Me not Romeo!

Me not Romeo!

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Johannesburg has a very vibrant and fairly new past, with many colourful characters. Two of these were Colonel John and Josephine Dale Lace. Josie, as she was known, was my grandfather’s favourite customer but, complained my grandmother, she never paid!

John was one of the Randlords, a speculator in mining shares and had taken part in the Jamieson Raid. Josie had started out as an actress and, it is believed, was the mistress of King Edward VII, and of the Second Baron Grimthorpe, and had been proposed to by Cecil Rhodes. They commissioned Herbert Baker [whose bust in the garden looks longingly towards the front door] to build a house for them in Parktown, and the 40 room mansion Northlands was the result – high on the Parktown ridge, looking north forever. Here Josie arranged and hosted extravagant parties, entertaining on a lavish and spectacular style. All was well until about 1908, when John’s fortunes began to change. After a fire in the house in 1911 they left, and had to adapt to a far more modest way of life.

One night, Josie was practising her role as Juliet on her balcony. In response to her impassioned, “Romeo, Romeo,” a voice from the dark garden responded, “Me not Romeo Missus. Me night-cart boy!” His job was to change the sewerage buckets for the Council.

Most toilets, in those early days, were placed outside of the house –some at a distance away.
One night a lady was quietly occupied, when a sudden draft made her aware that the rear flap had been opened. In response to her exclamation of horror, a calm voice said, “Not worry. I wait.” History does not record whether or not she worried, as he waited!

Those days were very different for most people. There was no electricity so water was heated on coal stoves, and lamps had to be cleaned and filled daily. Gardens were watered with buckets from the large rain water tanks. Bath water was directed into the garden, but kitchen water went into a slops tank that was emptied by the Council workers two or three times a week.

With no ‘fridges people depended on the ice-carts which came round. Large blocks were bought and placed on top of wooden chests, where they dripped down into a basin at the bottom. Because of the problems with dust, water carts were drawn along the roads to dampen them. Children loved to follow the carts and kick over the wet earth for the simple enjoyment of the clean smell – and, of course, the water and the wet sand!

Many businesses would send out agents to collect orders, and the butcher, grocer and bottle store reps were a common sight. In fact, even in the late 1940s, the man from Thrupps would arrive at our home on his motorcycle, and take our order over a cup of coffee in the kitchen. A few years later this changed to their telephoning us, punctually, at a set time on a set day, for the same purpose. The baker’s van called regularly, and selected loaves were spiked with a nail at the end of a broomstick and lofted out. The ‘Sammy’ with his truck festooned and laden with fruit and vegetables also called, to bargain and supply what the garden did not produce. Milk delivered in bottles, with flat cardboard seals, was rich and creamy. We depended on them all.

History includes everyone – not just the famous. We all contribute, one way or another. Help make it good!

To join a tour of Northwards, and other places of significance, on 12 or 13 September, contact The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust.

For further information follow the links alongside.

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