Walkerville, South Africa ... Gauteng's Best Kept Secret!
The Mann Family and the De Deur Flea Market
William John (Billy) Mann was born in Brighton in the UK on the 12th February 1865. He arrived in South Africa in 1890 as part of the British troops fighting under Lord Kitchener. His only possession – a stuffed cuckoo that had been mounted in 1860. This unusual liking for birds would pop up for generations to come! Billy Mann soon deserted the British forces, but not the war. Sickened by Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, and the concentration camps, he switched sides and joined General Louis Botha to fight for the Boers in 1899. He was 37 when the war ended. Having received a pardon from Louis Botha himself, Billy married Magdalena Sophia Swanepoel in 1894 in Smithfield in the Orange Free State. They had three children and then in 1901 moved to Aliwal North, where they had another nine children. Billy worked as a painter.
Their son, James George (Jimmy) Mann was born here. Not much is known about his childhood. He played both cricket and rugby for Aliwal North and he loved poultry. His very first poultry competition at the age of 12 was a very fine rooster, which won first prize. Unfortunately for young Jimmy he could not afford the gate entrance fee and had to peer through the gaps in the fence to see how well his entry had done. Jimmy often talked about having two or three jobs as a teenager; worked in the local grocery store, did duty at the Baths and also ushered at the local movie house.
Jimmy joined the police force and moved to Johannesburg where he met and married Susanna Maria (Sue) Dorfling. Sue was an orphan who was nursing at the time. They lived in Regents Park but soon the neighbours were complaining about the noise from his poultry and Jimmy knew he had to make a plan. In 1936 he bought a plot of land in Walkerville for 500 pounds – plot 123 where the Walkerville Vet currently is. For the next year they sold eggs and used the money to buy 2nd hand bricks which he used to build a small cottage on the plot. He still managed to find time to play cricket for the South African Police Force. The first time that Sue came to watch him play he scored his first century! In 1937 their daughter, Sylvia, was born and a year later they moved poultry and all to their new home in Walkerville. At this time the house didn’t even have doors!
In 1939, Roma was born, in 1943 James Douglas (also Jimmy) was born, followed by Frank in 1945. By now the plot was a productive smallholding. Jimmy and Sue planted 600 fruit trees and the whole family were kept busy. They spent their weekends packing and selling fruit either from their farm-stall on the side of the road or sometimes going door to door to the houses in Rosettenville. During the school holidays the children were tasked with pruning the trees and painting the tree-trunks with white-wash. When they were not busy with the trees they made boxes for packing the fruit, or packed fruit into “bushel baskets” brought in by the locals. The fruit venture was so successful that Jimmy was exporting his produce as far afield as Zimbabwe. One year the crops did so well that they raised 250 pounds. Jimmy bought himself a 1936 Ford V8 cash! Of course, as is the lot of a smallholder, other years could be disastrous.
Jimmy was still employed in the police force, but there was no doubt that his first love was poultry. He was a very keen breeder and became a proficient judge in 12 breeds of poultry. He exhibited at every show possible. The family had to wash and prepare the fowls for exhibition. Frank recalls that they washed the white ones with Surf washing powder and then fluffed them up till they looked like giant white snowballs. For years Jimmy Mann was in charge of the poultry section of the Walkerville and Vaal Shows. When he wasn’t exhibiting he was judging. He judged at a number of different shows including the Rand Show in Johannesburg.
In 1954 The Rand Daily Mail chose the Mann family for a series of articles about living on a plot. Every day for a month reporters and photographers descended on the plot and documented every aspect of their lives; from early morning until late at night, how they lived, what they did and the trials and tribulations of being smallholders.
After a search to find “an average means family – which likes country life despite the drawbacks”
About a month later, this drawing of the plot appeared in the Rand Daily Mail. When Jimmy saw it,
Jimmy worked for a poultry feed company, Nasfeed, and eventually sold property in the Walkerville area for Compass Sales until 1966. Jimmy was only 55 years old when he died in 1966. Sue sold the plot, never remarried and moved to Johannesburg where she lived until 1994 when she passed away at the age of 82.
Sylvia became a very well known cake decorator, and had several books published on cake decorating and sugar craft. Her first book, Cake Decorating Step-by-Step was published in 1981. For years she owned the Sugar Art Shop in Edenvale on the East Rand, and often featured in newspaper articles. Her cakes were extraordinary by any standards. Sylvia, after many years in the Johannesburg area, and her husband, Vic, now live in Bloemfontein. (She went from a Mann to a Coward) At the age of 70 she is still very active and paints and draws in various mediums, watercolour, acrylic, oil, graphite and charcoal. Volunteer work which she carries out consists of delivering a life improvement course for prisoners via correspondence. Their four children live in various parts of the country, with one living in England.
Jimmy, junior, has just retired after many years service for the Receiver of Revenue. He matriculated in 1959 and decided to study further. At his own expense he became a Chartered Accountant. Jimmy junior never married which probably explains why he managed to create a very comfortable life for himself. Like his father, he also played cricket. Today he is happily retired in Glenvista.
Roma also did very well at school. In those days girls usually left school at the end of standard eight as it was not regarded important to educate them any further. She became a secretary, married and had three sons, all very clever boys, seemingly in the Mann tradition. Roma passed away in 1996 at the age of 57.
And then there was Frank! He started school at the young age of 5 in 1950 at what is now the De Deur Primary School before transferring to Hartzenbergfontein in standard two. He was definitely not a hard working student. His teacher wrote on his report card that he was “below Mann standard”. Most of Frank’s school memories had little to do with learning. He recalls a very best friend Stewart Brown. When he heard it was Stewart's birthday he desperately wanted to get him a gift. Being fairly poor at that time there was no money to buy a gift. Frank had a rubber duck bath toy (that love of unusual birds again) that he cherished very much. He decided what better gift for a best friend than your best toy? The duck was carefully wrapped and handed to Stewart on the school bus the next morning. Boys being what they are, the gift was soon ripped open and the duck was tossed and kicked about the school bus until nothing remained of it. Frank was heartbroken and never forgot the incident. Over the years it became his standard to present anyone that he really cared about with a rubber duck. When he turned 54 a friend presented him with a new rubber duck that he still keeps in the bathroom.
Frank also remembers another incident when his father brought home several boxes of guavas from the market. He stuffed his pockets with as many as he could and hopped on the school bus. He wondered that so many of the boys bumped into him during the journey to school. When they arrived he realized what they had done – his school uniform was covered with squashed guavas! A fisticuff ensued and Frank ended up in the Headmaster’s office where he received three lashes for fighting. However, it turned out okay for him. He had a huge crush on his Grade 1 teacher, and when he returned to the classroom, she gave him a hug which made up for everything.
As young boys the Mann brothers spent their free time on top of Perdeberg, exploring the cliffs. Frank remembers John Bland who lived in the house that today is the Hillhouse Restaurant. John grew up to be a famous golfer.
Frank went to General Smuts for his high-schooling but he couldn’t wait to leave. He was too young to leave school at the end of standard eight and had to stay on – he failed standard nine twice but was then old enough to leave school. There was no doubt that he must have given his parents many grey hairs as he drifted from job to job. He tried his hand at many things but never settled in any. At one stage he applied to become an auctioneer, and even though he had not matriculated, he proved his maths skills during the interview, and was offered the job three weeks later. He had already accepted another position in a sewing machine company and felt he could not walk out after just 3 weeks so he turned down an opportunity to work for Herbert Greenwood. From there he drifted into the printing industry, then the railways where he managed to stay for three years eventually becoming a steward on the Blue Train for a year.
He even tried his hand as a private investigator. When he was 20 he was offered a job on the fishing trawlers in Walvis Bay. He asked his father to drop him off at Uncle Charlies and he would hitch-hike to Walvis. He got as far as Keetmanshoop where he met up with an old girlfriend – Astra Lavarack. He spent 3 days there before heading off again. When he arrived in Walvis the fishing trawlers had left for sea and he had to sleep in empty train coaches while he waited for their return. When he realized what a tough life it was he thought the better of it and decided to return to Johannesburg. Once again he passed through Keetmanshoop where the local building inspector befriended him and persuaded him to stay on for 3 weeks. The inspector was married to a much younger woman and her 2 younger sisters were visiting at the time. He thought Frank would be company for the younger women. Somehow you get the feeling Frank was also a bit of a ladies man! Eventually he knew he had to move on and he hitch-hiked to Upington. From there he hiked back to Johannesburg in what has to be a world record time – three and a half hours!
Along the road he was picked up a local man and his family. Frank told them he was going home to Johannesburg. Instead of driving to the highway they turned off to the local airport where the man had a Piper Cherokee parked. Within hours they had landed at Baragwanath. The very first car that stopped gave Frank a lift all the way home to Walkerville. Three and a half hours after leaving Upington, he walked through the front door of his parent’s home in Walkerville!
By the time he was 21 he had bought his first property, plot 62 Walkerville, built a house and bought a run down car. His friend Gilbert Martin talked him into joining him in his Triumph TR3 and going off to Durban to find work. Unfortunately when Frank decided to return his car to the dealers he found that he could not just walk away from his debt with the bank. He found work as a “laaimeester” for the Railways at Maydon Wharf. He worked from 7 to 9 every day, and even moved into the hostel to save enough money to pay his debt. 10 months later he returned to Johannesburg and joined Stanley Motors as a parts salesman. His girlfriend, Audrey Flusk, was employed there. Finally he found something he liked. Frank and Audrey were married in 1968. But even then he couldn’t settle and moved about between various motor dealers.
In 1971 his friend Les Palmer (a retired Traffic Superintendent of 63 years) suggested they should open their own business together. Frank had saved R 3,500 and Les would match that. Together they started Lefrank Spares specialising in Citroen Motor Cars Repairs & Spares. 18 months later they were made an offer by a larger motor dealer so they sold the business for R 46,000! He had also invested in a building in Meyerton with another partner in 1969 with the intention of opening an auction. However they decided to sell the building. He opened Fred’s Bargain Shop in Eloff Street but it didn’t do well and he was forced to close.
Frank cheerfully admits that he was the black sheep of the family. Despite this, he proved to be an astute business man. He formed a long running business relationship with Arthur Walker and Phil Kok. He invested heavily in property throughout the Walkerville area. At one stage he owned 10 plots in Walkers Fruit Farms. His father had introduced him to the idea of investing in property when he worked for Compass Sales. Frank took to it like a rubber duck to water! His one investment was plots 1,2 and 3 in Golfview for the princely sum of R 600 for all three plots - R 45 deposit and repayments of R10 a month. He added 3 plots in Blignautsrus for R 1,800 to his portfolio. Incidentally he still holds the original Deeds of Sale to prove this is no nonsense!
In 1965 he could have bought the Ohenimuiri Golf Course for R 21,000 but decided against it. He had seen a deceased estate in Homestead Apple orchards that he was keen on. A bidding war broke out over the property with everyone finding out the highest price and then offering a hundred rand more. Determined to get the property Frank moved his wife and children into a caravan which he parked right next to the house. He tricked everyone into believing that he had been the successful bidder. His chutzpah paid off and this was to become their home for several years. It was hard going – the plot had no water. Frank worked in town, and every night he was to fetch barrels of water for the house. Eventually he was able to erect a water tank but it could only be filled about halfway as it was not the sturdiest of tank stands. One day he got home to find it laying on the ground – shattered to pieces. Somebody had overfilled it, and it had come crashing down to the ground.
After several attempts at various business ventures he decided to return to something that had alluded him – auctioneering. With the stock from his shop in Eloff Street he set up on the property opposite the Caltex Garage in De Deur in 1974. It was not an easy time – the Peri Urban Board was constantly threatening to close him down. Eventually they assured him if he moved to “suitable” premises they would “assist” him with his application. He found a piece of land in Cross Road but the application took another two years before it was granted. He worked around the clock for 4 months building the pens and kraals. Many of his friends thought he was crazy for moving off the main road. When 500 cars arrived on the opening day in 1982 Frank walked of into the veld where no-one could see him, and burst into tears of joy and relief.
In the 1990s business was tight and he decided that he would rent stands for R25 each so that people could sell their own small items themselves. It was not that profitable for him to auction the smaller things that people brought to him to sell. With just four stalls he started the De Deur Fleamarket. The number of stallholders soon grew but they were always complaining about the dust and weather and so he decided to put down 10 concrete slabs for them to use. These were rented out very quickly and he had to put down more and more slabs for the expanding number of stall holders. In 1995 he closed the original market and opened up with a new name and his daughter and son in law were the new owners on the current grounds, still in Cross Road.
Frank has five children, Clint, Terri, Tracey, Debbie and Wesley. Terri and her husband run the auction and market section and Debbie with her husband, Neil oversee the food stall section. With over 600 stalls it needs good teamwork to get everyone settled in every Saturday morning. Tokyo Sexwale once visited the market and couldn’t believe how many people generated their only income from their trading at the De Deur Fleamarket. It is hard to think that one man’s dream has brought several thousand people together, and gives over a thousand people work.
It is even harder to believe that this soft spoken, gentle mannered, proud father and doting grandfather was once a brawling school drop-out that couldn’t keep a job for more than a few months at a time. It seems we all grow up (eventually)
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