My father Richard Durell married Edmée Gruchy in Jersey on 21 December in 1934.
After marriage, Richard accepted a job in the Bank of British West Africa as he had previously been in banking in London. He was able to take advantage of the opportunities available at that time as the British Empire was still intact, and there were opportunities in countries in Africa and elsewhere to investigate for anyone with a pioneering spirit and sense of adventure1.
During Richard’s time there he became a Bank Manager in Warri, West Africa after moving around the country (now Nigeria) to various branches. The country was called “The White Man’s Grave” because of the many diseases for which there were no cures or inoculations. Richard was a particularly robust individual, and survived with only a lifelong recurrence of Malaria. He always said he had been promoted to Manager “because everyone else was dead!” On arrival in Freetown, Sierra Leone West Africa on the way to Nigeria, he was taken early off the ship and told that he was the bank branch Accountant there, as the incumbent Accountant had died. After that, he spent time in the Gold Coast, Lagos and Kano in the north of Nigeria as a bank employee.
The northern part of Nigeria was, and still is mostly Arab, and the people further south black. He told me that the drums sending the news across the country when Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 had transmitted the message quicker than the telegraph of the time. There were very few Europeans in the country then, and they were considered the elite amongst the population, whatever their station in life. He also said that whenever a European walked past an indigenous person, they bowed down in the dust as the European went by. I always had a suspicion that he considered that people should still do that when he passed!
Richard and his fellow bank employees enjoyed a style of life which they could not have had in Britain, which had suffered from the world depression in the 1930s. There was a general shortage of jobs, and he was offered the job in West Africa because of his previous bank experience. He had a team of polo horses and played polo regularly, joined a boxing club where he was billed as “Dicky Durell from Dulwich”, had servants to see to his every need, and made lifelong friends who shared the experience. At one time he had rescued 2 orphaned Cheetahs who were like house pets and could not be returned to the wild. On one long leave he took them to Edinburgh Zoo which had wildlife preservation facilities there. He went to check on them before leaving, and discovered that one of them was very thin & refused to eat. Richard told the zookeeper to try putting his food on a plate – which solved the problem!
My mother followed him to West Africa in 1937, as they had been living apart for the 3 years since their marriage (she in Exeter, UK and he in West Africa). She had trained as a teacher before her marriage, and taught at a variety of schools in the UK, teaching French, English and domestic science in London & Exeter. After arriving in West Africa, Edmée was employed as the manager of the “Government Rest House” in Sekondi, West Africa, which was a place where government employees stayed – a club with sporting & hotel facilities and place for recuperation. Her culinary skills were superb, and she had a French attitude to cooking – to her it was an art form.
When World War 2 broke out, Richard travelled to the UK to join the army. The Germans were bombing all ships sailing out of West Africa, and “the ships went out in the morning, and the survivors came back to port by evening.” He was lucky all of his life, and got on the only ship that got from West Africa through to the Bristol Channel.
In 1940 Edmée travelled overland to South Africa through all of the African countries until she came to Johannesburg where she had distant cousins. This was because she was pregnant with my sister Jacqueline (Edmée Jacqueline Durell – called Jacqueline) who was born on 13 June 1941. There were no medical facilities available in West Africa at the time, and most European women who were pregnant usually died. The option to return to the UK was not available and in addition, the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey & Sark were occupied by the Germans for 5 years until the end of the war. Edmée’s parents survived the war, but suffered the deprivations that everyone else did – mainly the lack of food.
Richard followed Edmée after leaving the bank, and they settled in Johannesburg. To begin with, Richard was employed as an accountant at a mining house (Anglo Vaal) in Johannesburg, and Edmée taught at a private girls’ school (Kingsmead).
|The Road Sign to Rondavels
We initially lived in a flat in Johannesburg, and then Edmée & Richard bought a property in Illovo on the outskirts of Johannesburg, which they improved and Edmée and Richard ran as a tea garden and residential property. They called it the “Rondavels2 Tea Gardens”
In the 1950s Richard and Edmée took the opportunity to purchase a hotel in a small town in the Eastern Transvaal
|Sabie Falls Hotel|
(now named Mpumalanga) called “Sabie” where we spent most of our childhood. The hotel was called “Sabie Falls Hotel” after the local river and waterfall.
Our journey from Johannesburg when I was 8 was quite an adventure. The 4 of us travelled in our small Morris Minor together with our mongrel dog Rusty, and a goldfish in a bowl! The road over Mount Anderson to Sabie was not tarred at that time, and in rainy weather became treacherous with cars sliding off the road and down the abyss. My favourite view of Sabie is from Mount Anderson, when our first view of home was looking down the mountain and seeing the village amongst the emerald green heavily forested area, with a wisp of smoke coming from the sawmill.
Sabie is still a small dusty town in a valley amongst mountains covered in pine trees, and is a major forestry area. It is fairly close to the Kruger National Park, and is a tourist destination because of the beautiful scenery – mountains, a lot of waterfalls, and green vegetation. The post office still has a horse-hitching post outside it from the 1800s when gold prospectors panned for gold in the rivers of the area.
I still remember an elderly gentleman long term resident of the hotel who we kids called “Uncle Mac” who used to prospect in the rivers of Sabie, Graskop & Lydenberg areas in the 1950s. The area is not far from the Kruger National Park wildlife reserve, and was where military action occurred in the Boer War3, as Lord Kitchener chased the Boers across the country. The “Long Tom Pass” on Mount Anderson – is named after the long gun used by the British, and which is still there.
We lived there for 15 years, having lots of adventures with our friends when we were home from boarding school. We went swimming in the natural pools in the area, picnicked next to the waterfalls in the forests, and had lots of parties with the local English speaking children, most of who were also in boarding schools.
|Richard & Edmee in Front of their 5* Hotel|
Richard & Edmée then became partners in a new venture in 1963 – the building of a 5* hotel on a hill overlooking Nelspruit. The partnership broke up, and my parents took full ownership of the hotel which soon gained a reputation for its haute cuisine and excellent situation near the Kruger National Park. They received many regular guests who became firm friends, and when they retired in the late 1960s, they retired to Johannesburg, where most of their visitors came from.
Edmée passed away from cancer in 1973 (age64) and Richard in 1996 (age 91). Their ashes were distributed over Bouley Bay in Jersey, Channel Islands where they met each other as teenagers.
Anita Cameron lives in Cambourne, UK.