David Gray


My paternal grandfather, David John Gray, arrived in South Africa in November 1899 as a member of the 2nd Battalion East Sussex contingent sent to fight in the Anglo Boer War. After the war he found that Africa had ‘got into his blood’ and so he was demobilised in South Africa and promptly sent for his wife, Mary Jane Gray and their two children, Ellen and Wyndham. They duly arrived on one of the troop ships sent from England to repatriate the army. The family settled in Teakworth in the Transvaal where Grandfather had managed to secure work as a ganger on the railway. Eight years and four additional children later my Grandparents decided to travel north to the newly opened territory of Northern Rhodesia. Working in the predominantly Afrikaans Transvaal where anti British sentiment ran high had finally made them take this decision.

A 12 day train journey brought them to Mazabuka where the station master’s wife allowed them to sleep in a tent after providing them with a cooked dinner. Next day an 8 hour ox wagon journey completed the journey. Grandfather had been accepted for the post of assistant manager on the Nanga Estate which was being run by Ben Woest on behalf of the owner, the Duke of Westminster. He saw this as a stepping stone to owning his own farm and within a few years had acquired a suitable property at nearby Nega Nega through the ‘Soldier-Settler Scheme’. They named the farm Honiton because of connections with lace-making and settled down to raise their family and make their fortunes. My Grandparents had come from peasant stock from Devon and Dorset. Four generations prior their forebears had been gaoled for smuggling and poaching. Grandfather had been a railway porter at Waterloo Station and Granny had been second assistant seamstress to Princess Alexandria. Before leaving England they had rented accommodation in Lambeth just south of the Thames near Lambeth Bridge. Life in London must have been bleak with coal fires, gas lamps, miserable weather, pea-soup fog, teaming millions and grinding poverty. Now the Grays had property, a chance to live off the land, and servants! Granny had 12 house servants all known as “boys” whatever their ages. One house boy, one cook boy, a kitchen boy for washing up, a laundry / ironing boy, a wood gatherer, a mail runner / general factotum, a dairy hand, a boy to tend the donkeys and chickens, two water boys to draw water and transport it from the windmill in the garden to the house on a hill half a mile away and two gardeners. The two eldest children Nell and Wyn received a good education for those days passing matric, but the four youngest had a hit and miss time of it under a series of governesses from England who taught for a while and then married local farmers. My father, Bill and his brother Jack were very close and often played hooky, taking a rifle and returning late in the afternoon. They faced a thrashing on their return which was changed to a scolding if they brought home a kudu or some such antelope for the pot.

With the onset of the 1st World War a wave of British patriotism swept the colonies and my Uncle Wyn, who was 15 years old at the time, managed to convince the recruiting officers that he was much older. He served if France and was taken prisoner by the Germans.   He was forced to plant cabbages and for his pains existed on thin vegetable soup. His battle experiences were so horrific that he never discussed the war with anyone. He was repatriated to England after the armistice and eventually arrived back in Cape Town where he was demobilised. He set out with several other Northern Rhodesians to walk home along the railway track. They were allowed to retain their rifles and game was still plentiful so they did not starve. As luck would have it a passing train picked them up (there was only one train a week to Rhodesia.)   Wyn managed to send a telegram to his family and everyone turned out at Nega Nega Siding. It was early 1919 and the rains had brought the Nega Nega River down in spate. The train bearing Wyn was unable to cross the swollen river for fear that the bridge had suffered damage but Wyn crossed on foot with his kit bag and rifle and ran toward his family who in turn ran towards him – it was a very tearful home coming! It had taken two weeks to travel from Cape Town to Nega Nega.

Later as the years went by, the aspirations of the black servants for wage increases meant that the household labour force decreased but the displaced servants never left the farm and relied on those still employed for their food. The compliment of house servants never fell below six.   The family grew up and weekend tennis parties were the order of the day. Young folk from the surrounding farms converged on Honiton and the otherwise lonely teenagers had a great time. One newcomer to the area was Len Vaughan, a dashing young officer who had completed his training just before armistice so had not seen service. He was invited to the parties and proceeded to sweep young Nell off her feet. They were married in 1922.   Farming could not sustain three brothers so Wyn was apprenticed to a wheel right and wagon maker and set up his blacksmith shop on the farm. My father had a team of oxen and a wagon and during the winter months would travel down into the Zambezi Valley to the villages in that area (now submerged under Lake Kariba). He would barter gold sovereigns for cattle and then drive these back to Choma or Monze where he sold them to cattle dealers from Southern Rhodesia.

Northern Rhodesia was a dangerous place with snakes, spiders, crocodiles, leopards and lions all posing a threat to the unwary. My Uncle Jack was attacked by a wounded leopard and barely escaped with his life. Six months after that incident he was helping my father swim a newly acquired herd of cattle across the Kafue River when the dugout canoe in which they were paddling began to fill with water. They abandoned the sinking canoe and struck out for the bank some 20 m away. My dad reached the bank and turned to see where Jack was but only saw his hat floating down the river. Jack had been taken by a crocodile. His body was recovered 3 days later and an 8 foot croc was shot close by.

The big social event of the year was always the Kafue Agricultural Show and there my Mom and Dad met in 1928. Mom was of German/Danish descent and was visiting a Danish relative from a nearby farm who attended the Show. My Mother and Father married in Cape Town in 1933 and returned to Honiton. Grandfather Gray was taken seriously ill with intense stomach pains so a letter was written to the doctor in Lusaka and he duly arrived by train several days later. It was decided that an operation was necessary so the riempie (interwoven animal hide thongs) settee was stripped of cushions and a large enamel/iron basin was positioned beneath to catch the blood. Chloroform was administered and the operation proceeded. Now my Mother had been having a torrid time of living with her in-laws. Being of German descent and with WW I still fresh in their minds, Mom was not exactly welcomed with open arms. They called her ‘the Hun’ within earshot.   However, in his time of need, Grandfather elected that Mom should do the nursing and his own daughters should be spared the gory details. The investigation revealed stomach cancer and the doctor decided that he could do nothing further so the operation was terminated and the incision sewn up. Grandfather died four days later.

The next problem was inheritance of the farm. By tradition the eldest son Wyn inherited even thought he was not competent to do the farming. My father on the other hand was highly competent and so there was an immediate clash resulting in Mom and Dad leaving the farm and seeking employment on the Copperbelt. Post Depression times were hard but my Dad persevered and was employed by Anglo American on the Nkana mine in 1934. His work was on the smelters and there too my Dad soon became proficient in ‘reading’ the colours of the flames to determine the progress of the smelting process. They skimped and saved for there was still that dream of owning a farm and getting away from the exhausting shift-work. They saw the Nkana shopping centre grow from a few wood and iron structures to the Kitwe business centre.   Eventually they were granted a house – a Kimberley brick structure (Un-burnt clay bricks) with a corrugated Iron roof and then their world turned upside down. Mom learnt that she was expecting me and as the local medical facilities were basic and the doctors predicted a difficult birth, Mom made plans to travel the four day train journey to Cape Town where adequate facilities existed. And so I was born a South African by default. Ever since my Uncle Jack had died my Grandmother had requested that the next boy born should be christened David John after my Grandfather and Uncle and that he should be nicknamed “Jack”.   So I was duly christened and at the age of two months I survived the long train journey home. Granny boarded the train at Mazabuka and spent the next half hour with Mom and me getting off at Nega Nega Siding. I understand that I made life very difficult for all due to the jolting of the train and the shaking up of the ‘Cow and Gate‘ baby formula in my tummy. My first recollections of home were of caring parents and a world war going on in an unknown place called Europe. I recall tedious weeks when I had to be absolutely quiet as Dad was asleep having worked night shift. I remember mom listening to the war news on the radio being read slowly ‘at dictation speed’, and writing furiously so that the news accompanied my Dad’s dinner sent in a nesting set of enamel / iron containers called “deckers”, the top one containing buttered bread and the cutlery, the next soup followed by one with the main meal and the bottom one containing dessert. The houses were built on large plots of land on which my Dad always managed to grow fantastic organic vegetables. The houses were arranged in avenues and running behind the houses was a sanitary lane along which the refuse cart trundled to collect the rubbish and contents of dust bins. In the corner of each plot or yard and next to the sanitary lane was a small square servant’s room or kiaya and half way along each lane was a communal ablution facility and toilet block (Chimbush) for those servants. Dad was termed a “Key Man” and was not expected to enlist for military service as copper production was of such vital importance.   My parents were of sober habits and did not frequent the local mine club but on VE Day everyone dressed in their best and went to the club where I, as a wide eyed six year old, witnessed the festivities in celebration of Germany’s surrender.   Small things stand out in the mind of a child like the trumpet player standing on a table playing away while the celebrating masses swirled around him.

School now loomed ahead of me and I was enrolled in the kindergarten class of the Kitwe School whose tyrannical headmaster was the renowned Frederick Knapp. I lived in mortal fear of that man and was reduced to an inarticulate jelly each time I had dealings with him. Despite or probably because of this I excelled at school work but failed dismally on the sports field. Knapp retired and the school was renamed the Frederick Knapp School. There I completed my Cambridge Overseas ‘O’ Levels and then moved to the new Kitwe High School where I completed my “A” Levels. Being an only child I was fairly lonely and my Parents used to employ a young Black boy of my age during the school holidays to be a playmate. This child called Moffat hobbled into our lives looking for gardening work at the start of one school holiday and returned each year for four years. He had a deformed right knee having been shot by police quelling the 1939 riots. Moffat was strapped to his mother’s back at the time. We got on well together conversing in a mixture of English and ‘Fanagolo’. I wonder what happened to my friend after he outgrew this cross cultural association. Since the age of six I had been fascinated with movie photography (sparked by a neighbour showing Disney cartoons to the neighbourhood children – most looked at the screen but I was entranced with the projector as well!)   At 9 years of age I had even entertained the thought of becoming a professional documentary film maker! I had set my mind on owning a camera and saved my pocket money and collected empty mineral water bottles which my Dad claimed the deposit from the shops.   It took three years to collect the £47-10-00 for a Paillard Bolex L8 movie camera. Those were the days of 110% copper bonuses and my Dad could have given me the camera but, canny man that he was, he wanted me to learn how to save. This lesson has stayed with me through life. Having made his point he then increased my pocket money to make buying a movie projector easy.   I am still an avid photographer and my earliest results are still projectable. Later I set my sights on reading Electrical Engineering at University but ciné photography has always been my main hobby.

My first year at the University of Cape Town was almost my last – I wrapped a car round a bridge after the steering linkage failed and spent four months in Hospital. Good friends brought their lecture notes in and these were studiously copied. I wrote to my lecturers and was allowed to write the year end exams – on crutches and with one leg in full length plaster. Amazingly I passed and on the strength of this applied for two bursaries. Both the Rotary Club of Kitwe and the Mine Workers Union gave me small bursaries and I managed to graduate with an honours degree in the allotted four years. Armed with this degree I returned to the Copperbelt and was taken on as a Graduate Apprentice. For the next two years I followed a practical training course working in each section of the mine and surface plant wearing overalls and often up to the elbows in grease. This equipped me for the real world of engineering and the sound training I received there has allowed me to work on fascinating projects in such places as Germany (Non woven textiles), England (Polyester Polymers), Tanzania (Williamson’s Diamond Mine), South Africa (Huguenot Toll Tunnel and Lighting of major highways near Cape Town) and Taiwan (Part of the Taipei Underground railway system and Workshops.)  I am not unhappy with the way my life has panned out thus far and I thank the grounding I received from my Parents, my Northern Rhodesian schooling, the practical training I received at Rhokana and the many wonderful people who lived there and interacted with me for setting me on the right track.

Looking back at the period of the Second World War through to the dissolution of the Federation and the run up to Zambian Independence, I can only conclude that I was incredibly ill informed and naïve. I had been brought up to believe that White rule would go on for ever, that the Native population were happy with their lot and had never had it better, that things were just fine for everyone and that common sense would prevent Britain ‘giving away’ the colonies. Gradually the awful truth dawned on me. World Politics did not have a place for elitist societies where colour determined position. I did not believe the stories of atrocities in South Africa and was brainwashed with the propaganda.   My Parents had retired to Cape Town and when conditions deteriorated in Zambia after Ian Smith’s UDI, I left and settled in Cape Town. Bad move possibly because once I had married and our daughter had arrived we were locked into the system where we were financial captives, unable to move our bank accounts and subjected to falling Rand values. It became well nigh impossible to move and still preserve our comfortable lifestyle. We travelled extensively but never found that perfect place to settle. In fact we are still looking! My feelings toward my fellow man have swung from being a supremacist to being sympathetic with the aspirations of the Blacks, to an undecided, frustrated feeling of fury at despotic, power hungry, greedy Black leaders who are ruining Africa. I feel great sympathy for the masses even though those masses vote their corrupt leaders into power and thus perpetuate the downward spiral. If only some middle way could have been found in which ability was the deciding factor in advancement, where a smooth transition could have happened rather than abrupt change, where standards were preserved instead of reduced to bring everyone to the same substandard level. I have been a Rotarian for 28 years repaying the debt of that small bursary! Much of our work is aimed at the underprivileged but I am often disillusioned when grabbing officials seek to channel our efforts to their own pockets. I also get frustrated when projects are vandalised by the very people we are trying to help. Having said all that, I become elated when we manage to do some real good in the community.

I yearn for that period of my life which has gone for ever, a period when the musty damp overcast rainy season ended and that magic period of crisp Autumn, Winter and Spring days came round. I am not so fond of the swirling dusty whirlwinds of early Summer and the brazen skies and oppressive heat of October but even then there were special things that I recall – the singing cicadas in the trees, the wonderful colours of dormant trees bursting into leaf ahead of the rainy season, the flying ants and the smell of those first drops of rain on the parched earth. I long for that stable world where everything appeared to be under control. I can do without the social climbing of small mining town life though!   It has been a wonderful experience growing up in Central Africa. Where else could I have watched my Uncle Wyn making wagons in 1948 and a mere 20 years later listen to the radio broadcast of the moon landing! It has been an extraordinary period of technological and political change.   I feel really privileged to have experienced Africa at its very best and I am saddened by its current problems.

Zambia reached rock bottom about ten years back and since then has been clawing its way back. Zimbabwe has sunk below the lowest Zambian standard with no hope of recovery in the foreseeable future. Some say that this can never happen in South Africa but I see ominous distant early warning signs and I am not so certain that all will be well. I came across a poem by Michelle Frost which puts everything in a nutshell and copy it here although you may well have seen it in the poetry section of the GNR. The poem is called “Homeland” and I made contact with Michelle about two years back seeking permission to reproduce it in my proposed book about the Grays. Michelle refused because the work was about to be published. I feel much as Michelle does – you can take the man out of Africa but you can never take Africa out of the man.


Michelle Frost


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