Saturday, 22 May 2010

Three Men and a Pipe ... to say nothing of the dog!

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
And Montmorency, standing on his hind legs ... gave a short bark of decided concurrence ...
Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
Mr. Gilchrist finds it uproariously funny - possibly he made the joke himself. Pilkington, cigarette in hand and standing somewhat aloof from it all, is amused enough to crack a smile. Poor Old Joe has to contain his mirth for fear of losing the pipe clamped firmly between his teeth. We could make any number of guesses as to what they're laughing about but, more importantly, who the heck are they?

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This photograph, simultaneously delightful and perplexing, has proved a conundrum for my father and I for many years. There is no doubt that it emanates from the family photo collection - that is to say my family from Derbyshire, England - but nobody recognises the subjects or the location, or has any idea of its early provenance or history. It's always nice to have annotations on a photograph, but in this case they raise more questions rather than providing answers. Neither Gilchrist nor Pilkington are names that I've ever come across in my family history research, and my father, when he was alive, said they meant nothing to him either. Joseph, the presumed proper name of "Poor Old Joe," is one that our family does not appear to have been very keen on. Among my ancestors I have plenty of Johns and Jans, a few James's, even a Jabez alive in the last century or so, but only one Joseph way back in the relative obscurity of the 1600s.

So ... what to do with a photograph such as this one? The easiest course of action would be to assume that they were just family friends, that it has no great significance, put it at the bottom of the orphan pile and forget about it. The trouble is, I've already done that, several times, and it has resurfaced once again, so I've decided to post it here and see if crowdsourcing will prove a better means of solving the mystery.

The black and white print (155 x 107 mm or 6" x 4") is triple-mounted (if that's the correct term to use) on a large piece of greenish-grey card measuring 254 x 200 mm (10" x 8"), and is rather hastily annotated in black ink on the front. There is nothing on the reverse

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

My father and I both convinced ourselves that the photograph was taken somewhere in southern Africa. It is not just the colonial whites and Panama hat worn by Poor Old Joe that have brought us to this conclusion. Having grown up in southern Africa, the verandah or stoep, partially closed in by wooden framework festooned with ivy and other creepers, and the particular style of stonework, possibly dressed sandstone, is very familiar. This 17 September 1962 shot of me on the verandah of our house, originally built in 1906 for the manager of Cecil John Rhodes' Inyanga estate Fruitfields, shows very similar stonework, albeit granite rather than sandstone, and I'll grant that it may have been a common building style of that era all over the world. There is not much to make out within the shadowy confines of the verandah, except perhaps the panels of an internal door (or panes of a window, or even a pair of notice boards) on the left.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Pilkington's square-cut jacket and straight-leg uniform trousers, starched white collar, peaked cap, single chevron on his cuffs, cap and collar badges, and even a chain with fob watch (or whistle) tucked hurriedly into a waistcoat pocket, are very much suggestive of those worn by railway porters or ticket collectors. This has reinforced our feeling that the building may be a railway station. The rather rough and uneven nature of the boulders forming the higgledy-piggledy border of what might generously be termed a "flower bed" in front if the building suggest that it is probably not situated within a major town.

Image © and courtesy of Hallam Payne
Elands Falls between Waterval Boven & Waterval Onder
Mpumalanga, South Africa, 13 June 2008
Image © and courtesy of Hallam Payne

Where could it be? Prior to my father emigrating to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1952, and apart from brief forays to the United States and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the family had been pretty firmly fixed in the English Midlands. The only time that my father could recall Africa being mentioned in connection with any family, was that a family member had been in a place called Waterval Boven or Watervaal Onder. Perhaps it was the strange sounding name that caused it to stick in my father's memory - sadly the name of the person and other details such as when it happened did not. These two small towns are in the eastern Mpumalanga (formerly Transvaal) Province of South Africa, at the top and bottom, respectively, of a dramatic escarpment over which the Elands River cascades, forming a backdrop to what my brother describes as a spectacular rock climbing destination.

From the style of the mount and the clothes worn by the subjects, this photograph looks to me as though it was taken around the turn of the century - but prior to the First World War - give or take a few years, say between 1895 and 1910. The railway being constructed from Delagoa Bay to Pretoria, via Komatipoort, reached the foot of the escarpment in March 1894, and a rack railway and curving tunnel were built to take the track up the steep gradient. Waterval Boven is also celebrated as where President Paul Kruger lived briefly in 1900, before going into exile in Austria. Could this be a railway station at one of the two towns?

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Cabinet card of the family of Joseph & Phoebe Benfield
by Eric Morley of Walsall, c.1897-1898
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

I have discovered, in the last few years of research, a family member who was in southern Africa at about this time, and his name was Joe! Joseph Benfield (1855-1900), otherwise known as Joe, was my grandfather Leslie Payne's first cousin, shown above with his wife Phoebe and their eleven children. The youngest child Ada, born on 25 June 1894, looks to me to be about three years old, which suggests a date of about 1897 or 1898 for the portrait. Joseph was, like his father, a blacksmith, his older sons all following him into various aspects of the family business in Walsall, Staffordshire, coincidentally the birth place of the author of the lines which adorn the head of this article.

Image © and courtesy of Google Books
Detail from Patent No. 463,474, 17 Nov 1891, J. Benfield, Horseshoe
Image © and courtesy of Google Books

Joe Benfield was, it seems, something of a dreamer as well as entrepreneur. He journeyed to New York in October 1894 and March 1895, giving his profession respectively as farrier and inventor, so presumably the trips related to the patents (463474, 541956 and 543976) that he registered for nail-less, soft-tread and other horseshoes between 1891 and 1895. In 1897 He sailed with his second son Thomas from London to the Cape. The two of them returned from Delagoa Bay, in Portuguese East Africa (later Lourenco Marques, now Maputo in Mozambique) on board the Pembroke Castle, arriving in London in April 1899, and describing themselves as smith and fitter respectively. What they did while they were out there is not clear, but I believe it likely that they worked on the railways, which were at the time undergoing a period of rapid expansion. Joseph subsequently went out a second time on his own. According to his grandson Bill Benfield, "Thomas was to follow his Dad on his second visit but Joseph died out there, so Thomas stayed home to help Phoebe bring up the children."

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Rua Conselheiro Ennes, Beira, c.1905
Postcard published by The Rhodesia Trading Co. Ltd., Beira.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

His death on 17 February 1900 at Beira, Mozambique was reported to the British Consulate in that town by Messrs. Pauling & Co. Ltd by letter two days later. The profession was shown as "fitter," but no cause of death was given. George Pauling was a railway contractor, responsible for the construction of many of the railways in Southern and Eastern Africa after 1895, and it seems almost certain that Joe Benfield was employed on the widening of the Beira-Umtali portion of the Beira-Mashonaland Railway from 2'6" to 3'6" gauge. A more detailed discussion of that aspect of the story must wait for another time.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

Could "Poor Old Joe" be Joseph Benfield? Comparing photographs of the two (above) make it seem unlikely, but if not then who else might it be?

A couple of years ago my aunt in Derbyshire kindly let my brother and I scan her entire collection of old family photographs. Among these were two loose sepia paper prints (above and below) about which she knew absolutely nothing, rather tatty, but clearly amateur efforts with some writing on the back (images here and here).
This is our house. The bay windows belong to our living room with the alcove on the left making a cosy corner. The fireplace in the building seen is our bedroom once a billiard room on the right the trees line Noord St down which the trams run to the centre of town & Park Station is only accross [sic] the road. Meade took this from the furthest corner of the Garden. the front door is on the other side showing an old fountain.

Mr. Napper has been trying to persuade Bobbie to go on the horse but he says no he will go another time.
A quick Google of "Noord Street" and "Park Station" shows that this address is right in the heart of what is modern day Johannesburg, South Africa, or as the residents might refer to it, "downtown Jo'burg." I vividly remember emerging from the Park Station to an very unfamiliar environment early one evening in the early 1980s. It was a daunting and potentially dangerous situation, from which I fortunately emerged completely unscathed, but very different to how it must have been some eighty years earlier, when I assume these photographs were taken, i.e. c.1900-1910.

Given that they appear to emanate from the same part of the world, and were taken around the same time as the "Poor Old Joe" photograph, I thought I'd compare the writing on the backs of these two photographs with the annotations on the front of the larger format mounted print.

The handwriting is similar, and while there are some differences, there is enough variation in the writing of individual letters in each cases to suggest that they might have been written by the same person. However, I've been unable to make up my mind conclusively whether or not they were.

Perhaps readers can have a look at these images, and the full images linked to above, and tell me what you think? I'm not familiar enough yet with South African family history resources to have found either maps of the central part of Johannesburg or city directories from that era, and while I look further I'd welcome any assistance or suggestions. If the names Gilchrist, Pilkington, Napper and Meade ring any bells with other South African researchers, I'd be very pleased to hear from you, either in the form of a comment below, or by email.

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