The way we were

Some time ago I received a query from Howard Galloway in the UK about women taxi drivers in Durban in the 1960s. I quizzed my informants Gerald Buttigieg and Dodo on what they could remember from the period and I also asked them about the Bats pop group and the Little Top.

I had always believed the Little Top was the bright orange ball on the beachfront near the Mermaid Lido, which functioned as a mini-stage. I noticed a report some time back in the papers that it had been demolished, and I wanted to know more. Allan Jackson.

Howard Galloway first wrote:

"I visited Durban in 1964 and was struck by the number of white women taxi drivers. I met a young man from Durban recently who was amazed when I told him of this. Can you confirm that my recollection is correct and possibly explain why and when did things start to change?"

(**See here for confirmation of their existence. 22/08/10. Ed.)

I put the question to my informants Dodo and Gerald Buttigieg and, as an aside, mentioned to them that the veteran Bats pop group had had a couple of shows here in Hillcrest recently. I also asked them for information with regard to the Little Top.

Gerald Buttigieg replied:

The Bats Pop group were popular in the 60s and they played at The Butterworth Hotel Durban which was in Soldier's Way. I think on the corner of Soldier's Way and Victoria Street. It is still there but now rather run down and I think it is accommodation only now (rooms for a day!) etc.

The locale in the Butterworth was called Le Macarbe and was a very dark interior with the tables being mock coffins. The Bats group consisted of Paul Ditchfield, Eddie Ecksteen , Barry Jarman and Pete Clifford. I have an idea one has passed on now. Paul did the vocals, Eddie drums, Barry Bass and Pete lead guitar. The Butterworth was a little out of the way with respect to the beach front where the El Castillian ( Lonsdale Hotel) and Cookie Look (Claridges) were the main attractions. There was also the Four Seasons in Gillespie Street. I heard about the Bats at Hillcrest and had thoughts of going with my wife but travelling down and back proved problematic.

The Little Top, I think, was a follow up to an open air stage they used to have where the old aquarium, the one they have just pulled down, used to be. Before my time, I have an idea it was the site of a bandstand. The Mermaid Lido was a strange building built right on the sands and in front was a tarred promenade. Upstairs was a vast hall which was under utilised but I think it was a roller skating rink at one time, then a night club and dance floor. Opposite it were public bowling greens and a park with swings and slides and see-saws.

*** See below for a note on the Little Top - added 19 Feb. 2007

Below, on promenade level, were small shops which sold mementoes and post cards and bric a brac such as Durban ashtrays etc. However, at a lower level was a rather grotty cafe called the Blue Grotto which was the hang out of a particular "ducktail" motor bike gang. Being a weedy teenager then I kept clear of them !! Anyway what I remember is that when the aquarium was built at the open air stage site, a stage was built near the Mermaid Lido on the Beach to replace it.

I seem to remember it was made of wood panels in the shape of a small circus tent, hence the name Little Top. At the Little Top at Christmas season, they had Lucky Legs competitions when the girls used to parade with paper bags over their heads. They also had talent shows and ice cream eating races. The compere I remember was Cyril Sugden, an Englishman, and he used to wear a striped blazer and a boater, if I recall correctly. In later years, I think Clover sponsored the Little Top and it was replaced by the orange ball you mentioned because they sold an orange fresh fruit product. I think it was in the mid 70s that the top of the Mermaid Lido was converted into a cinema.

Picture courtesy Gerald Buttigieg
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By chance, I have a late 50s postcard of the Mermaid Lido when it was still relatively in good condition. The hotel directly behind was the Claridges (where Cookie Look originated) and I think it has been renamed now. Then next to it I cannot remember the name of the building which was pulled down. However it was the base of Eagle Taxis. Then West Street which used to run down to the seafront in those days.

On the other side West Street was the old Beach Hotel which was pulled down and replaced with the present building in the early 60s. Then Palmer Street and then the Balmoral Hotel, which I hear is owned by Malaysians now. Next to the Balmoral you can just see the back of the Edward Hotel. The octagonal building in the front I think was a night club and restaurant and to its left was a pumphouse.

There used to be a wooden pier at the end of West Street but it was closed off and the railings removed leaving the pylons only. I remember fisherman used to venture out, climb the pylon and fish from there all alone. As you can see, there is no Little Top shown and, as I said, I seem to remember the open air stage being behind the octagonal building where deck chairs used to be put out for the public.

Regarding women taxi drivers, I do not seem to recall that. All I remember is that Eagle Taxis just about had the monopoly. Eagle Taxis were all black cars. They still operate. I reckon the female driver phenomonem only started in mid 60s when the first post war generation started reaching 18 and young women started taking to driving. Before that, I honestly cannot remember women driving taxis in the 50s /60s. . As it was, Durban had an excellent bus service then, I think, starting about 5 am and closing at about 12 30pm. Buses were regular and timing was very good. Cars were pretty plentiful as well and most men did drive. I may be wrong but I doubt there were women taxi drivers in large number at any rate. I may be wrong.

See Gerald's pages of other reminiscences here and here.

Dodo wrote:

Thanks for writing. I remember being told how old people were the repository of cultural traditions and oral history, and, what do you know – now I are one!

As for Howard’s question about taxi drivers – I’m a total blank. All I know is that Eagle and Aussie’s were the two major companies – perhaps even the only two.

I knew the Little Top before it was the plastic orange ball – and what a pity that was. As I knew or rather, recall it – I think the original – it was a platform covered by a mainly blue, canvas, pitched tent, roughly the size of the orange ball version and in exactly the same spot. There was entertainment, I think from 9-12 am every day in the holiday seasons, very successful, very popular, and abysmal! The audience was made up of people of all ages, mostly Afrikaners from up-country who came to Durban – mostly in July, as far as I can remember.

There was a four-piece band – SA had good musicians even then – a compere (the one I remember best, and by far the most popular, was Ken Noyle**. There were various entertainers, magicians and stuff, talent shows for adults and children, Miss Lucky Legs was a great hit, and I believe Miss Durban was chosen there, to go on to the Miss SA finals, and in 1958 to become Miss World. That was Durban’s very own Penny Coelen. I know because my late, nine-year-older brother dated her. Here she is – fresh from Google.

The Mermaid Lido was the dome structure in the background of the photo. The front side (on the promenade, facing town) had a series of little shops – a barber, a photo shop which sent roaming photographers to take pictures of people on the beach or outside their shop, where you could have your head protruding from a kind of large sandwich board with a funny picture on it.

There was an American-style ‘milk bar’ called the Cherry Tree, with bar stool chairs, a beach clothing shop and various other things. Steps down led to a large café at beach level, which you could also enter directly from the beach, and steps led up to another storey, one above promenade level, where older people, ie over 20s, went for their entertainment – mostly Hammond organ played by an English, very camp ‘homosexualist’ whom Durbanites embraced as their answer to Liberace. The businesses must have done well and the structure was an unusual landmark.

Dodo has her own page on Facts About Durban.

** Dodo sent a link to a 2002 story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about a Ken Noyle, who had just voted for the first time in his life. By the sounds of things, it must be the same person who officiated at the Little Top in Durban.

Little Top - added 19 february 2007.

Gerald Buttigieg was in touch recently with some more on the Little Top. He wrote:

"It has been bugging me about whether I was right about the Little Top on the beachfront as I remember it as a tent style 'plywood' structure. I have still not come across a picture of the original one that I remember from the 50s/60s. I did came across this picture of the one which replaced the old one I recalled. The picture is taken from a series of scrapbooks my late father in law, Archie Black, compiled from newspaper and magazine cuttings. He was Durbanite born and bred and loved the city and the way it had expanded in the years he knew it. This picture is taken from the 1971 scrapbook and I have an idea that in later years this structure was painted orange when I think Clover (their fresh orange juice) sponsored the Little Top." (Added 20 July 2007: See here for more.)

Picture courtesy Gerald Buttigieg
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