17 Jul

Seeing what needed to be done, they just got down and did it! Robin Lamplough shares tales of admirable women not afraid to challenge the male-dominated world way back when.

The road to the Natal interior is often thought of as a male world. Wagoners, hunters, soldiers and farmers all went about their business along its length. But there were also some energetic women who left their mark on it.

Take, for example, Elizabeth Caterina Field. A boeremeisie from Swellendam, east of Cape Town, she moved to Natal with her husband and small children in 1852. The family settled at the top of what is now known as Field’s Hill. One day, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, William, a Durban customs official, visited the farm. He arrived unexpectedly with a party of British naval officers. On their way to the farmhouse, they encountered their hostess. She was supervising the skinning of a leopard she had just shot. She fled to the house to change her dress, and a little later she graciously welcomed her guests. They were all mightily impressed by her.

Someone else who landed in Natal at a similar time was Helen McIntosh, also a wife with small children. Her husband bought a farm at remote Shongweni and moved the family there. Their first night in the old farmhouse was disturbed by the noises of a snake hunting rats in the calico ceiling. The next day James McIntosh killed twenty young snakes in a nearby bamboo thicket. James was often away from home for months on business, and Helen had to learn to look after the family on her own. The farm induna had standing orders, if trouble broke out in the area he was to take Helen and her children to a deep rock shelter beside the Mhlatuzana river, near what came to be called McIntosh Falls. An accident in later life left Helen in a wheelchair. Her husband had a special path built for her to be pushed in the chair along the riverside to the waterfall.

Sibella McMiillan was another Scottish settler. When her husband died suddenly, she had three sons to bring up. Before her marriage, Sibella’s family had run a school in England named Highbury House. In 1903, she rented a piece of land in the little village of Hill Crest and started a school for boys.  She named it Highbury, and in the decades that followed the school was run by her two sons and later a grandson, Sholto McMillan. It remained in the hands of the family for over eighty years.

Another teacher, Miss Cecil Mayhew, was, as the First World War came to an end, passed over for promotion at Pietermaritzburg’s St Anne’s. She too started a school of her own, also in Hill Crest village. She called it St Margaret’s, and she favoured a progressive system of education for girls. For fifteen years St Margaret’s attracted pupils from all over the country, until Miss Mayhew retired in 1933.

At a similar time, the widow of a doctor, Mrs Burnand, bought land in the new property development at Botha’s Hill. She opened a roadside shop, a tea-garden and a zoo near the present Kearsney College gates. When Kearsney first moved to this site in 1939, the roaring of the zoo’s lions could be heard at night, and there are pictures of local children playing on the grass with lion cubs.

It would be impossible to end this brief account without remembering a lady from somewhere at Shongweni after Hitler’s war. Her name may have been Mrs Ratsey. Always in khaki trousers, she used to visit Hill Crest from time to time in order to collect mail and stock up with supplies. But her most memorable characteristic was the six-shooter she wore, cowboy style, strapped to her thigh.

How feisty is that?

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