Some interesting reminiscences of the early days of Kirstenbosch from the second Hon. Director, R. Harold Compton - reprinted from the Dec 1976 issue of Veld & Flora.
A botanist’s distant reminiscences
Professor R. H. Compton, who as Harold Pearson professor o f Botany at UCT was Director of the NBG Kirstenbosch from 1919 to 1953, has recently completed his Flora of Swaziland (reviewed on page 22) and now that he has time for other things has kindly agreed to write his reminiscences for us. We start with what he regards as a prehistory o f his taking up a botanical appointment in this country and look forward to his next communication on his early days at Kirstenbosch.
South Africa became a serious reality to people in England on account o f the Boer War, with its many personal relations. My parents in Tewkesbury, though not directly involved in that conflict, which had so rudely broken the Pax Brittanica, had fastened a map o f South Africa on a wall and recorded the progress o f the struggle by pinning in flags, and the names o f places in the news and o f the leaders on both sides became familiar.
As a boy an indelible and almost traumatic impression was made on my mind by a “ moving picture” shown in the local town hall o f a boer “ spy” flinging down his hat and standing up to be shot by British troops - an impression o f the realities o f war which a map and flags could never give.
After the Treaty o f Vereeniging and the Campbell-Bannerman election with its slogan “ We won’ t have Chinese labour on the Rand” (I was later to get to know Sir Lionel and Lady Phillips very well) I became completely occupied in scientific and ultimately botanical studies at Cambridge. My interest then was mainly in the morphology o f the pteridophytes and gymnosperms, and my first publication was on the anatomy o f a cycad, Dioon edule. This was largely because at the Cambridge Botany School I came under the inspiring influence o f A. G. Tansley. His interests were largely in morphology, but he was also one o f the founders o f the present-day science o f ecology. F. F. Blackman, the plant physiologist and originator o f the concept o f “limiting factors” was another lecturer, and he and Tansley gave a joint series o f lectures to first-year students: they were inevitably known as Black and Tan. Sir Francis Darwin, son o f the immortal Charles, was a familiar and genial figure in the Botany School in those days.
Tansley organised ecological excursions for some o f the students, who travelled on bicycles. On one o c casion some o f us rode a fearsome bicycle for four, which we called the tetracycle, and which hurtled down hill, but on the upgrades gave each rider the feeling that no-one was working except himself. Three o f the four riders took posts in South Africa later! We made one journey on a Sunday to a neighbouring oak-wood and were confronted by the owner, evidently a Sabbatarian. When we told him that Sunday was a convenient day for the excursion he said “What about Wednesday?” The explanation o f this remark was that Wednesday was early-closing day in Cambridge!
In 1909, there arrived in the Botany School the holder o f an 1851 Exhibiton scholarship, a most original and charming young woman from South Africa, Edith Stephens, one o f Harold Pearson’s students. She was followed, a couple o f years later by Margaret Michell (who later married Mr. J. E. P. Levyns), also holding an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, also a delightful but entirely distinct personality. At about the same time, Harold Pearson, a Cambridge graduate and Professor o f Botany in the South African College, paid us a brief visit. He had been an early traveller - when travel was difficult - on the western side o f South Africa and had carried out fundamental research into one o f the world’s most extraordinary plants, Welwitschia mirabilis, having collected the material as far north as the deserts near Walfisch Bay. Pearson was at that time inspiring and working towards the establishment o f the National Botanic Gardens at the site pointed out to him by Neville Pillans - Kirstenbosch.
These three South Africans, Edith Stephens, Margaret Michell and Harold Pearson turned my thoughts to the Cape o f Good Hope, not only as one o f the most romantic places in the world but also as a most desirable country for living in and for botanical research.
With my special interest in plant morphology, I became captivated by the idea o f visiting the far-away Pacific island New Caledonia which had an astonishing wealth o f endemic pteridophytes and gymnosperms. And towards the end o f 1913, my friend Paul Montagne* and I embarked on the six weeks’ voyage to Sydney and thence three days to Noumea. We were assisted by a grant from the Percy Sladen fund, one o f the very few research trust funds o f those days, and also obtained practical help from the British Museum o f Natural History. I had called at the Foreign Office in Downing Street to apply for a passport and was interviewed by a high official in tail-coat and pin-stripe trousers. The passport itself turned out to be a most impressive document, on a large sheet o f near-vellum paper, and gave me the most confidence- inspiring guarantees for my proposed travels. The year 1914 in New Caledonia proved to be perhaps the happiest year o f my life. Inland communication in what is really a high mountain chain, 250 miles long, was impossible, so we acquired a cutterrigged fishing boat named “ Butterflaye” and travelled half way round the island with the help o f two Loyalty Island kanakas, whose language was a pidgin French called Beche-de-mer. We were nearly shipwrecked one night when the boat dragged anchor in a furious wind, and we eventually abandoned her and did further travelling by coastal steamers.
Our collecting trip became celebrated on the island, as witnessed by the fact that Paul received a letter one day addressed to “ M. Montague qui va en petit bateau pour chercher les betes”.
This expedition, though with a morphological object, turned my thoughts to the delights o f plant collecting and taxonomy, and I was able to amass a substantial number of specimens, including many novitates which were published by the Linnean Society. This was, in addition to the pickling, washing in streams, and embedding in solid paraffin o f material for subsequent morphological study. I took these specimens to the Cambridge Botany School, where an over-zealous cleaner evidently regarded them as rubbish and destroyed them!
The only one o f my laboriously collected trophies to escape destruction was the remarkable endemic Tmesipteris vieillardii which became the subject o f a Royal Society paper by an Indian colleague, Birbal Sahni.
I returned to England early in 1915 accompanied by my new-found wife after our marriage in Sydney.My first task was to arrange the material obtained in New Caledonia. I had a great idea o f its value and was anxious that it should not be wasted. Destiny decided otherwise in the case o f the morphological specimens as I mentioned above. While I was doing this I fell a victim to the then fashionable illness appendicitis and had one o f the alarming operations o f those days. Curiously enough, Paul, who was flying in the Middle East, went down with appendicitis almost simultaneously.
The next chapter in my life opened when W. B. Hardy, a most enlightened tutor o f my college, Gonville and Caius, together with other Cambridge scientists, selected a handful o f biologists for crash courses in bacteriology and allied subjects with a view to their giving assistance to wartime doctors by clinical laboratory work. After this training, I first spent some months at the Wellcome Research Laboratory at Herne Hill, where I was put in charge o f the bacterial cultures, my wife being employed in breeding and caring for the guinea-pigs, white rats, etc. During our time there the Laboratory produced the millionth dose of anti-tetanic serum, one o f the greatest life-savers among the wounded in the trench warfare o f the terrible “ War to end War” .
Later I was given a post with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in their Queen Alexandra Hospital at Dunkirk where I carried out clinical laboratory diagnosis o f many patients. We did not normally deal with wounded - though one I helped with was a South African coloured man. The illnesses occurred among men engaged in auxiliary war duties, many of these being unfamiliar to the doctors. One such case was that of a man suffering from a chronic bilharzia infestation - a disease practically unknown in Europe; this man turned out to have been in South Africa during the Boer War 17 years before, and had almost certainly caught it there. I also helped by classifying the hospital orderlies and nurses into bloodgroups, as these were the early days o f blood (man-to-man) transfusions. Many o f our patients were South African coloured men, and a mysterious mental condition prevalent among them was found to be caused by dagga smoking. I had sent some o f the material to a pharmacognosist in England for identification.
Meanwhile in Cape Town the Council of the South African College and its Principal, Sir J.C. Beattie, were planning to convert it into a full-fledged university and were making plans to engage staff. On the botanical side Pearson had fulfilled his ambition to found the National Botanical Gardens, Kirstenbosch being the embodiment of his great idea – a Garden for the cultivation and study of the plants of their own area. His untimely death in 1916, caused by pneumonia resulting from overwork, left the post o f Director vacant. A dual post in Gardens and University was created and applications for it were invited. Inspired by what I had learnt at Cambridge, I applied for it and was appointed. The University post commemorated the name o f Harold Pearson.
A second chair - the Harry Bolus professorship - had been filled by a fellow student o f mine, David Thoday, who had been available, and he and his wife had already arrived in Cape Town. The authorities were so anxious to get the University o f Cape Town established that they took the remarkable step o f applying for the release o f appointees from military and other service in 1917, long before the end o f the war. Therefore, with mixed feelings, I left my post in Dunkirk, hoping to be able to get a passage to the Cape without undue delay. In this I was frustrated and entered on a period of exasperating inactivity - only broken by publishing a paper on String Figures which I had collected in New Caledonia - until after the war’s end.
Eventually I went to see Mr. J. P. Schreiner, the representative o f the South African government in London and found him most helpful. He arranged for a passage for us early in 1919, and as my wife and infant daughter were both ill he procured the help o f a most excellent nurse, Daisy Ingle, to accompany us. We went on board ship at Liverpool and found that our fellow passengers were 300 Australian sergeants being repatriated, accompanied by nearly as many newly-found English wives! No sooner had the ship cast loose than the propeller became entangled with a stray cable. This resulted in her having to go into dry-dock, and there she stayed for two days in mid-winter weather, with fires drawn. At last we were refloated, steam was got up and our voyage began, Daisy Ingle taking full control. Eventually we had the thrilling and most welcome sight o f Table Mountain and the Simonsberg. Soon we were accommodated in a Cape Town hotel in sweltering February heat. Shortly later we moved to the cooler surroundings o f the Vineyard Hotel at Newlands. Incidentally, among the beautiful trees in the hotel grounds I was astonished to see for the first time a fine specimen o f the morphologically most interesting conifer, Cunninghamia sinensis. I cannot guess how it came to be there.
We still had to wait quite a long time before it was possible to take up residence at Kirstenbosch. The Director’s house was occupied by Mrs. Pearson who was acting as housemother for some young women for whom a local committee hoped to find posts in the Gardens. They later moved to the beautifully built stone cottages which were being provided for coloured employees, but these had not then been completed. In more recent times the whole of Protea Village on Kirstenbosch property was classified as white and today, stands vacant despite plans for its conversion to bachelor staff quarters which have long been approved in principle but still await action by the P.W.D.
*Paul planned to collect the birds and butterflies o f the island, which he did most successfully. Incidentally he was given a number o f skulls o f Melanesians from a cave where they were arranged in rows on rockledges and were being used as cock-shies by the younger generation!