Greenacres - Durban’s Harrods

By Mark Levin Time of article published Dec 4, 2019

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Durban - The firm Harvey, Greenacre and Company began modestly in Durban, but was to eventually open shops in most major centres in South Africa and a great many smaller towns, like Barberton and Wakkerstroom.

In Natal, there were branches in Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Newcastle and Dundee. After the opening of the redesigned West Street store in 1900, this “grand emporium” cemented its status as the company’s flagship. Its stock at this time was almost exclusively imported through Greenacres’ London office.

The array of goods available to customers in Durban was on a par with the great English department stores like Selfridges and Harrods. In 1902, the stock alone was valued at more than £250000. It ranged from jewellery and travelling trunks to boots and corsets, from silverware and china to hammocks and garden tools, from every type of clothing to fishing tackle, toys and poultry goods.

Women were spoilt for choice: they could buy a morning dress in white French voile, an old-gold satin rest gown or a race coat with an oriental silk collar. There were maids’ and children’s coats and, naturally, the appropriate afternoon frock.

It would be remiss not to mention it was the only department store in South Africa to have its own post office.

One satisfied customer was Dick King, who bought an excellent pair of boots for 15 shillings.

And, of course, there was that first-floor tearoom.

While many a husband lunched at the Durban Club, their wives and children could enjoy the comfort of those familiar tearoom surroundings. The elegant ladies’ restroom was as good as its word: should a lady need to rest, there were comfortable couches provided for just such a purpose.

The dress code for staff was succinct. In 1909, lady assistants wore either black or white dresses or black skirts with white blouses. Men wore only black or dark clothing and those in the drapery department were not permitted to remove their coats. This standard was the norm for the period.

The company employed a large staff, many of whom were not only highly trained, but often spent most of their working lives at Greenacres.

That loyalty remained until the final closure of the shop in May 1982: many of the staff had worked there for more than 30 years.

Until at least the 1920s, the annual employees’ sports day was eagerly awaited. Accompanied by a picnic, the venues included Malvern, Lord’s Ground, or in 1904, the Clairmont Hotel when a dinner was held in honour of Edwin Greenacre’s approaching marriage. The 1895 sports programme has the charm of a bygone era: there was the ladies’ potato race, threading the needle race, a three-legged race and throwing the cricket ball.

The evening concert was probably less eagerly awaited. The 1892 programme included a cornet solo, a song called Peek-a-Boo, a reading entitled, Seeing Baby, and Walter Greenacre himself singing, The Lay of the Very Last Minstrel. No doubt he was very loudly applauded.

After TM Harvey died in 1887, Benjamin Greenacre’s two sons, Walter and Edwin, joined the firm. In 1932, after Walter’s death, his son, Kenneth, joined the board of directors.

The Harvey family connection appears to have ended when Harvey’s son retired in 1898.

Outside of business, the Greenacres were deeply involved in the community. Benjamin, in particular, had prodigious energy. As the founder, he was very much the patriarch of the family. Born in Caister, Norfolk, in 1834, he arrived in Durban in 1856 determined to succeed. Even before his marriage to Mary Stott in 1863, Benjamin had joined the local Durban Rifle Guard (today Durban Light Infantry). In 1871 he became a town councillor with a strong interest in finance and the development of the harbour. He served as mayor from 1875 to 1876, 1889 to 1892 and again from 1897 to 1898.

It was said that Sir Benjamin - he was knighted in 1901 - filled more offices than he himself could recall. He was a member of the Legislative Council for 20 years but refused a cabinet position. A Wesleyan Methodist, he was opposed to gambling and spoke so passionately against the Sweepstake that it was abolished in Natal.

In his last year as mayor in 1898, he donated the valuable mayoral chain that is part of the city’s regalia. He lived long enough to see his son, Walter, wear the chain.

Sir Benjamin and Lady Mary enjoyed entertaining at their beautiful home, Caister House, named after his birthplace. There he tended his prized collection of orchids and ferns. When he died in 1911, he was described as a distinguished Natalian. He was buried in the West Street cemetery where other members of the Greenacre family, including his wife Mary and son Walter were later buried.

Walter, too, was much involved in municipal matters and during Jan Smuts’s first premiership, was a senator until 1924. He was a noted philanthropist, donating the organ to the Musgrave Methodist Church and supporting the establishment of the Community Chest.

During World War I, he converted Caister House into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Today, the Caister is an upmarket retirement home.

After Greenacres closed in 1982, Edgars opened its main store there in 1983. The façade was carefully maintained, but the famous clock finally stopped.

Greenacres enjoyed a long first act of 122 years, followed by a shorter second act when Edgars traded there for 36 years. One can only hope that its third act is a worthy successor in a much-loved building which is so much a part of the fabric of Durban.

The Independent on Saturday

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