Jul 03

Dr. Killie Campbell – Collector Extraordinaire

Article written by Mark Norman. Killie Campbell seated at her desk. On Friday 9 September 1881 under a full moon. a baby drew her first breath on her parent’s farm Cornubia, near present day Mount  Edgecombe, in the South African province of Natal to the unbridled delight of her parents Marshall and Ellen Campbell. The challenge of a rural home delivery successfully negotiated, the next difficulty her doting parents faced was a name, and after much deliberation, we are told, it was decided to honour both families.

Early days

Biographer Norman Herd records: .....the young Miss Campbell was always disenchanted with both her christened names, Roach being her mother’s maiden name!
The origin of the nickname ‘Killie’ is undetermined but seems most likely a derivation of the nickname ‘kiddie’ bestowed by an Indian nursemaid which name Killie championed herself and it was universally adopted by all save for her father who insisted on her given names all of his days! As her family’s wealth and stature grew, life for the young Killie proceeded as normally as any in a successful settler family; playful, carefree romps about their farm with local Zulu children punctuated with social gatherings featuring the colony’s more affluent people. Killie’s early formal education was at a primary school on the nearby farm Havering where her zest for life coupled with an ever receptive and inquiring mind actively spurred on by her teacher, Miss Edith Isabelle, produced a pupil with above average results. All the while Killie was aware her father differed from many men in local society. His attitude to the Zulus and indentured Indians was at odds with the establishment; he was against responsible government and, God forbid, many suspected he was even pro-Boer. Yet he was elected to the Natal Legislature in 1898.

Business, Politics and Education

Politics and sugar farming notwithstanding he was also a canny businessman, being one of the first investors in the new rickshaw company in the early nineties that went on to manufacture the contraption locally and arguably become Durban’s icon. In addition he was also a co-director with and close friend and business partner of Mr. David Don, a restrained, quiet and unassuming banker who had but one vice; an unbridled passion for collecting Africana.

Class photo courtesy of St Anne's

Killie middle row 3rd from the left circa 1896 Don and Killie only met a handful of times. Nevertheless his collection succeeded in captivating her as the contents of the priceless books and pamphlets were revealed  A spark had been unearthed in her but school beckoned. Killie was thirteen on entering St. Anne’s Diocesan College in Loop Street, Pietermaritzburg, a private school funded and maintained by parental support alone, a bastion of instruction in the social graces; academic prowess was not in the curriculum. Killie left in 1898. Then during the pivotal year of 1899 when Great Britain sought to influence Southern African’s path yet again, this time with all out war on the Boer Republics, Killie left Durban for St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrews, Scotland. In stark contrast St. Leonard’s was an innovative institution in the vanguard of the new progressive movement for girl’s academic education in a society still grudgingly yielding to a change in its attitude toward women. In 1901 Killie returned to Durban with no scholastic awards but having been thoroughly exposed to the classics, history, languages and sport. Yet the country that would be South Africa was still in the throes of a seemingly interminable guerrilla conflict.

Warfare and unrest

For 30 months the cloak of war, infused with the stench of atrocities and death and stained with hatred had weighed heavy. Although Killie had no part in it, the Second War of Freedom’s legacy would play an unseen but guiding hand in her future, like that of many others. The idea of unifying the two Boer Republics with the two Colonies was doubtless but a piece of bait thrown out behind the scenes of the Vereeniging peace accord, and there was still a lot of water to flow under the bridge until Union was finally achieved in 1910. Zululand had long been a simmering pot but a hut tax caused it to boil over. In January 1906 a white Camperdown farmer was murdered. Unrest rippled and surged through the colony like an angry black mamba lifting its head as it moved in the long veld grass. Now the most terrifying of white Natalian fears was taking hold  again; another Weenen? Was a full scale, bloody Zulu invasion about to take place? Hillcrest residents buried their valuables and fled to the safety of Durban just as others had done in the aftermath of Isandhlwana twenty seven years before. The authorities decided to behead the snake, an act that time has identified as one of the most shameful examples of man’s inhumanity to man in Natal history. The tale of the ‘Bambatha Rebellion’ is best told elsewhere; suffice to say that here a modern army was unleashed with devastating results........Thousands of Zulus were displaced, their homes destroyed and within months many a protagonist lay dead; mutilated by cannon, "dum-dum" bullets and machine gun fire in a gorge near the sacred burial ground of their kings. One of the few colonials to emerge with any dignity was Marshall Campbell, but for the first time Killie was at the heart of history being made. David Don also died in 1906. Now the flame he had lit needed nurturing and fate was prepared for the new arrival.

Politics and the beginning of Collecting

Marshall Campbell was elected a senator in 1910 and took his wife Ellen and Killie to parliamentary sessions in Cape Town. And that was where Killie gained first hand invaluable insights into the art of collecting Africana and antiques. Sensing a kindred spirit, serious Cape Town collectors notable among them Dorothy Fairbridge who played a major part in establishing ‘The Historical Society,’ gave of their time freely, allowing Killie to pore over and absorb their assembled treasures to her heart’s content. Dorothy and Killie roamed the Mother city’s old houses, gardens, monuments; then surrounding towns nurturing an appreciation and love of the Cape Dutch style of which Ruskin succinctly said,

the only type of absolutely new and beautiful architecture evolved in two hundred years.

It was therefore a fait accompli  that the new family home built atop the Berea in 1912 was in the Cape Dutch style, the product of a Herbert Baker partnership studio. Named Muckelneuk it was to be home to Killie and her collection all her life and still stands to this day! By now it was clearly apparent Killie had no intention of ever actually getting a job. But what is also clear was her admiration for and devotion to her father and his lofty ideals which they both remained true to amid the suffocating  attitude of“white superiority” that abounded in government.    

More War and Plague

Scarcely had the MCC completed their successful tour of the Union when Durbanites were treated to a beachfront concert by the band of the South Staffordshire’s bidding farewell, the last British Army regiment ever to be stationed in Natal. The Great War had begun. Sibling Agnes became a nurse on active service; Killie remained, throwing herself into the war effort and it proved to be an eventful if exhausting war in more ways than one. In 1916 her father was knighted amid much local fanfare but within a year he was dead. There was an official pause in the business of the senate to mark his passing as the war marched on. The Natal Mercury eulogised:

He paid everyman his worth,

which spoke volumes on his attitude to race. He was buried at Mount Edgecombe in April 1917. Throughout the war Killie raised money for charity, volunteered as an occupational therapist helping maimed soldiers and oversaw the growing of vegetables in the gardens of Muckelnuek for the beachfront Red Cross Hospital. In the last days of 1918 a number of Canadian soldiers convalescing in England suddenly died. And just when it seemed the suffering was over a hitherto unknown but deadly flu virus swept the world. People died on a bus before journey’s end; Cape Town ran out of coffins and wrapped her dead in corrugated iron. Killie’s response was to join as an isolation nurse at Salisbury Island Isolation Centre only to contract the virus herself but survived after a long fight.

A New Age

The 1920s or Roaring Twenties or Jazz Age was  oxymoronic; in that during a a time of frippery and studied carelessness,young people and women in particular, were suddenly able to exert themselves. Women smoked in public and fancy dress parties where all the rage. Cars and planes went faster, buildings rose taller. But there was a dark side. The world over legions of ex-servicemen slowly found they were not seen as heroes, if anything they were despised. They were aggrieved that their sacrifices went unnoticed; the promises that got them into the sickening mess of the Great War had not been kept. And the search for jobs got ever harder. For them and their families life was far from one long summer party. Killie ushered in the twenties with a long trip abroad, first to Poona in India to see a cousin. One her return it was easy to slot into the social whirl. Bridge and golf became almost obsessions, Morris dancing and amateur dramatics with the Bachelor Girls Club a huge joke. There was a however a redeeming side to all this hilarity and frivolity. Funds were raised to start a shelter for young women on the Berea, which was at first obstructed by the authorities. In 1924 Natal celebrated her centenary. Killie was very active in the planning of the celebrations that lasted three days in Durban. At the beginning of each year Durbanites had long been of the habit of vacating Durban to escape the humidity; whilst some went inland to Kloof and Hillcrest, Killie’s mother would rent a flat in London. And Killie always went with her. And there were bookshops aplenty. This was a turning point in Killie’s life; an opportunity not to be repeated. Countless hours were spent rummaging through old bookshops and attending auctions unearthing books which were boxed up and sent home. In between collecting trips her involvement in the gardening scene and historical societies grew. Part time staff were employed to start cataloguing the works and manuscripts while passages in Muckelneuk overflowed as rooms were prepared to house the collection. Killie herself said in 1934 that there were over 1700 titles in her collection, not to mention the ever growing collection of newspaper clippings that were taken every day. By 1945 the collection had grown to 20, 000 titles. In early 1945 Killie received a package containing two drawings with a covering letter. The subjects were African women in tribal dress and regalia. The letter detailed the writer’s desire to do enough drawings to produce a book. Instinctively Killie knew the significance of the work and invited the artist to tea who duly arrived in a beat-up old delivery van converted to a camper of sorts. They talked into the night and when invited to stay the night the artist insisted on spending it in her van. Barbara Tyrell was the budding artist, ‘Nixie’ the Chevrolet van and fate the matchmaker. An agreement was concluded whereby Killie would have first option on the next set of drawings and Barbara would be allowed to sell those Killie did not want. The result of this arrangement saw Barbara Tyrell produce an extraordinary number of incredibly detailed paintings with historical notes, and go on to world acclaim. There are about 750 of her pictures in the Campbell Collections. Another daughter of Natal, Barbara Tyrell’s remarkable journey will be told elsewhere. In 1950 Killie was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Natal but being a genuinely humble person was once quoted as saying,

I am not really a doctor, I’m not clever enough for that.

The years flowed by and her collection took on a life of its own as by now Killie Campbell had become a national figure. Numerous articles where penned about her achievements and honours rained down on her not least of which was civic recognition from the City of Durban. However the reality of her own impending death was looming large. Her widowed brother William aka WAC had moved into Muckelneuk and together they had laid and executed their plans. Muckelneuk was to be left to the City of Durban and the title deeds handed over in 1955. Both would stay on until their deaths whereupon the library was willed to The University of Natal. WAC died in 1962 and after a long illness Killies health started to fail in her eighty fourth year. By the beginning of September Killie knew her work on earth was done. With her plans laid and willing to see only her closest relatives and friends, a fulfilled old lady was afforded the dignity of drawing her last breath in her sunlit bedroom on the afternoon of Monday 27 September 1965.

There was no moon that night.

Killie Campbell’s legacy lives on at Muckelneuk where her vision of a research facility freely available to all races is a reality. Hopefully the trustees of the Campbell legacy will continue to honour this pioneering family’s contribution.        

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