The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
Occasion found me in Northern Natal last week, and taking the opportunity, I took the road from Vryheid through the village of Utrecht towards the Newcastle District. By the time I reached the intersection with the N11 in the latter half of the afternoon, I knew I would have to motor up Majuba Pass with some speed to get to O’Neil’s Cottage before the sun set and curtailed my visit. The N11, one of the finest roads in Natal, and now recently upgraded, my VW Caddy cruised effortlessly up the winding hill to Majuba Mountain, terrain that had taken the British troops days of back-breaking slog to cover. How the world had changed in 133 years. One can read the accounts of Lieutenant- General Evelyn Wood in his anecdotal book of how he crisscrossed this terrain on horseback as he negotiated peace with the Transvaal Boers in 1881. He must have been pretty fit, or at the least, his horse.
It was a beautiful winter day, as only a South African winter day can be – crisp, sparkling sunshine and brilliant blue skies. The wheaten-coloured veldt looked welcoming, this was after-all, me coming back home. How I had missed the mountains. When I turned off at O’Neil’s and bounced over the rough track and climbed out before the cottage, I almost sunk down on my knees and kissed the blessed ground.
O’Neil’s Cottage had only recently been restored and I was keen to see the historic dwelling after having written a short history on the building and its once owner Richard Charles O’Neil. Slinging my camera over my shoulder I opened the farm gate and walked up to structure over neatly mown green grass. It certainly looked lovely, even homely in the golden light and I immediately took some photographs from different angles. Like all those many tens of thousands of previous visitors ever since the Battle of Majuba in 1881 – I was keen to take in the atmosphere and capture this humble home in a worthy image. I trust I did O’Neil’s Cottage some justice, more thanks to the good light and my camera than to any personal skill.
Its aspect against the sunlit Majuba Mountain was delightful. Reflecting, while looking up those delightfully lit heights, it was difficult to imagine that any dreadful event could occur on its golden summit… and yet!
That soldiers suffered appalling wounds here and died within the walls of the cottage, far from home and homeland, was a sobering thought that intruded constantly on my appreciation of the humble structure. A view from the front window to the stone-walled grave site of several British soldiers concreted in my mind that these dark events were real indeed.
The small stone-walled graves of soldiers of the King’s Royal Rifles Corps (60th Rifles).
Photograph of the weather-pitted stones of the Kings Own Rifles’ Graveyard.
On the front facade of the cottage in the middle of the gable and constructed of light-coloured sandstone, is the emblem of a cross. In a real way, the entire building becomes a head stone, and as a memorial, it is most appropriate. I an sure that when the dwelling was built in 1870 by Peter Hayward de Barry, that he had added the embellishment as a Christian blessing and protection on his home. In mystical foreshadowing, his action imbued the structure with the necessary sanctification. And so this little stone cottage and its garden became a place of refuge to the battle wounded, a resting place for the dead, a venue for peace negotiations between Boer and Briton and a reminder of the folly of war. I am certain that some of the delegations that gathered here in 1881 must have realized the symbolism so clearly displayed on the gable. I certainly did on my visit.
I love all things stone, from stone-age hand axes to dry stone walls, from cave paintings to grave stones. Somewhere in our human development, is an innate appreciation of rock. It represents for me all that is stable, enduring and worthwhile. So I was keen to see the building’s stone walls and to photograph them. Of especial interest were the flagstones on the ‘stoep’, the neatly chiseled corner stones and the gravestones. All the walls have been neatly re-pointed with mortar, except for the lower wall (left) of the front facade where the restorers inexplicably failed to re-point; and where it has been done on this wall, not enough cement was added to the mixture resulting in it crumbling to finger touch. Fortunately, most of the walls are well restored and the Barn has been pointed beautifully. I could only stand back and admire the work expended on this most time-consuming of tasks.
(above and below) the rear doorway to the cottage and the loft door. The large stone lintel to the door has cracked and has been replaced with smaller stones above a flimsy wooden beam that will surely not be supportive.
The Barn wall.
The flagstoned ‘Stoep’.
A framed section of the interior wall left unplastered to show the interior stonework of unworked stone and what looked like ‘daga’ (anthill mud) for mortar.
The stone foundation courses that have not been properly pointed.
On an aesthetic level – what is disappointing to me is the absence of the original dry-stone garden wall that appears in all the old photographs, Also, that all the garden plants have been removed over the years rendering the structure some how unrooted to its immediate location. I write this for the original name for the cottage is ‘Rosedale’, and without doubt, Mrs. Bessy de Barry who named her home, would have planted several of these flowering shrubs in her garden. We know from historical records that the lower garden was planted with fruit trees, and from records a lemon tree. In my opinion the restoration of O’Neil’s should include the restoration of the garden, orchard and stonewall. Of interest the lower stone-walled kraal is extent. For certain – there is plenty of stone around the area to reconstruct the walls.
(above) Richard Charles O’Neil (seated) in front of his cottage and garden.
(above) O’Neil’s descendants photographed in the garden to the cottage.
The farm on which O’Neil’s Cottage is situated has been called “Stonewall’ for well over a hundred years. While ambling around the building I reflected on this name and wondered why de Barry had named it thus. Was his inspiration the stone wall that once surrounded the dwelling? Another reason could be that if one casts one’s eyes up to Majuba mountain, one will note a band of sedimentary rock that lies about one third of the way up the slope and runs all the way around the mount and to my eye looks very much like a stone wall. Much of this natural feature is hidden today by tree growth, but in older images of the area, it is very noticeable.
(above) The geographic feature resembling a stonewall is visible in this image.
Not long after I arrived at the cottage, a woman came down from the nearby farm and kindly opened the door to the house, allowing me to go in and appreciate its interior and the exhibits. There is a wonderful lopsidedness to the home, and I do not believe there is a single true horizontal or vertical. The years have settled the structure into diagonals. The parlour is small and it is difficult to imagine all the peace delegates crammed together in close proximity in 1881. I am certain that any private conversations were held out of doors or perhaps on the ‘stoep’. A photograph exists of the delegates (Evelyn Wood and Paul Kruger among them) posing in front of the cottage. (*See my other posting on O’Neil’s Cottage).
A view from the passage looking towards the front door.
The Fireplace in the parlour.
Looking from the back door, down the passage to the parlour, kitchen entrance to the right.
The kitchen and its fireplace.
A framed view from the kitchen through the window to the Barn.
A view through the front window towards the military grave.
(above image and two images below) The Barn and Wagon House.
I am most grateful to those responsible for driving and organising the restoration – for over the years I had read of its degradation, even to the point that its future seemed uncertain. So to see its stonework re-pointed and its fretwork painted brilliant white, was a pleasure indeed. I trust that the restoration will be extended to the O’Neil Family Graveyard which lies to the rear of the cottage. The plot has been cleared of grass and scrub which is essential to the preservation of the head stones. Many of the grave stones have been damaged beyond any reading of their inscriptions, mostly because the heat of veldt fires have burst many of the memorials. I trust that a close examination of the rock shards will allow a reassembly of these memorials. The stonewall around the graves is also in poor repair.
Graveyard showing the headstones of Richard Charles On’Neil and his wife Elizabetha Maria O’Neil nee’ Crouse.
Stonewall to graveyard in a broken-down condition.
A closer examination of the headstone in the top right hand of the image shows signs of fire damage.
O head stone damaged by fire.
Graveyard with Majuba Mountain in the background.
This interesting homemade memorial to Richard Harmanus Jan O’Neil.
A view from the Graveyard towards O’Neil’s Cottage.
As the sun started setting behind Majuba and the deep shadows of the mountain crept across the cottage, I said goodbye to O’Neil’s Cottage by taking my last photograph of the memorial; and then, taking the R34, I motored down towards the town of Newcastle with the shadows pursuing me, deepening into twilight as I passed Coetzee’s Drift, and overtaking me in melancholia as I reached Signal Hill.
Graham Leslie McCallum
At end of day.