ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
Elizabeth in her Teens.
When Elizabeth was nearly twelve, Mrs. Russell declared that she and her sister, Annie, were getting completely out of hand, so they were sent away to boarding-school. They went to Cheltenham House at Pinetown where there were sixteen boarders. Mr. Greathead was the principal and his wife acted as matron.
The two girls went to Pinetown in April, and, as a punishment for all the trouble they had given with their mischief, their parents did not allow them to come home for the June vacation. They stayed at school until the 'Xmas holidays started. Elizabeth did not make friends easily. She had a few real friends whereas Annie was very popular and had numerous pals.
Early one morning Mr. Greathead was busy in the cellar, where the dried fruit and other stores were kept, when Elizabeth spied him. The temptation to shut him in proved too great to be resisted. Like a flash of lightning she had turned the key in the door and he was in pitch darkness. He did not dare to move for in the centre of the cellar was a big, open barrel of tar sunk into the floor for the purpose of catching ants which were so numerous that they were a pest to the housewives in the village. When breakfast-time came and the principal did not appear everybody wondered where he could be. Elizabeth kept mum. Just after prayers she ran to the door of the cellar and called out: "Mr. Greathead, will you promise not to punish me if I let you out?" When he had reluctantly given the required assurance she opened the door and set him free. He kept his word but during the next few days, every now and again, he would shake his finger at the daring miscreant and exclaim: "You vagabond!"
Mrs. Scott, whose husband was the Presbyterian minister of Pinetown, invited some of the boarders along with Mrs. Greathead every now and then to spend the day at her home. She treated them right royally, giving them all sorts of goodies to eat. The girls loved this outing as they got very poor food at school.
On one such occasion Elizabeth and four other boarders besides Mr. Greathead remained at Cheltenham House. As soon as the matron and the other girls had departed, Elizabeth, who had received minute instructions about the dinner and in whose charge the keys had been left, went to the pantry on a tour of inspection. She discovered a pineapple tart, a loaf of white bread, some fresh butter and a tasty- looking leg of pork. These she decided to have for dinner, although she had been directed to have the dry, unappetising salt (corned) beef which also reposed on the pantry shelf.
She went to the kitchen and with great dignity informed John, the cook-boy, that she was the missus for the day, and that he was to boil potatoes instead of the usual sweet potatoes for dinner. The boarders were utterly tired of the latter which they had day after day at the midday meal.
When John had set the table she brought out all the good things from the pantry and then told him to ring the bell. The principal was greatly surprised to see the unusual spread, remarked about it and turned to her for an explanation. Fearless as ever, she tossed her head and exclaimed: "Mrs. Greathead left me in charge." Nothing further was said so the boarders set to with hearty appetites and made short work of the tasty viands.
At supper-time when the matron enquired of John where the tart and the pork were, he pointed at the culprit and said: "Him missy eat 'em all up." Elizabeth was severely reprimanded and was never left in charge of the keys again.
One Sunday all the boarders were attending service at the Presbyterian Church when it started to rain. Dookie, the Coolie, who worked at the school, arrived with a pile of coats and umbrellas for the girls. Holding a white umbrella over his head, he rushed up the aisle, dumped down his load alongside the first boarders he saw, spat on the floor and left the church amidst audible titters from the congregation.
On one occasion when Mrs. Greathead had gone down town in a one-horse trap to do some shopping, the girls decided to have a prayer-meeting. Elizabeth did not like the idea and refused to join in, but she could not resist the temptation of going to the door to listen to what was taking place. There she heard one girl chant: "Oh Lord, may it please Thee to break Mrs. Greathead's neck," and the other girls respond: "Amen." After this they sat at the windows and watched to see the result of their prayer, but the subject of their supplications returned safely and soundly.
At Cheltenham House all the letters the girls wrote were censored by the principal so they did not dare to complain about the quality of the food.
Towards the end of the year Elizabeth was not at all well and utterly tired of the poor food so she determined to let her parents know the state of affairs. She managed to secure a sheet of paper but could not obtain a pen nor any ink so she went into the garden and wrote a note with a pointed stick and the juice of ripe mulberries. She then watched out for the post-boy, a kaffir runner who carried the mail in a big leather bag strapped to his shoulders, and stopping him as he passed the school on his way to the, post-office she gave him the letter and a shilling. Sixpence was for the postage, as that was the amount charged in Natal for the carriage of a letter in those days, and the other sixpence he was to keep for his trouble. The Russells received the note and enquired into the matter of the poor food at the school.
At the end of the year she secured the first prize in her class for Arithmetic which was her favourite subject.
When the 'Xmas vacation began Mr. Russell arrived at Cheltenham House with the riding-horses of the two girls. As a holiday treat he took them for a long, long ride and Elizabeth enjoyed every minute of it. She gloried in the freedom of the outdoor life after eight long months of boarding-school. From Pinetown they rode to Durban, Verulam, Inchanga, Maritzburg and then home to Boston.
When they passed Umgeni they heard that the Groom children, with whose father Mr. Russell was acquainted, had gone out to play some distance from their home, and in the evening the youngest child, a lad of about five, was missing. The other children, when questioned, declared that their little brother, having grown tired of the game they had been playing, had returned by himself earlier in the afternoon. However, he did not reach home. A party of thirty men searched zealously for him for several days, but, in spite of their untiring efforts, they failed to find him. Eventually it was concluded that he had been carried off by baboons which were very numerous in that part of the country. The broken-hearted mother kept lights burning in the house throughout the whole night for about six months in the vain hope that the child would turn up again. Some time later, as a result of her grief and anxiety, her mind gave way.
Needless to say, Elizabeth and Annie enjoyed the holidays thoroughly - home again after long months of boarding-school. After the holidays they did not return to Cheltenham House but went to a Mrs. Passmore for their lessons. Her husband was the post-master of Pinetown and he did most of the teaching that the girls received. She taught them music. Here they were allowed far more liberty than at Cheltenham House, but, as this means of education did not prove satisfactory, it was discontinued after six months.
In the meanwhile a Mr. Barnett and his wife had come from England and had settled about two miles from the Russells' home. Mrs. Barnett who had had ten years experience as a schoolmistress undertook to teach all the Russell children at a salary of a hundred pounds per annum. The scholars walked the two miles to school every morning. Later on, however, to overcome this difficulty their father gave the Barnetts a free house close to the mills - it was the same one that Mr. Mileman, the superintendent, had had a while back.
Mrs. Barnett proved to be a wonderful teacher. She had travelled extensively, and during the History, the Geography and the Scripture lessons she held her pupils spell-bound by her glowing accounts of the different countries, the inhabitants and their customs. Elizabeth in particular loved these lessons, as she found this method of studying very different indeed from the old way she had been accustomed to when she had been told to learn the next two pages in her book, which style of lesson she had found uninteresting in the extreme. Even at that early age she evinced a marked interest, which this teacher greatly fostered, in the happenings in other countries as well as in those of her adopted land.
She laughs with amusement as she recalls her teacher's words: "Elizabeth, your arithmetic is excellent but your essays are short, blunt and uninteresting."
Mrs. Barnett was very particular about deportment as one of the subjects of her school curriculum.
While she was at Boston a little girl was born to her. When she took ill her husband rushed off to Mrs. Russell for help. The latter got a certain Mrs. Pearson to attend the case. When this old lady arrived on the scene the baby had already been born and the excited new father had dipped it into a bucket of cold water to wash it. However, it survived this drastic treatment and Elizabeth was asked to be its godmother.
Some time after this the Barnetts bought a small farm and left Boston, so Elizabeth was sent to Maritzburg to take finishing lessons. She boarded with Dr. Greening's widow and a Miss Gower gave her lessons in music and water-colour painting. She did not like painting and was not too good at music so did not make much progress.
While she was there a great commercial depression began. She saw an advertisement that a governess was wanted by the Cowards at Umshalali, so, deciding to go to work to help her father during the slump, she applied for the advertised post and got it. She was sixteen years old at the time. Her salary was to be a pound a month with free board and lodging.
Before setting out for her new sphere of life she wrote to her prospective employer and clearly stated that she would not undertake any responsibilities after school hours. This was indeed characteristic, as to-day still she believes in a clear understanding in all business matters, and, if possible, she likes to have the conditions stated in black and white.
Not long after she had assumed her new duties trouble ensued. Mrs. Coward wanted her to exercise discipline with regard to the children after school hours but she refused to do so and referred to the letter she had written about the matter. The mother also interfered with punishments meted out in school and as a result of this a heated argument took place. Eventually the matter was referred to Mr. Coward who, when he had heard both sides, said he considered the governess was entirely within her rights. After this the mother gave no further trouble and all went smoothly.
Elizabeth had been carrying on as governess for six months when she decided to go home for a rest. Before she left Umshalali she gave her employer notice as she found the life too lonely so wished to secure work elsewhere. A few weeks later, however, Mr. Coward came to Boston personally to offer her a higher salary and a horse to ride if she would return. She accepted the offer and went back, as she thought if she could get about on the horse it would make a big difference to her quiet life as a governess. Every Thursday morning she rode to the post to fetch her letters and had school in the afternoon on that day.
Some time later she wished to better her position by obtaining a post in a governmant school. For this purpose she approached Mr. Brooks, who was the Superintendent of Education in Natal at that time and whose head-quarters were at Maritzburg. She asked the Cowards to put in a good word for her, and they kindly went to see the superintendent personally and recommended her very highly. Mr. Brooks examined her and declared himself to be fully satisfied with the result.
While this interview was taking place Mr. Mc.Kenzie (father of Sir Duncan Mc.Kenzie) came to see the superintendent about some business matter. When he heard that Elizabeth was wanting a teacher's post he asked her to fill a vacancy at Fort Nottingham. She was delighted at the idea, and, on the completion of his business, set out with him to this place, where he called a meeting of the School Board to which he took her and proposed that she should fill the vacancy on the staff of the school. One of the members stood up and remarking on her youth, she was seventeen at the time, exclaimed: "That chit! That chit! Much good she'd be as a teacher!" She seethed with indignation. Mr. Mc.Kenzie wanted them to give her a trial but they refused to do so.
Early next morning she went back to Maritzburg to interview Mr. Brooks about the matter. At her indignant description of what had taken place at Fort Nottinghham, the big, hearty man threw back his head and roared with laughter, and she waxed more indignant than ever.
Soon, however, a vacancy occurred at Caversham at Sterkspruit and another at Liversages Drift. She was offered the choice of the two posts. Although the salary was the smaller, she decided to accept that at Caversham because it was nearer to Fort Nottingham and she knew the School Board there would hear how her work progressed, She was determined to show the members that she could teach. Chit indeed!
While she was teaching there she read of diamonds being found embedded in rock in India. This brought back to her mind some shiny stones she had seen embedded in the masses of rock at the Upper Umkomaas where she had gone to a picnic a few years previously. She wondered whether they could be diamonds and could not rest until she knew.
One holiday she and her brother, Alfred, generally called Tucker, planned a trip to the spot to secure some of the shiny stones. They rode across country to the Upper Umkomaas where they stayed with people named Harrington. They found the picnic spot without difficulty and there sure enough were the gleaming pebbles. Some of these small stones formed circles while others were scattered about haphazardly in the surface of the rock. The fortune-seekers set to work with chisel and hammer and managed to chop out a few of the bright pebbles, but were greatly disappointed on their return home when their diamonds proved to be crystals.
Many of the pupils at Caversham had to cross Sterkspruit to reach the school, and on account of this they were very irregular during the rainy season. Elizabeth was dissatisfied with this state of affairs and thought how useful it would be to have a foot-bridge built so that the attendance of the children could improve. This idea grew into a determination. She discussed the possibilities of the matter with the people of Caversham. At first many of them were most discouraging and enumerated all the difficulties the carrying out of the plan would entail. Most of them considered that she would not succeed in her project although they agreed with her that the bridge would be extremely useful. In spite of all the cold water thrown on her scheme she held to her determination and soon her enthusiasm fired a number of the men, some of whom offered to supply the material, while others lent her a couple of wagons with oxen, and many offered to help with the work. In time the bridge was completed, and it proved to be a great convenience not only to the school children but also to everybody in the neighbourhood.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron