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Time Warp in a South African House

  • Darren Taylor

Ancient oak trees line the streets of Johannesburg’s Auckland Park. Below the behemoth of the grey building that is the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation is a home that’s stuck in a time warp.

To visit Lindfield House is to experience a day in the life of a well-to-do, Victorian South African family. It was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 until her death in 1901.

The drawing room, where the original Victorian-era owners would entertain guests, overflows with elaborately patterned wooden chairs, thick carpets, massive mirrors rimmed with gold, sparkling silver cutlery and polished ebony tables.

“(It’s) very full and cluttered,” says Katharine Love, the elderly, kindly woman who owns Lindfield House. She speaks clipped and perfect English and is slight and pale, refined and reserved. “They thought it was in very bad taste to see an empty space anywhere!” Love explains.

Darkness and Victorian wastage

The house is dark inside. Love says this was typical of Victorian homes.

“They not only liked dark-colored wallpaper and paint, they purposefully tried to shut out as much sunlight as possible so that it wouldn’t fade their carpets and curtains and upholstery. So Victorian homes could be gloomy,” she says.

Inside the 22-room mansion, Love tries her best to live just like a Victorian woman, eating Victorian recipes, sleeping in an old teak four-poster bed, and not using computers and microwaves.

She exclaims, “I don’t have a modern flat in the back. I use every room in the house. It’s a great privilege to be able to live in a museum.”

Love and her mother moved into Lindfield House in 1967, following the death of Love’s grandmother. The two women immediately began filling it with Victorian artefacts.

“We both loved all things Victorian; we thought it was a fascinating time in history with so many beautiful objects,” says Love.

Carefully, she shows off incredibly dainty floral-patterned cups, stamped with gold. She desccribes how upper-class Victorians used silver forks, bone-handled knives and china plates to eat fantastically well: platters of meat, pastries and puddings.

“If it was just a family meal, there might only be four or five courses for dinner. If you had guests coming there might be ten or 12!” Love enthuses.

In true Victorian style, there were different rules for women at meal time. “Ladies were supposed to eat like birds. A well-bred lady had a very small appetite, so they would just pick at their food and send back the plates practically untouched.”

Chamber pots under the dinner table

Love says one of the Victorians’ many rules was to keep conversation at the dinner table light and frivolous.

“You never spoke about anything controversial that might start an argument. No talking about religion or politics or anything like that. A lady should never bore a gentleman by talking about her embroidery or her children or the problems she was having with her servants! And gentlemen should not bore ladies by talking about their business!”

Love laughs that certain acts committed during a visit to a Victorian home were guaranteed to get a person shunned from high society.

“Looking around the room as if you were assessing the peoples’ wealth, or making any comments about their furnishings, or even saying that the food was delicious – because that implies that you are surprised. You should take it for granted that these people would have nothing but the best, so it’s very bad manners to remark on it!”

The Victorians have a reputation for demonstrating impeccable manners. But Love says this wasn’t always the case… She points to a big, ivory-colored pot under the dinner table, and explains, “Most toilets were outside in those days or far away from the dining room. So the men didn’t see why they should have to go out into the cold or miss any of the conversation in the dining room. So they thought nothing of using it right here.”

Bell summons servants

Next, Love ascends a steep wooden staircase. It’s such a narrow passage that it’s difficult even for a small person to fit comfortably into Lindfield House’s tiny servants’ quarters… Obviously, the Victorians were not very large, overweight people generally, for them to have managed to fit up such a stairway.

Again, Love laughs loudly and comments, “Well, there might have been a fat cook who had to squeeze her way up the stairs, but being a servant – who cares?”

In complete contrast to the rest of the home, the kitchen is undecorated - just a tangle of rough wooden tables and black cast-iron wood burning stoves.

Love says this is because wealthy Victorians would “never be seen dead” in a kitchen, which they considered to be “only fit for servants.”

If a Victorian family member needed something from the kitchen, he or she simply rang a bell to summon a servant and ordered its immediate delivery.

Importance of playing music

Love smirks and says the Victorian gentry also had other sources of entertainment. “They would have played records.” She points to a large gramophone player of dull gold. “In the library where we are, there’s this big collection of gramophone records.”

Victorian ladies were expected to excel at needlework, and everybody read a lot.

The library’s shelves are packed with hundreds of leather-bound Victorian-period books.

The music room contains a variety of musical instruments, including an antique piano and a mandolin guitar made in 1894 that looks and sounds more like a harp.

“It was everybody’s duty to be able to play a musical instrument. You weren’t considered good and proper if you could not achieve this,” says Love.

Thief in a top hat

Lindfield House hasn’t escaped Johannesburg’s crime wave. Love says armed robbers have targeted it twice.

“On one occasion they tied me up and locked me in the wardrobe but they kept asking me, ‘Where’s the cellphone, where’s the microwave; where’s the TV?’ They couldn’t find anything worth stealing! Eventually they took a top hat and a few Victorian coins and left!” The last she saw of one of the criminals was his backside as he jumped over a gate… wearing the top hat.

As Love leads the way into yet another relic of a room, her heels clack on the burnished floorboards. She believes Lindfield House has great historical significance for South Africa and for the world.

But it’s a legacy under threat. Love knows she can’t run the museum for long … And so far she hasn’t been able to find a heritage organization that’s willing to do so when she’s gone.

“I’m hoping, I’m praying for this to happen; it’s my greatest wish,” she says softly.