The Port Captain's Daughter

By Vivian Atwood- 13 July 2005


Barbara Bowyer in 2005

The following article and pictures were originally published in the Durban ratepayers' magazine Metrobeat in 2005, and are reproduced with permission of the magazine and
the author.

 

Ninety-two this year, a grand old Durban lady recalls her childhood at The Point

FOLLOWING the publication last year of an article on the restoration of historic buildings at The Point ('Making The Point for Conservation,' METRObeat, Issue 61), a large number of readers phoned the METRObeat offices, wanting more information on the history and future of this fascinating part of Durban.

One of the callers was Mrs Jennifer Mansfield of Westville, who felt her mother, Mrs Barbara Bowyer, could add some interesting background detail to the rather meagre store of information available on life at The Point in the early years of this century.

As a result, I take an enthralling walk down memory lane with a charming old lady whose mind, despite her advanced age, is still as clear as the tolling of a ship's bell.

Tiptoeing up the carpet-muffled staircase at a Morningside retirement home, passing rooms where nurses plump the pillows of a series of frail, elderly invalids, it is a delightful surprise to enter a sunny bedroom and meet the sprightly Mrs Bowyer. She has had her thick, elegantly tinted hair specially styled for the occasion. I compliment her on her youthful appearance. "Oh, you flatter me," she says, a little coquettishly. It is an accolade she must have received many times.

Born in 1913, Barbara was the daughter of Captain William Weller, Port Captain of Durban, and spent happy childhood years living with her family at The Point. Her astoundingly clear memory paints long days of sun and sea, and a home filled with a constant stream of visitors, many in the employ of the South African Railways and Harbours.

"We had a lovely big house," she says, looking back wistfully. "Dock House it was called. Father's office was just down the hill. He had ships' wheels put on the gate, with the house's name written on them. That was quite spectacular. Father would bring the Port Officer up to the house, and they'd hang their hats on a hallstand he had made from another old ship's wheel. Then they'd have tea in the dining room. My mother always produced a good tea. It was quite an event."

Left:
Port Captain William Weller (centre, rear), with family and friends at Dock House.

Right:
Barbara (right, rear) with family members in front of Dock House.  

Click the images to view enlargements

Dock House was a gracious, rambling home with wraparound verandahs and a large tennis court. The hospitable Wellers loved to entertain friends and visiting dignitaries. However, recalls Barbara, there was a strict social pecking order, and people instinctively knew which side of the divide they fell on.

"Building masters and so on used to come up the back stairs," she says.

"They weren't invited to sit in the lounge."

Despite social hierarchy, and racial divides that were already firmly entrenched long before the coining of the term 'apartheid,' Barbara recalls pitying the plight of the black stevedores housed in the barracks near her home (the premises occupied until recently by The Ark Ministry).

"I felt sorry for those men as a child. I thought it must be terrible to be shut up at night as they were," she says with feeling.

 

Left:
A family tea party on the verandah at Dock House, circa 1934

<Right:
The Weller family and guests set out for a Sunday picnic at Salisbury Island. Sailor, the roving terrier, is in the fore

Click the images to view enlargements

While the stevedores toiled on the docks, and spent their leisure time confined to their barracks, a gang of convicts from the local jail had a once-weekly treat to look forward to, courtesy of Barbara's mother, Hilda Jane Weller.

"My mother didn't work - in those days ladies didn't - but she was very proud of her home, and well-known for her baking skills," says Barbara. "The prisoners came every Friday - a gang of ten - with a big tin of yellow soft soap. They'd scrub the verandahs and mark the tennis court. Mother made big pans of gingerbread, and the men got two slices each. I don't think they ever saw cake otherwise."

Although life at Dock House was more than comfortable, and Hilda Weller the epitome of the gracious hostess, Barbara's mother was an intrepid woman who didn't shy away from life's challenges. Marrying William Weller had assured her she would experience constant change, starting with the couple's emigration from their native Britain, and entailing frequent relocation to a series of Southern African port cities over the years.

Both Hilda and William were raised in seaside towns - she in Southampton, he in a village near Portsmouth. Perhaps it was inevitable that the sea would play a role in shaping their shared future.

Barbara takes up the tale: "Father was the youngest of ten children. Four of his brothers went to sea and became captains, but Father left when he was still an officer with the Union Castle line, and came to South Africa with Mother in 1913, starting as a junior pilot in East London. He was soon promoted to officer in charge of the port of Walvis Bay. When the Campaign ended, and it was considered safe for women and children to travel to South West Africa, he told my mother to prepare to sail. I was just eighteen months old.

"We were given berths on the British Prince. It was the ship's maiden voyage, and it suddenly came to a standstill in thick mist, off the South West coast. When the mist cleared they found the vessel was high and dry on Possession Island. Runners were sent to Luderitz Bay, the nearest port, and Father got a message reading: 'Ship a total loss. Send assistance.' We spent a night or two on the stranded ship before help arrived.

"My mother was very adaptable and I think she quite enjoyed the novelty of it all. But Walvis Bay was very primitive then, with wood and iron houses and few amenities."

In 1928 Barbara's father was appointed Assistant Port Captain of the Port of Durban.

Initially they lived in one of the Edwardian terrace houses at The Point - Dock House being occupied by a Mr Hulett, the examiner for nautical students. Their neighbours were pilots and tug masters, including the Potts and White families.

In 1932, after a stint in Cape Town, Captain Weller returned to Durban and ensconced his contented family in Dock House. From the wide verandahs of their home, the children watched for hours as ships streamed into the busy harbour mouth. Vetch's Beach was just a short walk away, and at the end of the day the Wellers and other Point families would stroll down for a dip in the waves.

Barbara and her younger sister, Pat, attended Durban Girls College, catching a tram from The Point to the Main Post Office, and then a second one up Musgrave Road.

Life at the port was always eventful, Barbara recalls. "Every Sunday the mail boat arrived, and left again on Thursday. At 3.15pm on Thursday, like clockwork, Father would leave his office to call on the Captain of the mail boat and wish him a safe trip. There were always many people on the quay, and streamers from the ship were such a festive sight."

Sunday picnics were a particular highlight. "We used to get in my father's motorboat and go from the Point over to Salisbury Island," says Barbara. "The island was once a leper colony. There were four or five houses there at the time, and a pleasant tearoom. Mother used to arrange the picnic, and ask people who were in the service of the South African Railways and Harbours. She'd pack a simple lunch of cooked chicken and rolls. It was a wonderful day of relaxation."

Just as the sea shaped the lives of the Weller family, so, too, it exerted its allure on their pet dog, the appropriately named 'Sailor.'

The lively terrier frequently went missing from Dock House, and a posse of messengers would be sent out from the Port Office to scour the area for the errant pooch. It was finally discovered, to everyone's amusement, that Sailor had taken to hitching a ride to The Bluff on the morning ferry. He would consort happily with an assortment of canine acquaintances, and return on the afternoon ferry.

Left:
Port Captain William Weller greets the then Prime Minister, Barry Hertzog, during a 1935 visit to the Point.

Right:
Port Captain William Weller in full naval regalia.

Click the images to view enlargements

While the Weller family left The Point in 1935, when Captain Weller was appointed Port Captain of Cape Town, Barbara had planted deep roots in Durban, and returned as a young woman to marry and raise her daughter in the city. After Captain Weller's death, Barbara's mother, too, made her home in Durban. Active until her death at the age of 78, Hilda Weller bequeathed her 1920s vehicle registration plate, ND 415, to Barbara.

Finally, and with reluctance, Barbara herself conceded, at 85, that it was time to pass the plates over to her daughter, Jennifer Mansfield.

In a life that has witnessed so much change, what does Barbara miss most about 'old' Durban?

"Probably being able to pop in to Greenacres to meet friends for tea. Payne Brothers also did a nice tea," she muses. "I miss good old Dock House, too. It would have made such a lovely nautical museum. They put up an awful workshop on the site when they demolished it. So much has been torn down, hasn't it? I'm glad they left the Port Office, though."

I leave with wistful thoughts of an earlier age, when life in Durban moved at a slower, rather statelier pace.

Left:
Hilda and William Weller at the Royal Tea Party held at Mitchell park in 1947.

Right:
Barbara Bowyer (right) with a friend, Denise Thomson, at the Royal Tea Party
at Mitchell Park.

Click the images to view enlargements
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