In 1897 the Property was purchased by John Henry woods by deed of grant on Public Auction from the British Crown. He passed away before transfer took place. His estate sold the property within the year to Captain Hitchens, of the Curry Shipping Line who had a vested interest in the ships plying the waters between Durban and the then Port Shepstone Harbour.
The Building of the House
Captain Hitchens commissioned the house to be built by George Sinclair and his son Colin circa 1899 – 1902 for his wife as a week-end beach cottage. It is said that Mrs. Hitchens arrived from Durban by Steam Ship, transferred to a horse drawn trap, crossed the mighty Umzimkulu by ferry, gave the house a critical overview and rejected it outright! She felt it was too remote, not on the beach and far too much of a task to take on in addition to the responsibilities of her home in Durban. She never took up occupation and returned to Durban forthwith.
Therefore the enigmatic Brigadier John Robinson Royston was not the original owner of the property now known as Royston Hall. However, the property remained in the possession of his family for the longest period of some 41 years, and he was by far the most colourful person to have lived here.
Brigadier John Robinson Royston
He was a soldier and farmer, was born on 29 April 1860 at Durban, South Africa, son of William Royston, civil engineer. He was educated at Durban High School where his chunky build and fierce patriotism won him the nickname ‘John Bull’. Absconding from school he joined the Isipingo Mounted Rifles with which he served at Ginginhlovo and at the Relief of Eshowe. He fought in the Zulu War in 1879 and by 1884 was a sergeant in the newly formed Natal Mounted Rifles.
Brig. Gen. John Robinson Royston named the property “Mount Romani” after the battle he fought at Mount Romani in the Gaza Strip on 18 August 1917. He appears to have been in residence at the property before the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906; however he took formal title only in 1919. Reference is made to his residence in North Shepstone where the property is located, by Napier de Witt in his book “Galloping Jack”, which details Royston’s military career. He lived on the property until his death in 1942 at the age of 82 years.
During Royston’s residence at Mount Romani he was involved in the 1st World War where initially he committed a military tactical blunder in Gibeon in S W Africa, but later became a highly respected leader of the Australian forces under his command in the Middle East, particularly in Gaza. It was at the various battles leading to Beersheba where he ostensibly rode 7 horses to death and the Australians nick-named him Galloping Jack.
The Australians created the nick-name after he had ridden up to various sectors of his lines where his troops were under heavy attack from the Turks encouraging them to continue the fight as “we have the Turks on the run”.
The Australian Light Horse loved him, as they loved no Australian-born officer. Writing of him, the men who knew him best produced strings of adulatory and sometimes contradictory adjectives.
Perhaps Paterson came closest with his summing-up that Royston was ‘by instinct a bandit chief and by temperament a hero’. As well, the man was vivid, generous, warm, and impatient of protocol, careless of detail, single-minded, impetuous and stubborn. He was the stuff that military triumphs and disasters are made of. Fate, and perhaps his beloved Australians, spared him the disasters.
After leading the 3rd L.H. Brigade in the 1st and 2nd battles of Gaza, Brigadier General Royston abruptly left the Light Horse in October 1917 on the eve of the Beersheba operations. According to the official history, his departure was ‘for urgent personal business’. Royston told his biographer simply that he was ordered back to London. However, Major A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson claimed that Royston had deliberately inhaled poison gas so that he could be sure of recognizing its presence in battle. ‘The result was that I found him in a hospital, a badly shaken man, passing green urine, and ordered away for a long leave’. Other sources confirm this unlikely story. Royston was persuaded to return to South Africa from London, ‘a very sick man and broken-hearted at having to leave his command’ and he was shipped off to head up the Zulu contingent manning various ordnance sections. He was also highly respected by his Zulu forces. His Zulu nickname was “Zithulele” – the silent one.
The Royston Family
John Robinson and his first wife Lillian (died about 1926) had one son and 2 daughters. Their son John returned to South Africa about 6 months before Mildred was murdered, after spending many years in Burma. He never married, and died of a heart attack in 1972. The Royston’s had 2 daughters – Marjorie Earle Golborne (died in Pietermaritzburg in a car accident 19.04.1929), and Vivienne the younger daughter who married John Stranack. They had one son Seth, who was gay, which fact he used in the application to overturn his Grandfather’s will. In terms of the will the property known as Mount Romani was to be left to his male heirs in perpetuity. The will was overturned by the Supreme Court in Durban on application of this grandson, Seth Stranack who then lived in New York and stated that he would not be producing heirs – male or female – and had no interest of ever setting foot in Africa.
Royston attended 3 coronations as a South African representative. He received his final coronation medal in 1936. It is said that he met Mildred Wright (born in East Ashford, Kent), his second wife, during this visit. She is believed to have been a Novice Nun who declined taking her final vows and married Royston in about 1938 after which they returned Natal to take up residence at Mount Romani – as it was then known. Mrs Royston remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout her life.
At the age of 82 years, Brigadier John Robinson Royston passed away and according to his wish to stay near his beloved Mildred to ‘protect’ her even in death, was buried on the property, some 20 paces from the front door. In about 1978 his remains were removed and re-interred at Heroes Acre in Durban.
Legend has it that at night Mildred would raise her arms to the heavens and dance naked for the watchful spirit of her late husband.
She lived on alone at the Hall where she is said to have created a shrine in memory of her late husband by displaying his many War Memorabilia in the house. This caused her ultimate demise.
The story of her untimely death tells of her habit was to walk up to the Trading Store on a regular basis every other day to collect the News Paper, bread and milk. On the fateful day she returned to surprise the thieving gardener on the first floor, in her bedroom. A vicious struggle ensued and he eventually overwhelmed her at the base of the wooden staircase, where he murdered her by strangulation.
He placed her body behind a two seater couch in the alcove and attempted to conceal it under a red Persian rug which he draped over the couch.
The Shopkeepers investigated Mrs. Royston’s absence from her normal routine and duly found her grisly remains where the murderer left it.
Mildred Royston was buried in the Port Shepstone grave yard – in an unmarked grave. There is no known information about her British relatives and why nobody erected a headstone in her memory.
The tale continues in that the investigating Detective found a bright yellow button clasped in Mildred’s hand. This button he kept with him and patiently sat at the Bus Terminal and waited for the labourer with the daffodil yellow shirt with one button missing to put in an appearance, which he duly did.
The rest, as they say, is history: The suspect was fingerprinted and found to be guilty of her untimely death. The law took its course as it stood in 1959 and he was sentenced to death in Durban – where he was duly hung for the murder of Mildred Royston.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Legend has it that one could still see Mildred dancing naked for her dashing Major on nights when the moon is full……………….
But exactly 50 years later, after many sad years of intermittently lying derelict, the now beautifully restored mansion was bought by Roderick & Ria Hackland, who promptly prayed the Blessing of their Heavenly Father over the house in the name of Jesus Christ and humbly invited Him to stay as a Guest of Honour in their home.
So: Mildred dances no more…!
Only love, music and much happy laughter prevails.
Now, when people ask with bated breath: “So….IS there a ghost in Royston Hall?” We smile cheerfully and say: “Yes! The Holy Ghost lives here!”
To all the previous owners of Royston Hall:
- The Blankenbergs who put the pool in and executed the first major restoration so many years ago;
- The Durban Engineers commissioned by Natal Portland Cement to put a railway line and tunnel under the house and Architects like Les Paul who first introduced her to me 30 years ago;
- The Kotovics, big game hunter and Coffee Farmers from Kenya, who kindly invited myself and Roderick for a glass of wine on the back porch 21 years ago;
- And a special word to Veronica Green and Patrick Collins who so lovingly restored our Old Lady to her former glory with prolonged tenacity, very hard work, extensive research and much capital – thank you.
We are proud to be the Custodians of this precious chapter of South African History.
Ria & Roderick Hackland.