Not even a blue penny

Auctions offer a great ‘data base’ for an author wanting to furnish a novel – particularly if an entire single household of goods is at stake, and not only in the variety of items on view – but also in the people who attend them. Many moods range across such occasions.

A highlight is the chance to view works of art – the Irma Sterns, Peter Clarkes, Pierneefs, De Jonghs, Boonzaiers, Muafangejos, Laubsers, Kriges and Sekotos, for example – that move from one private collection to another and which, apart from being recorded in the auctioneers’ catalogues, are not likely to be published in art books.

When we lived in Grahamstown in the 1980s, I enjoyed attending the auctions run by John Van Wijk at his rooms in High Street next to the magnificent Methodist Church. Years later, I used his building as the premises for a bottle store owned by Reuben Cohen van Tonder in my novel, A Quilt of Dreams.

Periodically, the entire household of goods of an ‘old’ family would go under John’s hammer and one would have the chance to view something of Settler history as seldom seen outside a museum or gallery. Here would be the inherited items that had come down the generations – old prints, furniture, brassware, worn oriental carpets, bone china and lead crystal. There would be the interesting bric-a-brac and small things like biscuit and tea-tins, cake pans and patty-pans, tea-tray cloths, delicately embroidered items of bed linen, meat-mincers and butter churns. There would be old postcards and photographs which held so much personal history, all now given to the mercy of strangers to foster. Sometimes a single Royal Albert bone china cup, the lone survivor of an old tea set, would join a ‘job lot’ of this-and-that, offering a poignant touch to the dismantled possessions of someone no longer in need of them, for whatever reason, but often death.

Recently, the home and household goods of the late Muriel Garlick were auctioned in Cape Town. The items were still in situ on the day of the sale and one could sense the gracious lifestyle that once played out within Ms Garlick’s vast mansion in Constantia.

While admiring the Doulton, Wedgewood and Royal Worcester tea sets, dinner services and dishes, I reflected that her servants would have had a far more intimate relationship with these items than she did, for they would have been the ones who washed and dried and carefully put things away, while she would simply have supped or eaten from them. It would have been the servants who knew, through their polishing of them, the finer details of the silver tureens and trays.

Listening to the strong bidding and the hammer falling at the excellent prices, my thoughts turned to the plates of other diners, and to other meals – the ones offered to the poor at the Service Dining Room at 82 Canterbury Street in Cape Town. There the plates are white plastic and the cutlery just plastic spoons. The guests are the homeless and destitute of our city and their ‘hostess’ is the late Miss Dorothy Syfret, the daughter of one of South Africa’s earlier leading financiers.

Dorothy Syfret set up the Service Dining Room in 1935 after being asked by a beggar for a ticky. She determined that a person should be able to buy a nourishing meal for just that amount of money and proceeded to set up a feeding charity. To this day, from Monday to Friday each week, poor people are served a wholesome meal for a mere five cents and they can eat it in comfort, sitting at the long tables of this sparse but welcoming place.

Today, the menu boasted soup, samp and a delicately spiced meat stew served with bread. For those who came early, there was also a mealie. For all of them, there was the pleasure of eating a hot, tasty, specially prepared meal that did not need to be served on Wedgewood in order to afford dignity.


Found poem: Not even a blue penny
Grahamstown 1989
Domestic worker – name withheld
As told to Patricia Schonstein

I worked for my Madam for many years.
All those years even up to the end I was there.
Right up to the end.
All those years she wanted me to have the tea set.
From the display.
And the mug with the picture of the King and Queen.
You know? Not this Queen. The old one. With the King.
But my Madam’s friend came to pack the house.
When the Master had to go to the old age place.
She gave me nothing to remember my Madam by.
Not even a blue penny.
Not even a chipped cup.


Found poem: Not even a blue penny is included in Africa! My Africa! an anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein, sold to raise funds for Seed Readers.

Seed Readers is a project that will produce story books based on principles of peace, non-violence, non-racism and care of the earth. They will seed an understanding of our true role as custodians of the earth and oceans. They will inspire children to live ethically and in a sustainable manner.

Please email to place your order
R295 plus R55 postage & packaging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *