Port Elizabeth of Yore: My Second Great Uncle’s Reminiscences of the 1870s

Balfour Turton Dix-Peek (1868-1932) was one of the sons of my maternal great-great grandfather, George Dix-Peek, thus making him my second great uncle.  In these letters by Arthur to his great-niece Anita, (and thus a cousin of mine) in 1931 and 1932, he elaborates what life was like in Port Elizabeth during the 1870s i.e. when he was very young

Main picture:  Market Square in 1874

What follows are the letters of my great-great uncle, Arthur Balfour Turton Dix-Peek (1868-1932), to his great-niece (and thus a cousin of mine), Anita Verhaaren (of Palo Alto, California, USA) which were written in the early 1930s. Anita’s mother was a Dix-Peek, also named Anita, and her grandfather was Harry MacDonald Dix-Peek, of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

The author of these letters, Arthur Balfour Turton Dix-Peek, was born at Zonnebloem College, Cape Town, South Africa, on the 6 February 1868, where his father, George Dix Peek, was teaching at the time. 

Arthur later served for a while in the Port Elizabeth regiment, the Prince Alfred’s Guard, and was rather a good poet (having memorised a William Wordsworth poem, “Pet Lamb”, that his mother used to read to him, when but a child, long before he had learnt to read) and it is thanks to Arthur that certain facts pertaining to the family’s early days in Africa have been left to posterity, namely those of us Dix-Peek’s alive today. Arthur married Jessie Bodill, and their daughter was Dorothea Bridge Dix-Peek (born on 1 September 1895, died 1981), and he died in South Africa on the 5 October 1932, just seven-months after the last letter was written to his great-niece “Nita”, who referred to him as “Uncle-Daddy”. 

George Dix-Peek circa 1874 in colonial military attire

First Letter 

6 Oliver Crescent, Kensington, 
Port Elizabeth, C.P. 
South Africa. 
30th December 1931 

My dear little Nita, 

I received your most welcome letter and card of 29th Nov. a little while ago. Needless to say, I was very glad to hear from you. I will do my best to further your little scheme of making your Treasure Book as interesting as possible; but don’t expect too much as my own life has been singularly uneventful, and of the early history of my parents, not being blessed overmuch with occult insight, I don’t know much. 

My father [George Dix Peek] came to this country [1865] with his wife and first and third sons, Alban and St. George; Harold, the second, was left with his maternal grandparents [the Turton family] who were very religious people of the persuasion known commonly as “Yarmouth Bloaters”, but among themselves as “Plymouth Brethren” (and Sisteren, presumably). They religiously promised to send the nipper out to his parents after a short number of years, mutually agreed upon – and as religiously failed to do so. 

My respected dad [George] came out as Consulting Engineer and Architect to a party whose object was to find a township named Bridgetown on the Berg (which means Mountain) River, about 100 miles from Cape Town. The scheme was fathered by two earnest-minded young sprigs of the British aristocracy by the name of Scarborough, together with their guardian, a dotty old blighter by the name of Sackett – a doctor. (This chap, by the way, was responsible for the final wrecking of the scheme just as everything in the garden was lovely, I have a misty recollection of being told that he went quite mad). They brought with them all sorts of artisans required for this sort of job, brick makers, carpenters, masons, a blacksmith, butcher, etc. etc. 

The doctor came to loggerheads with his proper professional adviser, and planned a big store, the outer walls of which went up with no spaces being left for doors and windows. Among other fantastic tricks, he refused to allow anyone a conveyance to get back to Cape Town, so my father and another man walked. My brother Harry [Harry MacDonald Dix-Peek] – your grandfather – was born at Bridgetown. 

After my dad eventually got his little lot back into Cape Town, he accepted a post at the Native College [Zonnebloem College] as a teacher of mathematics. Here, the sons of the tribal Chiefs were taught. One of these, whom my father admired for the principle of loyalty to his own rebel sire which induced him to take up arms against the Government, was killed in action in the same war [9th Frontier War, 1877-1878] to which my dad took his little company [Port Elizabeth Militia] to serve in Kaffraria. 

I was only two months old when we came to Little Bess [Port Elizabeth], having made my appearance on this jolly old planet at the Zonebloem [sic] College. My extreme youthfulness insured me against “mal-de-mer”, and I slept contentedly, rocked in the cradle of the deep, most of the way round, while many of my fellow “voyageurs” of more advanced age were agonizedly shouting “Hooray” as they hung over the rail whenever the supper bell rang. (I must explain here that when there are any fishing excursions out on the bay, and the weather is a bit rough, as the white novices board the tug, the coloured fishermen wink at each other and say “Baie hooray vandag” which means “a lot of hoorays today.”) 

View of the Hill Presbyterian Church from Donkin Reserve

Of my tender years, I think my first recollection was when I crept up the hillside at North End with a little packet of salt after “coetzees” or ground larks. My brother Douglas was born here, as was also the seventh son, Norman, who died in infancy. Quite clearly I remember being rigged out in a little black dress and, I think, white gloves, and going in a cab with my dad and three elder brothers on what seemed a very long journey up to the Presbyterian Church in Belmont Terrace, and sitting like a little black mouse during an age-long service in a lofty, awe-inspiring building. Then another long drive to a bleak and barren enclosure with young trees swaying in the wind and standing there during another weary age. And that is all I can recall of the first great grief that came to my mother. My dad bought her a black ivory cross which she wore suspended by a black ribbon. (Your mother will remember Grandma’s black ivory cross.) She had often expressed the wish that when her time came to go, the cross should be buried with her. This was borne in mind, and they were not separated when she was finally laid to rest in the beautiful Stellawood Cemetery at Durban [1927] with its appearance of endless drowsy summertime. 

North End Grey School

When we were living at the North End in the early seventies [1870s], my dad was in charge of the N.E. Grey Institute School as master, and my mother used to help instruct the littlest boys; but when dad started the professional work of an architect, for which he had been trained, we moved out to Walmer [Lot 19, now Main Road to Water Road above 9th Avenue] then a wee village of about a dozen houses. Here we lived very happily, though we had few playmates other than our little circle. The streets were grass-covered passages with deep, rutted tracks winding through them, and ankle deep in mud in rainy weather. Round each person’s holding – or at least on the side abutting on the roadway, was deep ditch (or it seemed deep to us), and on the top of the bank formed of the original earth of the ditch, was a hedge or fence. In these ditches we often used to play and cut steps to get in and out. There were plenty of snakes, puff adders and ring-hals [rinkals] cobras, in Walmer in those days; and one day as I was running along a ditch, I jumped over what I thought was a strip of black rag, but happening to glance back, I saw a ringhals [rinkals] with hood extended, and beginning to follow me. That was the only time I beat the 50 yards record for boys under ten and scrambled up the steps. His snakeship was dispatched by a groom. When a snake was killed, although he may be cut up in little pieces, our firm belief then was that he couldn’t really die till the sun went down, so we wouldn’t approach the place of execution till next day. The starlings, or as they are called here, spreuws, sometimes nest in holes in banks or ditches, and one day my brother Harry, playing about near a bank honeycombed with holes, thought he saw one of these birds enter one particular aperture, and running to it thrust his hand in the wrong hole , and instead of finding birds eggs, pulled out some young puff adders. 

He, too, left with apologizing. It was lucky for him that the old lady was out – probably to a reptilian gathering, that amongst human females is described as “scandal and tea”. 

We all had some pretty narrow escapes. But today [1932], though there are still snakes out there they are not so numerous. 

At Walmer we had a grey parrot who had his perch in the corner of the dining room, and who used to walk about the house and in the garden unmolested by the cats or dogs; and we also had a white cockatoo who used to fly about in the trees and come indoors at night. One day, my dad, after warning a neighbour that his pigs would go in peril of their lives if he did not keep them out of his garden, shot one of these porcine marauders, and in revenge this fellow shot our poor white polly for daring to perch on one of his trees. He said he was sorry afterwards but that’s not much good, is it? Had he been sorry before, our inoffensive bird would not have come to a violent end. 

The grey parrot used to climb onto the big bed in dad’s room and call “Coffee George” whereupon was brought in the early morning coffee and biscuits to the pater and mater. In 1878, my dad left for Kaffraria with his little company of P.E. Militia – 50 all told, and on the morning after his departure Polly climbed on the bed with his usual “reveille” – but there was no George to stroke him and give him a biscuit. The parrot went back to his perch in the dining room and moped, refusing all food, and in three days had died. Many people have the hardihood to declare that what are called the lower creatures don’t think! 

I remember our going into town in the little pony carriage with the Zulu groom in the dicky behind, and how I was impressed by the crowd of people who gathered to see this little company of P.E. Militia off to the little coasting steamer “Florence”, bound for East London [in the Eastern Cape, South Africa], whence they were to march to the theatre of hostilities. They were dressed in brown velvet cord – or black – and had short leggings. They had soft black hats turned up on one side with a little red feather. The excitement of the day was very fatiguing to me and I was half asleep on the drive home. My brother Alban, who was quite a kid too, went with the dad, ostensibly as bugler, but to be more of a companion than anything else. He must have been about 15 years old. And didn’t we other kids envy him his luck? We had all at one time or another dreamed of being soldiers, or of running away to sea and turning pirates – captains, of course. Years of early adolescence always have the glamour of romantic achievement to glorify them, and to the dreamy boy, the Jolly Roger and Wild Adventures on the Spanish Main, and the heroic charge of the Forlorn Hope, wading in gore and slicing off heads and limbs to the tune of “See the Conquering Hero Comes” seem to be Meccas to which he must always aspire. The idea of cruelty does not enter his calculations, because he will always be on the side of justice and right – even in piracy, somehow. So you must not argue about it. Pinning him down to facts will only make him uncomfortable, but so unconvinced that he will only want to escape from you and recapture the visions you have attempted to shatter. So just you leave him alone – see? 

Grey Institute in Belmont Terrace

, and we two younger ones ran wild, catching canaries and vinks (which somebody always released) and shooting sunbirds, which we called honeysuckers, with catapults. In those days, ladies were quite proud of wearing pretty stuffed birds in their hats, and we used to skin and stuff the poor little things we succeeded in murdering and give them to lady visitors. I often regretted the part I took in my earlier years in this fiendish recreation and am glad there were not a great many hits to my (dis)credit. 

Though my dad was raking in the shekels in those days, he did not pile them up where moth and rust may corrupt, and thieves break in and steal. No fear. He was a royal spender, and had half a dozen or so riding horses, a big beautiful dark bay stallion named Diamond for my mother to ride – and he was a fine horsewoman – a Shetland mare, and her little grey foal, Dixie. Almost every Sunday there would be one or two gentlemen invited out for the day to a first class spread and its usual liquid adjuncts and cigars, though my dad smoked only a pipe. Douglas and I had very expensive, well-bound toy books, and my mother used to read them to us. One long poem, Wordsworth’s “Pet Lamb” I learnt by heart. One Sunday while a Mr Lardner-Burke (afterwards a judge) was there, my dad told me to get my Pet Lamb book and read it. So I did and tracing the lines with my finger as I sat on a low footstool, I went through right to the end while L.B. sat speechless with astonishment. He said afterwards that it was marvellous that a child of my age could read so beautifully. So my dad, laughing, turned over the pages and told me to start in the middle. But I didn’t even know my A B C and so I couldn’t. 

Well now, my dear, I think I have about written enough to go for a Tickey stamp. So I’ll dry up. If you want some more, I’ll write again. 

Love to everybody, 

Your Loving Oomph [Little Uncle], Uncle Daddy 

Second Letter

Port Elizabeth 
1st March 1932. 

My dear little Nita 

Now I shall be expected to devote some more of my enforced leisure to you I suppose (rapacious little wretch!) and resume an account of my early recollections. I think I rang off last time with the incident of the “Pet Lamb” didn’t I? Well, in those days there were no schools or teachers at Walmer for the little ragamuffins such as we were content to become; but one day a little German or Hollander who became acquainted with some people out there arranged to start an infants’ school – this was before the elder boys were sent in to the Grey – and I think he had about twenty boys and girls to whom it was his duty to impart a portion of the very little knowledge he possessed. And in a room lent for the purpose by some people named Hackney, there was started Walmer’s first educational establishment where we were initiated into the mysteries of A. B. C. 

Here I met my first love. But I only worshipped her from afar, as she was a big girl, and I was a very little boy. To me she was the personification of loveliness. She was the daughter of a gardener, and her name was Janet. Of her history, then or after, I know nothing. I never even spoke to her. My habitual shyness prevented that; and I don’t know that she was ever aware of my existence…This school did not last many months. Where the teacher disappeared to, I don’t know, but we heard afterwards that he was an escaped convict. 

The trees around our place were the roosting places of many doves, which still abound in great numbers at Walmer. Often in the early morning my dad would shoot a few which it was usually my job to pluck and prepare for breakfast. My dad used to plough his own bit of land, using horses, as is done in England, to draw the plough – this to the jeering wonder of local people who, of course, use only oxen. He used to grow feed for his own horses and two or three cows, besides water-melons, pumpkins, peas, beans, etc., which he sent to P.E. [Port Elizabeth] Market in an American wagonette in sole charge of Willem – pronounced Vellum [Villim]- a Zulu petty chief whom my dad found uneducated and who was unable to speak anything but his own language at first. And he was the most honest of people. 

Sometimes, when I was very small, and the nurse-girl took the two youngest for a walk across the veld, as sure as fate, if there happened to be a sea breeze on the go, by the time we got home from our little jaunt, I was almost choking with asthma. This I seemed to outgrow, and only had a slight attack occasionally, with very long intervals between. Sometimes we would go – the five boys – across the veld and into the bush near Emerald Hill (never thinking of snakes) and taking a loaf of bread, a little salt, a knife and fork and a tin can for making coffee in, and would stay out the whole day, eating wild berries and whatever else we could find. 

At Walmer there was an old Scotchman named Paton [James Paton] who had a lot of ground, and I remember one field completely fenced by rusty gun-barrels wired together, with wooden posts at intervals. Now, where did those gun barrels come from? Were they residue of a cargo smuggled here for the purpose of trading with the natives? (you know that business is very rarely on speaking terms with honesty!) – or were they what the earliest Government forces used to demonstrate the desirability of civilised rule? 

Old Mrs Paton [Janet] was a kindly soul who used to call us into her big kitchen and feed us with potato scones and fresh milk. She was of enormous bulk and had to get sideways through a door. (When last we lived at Walmer – that is with Arthur’s family [his son] – we found a daughter-in-law, a widow [Ann Paton, born Pittendrigh] , of the old Patons – keeping a little grocery. (I must say she was a very different sort of person to what the old lady was. She seemed of a very crabbed, sour disposition. But perhaps the poor old dear had had a lot of trouble and this appearance may have been a mask donned to hide a more human personality from the eyes of the curious or sympathetic. So I won’t judge her too harshly.) 

Once, when I was quite a little chap, we used to watch the vultures soaring in great majestic circles overhead, and to mark how the circles gradually diminished as one by one the great, hideous birds dropped to the ground. It was a time when cattle and horses were dying like flies all over the country. The cattle had some infectious disease and the horses another, which killed them off in no time. I remember once my dad was out with his gun and shot a vulture. He brought a few of the wing feathers home – and wondered what “hummed”. The odour of those feathers was not exactly like frangipani – and could be cut with a knife. It was worse than Limburger cheese. 

I remember one stormy night, hearing a commotion in the stables, and looking out, saw my dad and the groom trying to doctor one of his favourite horses, Aladdin, who was in terrible pain. But the poor old chap died. We had a little dark Shetland mare, Sprite, the mother of the tiny grey stallion, Dixie. This poor old thing had a little dark foal about as high as a retriever dog. The mare caught the sickness, and just before she died, lifted her head and seemed to kiss the little foal. My dad carried the young one into the kitchen, and a bed was made for him in front of the fire. We had great hopes of rearing the little chap who was fed from a bottle – but he lived a couple of weeks longer before he went to join his mother in that eternal pasture which is doubtless ready for all good horses. Why not? They are surely more deserving of “after-care” than are the majority of animals of the biped clan [man]. 


http://peek-01.livejournal.com/79352.html by Ross Dix-Peek

Reminiscences of Old Walmer by Arthur Balfour Dix-Peek in Looking Back (1992, Vol. 31, March)

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