One of the Highway area’s most enduring landmarks has a colourful history, sparked by a charismatic German dame. What might we see there next?
story robin lamplough
Ninety years ago, most Durbanites knew Shanghai Lil. Those with money visited her emporium, Arts & Crafts, at 457 West Street, in search of textiles and artifacts from the Far East. Many ladies depended on her for items of their trousseaux.
Born in Bavaria in 1891, her full name was Georgia Anna Boediker. Later she called herself Mrs Gale, taking the surname of her English stepfather, a British merchant in Korea. She never married and had no family in South Africa.
Her eccentricity was legendary. A tall, imposing woman, she habitually wore Chinese robes and always only a single earring, and refused to have her picture taken. She drove a large American Lincoln car. She offended the mayor by habitually calling him “Payne” without any title.
In 1933, Lil acquired an old house on about a hectare of ground on Field’s Hill, at 23 Tracy Watts Road, Pinetown. It had been part of the inheritance of one of Jack Field’s daughters, on which a school for girls, St Elizabeth’s, had briefly existed – a forerunner to St Mary’s DSG in Kloof. On this site, Shanghai Lil built a distinctive house which she named Capricorn. It was reputedly modelled on a wing of the San Souci palace of Frederick the Great, near Potsdam in Prussia. The cost of building this house is said to have been £12 000, perhaps somewhere around R5-million today.
I visited Capricorn some years ago with Kloof historian, Adrian Rowe. The house had a floor of German oak. The entrance hall had been draped in patterned fabric, while the other walls were covered by hand-carved wooden panels. Downstairs was a music room with a domed ceiling and a brightly decorated Steinway piano. There was also a sitting room, a dining-room and the kitchen, with a well in the garden nearby. The public rooms had marble fireplaces.
On an upper level above the kitchen were a bedroom and a study, accessible only from the outside. In the grounds were pergolas, a fishpond, a birdbath and a shallow swimming-pool, as well a garage and a small one-bedroom cottage.
In 1939, however, the international political scene changed. Britain went to war with Germany and Georgia Boediker was technically an enemy alien. There was no official action against her but English anti-German sentiment was enough, in the popular mind, to condemn her. In the same era, for example, Otto Beier, although a naturalised South African, had to lease his Durban wool-scouring plant to the newly-established Industrial Development Corporation and only escaped six years internment (which his brother Oscar suffered) because the IDC needed his experience and management skills to run the factory.
Shanghai Lil was suspected of providing a safe house for German spies. She was thought to monitor Allied shipping from the top of nearby Spy Hill in Wyebank. She was believed to be in radio contact with Berlin. None of these assertions was ever shown to have any basis in fact, but all right-thinking people knew she was up to no good.
Georgia Anna Boediker suffered a stroke and died at Parklands Hospital in 1951 at the age of 60. Capricorn was later sold at auction for £7 500 and the proceeds were divided among her siblings. In the years that followed, the property changed hands many times. An attempt to turn it into a restaurant was short-lived. Most recently it has been used as office and warehouse space.
However, the legend of Shanghai Lil refused to die. As recently as 10 years ago, a local newspaper assured readers that, somewhere in the grounds of her home, she had buried a golden Buddha. Keep digging!