting on so well and it is such a pleasure to see him enjoy his little outings in the chair we got for him in Town. It only cost £7 and is in every way suitable and almost exactly like the one Uncle John had in that photo taken a few years before his death. The man that pushes it is an old soldier – a little inclined to liquor occasionally, but on the whole just the man for the job and Mrs. Champions second husband. She is not well off and he has only his pension so the sum they pay (9d a trip)……….comes in very handy to the old couple and is after all cheaper than keeping a boy whose feed would be expensive besides the difficulty of getting the right sort. Mamma is looking better, though she has fallen off very much in the face.”
“I am looking forward so much to Launcelots arrival in August tho’ it will be just when I am laid by – still I shall be more at ease having him here in case of Papa’s getting ill again. I am beginning to feel every day a little less fit for the climb up the hill, so am doubly thankful Papa is able to drive down to me now.”
“I have not seen the sisters for some time, poor Alice I fear Jim’s latest is just the last straw, the poor fellow, he scarcely recognises one across the street his eyesight has failed so too.”
(their brother James Hare.)
“Well this is a sad letter. Do not think I stay there always, many days are very peaceful and quite blessed. Wont you write a few lines to poor Mrs. Duthie, she seems to appreciate it and is such a splendid hopeful Christian, such a woman is a living sermon. His loss is much felt by all his friends and they were many. Oh Kittie do you feel as I often do now that our friends are just lent, we never get enough of them. Dear love to thee and thine.”
“From Theodore Thesen, Cape Town, June, 1896
“My dear Aunt Bess,
“Thanks very much for your last nice letter. It was quite a heap after the last few short notes…….Ella and Nina (Bertelsen – the two surviving daughters of the murdered Bertelsens) went back to school on Tuesday. Mrs. Peter (Thesen) took them up; she says they cried so when she left them, they are fond of her I think. Poor girls they can’t realise yet what it is, and Nina says she can’t believe it. I was out to see them Sunday afternoon. The Fischers are very good to them and daresay they will spend some of their holidays with them……..No more today Aunt Bess dear, fond love.”
“From Theodore Thesen, Cape Town, 4th December, 1896
“My dear Aunt Bess,
“….Have you seen Carl Bertelsen’s letter describing how the Bertelsens were killed. I feel more for the boys, just fancy they were out shooting and coming home found their mother and father both murdered outside the house and then doing the last bit of kindness by putting them inside on the bed when they were surrounded by the Matabele and had to get in the room where they met their doom. It is awful. I can’t forget it, it seems to worry me more now than before…………………”
“I am not certain yet if I will be able to get home for Xmas………..Mr. Reitz, ex President, was in the office here yesterday and he is looking very much better and got more go in him and believe he will be able to work again before long. I heard that he is going to Knysna with two of the boys next Agnar. She will be pretty full with passengers I expect……..”
“With much fond love dear Aunt Bess.”
Launcelot Harison, Bessie and Kate’s only brother and well-known Eastern Cape Magistrate, was in Cape Town on legal business:
“From Launcelot Harison, Cape Town, 20th June 1896
“My dear Bessie,
“What a terrible thing about the Bertelsens.”
“It was good of you to remember my birthday – yes we are all getting on now – I would gladly be put back a bit. I feel very young for my age however which is a comfort.”
“I was very much grieved at your account of poor Father and I chafe a good deal at my not being able to get down to see him. I cannot realize that he will not rally, he has a grand constitution. Well! August is not far off now – the Boarding house opposite the old folks is just the place for us, we would not dream of disturbing them. I will write to you and Mother definitely about this later on.”
“It is always raining here now a great contrast to what we are accustomed to – we live at Sea Point now in rather a nice cottage (No. 9 London Villas). The change is delightful and we all feel and look ever so much better. We shall stay there until my time is up. I simply could not get a house in the Gardens and told Govt. I was obliged to live at Sea Point. The twins are growing visibly, they can just crawl about and give us no end of bother. Dorothy is stouter and fatter than Jack now”
“You must read the Debate in Parliament on Charles Leonard’s arrest, I came out of it allright (I generally do in the end) but it was a ticklish time for me.”
“When did you hear from Katie last? I am afraid we could not do much for Miss Thesen, (probably Alfhild.) we were just moving houses when there was anything worth seeing at the theatre and there was nothing else going on. Millie and I are very fond of her.”
“Love to you both, I hope you are keeping well dear Bessie, your affect. Brother.”
“From Bessie Thesen, Knysna, July 28th 1896.
“My dear Katie,
“I never wrote you last post but hope you were not anxious as I
suppose the sisters wrote.”
“Charlie left on Tuesday and I hope to have him back next Wednesday, a fortnight. The time has not been so long, these are such busy days. If I could only work the machine with ease, I should positively enjoy the quiet days when no one expects you to go out or grumbles if you don’t come to see them – rather mean isn’t it! But if it weren’t for Papa and not seeing enough of him I would not mind. He enjoys calling round on his morning outing for a minutes chat. I never like to keep him long in the cold wind – and it satisfies my mind too as to his state. But he varies so, sometimes so much better, then he feels the cold changes and seems to get so feeble and weak in mind and body all of a sudden, then the warm days revive him again and he is able to speak and think quite clearly. Poor Mamma – I suppose this trial is one which is very hard for her energetic nature to bear – and the long lonely evenings (for he goes early to sleep) are a great trouble too.”
“Your last letter was a pleasant one and gave me a bright picture of my dear old sister with her country home and guests to be welcomed in the bright summer weather. Dear what is in our constitutions that makes the sunshine almost a necessity to our happiness! Yesterday was a gloomy rainy day and I felt utterly low and dispirited by night fall. I have been mercifully given a good share of brightness and good spirits this time – nerves and body stronger I suppose. What a difference a few years rest makes! (Rolf Frederick Thesen was born two days after this letter was written.)
No dear I am quite convinced that it is our duty to secure at least a few years rest to give the necessary strength for the mother and the little one. The question is a serious one and all goes on the old question of “use and abuse” which hinges (on) all similar questions. One has a slight dread at the thought of this knowledge becoming the rule of life with ones own young folks – whose innocence might be contaminated by it – as alas I have already seen here among respectable families. Well we must just pray and trust!, the future is hidden mercifully.”
“Dear, don’t you dwell too much on the dread of the “heredity tendencies”? “Is the Lord’s arm shortened that He cannot save?” one asks. What are we all today but descendants of many sinners, many afflicted ones in mind and body – though we are as mercifully in the dark about the past as the future? If we are each a muddle of tendencies inherited from our forefathers only – where is that fair chance of each individual soul promised us, are we not like the Israelites grumbling and whining about the “fathers that eat the sour grapes” and don’t we deserve the same answer they got? Oh well you have probably laid that comfort to your soul long ago dear only I feel as if I must have my say too!”
“Now I want you to help me about a scheme I have been debating for some time. Perhaps, if I am spared I may be able to set on foot a sort of “Mothers meeting” among our poor coloured women, a sort of simple Bible reading and still simpler explanation – followed perhaps by some easy story reading of some old truth. Don’t you think it could be done – and wont you think over it? What could be got in the shape of a simple magazine of stories which could be still more simplified by the reader?, yet interesting enough to keep the attention of our easily amused folk. The “British Workman” was in my mind but I fear those are too English. Don’t you know among your many Christian worker friends some one used to dealing with the very ignorant who might give the necessary advice? You had started this among the white mothers here – but I feel my line is towards the coloured ones. They have oh so little in their lives!, and so little outside help. It is a work and a splendid one – I think it is too good for me – but perhaps I could get the materials ready for some better workman. That would be enough too. If I am spared I hope to do something more than I have done, or else why am I left here, the centre of a sort of world of poverty dependences and sickness whose hands reach out to me all the day long? Until sometimes my heart faints under the burden of the sorrows round me until I remember Who bears them all for us.”
“Well think and pray and do something about this, that the long weeks of rest may be blessed ones, if I may get so far! Love, oh so much to you dear sister.”
Rolf Thesen was born on 30th July, 1896 and from the following letter one can see that Charles did get back in time for the birth after all. Mrs. A.V. (Vera) Duthie whose husband A.H. Duthie had died after a short illness in May 1896 writes:
“Belvidere, July 30th 1896.
“My dear Mrs. Thesen,
“I ought to have written to you before, but I have had so very many letters to answer that I know you will excuse me. I am now feeling much stronger and better, and hope soon to come and see you and your infant son. We do indeed congratulate you that all is safely over and that the little fellow is a strong and healthy child, and a boy as you wished I believe; also that Mr. Thesen was back home again before his birth. I hope you will make a quiet recovery without anything to throw you back and that all the other children will keep well while you are in your room.”
“I only had my girls for such a short time but Archie comes home every week from Saturday to Monday early, which is very nice, and now that all the children are back here at school, my time is fully occupied, and so it is only in the evenings and nights that I am so lonely; then there are the promises, precious promises to lean upon, what would one do without them! (It is likely that she shared Bessie’s interest in the Temperance Movement.) I must give over to Miss Duthie the visiting work among our coloured people, and the Sunday School to Miss Armstrong, which is a grief to me. There is no use attempting too much and I am thankful to be able to stay on among them all.”
“Ever believe me, yours sincerely, A.V. Duthie.”
An undated note from Mrs. Duthie and delivered by hand to Bessie:
“My dear Mrs. Thesen,
“What great cause for thankfulness there is in all that was done by the Licensing Court, and how well and wisely, Mr. Thesen did his most important part; we will indeed praise the Lord for the great result, and expect future blessings from His Hands………I hope to see you about the steamer tickets, etc., tomorrow but felt I must just send you a line of rejoicing today. Believe me, ever yours, very sincerely, A.V. Duthie.”
M. Weile, otherwise known as Mary Ann Saunders, writes. (She had been employed as a nanny to the children by Bessie some years before.)
“East London, October 13th 1896.
“My dear old Misstress,
“Thanks very much for both letters it is a shame that I did not answer the first one but I felt too ‘laf’ to write but now I am alright again. I look quite smart again just like the Miss Saunders of old, I dare say. My father let you know the news that I have a daughter, the sweetest little girlie and so like her father, she is going to have blue eyes. As for myself I am feeling quite well and I have a lot of milk too for my baby but at first she would not take the one breast. I got through my trouble alright and rather easy too I think only the after-birth did not come away at once, fully an hour, and it had not moved yet so Paul went and fetched Dr. Nargle(sic), he said it was very high up and I think it was fast somewhere; I sat still too much, sewing. I did all my things by hand. I was saying to Paul I wish Missus could see my little baby you would laugh to see us like two monkeys and we think there is not another like her. I am glad to hear that Missus’s baby was a boy, as your wish came true. I am almost sure it is just like Harald. Just fancy my father having another one. I do think it is time he stopped but these old people!”
“How is all the people getting on? I only write to Emily Compton once but still I don’t forget her, she will be shocked to hear I got a baby so soon. Is Hennie still with his missus? I hear his mother was down on a visit. I hope she did not try to get to go with her. She ought to take off nice with her. And old Mary has she got another yet? Tell her that I say it was not very nice when it came to the time for it to come. I walked up and down all night and she was born at a quarter to seven on Sunday morning the 27th of Sep.”
“Harald wrote his Uncle Lance was in Knysna. Capt. Harison must have been glad to see him. Did he bring his twins? Is it true that Sarah Thomas stole some things out of Becketts shop and got six months in jail? Old Mrs. Barker told me. I had her to look after me as she does not charge much and East London nurses one has to pay about two or three pounds, besides the Doctor its rather a lot of money for a poor person. Excuse my bad writing. This pen is just like I don’t know what.”
“Best love to all the children and to my old missus, your loving
“P.S. Paul just told me that the Agnar has gone down. What a lot of worry master will have. I am sorry about the old Agnar. I thought I might come back to Knysna in her again one day. Paul says he hopes Master going to get another one.”
The newly acquired Agnar did not sink as Mary Ann Weile heard from her husband but had run ashore twelve miles west of Cape Receife in Algoa Bay. The event must have received considerable publicity as the grounding was also mentioned by Leighton Hare (his brother in law) in a letter to Charles from England. After some anxiety and at a cost of £400, she was floated off on the 17th October 1896 having been aground for five days but none the worse for the accident.
“From Katie to Bessie
“The Peel, Hellifield, Yorks.
“October 28th (circa 1896),
“Your last letter was very interesting though sad to know that dear Mama had hurt her knee again, I am so sorry, but hope by keeping still she may improve again. Papa seems much the same from all accounts; what a splendid constitution he must have had! But it is grievous to know that the brain power has gone. Well! The all wise Father knows best for all his children.”
“I was so delighted to hear about the Temperance work dear, and hope that ere this reaches you (you) will have decided to join the G.T. (Good Templars.) It is not perhaps what we should have chosen but is always spoken of as a good practical organization, and if some good men take the lead, it will be a help and stay to you.”
“The interest in those things always increases when one is thoroughly pledged, and we must not mind a little scorn or even inconvenience for a cause which we firmly believe is Gods – “The disciple must be as his Master”, if a real disciple, and we can gladly bear what He bore in such fearful measure. I know dear the real ‘crux’ will be the Hermitage (where their parents presently reside.) but that must be borne too for your boys sake as well as Charlies! It strengthens ones character wonderfully to stand opposition in a good cause. We are getting the same just now, all we do is put down as ‘dissenting work’, and scoffed at accordingly, you see our poor young clergyman is as entirely out of sympathy with us…………” (The last part of this letter is missing.)
“From Katie to Bessie, Hellified Peel, Leeds, November 20th, (circa 1896)
“My dearest Bessie,
“Your turn has come round again for a letter and I am glad to have a bit of quiet for a paper chat. How you must all have missed Launcelot when he left, especially the dear old folk. I got such a nice long letter from him after he got to Richmond, telling all his ideas of Papa’s state & many little touching details of the parting, also he sent me the photo of the group. It was a great pleasure to me to have it for notwithstanding that some are failures (yours particularly) the one of dear father has cheered me much, there is such a quiet brightness about the face, nothing in the least painful, and I am so glad Mama let herself be taken, it brought her back to me very forcibly, and the expression is sweet. Your three handsome laddies in the foreground are worth looking at, and Louie has altered but little from the sweet innocent baby face I remember. Mab (Launcelot’s daughter Mabel) looks fierce but there is plenty of character in her face. I guessed the Mother (the unfortunate Millie!) was not much improved, poor old Launcelot, he was worthy of a better wife. How sad for poor Fanny and Willie to have lost that baby girl, they will miss her sorely, but I hope Bessie will go home now, and cheer them a bit, though the youngest gone cannot but leave an aching blank.”
“We go on all well at present, the weather is getting bitterly cold, and the days very short, but time passes very quickly, and Christmas will soon be here, the little folks are full of it already. What a sad prospect there is in the Colony with this terrible rinderpest, (an acute contagious disease of cattle which by late 1896 had resulted in devastation throughout the country.) and famine among the natives. One fears it is a country that has practically forgotten its God, and so these trials come to force them to see His hands in these things. It is terrible in England too, infidelity and immorality are advancing with giant strides especially in the large towns, and so little respect is paid to the Sunday that I think people forget there is a 4th Commandment! Still in this country, side by side with those who forget God, there exists a very large and powerful body of men & women who truly love Him from their hearts, and show it in their lives, and these leaven the mass. It strikes me that very soon there will be no safe middle way, the dividing line will have to [be] made sharp & clear & the decision either for Christ or against Him, as in the early days.”
“Miss Haye goes on very nicely she is so methodical and conscientious about her work, and the children are really getting on nicely now, you would be surprised to see how well little Kathie can read, she is only five but is such a plodding steady little body. Nellie is my piece of quicksilver, and not very strong I fear, but a loving, sunshiny little body at present. I am anxious about schooling for Theodore, it seems too far to get backwards & forwards from the Grammar school every day, and the tone of the school is not considered very good, so we shrink from making him a boarder, things may develop as he gets old enough to go, we must just trust. Goodbye now sister mine, much love to thee from your loving sister, Katie Hare.”
“From Katie Hare, Hellifield Peel, Leeds, circa December 1896:
“Just a line to go with Leighton’s to Charlie, though there is not much to write about. The snow has come & and little folks amuse themselves with snowballing one another. It looks very pretty but makes one feel a bit chilly. How different all is looking with you, it seems quite hard to realize it now but how delightful a bit of your sunshine would be and some of your apricots. Cook is amusing herself with a few preparations, plum puddings & mincemeat & cakes, but I tell her ours is not a house for much feasting as we have to consider our little folks, and are expecting no visitors or grown-up children.”
“I wish I had a big daughter or two, but then they would have their heads full of lovers I suppose! I am so grieved to hear that Mama’s knee keeps still bad, it makes things very much harder for her.”
“And now dear I must see about finishing some of my small things for Christmas so must just wish you Goodbye with dear love. Your loving sister.”
“From H. Leighton Hare to his brother-in-law Charles Thesen
“December 18th 1896
“My dear Charlie,
“Many thanks for your interesting letter of the 31st October. By this week’s mail the Stand(ard) Bank is advising to your credit at Knysna the amt. you mention viz. £4 due, on James’s account, to the end of the year – this goes with my best thanks for the kind interest you have taken in his welfare – especially in the matter of arranging with Franzsen. You will, I know, keep a careful eye on the working of the scheme and I shall take it as very kind if you will report to me from time to time. We must be prepared for changes in the state; but, if he can carry it on without over-fatigue, farming or gardening may prove better for him than office-work. I will be careful to remit to you six-monthly. Please acknowledge each remittance.”
“It was pleasant to hear from yourself something about yourself and family. I wish we were within reach of one another. Your children are, I know, a growing pleasure to you as well as an increasing responsibility. We parents have especial need to live near to God, so that we may be able to influence our children for Him and His ways.”
“The accident to the Agnar must have been a real trouble to you. I hope the loss will not prove to be so much as if she had been broken up.”
“You will be glad to have a house of your own – now the family is increasing in size and number.”
“All is well with us – the tenants and farms are a source of trouble, certainly. These are bad times for landowners, with no prospect of improvement, but the contrary. This next year the District Council are to take over our main roads & to put them in satisfactory order at our expense – not a light expense either but we must take the trials with the mercies – Katie sends her love with mine, to Bessie, & yourself & the children. Believe me, Your affect. Brother.”
“From Katie Hare, Hellifield Peel, [Near Leeds], January 22, 1897
“My dearest Bessie,
“I fear you have been left a little out in the cold this last mail or so, but it is sometimes difficult to fit in everywhere. So many things have to be put straight after the fuss and bustle of Christmas time, and the Nellie and I ran away to Leeds for three days to do our shopping and have her teeth attended to, she actually had to have five stopped!”
“…………………No doubt the sisters (Leighton’s) have told you of Leighton’s wish that they come to us on a long visit at once. This seems a good opportunity when both Jem and little Bessie are away, and some change and rest seems so needful for both. The voyage might set Nellie up for a time and she could get the best medical advice here. As they are so close to the sea, it would be no difficulty to get away, and a voyage under easy circumstances is not tiring in any way. It will cost us something but not much more, as we already provide for them entirely, and they would live with us. I do hope they may make up their minds to come, it would be a great pleasure to see them again and Leighton is building a good deal on it I can see.”
“For myself there is a bit of jealous feeling that it should not be you first, my darling, or the old folks but I fear in father’s state that is out of the question now, still the naughty feeling will come (this between ourselves). We have a nice large spare room upstairs where Nellie can be away from all the youngsters’ noises, and the children will be a great pleasure to them I am sure. Little frictions there will be no doubt, but we all understand one another and serve the same Master, so for a few months I must trust all will go well………………………………”
“It has been snowing heavily today, and now the sun shines, and it looks lovely…What sad troubles the poor old country seems plunged into, with another native rising in prospect, oh dear, I wish you were all this side of the water.”
“From Leighton Hare to Charles, February 11th,1897
“The Peel, Hellifield, Yorkshire.
“My dear Charley,
“By last mail, I wrote Peter, asking him to do what he could to make the voyage a comfortable one to Alice & Ellen (his sisters.) in case they should decide to come, as we have asked them. He is a kind man, and will, I am sure, do all we could wish. Then, what I thought of was: he is on the spot, and knows the steamers personally – so would be able to secure the very best berths – or if there should be any objection to those chosen, (such as being too near the Steward’s Pantry, the engines &) could arrange an exchange.”
“Only since writing, it has struck me that, just possibly, my writing to Peter might give rise to some confusion – as I know the Sisters will have consulted you, and I know that you will, like a true and kind friend, be doing everything you can to ease their way. Still, I know Peter would not act in the matter of berths & without first communicating with you: so it will, I quite hope, be all right. You would not, I trust, think, for a minute, that any slight to yourself was thought of.”
“Among other things, I asked Peter to get a wicker or cane deck-couch and chair, cushioned, for the Sisters, and some curios and jam &c for me. You will be able to suggest many things. In fact I expect the Sisters will lean on you a good deal as we did, when we came.”
“I hope all is going on well with you, and that Bessie and the children are in good health. We have been cheered by hearing good accounts of Brother James.”
“All well here and (we) unite in love to Bessie yourself and the children. Believe me, your affect. Brother.”
The barque Freidheim was wrecked on 23rd June, 1897 and Bessie writes to Kate about the tragedy:
“….But Wednesday our festivities had a dreadful damper – all the week a big creosote sailing ship had been waiting to come in and at eleven o’clock she mistook the signal and tried to come in. She bumped on the bar, then seeing the danger flag running up, tried to turn round, in doing so struck on the rocks off the picnic place. In about a quarter of an hour from the time she struck she had entirely disappeared, broken to pieces on the rocks. It was awful, heart breaking to watch the beautiful thing, full sail roll from side to side with a jerk as she pounded on the rocks then slowly go lower and lower, heave more heavily to the right and in another second she was out of sight! It was dreadful dear, I can never forget it.”
“Of course Charlie got the cart and tore off as soon as he saw her danger collecting Benn and Jackson and some others as he went. The rocket brigade men got the mule wagon adding to their numbers as they drove, and every cart and nearly all the horses, besides numbers running on foot, were rushing off in no time.”
“But oh it was weary waiting here for us helpless folks – with no knowledge of the fate of the crew.”
“All but one were saved, nine lives in all. Charlie was among the first down and says it was awful to see – the wreck completely broken up and the men, some four on a large piece of decking, one on a rock, one on some other wreckage and three floating in the water among the broken tubs and creosote. A boat went over the bar and picked up the three floating in the water, rather badly bruised and half-blinded with the creosote, and the others were saved by ropes from shore including the Captain with his Bible in his hand, ‘All he had saved,’ he said.”
“Poor fellows they were in a miserable plight, mostly naked and shivering with the cold, but there were plenty to help with blankets, brandy and coffee – what a general wave of thankfulness through all the village when the carts returned with them.”
“The one who was drowned was an old man who couldn’t swim, he said when the others stripped to save their lives that he didn’t expect he would be saved, he was seen on a piece of wreck but before the rope could be thrown him he had disappeared. He has not been found.”
“The creosote killed heaps of fish and poor little sea creatures, starfish and sea urchins lie washed up along the beach besides fish, eels, catfish innumerable.”
“Well it is one of those unexpected things that take away ones breath and seems unreal when over, were it not for the presence of the crew and the quantity of broken timber at the picnic place besides the barrels of creosote and all pervading smell of creosote coming in from the sea, it would seem a dream to us today.”
“Their escape seems marvellous when we look at those cruel rocks – the creosote helped greatly to smooth the waves on the bar, besides keeping off the sharks and happening in the morning – clear sunlight and warm weather, all in their favour made a great difference.”
“Len and I rode down in the afternoon – only a few broken spars rearing up and down in the water showed where the masts and fore part lay anchored. Well dear I have gone on into a long yarn, but all our hearts are very full of this just now and I know you will understand…….. Very lovingly dear old sister mine. I wish I could show you our baby Rolf – he is such a sweet old chap – everyone’s pet and plaything, his hair is coming at last.”
“From Katie Hare, Tosside, July 29th (circa 1897)
“My dearest Bessie,
“Just a few lines today as tomorrow, our proper mail-day, we shall be most of the day in the train for Whitby. We enjoyed the little quiet week up here, though we could not do much owing to the uncertain weather, it has always looked like rain, if it didn’t fall since Saturday. Still we have seen several of the tenants and got to know how the land lies a bit. Poor things! They do want help in many ways, (not bodily, they are all well off) but spiritually. The parson does scarcely anything, and has no light to give out, only a dry intoned service once on Sunday. The Chapel folk are the most enlightened and the most numerous I am glad to say. It makes one wish so that we could have lived more amongst them, but having no house was the difficulty.”
“I was very glad of your last letter, it is such a comfort to know the dear father does not suffer though he is evidently sinking now I fear. Oh! Darling you are quite right how thankful one would be for just one sure token that he was resting on the Lord, we can only pray & trust Him. The children are all well & looking forward to the sea side. Theodore found two companions here, the sons of the clergyman, he has been quite engrossed with them, it was such a novelty! How I should like to see your baby, he must be such a sweet little man! My last laddie is the finest of the batch, and so intelligent.”
Sad news had been received of the death of Bessie’s little nephew Jackie who was the son of her only brother Launcelot Harison and his wife Millie. Launcelot was then a Magistrate in Barkly West and Bessie had written to him.
“West Barkly, 1st August 1897
“My dear Bessie, It was like you to write so kindly. It is needless my telling you what poor little Jackie’s loss is to us. Time, as you say, will doubtless soften the blow, in the meantime it is a hard one to get away from. There were circumstances about the dear little lad’s death that tried and affected me terribly. To begin with he was dangerously ill for more than a month. He wanted the most careful attendance and nursing, Millie was too ill to do anything, it is difficult to get good trained nurses so that I bore the brunt of it. Nights and days passed without my even changing my clothes, for weeks the only sleep I got was when I nodded in a chair at his bedside or rested on a couch near him and then my nerves got so unstrung that if he even stirred or made the least noise I awoke at once. During those long days and nights we got to know each other so well and he became very dear to me. It was wonderful how sensible and intelligent he became and how easily manageable. We sent for the best Medical man from Kimberley, he consulted with our man here and between them they nearly pulled the dear little chap through, he was pronounced out of danger and sat up playing with his toys for a few days, when his temperature rose suddenly to 106.”
“Well! You may imagine the rest, another consultation of Doctors who decided that his brain was inflamed and told me that not one in a hundred ever recovered and Millie and I tried to realize that he was going, still dear Bessie, in our inward hearts we hoped on – he lingered on for eight days unconscious for the most part, at times a little better another worse. At the early stage of his illness we got a trained nurse for a few days, but she had to leave to keep another arrangement. During the last ten days of his illness, we got about the last trained nurse to be got our here, one who had spent six years in a children’s Hospital in England and a great comfort she was to us, still she had to rest and I shared the work with her, being nearly “trained” myself by this time. The last three nights she and the Doctor assured me were each of them to be his last and consequently I was near him, still he lingered on in an unconscious state when on Wednesday night last there was no doubt in my mind he was sinking.”
“I sat by him until 3 a.m. when with a long drawn sigh the dear little lad passed away.”
“In the meantime Millie was herself a patient, I was warned not to give her a shock and had to use the greatest tact and judgement in getting her to realize that he could not possibly live. The suspense told on her terribly, and on the night of his death, she was only sleeping under the influence of medicine the Doctor gave her. When she awoke and knew he was dead, I became very anxious about her silent dry-eyed grief, the only thing to be done was to get her to Kimberley where she is now. I rode over directly after the funeral and I found her more reasonable.”
“Millie is nothing but a child still in habit and temperament and I am at times very fearful about her. She is very oppressed and full of feelings of resentment and vengeance, thinks our local Medico is to blame and the climate etc. She is decidedly queer and eccentric at times now and really dear Bessie I am having an anxious time. When she is back with me I know she will be all right to a great extent, but she has declared against ever returning here and I really cannot pack up again and move. I know what the feeling is about returning to the house and rooms where the dear little one played. God knows how I felt it, being quite alone in the house ever since his death – I hear from her every day and have every hope that things will turn out well in time. I would have to give up about £250 a year to leave this place even if I got a station like George besides getting a bad name as a man who is always agitating for a move. The Doctor’s and nurse’s bill runs to over £100 and I have been and intend continuing to help dear Mother a bit. Personally I do not feel in the least prejudiced against the place now, on the contrary it will be a wrench to leave the little grave here. We shall never really get to a pleasanter station.”
“You might help me a bit by writing to Millie specially about returning to the house, the memories it will recall will cease to be sad ones after a time. Urge the matter very gently of course, I cannot but respect her feelings about it. I am changing all the rooms entirely – the first few days may be rather trying but what she feels about the house will wear off before long – It would be madness my moving now and moreover I am utterly wearied of packing up and unpacking. Put the matter gently and sensibly like a good sister.”
“From what you say I very much fear that poor Father cannot last much longer. I did intend running down when the end came but the money it will cost will be put to better use in helping dear Mother. I have things all in train for the prompt payment of the pension of £75 to Mother when the end comes. I think if we three children contribute £25 a head and make up another £75 between us that Mother can make ends meet on £150. What do you think? Assure Mother that she need feel no anxiety about her income – I am prepared to pay double £25 for that matter – she gets more than £25 a year from us as it is, the dear old lady! Tell Charlie that if he will see to all the necessary arrangements when poor Father dies, I will pay the expense. I don’t want the Estate burdened with anything. It is worth £300 (the life assurance) excluding of the furniture.”
“The great thing is to let Mother go on living quietly in the Hermitage. You might keep your eyes open for some suitable companion for Mother who might possibly share the expense of housekeeping with her. I often think of Miss South of George. She has a little income of her own and is a particularly bright companion besides being a high principled woman. You will think me rather plain-spoken about poor Father’s death, but we have to face the realities of life and there is nothing like being prepared.”
“Our poor old Daddy! To this day I cannot associate the strong, hard, wiry, man I parted with in ’87 and always knew in the pink of health with the wreck I met again last year. What splendid health he always had. I have some of it and so have you! When I look back over the last month I wonder how I stood the strain.”
“Well! Dear Bessie, I have written you a fearfully long letter. You deserve one. Let Charlie read it, how is the old chap? And how is the Agnar? We shall pay you all a visit again as soon as possible. Love to you both and your circle of boys and girls, Your affectionate brother.”
“P.S. Mab (his elder daughter) is living with friends here and Dorothy (his younger daughter, Jacky’s twin) is with Millie of course. The school is fairly good here. Ask Charlie to find out what the “Hermitage” can be purchased for? If it can be got reasonably I have some idea of buying it especially if some diamond claims I have bought here turn up trumps. If I were not the CCRM [Resident Magistrate] I could easily make money here. New mines are constantly being found. It is thought that the neighbourhood of Kliptown where the Leicester Mines are, will become another Kimberley.”
“From Bessie to her sister Kate, Knysna, July 27th, 1897
“My dearest sister
“I must write you a few lines this week as I fear you will get but scant news and sad news elsewhere. We are all so grieved for poor Launcelot and Millie, they have lost their little twin son Jacky of pneumonia meningitis after whooping cough – poor little laddie he never was a strong child and had always a weak chest. It must be a very heavy blow to them, she especially was very fond of him and Launcelot very proud of the one little son – poor things, they have reared them to such an age (two years) over all their baby troubles, it is very hard to give them up now. I have often noticed that the one that is the idol has to be given up and strive how we will, is there not always to us mothers one lamb, one that is in our very heart of hearts, perhaps the weakling of the sturdy flock the mothers baby, those little hands seem to hold us and draw us as none of the others do? I sometimes think it is perhaps the very feeling that their hold on life is frail that makes us always tender of them. My one Eric, the child that was given back to us and whom I have never felt secure of since is (I know) the pet lamb of mine – which is yours? Or is yours perhaps as mine was at first the reigning baby. I wish I could show you my Rolf he is so splendid now and will be a year next Friday.”
“Dear Papa is far from well today, we have had an anxious day about him, he complained of giddiness in the night and seemed afterwards wandering and excited, this continued at intervals through the day but this afternoon he slept and seemed sensible and at ease again. His mind seems to revert to his young days and he speaks constantly of “the men” and “the boys” and “getting the men together” so we think his mind is evidently back with the regiment again when he gets light headed. Odd isn’t it? But he always recognises Mamma and I, though he never seems to enquire for me if absent for a day. Oh Kittie my own old sister I fear my letters only pain you, yet I know you want me to tell you all and it eases my heart. Now goodbye. I am longing to hear how you are enjoying the change and how Theodore is. Leonard has passed his elementary exam but only 3rd class, all the rest from here passed the same so don’t mind it so much; 2 failed; in haste.”
This letter from Launcelot to Bessie records the death of their father, Christopher Harison:
“Port Alfred, 9th November 1897:
“My dear Bessie,
“I only just had time to get a letter off to dear Mother yesterday to catch the post. I got the wire at 2 o’clock. I promised Katie to cable to her promptly but for the life of me I cannot remember what her exact address is – I have a carefully-kept memo of it at Barkly. Tell Charlie to let me know what the cable cost and I will refund him. Poor dear old Father, we were all prepared for his death and it was really a release for him; still the bright, cheerful old man of the past was very much before me all night and I was thinking of poor Mother – what of her? How is she? I could not have been in time for the funeral and the expense of getting to Knysna from here or from Barkly is fearful. I wired today to Charlie to get Robinson to take the necessary steps to get the estate settled up. I will pay his account. Mother gave me to understand that she would like to stay on at Hermitage? And I am convinced she will be happier there than elsewhere. I dislike the idea of Charlie being put to any expense on her account. Still I thought if we three children could make up £75 a year each,
and we would not feel it much. Leighton agrees. I may give more later on.”
“Things are shaping badly for me. Millie’s health is getting worse, she must have constant changes, doctors always in the house, nurses and luxuries. She is too weak to keep house and I am thinking of getting a housekeeper. Since our little one died she dislikes Barkly and I shall probably have to move and give up quite £200 a year in doing so. These moves have cost us a deal of money – she is already much the better for this change. We stay here to the end of present month. I have been thinking a great deal of Knysna lately. Jackson is sure to go to P.E. , but I have scruples about asking for Knysna owing to Charlie occupying the position he does. I feel that there might be unpleasantness with the people one of these days. Millie thinks Knysna the pleasantest place in the Colony and on the whole it suits her health. So now you know some of my own difficulties. Continual sickness in ones home is a terrible drain in every way.”
“I suppose Mother will keep on old Agnes? What has become of Mrs. Haupt or Hauff? She might join Mother in housekeeping especially if she has a little income of her own. I would feel terribly anxious about Mother but for the fact of your presence at Knysna dear Bessie. I feel confident that Charlie and yourself are acting for the best.”
“I will write to thank old Uncle Drury (Rev. B.H. Drury was the husband of Christopher Harison’s sister, Mary) and tell him he must wait until Mother’s death for payment of his £300, receiving the interest in the meantime. If Mother would invest her £300 from the Insurance in a cottage and live in it, it will be the best thing she can do. The “Hermitage” could be got for about that amount I imagine – keep her up to this idea.”
“It is pouring with rain, just like it does at Knysna. The train runs right down here from Kimberley and as Govt. let us travel at half fares, this little outing costs us hardly anything. I was here just 25 years ago! This is a delightful change for us. I am going to look over the D.S.G. at Grahamstown. If my home continues unsettled much longer, I shall send Mab there, she is rather young but I am sure it will be for the best. How are Louie, Leonard and all your sturdy children? Mab says she would be perfectly happy if only Louie were here – love to you both. Write soon, your affect. Brother.”
“From Bessie Thesen to her sister Kate, Knysna, October 18th, 1898
“Dearest sister mine,
“Such a pleasure to hear from you from your-our home again, tho’ none knows better than I the taking up the burden that follows. Don’t do a scrap more than you feel able for dear, though at best we never know where the line ends between what we can and what we want to do.”
“You will have got my post card last mail about Millie’s death. It is a great relief in one way, the burden terrible to him latterly. He comes down to us next week. I am longing so for him dear old brother. Last time he was here was just after my Rolf was born and I was weak and unfit for anything much, besides his spare time was taken up with poor dear father. A year next month that he has gone Home, he never seems far away. I always think of him with real and deep pleasure, resting from his labours at Home, far greater pleasure than the latter years of his life here with us.”
“Launcelot’s dear Mab is coming to me for the time he is with mother. I long to ‘Mother’ that child – she is a quiet rather shrinking child with a world of thought and purpose in her little face, needing a lot of love I fancy.”
“I am feeling fairly strong again, the mumps have left me entirely and beyond some stupid sort of headaches occasionally I am getting on well.”
“I am now deep in all the dear Temperance work I love so much again. Have taken over my children’s lodge, poor things someone said it seemed like a lot of children with mother away in my absence! I do trust to do some good amongst them and our lodge seems to have brightened up for our return. The coloured lodge (for which my soul yearns most I must confess) has been losing during last quarter yet I think it is only a necessary sifting. There are some splendid members, good Christians, men whose earnest living prayers are beautiful to me, especially amongst these are some Kaffirs (not school ones), one especially sometimes starts praying in Dutch very brokenly but presently breaks out into earnest voluble Kaffir – quite edifying to the other Kaffirs of whom we have a good many.” (These would have been the Xhosas, beginning to marry into the coloured community but still at that time a rarity in the district.)
“As I think I told you the True Templars, as the coloured Lodge are called, have a deeply religious ritual and ceremony and beginning with a short prayer meeting, it is nice as the soft side of the coloured people is like that of a child in the simpleness of their religious feeling and indeed how dare we urge them to give up their deeply rooted drink habits without urging and encouraging them to seek their strength elsewhere. So our T.T.’s meet as well on Sunday afternoon in the Lodge rooms for an hours prayer meeting. I do believe our poor people have a little more chance now, well you know I feel their earnest loving prayers for me were heard and that I stand amongst them a visible answer to their faith – is it no wonder I love them too. True, they know where to come to in sickness and trouble – yet I have never forgotten your words about the giving being also a plain command from our Lord and we have been wonderfully blessed.”
“For one thing alone I can never be too thankful for my illness – I tell you all this dear sister because I know you understand. You may not know that all these years, though Charlie himself proposed saying grace, we never seemed to find our way to family prayers, but after my illness when it came in on me how many big people I had in my household, all professing Christians and my children growing so big, that I decided on starting prayers myself, especially after my stay with Mrs. Duthie where I saw how well it can be done. Though very nervous at first I soon got used to it and my people were all so pleased so I read a few verses first. Of course my difficulty was how to make time when Charlie returned but I felt sure the way would be opened. And so it was and when he is able my dear old man joins us most readily and seems very glad we have decided on the step.”
“Well I must stop, this is a personal letter. I am thankful about your mission work and believe it must be right or as you say it could not have been supported to prosper. Church matters are the same here, even the Candles.”
This one, written in May,1898, gives a fairly good overall impression of Bessie’s dominating outside interest. It is long but because it reflects important aspects of her character, it is given in full:
“My dearest Katie, I am afraid I have not been treating you very well lately so will lay out my excuse first. Well last week I did a somewhat surprising thing, went [on a] a trip to George for a week. A delegate was required from our True Temple (the coloured Good Templars) to the new Grand Lodge which is instituted for the South Western districts, so as no one else could manage to go as well as I (and I needed a change of air so much) so I trotted off and gave a seat to old Bro(ther) Saunders and Peter Thomas, both earnest Templars – the latter is a changed man, the good work is done which we always pray and aim for and I believe him to be trying to lead a consistent Christian life.”
“We had a splendid time, to tell the truth I felt at first somewhat downcast as the two others being added at the last but felt so strongly that it was my duty and that we should be helped through that I just left the matter in the Master’s hands, praying most of all for my dear ponies who were hardly fit for so heavy a load and long journey, and my groom very downhearted on the trip. But it turned out as I expected and we came into George in good time and spirits. Such a warm and kindly greeting we got in the G.T. Lodge that night, all trying to show attention and honour to the visitors as our rule is.”
“Next day we had a few spare hours then gathered for a large tea meeting combined (with) Good and True Templars and we delegates, white and coloured, on the platform, some 25 of us and three other lady delegates to keep me in countenance; some speeches of welcome and kindly feeling were given, one which I could not help valuing from Archdeacon Fogg who, if not entirely with us, cannot blind himself to the grand work carried on and is too good a man to go against us, so spoke cordially and warmly.”
“The next day came a lot of work in the morning, conferring degrees upon us mostly, and in the afternoon a Procession of all the Good Templars, white and coloured, with juveniles B.(Best?) of all, about 250 – banners and good brass band from Brak River and we delegates at the tail. Oh it was fine and I enjoyed the thing immensely – though very much amused and thinking how startling to some of my ‘aristocratic’ friends it would be (Mamma does not like to hear a word about it!)”
“I believe it was good for the work to show not only our numbers but how thoroughly our hearts were in it. Then we all marched into the big hall to hear a sermon from a dear old missionary from Haarlem upon “Love” our rule and aim in the Orders. He took all that beautiful Chap. “The greatest of these is charity,” and explained it in quite simple language (Dutch). The hall was full and many standing.”
“Among the delegates was a very fine specimen of a black man, a Fingo I should judge or Kaffir who played piano or harmonium with equal ease and led the singing and The Old Hundreth in Dutch is very fine.”
“That night was a general meeting and again the hall was packed and the delegates had to speak. Begged to get off but Mrs. Stuart would not hear of it so I sat on grim until my turn should come getting together the main points I had in my mind and finally just putting the whole matter into the same Hands that had helped me hitherto, so when my turn came I felt no longer nervous and the words came readily and I got the message that I felt I had to say and said it well I know. Bro(ther) Schriener came to me afterwards and said he always knew I had the gift and asked me whether that was not in answer to prayers and bade me remember to use my gift for good – oh that I may be helped to! I felt so strongly that my words would have weight just because I was a lady and in good social standing and when I told them that I was always thankful for the day I joined the Templars I knew it would carry weight with some. I laid it upon the women to consider which way their influence tended – for I knew some of them never consider. What did I (consider) till my eyes were opened? Well you will understand me, this is not conceit, just pure thankfulness and I want you to share it too.”
“Next day was one of hard work till late at night when our happy meetings broke up and with most of our coloured friends we parted. Some of the girls sang very beautifully, “God be with thee”, we joining in the chorus and then said goodbye and many blessings were exchanged and handshakes to those who had been drawn all so close by the one grand aim and hope, “to save our fallen brothers for Christ”. They made me Grand Superintendent of Juvenile Work, giving me the oversight of the bands of hope existing, four at present in the twelve lodges and power to get as many as I can and stir the work up. But funds are low and most of it is given. I got a gift of £1 and 5/- and one dear old lady promised to dedicate her vegetables to the work. Her flowers were already given to the Lord’s work. I am empowered to raise funds by any means in my power and it is such a crying want. When I get very short I shall appeal to you for a few shillings towards your own natives! Pray for me that this work (from which I greatly shrank) may prosper and go forwards.”
“Now I must stop. You will be amused at my enthusiasm but this is new to me and we all “took fire”. Goodbye dear sister mine………..”
Note her sentence, “Oh it was fine and I enjoyed the thing immensely – though very must amused and thinking how startling to some of my “aristocratic” friends it would be (Mamma does not like to hear a word about it!)” This is quite revealing in what it implies about Mamma (whose copperplate handwriting incidentally is superb) is obviously one of the “aristocratic” friends, but in this case, one who would not only have been startled but who could not even bear to hear about her daughter’s activities among the poor and deprived.
In a letter to Bessie written before her husband’s death, Mamma Harison remarked that it might have been better if he gave up brandy in favour of something less strong (during the time of his last illness) so it seems that she was no Temperance fanatic nor was she hesitant to pretend otherwise to her daughter.
In a 1949 letter written to Pamela Thesen (his niece who was about to marry a Royal Naval Officer) Leonard Thesen writes:
“……Old Gt. Grandfather Harison was a kind hearted charming old man, without any conceits – I remember him well but
Gt. Grandmother – his wife – was a bit of a snob. She mixed with only a few people in Knysna, and considered her daughter’s marriage to a young foreign merchant ‘infradig’ – however they were very happy without the old lady’s full approval.”
“The old lady’s father was a Capt. Moorman R.N., and they must have lived much in France – he had some French decoration.”
“The first Harison we have record of was a Captain who married the heiress to Estates of the very old family of Elphick. As Seaford at that date – 1653 – was one of the Cinque Ports, he might have been in the Navy but just as likely Army.”
It seems that Bessie had written to tell Kate of an impending visit by Charles. In all likelihood he was on his way to England on a business trip – probably to buy wood-working machinery. Bessie was expecting another baby. (This was to be her eighth and last surviving child, Bessie Katherine, born in June 1898, always to be known as Kate or Katie).
“From Katie Hare, The Peel, Hellifield, March 4th (Circa 1898)
“My dearest Bessie,
“ ………….Tomorrow will be your birthday dear. I never can remember them beforehand, but shall think of you then. Thirty-five, just on the hill top darling! God bless thee abundantly!, and don’t fear the descent, you won’t even notice it for another ten years may-be and there is grand work before you I believe, for you are getting led on step by step, only take care not to pull back, and each year you will gain fresh experience.”
“It was such a sad disappointment to find you could not come with Charlie, I did want you so much and can hardly realize now that it is not to be. Those naughty little strangers! Why did you let another come unbidden? Surely you and Charlie have as many bairns as you can comfortably provide for? But even if it was so, why not come? You could keep quiet with us, and would enjoy the fresh sights in the country, even if you couldn’t go about much, or if you stayed over your time I would take good care of you, can’t you manage it dear! I am afraid I shall not give Charlie a proper welcome alone unless he promises to bring you soon again, it does seem a bit hard, must he come just now? Well dear you will be taken care of I am sure in any case and must just trust. For Mama’s sake it will be better you should not run away just now but I can’t bear to think of all those weary months before you, why did you not tell me before? You must manage to keep off these occurrences, it is such a simple matter now-a-days and seems quite right in the case of lawful marriage.”
“We were so interested in your accounts of the Temperance work, it is just wonderful how the interest grows and how much blessing seems to attend work done on non-sectarian lines. I’ve no doubt those little simple prayers are really the strength of your Coloured Lodge. Don’t mind the opposition and the ridicule, just bear it all bravely, for the Master’s sake, and the sense of His smile will outweigh all else. We had a large meeting of our branch here last Friday……..We had unfortunately forgotten the Lent Friday service and so fixed the same day or rather it was one of the few dates our lady speaker from Leeds could give us, and the Curate would not let us have the small schoolroom as usual, so we had to get the Auction Mart., a great bare building where the cattle are sold! Of course it meant plenty of getting ready and when I went down to see my secretary (who keeps a Temperance Hotel with her sister, and is a very staunch Wesleyan) I found them in a great fuss and flurry because of all the work to do, and all my fault because I wouldn’t have the Meeting in one of the Chapels, a thing I’ve stood out for bravely, as it stamps the Society as Wesleyan at once. Well, by dint of smoothing their ruffled feathers and making fun of some of their difficulties, that was got over, and we had a capital meeting in the evening, with a good speaker, though not loving or womanly enough to please either Leighton or myself quite, but she was clever and to the point.”
“Then what do you think I did on Tuesday this week, don’t shock Mama by telling her! I went off to a little town not very far away and gave an address myself for the B.W. Branch there! It was a bold step for a nervous ‘critter’ like myself, but the Resident begged me to come, it was their first public meeting, and there was no lady to take an interest in them, so it seemed like a call, and I went. The gathering was an evening one, and after being met by the president, a very energetic young woman, wife of a builder and contractor, I was left at the Temperance Hotel. About a ¼ to 7 a very trim Methody man, ….. came to escort me to the schoolroom where the people were gathering. I was mounted upon a platform with a Chairman (the only one in any way aspiring to the rank of gentleman), the president, and my Methody friend to keep me in countenance. Remember I’d never faced a Mixed audience before, only about 15 or 20 women at most, and there I was set to address a roomful. Fortunately, all the front seats were mostly filled by women so I rested my eyes on them. It was awfully nervous work beginning, and my voice nearly failed, but “He who has helped, will help” and I warmed up with my subject and spoke mainly to the women, for the sake of God and their Homes to become total abstainers. It took about half an hour and I was glad to sit down and subside, My Methody friend gave me a warm vote of thanks, and they didn’t interrupt me at any rate, so I can only trust some little seed was sown. Temperance is not a fashionable doctrine by any means, “not many mighty, not many noble” with a very few exceptions take it up. No one knew me there so it was not so hard as speaking in Hellifield, I could not do that.”
“See, darling how one gets dragged out, I could hardly face my Sunday school girls some few years back in Cambridge, now I know I can speak to women at any rate, and you will get to do the same and do it better than I could for you have all the best of your life before you, and plenty of experience and sympathy ... I wish you could have heard our young Railway Mission lady speak on Sunday night in the schoolroom. We were fairly crowded out, some standing. Her mission is to men, such a bright pretty fearless girl about 25, and the men are devoted to her! She speaks well and straight to the point, spares no one and offers them Christ’s gospel, on His terms.”
“Now dear I must say Goodbye with very dear love. Don’t be anxious about your laddie, sometimes these delicate ones grow stronger after seven years old, and if he eats well, he will get on. Your loving sister.”
In 1899 Charles and Bessie were about to move into their newly constructed house and Bessie mentions this fact in a letter. This house, double-storeyed and a landmark today was built on a hectare of ground on a hill to the north of Knysna and has a commanding view over the town, lagoon and out to sea through the Heads. An early photograph taken from the fort on the opposite more easterly hill shows the gabled white house surrounded by a wide verandah, standing alone except for its attendant laundry/servants’ quarters and coach house with stable. This photograph is also noteworthy because of the virtual absence of trees in the Knysna basin and treeless-ness of the farther, surrounding fynbos hills.
“Bessie to Kate on June 10th, 1899:
“I fear it is some time since I wrote last. I have been very busy since then with the little ones winter clothes – one fitted out, then the other is in need again, the eight keep my hand pretty full especially the four youngest and Louie for I like to make for them myself.”
“I am glad you are staying on in the old place and above all that you are contemplating a holiday. Dear they are moral duties – for soul and body to those who can afford them. I am feeling better, my troublesome old chest is easier, I was inwardly getting a wee bit nervous about its persistence, and though much thinner, am feeling better all through.” Tuberculosis has always been a scourge in the Southern Cape and was particularly rife then amongst the indigenous population. Bessie could easily have contracted the disease without its ever having been diagnosed while doing her charitable/evangelical work amongst her poor and undernourished flock.
“Poor little Mrs. Jackson is off today by steamer to Port Elizabeth and thence up country to his brother’s farm. She is very ill again. I was quite frightened at her look of suffering driving down in my trap to the steamer. How she will manage that journey I don’t know. Her doctor says it is absolutely necessary that she goes to England again, the old troubles have arisen again and must be operated on if she is to regain her health at all. Really some folks lives are a terrible puzzle. I am fond of her notwithstanding her faults and cannot help feeling vexed with the old fellow tho’ he has lately been most sweet and is a kind and just Magistrate amongst the poorer folks especially.”
“My poor neighbour Mrs. Hepburn is in great trouble just now, her younger child, a lovely boy of about five years old is very ill. The doctor fears concussion of the brain. He had a severe blow in the head against a plank sometime back on the forehead which swelled up and turned blue but without cutting the skin. They think it might be something only now developing. I shall be very grieved for the poor mother if it is so, he is a sweetly pretty and winning little chap and she, poor woman, must be able to find small comfort. Her present husband’s complete irreligion and her terrible position make such a blow heavier, though he is an excellent father and kind husband.”
“Our new house is growing and really looks very nice, I must get its photo for you when properly finished. I do not feel that we are spending over much on it though it is running over £900!, because I feel that it is our duty towards the children as well as to ourselves and having our minds at peace will not make us less useful I hope. For after all influence is a great power when well used and a lady can do so much!”
“I have a new “white sister” as the coloured people say in our Coloured Lodge and one who will, I feel sure, be a real loyal worker, Mrs. Ignaas Read. Do you remember a pretty Dutch girl, Miss Pienaar, who went for a short time to Miss Hare’s school? She has developed into a sensible, earnest woman with a real practical religion, always ready to any good work.”
“I have again been today to see a dying man, consumption taking him off rapidly, more so than I ever saw before. For these expeditions my bicycle is most useful. Now goodbye my dearest sister – God bless thee and thine.”
“From Elisa Dumbleton, Oakhurst, [District George] July 14th (circa) 1899.
“My dear Mrs. Thesen, I have not written to you before, not knowing for certain whether you had returned to the village. I hope the change you have had has done both you and your little ones a great deal of good; I was sorry we could not see more of each other.”
“Well, and then about old Mrs. Noble! (It would seem that Mrs. Noble was either a midwife or trained nurse.) Would you be so very kind and ask her whether she won’t be willing to come here about the 14th of October – that is if this would not interfere with you; I would be so glad to have her even if she could only stay for a short time. In George there is only one nurse – a very old one and not very desirable one, so I would be so thankful to get
Mrs. Noble. What does she charge?”
“I am rather out of reckoning but have to go by Charasse and according to his counting I ought not to have nurse later than the middle of October. I enjoyed so much the few hours you spent with us, and only wished that you could have stayed a few days. We had the Archdeacon here yesterday. Poor man, he has very hard work now with all his confirmation classes. Hoping you are all well, Believe me, yours very sincerely.”
“From Bessie, Knysna, 25th November, 1899
“My dearest Katie,
“I am hoping to get time for a real letter tonight but fear I am already late.”
“First let me wish you many, many happy returns of Thursdays birthday. I thought a good deal of you dear, and went for a wee walk over the hills with a heart very full of the dear old sister – associated with all the happiest memories of my “young days” and thinking of your bright young folks keeping up “Mothers birthday” in all sorts of little ways – as mine do. Oh me, shall I ever see the dear Mother and the young folks that I seem to know? Ever, this side of the river I mean.”
“Well I expect Mamma has written to tell you that Launcelot has been released and granted a pass to Cape Town by the Boers who took Barkly West, further we know nothing. This was news received by Will from Hope Town and a short paragraph in the papers. Mamma is so pleased at his not being taken prisoner that she thinks all anxiety is over. I fear that the Govt. may yet make use of him as an officer for some of the many volunteer corps. He needs rest, his last letter was most interesting but showing him much worried.”
“The sisters are anxious for Willie Hare upon whom the strain is also telling it seems, and I expect Steynsburg will be taken if they don’t get alarmed before getting so far. We are all longing for the troops to begin and chafing a little at the burden falling so heavily on our fellows and the townsfolk of those border towns. I think until we calmly sit down to think and picture ourselves suddenly called upon to face with our little ones and household goods, we can not realise what the many, many wives and mothers have had to endure. Poor Boers, the lesson is a very sharp one. I hate to think of the devastated homes and wasted corn, the householders killed and only the women and children left as happens to them so often. Well our heart gets so full of these things as Alice says one cant think properly, and my letters suffer.”
“All last week I have been nursing poor Eric who has had a very sharp attack of diahrea(sic) reducing his never robust little prance to a still more shadowy state! He is better, but finds the restriction about diet and staying in bed most irksome. My poor little man, it is the old trouble and I have always thought his digestion not good. He never throve on his food as the others do.”
“Next post I am sending you a very poor photo of my bonny Rolf and baby (Kate) and Louie, none of them anything like what they ought to be as their smiles, especially sunshiney Rolf’s is their special beauty.”
“My unfortunate Heming the groom is just over his rheumatics, what a troublesome illness to be sure, where was your greatest pain? His was all in the feet and knees and for a time in the back. I had an anxious time for fear of his getting worse and not having him in the house, and he is such a dear good fellow that we waited on him constantly. At last he is at work again (rather to my anxiety) after four weeks illness.”
“Well this is a long yarn and over time already. I am keeping very well on the whole though nearly unpresentable! And able to take a nice little walk over in the hills without being seen.”
“No more dearest sister mine, every blessing and good wish for thee.”
“From Bessie to Katie, Knysna, January 20th, 1900
“I am quite ashamed to think how long ago it is since I wrote you last! One thing after another has prevented me and Sat. evening has generally found me, as indeed it finds me tonight, very tired after all the little things which must be seen to.”
“You have several times asked me lately when I am expecting – I suppose by the time this reaches you it will be a decided point, at present I ought not to be confined before 12th or 14th Feb., but as you know am always at least two weeks earlier than the full nine months so am making all my plans for the end of the month and hoping to hold out till then, when the chicks will be back in school and things in order again.”
“Christmas and New Year were but sad feasts, only for the sake of the young folks would I do anything at all, so have just let them picnic and invite their cousins to stay with them. Launcelot’s Mabel of course I look upon as belonging to me. She is brightening so wonderfully, one hears her now occasionally in the house, if you understand what I mean, which I expect you do if your children are anything like mine. They all pull very nicely together and Amy’s Irene is also developing into a very nice womanly girl, she is 17 but still childish and simple minded and quite content with the younger ones company.”
“It is well for us that we he had the brightening of these growing young lives round us, for oh our poor land! And the terrible sorrow over all sorts and conditions. The poor brides and mothers, even here today’s steamer took away 107 men, mostly coloured boys, but a large number married, men with wives and young children. The pay £4.10 monthly with rations and uniforms is very tempting, some are able to send £2 or £3 home to the wife but some don’t and some, one fears, will never find their way back again. With each batch of 50 men go an overseer, a white man. Jack Rex went with the first, now Mr. Bass Wood and Tom Spence, all married men have gone.”
“I think poor little Knysna has done her share, over 150 men, the working part of our people have left us, - our volunteers are awaiting and anxious for their call out but want to go as a force and Govt. don’t seem to wish it, probably for fear of disloyalty amongst some of them. That is the sore point to most of us, the traitors in the camp – England’s long-suffering justice rewarded by this slow, creeping disloyalty and rebellion in our own Colonial-born Dutchmen fostered by those horrid Dutch newspapers and too often, by the “political parsons” which have been the ruin of these people.”
“I am so thankful to hear from Launcelot now sometimes. Does he ever write to you? If you want to write wont it be wiser to enclose a letter to me to forward to his address as of course his position with Gen. Methuen’s force makes it very unlikely he will long remain at Modder River. He has had some work in trying rebels (prisoners), most unpleasant I should say, but most necessary.”
“Mother keeps well, I don’t see much of her now unless I send for her, rather an advantage just now I am sorry to say, when my nerves are not equal to any worry or strain – my only trial. Of course I feel it my duty to take life easy and be at peace as much as I can, I do feel happier and more at rest than I did. “Hitherto” is still my great anchor. Pray for us darling sister, for my wee ones and my dear old man’s sake. I greatly long to be spared yet a while, yet the issue is in the Hands in whom I have trust and rest. God bless my own dear sister and brother.”
“From Bessie to Katie, Knysna, 24th February, 1900
“I must write a scrap to you today just to assure you of my welfare. You have heard from the sisters of my wee ones birth and also perhaps of how mercifully and tenderly I have been led through the hard time, the “shadowland” of we women’s lives. My confinement was a particularly good one to me, very long pains but soon over, and a time of wonderful direct answer to prayer. Oh Katie, if I could only be a better woman. I have had so much love shown me all the days.”
“My new lassie is very sweet, good, growing baby with intelligent grey eyes and a nice fair skin and real fat cheeks, a truly loveable baby, so I am now quite reconciled to her being a girlie. I had hoped for a boy somehow. Charlie feels the pressure of this large family of nine upon his shoulders and the boys seem easier to provide for than girls! But he doesn’t mind and is getting so fond of little Bess, she is a pretty child, no photo can do her justice that I can get here.”
“I do hope the influenza is not doing harm among your household, how terrible it seems in some places.”
“By this time the glad war news of Kimberley’s relief is old to you. May we have peace soon, our poor old country, my heart aches for both sides.”
“….Much, much love to thee darling sister, how I miss you to show my darlings to as no one can appreciate them like you!…. I cant find a name for baby – wish I could have her Christened with name blank to be filled in later.”
Blanca Elleonore Thesen was born on 31st January, 1900. Sadly she did not live long and died the following June aged five months.
“From Bessie to Kate, July 21st, 1900:
“My heart still aches grieviously at times for my wee one, but I know ‘It is well with the child’.”
“I fear I have neglected you of late, but if you only knew what an effort it is to get down to letter writing in the week! So I put it off till mail night which is also my night for writing to Leonard, so as you can understand I find one is apt to get crowded out. Now I have also to write an occasional letter to Alfhild, then Launcelot and Theodore must be kept up, besides the necessary correspondence every three months for my eight bands of hope, of which I have again been elected Grand Superintendent; would I could fill the post more worthily. Don’t you ever feel tempted to write simple tales or to simplify Bible stories, so as to suit our poor folks? What a want it is, no one can realise till you have proved how very little even the better educated native of our mission schools can understand any word out of the common use in English. The Peep of Day and Five Upon Five is after all the best, especially the latter. Well this is a digression!”
“You have I expect had a letter from Launcelot or Mamma telling of his promotion to Cradock, a nice place and on the line, his intention is to take Mamma and Mabel with him. Poor old fellow, he is looking forward so to having again a home of his own which I do believe Mamma will help him to do. Mab is as yet too young but will be able to take care of him very well in a few more years. She is not very sharp but sensible and dependable. I do so hope all will go well and she and Grandmamma hit it off, she is not quite the sort of child Mamma will take much to, being so quiet. Things can scarcely be more uncomfortable for Launcelot than they have been, poor old chap, let us hope all will be for the best now.”
“I hope all your dear ones are well, my little flock are all bright and well so far, little Katie is much better, we are now quite establishing the name at Charlie’s special wish.”
“Goodbye dear one.”
It would appear that Leonard then aged eighteen had been sent to Cape Town to gain business experience and the following letters were posted to him there. They were all written during the first quarter of 1900.
“From his father, C.W. Thesen, The Hill, Knysna. 26th January 1900
“My Dear Leonard, We spent a very good Xmas hope you also did. Were you at Uncle Peters yesterday for dinner, we got all your Xmas cards on Monday and I put them on our Christmas table on Monday evening we had all the children’s presents put out the dining room table and walked round it 3 times and then started picking out the presents as marked, Louie got a parcel from Grandmama, Mother a Steam Cooker and I got a straw-hat from Uncle Peter. The table was grateful. Harry and Eric a cricket bat. Uncle Theodore and Sigurd were here also Fritjof, all the children agree that it was much nicer than the stocking, Rolfie stayed up and only went to bed at 10.30 p.m. I should have sent you our Christmas present before but forgot it on Saturday night with the arrival of Agnar and all the passengers at 7 p.m., we only got our supper at 9 p.m. that night. Theodore, Halfdan, Hannah, Thora, Alida and Sigurd stayed with us, then went to B/Hill (Bracken Hill) the next day, I am going out there this afternoon for a school entertainment this evening. I now enclose our Xmas presents for you in form of an order on T&Co.Cape for 20/-. Next post I will write to W. Spilhaus that I wish you to leave their employ at end of January and you will then return to us for a month or so,
SS Ingerid ought to be in Cape Town first week in January and I hope you will go down and have a look at her and see how you like Uncle Hjalmar’s choice. Nina and Ella are staying with Alfhild also Uncle Thesen, Irene has come home but I have not seen her yet. All the Mason’s were at Noetzie for a week but it nearly rained all the time, we have been having apricots from our trees in the garden also bananas. Agnar loads from East London and leaves on Friday, Templeman’s Mill is now nearly ready to start again with all new machinery.”
“Mr. Hepburn has lease of the Knysna Forest Mills for 1 year and is working it even today. Mr. S. Parkes is walking about and has no work I fancy he is waiting for his Father to come out again. Mr. Fairbridge has left the Bank and gone to Ermelo or (illegible) and a young man a Mr. Kirkman has come in his place. Rob Horn left for Cape Town the other day and I expect you have seen him. With love from all, Your Father.
“From Louie aged fourteen, The Hill, Knysna, April 21st 1900.
“Dear Leonard, We were all very glad to hear from you. I hope you will find a steam engine for me, but if you are at work already, I don’t suppose you will have much time. Mr. Parkes is having a sale today. Father bought some garden tools yesterday from him and I think he is (thinking) of buying an incubator for Mother. I think Harry told you in his letter about the football club for the school. Mr. Hare’s two eldest boys are coming to school on Monday and Mr. Hare said he thought the Jackson boys were coming too, won’t the Public school boys be disappointed if they do, because they told Mrs. Bhoem, the Jacksons spoilt their football last year. The singing inspector was at our school yesterday, he told us there was going to be a competition for a child worth thirty pounds in Mr. Hagen’s district in a year or twos time. Easter Monday was such a rainy day it must have been a disappointment to lots of people. Mr. Goldie Devenish was here to breakfast, and is coming to stay with us in a few days. He showed us some pictures of the farm where he stays, mostly all snow, he said the snow is sometimes 2 feet deep, there is a picture of Miss Mary and him playing snowballs and one of a snow woman he made. Mother’s garden looks quite smart, I think all the plants are growing. I was not here to say “good bye” to you so I shall have to say it now. Mother was expecting your letter, she did not want to go to bed before it came.”
“Good bye. I remain, Your loving sister, Louie. Send my engine as soon as you can.”
“From Harald aged thirteen, The Hill, Knysna, 8th June 1900:
“Dear Leonard, I hope you are well now. Mother’s garden is getting on well. I hope you will be able to send the roses by the Agnar. We could not send ferns this time at least we forgot. Weren’t you surprised to see aunty ([probably Alfhild). It will be very nice for her to go the Europe and it will be nicer for Uncle having her with him. I hope they will go to the Paris Exhibition though it is rather late aunty wants to go and see aunt Katy in England.”
“Mrs. Osmundsen is looking after me and Fritsjof and the house. We have been having good news lately about the war. Uncle Hjalmar heard from Uncle Sigurd just before he left. He managed to escape going to war but not without a great deal of trouble. He is now at Christiania with his wife. The day that aunty left we heard that Mr. Frank Newdigate had been shot by a rebel while assisting the wounded. That same morning Mrs. Fr. Newdigate had come in on business. Half an hour after she came the news came of her husband’s death she has five children. The fantail pigeon has disappeared the other three are still all right.”
“We have not taken out the bees again for they are not working. I think we had better feed them as there are no flowers open. Gus has got another swarm of bees. The pig was killed the other day. We have a whole pickle of salt meat to eat up. The Relly (?probably Reitz) family were (at) Delgoa Bay but I wonder where Uncle Frank is, and old Kruger and what they intend to do with all those English prisoners they took away with them. Now I must end we are all well. With love from all, I remain your loving brother Harald. I hope we shall hear from you tonight. Louie says I must thank you for getting her the engine she is pleased with it, it does not work quite right but still the engines work.”
“From Harry aged eleven, The Hill, Knysna, June 19th, 1900
“Dear Leonard, I’m going to right you a shoot (short) letter. On Friday we get holaday for three weaks. Miss Chapman gave a good lecture today all about our parents. The other day she also gave one. This was about Goudlas Morgan and Lance Mason it is so long that I cant tell it to you all. They chopped down one of those bluegums today and fell with a loud crash. I’ll never forget that time we went up the Qua river when I fell in the water so many times. They never pulled out the ugly grass. Heinekys dog has got eleven puppies they drouned them all except one.”
“I remain your brother, Harry Thesen”
“From Harald aged thirteen, The Hill, Knysna, August 4th 1900.
“Dear Leonard, I hope you are well and addressing lots of envelopes. Father has got a headache to night. There is a sailing ship outside the bar. She (Palander)(sic) she has been out over a hundred days and is very anxious to get in perhaps the Agnar is going to tow her. Father has got a lot more trees from Utinhage(sic) and some orange trees coming by Agnar from Cape. He has also made a nice bed of strawberries near Mother’s flower garden out of yours and Louie’s plants. We are getting so grand now that we have a special gardener.”
“Alfred Duthies came up here to say good-by on Tuesday. Charlie Mason is wearing long trousers now. Now I must close for I have lost my pen and cannot write with this one. I remain, your loving brother, Harald Baleigh Bull Blaugh Brandy-wine Half bottle Thesen. Juliet sent Louie a nice glove case for her birthday.”
“From Harry aged eleven, The Hill, Knysna, August 14 1900.
“My dear Leonard, I got two frish water fish from Gus, have you seen my gold fish. Grandamar is going to Cradock with Uncle Launcelot. I had my hed cut, we were playing steamer and I fell of(sic) the sofer against the bookshelf. All of Mother’s ducks died except one and we had it for dinner. Your brother, Harry Thesen.”
A rare thread of melancholy is contained in the following letter from Bessie to Kate:
“Knysna, December 15th, 1900
“I feel very sorry to think I have missed sending you a Christmas greeting – it always seems to surprise me, “bekruip” me as our “taal” has it! There are some expressive words in that same “taal” that one must use. I am never able to feel Christmassy before hand, so can only wish you all good things “for mind, body and estate”, may your Christmas be left to you always without the broken gaps in the circle that strike home more then than any other time. Though I am not fretting dear, never can, for those wee blossoms* (*Christopher and Blanca Elleonore). My bonnie babies will find each other at Home this Christmas perhaps.”
“I have been having some nice talks with Alfhild since her return, she did enjoy her stay with you, the only English home she was in and does appreciate the little comforts of life so well.”
“Many many thanks for your loving thoughtful little parcel of gifts, dear old sister. At Charlie’s suggestion the little ones parcels have been put by to add to their Christmas treasures, so I have kept his also, but mine I could not resist. I cant tell you quite what it was to me to have something you had made for me again – the dainty, pretty work is doubly precious for that, dear old sister mine. Oh what it would be to have you again, no companions yet have I found to come near you.”
“Well it does not help grumbling or longing for things out of reach. I have not much of the light heart left me after these years, nor do I ever look forward to anything with much certainty on this earth, so much my ten bairns have taught me.”
“Well I have not written a bright letter as I meant to but don’t think I don’t feel bright, Christmas tide only grows dearer and deeper into ones world as each one passes.”
“My Leonard wont be able to come home this Christmas but I expect him early in the year. We are hatching a delightful plan of letting him go with Agnar to Norway in the middle of the year and of course a stay with you (if you’ll have him) for a good while. Much love to you and you dear ones, your loving sister.”
“From Bessie to Katie, Knysna, January 19th, 1901
“I am ashamed to find how long it is since I wrote you last! The holidays interfere terribly with the ordinary routine of work. I scarcely feel any better settled yet, especially as our peaceful little town is under martial law now which takes effect on Monday I believe.”
“Also there are wild rumours, partly true, about a party of 300 Boers, (marauding bands of robbers, one cannot call them anything else) being in Willowmore district. It is not particularly pleasant news as we muster about 60 guns altogether and not a very large town guard either. But I believe if these rumours are confirmed they will send some soldiers or blue jackets here, there is the creosote factory to defend and the chance of catching these Boers.”
“Our dear country! My heart aches for that beautiful grain country, the old Free State, lying desolate through headstrong rulers and bad advice. Reitz we know nothing of lately, his boys are all in the Transvaal, except Blanca’s youngest, Jacky, who is in Holland. I feel so grieved to think of these clever, intelligent boys thrown into all the terrible experiences of warfare and battle! Were he (Reitz) not such a fanatic on that point, one could blame him for it, but I fear his mind is long off its balance on that point poor fellow.”
“There is every likelihood of our Leonard going home in Agnar about March; of course he will see you and I hope you will keep him a few weeks. I do so long for you to know and love my boy!”
“From Bessie to Kate, Knysna, March 2nd, 1901
“I have been hoping to give you a long letter but don’t know now if I shall manage it tonight.”
“It is strange to see that all our latest war news reaches you at the same time (and possibly much more reliable news) as it does here in our district. We are again in comparative quiet, the commandos have split up and scattered northwards mostly – I am hoping great things of the next few weeks.”
“General Louis Botha, one of the most sensible and one of the
best of the Boer generals is being interviewed as you know and one cannot but hope that the wail of his country may soften his heart and those of his misguided advisers. For it is an undoubted fact that most of the better class Boers are ready to give in now. Poor Reitz - his mind has long been cranky on the subject so one cannot say with any confidence what he will advise.” Reitz had been Charles’s brother-in-law (Blanca Thesen died in 1887), which probably accounts for her wry puzzlement concerning his hitherto unrevealed loyalties! He was at the time the State Secretary of the South African Republic.
“It is somewhat amusing to see our Town guard - truly all sorts and conditions, some hardly understanding English at all! The mounted men (over 40) are a fine set of fellows and well mounted. I feel proud of them, yet hope and pray they may not be called on to fight, they are so few and cannot well be spared!”
“I think what strikes one as worst about these Boer raiders is their cruel treatment of the coloured boys - take the murder of Esau in Calvinia as a somewhat bad example It would be heartrending to stand helpless and see such things done to men whose only fault is their loyalty and obedience to their rulers. I think Abraham Esau will have accomplished by his death more than his loyalty ever did in life for it has roused people to see what Boer regime would mean and to determine more than ever not to have our helpless folk injured. I have heard of two cases in which coloured military employees fell in to the Boer’s hands when they have had a pick put in their hands and forced to dig their own graves, one being shot and the other escaping upon some more kind hearted individual pleading for his life! Besides severe authentic tales of coloured men being captured along with our men, the white men spared but the coloured shot on the spot! Well I didn’t mean to write war - I seldom speak it either now. A quantity of boys from Haarlem, Pacaltsdorp and surrounding places have come down here on their way to the Military for mule drivers &c. There are I believe over a hundred here now and last month two lots of 50 and 70 of our own Knysna coloured boys have been sent off. For some one dreads the hard life, the better class man (of whom one I know well, a trusted and valuable old servant) who is not used to roughing it and to whom bully beef has no attraction. Truly our poor land is in affliction, the plague in Cape Town threatens to become more serious than was expected and will assuredly depress things for a time if no further harm is done.”
“Now already my time is up and I have only been “talking”. My kiddies are all well and I, though not feeling bright or strong, am holding on. I wish you could see my Katie, she is so bonny and bright now her temper is sweeter and she is very sharp and talks so plainly. Leonard is such a pleasure, quite unspoiled and as much of a home bird as ever, only older and more sensible.”
“From Bessie to Kate, Knysna, March 30th, 1901
“It strikes me I have allowed more time to go by without writing. Somehow the weeks seem to have flown by lately and Sat. has found me rather out of breath as it were. Tonight I have just finished a letter to a future new relation which I am sure would astonish you – Fancy Hjalmar has engaged himself to a Norwegian lady and speaks of marrying shortly. Alfhild met her and liked her, her photo would seem to be that of an amiable, lively, pleasant-faced person, about 35 or so – not particularly intellectual or handsome – perhaps quite as well so – she is more likely to put up with the many inevitable little rough places in her future experiences in a strange land. Strange indeed it seems to think of the dear old brother marrying at his age (over 50), yet I always think he forbore doing so long ago mainly for his Mother’s sake, a really affectionate, considerate and reliable brother he has ever been to me, not one angry word has ever passed between us all these 20 years of relationship, a good testimony.”
“Soon I suppose in another two months time my Leonard will be going your way. I think he best go with the ship and his uncle and friend to Norway first, remain there till he has seen a little of the country with them, then come over to you (if you will take him) for another few weeks.”
“Young Fritchoff Wallem goes home to his people for his holiday. He has now been four years with us at Bracken Hill and here in Knysna and is a thoroughly reliable, honourable fellow and very steady besides being a gentleman, which is certainly an advantage in this Colony and I am glad Len has him to go with.”
“I have had several disquieting letters from Launcelot saying he thinks the summer tells on Mamma’s health too much to risk another – but I cannot give you this matter tonight; it is a serious affair to me and will want explanation before you can understand it.”
“I fear my chicks are all very bright and well for which indeed I am very thankful. Try and write to Launcelot, he complains of never hearing from you and is so very hard-worked still – with much love to yourself and Leighton.”
During the Boer War, the army depended greatly upon the goodwill of Thesen and Company who offered free conveyance of freight on the Agnar. She also carried prisoners of war and labour recruits and on one of her voyages, she was to carry no less than 187 mule drivers at very little cost.
Agnar was due for a major re-fit in Norway and it was decided that Leonard, Charles’s and Bessie’s eldest son, would go with the ship and then on to England to stay with his aunt Katie’s family.
“From Bessie to Kate, Knysna, May 4th, 1901
“My dearest sister,
“Since the boys came back from Keurbooms River at the beginning of April I have been more or less busy getting my big son ready for his trip. You see the outward voyage will take over 40 days, no short journey! I have to provide him with clothes sufficient for that length of time without washing. Of course many things he must necessarily get on landing and I shall trust to you to tell of any obvious want in his wardrobe. You know Colonial boys are not brought up on the same lines quite as English ones, and he may not need in Norway quite the same as he will in England. He is particular enough about his clothes but dreadfully careless in wearing them, and being tall is obliged to have tailor suits always. I hope he will fatten a little and get over his great trouble, a weak digestion, which boy-like he will not treat respectfully and consequently suffer for. I have an idea he will pull well with your Theodore, though I could wish he was older instead of younger that the lads might do a little sightseeing together. It needs a little courage to face the experiment of being “a stranger in a strange land” in Norway as all his companions of course are at home in the language and his knowledge of it is very limited, so I expect he will be glad to get to your home after a month or so. They will probably be starting in a fortnights time. The engineers wife and three little children go too, she is a sweet good brave woman, a Norwegian whose husband is a very intelligent engineer but an unreliable and unsteady man, I have had many a heartache for her, she does her very best with the poor weak creature.”
“I am glad for Len’s sake she is going, her womanly influence will do good. The Capt. Goes home to be married, he is a bright intelligent foreigner, every bit of him and rather a refined young fellow, he has been several times to our house and I always like him better.”
“Well all this is of more interest to me than you! We shall all miss our boy very much, the little ones are very fond of him, he is always good to them, and I expect will soon make friends with your young folks.”
“You ask about our Temperance work, we have had just as trying a time as you have had, a sort of dead and cold waves, it is again breaking now and we have had some brighter gleams, some young ones taking the pledge which is as good as drunkards reformed, perhaps though not so interesting!”
“Now no more, I must stop now as I am late for the post. Launcelot complains of never hearing from you!”
“From John Barrington, Portland, Knysna district, May 22 1901:
“This is to introduce a young friend, Mr. Leonard Thesen. If he comes to Plymouth and you are there, I hope you will give him a good show round the Battleships and you will oblige, Yours very sincerely, (Signed) J. Barrington.” (A note in pencil from Leonard states “I never got to Plymouth”)
“From Bessie to Katie, Knysna, 18th May, 1901
“I was so very grieved at the news in your last letter about dear little Kathleen. It was quite unexpected to me, as I did not even know that you were specially anxious about her till your letter of 19th April speaking of your proposed trip to Leeds on her account. I know so well, so well, the daily, hourly anxiety of a delicate child that I feel as if I could scarcely bear the sorrow for you darling! Yet I know, and how good it is to know it, that what our Father does is well. I cannot but hope that your darling may improve, you can give her every opportunity this summer to try the fresh air plan and who can tell! Doctors are often inclined to judge too seriously of a case they have not seen much of and the children have wondrous vitality. I am very surprised at this complaint occurring in a child of her age – it is one I have heard of in babies and in adults out here.”
“I suppose in the same way as it has happened in your case that the constant anxiety is often the one we speak of least, that you do not know how our Eric is a constant source of anxiety to us? You know he suffered severely some two years ago from a stomach attack almost amounting to typhoid from which he made a good recovery and has seldom complained since, but he is thin, so dreadfully thin.”
“You ask me in your last letter what our Temperance work is doing. I am well pleased with the coloured branch of True Templars – more so than the white Good Templars – with them I find very frequently as you say, the bare pledge and all our efforts fail. It is not and cannot be as religious a body as the coloured Lodge – unfortunately we Christians differ most perhaps in our religion! And the Good Templars are undenominational so lose the power perhaps that they otherwise might have. Still many are keeping true. My greatest difficulty is attending and keeping the work warm, our Hill top is a sad bar to much loving attendance. I generally attend our fortnightly coloured Lodge on Sunday afternoon, really a prayer meeting with a little formal work, pledges taken &c beforehand. Somehow we constantly have fresh members or old ones coming in again, it is a proof of the leaven in the lump, the change, though slowly, of the public feeling about drink which we do so want to establish.”
“The day after New Year we had a very pleasant picnic for them out at Old Place – it was a real treat to see so many old and young enjoying themselves in wholesome innocent fashion, playing games &c (cricket too) and well supplied with coffee, ginger beer and cake and sandwiches. It was necessary to give them some amusement as we do not encourage dancing at all and they are pleasure-loving and overgrown children. I do not think you could gather English folk of that labouring class, middle aged men and women and have them throw off all care and play round boisterous childrens games, old and young perfectly happy for the time being! Blessed gift to lighten a hard lot!”
“I am shocked at what you said once of the immorality of your working class of woman and girls, yet I think you are mistaken – our poor girls are very weak and seem to fall so very easily. Perhaps there is more excuse for them. I always think it takes many years to build a moral backbone.”
“Well what a lengthy letter. Do not worry about us and our warfare. All is ordered for the best. I have no fear somehow and only feel for our people who may suffer under these brutes. Yours most lovingly.”
Besides the obvious affection these two sisters showed for each other, there seems also to have existed between them a rarified form of sibling rivalry. From the tone of their letters to each other, this would appear to have been in the shape of a competition as to who was the more ardent or successful saver of fallen souls – Kate in England specialising in immorality among the servant classes, or Bessie with the alcohol problems of the Cape Coloured people in South Africa!
Leonard sailed for Norway on 3rd June, 1901 on the Agnar and Bessie writes to Kate:
“Knysna, June 22nd, 1901.
“My dearest sister,
“I am not at all sure that I have written to you since the Agnar left but rather think I have not. Well we have started them off on their journey on the 3rd June and have of course no chance of hearing from them before they reach Norway. Today I have written a long letter to my boy which is a pleasure and comforting at all events. They looked a happy party and I do trust they will really enjoy the long voyage.”
“Mrs. Osmundsen and her three fair little girlies (this would be the ship’s engineer’s wife and children Bessie mentions in an earlier letter to Kate) added the touch of homeliness which is otherwise often missing, dear old Ragnvald and the two boys Len and Fritchof, their monkeys (3 altogether) together with a dog and some live sheep looking over the rail gave it also a more pleasant aspect to break the prospect of the long parting and far journey. I have not worried over them, they are daily committed to the Father’s hands - and should they be prospered on their journey ought to be in Norway when this mail reaches there in about four weeks from today. I send you his address in Norway which you should have in case of your having any plans to make.”
“From Alice I hear you are now intending to go for your summer holiday. Of course should this not prove too expensive it would be even pleasanter for Len to join you and see something more of England. But all these little details we cannot settle at this end.”
“I am always thinking with a very full heart of you dear sister and your darling child. I hope, nay I feel sure, that you will be prepared and strengthened for all that is before you. Last week was a year since our little pet lamb was taken home, my bonny wee baby girl. I can often picture the little face and clear starry eyes! Katie is having a birthday today and is actually three years old though still a very tiny mite and sometimes very naughty I am sorry to say. I am sending you one or two snapshots taken of the children, the one is a very good one of the four together.”
The letter below from ten-year old Eric to his brother Leonard who was on his journey to Norway and England aboard the Agnar, was probably the last written by any of the children under their mother’s watchful eye. He is presumably the “poor old laddie” Bessie mentions in her undated letter to Kate which follows.
“The Hill, Knysna, July 19th 1901.
“My dear Leonard,
Our school began on Wednesday but I have had such a cold Mother would not let me go to school. Our new teacher had come and is teaching Harald and Louie and Miss Lomax is teaching Harry. We had such a storm of wind on Monday the sand blew off the hill in clouds down at the heads.” This statement confirms the fact that practically the whole of the crown of the western Brenton hill top was pure wind-blown sea sand with no anchoring vegetation and had probably been so for millennia. This sand flow into the Featherbed Bay channel and Leisure Island shore has ceased altogether with the anchoring effect of the Australian alien Acacia cyclops. Note also the whale count and shooting trip. Bushbuck and Grysbuck shooting was then, and remained, an officer’s (and other dignitaries’) privilege for nearly fifty years until 1948 when the Nationalist Afrikaners gained ascendancy and visits from Royal naval ships ended.
“The Commandant went to shoot at Belvidere a little while ago. They saw sixteen whales outside the bar. We have had such nice oranges. Its Louies and Rolfs Birthday. We have had a chart of your journey and have watched every day. I remain your loving brother, Eric Thesen”
This was to be Bessie’s last written contact with her sister: she died a few weeks after the date of Eric’s letter and one is struck by the seemingly prophetic remark: “My dear have you remembered that there are other ways of its being over for me?” This letter although undated, is thought to have been written on 20th July, 1901:
“My dearest sister,
“Thank you so much for the little garment – it makes me blush for some of mine – dear I feared it might hurt a little but don’t get anxious I know it will come to you in time, in God own “good time” and then it will be doubly precious. Thank you I think I have just enough left to keep me employed now till it is over.”
“My dear have you remembered that there are other ways of its being over for me? Though I trust whichever (way) well over. It is no fear to me through the Valley there must be the Shadow, but its end may lead to light and joy here or life everlasting. God knows. I am content either way. I am feeling very well. I think it is in loving mercy to strengthen one for the end.”
“My poor old laddie is brighter today, yesterday he wasn’t able to go out at all but kept busy here helping me. I think this glorious weather will do us all good.”
“I send you a shirt front of Charlie’s old shirt I tore up, it might come in useful for Robin.”
“Love to Leighton and lots to
yourself from your loving sister, Bessie Thesen.”
She died on 6th August, 1901 only a few weeks later.
Bessie’s death at the age of only thirty-eight was a tragic loss to the large family and one can only guess at what Leonard felt so far from home. There is no record of Charles Thesen’s letter to his son Leonard telling him of this sad state of affairs. The children were all of an age where a mother’s influence was most vitally required. Without exception however, they remained a credit to their parents and an asset to the southern Cape region all their lives. Leonard was also a keeper of letters – indeed we are indebted to him for the main body of this history – so the letter was either lost or destroyed or failed to reach him. Charles’s second letter, written on the 15th August, 1901, did find him, either in Norway or in England and it is quoted here.
“My Dear Son Leonard, I hope you will have received my letter of last week giving you the sad news of our Dear Mother’s Death it was very sad to part with her and now not with us any more, but I feel as if Mother is looking at us every day and I am trying to act as I know Mammie wishes us to do in our daily life and I hope you do the same, and then I feel that we are doing what is right, I wrote you last week that you must not hurry over your trip but see and learn all you can it will come useful to you out here when you come back to help me in the office. The children are getting on all right and Aunt Alfhild is living with us and looking after us all so well. The four Boys and myself are sleeping in the room over the Dining Room and Sarah, Ella and Katie are in your old Room and Louie remains in her room. Aunt Alfhild is in the front Spare Room.”
“I hope to have a letter from you next mail and feel so sad Mother will not be with us to read it, she was so pleased when the Cable arrived that you were all safe at Christiania, we must never forget how good she was to us all, now I must close with love from your affectionate Father.” In his letter Charles mentions the other matter occupying his mind. He says:
“The Boers have come down to Long Kloof again a fight took place yesterday at Krakuil River close to Harlem and there is some talk of calling out the Town Guard again and shutting up the shops, no one is allowed to take any food out of the Town except 10lbs meal and 2lbs coffee at the time, I do hope that this state of affairs will soon come to an end.”
In this letter to Leonard, Charles also mentions that there had been a skirmish at Haarlem, only a short distance away over the mountains. This caused widespread panic in the town and forced the British troops into emergency defence tactics.
Charles’s Hill house occupied a commanding position on the northern heights overlooking Knysna. While the family still mourned the recent death of Bessie, the house was commandeered and its occupants – Charles and the eight children were forced to move without notice. The realities of war had suddenly come home and the refugee family relocated to maiden Aunt Alfhild’s house down in the town.
This house is thought to be the double storey building first bought by
A.L. Thesen in 1869 when the original Albatros voyagers settled in Knysna. The house today is structurally unchanged and serves as a collection of shops and offices but still dominated by its elegant stinkwood staircase. It was a big house for a lady on her own (Charles’s and Alfhild’s mother died the previous year on 27th May 1900) but became cramped by the addition of a whole large family, and probably servants as well.
The British troops immediately prepared the Hill house for siege and defence by sand-bagging the windows. These events were observed by the children with a mixture of morbid fascination, excitement and amusement. Anarchic by nature as children naturally are at a certain age, they would have watched with horror and glee as carefully tended flower beds were dug up, window panes broken and polished floors marked by soldiers’ boots. Some of their comments are recorded in their letters to Leonard who was on his journey overseas.
Since that time and up to about 1940 when it was quarried away, there was a small hill crest about two hundred metres to the West of the Hill house which was littered with brass Martini Henry .450 cartridge cases. These were the remains of rifle shooting practice held, presumably, by the troops occupying the Hill house. The target backing, a two metre square panel of iron, stood for many years in the valley to the North, pitted by bullet strikes.
Louie, Charles’s fifteen year old daughter, writes a good description of the exodus from the house in a letter to Leonard dated August 30th 1901:
How do you like Norway, isn’t is very cold there. I suppose father has written to you about our being turned out of our house. About two weeks ago on a Sunday there was a Boer scare here (the scares always come on Sunday) and at about 10 o’clock the Commandant sent up to say that we must leave the house in 2 hours.”
“We could only take a few things our dinner included and trek down to Aunties house. Yesterday was the first time we were allowed to get anything. The afternoon of the Sunday we trekked down, we went up to see what they were doing to find they were filling bags full of sand out of father’s garden, they dug big holes in among the trees. They dragged these bags across the carpet in the parlour and piled them up before the windows. They afterwards did it to all the rooms.”
“We are very cramped down here.”
“ I hope we will soon get our house back. They have formed a coloured mans guard also, and have made sod houses on the tops of some of the hills for them to sleep in.”
“Did Mrs. Hep write to you? She said she was going to. She has had her court done up.”
“The camellias have buds on; I suppose by the time we get back they will be in flower. The heath is very beautiful on the hills (in August, late winter, the purple heather [Erica gracilis] on the surrounding hills would have been in bloom. Much of this has now been displaced by Australian exotics) and also the Bluebells; (Freezers(sic) are out at Belvidere but we don’t get any here.) Did father tell you his mango blew down, it was quite rotten at the roots. Katie is growing very good and very pretty. She will be the beauty of the family one day. Rolf is such a regular boy, he is awfully pleased if any little boy comes to play with him. He is always so keen on writing to you and cutting out pictures to send to you. Now I must close.”
With much love, I remain, Your loving sister, Louie. Is Fritjof’s sister very pretty? Love from us all. I have had such a lot of letters.”
More children’s letters followed – this one from Harald also at Aunt Alfhild’s house – on the 6th September of the same year.
“Dear Leonard, I had meant to write to you last mail but as Louie wrote I knew that she had told you all the news. We are still down here at Aunties, I wish that we could get our house back before the holidays, that is in three weeks time, we have been down here for three weeks already. I don’t know if Louie told you that our MP. Mr. Vanhuisteen was in gaol for about a week.
“I hope letters are not censored which go to Norway. The bishop arrived here yesterday. I suppose that you will be in England when this reaches you. We heard today that General French had captured 150 (of your friends!) Boers. Of course we do not know if it is true or not. I hope you are not getting still more Pro Boer. (It is possible that Leonard, having been exposed to a wider cross section of views and opinions, might have been genuinely sympathetic to the Boer cause, although he was known for his often contrary ideas.) We have not had a Cape post for four or five posts. It is all coming tonight and I suppose a letter from you.”
“Saturday: Louie and I went out in the boat today, we went up Salt River right past old Douglass, Harry and Eric with some other boys went over to Brenton. Aunt Amy is in today. She had dinner here. Irene is teaching down at the Bay. I suppose Uncle Ragnvald is getting tired of doing nothing. We suppose he will come by one of the mails steamers. On Sunday we went for a walk up to the fort (the late residence of Mr. C.W. Thesen). Of course we could not go inside the fence, the only thing they have done lately is to put a barbed wire fence in the flower garden.”
“Now I think that I must close. We are all very well. Lenie says I must give you her complements and so do Rachel and Sarah. (Members of the household staff.) Our groom William went and joined the Town Guard and so John Jantjes is doing the stable work. Please excuse my untidy letter. I remain, Your loving brother, Harald Thesen.”
One must presume that Leonard was still at a loss to know the exact circumstances of his mother’s death and one can guess that he was very anxious to have more details from Louie. She writes from Aunt Alfhild’s house, Knysna, on September 10th, 1901:
“My Dear Leonard,
“I did not write to you last week because Harald and Father wrote, and there is not enough news for three letters. You asked me about Mother’s death, it was all very sudden to us and I don’t know much about her illness. On the Monday night she seemed alright except she had a cold; and she kissed us good-night at the bottom of the stairs, we never saw her alive again. She got ill about the middle of the night. We went to school and came back at one o’clock then we only found out she was very bad. She died at about 2 or 3 o’clock that afternoon. Everybody sent wreaths and the grave looked beautiful the next day when we went to see it. Only poor father went to the funeral. She is buried between Grandpapa and little baby (Blanca Elleonore). We went to pick some veld flowers yesterday, and are going to put them on for you this morning.”
“ We are getting used to staying down here now, but I hope we will soon be back on the Hill.”
“The Gun boat “Partridge” came in the other day, and is going to stay a week. I see Dad addressed this to Aunt Katie’s place, so I suppose you will get it there. Aunt Katie wrote to me, and I ought to answer her, but I might not have time because I have to post this before 12 o’clock. You must not mind if the posts are not quite regular because sometimes they do not go on account of the Boers. If I do not write to Aunt Katie you must say I will write next time.”
“The Bishop has just been here and had confirmation. I am going to wait till you come back then we will be confirmed together. Give my love to Aunt Katie and all the cousins, I don’t know all their names. With much love, I remain, your loving sister Louie.”
“Ella asks what became of your monkey?”
“From Ella (aged Nine): at Aunt Alfhild’s house, Knysna, September 28th 1901.
“Dear Leonard, I am only riting you a few lines for I have not much nuse to tell you. We broke up school on Friday and we have holidays for 10 days and I am very glad for I do not like school for our teacher is not very nice to us. Why is it so funny that you have not told us any thing about your nonkey(sic); I think it must have died on your jerney and you must have forgot to right and tell us. I remain your loving sister, Ella Thesen.”
It seems that Leonard had won the heart of his Great Aunt in Norway as this letter will show. It is written with genuine feeling and sympathy for him after the death of his Mother. Tante Minete (Mina or Mine Brandt) was the sister of Ane Kathrine Margrete Thesen, the wife of the late A.L. Thesen. This letter was received by Leonard while he was in Stavanger shortly after the news of his Mother’s death:
“Christiania, Christian 4des Gade 12, 11.8.1901
“My very much dear Leonard, “Casting all your cares upon him; for he careth for you,” 1 Peter, V. 7. That is just the words our beloved Bessie, your dear, dear Mother would say to you and all those she have left alone here on this earth!”
“ How I am sorry for you and for Charles and for the young children left alone!”
“I have nothing to give only that everything – sorrow and happiness – comes from God himself; he only knows why so and not else. Poor Leonard! Mama is happy, I am sure of that; she loved God; she did go his ways, and God loved her. She was good – and she showed you, her children, to walk the same way as she did.”
“She said out she was sure that: “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin,” and she believed in it and is now happy.”
“Hjalmar and Ragnvald are sorry for you and for Charles. They are thinking that you directly are going to your relations in England and then to Knysna very soon.”
“It is a great disappointment to me not seeing you again, but your dear Pa wants you I think. I will remember you in my heart and long for you to come back again to Christiania.”
“I did not speak nicely with you, alas. I hoped by and by to do so, but it will not come this hoping future I do fear! You will always be in my love!”
“Dear, dear Leonard! Your loving and sympathetic grand-aunt, Mina Brandt. Love and sympathy from my brother and all other friends. Yours, M.B.”
After her Mother’s death, Louie went to Boarding School in Cape Town. She was then either sixteen or seventeen years old.
“To Leonard after his return to Knysna from overseas: Vredenburg High School, Overbeek Square, Cape Town, Aug 5th
“My dear Leo, As I have some spare time now I will begin to write to you but I am not sure if I will finish. By today’s post I got the letter from Juliet which you re-addressed. Thank you very much for telegram and letters which I received on my birthday. It is always a day of rejoicing when we get letters. On Saturday Dad came to fetch me and we went shopping in the morning, had lunch at Cleghorn’s and went to Newlands to watch a cricket match in the afternoon, one man got half killed and was carried off the field. All the girls have gone for a walk. I didn’t go because I had to practise, they will be back just now and we will have to go straight to study class. Is Aunt Katie still at the Peel? I want to write to her. I think Dad is coming up tomorrow afternoon to take me out and say “good bye” as Ingerid is supposed to leave on Thursday.”
“You must not mind my writing, as I am in such a hurry. We have school until two o’clock and from three to four can do as we like and then we go for a walk. Come straight back to study class at five have tea and study until nine, then prayers and bed. We have some very nice girls here, two of them sleep in our room we have the most fun at night when we go to bed.”
“I hope your cold and Katie’s is
alright again. How are all the children? At school again I suppose.
With love to all, from Louie.”
The months which followed immediately after Bessie’s death must have been a particularly sad and worrying time in Charles’s personal life but there is only a glimpse of this and it comes in a series of letters to the local Commandant of the defending forces.
“In accordance with permission given me by yourself, I have twice been up to my house for the purpose of removing my family’s clothing. On the first occasion, Mr. Haslam only permitted me to enter my office and remove some letters which I required to answer. On the second occasion Mr. Walter Page would only permit me to enter one room, and as this was insufficient to obtain the necessary clothing for my large family, I thought it best for my servant to remove the linen. I have therefore been compelled to buy all necessary articles, as we have no change of clothing here.”
Two days later, on August 28th, 1901, he wrote again:
“Dear Major Thomson,
“I beg to thank you exceedingly for your very courteous letter of the 26th and wish to say that, if it is convenient to you I could be on The Hill at 3 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) to remove sufficient clothing etc. to last us for another week.”
“Before the expiration I trust you will see your way clear to return the house to me. I need hardly say what it has meant to have my house taken away when I had just sustained such a sad bereavement a few days before. No amount of monetary compensation will make up for my suffering in the last ten days.”
Reading between the lines here, it is not too difficult to reconstruct a plausible sequence of events.
Possibly for the first time in his life, Charles Thesen was a supplicant and in a vulnerable state. He had approached Major Thompson with the natural request to visit his house in order to obtain what he needed for himself and his family having been expelled at very short notice.
According to Louie’s letter, the requisition of his house had been on a Sunday, at midday, and the family had little time to do much other packing than to take their Sunday roast with them. A very humbling and bewildering situation for someone in his position. He was, even then, a man of substance and prominent as a ship-owner, industrialist and employer. He was also a Municipal Councillor, having served a term as Mayor of the town. (A post he was to fill on eight separate occasions over the next thirty years, as well as being Chairman of the Divisional Council and maintaining a keen interest in Parliamentary affairs.)
Charles had just suffered the death of his wife as well as remorse in the knowledge that she had died – it is believed -- as a result of a medically unwise last pregnancy. In Haslam and Page he had it seems come up against petty officiousness and possibly even some perverse malice or jealousy. The Hill house was a grand mansion in those times – alone in large grounds on the top of a hill and the two men had been given vague instructions that the owner was to have limited access. They were in charge. There is no record of Major Thomson’s letter but it seems clear that he was made aware of the reception given to Charles and that he was shocked and angered enough to write him a letter of apology.
It would appear that in order to undo the harm his careless orders had done, he had written a conciliatory and apologetic letter and had arranged to meet Charles in person at the Hill house and Charles’s effusive reply to this letter comes as a natural reaction to kindness in the throes of personal tragedy. The tone of his reply changes to one of sternness at the end when he says, “no amount of monetary compensation will make up for my suffering in the last ten days.” From this, it seems likely that in order to mollify him, Thomson had reminded him that compensation for the house would be forthcoming eventually. This rather heavy-handed approach was probably the cause of Charles’s third letter:
“I am told that you have given notice that all claims against your Department must be sent in before the end of November. I regret to inform you that I shall not at present be in a position to send in my claim against you for the use of my house as a fort.”
He was not going to be rushed nor could he be bullied any further. In a letter to an unknown recipient in 1901, Charles writes:
“We are still out of the house and have no information as to when we can get back. I should like you to consult a barrister as to how I should set about getting compensation for being turned out. As far as I can make out I am the first man who has been turned out in the Cape Colony by our own side – Steytler says I should go to Cape Town and place the matter in Schinness’s or Innes’s hands and proceed against the Government.”
To add to the stress of Charles’s daily routine was the difficulty he and his brothers encountered in trying to keep business and shipping affairs on an even keel amidst the muddle of Martial Law and rumours of impending attack. The Cape Town office wired:
“Defense Department or Military Department may require Ingerid to convey troops to Knysna.”
and a letter written to Cape Town from the Knysna Head Office reads:
“We have been under Martial Law and
both our steamers taken by our Military for war purposes.”
The letter goes on:
“300 Boers from the Orange River had got within 20 miles of us, but, believe me, not yet further down. We have military all about.”
It seems that the military authorities suspected, or were aware, that there was a quite natural feeling of sympathy amongst the Knysna forest woodcutters (then a considerable population) for the Boer cause as they were almost all Afrikaans speakers. It is quite conceivable that the Boers, in sending a Commando towards Knysna, had had this fact in mind and were planning to inspire an armed uprising. Even if not inspired by a feeling of kinship with the Boers or unity with the Boers’ war against Imperial Britain, the woodcutters could well have been swayed by the promise of a free hand in the forest, to do as they pleased without interference by English foresters such as Harison. This could have led to the development of a very serious situation and a telegram from the British Military authorities reads:
“Every passenger arriving Knysna must
have pass from Port of Embarkation, see that this is carried out to the letter.”
It is quite likely that the authorities were not all that familiar with the sparsely populated hinterland mountain country between Knysna and the Long Kloof. There were at least two direct access routes linking Knysna with Uniondale, Avontuur and Harlem in the Long Kloof over the Outeniqua mountans: one through the main forest and another over the Witberg, north of Plettenberg Bay – distances which could be covered easily in two days on horseback. It would have been easier and safer to have sent a Boer agent or emissary on either of these routes for direct contact with a potential forest woodcutter army than to have smuggled a spy by sea.
Half way up the fifteen odd kilometre south slope of the Witberg behind the Keurbooms forest station, there is a spot on the track where a small spring bubbles out of the wagon road. This place is known as ‘Breakfast Laagte’, it is said to be so called because a party of Boers was reputed to have camped here, possibly after an overnight ride from the North and with daylight, they would have seen stretched below them, the grand panorama of fynbos, forest and sea.
Perhaps they were daunted enough by the vastness of this unfamiliar region to turn back, but what remains true is that Charles’s house on the hill was directly accessible from Concordia via Brackenhill and Deep Walls in the main forest and that it occupied a commanding view over the town of Knysna.
If “Breakfast Laagte” was in fact ever associated with a Boer force, then they had chosen the wrong, more easterly route. To have approached Knysna from this side would have meant a ride via the Plettenberg Bay main road and almost certain detection. The western route would have been via Prince Alfred’s pass, Die Vlugt, Klein River, Buffels Nek and eventually Concordia, a short ride away from the Hill house and a much more secret approach through the main forest. Charles Thesen wrote to the District Commandant:
“I beg to draw your attention to the
case of Mr. K. Bertelsen who has been ordered by you to leave for Cape Town per next voyage of the
S.S. Ingerid. Mr. Bertelsen has been to the coast for the purpose of
recovering his health after a severe attack of fever in Bulawayo and, as he is not yet
perfectly strong and well, I beg respectfully that he maybe permitted to remain
until the voyage after the next, by the S.S. Ingerid for Cape Town.”
This would have been Carl, the only survivor of the Bertelsen massacre by the Matabele in Southern Rhodesia.
In “The Thesen Chronicles” which the family commissioned Mr. Eric Rosenthal to compile from the Firm’s letter press books, he says:
“As one of the most influential families in the district, the Thesens were frequently asked to mediate with the wartime authorities,” and he goes on to say, “But even the Thesens had to comply with the emergency regulations.”
As when Charles wrote again to the District Commandant to report that,
“My son, A.L. Thesen, arrived per Ingerid from Cape Town last night and is at present residing in my house.”
Normal business was becoming more and more difficult as security was tightened even in the forest itself and ships were diverted at short notice. One of the new and (very few) products exported directly from the Knysna forest in log form was boxwood (Kamassi) a small diameter tree – not common – which has a very hard, smooth and close-grained, yellow-coloured timber. It had been found suitable for the manufacturing of the shuttles used in the weaving industry. A letter to their London agent reads:
“Owing to the present disturbed state of the country, we are not disposed to take any orders for boxwood, which may give rise to complications like the last one; also to the probability of a claim for damages.”
To add to everyone’s problems Bubonic plague had broken out in Cape Town and a letter from Knysna to the Cape Town office reads:
“We trust you will take every
precaution to prevent its being carried along on the Ingerid.”
They were justifiably afraid that the ship could have been quarantined and worse; that the plague might have been brought to Knysna.
From this vantage point a hundred years later and with the benefit of hindsight, one might be forgiven for supposing that the woodcutters were the only members of the (white) community who were not adversely affected by the war, although Charles does say:
“The Military are taking all the wood we can produce and prices are very high, in fact we are not able to supply the general trade at present. The woodcutters are now in clover with wagon wood very high in price: but I think they eat and drink it all up(!)”
Charles was not the first to express exasperation at the behaviour and standards of Knysna’s woodcutters. As has been suggested however, the military authorities may well have felt more than mere annoyance for the rugged individuals who inhabited the forest settlements. How loyal these Cape Afrikaners would have been to the “rebel” cause is difficult to guess but here was a potential army of gun- and horse-owning men, perfectly at home in the forest; self-sustaining, self-reliant, able-bodied and in their own environment. It is unlikely that this thought had ever occurred to Charles, for he and others like him, would probably have considered the woodcutters to have been loyal fellow citizens. This may explain some of Charles’s frustration as well as Major Thomson’s seemingly overbearing attitude. Charles wrote:
“The exigencies of Martial Law and active service fully account for my seeming remissness in answering your communications.”
Apart from the threat of Boer incursion into the forest region, work in the forest was brought to a halt by a severe shortage of draft animals. Most available mules and trek oxen had been expropriated by the British forces and without them, logs could not be extracted from the forest nor could timber and timber products be transported to Knysna.
A great deal of correspondence ensued as a consequence, with much of it directed towards other potential sources of animal supply. The following correspondence from the Thesen Chronicles is worth recording here. This letter was written to an agent in Madagascar:
“We should like to know the cost of the animals f.o.b. and whether you could charter a vessel to bring them on here. Could you advise us as to the smallest number an available vessel could carry? We think the oxen for our purposes should be from three to six years of age. Are those in your port trained, or would we have trouble with them? What fodder could you supply them with on their voyage and at what cost? What would be the price of fresh water and men to attend them on the voyage? What grazing are oxen used to in Madagascar? Do the cattle stand the sea voyage well or is there much loss on the average shipment to Natal? Should such a transaction be completed, what would you consider the best method of settlement?….”
On June 11, 1902, Dr. D. Hutchinson of the Veterinary Branch of the Agricultural Department in Cape Town was advised:
“Our Mr. C.W. Thesen returned from Natal a couple of weeks ago and we hope shortly to be in a position to import cargoes of about 500 oxen from Madagascar. As a first experiment we have bought about 25, landed at East London a few weeks back. These we expect round here per first steamer and we propose letting them run, to see what effect the grazing and climate will have. We trust your Veterinary Surgeon will still be here to assist us if any advice is required.”
The sequel was something of an anti-climax. Dr. Hutchinson sent a warning about disease amongst the imported stock and was informed on July 12:
“We bought six oxen ex Camilla at East London. One died there and five were shipped on here. They landed in considerably worse condition than when seen by our Mr. Thesen, but since their arrival 14 days ago we think a great improvement in their appearance has taken place. Our idea is to see how these oxen get on during the next month before we send for the proposed cargo.”
In the event, the withdrawal of the British troops and the return of the demand for transport to normal put an end to the Madagascar venture.
In 1963 Harald Thesen wrote a memoir of the family’s eviction from their house with his recollections of that time: he was fourteen years old in 1901. Writing of the house on the Hill built by his father Charles, he says,
“Firstly my mother died there very suddenly on the 6th August, 1901. Leonard happened to be in Norway at that time but this left me and my brothers Harry, Eric and Rolf and my sisters Louie, Ella and Katie, all mere children. My Aunt Alfhild whose home was then in the village was fortunately able to come and take over the management of our house.”
“My mother’s sudden death was followed only 12 days later by another momentous happening. On Sunday morning, the 18th August, 1901, a messenger in military uniform arrived with an order addressed to my father from the Colonel in charge of the British troops then officially stationed in Knysna. The order stated that, owing to the danger of Boer troops then in the Longkloof area making their way to Knysna through the main forest and the likelihood of their taking possession of his house which would give them command of the Knysna village, he found it necessary to order him to vacate the house within two hours and to hand it over to the British troops then in the village. There was no alternative but to obey this order and within two hours the whole family had moved out. I quite vividly remember our Sunday dinner being carried by the servants and various members of the family to Aunt Alfhild’s house in the village, where we were destined to remain for some 6 weeks until the scare of Boer invasion had passed.”
After the withdrawal of the British forces, matters moved slowly back to normal in the town and in the forest. Charles’s return to his house with his family could not have been easy and it is certain that without Bessie, his life would never be the same again.
The loss of their mother was to play an ever present part in the lives of the older children as well. There are no letters to bear out this fact; only the first hand knowledge of her grandchildren, so the last word is best left to a child in whom the healing powers of life and time had already begun. Rolf aged five, in a letter dated 1901, dictated by him to an unknown scribe and written in pencil from Aunt Alfhild’s house, records their family’s imminent return to the house on the Hill:
“Dear Leonard, How is your monkey getting on. Do you like Norway. The Commandant gave our house back today and we are going back on Monday. Aunty is going to get a bird for me on Christmas. You must bring me a Christmas stocking with a bird in. When the Commandant had our house we lived in Aunty’s house. The Man of War is in here now. We have nice little capes(sic) from the store. I have got a red calf called Moreman and Daisy laid it. Here is a kiss for you X. With love.”
Bessie and Kate would no doubt have had a great deal to say to each other on the whole business of the eviction from the Hill as well as on the final stages of the War but there was to be no more chatty correspondence between these two sisters or any of the many friends and relations: Bessie the keeper and writer of letters was gone.
Charles and his second cousin Hanna (Lucia Johanna Christine Thesen) were married in February, 1903. She was twenty-eight years old at the time. Three children were born to them and Hanna became as well a loving and natural stepmother to Bessie’s eight children. From the tone of Hanna’s letters to her, Bessie had always been a much-loved lode star to this cousin of Charles’s and under Hanna’s care the family life went on.
I am grateful to my wife Judy who read, sorted and typed all the letters transcribed here. She also did valuable historical editing work.
Hjalmar Peter Thesen,