The beginning of the Cape Times, the architect Herbert Baker, the “Desert Rats” of World War II and chief gardener at Admiralty House – these are just some of the fascinating threads that develop with the mention of Charles Stratford St Leger Searle, the founder of the Fish Hoek Alien Vegetation Control Group.
Last month the Echo wrote about the alien vege- tation control group which officially closed at the end of last year after decades of clearing the previously alien-infested Elsies Peak and surrounds, but whose former members still go up the mountain for pleasure – with loppers at the ready (“Alien hackers soldier on …”, Echo March 31).
The founder of the group, colloquially called the Fish Hoek Mountain Weeders, was Charles Stratford St Leger Searle, at the time a retired district forest offi- cer.
The Cape Times connection comes from Charles’s grandfather, on his mother’s side: Frederick York St Leger, founder, first editor and first chairman of the board of the Cape Times. Charles’ father was equally distinguished: Malcolm William Searle, a member of the legal profession who was elected Judge-President of the Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa in 1922 and was knighted in 1923.
“But Charles chose a very different career from that of either of these two men,” said granddaughter Bridget Donovan. “He was a conservator of forests; he instilled in others his love of wilderness areas; and he involved many others in the fight against the spread of alien vegeta- tion.”
Charles was born in 1905 and grew up in Highlands, a Herbert Baker house in Tennant Road, Wynberg. His father also owned St James landmark Spray Cottage in Main Road.
“Charles and his five siblings developed a love of the southern Peninsula at a very early age,” said Ms Dono- van. “Together with his three older brothers, all members of the 1st Kenilworth Scout Troop, he explored the Kalk Bay caves, roved the mountains and went on camping expeditions.”
His studies took him to England where he spent six years at university in England studying zoology and botany, aquiring two Bachelor of Arts degrees, one from Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1926, and the other from Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1929.
His career took him all around South Africa, including Mthatha (where he married Joy Macready Hughes in 1932), White River and Nelspruit, before joining the army at the outbreak of World War II.
“Grandad was in the engineers as a surveyor, in his time in North Africa,” said grandson Michael John de Villiers. “He was seconded to the British 8th Army, also known as the ‘Desert Rats’ who were renowned as the first to turn the tide of the war against the Axis forces as well as having the longest fighting record during World War II. Grandad might have seen some hard action which, I believe, left him with his bad shell shock.”
Charles was recalled to salvage the forest industry and he was in Pietermaritzburg and then Kokstad when the war ended. Later he moved to Stutterheim, Elgin and King Williamstown.
His daughters, Jean Donovan of Silvermine Retirement Village and Libby de Villiers of Ranger Road, Fish Hoek, still remember the walks that, with such pleasure, they took up the mountains with their father.
“Often he used a little white lie to entice us up the mountain,” said Bridget Donovan, “and on one occasion he declared to Jean that as she had such sharp eyes he needed her to accompany him up Elsies Peak as he had mislaid his watch there the day before. Sure enough, Jean found the missing watch, which was suspiciously hidden rather too well under a bush!”
His retirement was active. He first settled in Great Brak River and George, where he continued to be involved in forestry, said Ms Donovan. Nature conservation continued to absorb his retirement years when he moved to Stellenbosch. Then, when he moved to his final family home in 13th Avenue, Fish Hoek, Admiralty House, Simon’s Town, needed a chief gardener and Charles was appointed to this position in the 1970s, while his wife Joy helped with the flower arrangements. It was also in this decade that he founded the Fish Hoek Alien Vegetation Control Group, formally constituting it in 1976 with six members.
“Eventually there were nine grandchildren, and during the December school holidays we were obliged to give up at least one day to go hacking with granddad on Elsies Peak,” recalled Ms Donovan. “The days were invariably windless and hot, with, from below, the glistening cool blue waters of Fish Hoek Bay tempting the teenage hackers. Granddad would teach us the Latin names of all the species of plants and birds.” Which, she added, “mostly fell on deaf ears”!
In 1985 Charles received a citation given by the Rotary Club for Alien Vegetation Control as a Custodian of the Historical Society. He died at Carlisle Lodge in 1986 and his ashes were scattered on Elsies Peak.
There is a exhibition of his efforts in the Fish Hoek Valley Museum off upper Recreation Road, between the clinic and the Fish Hoek civic cen- tre.
* Information from Bridget Donovan who is a teacher at Fish Hoek High.