We arrived in Johannesburg in October of 1957. My father had been offered a job in Rogers-Jenkins where a former Scottish colleague from ISCOR (now Arcelor Mittal) in Vanderbijl Park, was working 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 (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 the end of year exams in subjects with seemingly different syllabuses to the ones I had been studying at the Vaal High School in Vanderbijlpark. I staggered into the middle of the busy road each morning, praying that I would not be knocked down by a speeding car, in order to catch a rattling tram on its way 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 ribbon of school colours and a badge in the front. There was a strict rule that thishat had to be worn at all times when outside of 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 MacDonald-Rouse. Mrs MacDonald-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 MacDonald-Rouses, Heather and her husband.
Through her work, Heather had met Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, shortly after their arrival in Johannesburg the year before and had become extremely 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 he sang when requested to sing a solo at a wedding. Another lighter wedding favourite of his was the ballad, My Prayer.
Click on the link to hear Webster singing: BE THOU FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH
It was not long before we were introduced to Mr and Mrs MacDonald-Rouse, their daughter, Heather and her new husband when they dined at the hotel one evening. We were invited to a performance of the concert party and enjoyed the singing of Janet Goldsborough (later Swart), an energetic bone player, and a comedian, who was related to the famous Scottish comedian, Harry Gordon.
My father’s colleague at Rogers-Jenkins, John Corrigan, was an elder at St James’ Presbyterian Church, then situated in Mars Street, Malvern. He invited us to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Church, with Anne and Webster as soprano and tenor soloists. I can’t remember very much about the performance. I thought Webster looked rather stern, and I still have a distinct vision of Anne, her hair styled in a feathery Italian Boy, having tea at the interval, and being utterly charming to the tea ladies.
Looking back on this occasion I realise that it could not have been very easy for Webster who had been a top oratorio performer in the UK, often singing at the Royal Albert Hall and other great concert halls, to be singing the same work in a little suburban Church hall.
They had sung the Messiah in various Presbyterian churches the year before also.
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 late 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.
While I was in England Anne and Webster starred in and directed Merrie England for the Johannesburg Operatic and Dramatic Society (JODS) in 1958. Although they had been in South Africa for less than two years, Anne was complaining that she never had a full chorus at rehearsals. The show received good notices, but the committee of JODS was not impressed that the production only made a profit of ₤300.
They were very popular in East London in the Border region of the Eastern Cape, where they had given a concert in the City Hall on their initial tour in November 1955. They appeared in a number of shows there in the late nineteen fifties. In 1958 they starred in Merrie England, and followed this with Waltz Time in 1959. Anne also played principal boy in an East London pantomime, Puss in Boots. She sang I’ll follow my secret heart after she had “fought the dragon and won the lady”. They also sang at the East London Hobbies Fair in 1957.
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.
We had returned to Jo’burg at the beginning of 1959 and I next saw Anne at the end of that year. My friend Gillian McDade was a year ahead of me at school and had been head girl at Jeppe Girls’ High that year. She was as keen on the theatre as I was and we had appeared in a Scottish school play together in early 1958, entitled Lace on Her Petticoat. Her mother was involved with the Children’s Theatre Organisation, and Gillian asked if I would like to usher for a matinee performance with her at the Reps Theatre (later the Alexander Theatre) in Braamfontein, where Anne was playing the Fairy Godmother in Children’s Theatre’s production of 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 pointed Cinderella on her way 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, Kensington to sing in a Variety show that had been arranged to raise money for Church funds. It was the first time I had seen their variety act. Once again they looked wonderful, with Anne in a tangerine evening dress and Webster immaculate in evening suit. 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. The banter between the duets appeared to be entirely off the cuff, but Anne told me later that their words and movements were always meticulously planned.
At the interval I waited rather nervously for them to ask for their autographs. Webster, ever the gentleman, held the door open for me to precede him into the Vestry, where they graciously signed my book for me. Strangely enough I was the only autograph hunter that evening. They were both charming to me.
Do you remember? on Springbok Radio saw them reminiscing on their illustrious lives in Britain, based on their autobiography, Duet, published by Stanley Paul in 1951. We all listened avidly to this programme every Sunday afternoon.
When I was in my final year at Jeppe Girls’ High School in 1960, the permanent music mistress, Miss Diane Heller, went on long leave, and Mrs Mabel Fenney took her place for a term. She had sung the part of Jill-All-Alone in the 1958 East London production of Merrie England, where she had first met Anne and Webster in their roles of Bessie Throckmorton and Sir Walter Raleigh. She came up to Johannesburg to have lessons with them as she prepared for several advanced diploma singing examinations. By the time she arrived at Jeppe she had already won the University of South Africa overseas teaching bursary and was due to leave for Berlin to study at the Hochschule for two years. Her husband, Eric Fenney remained in South Africa and had agreed to pay for her keep in Berlin.
We all looked on Mabel as a very glamorous figure in comparison with some of our more staid academic teachers. She was lively and enthusiastic and took us on various outings to the opera. Most teachers wrote off one of the naughtiest classes in the school as impossible to teach, but Mabel developed a good relationship with the girls in that class. She taught them to sing Brother James Air, which they performed creditably at the final assembly of the term, giving staff and pupils a pleasant surprise.
Towards the end of her term at Jeppe, Mabel gave a memorable recital in the school hall one afternoon. The event had not been widely publicised, so there were not many people present, but I was there with my musical school friend, Margaret Masterton. We were impressed by her performance. The Booths had decided that she was a mezzo soprano rather than soprano, so she had sung a mezzo repertoire for her diploma exams. I will always remember her singing of the Habanera and Seguidilla from Carmen. At the end of one of the arias she threw a rose coquettishly to her schoolgirl audience. We were completely captivated. Mabel left for Berlin and I hoped that I might have a good enough voice to study singing with Anne and Webster when I left school at the end of the year.