St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
St George's Park - The "Master Harold" Tearoom
The "Master Harold" Tearoom
It could arguably be claimed that one of the most famous tearooms in the world is the one used as a setting for Athol Fugard's apartheid era play, Master Harold and the Boys.
Forming part of the swimming pool complex in St George's Park, the tearoom was located in a small, unassuming, sea-green building complex that, when built in 1937 for the Empire Games trials, housed the entrance foyer, the tearoom and kitchen, a hall, change rooms, as well as offices for the administration of the Olympic sized swimming pool.
The beautiful botanical gardens of St George's Park were started in 1861 and provided a beautiful background garden setting with its well established trees and gardens.
It was a popular venue for the residents of the town in those days and during the weekends many of them would be seen walking in the park, visiting the Victorian Pearson Conservatory, the Prince Alfred's Guard memorial, the Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts exhibition hall and the famous Horse Memorial commemorating the horses that died during the South African War of 1899-1902.
The park was also the venue for tennis, lawn bowls, cricket, soccer or rugby matches and if the game ended early enough, players could visit the steam baths which were located under the swimming pool Grand Stand.
There one could engage the services of one of the seven masseuses, three on the ladies side and four on the men's side, to ease away the aches and pains of the days game.
But back to the tearoom and Athol Fugard.
What is perhaps not fully realised is that Athol's mother Elizabeth Magdalena Fugard, nee Potgieter, ran the tearoom for nearly 30 years and that "Master Harold and the Boys" is based on fact.
Athol’s father, Harold David Lanigan Fugard, was invalided as a young boy when he slipped and fell down a ship's gangway.
Willie and Sam really were waiters at the tearoom.
Athol Fugard's second name is Harold and was called "Hallie".
Sadly, today the room has been modernised, painted an awful green colour with white splotches, and turned into an under-utilised functions room.
Back in the 1950's, the period of “Master Harold and the Boys," as you entered the swimming pool buildings from the park, you would step into a cream-coloured room, with rounded corners.
A small, plain, ticket-counter across the centre of the room would block your way to ensure that you paid for your ticket.
A door to the right would lead to the hall and a door to the left would lead into the tearoom, measuring eight metres by nine metres.
Now depending on when you visited the tearoom, you would either see the jukebox in front of the windows on the left, or it would have been on the right hand side against the plain wall. It’s unsure how it was placed in 1950.
Straight in front of you would have been a simple counter from wall to wall, with a flap to allow access to the counter and kitchen.
On the counter itself were various glass containers filled with a range of penny sweets, some with elaborate names such as pinkies, velvets, or niggerballs (disgusting name).
These glass bottles stood on glass "counter top" counters, which, in turn, stood on the wooden counter.
Other goods offered for sale, such as cigarettes, tins of biscuits and chocolates, were stacked on shelves on the wall behind the counter.
Then there was the door to the kitchen with a little hole in the wall for the telephone, so it could be answered from either side of the wall.
The wall on the left had six narrow windows, each one covered with a wire grid burglar proofing, in an attempt to keep vandals out. Mrs Fugard's tearoom was the frequent target of miscreants who would cause total chaos in the room, even to the extent of defecating on the floor.
On the right hand side wall, facing the swimming pool, was a wall with three glass-paned doors.
The centre set of doors, fortunately, are still there, unaltered, but two, large, metal-framed, picture windows have replaced the patio doors which stood on either side.
Around the entire room, above the windows and doors, ran three raised rails. In the 1950's, these, as well as the space between them, were all painted bright yellow-cream, contrasting tastefully with the lighter cream of the walls.
The door frames leading into the room from the entrance foyer as well as the door frame leading to the kitchen were painted the same bright yellow-cream colour.
The frames of the patio doors were painted white.
The most striking feature of the tearoom were the jam-packed, small, wooden, square tables with four wooden chairs placed at each one.
Each table was covered with a square table cloth with a corner hanging over the centre of the table, forming a sort of diamond shape. Each of the wooden chairs had a removable, upholstered seat.
On the door, facing outwards when the door was opened, and facing inside when the door was closed, was a sign reading “We would appreciate customers not wearing wet costumes or towels in the tearoom.”
With a bit of imagination, you can visualise the patrons, wearing their Sunday best, sitting and socialising at the tables, eating their scones, jam and cream and sipping their tea, poured from those old fashioned aluminium teapots into plain white cups, while the black waiters, Sam and Willie, hurried from table to table and to the kitchen at the back, executing the orders, while their boss, Mrs Fugard, stood behind the counter.
Maybe, if you were there at the right time, you would have seen the schoolboy Athol, dressed in a black Russell Road Technical College jacket, white shirt, black tie and grey flannels, doing his homework or in deep conversation with the waiters, Willie and Sam.