MBILO: A Winter Storm
In 1905, the Colony of Natal was witness to an extraordinary storm during the usually calm winter months of May and June. Through a culmination of events, a calamity would befall and take the lives of the mostly Indian market farmers along the Umbilo/uMbilo River valley from Pinetown to the harbour of the burgeoning town of Durban.
All key individuals featured are historical figures, apart from Jodha Singh’s sister Kruti and her son Gulshan who were added for the market farmer perspective (no records or statements were taken, or are no longer available, of those farmers who survived). While all dialogue and domestic life, though historically accurate, is fiction, all key moments and data are based on eyewitness accounts and readings by those featured, and who survived the disaster.
While I have endeavoured to focus on the disaster specifically caused by the Pinetown/Umbilo Waterworks collapse, for storytelling purposes, many in the Durban areas – along the Umgeni and Umhlatuzana Rivers – were affected or lost their lives. The dam disaster was the cause of the most significant loss of life on 1 June 1905.
There is little surviving record of the event, or pockets of information, and I was fortunate to come across the 1984 paper “NATAL: THE GREAT STORM AND THE FLOODS OF 1905” by Laljeeth Ramdhani. With Ramdhani’s thorough research, and by corroborating other accounts and as much as I could find, I pieced together the following dramatic recreation of the event. If you have further historical insights please do reach out via social media.
PART 1: Afternoon – Storm Brewing
SOUTH COAST JUNCTION STATION: 4:10PM 31st May 1905
|South Coast Junction Station c.1900|
Jodha Singh stood stiffly, hands clasped behind his back, sheltered from the intermittent rain but not the biting wind whipping under the corrugated iron overhang of the verandah. He looked down at his royal blue suit, gave a quick dust off and adjusted the top brass button at his collar. He gave a tug down on his cap peak and resumed his formal stance.
Glancing over his shoulder he checked the station clock: 4:11PM
Though it had never been the busiest of Durban’s stations, particularly on a Wednesday, South Coast Junction was bustling with the end of the day’s commuters. It may have been the last day of May but many would have chosen the previous Saturday to head into the town, a burgeoning city, to spend their wages. Jodha put it down to the unpredictable and strange weather that had started yesterday. People, particularly this side of the Umbilo River, rarely used the railway for errands, and only if their walk home was potentially threatened by a Durban downpour.
As one of the four porters on duty he was avoiding being hailed to carry luggage, keeping his distance from the disembarking passengers further down the platform. Instead, he made fleeting surveys of the carriage doorways, ensuring no eye contact with others, as he waited for his sister’s arrival from her day’s hawking at the informal market in the town. All he wanted to do was to have a brief catch up with Kruti before she wound her way through the dirt paths back up to their family’s market farm. One of the two cast iron and wood benches, against the redbrick wall of the handsome station building, was free but those were for the white folk. He stood and waited.
On the opposite side of the platform, along the siding, one of the three large pendant lamps was visible. Rather than leaving it to the next shift at the station, and with the impending gloom of the storm, he would have to get those burning sooner than usual.
Keeping one hand behind his back, he tapped his jacket’s side pocket with the other, feeling the familiar form of his safety matches and tin of tobacco.
“Thambi,” his sister’s voice from behind startled him.
Kruti removed the reed basket balancing on her head and placed it at their feet between them. Despite the drooping posture at the end of a long day, his sister was always radiant. She leaned over and embraced her brother tightly. Scents of incense and soot and body odour hung in the air, the smells of his previous home.
He was the first to let go and straighten his coat.
“There were some items that did not sell today,” she said and bent over the parcel. Jodha doubted his sister in this regard considering she always seemed to have a similar amount of items for him at the end of the days he was on duty. And, her produce never went unsold in the town.
She took a loose canvas cloth and smoothed it out on the floor beside the basket and proceeded to pick out a small offering of fresh produce. A plump ginger root. A single garlic bulb. And finally three shiny avocados.
Finally she took a length of leather cord and wrapped everything up, tying a firm knot at the top. Kruti stood up and happily offered the bundle to her brother. She immediately slapped his hand away as he attempted to offer payment.
Instead, he took the cloth-wrapped items and held them behind his back, glancing at the station clock. “Let us wait for the train to depart.”
“The Narayanans have been having their bumper crop of avocados since February,” Kruti said to fill the silence. “And the mango trees are looking promising for later in the year.”
“Mhm,” Jodha nodded.
“Since moving closer to the river all those summers ago, our own trees–“
“That I helped plant,” Jodha gave a wry smile at the memory.
“That we all planted,” his sister emphasised, “will only be ready in the next year or two.”
“How is the homestead holding up, sister?”
“Father has our cousins helping to add to it.”
“Uncle still planning to stay?” He knew his father’s brother was finishing his indenture at the cane fields up the coast north of Durban.
“Until he settles properly,” said Kruti with a nod.
Jodha clucked his tongue. “With this kind of weather I still think it is unwise to be so close to the river, Kruti.”
“Father is wanting to grow more and more, brother. “Father is still frustrated you did not want to continue the family farm.”
He sighed and shook his head.
“You all cannot be Babu Bodasing or Charlie Nulliah.”
His sister waved him off.
“And besides, this city is growing, how soon until they come for this land?”
“They don’t want to work the soil. They are not farmers. They do not venture out here. They live in their brick houses and ride their horses and build their roads. We supply most of the fresh produce to them there.” She pointed to the town in the distance.
“And what of you?” She looked him up and down. “Where to from here, railway porter?”
“Others are vying for the head porter position when Sooka Nkadu moves up or out”.
“And you don’t think you have simply re-indentured into the colony by being their porter, Jodha?”
He looked at his sister from the corner of his eye and then down at her basket.
“Why don’t you sell at the Junction market? It’s nearby, less travel time when you’ve got your children to look after.”
“You know very well there is more money in the town.”
“And less haggling,” he added.
They both laughed.
“How was the hail for the crops this morning?”
“The turmeric is about to be harvested and that root plant will not be affected by the hail.” She sighed. ”We planted our garlic in April, and we’ve been looking forward to the summer harvest.”
“That crop will more than likely be smaller if it has lost any foliage in that storm,” said Jodha.
“It wasn’t too bad. And April’s mid-season ginger was great. It has kept us for the time being.”
The silence threatened to hang in the air once again but was pierced by the drawn out wail of the train whistle.
They watched as the train departed for the split of the South Coast Junction a mile down the line. Leaving the route heading on to the wild and untamed southern coastline, and bearing west before the Umhlatuzana River, it would first traverse the steep and aptly named Jacob’s Ladder into the hills, passing through Pinetown and on to the Colony of Natal’s capital, Pietermaritzburg. To the left stood the sugar refinery and around a bend, the match factory and chemical manure mill. Industry was moving in.
Kruti lifted her basket and the siblings made their way down the ramp onto the gravel, Jodha checking the area for trains or the approach of the quieter handcars. To their right he saw his seven-year-old son Kuar, ten-year-old daughter Jasodia and his nephew Gulshan approaching along the sturdy iron railway bridge, jostling and pushing each other on the other side of the rail line.
“Let us cross here, Kruti,” he pointed to the opposite siding. “I need to light that lamp before I leave.”
The deep rails meant his sister had to lift her sari from around her ankles, unflinching at the large stones beneath her tough bare feet and refusing his offered hand over the second line.
Kuar rushed to his father, realising Jodha’s objective up on the siding, and demanded he allow him the privilege of lighting the lamp.
He opened the small glass window to the lamp and hefted his son onto his shoulder, nearly dislodging his porter’s hat. When all was stable he pulled out the flint and small, yellow box of safety matches from his coat pocket.
“These are from the factory up there, aren’t they, father?” Kuar gestured to the south along the railway.
“Yes, son,” he replied and passed a match to the eager hand that snapped it up. “Steady now. I will hold the box and remember–“
“To let it catch in the cup of your hand.”
The boy’s cousin skipped up the siding ramp, leaving his mother and Jasodia lingering at the bottom, and standing on tiptoes, pulled at Jodha’s coat to get a better view.
“Not so loud, boy,” hissed Jodha and glanced at the opposite platform. Head Porter Nkadu was standing, hands at his hips. Jodha focussed on the match and matchbox rather than what he imagined would be a disapproving glare from his superior. “Otherwise Gulshan will have a turn,” he looked down at his eager nephew.
Kuar fumbled the first strike but quickly recovered and the match burst alight. His son could not contain his glee and sniggered into his father’s hat while Jodha kept the flame protected. He could feel the warmth of the flame tingling through his palm.
“Now to the wick, Kuar. Gently.”
They moved slowly in unison, Gulshan pulling at Jodha’s elbow, and half an inch from the grizzled material, the wick popped to life. Both boys gasped with delight.
Without prompting, Kuar slowly closed the metal-framed glass door, protecting the flame from the rising winds outside.
Jodha removed his hat and bent down to deposit Kuar next to his cousin and they moved off, excitedly chattering amongst themselves. His daughter followed while his sister waited for him with a wry smile on her face.
They crunched their way along the gravel in silence, Jasodia a few feet ahead. The boys were already loitering impatiently at the south end of the railway bridge at the cluster of lush Strelitzia plants, where Kruti and Gulshan would wind their way down the dirt pathway and follow the river up the valley to their family’s smallholding.
Jodha looked up the gloomy valley, low clouds thick around the hills and the trees and bushes buffeted by the winds. Though the light was dim he could just make out the hills along the left of the river valley, plots with acres of vegetable gardens and fruit plantations, mostly pine plantations, the fast growing lines of bent bamboos and palm trees amid the wild bananas. From this vantage point the houses on the right were visible, dotting the rising platform of hills. Leased or owned by mostly ex-indentured workers, the valley had been transformed over the past decades into one of the town’s largest suppliers of fresh produce.
Awkwardness formed in Jodha’s gut. Farewells were always difficult to express. Instead he leaned forward to get a better view over the railway bridge, to the rushing river waters and the barracks too close to the north bank for his liking. Rather than a goodbye he mumbled absently about the ominous weather and the threat of the river to the farmers.
“We are safe, thambi,” said Kruti. “If the new temple can reside along this river’s banks, what do we have to worry about?”
Jodha looked to the children, waiting for the adults, and pointed at their bare feet, muddy from playing down in the river earlier. “You had better have those cleaned before entering mother’s home, my son.”
His sister’s touch on his arm sent a warmth through him and she said, “We used to be able to run amok like them, not so, brother?”
”Cousin showed me the night soil cart that comes to Uncle’s barracks at night,” said Gulshan to his mother.
She gave a wry smile to her son and released Jodha’s arm.
“Come, Gulshan,” she said and waved him towards the pathway entrance between the Strelitzias.
“Should I take those for mother?” Jasodia held out a hand for the parcel at his back.
Jodha passed his daughter the bag of vegetables as Kuar bumped into her, bolting for the other end of the bridge.
“Kuar,” she scolded him with a shove, “don’t bruise them.”
“Gulshan,” he shouted back to his cousin, ignoring his sister, “wave to you from the other side.” He sprinted off over the iron bridge. Jasodia shouted to him to slow down and wait for her before turning to her father with a shrug and shaking her head.
“Watch him by the river, Jasodia,” Jodha called back.
THE WATERWORKS: 4:30PM 31st May 1905
With his caretaker homestead at his back, Henry Currie Junior’s steely gaze eyed the gloomy horizon to the southeast. Beneath the tweed Ascot cap, the deep lines at the corners of his narrowed eyes and suntanned cheeks had seen sunnier times. He pulled the brim down, securing the headwear against the wind. A gift from his wife and daughter two years earlier for his sixtieth birthday, though rather more fashionable than he would have preferred, with his thinning hair he was grateful for the warmth during Natal’s winters like this. Besides, his weathered, wide-brimmed, felt hat that kept out the summer sun would have sailed off into the valley by now.
Standing on the hilltop while thoughtfully stroking his thick moustache, he traced the row of deep-green mango trees lining the sandy path leading down to the embankment walkway and the waterworks built on the Umbilo river.
The past twenty-four hours had seen the river rise remarkably, its force building in equal proportions. This was a startling occurrence in the dry season in Natal. According to the earlier update from his assistant, C.J. Fancourt, the overflow of the dam wall had been pouring into the reservoir below at a remarkable rate. The waterworks settling basin, below the dam, had long since reached its six million gallon capacity, while the dam itself threatened its forty million gallons of swirling, muddy water behind the embankment wall.
Following convention, the dam wall was an earthen embankment comprising multiple layers of a feet-thick, weathered sandstone, well-compacted with red clay core, forty-five feet in height and running the three hundred feet across to the northern bank. While the gentler, grassy slope of Henry’s hillside, fringed with shrubs and willows, gave pleasure-seekers ease of access for their punts and boats, it was the vertical rock faces of the northern outer banks and its virgin bush and indigenous trees that provided a breathtaking experience on a normally tranquil dam. Apart from the dangers of leisure activities on the water, he had to ensure the tourists were safe from leopards and roaming hippos within his boundaries.
Henry had added his touch to the landscape, toning down the hard lines of the waterworks scheme to create an attraction for all to experience and take in the natural beauty of the land. A land as distant in geography as it was in character, from his birth town of Holborn, England.
But this inclement weather had dissuaded any day visitors, even mid-week visitors, from an afternoon’s leisurely outing. Less for him to worry about right now. Besides, his father, Henry senior, had been the political handshaker and man of the people when he was alive.
A rumble in the grey distance caused a chill up Henry’s spine. He glanced over his lush valley towards the town of Durban, the town his father had been mayor of until his death in 1880. The thick clouds were ominous. The earlier hail had clearly been just the beginning.
Following his father’s prominence in office, his own work, his own legacy, was always overshadowed by that of the senior Currie. Standing where he was, he appreciated the vital role they played in servicing the town and outlying areas with water. But, despite the value brought to the colony by the waterworks, Henry knew his father’s fountain, as he called it, would outlive them all.
In late 1878, after enduring a protracted drought in the town, then councillor Henry Currie had put forward a proposal to the Natal Government to sink an artesian well, a large water pumping plant, at the natural spring at the southern foot of the Botanic Gardens. Since its launch ceremony it had become known as Currie’s Fountain and would yield up to fifty thousand gallons a day. Early on it was enough for the growing town’s drinking water, but by 1883, with the influx of the native and indentured labourers settling on the outskirts of the expanding city, water supplies were insufficient and it soon became clear that more would be needed, and more filtered mechanisms put in place.
The elevated plot he was standing on, nine miles from central Durban, was surveyed and approved for the 1885 waterworks construction to begin.
Henry glanced to his left, bemused at the sight of Fancourt hurriedly dismounting his Basutu pony from the west side of the dam, where the river passed through the heavily wooded natural kloof on the wide bend before being interrupted by the embankment. His assistant was back from his check on the railway bridge near Pinetown Bridge station a mile away.
Henry checked the buttons on his tweed coat and hugged his arms across his chest. Winter in Natal was definitely bearable but this storm was something else. Something common to the summers rather than the dry season.
What caught his eye now was the younger mister Fancourt running up the path toward him. He didn’t usually run.
Fancourt began speaking before he had even reached Henry.
“Sir,” his assistant blurted out. Though he was out of breath, it was the pitch that struck Henry as alarming. Fancourt, a more efficient assistant he had never met, was ashen and anxious to say the least. The man swallowed and took a breath.
“Fancourt, what the devil, man?”
“Sir,” he panted, “the railway bridge is not looking good. The rains upriver, hail-damaged foliage and these gusts of wind are bringing all manner of detritus. It’s damming up severely.”
“Who is on it? What is the blockage?”
“At least one large stump and who knows what else beneath the murky waters on the north side of the bridge. They have requisitioned a motorised truck from Pinetown. The horses proved ineffective in budging anything, sir. That railway bridge has never spanned wide enough for times like these and what we know this river can offer up.”
Henry knew what his assistant meant. John Barnes, the city’s engineer at the time, had constructed the Pinetown waterworks without addressing the existing railway bridge. As newly appointed caretaker, Henry remembered reluctantly attending the July 1887 opening ceremony in Durban while his team had performed the necessary opening of the valves. It still rankled him that he was not the one turning the valve at his waterworks. Pomp and ceremony. Though a brilliantly engineered facility, Henry had always been bothered by the river itself. Nothing had been done to manage the flow into the waterworks, and no one truly knew the conditions of this lush valley of the Natal Colony still in its infancy. Recently settled, the town of Pinetown hadn’t had the decades or centuries of settlements to inform what nature could thrust upon them at any moment.
The two miles of river leading down to the embankment, never mind the waterfall dropping off into the valley below, snaked erratically through the hills and rocky sandstone outcrops. Unpredictable terrain for a river in flood. Add a narrow rail bridge into the equation and catastrophe loomed large.
Previous storms had been manageable. The odd log or congestion of reeds and muck were cleared away and its flow restored.
A whip of winter wind pummelled both men.
Henry looked over the jittery frame of Fancourt, eyeing the threatening clouds in the southeast. Closer than before.
Henry pulled his pocket watch out of his coat. 4:34PM.
“Right, Fancourt,” he bellowed and hit the path. “What are the levels looking like? Bye-wash?”
“Sir,” said Fancourt, following quickly to keep up. “Since the release via the bye-wash earlier today, a low freeboard with the levels up to within a foot of the embankment edge. At least a few million more gallons by my estimation.”
“Let us prepare another release,” he said as they came up to the control tower. He gave a curt flick of the wrist for the other man to climb the vertical iron stairs. “Any massive surge will hit this embankment and do untold damage.”
Constructed of dressed stone, the tower was positioned on the banks of the slope and access to the top of the dam wall provided by a single span lattice girder bridge supported by solid, stone abutments that would weather any storm.
Fancourt hefted himself up and inside, planting his feet firmly in place to take hold of the valve control lever, and then looked out over the stormy valley.
Henry followed the other man’s gaze to his right, downstream, where the embankment’s water was piped via the inlet to the earth-walled settling basin, and discharging into two circular, slow sand filter beds of dressed stone, and finally into the clear water tank.
Day to day operations had the purified water passing from its elevated position eight hundred feet above sea level across the Umbilo gorge through a seven-inch diameter, cast iron gravity aqueduct supplied from England. This substantial pressure allowed the source to travel over seven miles to two small covered reservoirs near Frank Steven’s grand home. Once part of Cato’s Manor Estate the site commanded impressive views of the Durban bay from the Berea Ridge, and, as far as Henry was concerned, certainly lived up to its name, Intabene – high on the hill.
“Now, Fancourt,” shouted Henry over the din of the rising gale, gripping the railing of the walk bridge.
Fancourt pulled the lever, the metal on metal grating.
At first a slow flow leaked out onto the sixty-five feet wide and ten feet deep spillway, hugging the southern bank, but soon became a torrent rushing along the eight hundred feet gradient. Henry realised he was holding his breath, waiting for the surge to rejoin the river approximately fifty yards below the waterworks.
The steep, raging flow, engulfing the solid Natal series sandstone, disappeared abruptly into the gloom over the Umbilo Falls.
That was a controlled release. Imagine a river breaching the embankment wall.
Fancourt yelled from above, “That’s at least a hundred and twenty thousand gallons per second, sir!”
Henry’s blood ran cold. During your average rainy season, the large Umgeni River, north of the port town, could run four thousand gallons a second.
Fancourt scrambled down the tower stairs as Henry jabbed his finger into the tumultuous air to the west. “Get back to Pinetown Bridge immediately. Get that blockage opened and send word from the station itself to warn those in the valley below. Try the South Coast Junction station before they are closed for the day!”
THE OBSERVATORY GROUNDS: 4:45PM 31st May 1905
|Natal Observatory – Mabel & Edmund Nevill in foreground c.1900|
|Natal Observatory – Edmund Nevill in foreground c.1900|
The gale pushed against Mabel Nevill’s skirt and thigh-length knitted-coat, hampering her gait along the footpath leading from the meteorological equipment in the gardens of the labs in the Magnetic Pavilion up to the observatory. Her close-cropped hair, greying at the temples, was of no concern right now. Rather the pad of scribbled notes in the leather folder braced under her arm, containing the afternoon’s readings and computations, were of most value.
Moments before, on her way from the family quarters, Mabel had come upon the elder Frederick Hammond hunkered over and taking his final day’s readings at the outside gauges.
Currently one of the longest standing staff members, Fred had finally arrived to assume Mabel’s meteorological assistant duties in 1894, a three-year wait since she had become senior astronomical assistant in 1891.
He had handed her his note pad before she waved him off home for the day.
Though no longer officially part of the observatory staff, she was still thrilled to look in on her old stomping grounds, calculating and projecting the forecasts, particularly those coming up from the Cape to the Natal Colony.
The other staff on the grounds, Robert Rendell and Arthur Hodgson had long since been dismissed for the day by the Government Astronomer, her husband Edmund. Considering the weather and their astronomical duties, he hadn’t seen the need in having them fighting any storms to get home. Both had held their positions for the past two years: the pious Robert, thirty-two, had been senior astronomical assistant, taking over Mabel’s other roles in April 1903; while Arthur, at twenty-five, was junior astronomical assistant.
With her and Edmund’s two sons and daughter to look after, Mabel had retired on 1 July 1902, continuing with her duties until Robert’s arrival. A relief by then when you consider all she had been handling, along with domestic life.
A key position, Edmund relied upon the senior assistant to maintain the order of the observatory along with general supervision over all details of its operation. They were to carry on general and astronomical correspondence; when required, they assisted in night shifts and the observations made between eleven o'clock at night and eight o'clock the following morning; made out the cheques and paid all accounts, along with keeping the necessary books, and preparing and rendering all the returns required by the Natal Government; calculated all the ephemerides – the trajectories of astronomical objects in the night sky – along with the working lists and tabular places; they would construct all auxiliary tables and charts; reduce the magnetic observations and tidal records, and generally stepped in for any of the junior or meteorological assistants when they were absent on leave or from illness.
Since her brother, John Grant, had reluctantly been let go years earlier during the observatory’s financial woes, other members of the Grant family had stepped in with enthusiasm in the early 1890s, including her five sisters who worked there as computers and meteorological assistants in the mornings from 1885 up until the dreaded 1894.
The blowout from the relationship, never mind the eventual marriage, between Mabel and Edmund had resulted in her father, William, barring any siblings from working at the observatory ever again. William had established his merchant business and family, now regarded as a notable part of the community, in the port town of Durban. He was not having his daughter carry on with her employer, a low-income government worker – ’penniless astronomer’, were his words – sixteen years her senior.
The black clouds loomed above the observatory dome. Mabel knew full well Edmund would be in a mood as foul as the weather. Winter typically gave clear skies for his evening observations, and considering how the past years had treated him, it was his one solace – apart from burying himself in the tomes on Babylonian histories and astronomy. He would, in all likelihood, be reluctantly mulling over a recent proposal requested by the Borough of Durban.
Though not his passion, and something he had taken on begrudgingly due to him being the sole qualified chemist, was his appointment as Government Chemist and Official Assayer for Natal. This, of all things, included the duty of pathologist in criminal cases of suspected poisoning. And with the ‘damned native methylation of spirits proposal’, the Excise Commission had boldy suggested adding pyridine as a means of curbing the sudden rise in cases of drunkenness amongst the ‘natives’ in the town and surrounding areas. Apart from its unpleasant fish-like smell, it was hoped, by the same commission, that it would induce nausea and vomiting. A deterrent, if you will.
This all a far cry from the buzz of the 1880s, with the Venus transit bringing him to these subtropical shores in the first place, his correspondence with Darwin and David Gill, Astronomer Royal to the Cape, regarding tidal theory; and, as the first person in the world to publish a book about the Moon, getting a moon crater named for himself. The latter even more cause for him being sour at the thirty-one year old Ernest Brown superseding his lunar work in 1897.
Mabel would drop the folder on Edmund’s desk and hurry back to their staff home on the grounds to look in on the dinner being made ready by the two house staff.
The Observatory, barely in operation on Edmund’s arrival for the Venus transit in 1882, consisted of a simple rectangular brick building carrying a fourteen-foot diameter dome, sheltering a finely crafted eight-inch equatorial refractor; and a smaller transit room, containing a three-inch transit instrument. Supporting these instruments were substantial, twelve feet high concrete pillars. Attached was a room for the use of the astronomer, a temporary computing room Mabel knew all too well, and a room for the clocks and electrical fittings. There was a first-class mean time clock, built by the highly-skilled Swedish horologist Victor Kullberg of London; from E.Dent & Co Ltd, the very company commissioned to construct the great clock for the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, was a tall, elegant sidereal clock measuring the astronomical time in relation to solar time; along with chronometers and other accessories.
On the lawn to the North East was the Magnetic Pavilion, housing magnetic instruments for determining the variation of the compass, with a smaller detached room on the East containing the principal meteorological instruments.
Mabel climbed the first five stairs, turned left on the landing and then headed up the next flight, ducking under the entrance to the observatory.
She took a moment to gather herself, pat off any stray leaves or dust, and calmly strolled into Edmund’s quiet abode.
The moustachioed man, hunched over a large leather-bound book, marked his place with his index finger on the page and looked up at Mabel.
The sight of his windswept wife caused him to pull the collar of his linen chore coat closer about his chest. “How are we looking, dear?”
“Remarkable winds, Edmund!” She leaned over the deep desk and handed him the disheveled pad. Without removing his finger from his book, he took the pad with his free hand and scanned over the numerals and notes.
“At fifteen hundred hours I recorded twenty five miles per hour, and that last reading,” she pointed to her page of notes in front go him, “at sixteen hundred hours, it was up to thirty two and a half miles per hour. Remarkable. The rainfall is minor, but it’s still early, Edmund. I think the storm is going to bring a torrent more precipitation this evening.”
Edmund nodded, then handed Mabel her pad. “Hopefully it all blows itself out soon enough, dear.” He gave a sardonic smile and dropped his gaze back to his finger on the page.
“I’ll do more readings over the course of the evening and I don’t mind at all computing the data tomorrow.”
He gave an affirmative “mhm” and nodded his head in his book.
She waited a moment and then added, “Do be down for dinner at six, Edmund. I don’t want to have to trek all this way because you are lost in your work again.”
Mabel huffed and headed back out into the gale.
PART 2: Evening – Home Life
INDIAN RAILWAY BARRACKS (SC Junction): 5:10PM 31st May 1905
The mass of steam that greeted Jodha as he opened the Dutch barn door to his family quarters enveloped him in warmth and spicy scents, immediately dissipating the nagging chill that had hung about him all day. Jasodia edged past him
“Am'mā,” she said and touched her head on her mother’s shoulder and took a deep breath of the rich steam.
Jodha did not envy his wife Latchmee. She had not found work locally or in the harbour town and most stores were managed by the shopkeeper’s wives or daughters, and apart from occasional errands, had to cook and stay cooped up in this confined space all day. The courtyard was the only communal space for some of the other railway wives and children to stretch their legs, if the weather permitted. But Latchmee hadn’t made any significant friends, with there being only two other couples with children. Even before sunrise, they went off to their various jobs in the town for the early hour shifts.
Jasodia deposited the cloth bundle of greens on the small wooden eating table. “From aunty,” she said and slumped down on her and her bother’s shared bed at the back of the room.
Latchmee clasped her hands together and said, “I was hoping to see Kruti this week. Lovely.” She took the bag and untied it, removing the contents and gently placing them on the table. “The junction market always has the days old dregs.”
The furniture in the room was sparse but sufficient for them. Two beds, one for Jodha and Latchmee, the other for both children to share. The workmanship on both had needed tending to, but he had managed to secure the headboard on the one, and replaced the two dilapidated legs on the other closer to the door.
Their home for nearly two years, Jodha had been eager to move out of the crowded tin shanty, the flimsy iron and wood farmstead shared with his extended family up in the valley, and down into the solid brick twelve by ten foot sized room of the single storey railway barracks along the Umbilo River.
At first, he was grateful for his small family’s private space. The sweltering summer months under the corrugated zinc roof had brought a longing to be out in the lush green hills but he soon had to come to terms with the confines of the space. He watched as the steam flooded up and out through the only ventilation in their quarters, the shuttered openings under the roof. It was only going to get more difficult the bigger Jasodia and her younger brother Kuar got.
“How was the storm for them this morning, Jodha?”
“Don’t get Kuar started on that,” said Jasodia making her way to her mother’s side to watch the meal preparation.
“The crops were not seriously affected but I planned for us to visit on Sunday. See how they are doing.”
The large clay pot brimming with yellow rice, sat over the small cast iron wood-burning stove on the table. Two basic wooden chairs were the only seating in the room, but the children would usually eat first at the table, and while they prepared their bed and bathing the parents would sit down to eat.
Jodha removed his hat and was about to step into the room and slump down on their bed when stomping feet behind him caused him to turn around. He shook his head when he saw Kuar prodding clumps of mud from between his toes. Off balance the boy toppled forward into the room at his father’s feet with a clatter on the raised wooded floor, giggling to himself.
As he got himself up he asked, “Mother, did you hear the hailstorm today?”
Jodha made his way past his son and over to their bed and sat down watching his family. Kuar, excited, staring up at Latchmee while Jasodia reluctantly took out the wooden bowls.
“I did, Kuar. Though I could hear one of our neighbour’s children was not too happy about the racket.”
“Noise, little brother,” said Jasodia pouting her lips and pushing Kuar away from their mother.
“It was amazing,” said Kuar with glee, swatting his sister away. “Mrs Moonsamy shouted for us all to come inside. Once we were in everyone was screaming so loud and you still could not hear it over the sound on the iron roof. That was deafening.” He turned his attention to Jodha. “Remember taking us to watch the British troops arriving at the harbour, father? I bet that’s what one of those mechanical guns sound like.”
Jodha put his finger on his chin, thinking, a trait he had recently noticed his son mimicking. Then it came to him. “The Maxim machine gun, son,” he said pointing at Kuar.
“Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat,” the boy rattled off and circled the room. Jasodia couldn’t hide a smirk, barely managing to raise the bowls away from an attacking Kuar as she arranged them on the table.
“Let’s not talk about the British and their weapons, Kuar.” Latchmee had to raise her voice to be heard over the machine gun fire. “I think tonight your father and I will have our meal first while you calm yourself down, prepare your bedding and get ready for bathing shortly.”
“No,” came the loud moan from the boy stopped dead in his tracks.
“Well then,” Latchmee stood her ground. “Quickly. Beds ready while I save the rice, and then we make our way outside to the washing area after.”
THE WATERWORKS CARETAKER’S HOME: 5:30PM 31st May 1905
Henry stood leaning over the kitchen table, exhausted and battered. His hat was twisted up in the iron grip of his right hand.
Mathilda placed a gentle hand against the small of his back and said softly, “Take your coat off and get some fortification, Henry.”
He sighed and nodded reluctantly. Standing upright, he pulled off his coat, damp with sweat and rain, gave it a brisk shake and draped it over the back of the wooden chair.
“I know you will be back at it shortly, but you do need to catch your breath.”
He looked down at his soiled boots, embarrassed at having traipsed in the filth to Mathilda’s kitchen, but more appreciating the fact that his wife had not made mention of it.
“Lilian,” she called their daughter through the open door leading into the lounge, its warmth from the orange glow of the roaring fireplace beyond filtering back into the kitchen. The wood-burning stove’s heat had blasted out the doors the moment Henry had entered from outside minutes earlier.
As if in response to Mathilda’s shout the iron roof buckled and rattled under a gust of wind. Henry was confident it would hold no matter what.
“Dear me,” exclaimed Lilian entering the kitchen.
Henry could not help but notice the stark contrast of the two women compared with his disheveled and grimy self.
Lilian, at twenty-two, dressed in an ankle-length, poplin dress skirt and cotton blouse, similar to those worn by her mother, held her shoulders squarely like Henry; while Mathilda, his second wife and eleven years his junior, had the more square Marshall jawline.
“This morning’s bread will do, my love,” said Henry to his wife back at the stove. “I must get back.”
“Despite the mayhem outside, Lilian and I have prepared supper. Though I’ve sliced the green beans with the razor, I’ll cook those after you’ve finished up. So might I suggest we sit and eat now rather than our usual time?”
Henry grumbled his agreement and sat heavily down in his chair.
“How is she holding up, father?” He knew well that Lilian was referring to his waterworks and gave her a wry smile in response as she took the stack of three dinner plates from her mother.
“As good as can be expected, Lil,” he said and twisted around to tuck his folded cap into his coat pocket. “Fancourt is up at the rail bridge.”
Lilian paused placing the final plate in front of her father. “It’s not jammed up, is it?”
“Nothing to be alarmed about at this stage.” He grabbed her soft hand in his and enveloped it with the other in a gentle squeeze. “I’m sure they will make short shrift of it and have it cleared in no time.”
Mathilda brought out the enamel-cooking pan from the oven in time for Lilian to place the large cutting board and carving knife on the stovetop to the side. “You serve up your father a drink from the lounge,” she said to her daughter, “while I finish off the pumpkin and sugar.”
“I can manage carving, you know,” protested Henry.
“I’ll sort that out, thank you very much,” said Lilian as she passed him on her way to the lounge.
For Henry, it was as if the storm had continued inside the kitchen as the two women fussed about him. And before he knew it his whiskey was in his hand and the spread of roast chicken, roast carrots and peas all cooked in sizzling suet and served with potato and onions fried in butter along with rice and gravy, was laid out. He would make do without the green beans.
Henry had been eagerly attacking the variety of food on his plate when Mathilda asked Lilian if she had heard from or received another letter from the young Mr. Williamson. He slowed his pace and tried not to look too alert.
“Nothing since the last correspondence from Valentine two weeks ago, mother.” She said and glanced at her father with a smile. “I was quite hoping to accompany you into the city over the weekend for your supply trip, father.”
Lilian, at twenty-two, was the typical spinster of the day: outgoing and not shy to ask after the gentleman in her life.
“I wonder how he is settling into life in this colony after his relocation from southeast Australia?” Mathilda took a mouthful of chicken and pumpkin, the freshly sprinkled sugar not yet dissolved after the rushed preparation, crunching with each bite.
“I imagine the climate is similar,” Henry added in an attempt to seem convivial to the topic.
“Durham Lead and Melbourne tend to be a bit warmer and dryer than Natal,” Lilian informed them. “Or so he says. And as you can see outside, a tad more precipitation than his hometown.”
She had her mother’s humour.
“And with his mining background, ideas of the Witwatersrand no doubt,” Henry probed, piling some peas onto a piece of chicken breast. “And a more familiar climate.”
“He has mentioned the newly established town of Witbank. Coal rather than gold.”
Henry raised his eyebrows as he swallowed his mouthful. “I wonder what their water reservoirs plans are?”
A gust of wind tugged at the roofing above them, creating a stunned silence from the family.
Henry hurriedly mopped up the last of the gravy with a morsel of potato and downed the remains of his drink.
“Let’s see how Fancourt is getting on.”
THE OBSERVATORY GROUNDS: 06:00PM 31st May 1905
Mabel had indeed had to trek all the way to the observatory to scold Edmund and call him back to the house for dinner. But she knew it was really an excuse to come back out into the thick of things and observe the storm coming in hard and fast over the bay on her right to the south.
The wind was certainly at its peak, pushing against her as she braced her arms tightly around her wool-coat.
With the observatory behind her, in the farthest corner of the property, she overlooked the Government Laboratories and Assay Furnaces down the slope of the Berea hill. It was here that all the chemical analyses required by various government departments like the Administration of Justice, or the Department of Mines were carried out. On the odd occasion this had included the examination of potentially volatile explosives passing through Customs. Fairer weather than today would allow one to view the steep road running to the lower level of the Berea, leading to the lush and tranquil Botanic Gardens.
“I fear tennis may be postponed for the weekend, dear.”
Prone to surprising her, she had been anticipating Edmund’s inevitable approach. She turned and smiled as he put his arm through hers and they stood for a while witnessing the brute force around them.
Along with her sisters brought into the observatory during the financial woes of the department in 1887, not only had her and Edmund soon found common enthusiasm for the astronomical and meteorological aspects of their careers, but it was on the tennis court where they truly met each other’s match.
“Dinner?” She said.
He nodded and they made their way, side by side, down the path.
Having celebrated Mable’s grand fortieth year, and Edmund approaching his fifty-sixth, he had never let the age difference cause friction, particularly on the tennis court. Where some gentlemen at the Berea Tennis Club would make a point of thrashing their female partners or declining an invitation to compete altogether, Mabel admired the sportsmanship of her husband.
In fact, her star shone bright on the court, and Mable Grant held the distinguished title of South Africa’s first woman tennis champion since winning at the 1889 tournament. It was in 1894, lifting up the elegant, silver, goblet-like trophy for the fourth time, that her resilience, determination and strategic sense, both on the court and in the laboratory, had been the final stroke for Edmund to finally propose to Ms. Grant.
She would be champion for seven more years.
As they neared the warm glow of the house Mabel said, “Edmund, I understand you may be frustrated with the lack of astronomy yesterday or today, but–“
He let her arm go and gestured for her to walk in front as the path narrowed to the awning-covered front entrance.
“The blustery conditions pummelling the trees all the way down to the Botanic Gardens are a little more than frustrating, dear Mabel,” he said behind her. “Consider the fact that it is supposed to be clear winter skies.” He stopped in his tracks to wave a fist at the storm and continued, “The past week has brought cloud cover that is hampering my work.”
“Our work,” she said and stomped her feet on the steps.
“There seems to be this misconception by the colony at large that the raison d’être of our observatory is maintaining the time of the Colony. The time? Oh, since the official change from Pietermaritzburg Mean Time in 1883, the time kept all over the Colony is Durban Observatory Mean Time, two hours in advance of Greenwich time. But there are grander things beyond our skies demanding investigations. And yet, we investigate the climate of Natal, and the conditions which affect and regulate the changes of the climate, but at the same time it is desired that there should be utilised such opportunities which present themselves for contributing to the advancement of the science of astronomy, by making those special researches which cannot be undertaken at the larger observatories, owing to the pressure of routine work. As if we do not suffer from ‘routine work’ at this establishment.”
“You are frustrated.” She paused at the sight of the whites of his eyes glaring at her. “Stymied. Let us sit for dinner, fortify ourselves for the coming hours and you have a warm sherry by the fire.”
“And dream of our retiring to the south coast of England. Cornwall.”
“Eastbourne,” added Mabel. “Closer to London, Edmund.”
He had turned his back to her, looking around the windswept landscape. “Anywhere away from the ghastly Natal humidity.”
The door opened before Mabel could grab hold of the knob, the warm scents of cooking welcoming her in from the tumultuous storm.
“Is father coming in soon, mother?” asked Ralph standing wide-eyed in the entrance hall staring into the mayhem of the writhing trees above the house. “Ah, father is here,” he shouted back into the house.
“The door, Ralph!” Mabel demanded down the hall at the kitchen door. Mabel moved past her daughter and grabbed toddler Guy, wailing more at the commotion caused by his siblings than from the raging storm, from a grateful Nomusa.
“Ay, amafutha,” she said shaking her head. “iSdudla umfana.”
The observatory maid for the last five years, Nomusa would be hurrying to dish up the family dinner before retiring to her room at the back of the property.
Mabel headed through the archway leading into the lounge as Edmund, jacket and hat left out on the entrance hooks, was followed closely by a questioning Ralph to his spot on one of the single wingback chairs and the warm fire Mabel had been religiously maintaining in the hearth. She whispered calming words to Guy and slumped down in her own chair, feeling the momentary relief in her lower back, while Edmund was pressing tobacco into his pipe and nodding to his talkative son.
Apart from Maud being born in Britain ten years earlier after they had made a rushed journey abroad, the two boys had been born at the observatory; Ralph having recently celebrated his seventh birthday only days ago. Him being born under the eight-inch Grubb refractor may have been an auspicious moment for their father, but Mabel had made sure she was prepared for Guy’s spring arrival two years ago, ensuring no astronomical equipment were in close proximity.
“All is set in the dining room,” said Maud with a smile from the kitchen.
“Child,” Edmund harrumphed and blew out his freshly lit match hovering over his pipe.
Mabel gave a sigh and hefted herself, along with the weighty Guy, back on her feet and they all made their way into the adjoining room. Each took their respective places around the small dining table, Mabel with her back to the window and Edmund at the far wall with the sideboard cabinet. From her position she had a clear view of the item her tennis partner had insisted on placing front and centre on the unit, for her and the family to view every evening: her championship trophy.
Mabel had to admit that it was no ordinary gaudy prize. The trophy was of a traditional goblet shape, with a strengthened lip, and though not large, it had a substantial weight to it. The beaded knob on the shaft aided one’s grip of it, particularly in sweaty hands at ceremony, with a matching beaded foot rim. Decorated with leaf and fern engraving, the trophy delicately displayed the title of "Natal Lawn Tennis Championship Meeting, August 1889" on the one side, while the other side, the side Mabel ensured was always facing the room, was engraved with Ladies Challenge Cup, Winner, 1889 Miss M Grant, with the subsequent years’ winners stacked below as 1890 Miss D Hickman, 1891 Miss M Grant, 1892 Miss M Grant, 1893 Miss M Grant. There had been no remaining space for her final title win of 1894 to be etched.
Mabel smiled and looked around the room and noted Maud’s skills at preparing the modest table settings. Although it was nothing in comparison with the home she had grown up with, their home was practical. Both her and Edmund were practical people.
Maud took Guy from her mother and lowered him into his raised baby chair to her right, within reach for Mabel to serve him his child-portioned version of the family’s meal of fresh fish and vegetables with rice.
“What were the wind speeds, mother?” Ralph asked. “Rainfall?”
“Precipitation,” corrected his older sister still fussing over her younger brother.
“While I was waiting for your father to finish up for the day, I checked on the windspeed: over forty miles per hour,” replied Mabel. “A bit more rai–“ she stopped herself an glanced at Maud, and then continued, “precipitation levels were at four inches.”
“My word,” said Ralph. “Wasn’t the eclipse from the seventh of May just splendid, father?”
“Indeed, son. It was well reported in the newspapers.”
Wind shook the frames of the windows behind Mabel. She slid her chair back and stood to check the latches and then seated herself again.
“It does seem to have calmed, to a degree,” said Edmund.
Nomusa brought in plates, two at a time, giving Guy a tug on the cheek as she made her final round, placing the toddler’s plate in front of him and passing his small spoon to Mabel.
“Thank you, Nomusa.”
“Thank you, Nomusa,” the two children piped up.
“Madam,” she nodded to Mabel and turned to Edmund and headed to the kitchen, “Boss.”
Edmund smiled and lifted his cutlery when Maud asked, “How are preparations for yours and mother’s anniversary dinner on the fourth, father?”
Edmund looked momentarily flushed while Ralph was already chewing on a mouthful of food and looking expectantly at his father.
“Eleven years,” said Ralph and continued his chewing.
“Ah, yes,” Edmund said with a nod to a grinning Mabel and then turned to his daughter, “I did remember to make the reservations.”
“At the Royal, father?” Maud looked to her mother with a cheeky wink and cut up her roast beef. “Or the Masonic, as grandfather always refers to it.”
Edmund sighed. “Not this year, Maud.”
Mabel leaned in, served a spoonful of butternut to Guy, and whispered to Maud, “Your grandfather would get so uptight when we would all correct him when he call it the Commercial Hotel for so many years.” She sat upright and with a gruff voice said, “That blasted establishment has changed hands so many times it’s singularly keeping Durban’s sign industry afloat.”
They both sniggered as Edmund looked on, attempting a pull on his unlit pipe. He shook his head and placed the object to the side of his plate and picked up the small glass of amber-coloured port.
The family clinked their cutlery and plates and ate in silence for a few minutes. Mabel thought her husband was finally relaxing as he took a sip of his drink, his cheeks flushed and warm. He prodded a piece of beef with his fork and then placed it on the side of his plate.
“I am the Government Astronomer, Meteorologist, and Chemist,” he said breaking the relative silence in the room. “A fully trained and qualified chemist and have been quoted as–“
“One of the most incredible scientists ever to set foot upon the shores of our country,” Mabel finished the sentence off for him.
“Indeed,” said Edmund. “Arriving in Durban on the Melrose on the 28th November 1882, a mere six days prior to the transit of Venus.” He pointed to Ralph who was nodding enthusiastically. “The reason for my being awarded the post in the first place. I have told you the state of the observatory, have I not, Maud?”
His daughter passed mid-fork in mouth.
“Tiresome numbers of occasions,” Mabel helped her out.
“You have, dear,” Mabel sighed. ”Practically derelict, were your words, as I recall.”
“Practically derelict! A thick coat of paint making the dome machinery immovable. Telescope succumbing to Durban’s salty marine air, and never mind the polarising solar eyepiece being absolutely incompatible with said telescope. Despite all of these hindrances which would have stymied a lesser professional, observations of the transit – in finer weather than this, I might add – were recorded not five days later.”
Ralph dropped his cutlery, startling the entire table, and burst into applause.
He lifted his fork and jabbed it in his son’s direction. “Good lad,” he said and shoved the meat in his mouth.
“Mark my words, Mabel,” he said and swallowed, “that great book of mine, ‘The Moon and the Condition and Configuration of its Surface’, will still be referenced when they decide to land a man on the moon.”
Mabel held up a finger and turned to look out the dining room window. The wind had died down to a great extent, and for a change the sounds inside the house were no longer competing with the storm.
“Instead,” continued Edmund, “here I am working on a proposal for drunkenness amongst our local inhabitants. As if half the Excise Commission isn’t soused come four in the afternoon. The only thing that sets their drunkenness apart is immediate access to their own private toilet to vomit into.”
“Edmund, please,” Mabel said holding a hand to her mouth. “You’ll have us all vomiting soon enough.”
“Why not add wood naphtha while we are at it? Would you like ten parts per million? No? Thirty?”
“I don’t think your father will be having his tot of sherry after the plum pudding, eh Maud?”
“Dash this port,” he said and slammed the small glass on the table, a dark droplet spilling onto the white tablecloth. “At sixpence per bottle, I’d sooner take it up! Let us make an order with the chemist, Mabel. Maud? Who are you again?”
“You are a chemist, father,” said Ralph.
A moment of silence was immediately followed by the entire table bursting into laughter.
PART 3: Night – Storm Hits
INDIAN RAILWAY BARRACKS (SC Junction): 01:10AM 1st June 1905
Jodha had been awakened half an hour earlier with the roaring of the winds howling down the valley and battering the barracks in its path. Latchmee stirred beside him.
“Sleep, Latchmee,” he whispered. “It is just the storm.”
“The children,” she replied.
He sat up and edged his legs out of the warm sheets, feet touching the frigid floorboards. He could see the two mounds in the other bed, clearly moving beneath the covers. Kuar would be wide-awake.
“What is it?” Latchmee’s warm hand touched his shoulder.
A blast of thunder vibrated through the timber beam and roof above him, his wife’s hand braced against him. Kuar’s sheet flew back, but it was Jasodia who spoke in a low whisper he could not make out.
He shook his head and said to his wife, “It’s the railway bridge over the river. It was flowing substantially when we arrived home.”
“Do you think it will dam up with debris?”
“I wouldn’t think it will get as bad as that, eṉ kātal.”
Latchmee sighed. “It’s convenient being able to get water from the river, but I worry about how close we are to it. My grandfather did not survive the one monsoon season back in Chingleput.”
“Go back to sleep,” Jodha attempted reassurance, but, even in the dim room he could see both the children’s eyes staring at him. He held a finger to his lips and tilted his head towards the door.
Kuar was first up and out from under the bedding and already opening the top half of the door before Jodha managed to stretch his weary back.
Kuar hefted himself up to hang halfway out as his sister, scraping her feet lazily, ambled up next to him. Jodha put his arm over Jasodia’s shoulder and peered outside.
The single verandah ran the length of the building, sheltering the other dozen rooms from the ferocious wind and rain. The barracks compound would be locked up at the entrance gate until morning shifts were due.
“I need the toilet father.”
“No you don’t, kumāraṉ.”
“You just want to go out in this muck and mayhem, thambi,” said Jasodia.
From where he stood, Jodha could barely make out the communal washing and toilet facilities in the separate square block adjacent to the end of the dark verandah. The roof of the narrow connecting passage would likely result in getting soaked by the diagonal rain.
A flash of lightening followed shortly by a blast of thunder had Kuar flinch and duck behind the door with a squeal.
Jodha nudged his daughter.
She sighed and encouraged her brother back up onto the door, this time in between her and her father. They edged closer to him as he asked, “How come you aren’t afraid of the thunder, Jasi?”
Jodha felt a warmth come over him as his daughter smiled a knowing grin up at him.
“As a baby I would wail during a storm like this. Eventually our father got me used to the flashing light and horrific noise.”
Kuar’s mouth was open. “You were also scared?”
“Everyone is scared, brother.”
“How did you do it, father?”
“Your sister is telling her story, Kuar.”
Kuar whipped his head back to his sister and she continued.
“Father would bring me to the door or window and pretend it was Inthiran throwing bolts of lightening.”
“The god of thunder?” Asked Kuar.
“Yes. And we would cheer him on.”
Jodha recalled the farm shack barely surviving the storms, water leaking everywhere and Latchmee beside herself trying to console their infant daughter while his mother and sister checked on them and peppered his wife with useless advice.
“Didn’t you do the same with me when I was a baby, father?”
“No, my son, you seemed to be brave enough. And besides, I didn’t think you would need reassuring.”
“But is Inthiran real?”
Father and daughter shared a glance and both shrugged at the wide-eyed boy.
“You tell me,” Jodha said with a wry smile and gestured outside.
“Let us wait for his next lightening bolt together, Kuar,” whispered Jasodia. “We can pretend it’s an invading army.”
“Maybe Inthiran will obliterate them!”
PINETOWN BRIDGE RAILWAY BRIDGE: 01:35AM 1st June 1905
Billowing smoke from the struggling motorised vehicle choked Fancourt. He, along with the other five men, was struggling for breath as it was without the added hazard of the truck’s fumes. After another attempt with the workhorses had proved useless, their hopes had been buoyed on the arrival of this iron horse. But it too was proving as equal to the task as the traditional breed.
Muscles fatigued, mentally exhausted and soaked through, Fancourt held little hope in resolving any blockages. Around one of the bends up river, the rail bridge was not visible from this vantage point. Rather than attempting to dislodge the compounded mass on the other side of the bridge, they had instead chosen to focus their work on the newer impediments, in the hopes of reducing the overall pressure.
The confounded tree stump was not budging. It had managed to wedge itself beneath the exposed roots of the trees on the nearby bank, the surrounding soil and reeds long washed away.
The four horses kicked and pulled at their restraints, tied to the thick trunk of a battered Natal mahogany a few yards away from the tumultuous river and the work of the men. The storm, the truck and the shouting were not doing the animals’ spirits any good.
He had never met any of the men assisting with the emergency, nor learned their names, but he knew they would not soon forget this long night.
“iYahamba,” shouted the Zulu man waist deep in the muddy river. He, along with two of the others at the ropes was railway staff sent down in the afternoon to assist. The other had arrived with the truck operator shortly before midnight. Two of the four oil lanterns remained on the ground nearby providing little visibility for their task.
“It’s moving?” Fancourt shouted back.
“Yebo, mnumzane.” The man had already bent down over his pickaxe shaft plunged into the muddy riverbed waiting for the next yank from the vehicle.
“Again,” Fancourt shouted back at the operator and rejoined the three other men on the ropes.
The engine roared and immediately seemed to protest as it strained once again. For the first time a wave of hope flooded over Fancourt, and the energy of the men shifted, as they felt the bulky mass in the river shift.
They pulled with everything they had.
A cracking sound filled the air but Fancourt knew it wasn’t their trunk. It was off in the distance.
“mNumzane,” came the startled cry down in the water.
Fancourt froze at the sight of the river level drastically dropping below the other man’s knees.
Without hesitation, Fancourt bolted for his horse, untied it and mounted it as it frantically began to run. He swung into the saddle and braced for the gallop.
A moment later he rounded the bend and instinct had him almost pull on the reigns to stop the horse but he chose to dig his heels into its sides.
One span of the railway bridge had disappeared into the river and the blockage obliterated. Rubble continued to topple down into the roaring river below and the metal rails twisted and contorted in midair.
He had to get back and warn Currie if his horse could outrun the rushing wave headed towards the waterworks.
THE OBSERVATORY RESIDENCE: 01:40AM 1st June 1905
“I don’t understand your desire to brave the elements, Mabel,” said Edmund shoving his arms into his coat, “when the town’s harbour engineer, Mr Crofts, will have his own set of readings. I’m sure he will not sleep a wink being buffeted out there on the Bluff.”
From the light of the lamp in her hand she could make out the bemused look on his face, which at that very moment Mabel wanted to shake from him. “Rain or shine, meteorological duties are ours to perform, Edmund. Not in part. We can have our own readings to compare with your Mr Crofts, dear.” She instead directed her irritation at the doorknob, whipping open their bedroom door and immediately giving a startled gasp.
“Guy needs tending to,” groaned Ralph rubbing his eyes.
“Thank you, my boy,” Mabel knelt down and gave her son a hug. “You get back in your warm bed and we will take care of your brother.”
Maud appeared in the hallway with Guy on her hip.
“We can’t sleep,” said Ralph with a small stamp of his bare foot.
“We are wide awake, mother,” said Maud now at her parent’s door.
Mabel held a hand to each of their cheeks, Guy’s reddened and streaked with tears and said, “There there. Thank you, big sister.” All the fuss had distracted the boy from the raging storm outside.
Mabel pulled her coat tightly around her nightclothes, turned and handed her surprised husband the lamp. “Edmund. Attend to Guy,” she said and pushed past the gathered children heading for the entrance hall.
Above the sounds of protests from her family trailing behind her, the clatter of the kitchen door slamming stopped everyone in their tracks.
A saturated and shaking Nomusa came into the passage holding her blanket and paraffin lantern, barely managing to stay lit, momentarily shocked at the sight of the entire Nevill clan staring at her. She wiped the streaming water from her face and said, “iSiphepho esikhulu. Boss, uphahla lwami luvuza kakhulu.”
“I think we’ll make you up a bed in the lounge, Nomusa,” replied Edmund. “No good will come of going out into this storm for repairs, or anything else for that matter,” he added in Mabel’s direction.
She wheeled around and headed for the front door.
“Ralph,” Mabel shouted to her son. “Get your gumboots out of the storage wardrobe and come with me.“
“Really?” He gasped and thundered back down the passage to the rear of the house.
“Knows how to take a reading,” Mabel interrupted Edmund. She grabbed her ankle-length navy cravenette, shoved on the gloves from the side pockets and pulled on the long, rubber-lined coat. She tossed a small blue coat at her husband just as Ralph came hopping back with one gumboot on and the other under his arm.
“Madam,” said Nomusa passing Mabel her lantern, which she took with a smile.
Edmund crouched down to help his son into the blue Mackintosh raincoat and handed Maud his lamp. “Mitts?” Edmund said and pivoted his son around to face him.
Ralph held up his blue gloves, eyes barely visible beneath the drooping hood of his raincoat.
Edmund couldn’t help but smile at his son about to bound headlong into a storm following his mother. “Remember the needle on–“
“The anemometer.” Ralph nodded. “Give the gauge a tap first.”
“Good lad,” he said and took the lamp from his daughter.
Mabel pocketed her small notepad and pencil, lantern in the other hand and said, “Let’s be off.”
Edmund moved past his wife and son and opened the front door, bracing against the chill and pressure of the wind entering the hallway.
Mabel grabbed Ralph by the hand, head down and out into the raw elements. “I’ll check on the barometer in the lounge,” shouted Edmund after them and slammed the door closed.
After some fumbles along the leaf and branch strewn pathway they stopped on the level of the weather equipment, both catching their breath. Mabel looked down at Ralph in awe of the spectacle. He held tightly onto his mother’s hand.
“Ready?” She shouted above the racket.
Without a response he moved closer to the wooden box and the cupped device mounted on top whirling in a blur. He opened the small wooden door and Mabel knelt next to him, placing the lantern on the floor.
She grabbed the notepad and pencil as she watched her son tapping the gauge.
“Crumbs,” he said almost inaudibly.
“What is it, Ralph?”
He gave the gauge another tap, the dial remaining where it was.
He looked back at his mother, wide-eyed. “Apparently sixty-one miles per hour.”
“Crumbs, Ralph,” she peered in for a closer look. “You sure of that?”
“That’s as fast as the sixty horse-power Mercedes Simplex road automobile which can reach a speed of sixty-eight.”
Mabel rested her pad on her knee and scribbled the figures. “Time is roughly one and forty-five A.M., with a wind speed of,” she paused and looked up at her assistant.
“Sixty-one and a half miles per hour,” he replied in his important voice. Ralph took a final look at the measurements and closed the door, securing the latch. He stared in wonder at the anemometer, reaching his hand out towards the spinning arms.
No,” Mabel warned him as she stood and picked up the lantern. “Rain gauges next.”
They walked a few yards to the right and stopped at the two rain receptacles, all containing similar levels of liquid, and the more sophisticated tipping bucket unit.
Mabel handed Ralph the lantern and he held it close to the markings running down the side of the first container. He placed a gloved finger on the notch at water level, nodded and said, ”Fifteen.” At the second he said, “Fifteen and a half, mother.”
“Fifteen inches,” she echoed and scribbled the note.
“That’s like two buckets full,” he said and grabbed her hand.
“Astonishing, Ralph.” Mabel shook her head, bewildered, and tucked her pad and pencil away. “We’ll leave the tipping gauge for now otherwise its pen and graph paper may get sodden if we open it up to the elements.”
Ralph passed her the lantern and, with a wide grin, said, “Running the gauntlet”.
“One, two, three,” shouted Mabel and they headed back down the pathway towards the warm light of the main house.
This time Ralph lead the way, pulling at his mother as she held the lantern as high as she could. The wind rocked them, threatening to bowl them over down the bank to the left but soon they hit the entrance landing and burst inside the house, along with a gust of wind and rain.
The sudden commotion set Guy off in a wail from the lounge.
Edmund emerged looking on at his wife and son ripping their wet coats off. “And?” He asked with clear eagerness for their data. “The barometer shows no exceptional feature, Mabel.”
“Fifteen inches,” Ralph rattled off, heading for the warmth of the lounge fire, “and sixty-one miles per hour!”
Mabel brushed down her clothing and swept passed her husband, shoeless, into the other room.
“In all its characteristics,” said Edmund to the backs of his wife and son facing the raging fire, while Nomusa and Maud calmed the toddler on the floor among the blankets, “the storm presents the features of those which prevail in the Atlantic and in the Western Pacific Ocean, without any of the features of the cyclonic storms which prevail in the Indian Ocean. There being neither the changes in direction of the wind and no other features which characterise these true cyclones.”
“Meaning what, Edmund?” Mabel asked, her cheeks flushing and the feeling returning to her tingling fingertips.
“It’s a normal slow fall,” he was pacing now, “such as usually precedes a thunderstorm. This would mean it is a true transitory hurricane arising from some very great atmospheric disturbance occasioned by the contact of immense volumes of hot and cold air approximately near the Natal coastline.”
“This extraordinary torrential rain,” added Mabel, “will have a most severe impact on the storm’s affects for miles around.”
THE WATERWORKS: 01:45AM 1st June 1905
Clenching the walkway bridge railing, the muscles in Henry’s iron grip ached. His shoulders were rigid with tension, anticipating each thrash of wind.
Taking a moment to wipe the rain from his eyes, his hat long since lost to the night, he ran the calculations through his mind.
The bye-wash was at full capacity, meaning at least a hundred and twenty thousand gallons of storm water was gushing through per second. He felt as any crew-member or ship’s captain would feel running the gauntlet of the Cape of Storms up on deck. The steamship the S.S. Kakapo, having only recently run aground, came to mind but he immediately shrugged it off. Though the sound of the raging waters below him was deafening, what churned around him and above him was like nothing he had ever experienced. The sky was like a living creature, alive with flashes of lightening, unseen behind the undulating grey-black mass of clouds and rain.
He knew Mathilda and Lilian had found little rest over the course of the night after checking in with them, and longing for a break himself, shortly before midnight.
Both women were in Lilian’s room, flustered and his daughter asking after her exhausted father. She had demanded she come and assist, but he had refused. “Stay with your mother, Lil. There is nothing more we can do.”
He had thought, hoped, the storm was done. But it had redoubled, if not trebled its fury half an hour later. He wasn’t accurate with wind speeds but with rainfall he surmised it had at least passed the twelve or even fourteen-inch mark over the last hours and it was not letting up.
That was when he felt the rumble before he heard it.
He whipped around and immediately felt dizzy, assuming the roaring weather and his lack of sleep were warping the gloomy landscape surrounding the lake. Two dull flashes of light from above gave him a moment of clarity. A swell of roiling water was gushing towards him, towards the dam wall.
Though the dammed lake was relatively small, under a mile long, its approaching gradient was steep. The stormy surge would not be attenuated. If anything, it was gathering speed.
Mucky foam, branches and debris pummelled the embankment with a crash. Within seconds the surge swept nearly a foot and a half over the dam wall. The bye-wash was ineffective, unable to cope with the influx.
All Henry could do was brace himself on the walkway and watch.
Stretching at least a hundred feet across and seven feet deep, the edge of the embankment dropped away. The earth shuddered like a thunderous earthquake. The walkway bridge creaked under the rushing waters. He looked on in terror, helpless, as the reservoir and waterworks structures below were engulfed and obliterated in the torrent rushing over them.
Within minutes he estimated thirteen million gallons had escaped from the breach and four hundred and thirty-eight million gallons per hour was coming through the bye-wash.
He looked to his right towards the homestead to see the shadowy figures of Mathilda and Lilian, at the bottom of the path a dozen yards away, shivering and clutching one another in the frightful gale. They were frozen in place but still he automatically raised a shaky hand for them to stay back.
The sight of a missing sheet of iron roofing from their home sent a chill through Henry. Over the din of the storm he hadn’t heard what would have been like a thunder strike as the metal had been ripped off the kitchen where they had only hours earlier had a hurried dinner. One of the mango trees along the path had uprooted, soil erupting in a wide swathe, branches and leaves strewn everywhere.
There came the whinny of a horse and Fancourt dismounted his grunting pony between the family, nearly losing his footing on the muddy grass and stopped alongside Henry, flabbergasted at the sight before them.
“For the love of God. The families in the valley.”
CHAPTER 11: A Tidal Wave
INDIAN RAILWAY BARRACKS (SC Junction): 02:10AM 1st June 1905
The tremor was unlike anything Jodha had ever felt. As close to a train at full speed as he had ever experienced, but emanating from beneath solid, immovable ground.
The water was already knee-deep and the screams from his family were barely audible amidst the mayhem all around them. The roof sheet metal rattled and pulled at the brackets holding it down while the front door had blasted open, giving them a momentary view during lightening flashes of the turmoil of the roiling river water flooding around the area.
“On the bed,” he screamed to Latchmee clutching a pale Jasodia. His wife and daughter dragged the remaining sodden bedding off the bed and climbed on. Jodha gripped Kuar under his arms and lifted him up onto the other end of the solid wooden frame. His wife and daughter struggled to get their footing but finally used the wall as leverage to stay upright.
The lone-lit candle on the table tumbled over with a surge of grey river water entering the room, plunging them all into darkness. It was Latchmee who shouted with fright while the children sobbed in the darkness.
As his vision became accustomed to the darkness Jodha could make out the forms of his wife and daughter standing on the headboard of the bed in the corner of the room, and the swirling waters below them all.
“Father,” spluttered a terrified Kuar gripping his father’s waist.
“Hold on to me, Kuar. Don’t let go.” He backed them up against the wall. The waters were rising, still flowing through the door, a useless exit. They were trapped.
He glanced down at his son. A chill filled him, not from the bracing water around them, but from the sight of Kuar craning his neck to stay above the rising water level. He pulled him up, his son’s legs and arms immediately gripped around him.
At this height Jodha could almost reach the single thick beam running through the centre of the room for support.
”Jodha,” screamed Latchmee. The raging water was already around their necks.
A surge of floodwaters burst into the room, knocking the buoyant wooden table into him and Kuar. He held his son while trying to push the obstacle away. That was when they went under.
His feet gave way from the shifting bed but he managed to find the footboard. He could feel one of Kuar’s flailing arms helping to get them to the surface for air. As he hefted them up out of the water a terror filled him. Another wave hit them and the muffled scream from Kuar was drowned out below the surface as he was wrenched from Jodha’s grip.
He pushed himself up, shouting his son’s name only to be greeted by the terrified screams from his wife and daughter. It took a moment for Latchmee, Jasodia and Jodha to look at one another for the final time as the bed gave way beneath them all and the rushing current pulled them under.
Jodha grabbed at anything he could, hoping to feel his wife or daughter or something to get a purchase on. Pain sheered through his shoulder as he was pushed down onto the floor. He used the moment to kick upward and blasted out of the water hitting his head on the solid roof beam. Wasting no time he gripped the thick pole with one arm and held on with all he could while he screamed and writhed in the hopes of finding his family.
Jodha Singh survived by clinging to the beam in the ceiling until rescued by the station-master with a rope that morning.
There was neither loss of life at the waterworks nor at Pinetown Bridge.
The additional blockage at the railway embankment at South Coast Junction, due to the surge from Pinetown, caused a dam of seven hundred and fifty feet. The only exit was the railway bridge, two hundred feet wide (the Natal Government Railways Indian barracks were situated the north end of the bridge). This breach cut a channel towards the right, with loss of life on either side of the railway bridge.
Though with much speculation and varying reports, the official death toll for the entire Durban area – based on verified loss of loved ones by surviving relatives – stands at 137. Consider that if entire families were lost (some bodies were found at sea) there would be no one to verify them being missing or dead. One news report, taking the extended region and the storm’s vast effects in to account, had it at 550 lives lost – 500 Indians and 50 “Europeans”.
In Durban, the 137 victims comprised the following:
– 119 bodies of the 137 confirmed dead, of which 101 were Indians, were recovered from South Coast Junction, Umbilo River area of Durban, in contrast to the 12 bodies found around the Umgeni River.
- Of the 119 bodies, 60 bodies were found at South Coast Junction comprising 58 Indians, 2 (male) “Natives”, and nil "Europeans”;
- The remaining 59 bodies comprised 43 Indians, 16 “Natives”, and nil "Europeans”. 51 of the 59 were found on the banks of the Umbilo River (i.e. near SCJ).
I have not included the hundreds of survivors like Jodha Singh who, within minutes, had their families, homes and livelihoods wiped out. Nor the horrific reports of the state of the bodies, young and old, found along the rivers, mangroves and out at sea. As a husband and father, reading even the brief, secondhand report of Jodha Singh’s account of his family’s ordeal was difficult, and recreating it for this narrative was vital.
The Indian market farmers on the outskirts of the Durban municipality provided the bulk of the fresh produce to the city – from the Umgeni River to the north and the Umbilo River to the south. The Umbilo River was conveniently marked as the city limit – all those within the Umbilo Valley or west/south of the river were not within the jurisdiction of the municipality and therefore no consideration was given to monitoring, providing sanitation nor safety regulations for those producing along the riverbanks. Though much was procured/earned in terms of the rental and taxes from the land and their produce respectively.
Adding insult to the devastation was the handling by the local municipality and city council. Based on their report and findings, the Durban council and Mayor Ellis Brown refused to acknowledge the cause of much of the loss of life was due to the dam breaking. Regardless of responsibility, they additionally did not provide aid to those affected and all the Indian residents who survived were sheltered or helped by their respective communities. Contradicting the Durban municipality’s stance, and in stark contrast to their report and actions (after the fact), the South African government’s investigation and report found the Pinetown/Umbilo Waterworks bursting WAS THE CAUSE OF THE MAJORITY OF THE DEVASTATION AND LOSS OF LIFE.
The Durban city mayor balked at this statement by the Prime Minister's Secretary and was more concerned with that affront as well as with the South African government not offering aid to his town and people than in taking responsibility nor, in fact, providing any aid himself. Added to this, the mayor of Cape Town offered to open a relief fund, but the mayor of Durban replied saying he thinks “it unnecessary”.
I encourage those interested to find out more, to share this information widely and to keep the spirit alive of Durban’s vast rainbow of people and cultures who have contributed and built this city to what it is today. Many were affected by this tragedy, from central KwaZulu-Natal (snow affecting rail links inland etc) to the Indian Ocean. From the North Coast to the South Coast.
When I set out to find out more, I, like many, had only heard vague mentions about the "Pinetown dam collapse” in early 1900. I hope this dramatic retelling has brought to life the true facts, those involved and the reality of a tragedy that befell those who came before us.
In the Verulam District [North Coast area] an embankment some 50 metres high was washed away and the rails left in mid-air and the 2.10 up-train from Durban got no further than Northdene because of a landslide nearby.
Further researches into this event revealed that trees had been uprooted, electricity standards had crashed down, shops were flooded and the “Kenilworth Castle” had collided with a “D.O.A. Liner” [Dutch East Africa] causing damage to both vessels’ low bulwarks. The Marine Hotel [demolished some years ago] suffered numerous broken windows, hail stones at least 8 centimetres in diameter were found, and in the Market Hall, some of the workers had to change their clothes when the lantern roof gave way and torrents of water entered the building. A fowl was struck by a fragment of ice and .... the concussion itself was followed by an agonised ‘squawk’ but “marvellous to relate, the rooster picked itself up, ruffled its feathers and regained its family, none the worse for its somewhat Arctic adventure”. Three of the large hydraulic cranes at the Point in Durban were derailed and generally, havoc reigned over the City.
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INTERNATIONAL NEWS COVERAGE:
NATAL : THE GREAT STORM AND THE FLOODS OF 1905
Laljeeth Ramdhani (1984)
Durban Water Supplies
T.E. Francis (Natalia v21 article p40-53)
The Great Flood of 1856
Pamela Barnes (Natalia 14, 1984 – Natal Society Foundation 2010)
The Umbilo Waterworks: First water supply scheme in Durban Dave Horne (DIE SIVIELE INGENIEUR in Suid-Afrika - Oktober 1991)
‘Almost a Public Calamity’: Prostitutes, ‘Nurseboys’, and Attempts to Control Venereal Diseases in Colonial Natal, 1886–1890
Jeremy C. Martens (Queen's University , Kingston Published online: 14 Jan 2009)
THE INDIAN QUESTION IN SOUTH AFRICA. 1900 1914
H.M. Adamson 1932
Inside Indian Indenture 1860-1940
Ashwin Desai & Goolam Vahed (2010)
COMMUNAL SPACE CONSTRUCTION: THE RISE AND FALL OF CLAIRWOOD AND DISTRICT
Dianne Scott (1994)
THE DEVELOPMENT OF RACIALLY DEFINED PUNISHMENT IN COLONIAL NATAL: THE EARLY HISTORY OF DURBAN’S POINT PRISON
Paul Swanepoel* and Stephen Peté (Fundamina, Number 2, 2019)
John Fletcher and The Development of Water Supply and Sanitation in Durban, 1889–1918
Harri Mäki (January 2009)
Durban 1824-1910: The Formation of a Settler Elite and its Role in the Development of a Colonial City
Anna Christina Bjorvig 1994
Durban Mayors Minute 1905
DURBAN: FIFTY YEARS' MUNICIPAL HISTORY. (1904)
Natal - Official Illustrated Railway Guide and General Handbook
C W. F. Harrison (1903)
THE DESTRUCTION AND REMAKING OF ‘COMMUNITY’: A CASE STUDY OF THE MAGAZINE BARRACKS RESIDENTS’ RELOCATION TO CHATSWORTH
By Karthigasen Gopalan (2016)
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE CITY: ALCOHOL, THE EMATSHENI AND POPULAR CULTURE IN DURBAN, 1902 - 1936
Paul la Hausse
The Rise and Fall of the Indian Peasantry in Natal
B. Freund (1990)
INDIAN RAILWAY LABOUR IN NATAL, 1876-1895: THE BIGGEST INDIAN WORK FORCE IN THE COLONY.
D.H. Heydenrych, University of Pretoria
The inspector of nuisances: a narrative of culture and sanitation in nineteenth-century Durban
Brian Kearney (2012)
Maids and madams: a study in the politics of exploitation
Jacklyn Cock (1980)
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: A Study of the Working Life, Social Ties and InterPersonal Relationships of African Women Migrants in Domestic Service in Durban. (Vol 2)
E. M. Preston-Whyte (1969)
John Fletcher and The Development of Water Supply and Sanitation in Durban, 1889–1918
Harri Mäki (2009)
Municipal Engineers before 1910
Harri Mäki (2013)
Water, Sanitation and Health: The Development of the Environmental Services in Four South African Cities, 1840–1920
Harri Mäki (2008)
Additional resources for Family Trees, Lineages etc.
Ancestry.com and Geni.com
Support Stephen's writing projects.