We arrived in Johannesburg in October of 1957. My father had been offered a job in the same firm as a former Scottish colleague from ISCOR (now Arcelor Mittal) in Vanderbijl Park and we were living in the Valmeidere boarding house in Roberts Avenue, Kensington until we found a suitable flat. We witnessed the lights of Sputnik flying over our heads at night and wondered whether this was a sign that we had made the right move to the big city.
My parents and me in Vanderbijlpark in 1950.
The school year in South Africa runs from January to December, so I, aged thirteen, went to yet another new school just in time to prepare to write end of year exams in subjects with different syllabuses to the ones I had been studying at my previous school. I staggered into the busy road each morning, praying that I would not be knocked down by a speeding car, to catch a rattling tram down the hill to Jeppe Girls’ High School, clad in my new green dress and black blazer with white stripes. The most important part of the uniform seemed to be the white Panama hat adorned with school colours and badge. This had to be worn at all times when outside the school. Heaven help anyone who removed it, or worse still, forgot to wear it.
The boarding house proprietors were fellow Scots, Mr and Mrs Jimmy Murdoch. They were friendly with a couple called Mr and Mrs McDonald-Rouse. Mrs McDonald-Rouse ran a flourishing amateur concert party and was the accompanist to all the singers in the group. Her daughter Heather, a theatrical costumier, had recently married and sometimes dined with her parents and her new husband at the Valmeidere. In due course we were introduced to the McDonald-Rouses, Heather and her husband.
Through her work, Heather had met Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth shortly after their arrival in South Africa the year before and had become very friendly with them. Through the grapevine we heard that Webster had sung the aria from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, St Paul at Heather’s wedding, entitled Be Thou Faithful unto Death. Later I learnt that this aria was one of his favourite choices when requested to sing a solo at a wedding. Another of his wedding favourites was the ballad,My Prayer.
John Corrigan, my father’s colleague, was an elder at St James’ Presbyterian Church, then situated in Mars Street, Malvern. The church moved to its new site in Bedfordview in 1976. He invited us to a performance of Messiah to be held in the Church Hall, conducted by Drummond Bell, organist and choir master at the Central Presbyterian Church, St George’s. Coincidentally, the tenor and soprano soloists were to be Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth. This was the first time I ever attended a performance of Messiah, and the first time I ever saw Anne and Webster. I did not know then that Webster had been one of the foremost oratorio tenors in Britain, but I had heard a number of their duet recordings, which were often played on the radio. It now seems rather incongruous that they should be singing Messiah in a suburban Church Hall when only two years before Webster’s oratorio stamping ground had been the Royal Albert Hall, with the Royal Choral Society, with Sir Malcolm Sargent as conductor and other foremost oratorio soloists.
Since their arrival in South Africa, Anne and Webster had received a great deal of publicity on the radio and in the newspapers. As I have mentioned, their records were featured on South African radio a number of times each day. South Africans could not quite believe that such an illustrious theatrical couple had willingly chosen to exchange their successful careers and lives in the UK as the best known duettists in Britain – possibly the world – to become immigrants in the colonial backwater of Johannesburg. My parents remembered them fondly from their frequent broadcasts in the UK, and seeing them in Variety and in the musical play, Sweet Yesterday at Glasgow theatres.
We sat fairly near the front of the hall on the right hand side. I wish I could say I that I remember every moment of that performance nearly sixty years ago. But sadly. I only remember snatches of it. Webster looked rather stern during the whole proceeding and I am sorry to admit that I was not immediately struck with the exquisite beauty of his voice. I did not know every aria of Messiah then as I do now. In fact, the only piece I had heard before was the Halleluiah Chorus. My most enduring memory of the occasion was the tea break when Anne, her hair recently cut in a rather startling Italian Boy hairstyle, drank tea and chatted animatedly with the star-struck tea ladies a few feet away from where we were seated.
St Anne’s Convent Grammar School, Southampton.
In mid-1958, my parents, doubtful of what the future in South Africa held, made a bid to return to the UK. We lived in Southampton – yet another new school another different syllabus, new subjects, and girls with Hampshire accents. My mode of transport in Southampton was a crowded bus from the suburb of Bitterne to St Anne’s Convent Grammar School. It was winter, so the bus journey began in the dark and ended in the dark by the time I reached home in the afternoon.
One of my parents’ friends had a grand piano on which I was allowed to practise and receive music lessons. The gentleman had a collection of 78 records which had belonged to his late wife. While his son and his friends chatted about various forms of jazz in the sitting room, I looked through the record collection in the dining room and was delighted to find a number of Anne and Webster’s recordings. After listening to their fill of Chris Barber records, the young men departed and I was able to play the duet records on the ancient record player. I enjoyed listening to the records and thinking that I had heard Anne and Webster singing in Johannesburg the previous year and knew something about them.
By the end of 1958 my parents decided that we would return to South Africa so we were on our way back on board the Pretoria Castle, the same ship on which Anne and Webster had travelled to South Africa in July 1956.
Despite my disrupted education I was back at Jeppe Girls’ High,admitted to Form IV for my final two years at school, which would culminate in writing the matriculation exams at the end of 1960. My father had returned to his old job with Mr Corrigan, and my parents bought a house in Juno Street, Kensington, having decided that life in South Africa, despite its uncertain political future was easier than life back in the UK where the weather was hard, the cost of living high, and Southampton was still full of bomb sites thirteen years after the war.
At the end of 1959 I went to the Reps Theatre (now the Alexander Theatre) with the late Gillian McDade, who had been head girl at Jeppe in 1959, to usher for the Children’s Theatre show, The Glass Slipper. The house was full so there were no spare seats for the teenage voluntary ushers, but I was delighted to watch the enchanting show seated on the carpeted stairs of the darkened auditorium. Anne Ziegler was playing the Fairy Godmother and made her entrance in a glass coach drawn by a donkey. She looked every inch an ethereal Fairy Godmother in her gossamer crinoline gown.
In 1960 Anne and Webster came to the Methodist Church in Roberts Avenue to sing in a Variety show that had been arranged to raise money for Church funds. I loved their charming act, once again done on the small stage of a suburban Church hall rather than in one of the great Variety Halls in the UK where they had been performing only a few years before. I waited for them to emerge at the interval to ask for their autographs and they signed my book in the vestry, Webster graciously holding the door open for me. Strangely enough I was the only autograph hunter that evening. They were both charming to me.
East London cast of Merrie England (1958). Mabel Fenney (later Perkin) was Jill-All-Alone on the left of the photograph
Mrs Mabel Fenney from East London had taken over from Miss Heller as temporary music mistress at Jeppe for a term while Miss Heller was on long leave. At the time she was studying singing with the Booths and had recently won the UNISA (University of South Africa) scholarship to study abroad. Mabel was charming and glamorous and took some of us girls to see Rigoletto at the Empire Theatre in the city centre. She often regaled the music students with tales of her studies with Anne and Webster and at the end of the term gave a memorable vocal recital in the school hall. I particularly remember her singing an aria from Carmen and ending the song by throwing a rose to her fascinated schoolgirl audience. At the end of the term Mabel Fenney went to the Hochschule in Berlin to further her singing studies. I wondered whether my singing was good enough for me to have singing lessons with Anne and Webster after I finished school.