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Augustus Edmund Murray Tatham

b 2 October 1913, Newcastle, Natal, South Africa
d 23 November 1992, Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa.
Father of Jessie Murray, Stuart Murray, Margaret Murray and Catherine Murray

As son, surely his high spirits and superior intellect must have been a delight and a source of pride. Add to this, very appealing looks which any parent could have wished for in a son. Although always somewhat smaller than other boys of his age, he had a heart and will disproportionate to his stature according to his mother. He was a good scholar especially of mathematics, science and literature and a trumpeter in the school military band (with three of his Tatham cousins) He had a gift for language and was fully conversant in two above his mother tongue – Afrikaans and isiZulu with a working ability in two other Nguni languages, isiNdebele and isiXhosa. Brave, resolute, carefree and prankster are adjectives which would aptly have fitted him as a young boy.

As brother, reports of championing his younger sisters and brother had been heard from our grandparents. Less admirable memories from his siblings were aired in good humour. Boyish pranks sometimes with outcomes beyond the pales of kindness. Yet well-intentioned one felt. He was always the big brother and diligently took on the mantle of mentor and protector right up to young adulthood.

As husband, his deep devotion for his wife was enduring through life’s many trials. It was a testimony to his children of how a husband should honour and love a wife. His children were not permitted any disrespect towards his wife, their mother. Good manners and appreciation of her maternal duties were always expected by him. Morning tea and a biscuit in bed for her was daily routine and him taking over the cooking Sunday breakfasts were little ways he showed his love for our mother. Weekly fresh produce shopping very early each Saturday morning at the farmers market and then a visit to the butchery were roles he took on as his own. He was a hands-on family man in many respects. He jollied our mother along through life with his lively sense of humour and enthusiasm; we all knew that she was putty in his hands. Hence his ideas most often prevailed in decision making debates. Tragically some of his life decisions were built on wobbly foundations which easily eroded when brought under the microscope of hard common sense. We lived a patchwork life like gypsies moving from one hare brained venture to another in different provinces, different towns and even twice to a different country. As teenage children we recognised that our mother had been wearying of such a migrant life style and despairing of a stable future, yet she kept the family whole and not only because financial means did not allow for anything else. Breaking up his family would have been the death of the man. We were a unit. In so many ways that unit, that anchor was what kept him from crumbling.

As father of four, he was ours which seemed to young children all that mattered. We loved him and he in turn was a demonstratively loving and a vocally proud father. We thought he was the cat’s pyjamas. He instilled in us a love for books, poetry and above all the importance of family. When it was his turn to read the bed time stories, a pantomime of fantastical proportions reigned. Never would anyone ably challenge his gift for terrifying the living daylights of children; reducing them to tearful melancholy; inducing them to belly laughs until they hiccoughed or magically lifting their spirits to such levels of adventure and excitement that sleep came hard.

He invented word games, quizzes and produced impromptu dress-up pageants where everyone was expected to participate. Our mother was accustomed to such hijinks and most often even a willing participant, but visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins or pals were taken aback by such outlandish goings on. Be assured the noise levels of such events were off the decibel scale. The resultant devastation to bedroom wardrobes, dining rooms and living room were of earthquake proportions. Such was his nature that, tidying up was for lesser mortals and he’d wander off washing his lordly hands of any responsibility. This was an attitude not always palatable to his wife or our domestic maid.

For all his eccentricities, he was a man with many strengths and talents. He always personally serviced the family car, tractors and implements on the farm, built rockeries, papered walls, did leather work , had the most wonderful copperplate handwriting, wrote hilarious nonsense rhymes , indulged in the odd pen and ink sketch, played a mouth organ (plaintive Irish melodies) and penny whistle (African kwela style a la Spokes Mashiyane) and sang profane university or army songs, strategically interrupted with raucous raspberries to replace unsavoury words; he sang us isiZulu marching songs and hymns and danced energetic Zulu dances. He was a devout man raised by staunch Anglican parents and he never did forsake his faith.

His gift for playing the raconteur was prodigious. He was able to hold an audience in the palm of his hand while taking them on a visit to all their senses. His forte, however, was to play the comic and to this day his family and friends mention his wicked sense of humour and mastery of accent mimicry as being how he is most remembered. He was victim to rank romanticism, something of a latter day Don Quixote. Being master of his own destiny he never quite mastered.

Always one to have a short fuse and hot temper, this became a side of him which could be fearsome. It cannot be said that he was a father who spared the rod. As children we either earned or probably most often were in the line for fire when harsh corporal punishment was being metered out. Our mother was family extinguisher of hot flare-ups and soother of wounded bottoms and injured feelings.

WW2 left its insidious brand mark on our father. Who truly knows the journey a sensitive but heroic man has to travel in times of active warfare? Who can fathom the depths to which his soul was sunk or the tests his faith had endured? It was felt by his parents and our mother that he came home to us fundamentally the same person, but with some deep pits of darkness. Pits where he didn’t allow others or perhaps more aptly he did not acknowledge. As was his way, he would cleverly paint word and gesture caricatures of his superiors, or the soldiers under his command, the enemy, desert hardships and such, but always these were superficial and tinted to enhance the appeal to his audience. Perhaps the best therapy he ever had was making light of his years at war. Certainly no alternative therapy, that I ever heard of was offered or recommended by our Defence Force for soldiers after either WW1 or WW2.

Ever a man to enjoy the proverbial cup that cheers, indeed to enjoy many cups that cheer, he was an alcoholic. For all his dependency on alcohol, he was ever the diligent and dapper man pitching up for his job, keeping his dignity and his standing in society. Still, he wrangled with the demons of drink for most of his life, more so in later life.

Perhaps the unfortunate gene carrying a tendency to alcoholism can be blamed on his ancestry. Certainly his beloved grandfather Augustus Gould Turner Tatham was an alcoholic as were others in previous and later generations. If that be so, our poor father was predestined to be inclined to the disease which took him almost a lifetime to overcome. Without doubt his addiction contributed to his downslide into financial ruin.

Testament to his bravery, resolve and his strong faith, he was sober for the last 18 years of his life. He emerged a happy, confident, loving and gentle old man but in poor health. We feel however, that he carried a burden of guilt to his grave. We know for certain that he was a man with supreme potential to have become so much more than he achieved in life. It was within him to have been a great man as well as the fundamentally good and loving man he has.

His occupations ranged from early forays into farm manager positions after quitting university, then becoming an owner farmer. Much later in life he found his way back to farm managing. Interspersed were periods of life assurance consulting and doing an apprenticeship as a foundry man where he became a mould designer and producer of considerable prowess. He was involved in the light industry side of the trade for ornamental brass, copper and aluminium doorknobs, coat hooks, fireplace accessories, horse brasses, ashtrays etc. Some free-lance translating opportunities in fields such as police work and news broadcasts came his way. Here his knowledge of isiZulu and Afrikaans afforded an extra source of income, albeit scarce work for a paltry sum. His final occupation was a lowly one in the Department of Labour, where he was an adviser both to employers and employees. In particular he specialised in cases where an indigenous language or Afrikaans was required. After farming this was a position which seemed most suited to him especially at that late stage of life.

Of course wedged in somewhere early, at the time of being a farm manger, he had six years of military service with the Natal Mounted Rifles where he saw active duty in Kenya, followed by Abyssinia (road and rail works in command of Zulu troops) and finally Egypt. At the time of demobilisation he held the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major.

After the death of our mother, our father married a second time and took on the roles of loving and committed husband as well as that of an older and more gentle father to our five step siblings.

2nd October 2013 – the date of his birthday 100 years ago.
Written by Jessie Murray Tatham in consultation with her sister Catherine Murray Tatham.