My oldest memory is the sinking of the Titanic. That puts me back to the year 1912, as that great tragedy took place on 14 April of that year. At that time my father, the Rev. Andrew McGregor, was minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Oudtshoorn in the Southern Cape. This was during the great ostrich-feather boom, when the farmers of the district were almost all millionaires because of the great demand for the feathers taken from their ostriches. Most of them did not know what to do with their money and so built huge three-storeyed houses for themselves and their families and bought anything that was new and expensive.
I well remember the first motor car to be bought in Oudtshoorn. These farmers loved my Dad (as did everybody who met him) and so used to bring to show him all their latest purchases. This machine, then, arrived at the Dutch Reformed parsonage with its proud owner driving it, with most of his family sitting on it. I use the word “on” on purpose as, from my recollection of the vehicle it was a platform with four huge wheels, two “benches” across it, an engine on it making a lot of noise and shaking furiously, and a huge starting-handle stretching out in front. All our family (Mum, Dad, my three elder sisters and I – my younger sister was asleep in the house) came out to see this new machine. My Mother was carrying me, no doubt because she didn’t want me to run under the car. Then the owner dismounted (he had to climb down three or four steps to get down) and asked my Mother to let him take me for a drive in this new wonderful vehicle. But I was scared stiff at its size and at the noise the engine made and clutched my Mother round the neck so tightly that I must nearly have strangled her. Thus I did not get a ride on the new vehicle and so missed the chance of being one of the pioneers in this new type of transport!
This farmer was also the owner of the first phonograph (the ancestor of the gramophone) in the district and had, some time earlier, asked us all to go to his farm to see and hear his new toy. We drove to his farm in my Dad’s lovely cart, a big vehicle with two wide seats on it, well able to take all six of us and drawn by Dad’s two beautiful horses ‘Bruce’ and ‘Wallace.’ We children used to love riding in this cart with Dad “at the ribbons” and the horses galloping. Mother did not like the noise nor the dust, but to us children they simply added to the joy of the ride.
I remember that we stayed for supper at the farm and after that listened to the phonograph. There were several tube-shaped records but the one that impressed me the most was that entitled ‘The Wreck of the Titanic.’ This was of course a ‘make believe’ made after the wreck and was, no doubt, not strictly accurate, but it fascinated me: the conversations of the passengers, the voices of the ship’s officers reporting to the captain or giving orders to the crew, the cries and moans when the passengers realised the seriousness of the situation and, finally, the ship’s band playing the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ the music becoming fainter and fainter until it became a bubble and the shouting and crying suddenly brought to an end.
I, of course, knew nothing about the tragedy, but I remember my Father, after this tragic record, showing me pictures of the Titanic sinking that were in the Illustrated London News, one of the overseas journals to which he subscribed. (The others were The British Weekly, a very fine religious paper produced in Scotland; Punch, and The Cricketer.) Then he told me that, when the Titanic had been launched the builders of the ship (Messrs Harland and Wolff, Belfast) and the owners of the ship (The White Star Line) had said that this ship was unsinkable and this tragedy showed how people should not leave God out of their reckoning.
My Mother had, before we left, prepared several picnic baskets, with roast chickens, several dozen hard-boiled eggs, I don’t know how many packets of sandwiches and a box of lovely home-made biscuits, so we had picnic meals, which we all loved. She also made several jars of lemon syrup for us to drink. So we spent a very happy day-and-a-half before we reached Cape Town.
Soon after we were settled in the Dutch Reformed parsonage the members of the congregation made “calls,” complete with “calling cards” carrying their names and addresses, on the new minister and his wife and, of course, two weeks after each call Mother and Dad had to “return” the call. One of the first of these was done by Dr. Fred Murray and Mrs Murray. He was one of the Church elders as well as being an ex-mayor of Sea Point and chairman of the Sea Point School’s committee. He was also president of various Sea Point sports clubs and a member of the municipal council of Cape Town. Withal he was one of the friendliest and most modest people I have e ever met. He and Mrs Murray, plus their two children, Aimee (aged about 20) and Marischal (aged about 16) lived in a lovely house called Londinium, on London Road. This was a big double-storeyed house in a lovely garden with many tall trees and a tennis court.
Some two weeks after the Murrays had called on us my parents, had, of course, to return the call. On the day that they did so for some reason or other I had to go with them. No doubt it was because they could not leave me at home by myself. When we arrived we were shown in and then Mrs Murray came to greet us. As soon as she saw that I was in the party she called to her son Marischal to take me and show me some of his ship pictures. I must say that I admired Marischal for his quick response. Here was I, a child of less than five and a half years and he a lad of 15 or 16 and yet he made no fuss but took me to his room to show me what he was doing. And this struck a chord in my memory straight away: he was pasting into an album (a big one) cuttings about and pictures of the Titanic, something of immediate interest to me! He was a ship lover and subscribed to several nautical journals and had taken the trouble to cut out from each one anything connected with the Titanic: the discussions among the Directors of the White Star Line when they first contemplated the building of the big ship, the drawings made to show what the ship would look like when completed, also drawings of her engines, boilers, etc., and later, of the passenger accommodation, etc. Then pictures of the launching of the ship, of her trial trips and so on, and of her maiden departure from Southampton. Then he had cut out the accounts of all the consultations of the Board of Trade and similar bodies to investigate the tragedy and to find if anybody was guilty of some neglect of duty or of taking a wrong decision. To me it was a fascinating book.
But this was not all he had to show me. There were several postcard albums and each of them was full of ship pictures, one of the ships of the Union Castle Line, another of Cunard Liners, a third of pictures of the German lines the Hamburg-America Line, and the Norddeutcher Lloyd. Another was full of warship pictures. It was almost too much for me. Marischal noticed how greatly impressed I was and so, when Mrs Murray and my Mother came to fetch me away, he gave me a handful of ship postcards. I remember when going home, more or less dancing as I held on to my Mother’s hand I said to her, “Mummy, I’m going to collect ship postcards.” She looked at me, smiled and said, “That’s a good idea, Murray.” No doubt she thought that would soon be forgotten. If so, she was wrong: that was in February 1914 and I’m still collecting ship postcards!
To begin with I tried to get postcard albums for my growing lot of cards but soon found that they were very difficult to come by. My aunts Katherine and Hetty each gave me a postcard album and I managed sometimes to find some in book shops, but my collection of cards was growing rapidly. Marischal had a bicycle and a camera and used to go to the docks most Friday afternoons to take photos of the mailships leaving and also of other ships of interest. He knew that I had neither and so made a practice of sending me postcard-sized copies of all his photographs. Thus my collection grew rapidly. Meanwhile I had made a discovery: I found that among the cards Marischal gave me were a number which had on the back the badge and name of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., or of the Orient Line, but the picture of the ship on the other side was of a totally different company. When I came to examine them I found that the picture was actually pasted over the RMSP or Orient one. This gave me the idea of making my own ship postcards. I began buying blank postcards and pasting on them pictures that I cut out of the advertisements in the nautical magazines that Marischal gave me. He subscribed to many maritime publications but never kept any of them, although he cut out for himself any picture or article that he wanted. The two that I liked best were The Syren and Ships Weekly.
There was one number of the Syren which I particularly liked, the New Year number, 1919. This had in it a long article on the ships built during the war, 1914 to 1918, for the Royal Navy, with a description of each type of ship and a very fine plan of each, written and drawn by the man who had designed these ships.
Marischal had also given me his copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships for 1914, which had pictures, plans and descriptions of all the ships in the Royal Navy, the Dominion Navies, the French, German, Italian, Russian and smaller navies, which had thrilled me. This book and the copy of “The Syren” enabled me to get a picture of the whole Navy as it was before, during and after the war. I should mention that Marischal had also made notes in the 1914 Jane’s of all the ships that had been lost, with a note for each of how, when and where it had been sunk.
I was so fascinated by all these plans and diagrams that I wished that I could become a naval architect but, when I found out what that entailed I realised that it was quite impossible. To qualify for this position one had to do five years as a worker in a shipyard plus seven years of study in the engineering section of a technicon or other college. My parents could not have paid for my passage to England, let alone all the years of practice and study.
So I had to confine my activities to making ship postcards if I couldn’t make ships and to drawing plans of whips which would be built to my designs, which, of course, I was certain would be much better than those to which they were built! I filled three big hard-cover books with them.