After their mother, Ada Florence May, died the children were in the care of a lady, called Mrs. Flyn, during 1909 to 1910, then supervised by other foster parents from 1910 to 1913, before being put in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler for seven or eight years, until 1920. Eventually Mr. Wheeler committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. At that time (30.1.1920) Percy's wrote to his Mother, Caroline Amelia May, who was living at 6, Douglas Road, Surbiton, Surrey and he sailed from Cape Town on 4.2.1920 in the 'Renalla', arriving in London on 28th of that month, he then went straight to Surbiton.
Doris wrote: 'There are many stories regarding life for us from when our Mother died, such as when very young we went to a County fair, came home late and on our return to the house found we were locked out. Girlie and I broke a glass between us [to enable them to get in and they were punished for this by being forbidden to read their books for six consecutive Sundays.] We had to go to bed without any tea if you know what that means (the last meal of the day for children). Then there was the time that Victor was locked in a room all day because he had taken a pear off a tree whose branches overlapped the path or sidewalk. All books were taken out of the room and he had a slice of dry bread and glass of water for that day's sustenance.
Girlie often spoke of the time spent with the Wheelers and her main recollection was that Mrs. Wheeler did not like her and, consequently, always punished her for whatever happened or went wrong. She maintained that Mrs. Wheeler definitely favoured Doris and Victor, so that she and Jack got the worst of it. Knowing Girlie well as an adult who always tried her very best to please everybody and had a very loving nature, this must have been especially hard on her as a child. And poor little Jack seems never to have had a very happy life at all.
Doris added: 'Poor Jack, when left in England and still at school, had a terrible time with the illiterate people he lived with. I remember lots of stories of this nature. In fact I still have letters of complaint written by the man Jack lived with, to Pa. He signed himself Mr. J. Carpenter, Esq.! Memories of that brother bring tears to my eyes to this day.'
Doris also recalled: 'I remember the house at 18, St. John's Wood Terrace. Biddy's family lived in the same road. We then moved to 150b, King Henry's Road, South Hampstead.[Mrs. Wheeler's address] We all received cards from Pa [when he was residing in Livingstone] from 1916 onwards, some are large and mostly pictures of the country and the Africans... The Mr. May who lived at 49, Hanow Road, London may easily have been Pa, because he lived in London, possibly near his office, not with us, but used to visit every weekend'
On 18th June 1919 Percy Augustus May married Mabel Helene Squires nee Nolan in Livingstone. By that time he was an accountant and civil servant; he was Secretary to the Treasury for Northern Rhodesia; and later he also became the first secretary of the Automobile Association in Northern Rhodesia.
After his second marriage, he was keen to bring his family out to Africa to join him and his wife agreed that they would go across to England in 1920 and fetch the two girls, aged 17 and 16. At the time Dolly and Winnie were still boarders at Eveline School in Bulawayo and Jack, aged twelve was also still at school in England. Percy sent a post card to his mother, 'Mouche' on their arrival in U.K. dated 1920. Girlie and Doris returned to Livingstone with them, at the end of their overseas trip. By 19th December 1921 Girlie was employed at the Custom's Department and Doris at Ellis and Company and Mabel's sister, Ruby died during that year. Then, the following year, 1922, according to Winnie Sturman, Victor arrived in Livingstone, but Doris thought it was in 1921. However it was also in 1922 that 'Mouche' and her sister, Elizabeth Biesel nee Glessing died and the only child of Mabel and Percy's marriage, Phillip Alistair May was born on 12th July.
Then in 1923, Percy and Mabel took another trip to England accompanied by the four girls, Girlie, Doris, Winnie and Dolly and one-year-old, Phillip. On their return by boat,[on the 'Balmoral Castle'?] they stopped in the Cape because Doris had a very severe bout of malaria, with a temperature of 105 degrees and she was taken to hospital in a 'machila' [I cannot trace the origin or meaning of this name, but Doris sketched it as a sort of covered stretcher or canvas bag and she added that these days people do not know what a machila is. It had shafts through the canvas'roof', which enabled Africans to carry it]. Winnie, Dolly and their mother remained in the Cape for a while, presumably visiting family, but Girlie, Doris and their father returned directly to their jobs in Livingstone. [I had difficulty trying to find out what happened to baby, Phillip, during this trip abroad. He was not mentioned as accompanying the family. Doris could not enlighten me concerning his whereabouts while they were all overseas, however, Winnie eventually recalled that he was with them when they stayed at Shoreham-on-Sea and had a 'lovely holiday].
In 1926 Percy bought a 6 cylinder Hillman Tourer for six hundred pounds from Coventry in England. This was one of only three of this particular model to be manufactured. He had ordered it during a visit to Britain and it was sent out to Northern Rhodesia in a very large wooden box and they retained this car over the years until, during the war, they gave it to Margaret Robertson, who continued to use it for some years. At the time of purchase he was offered the agency for Hillman cars for Rhodesia. He did not take this up presumably preferring the security of his job as a civil servant.
In 1927 Percy, Mabel and Phillip (aged five), probably visited England as we have a photograph of Phillip in Kensington Gardens and this date is written on the back by Mabel. However, as far as Winnie recalls, they were not over there for Victor's marriage in December of that year. Then, in about September of 1929, Mabel took Phillip over to U.K. again in time to start his education at Taunton School as a boarder and his parents took 'home leave' again in 1932. They were in Livingstone for Dolly's wedding in June but away by the time Winnie was married in November. (Although I have a note that Percy returned from U.K. on 29.7.1932, Winnie writes that they were definitely in England at the time of her wedding.)
Winnie believed that they were in England, visiting Bournemouth in 1931 and again at the time of her wedding in November 1932, however this has not been confirmed.
Contribution by Lucy Tarr:
I did learn that in about 1923 Grandpa May took the 2 girls and Phillip to France and England and they visited the Casino in Monte Carlo. Mother remembered it as a very imposing building. Of course Grandpa May spoke fluent French, which made the trip easier.
Phillip recalls that his father also took them to Juan le Pain, France in about 1926
During the later part of 1961 & through 1962 I was completing my Midwifery at the Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six. I had a French friend, Jacqueline Sauvage who came from the Seychelles. She often went with me to visit the old folks and despite many years of not having spoken French, Grandpa May very quickly picked it up again and he and Jackie spent many happy afternoons conversing together while I helped Granny in the kitchen. Or Grandpa would put us all in the car and take us down to Kalk Bay to see the fishing boats come home. Even though he was well in to his 80's at that time, I remember how it amazed me that he could still drive without glasses.
On their return from 'home leave' in 1932 it came as a real surprise to learn that the capital of Northern Rhodesia was to be moved to Lusaka. There had been rumours prior to this that Broken Hill would be chosen, but when they learnt that it was to go to Lusaka they felt disinclined to move there. They were probably given six months notice and offered the alternative of taking early retirement, (on a reduced pension, of course, of eighteen pounds per month) so they decided on that option. Over the years there were small increases made in this pension and by the time Percy died it had risen to the princely sum of thirty-six pounds per month.
Winnie wrote that "on their return it was a great shock to Pa to learn that he had been retrenched and likewise so were quite a few of the Civil Servants retrenched before the Departments moved up to Lusaka." This is not the way that Phillip recalls his parents telling him of their decision. They made it clear that they had a choice, so I expect that, as Winnie was not with them at the time, she simply presumed he was among those who were retrenched.
In 1933 Percy and Mabel left Livingstone and moved down south to live in East London.
They probably motored down to South Africa but, as Winnie mentions, in those days you could send a car down to Cape Town by rail for ten pounds. She and Ralph did this a couple of times.
However, they did not find living in East London to their liking and agreed to see if they preferred to be in England instead. In 1934 they bought a house in Bournemouth.
We have photographs of this home standing on its own, apparently surrounded by empty land, but when Phillip and I visited it (probably in 1978), we found a tightly packed suburban situation and a rather overgrown garden, so that this house was almost hidden from view. Phillip remembers this house from the thirties; there was a policeman living next door whose wife had dropsy and she was treated for this condition with increasingly large doses of arsinic, sufficient to kill any person unaccustomed to taking arsenic over time. He also recalls the excellent grapevine his father grew in the glasshouse there.
It was while they were living there in Bournemouth that Mabel developed very severe gallstones and the doctor's advice was that, if she did not want an operation, (she was always emphatically against accepting 'the knife') she should return to a much warmer climate. So, they returned to South Africa in 1936/7 and went to live in Kalk Bay.
On board the ship in which they travelled was a lady passenger who became friendly towards Mabel and when given the explanation concerning the medical condition that necessitated their leaving England, this lady informed her that she knew of a cure for gallstones which did not require surgery. However, she explained, she was not prepared to divulge details of this unless given a binding promise that they would never be revealed to any one in the medical profession. On receiving this assurance, she informed Mabel of the various items that would be required and described how they should be used. The components sounded rather unnerving but, because of the painful nature of the problem, Mabel decided to undertake a course of this mixture which was, in fact, made up by dissolving iron filings in Sulphuric acid and syphoning or distilling water through the mix to obtain a liquid to drink.
Not only did this 'witch's brew' cure Mabel's problem, but she treated a number of friends, who suffered from gallstones, with the same beneficial results.
During the thirties Mabel thought it would be wise to invest some money in property (probably capital that she had inherited from her first husband) and she bought an apartment block in Gardens, off Kloof Nek Road and not far from the city.
One day having visited this building to inspect it, as she was walking down the road talking to a Jewish man who was known to hold quite a lot of property, he asked if she would be in the market to sell it. At first she only said that she might, but as he kept pressing her she made the mistake of agreeing to a sale. At that time in South Africa one's word was considered to be one's bond, there was no such thing as a cooling off period and, as the law stood, a verbal agreement was binding. She would like to have retracted from the sale but he would have none of it and so, to her great regret, it was sold in 1938.
In 1939 Mabel and Percy bought a house in Albion Road, Rondebosch. This property lay alongside the Catholic cemetery. It was quite a small property on a limited piece of land.
Many years later, when we were living in Gordons Bay, quite out of the blue, we received a phone call from someone wanting to contact a Mr. May whose parents had lived in Albion Road. Apparently, there was some conflict concerning the boundary of this house and the property next door that had been the cemetery. A developer had purchased the cemetery land after the normal South African one hundred-year prohibition concerning the disturbance of graves had expired and the owners of the house asked Phillip to come and see if he could ascertain where the original boundary lay. We went to see if we could help and found that a garage had been squeezed in between the house and fence, which necessitated bending the fence outward, and it was obvious to Phillip that the developer was in the right in claiming the garage encroached upon the adjoining land. Naturally, the owners were extremely disappointed, having bought the property with the garage included, that we couldn't confirm their rights. However, what did amuse us was the story that, when the developer first started levelling the ground numerous bones were unearthed and the coloured workers run for their lives, fearing the 'spooks' that would come after them. He had great difficulty getting any further labourers as they, too, were unwilling to disturb the dead. The last we knew about it the cemetery land was still lying vacant.