Halfway down the tree-lined lane stands a small memorial. Prominent on the plaque is the spread-winged emblem of the South African Air Force.
The brief inscription starts with “Per Aspera Ad Astra” – its motto in Latin, meaning “Through hardships to the stars.”
This monument was “erected in memory of Captain Laurence van der Byl and Lieutenant E. Stewart” who died here on 18 September 1922 in an Avro bi-plane – the first recorded fatal military aircraft accident in South Africa.
The Van der Byl family still owns the hugely successful farm; the fifth generation now.
I suspect few visitors to the historic Irene Dairy Farm notice the memorial. They come for the food at the popular restaurant, real milk and cream, and the delicious eats in the shop. They make a fun day of it for the kids who love to pet the calves.
I’m curious to know how it came that young Van der Byl crashed here. Interestingly, he was born in Venice, Italy. Archival records give his full names: Albert Lawrence Montague van der Byl, 29, Captain, South African Air Force. His mate was a British citizen, Lieutenant Edward Armstrong Stuart, 34, based at Robert’s Heights (now Thaba Tshwane), attached to the 1st Regiment, South African Mounted Rifles.
Clearly this is a research topic for another day.
The name Irene traces its roots to a previous owner. Polish-born Alois Hugo Nellmapius – whose surname was originally Neumann – managed to squeeze President Paul Kruger for several rewarding concessions in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) – the old Transvaal.
This enabled Nellmapius to not only operate the first transport routes from Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) to Pilgrim’s Rest, but he also opened gin and whiskey distilleries, and the first gunpowder factory in the country. By some accounts he was the first to use dynamite on the gold fields.
When he bought a large part of the farm Doornkloof near Pretoria, he named it after his daughter, Irene – Greek for peace.
Sparing no expense he created a stylish estate that astounded even a journalist of ‘The Times’ of London. Here he entertained well, including the old president – for whom he built a house in Church Street in Pretoria, now the Kruger House Museum.
In 1896 Johannes Albertus (Bertie) van der Byl bought the estate from Nellmapius.
The remaining portion of the original Doornkloof farm was bought by the frugal, almost ascetic, General Jan Smuts in 1908. A re-assembled wood and corrigated iron building purchased for £300, which had served as a British officers’ mess during the Anglo-Boer War, became his house* in Irene.
His son complained that this humble family dwelling was unbearably hot in summer while in winter it was so cold the water was usually frozen in the bedroom ewers. Yet Smuts preferred to live and work here – often sleeping on the open porch – rather than in the official Prime Minister’s residence in Pretoria. He even welcomed the British royals here during their visit to the country in 1947.
A man of brilliant mind, Smuts became one of the world’s most respected statesmen. After the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War), he worked tirelessly to reconcile the Afrikaans and English speaking communities in the land. Some say he should have done more for racial harmony in South Africa.
During World War II he was a close confidente of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, even serving in Britain’s War Cabinet. He is credited with writing the Preamble to the United Nations Charter. A man of peace.
When Smuts died on 11 September 1950, aged 80, a visibly emotional Churchill spoke of him as a “warrior, statesman, philosopher, philanthropist.”
My thoughts circle back to the 1922 aircraft crash. It was the same year that the Rand Revolt occurred, but that uprising was over by March. Still, it was Smuts who had ordered the fledgeling air force – barely two years old – to bomb the “revolutionaries.”
Truly a man of contradictions. His ashes were scattered on a nearby hill where he spent much time studying nature.
* Note: Read Arja Salafranca’s companion article on the Smuts House Museum.