Five days in Cullinan

Posted by Doug Morton on Friday, 01 November 2013

This blog narrative goes back almost to the Dark Ages, to the days when Terri and I were small.

The reason for the very existence of the village -  Premier Diamond Mine, to become Cullinan Mine, and is now Petra Mine
Terri, my wife, was born at Cullinan, then a tiny mining village housing the staff and workers of the Premier Diamond Mine.  She’ll forgive me for telling you that that was in 1949.  I, however, was a Johny-come-lately, as my family only settled there in 1952, when I was a mature 4 year old.  Anyone who’s lived in a mining village will understand that everyone knew everyone, and so our families grew, not in number, but in age, and were friends, at least on the surface, which is an odd term to use when writing about a mine.
Terri and I were eventually to marry, in 1969, then to leave the village the next year to find a different life in a less protected and more stimulating and challenging environment.  The years of our childhood were the stuff of nirvana, though we only came to see that some time later.   All the white children in Cullinan during those years experienced a lifestyle that gave them the ultimate freedom to be children, to play and to grow.  There was a slightly blurred dividing line between the English and Afrikaans kids, and of course, with the apartheid government flexing its muscles and imposing its policy of separation, we had no contact with the black community apart from domestic or garden “servants” who were forced to carry the hated Dompas.  I don’t remember any Coloured folk, and the only Indians were the owners of the Cash Store at Kaffirskraal, a poor area of smallholdings just beyond the mine premises.
As in the life of Herman Charles Bosman, whose plethora of Marico stories were inspired by a stay of only about six months in the Marico, we find it impossible to discount the effect on our lives of the years we spent in Cullinan.  We still count ourselves deeply fortunate to have had such a wonderful environment to grow up in.  It’s all too easy to lapse into nostalgia and it’s important to impose some perspective upon our memories of those years.  We often reminisce, recalling names and events, and as the years have steadily marched by, many, if not most, of the names and places have acquired a coat of the dust of time, and many of the memories themselves have become tarnished and discoloured by the effect of the years.
And so it was that I went back to the village of our youth.  I haven’t worked out why I felt so strongly about doing it, but off I went, leaving Terri in Pietermaritzburg to look after the dogs, or vice versa.  From my visits to Cullinan over the years I wasn’t starry-eyed about the past, and knew about the sweeping changes that had occurred, dragging the town into the imperfect twenty-first century.  But there was still an urge to see what was left.  I didn’t, and still don’t, want to become philosophical about tracing roots and finding myself.  That was never the case.  The town had been such a major part of my life that I wanted to see it again.  Inexplicable.  Specially to me.
I’d timed my trip to coincide with the flowering of the Jacaranda trees.  Cullinan’s Jacs used to make Pretoria’s look like cabbages.  I probably got the timing wrong by a week or two, but there was still plenty of colour.  Terri and I had been married on 24 October and the trees were in full cry then, but I couldn’t be away from home for our anniversary, now could I?


Love them or hate them, they're spectacular when in full bloom, and Cullinan is riddled with them.

I’d arranged to stay at Jan Harmsgat se Gastehys.  That’s the correct spelling, by the way, for all you Afrikaners out there.  Terri and I had previously seen his style of decoration that included fascinating sculptures as well as relics from years gone by.  He has a business in the old main street, Oak Avenue, a function and wedding venue, but the Gastehys is made up of two buildings that sixty years ago were known as the “flats.”  The décor and appointments there nearly defied belief, but the service was excellent and all conveniences were present and correct.  Fortunately, being me, I was the only guest for the five nights I stayed there, and was treated to a balmy, consuming quietness, just the way I like it.
The decor, and appointments were, to say the very least, zany in the extreme.  Lots of fun.

Much as I’d intended, I parked off the faithful Pathfinder, hefted my camera bag, and walked, and walked, and then walked some more.  Part of what really interested me was the state of the houses.  In our day all property belonged to the Mine, with the exception of the Post Office, the Nederlandse Bank, and the Chemist shop.  Since then all properties have been sold off, including the hospital, the few shops, and all the houses.  Many of the landmarks have gone, including the old bakery where a friend’s grandmother was the shop assistant.  We were allowed to play on the stacks of flour bags until we were found to be tossing acorns into the dough mixers and waiting to hear who complained when an acorn pitched up in the breakfast toast.  That’s all gone, replaced by a very ordinary little mall, most of whose windows remain securely papered up due to a lack of tenants.   I suspect it has to do with exorbitant rentals.
Some have been kept and restored, others done away with and replaced by today's ideas.

When my family arrived in Cullinan in 1952 there was no house available for us, and we moved into the Premier Hotel, known for many years as the White House, home to the only pub that side of Pretoria.  As we waited that evening in the ’38 Chev for George, our dad, to make the necessary arrangements to move into the establishment,  my elder brother Bob and I received a stern lecture from mother Ruth about never even approaching the double swing doors of the saloon, never mind entering.  Our room was on the first floor, overlooking a ramshackle filling station, Nichol’s Garage, which was resplendent with the hand-pumped one-gallon glass flask bowsers which then already were becoming a rarity.  Nichol’s Garage was demolished decades ago, and the hotel, now boarded up, is no longer a white house, but a sad relic of the halcyon days of half a century ago.

Deserted and locked up, this was the nerve centre of the boozers' fraternity.

The second part of our six-month sojourn in the hotel was spent in the annex, across the road from the main building, and was far more liveable.  This property, now privately owned, has been substantially developed, and is now known as the Diamond Lodge.  I took the opportunity to prowl the premises, and was very impressed with what I found, except that nothing recognisable remains of the old annex.  Just as well, I suppose.


What used to be the Hotel annex is now a pretty decent Lodge.  I was very impressed. 

The town centre, such as it is, has retained its old buildings, many of which have been altered, some drastically.  Some lovely architectural features have simply been dumped instead of being repaired, the result being an ordinariness that the buildings don’t deserve.  While some are still used for the businesses they always housed, such as the dairy and green-grocer, as well as the landmark sandstone Nedbank, which in those earlier times was Nederlandse Bank, most are eateries or are papered up and unoccupied.   The large houses that had been home to the McHardy, Counihan and Wall families for many years have been subdivided into offices and small businesses, festooned with signage, security gates and floodlights.  The post office building which replaced the original post office many years ago still stands silently on the corner of Oak Avenue and Hotel Street, looking run-down and forlorn.

Sine of the old shops look a bit as they did in the 60's, but the insides are so-called modernised junk.

The old railway station, the start and end of each of my schooldays in the early 1960’s, became well-known as the centre of tourism as the properties became privatised and the Pretoria and Johannesburg sets began to visit over weekends.  The steam train, operated every two or three weeks by Friends of the Rail in Pretoria, still visits and is a great attraction.  However the classiness that kicked off the station complex has evaporated, leaving a sad eatery that seems little more than a watering hole for the determined drinkers, and a row of “collectables” and satellite shops that don’t face the station.  The overall impression is of a backwater that has had its day in the sun.

The churches are still there, hardly altered.  The Roman Catholic St Peter’s, where Terri and I married, is now looked after by a retired priest, Fr Keith Codd, who is a wonderfully friendly man, easy to talk to and a good listener, a rarity in these times.  The Anglican church, St George’s, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, who also designed the Union Buildings in Pretoria, is still as beautiful as ever, and the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk seems well maintained, but is now a Baptist Church.


Cullinan's churches
The real centre of the town is Oak Avenue which was formerly the main street leading to the gates of the mine itself.  Most of the buildings are semi-detached stone cottages, one of which was home to Terri’s mother and father for some years after the old man retired.  They’ve all been taken over as businesses, mostly restaurants, some jewellers and crafters, tourism offices and a museum.  The weekend influx from the nearby cities is staggering, with no places to be found at eateries, all parking spots taken, and car guards on duty in their dozens. 


The place seems to have become a mecca for bikers with at least one restaurant displaying a sign reading “Bikers welcome.”  I’m still not sure what to make of that.

I’ll not say much here about the Recreation Club, or the Rec, as it’s been called since day one.  It has a fascinating story, and I’ll try to produce a separate blog to tell that story.  It has survived, improved in one or two respects, but defaced in others.  More of that later.

The Recreation Club, or the "Rec," as we all knew it.

The hospital where I and my friends had cut fingers and bent bones repaired by nursing sisters who were personal friends, and had teeth looked at and plaster casts applied and x-rays taken by the male nurse (who established a private zoo in his garden on the hospital premises) has been restored and is still a hospital.  It’s been sold off and has become a private hospital, but is closed.  I couldn’t find out how long ago this happened, but this means that any hospital admissions must be referred to Pretoria, a great loss to the community.


I think the biggest shock for me, although I’d been prepared for at least some, was the houses.  In former times all houses were owned by the company, but all are now privately owned.  I couldn’t have expected the sad mish-mash of tacked-on alterations and additions that have made parts of the village look little better than an informal settlement, and I have deep-seated doubts about planning approval having been obtained for most of them.  It’s beyond the point of no return by a long way, and whatever charm and atmosphere a plain mining town might once have possessed has been eradicated.  I was reluctant to take more than a few shots of these houses.
On the right, 25 Government Road, our family home for many years.

On the plus side it was great to see that the wood-and-iron cottages that remain are mostly being well looked after.  Several of them have obviously been lovingly restored, while most have been spruced up and look cheerful.  A distant relative, Robin Potgieter, who spent a few of his childhood years in one of those cottages was pleasantly surprised to receive a photo of the old home.  Very few new homes have been added, the main type of new accommodation being townhouse complexes that have further detracted from the aura of the village.

I enjoyed the five days I spent there despite some disappointment.  There was substantial compensation in meeting and talking to a number of residents, a few of whom remembered some names from our era.  Fr Keith Codd was a grand discovery, as was a local historian (he calls himself a collector of interesting data) John Lincoln, who’s established a fascinating history room, produced a pictorial history of the mine and the town, and has been instrumental in the establishment of the outdoor museum and the McHardy House museum.  He’s a veritable mine of information and was happy to give me quite a lot of his time.  He was a real bonus
I’ve had nearly two weeks to ponder my response to the visit.  It was hugely interesting, slightly disappointing, and disquieting in the sense that there is little importance attached to the heritage that is inherent in an historical site like Cullinan.  The architectural surgery was the most noticeable sign of the attitude toward the past.  The mine has changed ownership, and the new lords have no link with the past of Cullinan  or indeed of Kimberley, Cullinan’s parent town.  It’s become just a rural town with a mine attached, the opposite of the past, and is too close to  Pretoria to warrant its own commercial foundation.  The satellite businesses will continue to depend upon mass weekend influxes to survive, not only because of their unrealistic pricing.
My conclusion is that I, my wife, our families and all our friends of the time were privileged to experience what we had then.  Those are the memories that will please me forever, and the fact that our nation has inherited a poor residue and is not taking care of it won’t dim those memories.  I’ll keep an open mind.


A lovely walk through with you, both textually and pictorially. I saw a certain charm still remaining in Oak Avenue. Your account has triggered memories of my own childhood years in the tiny village of Utrecht. Thank you!

By: Deb Williams on November 2, 2013

Love it Doug. Glad you can still cherish the good memories and not let the new pictures destroy them.

By: Ashley on November 2, 2013

The photos of the Nedbank building, churches and the iron and wood houses were the ones that enabled me to go with you into Cullinan as you knew it... What a beautiful floral way to remember your wedding day. I love Jakarandas, but the purists have declared them undesirable (allowed to keep those that are already established, but not allowed to be propagated or grown according to the last info I had. Imagine Stellenbosch with the same ruling applied to the Oak!!!) I digress, going back to childhood places is fraught with delight and horror. You are a brave man. Thank you for sharing.

By: Deborah De Vries on November 2, 2013

Your journey - written and photographic - has brought back many memories of my growing up on the Mine. The "jacks" are beautiful. Going back is not always a pleasant journey but then the good memories can never be taken away.

By: Don Mchardy on November 9, 2013

I often think about the fact that children today will never have the freedom and memories that we had.They are growing up in such a different world.A world of computers and malls.I enjoyed your blog and it set off a train of memories for me of Barberton where I grew up.We certainly were privileged.

By: Adair on November 9, 2013

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