Some interesting reminiscences of the early days of Kirstenbosch from the second Hon. Director, R. Harold Compton - reprinted from the March 1977 issue of Veld & Flora.
In the December issue o f Veld & Flora I contributed an account of some of the events a n d influences which gradually led me in England to my conception of South Africa as a wonderful place for a botanist to live in, a n d the sort of p re-history which ended in my application for the dual post, created in memory o f Harold Pearson a n d embodying his great project for a National Botanic Gardens. I brought the story up to my arrival a t the Cape in M arch 1919 an d I mentioned some o f the hitches which p rev en ted my immediate installation in residence a t Kirstenbosch. But the most serious dislocation which I experienced in taking up my post was the complete change from w h a t h a d been an academic existence a t Cambridge to the practical duties an d responsibilities o f my new post a t the Cape. In England my interests were chiefly in p la n t morphology and anatomy. I had published sundry papers including a fairly solid account of the seedling anatomy o f the Leguminosae. As a side-line I had become interested in right- and left-handedness in plants a n d had even addressed a conference in Paris on the subject! I h a d come under the influence o f William Bateson, at that time in the full excitement o f the re-discovery o f Gregor Mendel’s long-ago fundamental research on heredity, and I had set up experimental breeding work under Bateson’s guidance at the J o h n Innes Horticultural Institute on self-sterility. All this reflected my zeal for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, with a disregard for possible “ practical” results. And in money-matters I was in the fortunate position – after my parents ’ early and self-sacrificing support - of having enough from scholarships and a Cambridge college fellowship to keep me free from anxiety on this score.
All this changed completely from the moment o f my arrival a t the Cape - though I am to this day a firm believer in the importance of research for its own sake with o u t ulterior pragmatic motive. My experience o f teaching h a d been the very limited one o f demonstrating in practical classes in botany a n d observation o f the methods of those who h a d lectured to me. My knowledge o f black board technique was nil.
When I arrived in Cape Town I found that I had to give up all thought o f research work in botany o r genetics. I h a d to prepare an d deliver very exacting courses o f lectures a n d organise students’ practical classes. And I had to deal with all the financial an d practical problems involved in the directorship o f th a t struggling young institution, Kirstenbosch.
Leaving aside, for the moment a t least, those serious problems an d duties which I h a d to cope with, it may provide a little lighter relief to mention some o f the minor details o f my daily life. T ra n sp o rt was a constant problem. T h e Gardens, three miles from the railway a n d shops, possessed as its only means of personal tran sp o rt a n d shopping for residents a vehicle o f a type long since vanished, called a rallicart. This is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “ a light two-wheeled d riv in g -trap for four. (Ralli, first purchaser, 1885)” .T h e re was no protection whatever from the rain. T h e driver and one passenger sat in front; the other passengers sat behind, facing backwards with their feet supported on a tilted foot-rest.
O u r rallicart was d raw n by a splendid bay called Jellicoe which h a d been owned by Pearson. I was a privileged passenger as I h a d to go in and out o f town to my university duties several days a week, and other peoples’ requirements h a d to be fitted in as well as possible. Jellicoe h ad to be limited to four double journey s daily, about 24 miles in all. On e o f my duties therefore was to sort o u t other residents’ requirements for the day an d allot them to the various trips, as best I could. The driver very often h a d to do shopping commissions in Claremont. When Jellicoe was parked outside the butcher’s that generous person used to give him a sausage to. e a t; this a cquired taste for me at caused trouble once when he was found helping himself to the contents of the butcher’s bicycle basket parked within his reach.
H ere I may mention that the only other vehicle possessed by the Gardens, a part from a sledge and some wheelbarrows, was a scotch cart. When Jellicoe was pensioned, we obtained a magnificent grey called Nelson, and only Rohland , the ranger, was allowed to handle him, which he did with astonishing skill.
My own journey in to the University botanical department, which then occupied the top floor o f a three-storey building in the b end of Orange Street, was a complicated affair. T h e D ire c to r’s residence stood on the crest o f Wynberg Ridge, with a superb view extending from the Constantiaberg across False Bay to the Winterhoeks. (There is a remarkable five-page folding drawing of the view from the Kirstenbosch Co n to u r Path in the Journal o f the Botanical Society for 1919. T h e artist was Mary Page o f the Bolus Herbarium. All the distant peaks are named, in most cases with their altitudes: this was probably the work o f the Mountain Club, but I cannot find a record.)
When I left this marvellously sited house in the morning I h ad first to walk down the silver-tree-clad slope to the stables which were placed a t the ju n c tio n of the T e rra c e an d the Fern Dell, where the rallica rt would be waiting. T h en followed the threemile drive to Newlands station, whence I would proceed to town by train. Outside the main station I would b o a rd one o f the trams to take me to the university buildings. T h e whole trip would take a t least an hour if everything fitted. (In parentheses I may say that, so meagre were the Gardens finances, a special vote was made by the Trustees to buy a w a te rp ro o f kneeap ro n to protec t the driver an d the front-seat passenger in the ra llic a rt from the worst o f the winte r rains.)
Acting on Edith Stephens’ advice I h ad brought o u t a ca r with me, an d we sometimes used this for personal or evening journeys. I t was a 1913 H um b e r which my brotherin- law h ad owned. I t was a splendid vehicle, b u t owing to my lack o f experience with cars it h ad proved so u nreliable th a t I eventually ab a n d o n ed it in my back yard, where the sweetpeas grew up through it. I was asked £ 5 to take it away, b u t I eventually sold it to a motor enthusiast for £ 5 , an d the last I hea rd o f it was th a t it was being driven with g rea t eclat on Muizenberg beach. I t would have great value as a vintage ca r to-day! I t was some years before I bought another car.
T h e D ire c to r’s house was a pleasant place to live in, though it had been built in the prevailing H e rb e rt Baker style with more consideration for external ap p e a ran c e th an for convenience. We had 1 1 years o f lamps an d candles before it was connected to the town’s electricity supply, cooking an d wate r-he ating being done on a wood- or coalb u rn in g stove; an d sanitation was of a very primitive type. But it was luxurious compared to othe r buildings in the Gardens.
T h e C u ra to r, Jam e s Mathews, occupied a ra th e r tumble-down, dark a n d inconvenient cottage on the slope nea r the th en main entrance , which faced the en d of Bishopscourt Lane. This slope h ad been a vineyard, b u t it became the site o f the dazzling floral spectacle for which Kirstenbosch was famous an d which a ttra c te d thousands o f visitors in the spring. T h e R an g e r, J . Ro h lan d , who was in charge o f the estate, stables etc., lived in a small cottage n e a r the ruins o f the old farm homestead, on which the present T e a House stands, an d here his wife served delicious scones a n d tea to visitors who came on foot or horseback.
A two-roomed shack stood a t the top of the te rrac ed slope on the south side of the Fern Dell which was the first site of the Gardens nursery, an d this served for some years as an office, one room being occupied by the C u ra to r, the othe r by the Secretary an d myself. S q u irrels an d rats ran ab o u t freely in the loft, a n d dust an d debris came d ro p p in g through holes in the ceiling on to our papers. T h e Secretary, Jo a n Davison, now living in Rhodesia, h ad originally worked in the university building in town, until necessity compelled the tran sfer of office work to Kirstenbosch, a t first in the above-mentioned shack (where Dr. an d Mrs. Pearson h a d actually slept occasionally!) a n d later to the D ire c to r’s house.
While my knowledge o f the technique of teaching was very small, my acq u a in tan c e with botanic g a rdens, a p a rt from Cambridge and Kew, was more inadequa te. And while my chief interests h a d been in morphology a n d ana tomy, I found th a t a t the Cape the p a ram o u n t subject was inevitably systematics, a b ranch of botany which h ad persisted till the present day an d will pro b ab ly continue. T h e num b e r of people who h ad p la n t collecting a n d study as a favourite hobby v/as quite rema rkable , their professional or business life an d livelihood being quite distinct. M a rlo th , au th o r of the magnificent Flora o f South Africa, Das Kapland a n d The Common Names o f Plants, was a university chemist an d incidentally a h an dw ritin g exp e rt consulted by the courts. Bolus was a stockbroker in Cape Town. M u ir was a Riversdale doctor. His d au g h te r Hortense was a student of mine, a n d h er name is immortalised in the most rema rkable o f all succulent plants, Muiria horlenseae. Galpin, one of the most copious of p lan t collectors, was a Barberton bank m an ag e r: one of our most beautiful plants, Bauhinia galpinii, “ Pride of de K a a p ” , is named in his honour. Fourcade, whose bequest is to-day most valuable for financing botanical publica- tions, was a land surveyor. Salter, au th o r of the im p o rta n t monograph on the difficult genus Oxalis, was a C ap ta in in the British Navy. And we have ju s t lost a distinguished British soldier, Colonel H. A. Baker, who retired in 1948 with the ran k o f Brigadier and, a t S alte r’s p e rsuasion, devoted himself to the study of ericas, of which he named an d published 36 new species. His o b itu a ry a p p e a red in the last issue of Veld & Flora.
In fact the interest shown in the South African flora - an d especially th a t of the Cape - has been so enormous and widespread th a t Pearson’s inspired project to found a National Botanic Gardens a t the Cape was of very wide appeal, not least to the influential business community of Cape Town. This was undoubtedly enhanced by Pearson’s own very a ttra c tiv e personality.
An illustration of the importance of taxonomic study may be given in the case o f David Thoday, the first H a rry Bolus Professor. He had studied p la n t physiology un d er Blackman at Cambridge, the accent being on gaseous interchange in leaves. (Blackman was facetiously said to know only one plan t, thec h e rry -la u re l!) When T h o d ay decided he would do research work on respiration in Cliffortia, a genus in which the usual type of leaf is the n a rrow “ ericoid” , he found to his surprise th a t there was not ju s t a single species of the genus but several within easy reach of Cape T ow n (six species in the Peninsula), an d he had to determine which species he was investigating.
T h e richness of the C ape flora is indeed fantastic. Even in Bolus an d Wolley-Dod’s list of the flowering plants o f the Cape Peninsula alone (1903) 2 117 species are recorded. T h e n um b e r of known species has since increased. In The Flora o f the Cape Peninsula Adamson a n d Salter a n d the ir collaborators described and localised no fewer than 2 622 species. These statistics are commonplace today but were staggering to a newcomer who, moreover, had the whole o f the South African flora to deal with.
Conditions here h a d been very depressed d u rin g the first six years of the Gard en s’ existence, but a t the time I arrived here the First World W a r h a d ended, the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918 had spent itself, a n d the prospects for life here a n d for Kirstenbosch were beginning to look more hopeful than in the past dark years. In a future article I hope to be allowed to give some ac count of botanical progress a t the Cape an d in p a rticu la r at Kirstenbosch since 1919.
(Apologies for the eccentric word spacing which happens with the conversion of the text from PDF to Word.)
Today you can stay in the Directors house pictured above. Click here for more information on the Kirstenbosch Manor House.
Today you can stay in the Directors house pictured above. Click here for more information on the Kirstenbosch Manor House.