Written by Lynette McWilliams, daughter of Walter and Hazel McWilliam
It was in April 1949, five months before my fifth birthday when the family of four travelled from Port Elizabeth to seaside town of Hermanus, 350 miles west of Port Elizabeth and 50 miles miles east of Cape Town. This journey was life changing, changing our lives in just about every way possible. The consequence; a credit to two wonderful people.
Main picture: Hazel and Walter McWilliams
The contract signed was over a one sided meal of fish and chips. Mr. Heffernan, the vendor was, apparently according to my Dad, quite deft at eating bony fish with the flesh going in one side of his mouth while the bones being automatically ousted from the other. My father did all the necessary negotiations as the man of the house did in those days.
Mother and the two girls patiently waited outside Mr Hefferman’s house in the grey Mercury, Walter’s pride and joy.
This was the birth of McWilliams Drapers, number 10 Lawrence Street, Central, Port Elizabeth – on the Hill.
I remember it all even down to the phone number, 25612. There was a haberdashery department, knitting wool which was sold in scenes. I remember many a time of holding the scène between two extended hands while another rolled the unravelling yarn into a ball. Wherever there was knitting yarn there were knitting patterns and knitting needles. There were bolts and bolts of fabric of every description and paper patterns. Manchester, soft furnishings, girls, boys and baby wear, men’s shirts and ties but my Mother’s speciality was ladies fashion to which half the floor space was devoted.
My Dad still held his position of assistant manager at Cleghorn and Harris on the Market Square. Alas, things were a changing in downtown Port Elizabeth; the high class departmental stores were closing, retaining their efforts in the larger cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Maybe this was because Port Elizabeth was now a major industrial city. General Motors and Ford both had their South African assembly plants and headquarters in the industrial area of the city. Due to these two giants all the components pertaining to vehicle manufacture such as tyres, Firestone and Goodyear, BorgWarner, manufactured gearboxes, Exide for another, manufactured batteries and so the list went on. Kolniks, Ackerman’s, Greatermans, C.T.C. and OK Bazaars flourished – these shops stocked the cheaper lines.
The glamour of the 1930s and 1940s was gone. After six hard years of war, it was not time for playing but to get everything moving again and so the city prospered.
It was in 1952 that Cleghorn and Harris on the Market Square, Port Elizabeth closed its doors for the last time and it was to Johannesburg my Dad was transferred. What a shock; a new and very successful small business being run by my Mother but with my Dad overseeing things, my Aunt was the book keeper and if required, a sales assistant. A family friend and others behind the counters – there was a staff of five plus Russell the delivery boy, he also being the cleaner and the tea maker. A decision had to be made – the business was not returning enough, my Dad’s salary was important. To sell up or not to sell up that was the question. We loved the sea and no one was keen moving to the crime ridden, landlocked golden city of Johannesburg; those who lived there would not wish to live anywhere else – the climate was fantastic and Johannesburg was very fast paced and a wealthy city due to the gold mining.
It was decided that my Dad would give Cleghorn and Harris Johannesburg a three month trial. My Mother did not drive so she had to have lessons. The big grey Mercury was too big and the gears were on the floor. It had to be sold.
The driving lessons began. In a very short time my Mother was learning to drive, my Dad being the instructor.
Ford had just brought out a new range of smaller cars. They were the Zephyr and the Consul, the Zephyr was a six cylinder while the Consul was a four cylinder with column gear change. Not long before my Dad left for Johannesburg we took delivery of a brand new sand coloured Consul.
“Don’t grate the gears, use the clutch”
“You must put your foot on the clutch when applying the brakes”
“Turner, turner, you have to use your turner when turning a corner turner”
After many a tear had been shed, my dear Mother passed her driving test at the Walmer Town Hall, and got a licence to drive a motor car.
It must have been three months later my Dad resigned at Cleghorn and Harris, Johannesburg and returned home. He had applied for and was successful in attaining a position with Mosenthal’s, a very large wholesaler in the North End of town. He was the manager of the soft furnishing department. Life went on and business grew. A new shopping centre had been built in Walmer, the suburb where we lived. It was decided that it was time to open a branch. Of the high class departmental shops in Port Elizabeth there was only Garlicks in the city and McWilliams on the Hill. Many of the customers lived in Walmer. I remember well my Dad doing the shop fit out himself. The timber must have been treated with a chemical which my Dad was allergic to as he came out in a terrible rash on his legs. As was the case with my Dad he did an excellent job with the fittings. My Dad could do anything he put his hand to even as far as doing my sewing homework for me when I was in junior school.
Another branch was opened in Newton Park and it was now time for my Dad to come into the business full time. Hazel was fully occupied with the merchandizing and buying while Walter saw to the overall running of the business.
By 1960 another branch had been opened in Walmer and new premises were secured in Rink Street, this time the fit out was done by professional shopfitters. The store was known as McWilliams of Rink Street with the branches now known as McWilliams.
A few years later the premises were doubled in size; extensions were done and a mezzanine office built for the recently acquired bookkeeping machine plus a private office for management. The staff now numbered about twenty on the floor, three in the work room, a cleaner come tea maker, the Mini delivery van being replaced in about 1967 with a brand new Anglia delivery vehicle which was driven by Boyce.
As time passed and many families had more than one car it became apparent the branches were of nuisance value and the local customers only used them to buy needle and thread but for all other requirements they would drive to Rink Street where they would find a greater and wider selection of the goods they wished to purchase. With this in mind my parents decided to do what those high class departmental stores did in Port Elizabeth all those years ago and overtime all; the branches were incorporated them into the main.
At that time my parents were the only Christians in the rag trade, as the clothing industry was known at the time. Hazel McWilliams just had an instinct for fashion and whatever Hazel bought just walked off the shop floor just hours after being unpacked and put on display BUT for the dreaded Mini Skirt!
The smart ladies of Port Elizabeth refused to accept the mini skirt as with the ladies of Australia. It took a long time for this apparel to appeal to the smart ladies of Port Elizabeth. Hazel knew it was to become a major fashion item but did not realise it would take a few more years.
Perhaps some will remember when Jean Shrimpton was invited to be the guest of honour at Australia’s premier fashion event – the Melbourne Cup. All the ladies donning their finest attire, the most fashionable dresses from the finest boutique shops in the city plus hat, gloves and stockings and the gentlemen also attired in their finest and in many cases a hat. There was a hushed silence when this world famous top fashion model, Jean Shrimpton, arrived wearing a casual ‘mini’ skirted shift dress, no hat, no gloves, nor STOCKINGs and almost flat shoes. The country was in an uproar.
I remember travelling to Johannesburg twice a year for Fashion Fortnight and visiting all the top fashion houses where we were treated with utmost respect. My parents would never buy out of work hours with the result we had the choice of time. On many an occasion I was invited to model next seasons clothing, I suppose it was because I was vertically challenged and quite petite, the professional models being very tall and gangly. It was a sure thing whatever looked good on me Hazel bought. I enjoyed my trips to Fashion Fortnight. In March one bought for summer and in September for winter of the following year.
I was living and working in Durban in March of 1967, my parents, Hazel and Walter, were flying to Johannesburg on the Sunday night to attend Fashion Fortnight. I called them and suggested they fly to Durban on the Friday night, spend the weekend in Durban and flying out on the Sunday night. This they did, we had a great time together.
It was with great shock and horror on awakening on the Monday morning the country learned of the disappearance of Flight 406, the Rietbok. This was the flight my parents had been booked on to fly to Johannesburg. Life is just a matter of sliding doors. It was a full flight, I suppose two people were delighted to get my parents cancellation, enabling them to fly on that fateful Sunday night.
No wreckage or bodies were ever recovered from the sea, not a trace was ever washed up on the shore. Flight 406 just disappeared without a trace on the 13th March, 1967. My parents had business associates who were on that flight, all on their way to Johannesburg for Fashion Fortnight. While researching the history of the Rietbok I discovered there were two anti government passengers on that flight that night. However, I have since been told that many a Vickers Viscount suffered from structural failure. There were possibly four more disappearances after the Rietbok.
The 150th Commemoration of the arrival of the 1820 Settlers was held in 1970. All the shops in Port Elizabeth had been invited to dress their windows in the theme of the time. Miss Du Toit and I set to work and with fabric and pins; we soon had the windows taking shape.
This photo on the left depicts a Settler family arriving in Algoa Bay; the picture on the right depicts the difference between travel in 1820 and modern day jet travel, a difference of three months of an uncomfortable sea voyage and twelve hours flying B.O.A.C.
My sister had left South Africa in 1979 living in Canada for a while, then Sydney and then finally making Brisbane their home.
I left South Africa in April of 1976. My husband had sailed in the Cape to Rio Race of that year. He sailed as far as St Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
He sold his yacht and flew back to New Zealand, back to dairy farming. It was dairy farming which he knew and could do well. Both Hazel and Walter’s girls had left South Africa to live in Australia and New Zealand. I was now a dairy farmer’s wife!!!
In the winter of 1980 on a visit home and when Luci was ten years old she offered to work in the ladies showroom. What a gem of a saleslady she turned out to be. She was in tune with the customers and knew exactly what would appeal to them in colour and style. The ladies waited to be attended to by this little girl. She was the talk of the shop.
Today I am very proud of my Luci who is now a very successful business woman.
I was living in New Zealand, my sister in Sydney; my parents with both children living on the other side of the world decided to sell up and retire in Australia. The business was not big enough for the large conglomerates to purchase but too big for an individual so in 1981 McWilliams of Rink Street closed its doors for the last time. Just an empty shop but an icon in the memories of the older people of Port Elizabeth, alas, those customers will not be too numerous anymore; as the sands slip through the hour glass, another generation, who will only know of 10 Rink Street being a bank, come on the scene and most of those who would remember have passed on.
In September 2012, I visited Johannesburg, South Africa and called on my cousin and his lovely wife, Terry and Helen McWilliams; I am delighted to write they have a most successful fashion business – the name ‘McWILLIAMS FASHIONS’; the name lives on.
In their case Terry and Helen are on the other side of the desk, they take the orders. In the Showroom they have a framed newspaper article hanging on the wall. It is a copy of the Johannesburg Star newspaper, an article of Hazel at Fashion Fortnight giving her thoughts on the latest fashions together with a lovely photo of the lady herself. The year was 1966.
Lynette Hazel McWilliams