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#bct100: Taking a walk back in time with William Hills

My newfound interest in history has surprised even myself.

Article by Carol Stier, the great-granddaughter of City Times founder William Hills:

The biggest disappointment of my part in the City Times’s Journey to 100 years was the discovery that William Hills could not have swum across Durban harbour to interview Winston Churchill, quite simply because he was boating to England at the time.

It had seemed to be just the sort of thing the intrepid journalist would have done in life so reminiscent of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, right down to the dog constantly at his side.

When Benoni City Times editor Lana O’Neill approached me to contribute to the newspaper’s 100th anniversary, I couldn’t fathom how I could possibly deliver anything beyond my own experiences as a journalist.

Hills died before I was born. I didn’t know much about him either, bar a few tidbits picked up along the way – among them the now-debunked Churchill myth.

I told Lana I would rummage through his papers to try and unearth something City Times readers might find interesting.

ALSO READ: Great-granddaughter of City Times founder lifts the lid on his intrepid past

What unfolded were Hills’s own fascinating tales of derring-do, starting with his arrival in South Africa with his brother George in 1895.

The problem was I had found just the first part of the story of Hills’s life as a journalist – and it ended in 1900. I faced a quandary: was the information interesting enough to use even if I didn’t find the rest of the story? Well, of course, it was, and so it started.

In the hope of piecing together the rest of the picture, I set off for the Historical Papers Archive in the William Cullen Library at Wits University where many of the records not in Hills’s rusty old trommel were lodged.

In the midst of the Covid lockdown, permits to visit the archive were scarce and I spent the full five days I was granted poring through diaries dating back to 1888 when the 19-year-old Hills was apprenticed to a printer in London, letters from his parents, his siblings and friends, and photographs, many of them of the Benoni of yore.

It was also there that I made the discovery that when the South African war broke out in October 1899, Hills hitched a ride on a refugee train to Port Elizabeth.

With the general opinion that hostilities would last three to six months, he embarked on a hasty trip to England to see his parents, boarding a ship on November 13 1899, just two days before the then 25-year-old Lieutenant Churchill, a war correspondent for the Morning Post, was captured by the Boers at Pretoria.

Hills remained ensconced in London when Churchill escaped on December 12 and was still there when Churchill made it to Durban, on what would be his only visit to the city, 11 days later.

Not long after visiting the archive I serendipitously came across the second part of Hills’s story. It had somehow become separated from the rest of his records and had made its way to the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my office at home.

He wrote this final part of his account in 1942, during the Second World War, and had to end it when restrictions were placed on paper consumption. It covers his life until about 1906. There is one last article published much later, in 1945.

George, who was 10 years younger than William, died shortly after the war. But he had long since disappeared from William’s stories.

It was this mystery that put me in touch with George’s great-granddaughter Laura Venditti-Taylor, who commented from Australia on the story about George’s sensational pyjamas when it appeared on Glynis Millett-Clay’s Facebook page Benoni’s History – Now & Then.

And then, in June, Lana sent me a letter from Benoni attorney John Gilchrist, grandson of George and his wife Susan Hills, who was the mayor of Benoni when the town hall was opened.

He pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned that the brothers – who were once so close that they travelled to South Africa together, lived together, worked together, and wrote to each other almost every other day when they were apart – had refused to speak to each other for years, and for reasons no one recalls anymore.

John wrote that although he hadn’t known his grandfather, he did know “Uncle Willie” in the 1950s, and typical journalist that he was, he never went anywhere without his camera.

Two months later I got to meet John and his wife Rosemary and spent hours chatting to them and paging through family photographs with them, learning more about my extended family and re-establishing old family ties.

It is experiences like this, and the feedback of readers as captured by Hills’s story as I am that have made exploring the past and writing about it so worthwhile.

My newfound interest in history has surprised even myself. At school, I managed to largely avoid the subject. As a reporter I was thrown into the thick of it, living history as it happened.

But, it is only now that I have found its value, now that I have taken a walk back in time with Hills through the world he inhabited, the people around him and his experiences.

The trip has inspired me to fill in historical blanks out of pure curiosity – even if, or rather especially because, it has led to the truth about that dodgy Churchill rumour – and I suspect that it is a journey that will continue well into the future.

Carol Stier, the great-granddaughter of William Hills.

ALSO READ: Part 1 of our series on William Hills, founder of the City Times




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