A fascinating insight into life in the Waterberg a hundred years ago.
Some years ago, my neighbour and friend Clive Walker presented me with a copy of a book he’d picked up in a sale: “The Riddle of the Veld”, by C R Prance, published in 1941. This book, and several others similar in style, including “Under The Blue Roof” (1923) and “Tante Rebella’s Saga” (1937), comprised of a series of short stories about settler life in and around the Waterberg during the period 1908 to 1930, when Prance lived in the area. His style was to relate tales based on actual incidents, but with the people and places disguised, the latter often with wildly imaginative names like the Skranderberg, Grootgeelslangfontein, and Schlenterhoek. All were descriptive, humorous and mildly cynical anecdotes about the community in which the author lived; and together paint a vivid picture of that distant and poorly recorded era.
I had quite forgotten about this author until last year, when, going through the records of St Michael’s Union (formerly Anglican) Church in Modimolle, I came across the name of the Reverend E R Prance, who was Rector of the church between 1920 and 1922. Although only in this position for a short time, the Rev. Prance was fondly remembered by at least one of his parishioners, Mr Freddie Gibb, who recalled that “Vicar ER Prance was a popular padre… no cars… he rode horseback… came to the different farms for the day, often losing his way. The congregation was always waiting for him – or he for the congregation. When he christened my neighbour’s daughter, he arrived without a prayer book or surplice, but thought it would be OK if he wore a night dress belonging to the mother.”
The surname Prance being unusual, I thought it likely that the two men would be related; and so they were.
E R (Ernest Reginald) Prance was born in Nottinghamshire in 1870, the oldest son of an Anglican Rector and his wife. Schooled at Wellington College, Ernest Prance then went to Clare College, Cambridge, where he completed his MA in 1903. He was ordained as a deacon and served in the Anglican Church until the outbreak of World War 1, when he went off to France as a Royal Army Chaplain.
Back at the Priory at Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, a second son, C R (Cyril Rooke) Prance, had been born in 1872, followed by two sisters, Edith Lena (1875) and Dorothea. Cyril was also sent to a public school, Charterhouse, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in civil engineering.
After practising this profession for a few years, Cyril came out to South Africa at the commencement of the Anglo-Boer War to join Brabant’s Horse, a colonial regiment. His unit accompanied Lord Roberts into Pretoria on June 5, 1900, an event entertainingly described in letters home.
Like many other colonial troops, Prance was persuaded at the end of 1900 to join the newly-formed South African Constabulary, with which he served throughout the Transvaal until 1907.
From 1908 until 1921, Cyril Prance farmed as a tenant on the farm Mamiaanshoek 279 KQ (then owned by a land company, now incorporated in Marakele National Park) in the Waterberg District. Many of his later tales evoke telling images of the facilities and inhabitants of Rankin’s Pass, Vaalwater and Nylstroom as they might have been at that time.
In 1921, Cyril and his wife Gabrielle (they’d married in 1913) moved to Nylstroom to join brother Ernest, by now in residence there as the Rector of St Michael’s. Surprisingly, their oldest sister, Edith, who had trained as a chauffeur and served as an ambulance driver in France, had also arrived in the town. She is recorded as living with her brother on a small farm outside Nylstroom.
Edith too was to leave her mark on South Africa: in 1934, she drove herself in a car for three weeks through the newly-opened Kruger National Park; and wrote a book about her experiences: “Three Weeks in Wonderland – the Kruger National Park”, which helped put the park on the tourist map. She later retired to England, where she died in 1957 at the age of 82, bequeathing her home to the Scouting movement. Ernest also returned to England after his time at St Michael’s; and died there in 1947, aged 76.
In about 1930, Cyril and Gabrielle moved from Nylstroom to Port St Johns on the Natal coast, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives, and where Cyril would write numerous articles for various local and English magazines. He gradually collated these into book form and published a total of 12 titles, before his death in 1957. A compilation of stories he wrote about Port St Johns is currently in preparation.
But Cyril Rooke Prance will be remembered mainly for his colourful anecdotes about the Waterberg a century ago.
by Richard Wadley - Waterberg 2015