Category Archives: Genealogy

Ghosts in the Attic

By Alison Turner

Baby Alison in the mid-1900s

For those of us whose youth and middle age was spent in the pre-digital camera or mobile phone era, there must always come a time to get those boxes and bags filled with old photographs out of the cupboard and do something with them.

Maybe it’s moving house that brings it on (although we’re probably not the only people who packed them all up without looking at them and took them with us, in our case to a country at the other side of the world.) Maybe the house is getting over-crowded and you desperately need some more storage space. Possibly pangs of guilt niggle away at you whenever you open that cupboard and look with dismay at all those untidy, dust-covered piles of stuff.

In my case it was a combination of all these things, including, perhaps, the fact that my 70th birthday is approaching.  How dreadful to leave those hideous piles for somebody else to sort through after my death.

Why did we take photographs? And why did we keep them? Or why didn’t we pick out the best ones when they came back from being printed, throw the others away and write clearly on the back of the selected few where they were taken, who was in them and when?  Age and experience did get me to the point of doing that for the last few years before technology took over and photographs could just be deleted with a click.

Sorting Those Ghosts in the Attic

We started by sorting them into categories.

The author as a baby in 1945

One pile consisted of snaps taken of relatives who have now died.  Another was of us as children.  Always black and white, and too small to see any detail clearly without a magnifying glass. They tended to be stiffly posed, a little out of focus, and, in some cases, with little sense of composition.



Richard Turner, the author’s husband with his father on Plymouth Hoe

My husband’s family were better photographers and theirs tended to be more carefully composed and natural-looking. Some are very nostalgic; some quite disturbing, stirring up old feelings.

Perhaps the worst of these are old school photos – with rows of scared-looking children on their best behaviour, most of whom you can’t remember at all. You barely recognise the child in the middle row who was you.

The biggest category, for us, was pets.  Hundreds and hundreds of  pictures of all the animals we’ve ever owned, from the Manx cat that belonged to my husband as a child to our current pair of Siamese cats.

Handsome Django 3

This is the time to be truly selective because you really can’t pass on to your descendants 50 pictures of the little darlings sprawled out on the bed looking cute, can you? We have pictures of them curled up in musical instrument cases, leaping from roofs, sleeping in funny positions, all curled up together in a hammock hanging from a radiator, with legs and other bits of them dangling over the edge. The ones of pets that have died bring pangs of sadness or, in the case of the two kittens we rescued and expensively nurtured and who then went out, one after the other, and committed suicide on the road, brought immediate feelings of disappointment and rage!

The biggest category for most families will be the children.  We chose not to have children so have probably been saved an even harder task of selection. But we do have photographs of nephews and nieces, of great-nephews and nieces, and, heaven forbid, may one day start on the ‘great-greats’. I always assume that their own parents still have piles of these photos so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we quietly ditched them (or at least most of them).

And then of course there are the events.  Weddings, birthday meals, graduations, openings of exhibitions.  Not funerals – people seem not to take photographs of these events.

I have a small collection of all those nieces’ and nephews’ weddings.  They always consist of my two sisters and myself, grinning obediently when the taker said “cheese”; and wearing the strangest assortment of hats. I never seem to have photos of the actual bride and groom, probably because the person who sent them chose those photographs that included us, and uncles and aunts are not usually in the forefront of the official ones.

We seem to have taken a lot of photographs when we’ve been on holiday. Usually happy or silly, taken against a background of magnificent scenery. We’ve got whole albums full of us here in South Africa, in Italy, in Iceland, in Australia, in France, as well as on Mull and in other parts of England and Scotland. They go with the diaries I always tried obediently to keep and which are rarely taken off the shelf. Most of the pictures reflect happy times; some show somewhat forced smiles when things weren’t going quite as planned, or because indigestion had struck or maybe an argument was taking place… or after an uncomfortable night in an unfamiliar bed.  Sometimes there are no smiles at all.

The list goes on and on. My husband is an artist so a great many photographs are of landscapes and objects that might make the foundation of a painting. There are pictures of houses we have lived in, gardens we’ve made, particularly splendid hanging baskets, and views from balconies.

Deciding What to Toss and What to Keep

So how do we decide what to keep, what to scan and what to throw away? Why is this photo of a mountain better than these other three of the same mountain?

Some of the decisions are quite personal: did I really look like that? How could I have got so fat! What an awful dress/trousers etc. In some of them I’m making dreadful faces – “No, don’t take that photograph now!”  In several my husband scowls. There was no difficulty in discarding these.

Some of the ones we have kept showed special moments that only we would remember: in-jokes (the one with my husband wearing a bunch of bananas on his head); the process of having building work done; progressing through from before it started to the final triumphant finish, with the bottle of champagne on the table to celebrate. A few show us both together when somebody else held the camera – otherwise it’s usually one of us posing, the other snapping.

So how has the whole process been for us? We have had spurts of fascinated activity, passing them between us, laughing and remembering. We’ve had the odd spat when one of us wants to throw one out and the other doesn’t. We’ve had periods of despair when we contemplate another pile and feel that we just can’t do this any more.

For me there was a sense of pleasure in seeing the throwing away pile grow bigger, tempered with a slight feeling of panic… might we have needed any of them sometime… but when?

And of course we haven’t finished. Several bags went back into the cupboard unopened.  Another lot contained ones we decided to keep, and possibly scan. But will they ever be looked at again? By us? By the family we leave behind? Will our photos take their place in a niece’s cupboard to be sorted all over again every few years with feelings of guilt and bemusement?

Photographs are snapshots of moments in time.

A second later everything began to change, leaving that pose, that expression, frozen for years and decades to come. We see them as a true reflection of the past, but that truth only lasted a second. Looking at them again drags us back into that second and arouses the deeply hidden emotions associated with it. We re-live complex feelings which bring with them new ones –  nostalgia for happy times now ancient history,  sadness and regret for what might have been. Bitter feelings, fears felt by our younger selves reawakened. Sometimes, pure pleasure.

So why do we keep any of them? Why don’t we fling the whole lot out without even looking at them? What is it we’re searching for? What would be that one perfect photograph that would take us back into an imagined paradise, like the wardrobe that opens up into a magical fairyland? Why do we clutch onto those childhood snapshots, keep looking at them as if we’re trying to climb back into them, start again, do it differently next time?

The past is another country. It should stay so. Let’s live in the present, in the now, instead of missing THIS moment in our nostalgic search for the impossible, in our fearful imaginings of what may be to come.


First Major South African Air Crash for South African Airways

South African air crash

A portion of the front page of The Natal Daily News in Durban, Tuesday October 16, 1951.

 Seventeen Killed as Dakota Smashes into Mountain

South Africa air crash

A horrific South African air crash made headline news on Tuesday, October 16, 1951, after 17 people were killed when a South African Airways (SAA) Dakota, the Paardeberg crashed into a mountain and exploded in the air. There were 13 passengers on board, including my maternal grandfather, Archie Cramer, and four crew members.

It was reported to be the first major South African air crash involving an SAA plane.

The weather was described as very “unpleasant” with wind that had up to 50 miles an hour velocity and visibility was said to be low. There were also said to be “occasional cloud and thunder conditions”. The last known communication from the plane was at 3.48 pm when the pilot radioed their expected time of arrival at Stamford Hill (Durban) as 5.35 pm. When it didn’t arrive, a search was started.

The next morning, the pilot of the Paardeberg’s sister plane spotted the burnt out wreckage of the missing Dakota strewn over a large patch of mountainside. It was clear to him that the plane had crashed into the mountain and exploded. It was also very clear that there were no survivors.

The mountain into which the plane crashed is about 7,500 feet (2,280 meters) above sea level and the only high ground in the immediate area. It was about 11 miles (about 18 km) south of Kokstad which is situated inland between Port Shepstone and Port St. Johns.

During the period of time that the plane was “missing”, ships at sea were alerted and the well-known mailship, Capetown Castle was on the look-out, using its radar equipment. South African Airways Sunderlands and Harvards were on standby in Durban, while SAA Lodestars flew along the likely route the plane had taken and then on parallel courses up and down the coast.

South African air crash
Air crash scene. An aerial photograph that shows the wreckage of the SAA Dakota, Paardeberg that crashed into a mountain on October 15, 1951. The scorched veld (ground) shows the path of the aircraft as it tore across the ground in flames, breaking up as it did so. The starboard wing can be seen in the foreground, while the tail can be seen in the top left-hand corner of the picture. Officials found the two engines “some distance” away. A policeman can be seen to the right of the wing (circled in orange).

Just before this South African air crash, people on the ground reported hearing the droning of heavy motors at different times (and in different places) during the afternoon of Monday, October 15. At about 4 pm, at Mendu, which is 20 miles (32 km) from the Bashee River mouth, an aircraft was heard flying very low in thick cloud. There was also a report of a plane flying over Tsolo – which is 90 miles (145 km) north west of Kokstad, at about 4.30 that afternoon. The Paardeberg was the only “big” plane on the route at that time.

Later, a board of enquiry said that one of the contributing factors to the crash was the “unserviceability” of ground-based radio navigational aids along the route.

SAA’s Safety Record

The Paardeberg South African air crash was the first major accident in the history of SAA, as well as the first in which people had died. It was reported at the time that SAA had an exceptionally good safety record.

Since the end of the Second World War (1945) the national carrier had flown 35 million miles (more than 56 million km) on both internal and external routes. By 1951 SAA aircraft reportedly flew more than 7 million miles (more than 11 million km) per year. It had reported carried a total of about 900,000 passengers safely.

There had previously been three fatal air crashes involving South African passenger planes, but all owned by private charter companies. In January 1950 12 people died when a Dove crashed near Ixopo, which is about 63 miles or 104 km south-east of Kokstad. In December 1948, 13 lives were lost when a Dakota crashed in Italy. And in May 1948, 13 people died when a Dakota crashed near Vrede in the Free State, South Africa.

Crew and Passengers Who Died in the Paardeberg South African air crash

Commander Douglas Ellis, said to have been in his mid-thirties, was captain of the ill-fated Paardeberg. Previously a transport pilot in the South African Air Force, he was very experienced, with between 7,000 and 8,000 flying hours. The first officer was Fred Joubert, who was in his early thirties. The wireless operator was a Mr. le Roux, and the air hostess, Miss Mary Bondietti, both from Cape Town. Ellis and le Roux were from Germiston in Gauteng, while Joubert was from Benoni.

Ironically, three of the passengers killed, Dulcie James, 31 and her two children, Deborah, 6, and Meyrick, 2, were listed as being from Valley Green in Elgin in the Western Cape. Valley Green is an apple farm that was owned by my cousin Jean Beaumont’s (born Swift) father-in-law in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Newspaper reports stated that Mrs. James (formerly Timson) was flying to Durban where her husband’s parents lived. Her husband, Mr Meyrick James was travelling by car with her oldest child, Paullie. Mrs. James had previously been married to a SAAF pilot, Captain Paul Hahn, who was killed in an air crash in the Western Desert during World War II.

An Italian count was also killed. Director of a fibre and paper factory that was being established in Port Elizabeth, Count O. Minerbi was a member of a Rome-based family that held one of the oldest titles in Italy. Prior to the war, he had been Italian Consul in both Barcelona and Alexandria. He was also reportedly a very keen sportsman and had represented Italy three years running in the David Cup tennis championships.

My grandfather, who at the time was regional director of the Schlesinger organization in Natal, was on his way back to Durban from Cape Town after visiting his daughter (my mother) and his grand-daughter (me). His wife, Mabel Cramer, was still in Cape Town with us. A former public prosecutor, he had previously been chairman of the South African Citrus Board and the Deciduous Fruit and Co-operative Citrus Exchange (South Africa). For three years he was president of the South African Automobile Association.

Other Fatal SAA Flights

On April 8, 1954, a de Havilland Comet leased from the British Overseas Airways Corporation (Flight SA201) crashed off the Italian coast en route from Rome to Cairo and Johannesburg. All 21 people on board died. The cause of the crash was ruled to be a flaw in the design of the plane.

On March 13, 1967, a Vickers Viscount 818, the Rietbok, crashed into the sea while it was approaching East London. All 25 people on board were killed. While no official cause was found for the accident, investigators said that they “couldn’t rule out” the possibility of the pilot having a heart attack and losing control of the aircraft.

On April 20, 1968, Pretoria, a Boeing 707 that had only been in service for six weeks crashed near Windhoek in Nambia (previously South West Africa). The plane had descended too quickly due to human error and 123 people were killed.

On November 28, 1987, a Boeing 747 named the Helderberg crashed into the Indian Ocean while en route from Taiwan to Johannesburg via Mauritius. It was found that there had been a fire in the main cargo hold, but the cause of the fire has never been confirmed. The most popular theory is that there were nuclear armaments in the hold and that these exploded. All 159 people on the plane died.