By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris Marais and the Transnet Heritage Library Photo Collection
My grandfather’s face was part of my childhood life. He was always there, a friendly looking man, grandfatherly but not too old.
“He was a real gentleman,” my father always said, a wistful note in his voice. I never met my grandfather, because he died six years before I was born, but a single photograph of him was a constant feature in our home. My Oupa’s name was Pieter Schalk du Toit.
I’d only find out much later this picture captured my grandfather aged 65, at the beginning of one of the most exciting years of his life. He positively glows.
He was not the only Pieter Schalk in our family. My dad, nicknamed Pierre as a child, was named after him. There are plenty of other PS du Toit’s in the family tree. In fact I was all set to become Pieter Schalk du Toit myself, a fate I dodged only by virtue of being born a girl.
I knew very little about my father’s parents except they had lived in Germiston, had three boys and two daughters and this from my dad: “Your Oupa was a train driver and in 1947 he drove the White Train when the Royal Family was touring South Africa.”
Fast forward several decades. My father, nearing the end of his life in 2012, told me he was sending me something he had really treasured – my Oupa’s wooden chest. It arrived via friends, had a heart embedded in the top and was full of random bits and pieces. My first impression of its contents was that my grandfather must have loved being clean-shaven. He had three shaving devices packed in that box, including a nifty razor-blade sharpener.
There were more amazing things in there. They included two medals; my Oupa’s old pocket watch; his passport full of fascinating stamps from exotic places in Africa; a picture of a classic old 1950s bus; documentation about title deeds and railways matters; a cigarette tin with epaulettes, buttons and badges; and a hand-carved ruler dated 1866.
There was also a pale blue booklet titled “Tour of Their Majesties the King and Queen and Their Royal Highnesses the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret: Running times of Pilot and Royal Trains and Special Instructions Regarding Arrangements on the Western Transvaal System Tuesday 1st and Wednesday 2nd April 1947”.
It was an intriguing lot of stuff, but because my dad had not told me much, I didn’t quite know the significance of these bits and pieces, and what to do about them. Every now and then I’d open the box and wind up the silver Nirvana pocket watch, which had my grandfather’s name engraved on the back. I liked listening to the steady tick-tock of it, comforting as a heartbeat.
Fast forward again to early 2017, when a stranger by the name Pieter van Zyl of Alberton contacted me. He had seen a picture of me in Country Life and asked whether I was perhaps related to a Pieter Schalk du Toit. Of course, I said.
It turned out that the stranger’s full name was Pieter Schalk du Toit van Zyl, the son of my father’s youngest sister, Johanna Maria du Toit, who married Marthinus Nicolaas van Zyl.
Joey, as my father always called her, had died aged 25 of rheumatic fever, leaving behind two little boys. Cousin Pieter was the youngest.
We exchanged emails and family photographs. I told him about Oupa’s wooden box. He urged me to write up the stories of what I’d found there, but it was something that always slipped off my to-do list. He mentioned that they would love to come down and visit me because by sheer coincidence, I had moved to Cradock, the very town where our mutual grandfather was born, and where our great grandfather Barend Jacobus du Toit had married Catharina Elizabeth Johanna Jordaan. They’d lived at Palingkloof, an area between Cradock and Tarkastad.
Several months later, cousin Pieter sent me the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. He had refused chemotherapy since it wouldn’t help lengthen his life anyway. He had only months to live and was terribly ill.
But as sometimes happens in the last days of those who are terminal, he suddenly rallied after Christmas, and felt much stronger.
Along with his wife Lenie, their daughter Hannelize and her partner Professor John Maddocks, he decided to embark on a Bucket List trip. I was first on that list, a bewildering honour.
It was like meeting a slightly different version of my father. My cousin’s face was immediately familiar – like so many men in our family, he had a moustache, plus the characteristic nose, chin, and ‘Du Toit Fangs’. Pieter loved it that our grandfather had gone to register his name after birth, and just ‘slipped in’ the Du Toit surname in front of Van Zyl.
Hannelize, her dad, Lenie and I slowly unpacked Oupa’s memories while John and Chris talked of Scottish whisky and tall sailing ships. It made all the difference in the world having cousin Pieter there. Suddenly the random objects in the box gained personal and historical context.
Born in 1892, Oupa joined the Witwatersrand Rifles at the start of World War I, and was sent off to South West Africa to fight the Germans for two years for which he received those medals.
There were documents to show that during the War, he’d been transferred to and then later demobbed from the Railway Regiment – which is probably the reason why he was a train driver by 1926, and a signed up member of The Mutual Aid Association of Railway and Harbour Servants.
In 1934 he bought a house, 3 Elsburg Road in Germiston, for £1 050. He paid a deposit of £30 and signed a commitment to pay off the rest at a rate of two pounds a month. This was where my father and his siblings grew up.
One of the more shocking objects we found was a metal German Swastika military badge. Where could it have come from? My cousin Lorenza, daughter of my father’s eldest brother, later produced a letter from her father Barney that cast some light on the subject. Barney had fought in the Second World War with the Allies, and in November 1944, he sent a letter from “Somewhere in Italy”. He writes about the cold weather, about other friends from Germiston and then this:
“I am not a play-play soldier anymore. A few nights ago, I stabbed my first German to death. He tried to sneak up on me and I don’t know how it happened but when I came to myself again, I was pulling my bayonet out of his stomach.”
Barney, who married a gorgeous Italian woman by the name of Amabile (Amy) must have brought the dead soldier’s badge home with him.
My grandfather’s pocket watch brought happy memories. My cousin Pieter remembered how he would always carry it in his waistcoat pocket at the end of a fob chain, covered by the overalls he wore to work along with a smart peak cap. I imagine him checking it in the driver’s cab of his steam locomotive before pulling levers and releasing the brakes, giving two sharp warning whistles before pushing in the throttle to move the train forward, perfectly on time.
We have a picture of him in that railway uniform, on the stoep of the house with his wife, our stern grandmother Johanna Maria nee Van Wyk. My cousin Kiki, sister to Lorenza, remembers “Ouma was one of those ladies who bathed, coiffed her hair and dressed up with stockings before her husband came home. The house was immaculate and the passage polished to a gleam. The children had to edge along the sides. Even the dog learnt to avoid the middle.”
Oupa drove trains when South Africa’s steam locomotive network was at its peak. I’d love to think he drove the Transkaroo but there’s no sign of that. His only documented journeys were with the White Train on 1 April 1947, driving the lead locomotive, Engine No 3050, Class 15F between Pretoria and Booysens, and from there back to Germiston, this time in the trailing locomotive. His fireman was GE Carter.
The next day, he took the lead locomotive again, pulling the Royal Train between Alliance and Germiston. He and the fireman were joined by a guard, VW Davis.
Hannelize hunted down the images of the train in the Transnet Archives, and her father Pieter identified our jovial grandfather with locomotives and colleagues in some of the old black and white shots.
When my grandmother died in 1951, Oupa left the Railways and lived in the single quarters at Geduld Gold Mine in Springs, still driving steam locos. In 1957, he retired at age 65.
Then ensued what looks like the most exciting year of his life. He spent months preparing for it.
He had photographs taken of himself at a studio in Springs, including the one that dominated my childhood and is still in my possession. He acquired a passport, undoubtedly his first and only one. He went to a doctor to certify he was in good health. He was given smallpox and yellow fever vaccinations. He obtained clearance from the police that there were no convictions recorded against him. He also received a letter from Barclays Bank, Benoni branch, addressed to Motelbus Toere, to say he was well known to the bank and that he had enough funds for the envisaged trip.
In April of that year, he set off on the trip of a lifetime, by bus through Africa to Europe.
His passport has stamps from Maiduguri and Kano in Nigeria; Ndu in the Belgian Congo; Sudan and Cameroon; Tanger in French Morocco where he bought a few brass cups, bowls and a bell; Algeciras near Gibraltar; the Netherlands and Italy.
My cousin Pieter told me that on the bus our grandfather connected with a young woman called Ester (35 shocking years his junior) and they had a holiday romance. My grandfather and Ester eventually made their way back to South Africa by Union Castle ship. At the end of it Oupa gave her a diamond ring, said Pieter, but they didn’t stay together.
Two years after this Grand Tour, our grandfather died aged 67. The box has nothing more to say about his final years. But it has left me with one burning question. If I were to encapsulate my own life’s history in a box, what would I put in it?
- As I was writing this article I received news that my cousin Pieter Schalk had died. In his diffident, wryly humorous way, he had spurred me to write up the history of this small part of the Du Toit history. Rest in Peace, cousin, and thank you.
- This article first appeared in SA Country Life magazine, in September 2018.