Procrastination with purpose

‘We don’t want you doing research in twenty years’ time.  You have to start writing the story around it.’
My creative writing lecturer had been aghast to hear that I’d been on Harry’s case since the late 1990’s.  She had a point.

Probing the past is a powerful drug, enhanced by the continual release of new information.  Every time an email arrives in my inbox advising of some hitherto unseen resource, the urge to sneak a peek is almost too much to resist.  I think I’m getting better at it.

Recently I’ve had a shift in thinking about where the research is taking me.  This came about after I finished reading Robert Eales’ book on Emily Hobhouse, A Compassionate Englishwoman.  There had to be a back story to an Englishman being in a Boer town occupied by British forces during a war.  So here I am about to do more research, but with one difference: I’m going to do it in South Africa.

It had started drizzling when I walked through the entrance of the Bathers Pavilion, a beach-side restaurant and café on Mosman’s Balmoral Beach.  I’d been delighted to discover that not only did Robert Eales and I live in the same town, we live in the same suburb.  I had a mental image of Robert from the head shot on his website.  The live version was shorter than I’d expected, but trim and with clear blue eyes.  I noticed that he had a small backpack with him.  We settled at a table near the windows that look out across Middle Harbour to North Head.  The rain had eased, but I knew it would be back later, and with insufficient notice.  Sydney is like that.

Ahead of my trip to South Africa, I wanted to probe Robert’s knowledge of Bloemfontein during the Anglo-Boer War and his contacts.  As he spoke, I took notes. He pulled out a map and pointed to the site of the Bloemfontein concentration camp; a large freeway, built with apparent disregard for the history of the area, has alienated a section of the site.  It is less than five kilometres from the town centre, closer in than I’d expected.  He didn’t think there was much to look at there; but if I wanted a better example of a concentration camp, I could go to Orange River Station, about 100 kilometres south of Kimberley.  There was a contingency, however: that camp was on private property and the entrance gate padlocked.  He gave me the name of the owner and suggested I contact her.

I offered to drive Robert home.
‘Thanks, but I’ll walk.’
When he told me where home was, I knew that he would be walking up Awaba Street – the venue for the annual Balmoral Burn – and up and down a few other ‘hills’ before arriving at his front gate.  He proffered his backpack; it must have weighed at least four kilos.  ‘That’s for extra effort,’ he said.

Back home, I looked for Orange River Station on Google Maps.  Having pinpointed Robert’s co-ordinates – ‘if you find the two silos, the camp is next door’ – I switched to Google Earth for a view of the landscape.  Apart from a few splotches of green along the river banks, the terrain was barren and desolate-looking.  I counted fewer than 20 houses in the small settlement that takes its name from the railway stop.

The only contact I could find for Rina Wiid, custodian of the Orange River Station concentration camp, was a phone number.  I called yesterday at around 11am, South African time.  The recorded message, in Afrikaans, implied that Rina was out and could the caller please leave a contact phone number.  I blurted out an email address, then thought how useless that was.  My husband called today and Rina picked up.  We’re booked in for a night in a few weeks’ time.

It may not be in Bloemfontein, but this camp site comes complete with imprints of where the tents stood and a swag of artefacts that Rina has harvested and put on display.  It is as close as I am going to get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.  Downstream is another special place: the old railway bridge, from which I inadvertently pitched my wallet into the Orange River in the 1960s.  All that is left are the original columns that supported the bridge.  But it would be good to see it again.

The Brothers from another planet

I.G.[1]   Bro. J.W. there is a report
J.W.       R.W.M. there is a report
R.W.M. Enquire who seeks admission, Bro. J.W.
J.W.       See who seeks admission, Bro. I.G.
I.G.         (Goes out and receives T’s report).  How does he hope to obtain these privileges?  (Receives reply, and inspects the candidate to see that he is properly prepared).  Wait, please, till I report to the R.W.M.
R.W.M. at the door of the L. stands Mr. K.L., a poor candidate in a state of darkness who has been well and worthily recommended, regularly proposed, balloted for and approved in open L. who now comes forward of his own free will and accord, properly prepared, humbly soliciting to be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of ancient F.M.
R.W.M. By virtue of what qualifications does he hope to obtain these great and glorious privileges?
L.G.        Being a man, free born, sound in body and mind, able and willing to earn his daily bread should it be required of him so to do.  Come this way: do you, Bro. I.G. vouch that L. is properly prepared?  That by putting his trust in A.G. and being duly vouched for by the worthy B.B. of this L.
R.W.M. These indeed are all necessary qualifications for all who (incomplete sentence)
I.G.         I do.
R.W.M. Then let him be admitted in due form.
I.G.         Enter this L. in the name of T.G.A.O.T.U. (applies the S.I).  As this is a torture to your flesh at the present time, so may the recollection of it be to your mind and conscience in all time coming should you ever be about to improperly disclose the secrets of F.W.
R.W.M. Mr K.L. as no person other than a mason unless he is of mature age, I demand of you, are you the full age of twenty-one years?
Cand.    I am.
R.W.M. Thus assured I will thank you to kneel on both knees (or be covered) while the blessing of heaven is invoked on our proceedings.
Chap.    We supplicate Thine and Almighty God, Thou G.A.O.T.U. on this our present convention.  Do Thou grant that this candidate for F.M. may so dedicate and devote his life to Thy service as to become a true and faithful Bro. among us.  Endow him with a competency of Thy divine wisdom, so that assisted by the secrets of our masonic art he may the better be enabled to display the beauties of true godliness to the honour and glory of Thy most holy name.
Onmes  S.M.I.B.
R.W.M. In all cases of doubt, difficulty and danger in whom do you place your trust?
Cand.    In G.
R.W.M. Right glad am I to find your faith well founded.  Relying on such sure support you may safely arise (be uncovered) and follow your enlightened guide with a firm but humble confidence for where that great name is invoked we trust no danger can or will ensue. 

Whoever Mr K.L. was, he was judged to be of sufficiently high morals and good character to be admitted as a Freemason to the Zion Lodge, a lodge of the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal.  As part of his initiation, he was brought before a meeting of the lodge, blindfolded at first, and guided through a ritual journey to ‘Masonic light’.  He knelt at an altar and placed his hands on a scripture of the religion he practised, taking a binding oath or ‘obligation’.  He was sworn to secrecy, and taught certain lessons about Freemasonry and its symbols, including the moral and social virtues that are the foundation stones of the Masonic fraternity.  Finally, he was appraised of things he would need to know as a lodge member.

Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest fraternity, whose members strive to live by the principles of truth, morality and brotherly love.  It provides members with an opportunity for public service and involvement in charitable and community affairs, in an environment devoid of religious, political or social barriers.  While the digital age has made the inner workings of the organisation more accessible to outsiders, one of the defining features of the American and British Commonwealth form is that access to women is still denied.  Which makes it especially sweet to have had a cache of early twentieth century Freemason ephemera fall into my hands.

On 5 August 1914, Harry paid a fee of two pounds, eighteen shillings and six pence – roughly £80 in today’s money – to join the Zion Lodge.  This included a joining fee, lodge dues and subscription for six months; a discount of one guinea (21 shillings) was applied for payment in the second half of the year.  Another receipt for renewal of subscription, dated 19 November 1917, also incurred a discount for late payment.

The receipts and minutes of meetings were tucked inside the by-laws of the Zion Lodge which, in turn, was slotted into the by-laws of the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal.  Insightful as these documents and their interpretation are, they are overshadowed by another item: a Freemason’s apron.


As the Zion lodge’s colour was dark blue, I know that this apron belonged to Harry.  While the bib and tassels are in good condition, the flap is brittle and every time I handle the garment, bits of dark blue fall off it.  Each time I scoop these up – those that aren’t pulverised, that is – and replace the lot in a plastic bag, waiting for some future time when I can find someone who can restore the apron.

Like everything masonic, the apron’s design is based on complex symbolism.  The one in the photo was a Fellow Craft apron, signifying that its wearer had attained a certain level of wisdom.  The two rosettes stress the dual nature of man and are a reference to the two Pillars.  They also show that the wearer is not yet a full Freemason, having yet to acquire a third rosette to form a triangle.  Either there was another apron that failed to survive or Harry did not progress beyond a state of budding spirituality.

The District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal had been founded in 1896 as a means of linking the various lodges of the ZAR.  In 1946, the Orange Free State was incorporated into the Lodge and in 1979 the Northern Cape followed to form the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Northern Cape.  It was around this time that I asked my father, who was also a Freemason, about the business of the organisation.  All I got was a half-smile.

I guess that towards the end of his life Dad had more important things on his mind than the onward journey of Harry’s freemasonry regalia and paperwork.  Likewise if my mother knew anything of their provenance, she did not share it with me.  At some point, I’ll need to decide who I can pass them on to.  One thing is certain: gender won’t be a deciding factor.

[1]              Notes to acronyms: I.G. – Inspector general; Bro – Brother; J.W. – junior warden; R.W.M. – Right Worshipful Master; T – Treasurer; L – Lodge; A.G. – Almighty God; T.G.A.O.T.U – The Great (or Grand) Architect of the Universe; F.M. – freemason; S.M.I.B. – so mote it be; G. – God.