I’m not sure how long I’ve known about my Great Aunt’s amazing African adventure, but it definitely captured my imagination. Although she died young many years before I was born, I’m immensely proud of my Grandad’s sister Kate Emily Bowles, known as Kitty.
In short, a relation of a family friend visited our farm in Kent in the 1920’s to find a wife to take back to what was then Rhodesia, where he lived near to his job on the railways. It’s always amazed me that Kitty left her loving family and moved continent, to start a new life with a man she barely knew. I’m sure there are many reasons why she chose to do so, not least of them a lack of eligible men in the village and England after the first world war.
I’m custodian of the family album, containing postcards Kitty and her husband Reg sent back from their travels around Rhodesia and South Africa. I’ve also been lucky enough to visit some of the towns she lived in, including Harare (then Salisbury) and Bulawayo. They finally settled in Gwelo (now Gweru) in Southern Rhodesia.
I refamiliarised myself with the postcards before my recent trip to Cape Town. Reminded that they married there shortly after arriving on a steamship from Southampton in 1924, I decided to visit the places in the postcards, to compare before and after. I wasn’t expecting to feel so emotional about it, but what follows are photographs I took alongside a copy of the postcards, and in some cases the words that accompanied them. Click photos to enlarge
St George’s Cathedral
Kitty and Reg were married in the Cathedral at the top of St George’s Street. I knew that the cathedral was still there and near my hotel, but a search for St George’s Street drew a blank. What I found was St George’s Mall, a market street leading to the small cathedral.
As you can see the street has changed a great deal and it’s a lot leafier, but there are some older buildings mixed in with the new.
I was able to go in and see exactly where they were married. I discovered that the east end of the St George’s Cathedral, marked by the cross on Kitty’s postcard had been demolished and rebuilt in about 1950. However, the west end near the altar was unchanged. I felt quite tearful as I thought about the emotions she must have gone through. Excitement to be getting married, and possibly nervous of the future. I lit a candle for them both and sat for a while.
It really is a very pretty and interesting church, it’s known for the political stance it took during apartheid and is felt to be symbolic of democracy in South Africa.
City Hall was easy to find, it’s opposite Grand Parade where Nelson Mandela first addressed the South African people following his release from prison in 1990. Sadly the square is now mainly used as a parking area for the nearby fish market.
There are now a lot of modern buildings behind it, obscuring the view of Table Mountain. It was built of bath stone imported all the way from England in the early 1900’s.
The railway station and surrounds
The station is now a block of concrete. What a pity! But, the war memorial has been looked after, as you’d expect.
Standard Bank looks rather different, but some elements are the same; like the arches on the ground floor, it looks like a third floor has been added.
The South African Museum looks pretty much the same, it’s at the top of Company’s Garden which is a nice place for a morning stroll.
Chapman’s Peak Road
I drove Chapman’s Peak Road twice, three times if you count the turning around and going back on myself on the first occasion. It really is a lovely coastal road. Whilst short at around five and a half miles, it’s probably one of the best scenic coastal drives in the world. There’s a small toll to use the road, although you can drive part of the way on a free day ticket. However, I’d encourage you to take the full drive as it’s stunning and the toll is used to maintain the cliff face and road. If there’s been a rockfall the road will be closed until it can be resolved.
The pass was cut out of the rock face by convict labour and opened in 1922, in what was then a magnificent feat of engineering. The peak itself is named after a seaman, from a ship called The Consent.
I can see from Kitty’s postcard to my grandad, that they took a drive here in 1926. She wrote, “We went along here when we were in Cape Town in a “….and then I can’t work out what’s written next! Comment below if you can tell what it says.
The Royal Hotel Hout Bay
Kitty and Reg had tea in the gardens here in 1925. It’s now called Hout Bay Manor and has changed somewhat. The hotel was refurbished a few years ago. I couldn’t find evidence of the oaks, but I think there are now houses on the spot where the postcard photo was taken from.
I had a lovely lunch in the garden, then a pot of English tea in Kitty’s memory. The Hotel looks like a lovely place to stay to relax and is furnished beautifully.
Kitty first arrived at Cape Town docks on a steamship called the Kenilworth Castle from Southampton in 1924, she returned to England three times, in 1928, 1935 and lastly in 1939. The final return journey was just after the outbreak of World War II, their ship the Llanstephan Castle was chased by a UBoat and sailed almost to Argentina to evade the Admiral Graf Spree, which sank 9 ships in the Atlantic between Sept and December 1939, including steamers. The hazardous journey caused an underlying illness Kitty had to worsen, and she died shortly after their return to Africa on 20 March 1940 in Gwelo Hospital at the age of 42.
The docks are now the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and whilst they maintain a number of older buildings; including the clocktower, it would look very different to how Kitty first saw it all those years ago.
Below are pictures of the ships she took.
There’s a lot more to tell about her life in Africa, but I had a fantastic time taking a small glimpse into the past, walking in her footsteps.
I’d love to hear what you think, comment below or share on social media. Love Karen x