Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Family’s History through a Writing Desk

This desk was more than a piece of inanimate wood reposed in the study of the house “Swiss Villa”, situated at number 20 Cape Road. In an age prior to instant communication via the phone, this writing desk was the connection between the far-flung family – the Rose-Innes, the Fehrsen’s and the Frielinghaus’ – whether in German East Africa during WW1 or Sidi Rezegh in North Africa during WW2.

Through this central hub or focal point, Harry Rose-Innes relates the family history as well as the secret of the piece of furniture. Written in 1987, the story was entitled “The Writing Desk”.

Main picture:  Tram in Cape Road in the 1920s

It was an autumn evening in Port Elizabeth in 1929.  I was 9 years old and I was asleep in my little room at “Swiss Villa”, 20 Cape Road.

Suddenly I was being gently shaken awake, and looked up to see “Fafa”, the Nanny we adored – whose real name, Florence, we had been unable to pronounce in 1921, when we first came under her care, on the death of our mother.

“I am sorry to have to wake you, Coopie” (another nickname, given to me when I was unable to say “cup of tea”, which I called “cupity”, and my cousin John converted into Coopie) “but I need you for something”.

“Come with me,” she said as she guided me along the passage to the dining room, in which there was a light burning.

My grandmother was seated at the desk, writing letters, as she often did into the early hours of the morning.  Those were the days when most mail went by train, and when families wrote to each other regularly, so that those in towns could keep in touch with those in “dorps”, and, through them, with those on farms.

My grandmother had been born in Bonn, Germany, whilst her father, a Swedish Doctor, Fehrsen, was studying to further his career.  In due course she came back to South Africa, where she was educated at the Renish Institute, Stellenbosch, in company with such as the Schreiners, Morkels, Van der Byls, Cloetes, Marais, Brummers, Smuts, and a host of others, whose names already filled the history books – and would continue to do so henceforth.

Harry William Rose-Innes

While she was being educated, her brothers, Jim (?) and John, were practicing medicine in the farming areas surrounding Cradock and Middleburg, Cape.  They thought nothing of riding 30 miles to see a sick patient, and of staying for days while they cared for him/her. 

The tales they had to tell enthralled us as children.

In due course, my grandmother came to live in Cradock, where she met my grandfather, Heinrich Frielinghaus, a wool broker, who worked for a German firm, and who had emigrated from Germany at the age of 16, because he could not stand the militant Prussianism which was about to result in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

In Cradock all her children were born.  Heinrich (German) Oloff (Swedish) (Chappie), followed by Marguerite (my mother), Frederich Victor (Fritz) and Arthur.  Shortly after the birth of Arthur the family moved to Port Elizabeth, where her husband started his own wool broking firm, Earle & Co, doing brisk business with Germany, England, Italy and Japan.

The three sons, who attended a private school somewhere near Havelock Street, often had to fight their way home (being German) through the piece of open common known today as St. George’s Park, dominated by ruffians of English descent.  Sturdy and agile “Chappie”, and gigantic “Fritz” soon taught them a lesson and they were allowed to pass in peace!

The “three Musketeers” attended St. Andrews College, Grahamstown, where their faces appeared with monotonous regularity in rugby and cricket team photographs, between 1904 and 1909, in company with such as Harold and Oswald Sampson, Rudd, Boch, Brewster and others.

Theirs was the era between the Boer War and the Act of Union in 1910.  Nobody then foresaw the imminence of the 1914-1918 War (the Great War) but, when it came, Chappie and Arthur joined up at once – and fought in East Africa against the “lebensraum hungry” Germans.  Arthur should have been awarded the M.C. (for his part one night in holding the Germans at bay) according to Francis Brett Young, who was their Medical Officer

HO “Chappie” Frielinghaus

Using the writing desk, which had been acquired in 1907, Maria Magdalena (Grannie) Frielinghaus used to write to her sons as they fought as Lieutenants in their Royal Rhodesian Regiment, and later, as they fought in France.

Rhodesia Regiment Insignia

Chappie, wounded and gassed, lived to mount a Guard of Honour for King George V, at Buckingham Palace in 1918.  Arthur, taken prisoner at the ferocious battle of “Hill 60”, remained in captivity, although he tried twice to escape.  Fritz, after getting water in his ears at Humewood Beach, became almost stone deaf, and was rejected for service.

My grandmother also wrote to my mother, during 1911/1912, while she was at a “finishing school” in Germany, and while she studied at Dresden, and when, on her return, she nursed in East London – waiting until she could marry my father, who waited twelve years to marry her! (1907 to 1918).  They were married in June 1918, and had only three years of married life together, before she died at age 32, of pneumonia, after giving birth to my sister, Marguerite (Rita), in December 1920.

Using the writing desk, my grandmother wrote to tell of her great sadness at the death of her husband, Heinrich, in March 1921, who died of a broken heart following the death of his only daughter.

With a grandson of eighteen months, and a granddaughter of six weeks, to bring up, my grandmother turned to Florence Stanley (“Fafa”) aged 16, from Hanky, for help.  And help she got, from 1920 to 1940, when I joined up – to fight those same Germans – and my sister served in the Canteen at 42 Air school, where she met her husband-to-be, the dashing Capt. Dennis Glendenning, from Somerset West – who did not wait twelve years to marry her!

Using the writing desk my Grandmother wrote to her grandsons serving in East Africa, and in North Africa.  Of “Chappies” two sons, both Lieutenants, one, Geoffrey, was captured at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941; the other, John, was killed at Gazala on 16th June 1942. (on the same day as Peter Sampson, son of Oswald). Another, “Coopie” a bombardier, was captured at Tobruk on 21st June 1942….

It is necessary now to return to the dining room at “Swiss Villa”, on that autumn evening in 1929.

My Grandmother looked up with some surprise as I arrived in the dining room, but “Fafa” said that she had a special reason for bringing me there. 

After a pause she said earnestly, “You have asked, Mrs Frielinghaus, whether there is anything of yours I would like.”  “Yes”, said my Grandmother.

With her heart in her mouth, and a catch in her breath, “Fafa” said, “There is only one thing I would like – this desk.”  And then, “Will you leave it to me, Mrs Frielinghaus?”

“Yes”, answered my Grandmother.

“Fafa” took me by the shoulders and turned me to face her.  “Did you hear that, Coopie,” she pleaded.  I nodded. 

“Will you remember?” I nodded.

“No,” you must say that you will.”

“I will,” I replied.

“Off you go to bed, then”…..

“Matopos” at 68 Park Drive

My Grandmother died in 1952 (the year my daughter Sally-Ann Marguerite was born), and the writing desk, which had been in her possession at Chappie’s home, “Matopos,” in Park Drive, was given to me.  There was no place to put it in our newly built home in Walmer, so it was delivered to “Fafa” for safe keeping, in the double story house next to their family’s Nursery Garden.  Peggy knew only that it was ours, and I had forgotten about the incident in 1929.

So, in 1955, when were able to take delivery of the writing desk, we stood one afternoon in the lounge of “Fafa’s” home, waiting for the removal people to carry the desk outside.

“Fafa”, who had polished the writing desk until it shone, stood with her hand on it lovingly.  She knew that it was hers, but who was there to say so?  Suddenly the scene in the dining room, in 1929, flashed through my memory; “Will you remember, Coopie?” “Yes,” I will.

Matopos today with Derek and Pete guarding the gate

It was time for me to speak up.  Instead I remained silent, because Peggy said: “I do love, this desk, Fafa, I shall always treasure it.  Thank you for looking after it for me….”

This she has done.  But this I know.  If I had said, “This desk does not belong to us, Peggy.  It belongs to “Fafa”.  It was given to her by Granny in 1929” – “Fafa” would have burst into tears and have put her arms around me.  It would have made her day.

She would have taken the writing desk with her to the Old Age cottage, where it would have been her pride and joy.

I can only hope that, by seeing that it reaches its rightful owners at last, I shall be forgiven for my weakness.

I have told this story to David and Sally-Ann, and both of them – without hesitation – agreed that Ronnie, and through him, his family should be made aware of their inheritance as soon as possible.

*In early 1988, The Writing Desk left South Africa by ship, bound for its home with Ronnie Brett (?) and family  (“Fafa’s” son) in Australia.

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