History of Pennington

by Lorraine Galbraith


Pennington is named after Richard Pennington, one of the Byrne settlers who put down roots here with his family soon after 1850. The story goes that he wounded a leopard while hunting in 1865 but was in turn mauled very badly by the same animal in the forest. Some sources say that he died in agony but a more reliable one maintains that he used an old sailor's remedy of bathing his lacerated arm in salt and brandy and made a good recovery. This incident gave its name to the "Tiger Hole"(No 17) on Umdoni Golf Course. The original farm was a natural parkland of great beauty lying between two rivers, Mkhombe and the Mkumbane, named after the palm trees which line their banks.

Kelso is a nearby resort which is named after the village on the river Tweed in southern Scotland. Today Pennington, Kelso and Sezela form part of the Umdoni municipality.

Umdoni Park

Pennington occupies a special place in the history of South Africa as a pioneer of the Natal sugar industry, Sir Frank Reynolds, bought part of the original Pennington farm in 1918 and called it Umdoni Park for the water-myrtle trees which grew profusely there at the time. In 1920 he presented it, together with the magnificent "Botha House" for the exclusive use of the South African prime ministers as a holiday retreat. He intended for public use the nearby Umdoni Trust Park. It comprises 200 hectares of unspoiled indigenous coastal forest which abounds in animals such as the blue and grey duiker, bushbuck, mongoose and vervet monkeys, amongst others. It also offers outstanding forest birding and boasts a species list of 245, the rare spotted ground thrush being of special importance as it is endangered.

How did it all start? Was it because Sir Frank found bushbuck turning exhausted into the grounds of his home, Lynton Hall, after being hunted or pursued by dogs? Or was it the sheer beauty of the forest through which he trudged to work at Sezela in the early dawn? (Hence his Zulu name: "Inkanyesi" or "Morning Star")

Whatever it was, he began to dream that this place, together with a planned "holiday cottage" could be preserved for posterity and given by him to the nation, much as Lord Lee had given "Chequers" for the use of British Prime Ministers. Moreover, as a member of the Union Parliament, he had developed a great friendship with General Louis Botha, the former Boer War general and the first Prime Minister of South Africa.

The planned holiday "cottage" was to be named "Botha House" in his honour and building began in 1918, after Sir Frank had engaged an architect and a civil engineer.

However, tragedy struck only three months after the commencement of the building when the General died in August 1919. Sir Frank was devastated that his friend has not even lived to see the building finished. Nevertheless, true to his word, he presented it to Botha's widow, Annie, for her use until her death, after which it would revert to its original purpose.

Today, the large Cape Dutch style home, with its solid teak furniture and china and glasses, purchased especially from Harrods in London, stands virtually intact. Flanking the staircase, are two magnificent oil paintings of General Botha and his wife, by Rowarth. A life-like bronze bust of Botha stands in a niche in the entrance hall. This, incidentally, was discovered accidentally in the sculptor's London studio under a bench, all covered in dust, 45 years after it was made!

For a period in the 1920's, the Park was the origin of a left-wing literary magazine, "Voorslag" under the editorship of the famous South African poets, Roy Campbell and William Plomer. The reason was that the Trust also kept a cottage near the beach for writers and artists such as Campbell, Laurens van der Post, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and Edward Rowarth.

During the war, the house was a convalescent home for wounded Imperial officers, who designed the fire screen in the lounge. For a period the forest was also a commando training centre for Allied troops and the quiet was often punctuated by explosions

in the dead of the night! It was also reputedly used by the Free French for the same purpose.

Then in 1952, Botha House became the venue where King George VI hoped to recover from a serious lung complaint. He would have been accompanied by the Queen and Princess Margaret and at least 21 staff members, including detectives, doctors, hairdressers and even a masseur! Many plans to extend and redecorate the house were made to accommodate the party. The railway lines and siding were improved. The roads were smartened up. Polo ponies were arranged. Finally, it was decided to accommodate them at Lynton Hall instead and a flurry of preparations began, to be cut short by the death of the King in February 1952.

Other frequent visitors over the years were South African prime ministers Jan Smuts, B.J. Vorster and more recently, F.W. de Klerk, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. Today Botha House is a bed and breakfast establishment and the Umdoni Golf Course, which is adjacent to it, also built by Sir Frank Reynolds in 1919, is rated one of the best in KwaZulu –Natal.

Lynton Hall

Sir Frank "Umhlali" Reynolds was born in 1852 in Umhlali on the north coast of Natal. He was the son of a hard-working sugar cane farmer and was sent down, with his brother Charles, to take over the ailing Umzinto Sugar Estate in 1875. This neglected estate flourished under their management and was gradually extended to form the sprawling canelands of Reynolds Bros Ltd. (Today Illovo Sugar Company, Sezela) He was a very hard-working and energetic man, finding time to enlist in the Natal Mounted Rifle

Regiment during the Anglo-Boer War, involving himself in gold mining ventures in the Transvaal and serving on the Natal Legislative Council. He was even elected as a member of the Union Parliament in 1915, the highest legislative body in the country. He also established an Indian school in Esperanza. He was knighted in 1916. Sir Frank had married Euphemia Young of Edinburgh in 1894 and had two children.

Being so prosperous, Charles commissioned architects Street-Wilson and Fyfe to design a house on the estate about 4 miles north of the Sezela mill in a beautiful forested area with spectacular views. It was named "Lynton" after a little village on the coast of Devon. The house was to incorporate a tower for spotting cane fires and would serve as a fortress in case of attack from the Zulus, which was something Charles always feared. Large water tanks and a gun cupboard were included to withstand a siege which, thankfully, never came!

Charles bought a lighter (flat-bottomed boat) to transport the imported English building materials to Rocky Bay from where they were transported by ox wagon to the site. The boat sank and since then the bay has been known as "Lighter Bay." The house was completed in 1895 and today is one of the great examples of colonial architecture in South Africa. It has had alterations over the years, the most exciting of which were the renovations in 1951 for the proposed visit of King George VI as Botha House was finally deemed too small. The house remained in family hands until 2002 when the current owner and great grandson of Sir Frank, Ronald Munro Ferguson, had it converted into a boutique hotel, decorated in Indian colonial style.

Some interesting facts: The wrought –iron gates which guard the front entrance to Lynton Hall are original Nataliana and were passed onto Sir Frank when their original home, Market House, opposite the Durban Railway Station was demolished.

Sir Frank's daughter, Mary Zoe (Molly) would fly her light aeroplane from Greyville Racecourse to Lynton at the weekends. The concrete parking pad is still at the Hall after all these years.

A large "Slave Bell" stands in the grounds of Lynton. It clearly has Sir Frank's name on it, his family crest and the date 1924. It was used in the old days to call the workers for the start of the working day and alert them to tea and lunch breaks.

On the land at Lynton is a graveyard where Sir Frank, his daughter, Mary Zoe, his son Lewis and his grandson, Frank Nicholas are buried. The latter two were killed tragically – Lewis on active service in 1940 and Frank in a motorbike accident near the present-day Crocodillian Restaurant in 1963.

In conclusion, it is important for us modern day citizens of South Africa to value the hard work and vision of those pioneering men who have gone before us, such as Sir Frank Reynolds, who not only built up the economy of the country but also made a unique gift to the nation of one of the most beautiful coastal forests to be enjoyed by us all in perpetuity. What better way to be remembered?