Old Durban Memories by Elizabeth Robb

In 1938, the Richmond Women’s Institute leased a property in Richmond called Oak Cottage and this was converted into a holiday home for women and children who could not afford a getaway holiday at a resort. In 1941, Oak Cottage was converted into a home for convalescent soldiers sent there from the Oribi Military Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. In 1943 Oak Cottage was sold and a bigger property was purchased. This property was called Evelyn House in honour of Mrs Evelyn Dent who was President of the Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1938 when the idea of the holiday home was proposed. After World War II, the use of Evelyn House as a convalescent and holiday home fell away. The property was then used for adult education and courses were offered for W.I. members with live in accommodation. In the late 50s Evelyn House converted to becoming a haven for elderly retired women predominantly those who were Women’s Institute members. Over the years, cottages and other accommodation have been added and it continues to this day as an old age home, totally administered and run by the Women’s Institute.

In September 2012, I arranged to meet with some of the older residents who live in Evelyn House.  The informal meeting was to ascertain whether there were any residents who previously had lived in Durban and perhaps had memories which should be recorded. I had a fairly good turn out and they were most interested to listen to what I had to say about my interest in Durban. I informed them about the Facts about Durban website but it was quite obvious that they were of the generation where the internet did not mean much to them. A lot of incidental memories were related and quite a few anecdotes. The lady with whom I liaised with, whose family were the Sparks ( of Sparks Estate), was willing to help me to get the ladies to write down their memories in their own time and she is seeing to this side of the project. It is to be seen what comes if this.

One of the residents, a Mrs, Doreen Nicholson, now in her 90s,  handed me a typed copy of notes written by her mother, Mrs E. T. Robb sometime around 1979. I have retyped the notes and added some comment of my own for clarification which is shown in italics. I have also indicated dates to present a sort of time line as none is given. However the record is of the time and I present it here as it was given me:

My Memories of old Durban by Elizabeth Robb.

(nee McKay Born 26/6/1894 Died ?)

    I am sitting at my window in a hotel high up on the Berea, looking out at the lush green trees and shrubs, to the lighthouse on the Bluff in the distance. The sky line is partly obscured by the large concrete buildings, and my thoughts wander down through the years to the old Durban, the town where I grew up and feel where I belong and partly belongs to me.   What a change has taken place in this lovely city, in the march of progress, and I feel it has lost something , just the nostalgic feeling of the past and growing old.


I recall as children we used to picnic on the beach, the back beach we used to call it, we would set off to catch the tram, a single decker in those days driven by mules with a Coloured driver and a white conductor. We purchased our ticket for one shilling with twelve penny clips and the conductor would come along and clip your ticket according to the distance you travelled.

In those days the tram only went as far as Bauman’s Bakery which today is called “Bakers Limited. We would pop into the bakery for a shilling packet of broken biscuits all crisp and fresh. From there on a duck-board (type of wooden slatted walkway) went right down to the beach. We always took our house boy along with us to carry the picnic basket with a kettle tied onto the handle. We would settle in the sand dunes in a hollow to protect us from the wind. Before we reached Bauman’s we had to wait for  a while for the booms to be lifted to allow the goods trains to pass on their way to and from the docks.  Now the old train line has disappeared and the goods trains now proceed along the railway line at the edge of the Bay (the Esplanade).

The old Beach Hotel (corner West Street and Marine Parade) in its present site was the only hotel on the beach. On the lower parade “Campbells” Tea Room was built on stilts to allow the sea to flow under when the  waves came over the road. There was a flight of stairs up to the tea room and you could take your tea pot and have it filled with boiling water for 6d.  You could take along some firewood and boil your kettle in the sand dunes. We bathed in the open sea at the South Beach which was known as the Scotsman’s Pool. Shark were not heard of in those days. Later a bathing enclosure was built with a promenade with benches to sit on and gaze at the rolling seas. To keep it from being overcrowded, a tram ticket was charged.  Years later the bathing enclosure was washed away by storms and heavy seas.

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We had two paddling ponds for children, with a bandstand in the centre space between the two pools. On Sunday afternoons and summer evenings especially in the season which was June, July and August, Durban was  very gay in those months. Bands from the British Regiments from Pietermaritzburg and other garrison towns used to perform.

We had a water chute which used to descend into one of the paddling pools. The people shrieked with  excitement when the cars plunged into the pool.

Where the Aquarium now stand we used to have Periotte Show (?) and once a year the Big Top. I recall when Sole Brothers Circus used to visit us and how I used to weep at the death of Black Beauty every year.  Later the Model Dairy and The Kenilworth (Tea Room) were built and we thought it a real treat when my Mother suggested that we should have supper at the Model Dairy one night after spending the afternoon on the beach listening to the band. As the years went by, new hotels and flats were built. The South Beach was developed and the beach there was known as the “Scotsman’s Pool”. I suppose because there were no change rooms, there was no charge to pay as today. As the years rolled by amusement parks and delightful playgrounds for the children were added, sophisticated entertainment for the adults. Today Durban is the premier playground of South Africa with an all round season.  As children we would be taken to Albert Park where in those days the water from the Bay came right up to the banks of the park. Several  boats were anchored there and we would have great fun playing in them. Rickshaws were very plentiful and many people used them. Once a year there was a Rickshaw Gymkhana and the boys dressed up in weird clothing, women’s underclothing and smart hats with flowers, anything to attract attention. Later the Corporation insisted that they wear more suitable clothing. It was considered quite in order to take a rickshaw to the Bioscope or even the Theatre. If it started to rain you felt quite cosy with the (rickshaw ) curtain down.  If it rained heavily, especially if you had a nice escort.

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I recall the running of the first electric tram (1902) , and my father taking me to Musgrave Road to see it. In the tram were the City Fathers, they all looked splendid and very important in their robes of office.  Before the electric trams ran, the horse drawn trams only went as far as Jameson Park where they went into a shelter and rested for a while and then went back into town. After the introduction of the electric tram it was considered quite an outing on Sunday afternoon to go along Musgrave Road to look at the large houses and beautiful gardens. There were  no flats or shops in this select district of course quite a number of people owned a carriage and a pair or a pony trap. I well remember our family doctor tearing up Berea Road in his carriage and afterwards with the introduction of the motor car, tearing up the same road in his car with registration,  Number One.

All the old theatres have gone. The Theatre Royal, His Majesty’s down  West Street, the Criterion, The Hall by the Sea which afterwards became a skating rink. The Pavilion on the beach which later burnt down. We so looked forward to the overseas companies performing at the Theatre Royal in season:  Lenard Rayne, Mattherson Lang, Oscar Ashe, Lily Bretton, Freda Godfrey, and the Steel Payne Bell Ringers. Every year the Girls at the Telephone Exchange put on a show called “Hullo Girls” , a splendid effort.  The Bachelor Girls also produced Musical Comedies. All those were well patronised. We also had an agricultural show each year.  You wore a smart outfit and came away with samples of every kind. Today the young people only have pamphlets and a sip of coffee given to them.

Walfram’s Bio-Scope came twice a year to put on a show in the City Hall, which is now the Post Office. There was great excitement when they built the Empire Bio-Scope behind the Post office where we paid one and tuppence (12 cents) and seven pence (7 cents) for children.  Later the Empire had to be demolished as the Post office needed the extra space.

It was already a great interest for the public to watch the Borough Police setting out in the morning to go on duty, a line of White men and one of the Native Men in their smart blue uniforms with their legs well polished and shiny. We used to call them the Black Watch. The tree at the corner of West Street was known as the Deadman’s Tree as all the funeral notices were nailed there every day.

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The British Fleet from Cape Town visited us in July and we all used to go down to the docks to see the ships illuminated. Entertainment was always laid on for the visiting sailors. An amusing little incident happened one evening when my Mother, sister and myself were waiting at the bus stop, two sailors came along and one was carrying a large bag filled with fruit and offered it to me. I was about 16 and considered myself quite grown up and it was below my dignity to accept the fruit. My Mother tried to persuade me to take the fruit but suddenly I took fright and ran round the Post Office with the sailors in pursuit. We arrived back at the bus stop where my family were convulsed with laughter. The bus came along and I had to scramble aboard with the bag of fruit in my arms much to the amusement of the other passengers.

The old Stella Bush is a long forgotten joy, it stretched from McDonald Road right through to where Stellawood Cemetery stands. The last building just above Bath Road round the corner of Manning Road, just above the Bulwer Park Police Station (still standing but now converted into a type of clinic) is an old house standing in large grounds surrounded by  a Amatingula fence where children used to pick the fruit and stare through the fence with awe at the house for some reason we had heard it to be haunted.

The old Stella Bush was a great joy to the young people especially at Christmas Time when we would go in a party to cut evergreen ferns for decoration. The young boys used to find honey in the buck wheat. Now alas the bush has all gone except for a few acres below Howard College and the University. The road of progress: all those fine wide streets and modern houses have taken over.

As a child I recall the opening of Bulwer Park. The tram arrived with the City fathers in all their glory. The band played and the children who lived in the district were given ginger beer, buns and sweets and the Park was duly opened. It was full of old indigenous trees. Our favourite seating place was under the old Gulla Gulla tree. This tree produced fruit, a little hard yellow ball which we duly cracked into segments like small mangoes. I have never heard of this wild fruit growing anywhere else but Durban. I doubt whether the present generation know of it. I wonder how many people remember Nellie, the little elephant given by a Rajah from India to the children of Durban.

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On Nellie’s birthday all children were invited to her party bringing fruit, dates, and carrots for her. (Nellie was an Indian elephant donated to Durban  in 1928 by the Maharajah of Mysore and was kept at Mitchell Park) . Nellie would cut her cake and then give the children free rides. We also had quite a large zoo which afterwards was done away with as they found that the summer heat of Durban was too trying for them.

I am sitting in a lovely garden at Cowie’s Hill under a shady tree besides a swimming pool collecting my thoughts to write down the years recalling the pleasant things of the past, how we were taken by ferry to Salisbury Island to picnic. What a delightful spot that was and what fun we had going across to the Bluff by ferry to picnic at the Cave Rock. We would walk along the sand to the whaling station and would also walk the long sandy hill to the Lighthouse which was demolished during the last war and later rebuilt further back. There was great excitement when the first Mail Ship crossed the bar, the old Armadale Castle (1904).   The Captain, Capt. Robinson would visit our school and arrange for all the classes in turn to visit the ship and be taken all over it.

Another lovely tree was the beautiful Flamboyant on Musgrave Road at the corner of Powell Road which the Corporation floodlit every year and the Cassia Fistula on Haraldene Road which was also floodlit.  I also recall as a small child the Native Rebellion (Bambata Rebellion 1906) the men in each district being trained for home guard duty. Afterwards preparation being made at the docks for the women and children to be taken aboard ships if the hordes were not halted before they reached Durban. Thank goodness. We used to play mock battles, Bambata and his Nobles, instead of the old game, Hide and Seek. So the years passed quite peacefully until the young people of my generation were grown up. Then came the Great War of 1914 and the Defence Force was sent out to German South West Africa. At the end of hostilities they appealed for volunteers to fight in German East Africa and to help the Allies in France. It was with sad hearts as we watched our splendid men depart, some of them mere boys but we felt very proud of them. Meanwhile we girls and the women worked hard in the Canteen, we knitted and sewed and tried to make ourselves worthy of our fighting men. We tried to ease our aching hearts with hard work.

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One Saturday morning we had one hundred thousand troops in town, there were three route marches at once with the band playing, one in West Street, Pine street and the Esplanade. We had Australian troops. New Zealanders, and some from the Gold Coast en route to France.  How the Durban people came up to scratch;  entertaining the boys in their homes and taking them out in their cars and we made some wonderful friendships.

I recall the day the first contingent arrived. They were marched to Albert Park and were dismissed. The Mayor had appealed for the people to take the boys into their homes and thousands of people were there to welcome them. My Mother had sent my sister and I down to invite two or three boys for lunch. Being on the shy side we hesitated but as we were getting on the bus, we plucked up courage and asked two lads. They accepted our invitation with pleasure . Then we were told they had measles and they were told not to ride on the trams so we had to walk home to Glenwood. I think it was nearer afternoon when we arrived home much to my Mother’s displeasure who had such a nice lunch waiting. The busses were all free for the troops. After 4 years of war, the Armistice was signed.

For a week before, an effigy of the Kaiser, was hung on the wall of a tall building in West Street. When the good news of November the Eleventh was heard, the effigy was taken down and placed in a hearse with thousands of people following till we reached the beach where a huge bonfire was built and the effigy was burnt. What jubilation there was that night, though there were many sad hearts for the boys who would not come back. So many were maimed and wounded.

What  a glorious name our Springboks had made for themselves and how proud we were of them. As after all wars there was  a depression and many young men were out of work. The Corporation hit on the plan of building the Amphitheatre on the beach to give employment to the men until they were established. What an asset it is to the beach and a wonderful monument to the men who built it. They worked so hard to make it the thing of beauty that it is today.

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Another change was the demolition of the Old Market in Pine Street to build our fine new market off Berea Road. Everyone grumbled at first and said it was too far out of the way but we soon got used to it. It was so convenient too with the railway siding at Berea Station. A great foresight of the powers that be. Today we are very proud of our Modern Market.

On the old Market site, a bus terminus was built with shelter and seats for the buses leaving for the suburbs. I cannot imagine why later they did away with it. Today it is a car park. I wonder how many people remember the Old  Battery on the Beach in front of the Natal Command. As children we used to gaze down at the old rusty guns with awe. The Beach behind was known as Battery Beach.

So the war to end all wars was over, our men started to return home, many disabled and some the concept of living had to be changed because of their disabilities. After four years of horror one wondered if any would escape.

There were no radios, the Natal Mercury would bring out a small leaflet. If anything startling occurred on the battlefront you would hear the newsboy on the street calling out “Special”. You would dart out to buy a copy which cost one penny.     I well recall the day the Mercury published two full pages of casualties after the battle of the Delville Wood and the great offensive of the Somme. So many of the lads you had grown up with were among the published names. Many died that day and many were wounded. Some who had gone away were mere lads. I was one of the fortunate ones to welcome home the man I was engaged to after an absence of four years, Wounds in body but not in spirit. So many of us married settled down to build a home and raise a family. One of the events  I recall was the visit of Earl Haig . (Born  1861 Died 1928, Visited South Africa 1921). After the men returned they had started the ex Service Men’s league which they called Comrades of the Great War. ( The Memorable Order of Tin Hats MOTHS founded by Charles Evenden 1927) .  In Britain they had started the British Empire Services League and Earl Haig wanted the Commonwealth countries to unite. A meeting was called in Mitchell Park to hear Earl Haig speak. Thousands of men and women attended the meeting. Then was born the British Empire Service League and what wonderful work it has done for nearly 50 years.  There is/was a BESL Court in Umbilo Road which housed war veterans.

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Later the Durban Corporation gave us the old Tea Room for our Headquarters which had remained standing after the Pavilion had been burnt down. By this time a Women’s Branch had been formed and we all worked together to raise funds to furnish it, holding all sorts of entertainment. How we women sewed, making curtains and turning it into a worthwhile club.

The people who had been evacuated from the East  (Singapore?)  who had lost all their possessions used to meet us once a month, We charged a small fee for their tea and cakes. How they loved getting together talking about their past. Many of them did not know if their men folk were alive but some had not heard of their men for four years. I still remember the day they met when Japan was finally conquered with gay and sad memories intermingled.

We were very proud to organise the first Victory Ball in the City Hall, a great success it was. Later the new B.E.S.L. Club and office were built in Old Fort Road along with the Moth Hall, St John’s Ambulance Hall and the Scout Hall.

And so the years passed by. People trying to settle down and to the art of living and bringing up their families in the way they should until the dark clouds of war hung over us again. I remember the day so well . We were picnicking and fishing, family and relations at Umhloti beach when the manager of a the hotel sent a waiter down from the hotel to tell us to turn our car radio on at 12 o’clock to hear some important announcement. We all gathered round the car radio to hear first Mr Chamberlain the Prime Minister and then the late King George VI announce that we were once again at war with Germany. How sad we felt that the horrors of war had descended upon the world once again. My school boy son felt quite excited and said he hoped that it would not be over before he could join. We could not keep him back so as soon as he passed his matriculation examination he was accepted a pupil pilot. So many of the fathers who had fought in the first World War felt the futility of it. The one consolation for them had been that they had taken part in the Great War and the war to end all wars to make it secure for their sons.

We were soon in a war again and thousands of our men and young boys enlisted in the Army, Navy and the Air Force. Young women also entered in to the services. Ouma Smuts came to Durban and spoke to the women in the City Hall about the war efforts and what we could do to help our fighting men. The Hall was simply packed. The Red Cross and the St. John’s Ambulance was speedily organised with transport for the C.P.S. (?) in case of emergencies.  A branch was organised in various centres with a Control Officer in charge of each centre. A strict black out at night was enforced and every time a siren was sounded all concerned had to assemble at their various centres until it was safe to leave.

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Durban was a very important city. We had the largest dry dock in the Southern Hemisphere and the Cape route for shipping was very important when the Suez Canal was closed. The canteens to soon got under way; The Victoria League, The Navy League, Wesley Hall, and the Y.M.C.A.  How we all worked cooking those endless pans of bacon and eggs, sausage and chips, tea and coffee to be made, ice cream and minerals to be served. All was charged at a small fee. Entertainment was laid on for the troops; the huge Military Camp at Clairwood where thousands of British troops were stationed waiting to be sent to the Far East; the Assegai Camp on the  Bluff which the British Admiralty erected for the Navy. Once again we had Australian and New Zealand troops passing through Durban. Durban received a great name for its hospitality to the visiting troops.

Here I must mention the Lady in White who was always in evidence at the Docks. When the transports were expected she would wait for them and then sing through her megaphone with her voice ringing across the Bay to welcome our visitors to our shore.  Hundreds of cars lined up outside the docks to take our men into town or to their homes.  I well remember the day from my lounge window at Durban North seeing those three large ships conveying the First Division up North with their naval escort. Later from my flat window high up on the Berea seeing a convoy slipping quietly out of the Bay with a naval escort and then putting up a smoke screen and a line of ships arriving from the Cape to join them. I could see over the top of the Bluff : sometimes you would be expecting them back for dinner that night and to your disappointment you would see them slipping away to rendezvous with the convoy.

So the weary years went by, the years of hostility ended and after months of waiting our men returned. How hard it was for some of the younger men to settle down at first. They missed the excitement and the companionship of their friends. The women who,  though weary, and thankful that it was all over  felt a blank and missed the comradeship and wonderful feeling of working together for a common cause.

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What a feeling of hope we had for the future when the United Nations (1945) was launched but is it doing the work it was meant to? The world is in a very unsettled state. The Creator has given us such a beautiful world to live in, but the power drunk nations both big and small cannot settle up their differences.   I look at my two young  grandsons growing up, the splendid youth of our country and hope and pray that the horrors of war won’t happen  third time. If all the women of the world banded together and refused to do anything to help the war effort as in days of old, when the Kings led the armies. Let the heads of states fight each other for a change instead of millions of youth who only want to get on with the job of living and not being sacrificed as gun fodder.  It’s quite an idea and before I get to the end of memory lane, I must record a few more old land marks.

How many remember the Emmanuel Cathedral at the corner of West and Grey Street? The Indians were on the other side of West Street  with their fruit and vegetable stalls where children on their way to school could buy 4 bananas for one penny to eat for our lunch.

The Indian Festival occurred once a year with their gaily coloured pagodas along Grey Street to drown them in the Umgeni river. Twice in my lifetime I have seen that same river in flood. Once as a child we had torrential rains. The schools were closed for two or three days, much to our delight. and then again during the First World War when it rained so heavily, we simply wore our bathing suits under out rain coats, when we went to see the damage. Cattle and snakes were washed down to the sea and out into the Bay. Men volunteered to go out to rescue the Indians in rowing boats who had been washed down from their low-lying houses on the banks of the river. The Railway Bridge to Zululand was washed away too. The only road to Zululand and the North Coast was along Umgeni Road, over the Bridge and past the old Road House until the Athlone Bridge was built. The old Riverside Hotel which was out of the borough was rebuilt and is now called the Athlone Hotel.

After building the new Athlone bridge, a company started erecting houses at Durban North which hitherto was sugarcane fields. Today it is a fine suburb with a splendid shopping centre and a good bus service. There is also a cinema (The Rex?) and churches. Virginia Estate which I knew as a farm has its own airport. Further out is Glenashley also with a shopping centre. A wonderful road was also built running along the coast to Zululand.

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The City of Durban has grown out of all recognition. So many of the old buildings have gone and large modern buildings taken their place. Murchies Passage has gone and Brunton’s Arcade is now called West Walk. The Corner Lounge and the Electric Theatre, our second bio-scope are no more, only our old railways station remains. We are told that a new station will be built at Greyville.  The fine new airport was built at Clairwood to replace the old one opposite the Country Club. The wonderful new Ocean Terminal and the Sugar Terminal were also built.

All the same one misses at times the cosy feeling of walking down West Street when shopping and meting a familiar face or having a chat to a friend. The City has grown so large and the population has increased so much.  I almost forgotten mention the old Town Baths next to Medwood Gardens where all the Galas were held and used to be housed in a funny old building. How much more attractive is the little oasis today.

I wonder how many people remember one of the most unusual visitors who came to visit us years ago, Huberta the Hippo, who decided she wanted to go sight seeing and wanted to see how other people lived. She leisurely made her through the streets of Durban where nobody interfered with her. She eventually arrived in East London where later a farmer in that district shot her, not realising who she was, much to the distress and sorrow of the general public.

I think our oldest historical monument was the Old Fort in Old Fort Road, where Dick King set forth on his memorable ride across the Bay eventually arriving in Grahamstown to obtain help from the British Garrison stationed there for our besieged troops in Durban.  A very fine statue was erected on the Esplanade to Dick King’s memory. For many years a friend of mine lived in Dick King’s house in Isipingo. I remember when the Colonel of a Durban regiment hit upon the idea of turning the Old Fort into a lovely sanctuary. He and the men of his regiment worked hard at weekends and made lovely gardens and winding paths with cosy nooks and little pools, turning it into a lovely place. A little retreat to sit and meditate so close to the City yet far from the bustling world.

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8 Responses

  1. Allan Jackson
    | Reply

    What a great find Gerald! Thanks very much for adding this wonderful story. There is plenty of interest and Elizabeth was also a very good writer who does a splendid job of evoking those long-ago days.

  2. John Taylor
    | Reply

    Most of us regular informants know Durban from the fifties to the present time, but I guess that those who remember and can accurately describe “old” Durban are very few in number.
    I have a book entitled “Dear Old Durban” by Yvonne Miller that describes the city over a 20 to 30 year period prior to WWII, in a similar vein to the contributor. I find this absolutely fascinating because it paints a picture in time very different to our current city environment, or even that of the past 50 years.

  3. Jo Wallstrom
    | Reply

    My mother-in-law used to rave about Durban in the 1930 & 1940. Apparantly they had a whale of a time in Durban during the war years. She was part of a contingent of women that used to greet the army ships coming to Durban. Well knowing her I have used my imagination. and leave at that. Jo

  4. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Remember that our memories of what Durban was like when we grew up in the 1950s/60s are already 50 to 60 years old and Durban has changed much over that time. It is up to us to leave behind a description in words of what it was like for those who in another 50 years may ask, I wonder what Durban was like 100 years ago. Just some food for thought.

  5. Rob Hackenbruch
    | Reply

    Thanks for this wonderful account of old Durban. I am attempting to write a history of Glenwood / Umbilo and would appreciate any information pictures etc. This will be published on the http://www.glenwood.co.za site.

    Rob H

    • Allan Jackson

      Hi Rob, Thanks for the kind words. I’m from Glenwood myself but I don’t know much about it. I’ve always assumed it was quite a new suburb but can’t confirm that. Maybe some of our visitors can help.

    | Reply

    It is ANZAC day in Australia 2013 & I was just reading some letters my grandfather wrote from rest, refreshment & writing rooms 9/12/1916 Wesley Hall, Central West Street, Durban, Natal. He was in the Australian Army. So I was very interested to read your story.

    • Allan Jackson

      I have e-mailed Roslyn to ask if she would contribute her grandfather’s memories to the site. For those who haven’t seen it yet, we do already have a diary extract from a soldier who passed through Durban in WWI: https://www.fad.co.za/Resources/memoirs/FPendall.php

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