William Robert Rangecroft (1910-1993)

Angus Martin

Rangecroft
William Robert Rangecroft
Born Belfast, Ireland, 14 October 1910 – Died Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 July 1993

William Robert (always called Bob) Rangecroft was born in Belfast, Ireland, on 14 October 1910. He started school in 1919, at the Methodist (“Methody”) College in Belfast, where he was a member of the First XI Cricket team. He had three sisters, Bertha, Marty and Rhona, and a brother, Sylvester (“Cyril”), who died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. There was a strong tradition for male Rangecrofts to become fishmongers, going back at least as far as his great-grandfather William Henry Rangecroft, born in Wexford in about 1820. His grandfather George James Rangecroft and his father James Rowland Kenneth Rangecroft maintained the tradition, and so did Bob, establishing his own business “W.R.Rangecroft: Fish, Ice, Game, Poultry, Dairy, Fruit, Groceries, Provisions” in Antrim Road, Belfast, in about 1930. In 1936 he visited South Africa on a holiday with his parents and Rhona. Bob loved the country and decided to immigrate; he made the move in 1938 and found employment with the Traffic Department in Johannesburg as a traffic policeman (“traffic cop”). Before long he met Christine (always called Chris) Hickman, born in Johannesburg on 30 August 1917, when she nearly knocked him down while he was on point duty at an intersection. A case of love at first sight, apparently; he didn’t even issue her with a ticket. She was the youngest of the three daughters of London-born quantity surveyor Frank Davis Hickman and his Cheshire-born wife Helen (née Green). Chris was educated at Roedean School, Johannesburg, and when she left school she completed a secretarial and typing course. She loved horses, dogs and cats, excelled as a gardener, was an accomplished knitter and needlewoman and also a creative cook. They were married on 22 June 1940 at St Martin’s-in-the-Veld Anglican Church, Rosebank, Johannesburg; a marriage that was to thrive for more than 50 years. Chris’s elder sister (my mother) once told me that Frank had been horrified that two of his three daughters had married Irishmen; the second not just an Irishman but a traffic cop!

When war broke out Chris enlisted and did secretarial and office work for the South African army. Bob’s war service was also in the army, as an ambulance driver in North Africa, based at Khartoum. He served for nearly three years until he received a serious head injury in an accident and was sent back to Johannesburg to recuperate. He was declared unfit for further service; he and Chris bought a house in Bramley (then an outlying northern suburb of Johannesburg) and he found work as an estate agent. Their daughter Marie Louise Chloe (“Lou”) was born in Bramley on 17 October 1944.

Bob, having gone directly from school to employment in the family tradition, and the war having intervened before he had the opportunity for any career development, was lacking in qualifications or broader work experience. Hence the next stages of their lives were directed more by Chris’s than by Bob’s skills and interests. With substantial financial help from her father, in 1947 they made what everyone else regarded as a radical move, to a 5.7-hectare rural property at Muldersdrift, about 35 km NW of Johannesburg. Here their second daughter Cherry was born, on 21 November 1947. Their plan was to establish a flower farm to supply the Witwatersrand market with cut flowers; according to my mother, no-one but Chris and her father ever thought it would provide a good long-term living. It was certainly a brave step: Chris at least had a gardener’s knowledge of horticulture and flowers, but Bob was diving into completely uncharted waters which would make huge demands on his resourcefulness. Among other things, he had to manage and take responsibility for the welfare of a substantial African workforce. He also had to design and construct shade-houses, dams and irrigation systems, maintain outbuildings, windmills, pumps, gates and fences, and become the mechanic, handyman and jack-of-all-trades that every country property requires if it is to function efficiently. The way of life was new to both of them, but Chris adapted to it better than Bob did; she loved the farm, whereas he was much more a city person who found the environment uncomfortable, perhaps even threatening.

Nevertheless the business did satisfactorily for the first few years, until other farms entered the market, when it started to become clear that the Rangecroft operation was too small to be viable in the increasingly competitive marketplace. Hence they redirected their efforts into the design and construction of domestic gardens – again, a field in which Chris was more at home than Bob – and established a landscape-gardening firm, “Harmony Gardens”. They continued to operate from the farm, and employed the same labour force, but had to acquire additional vehicles and equipment. Most of their work was in the northern (more affluent) suburbs of Johannesburg. This also failed to provide them with rewards commensurate with the hard work that it required. At this time domestic-size knitting machines had recently become available, and Chris tried to supplement their income by setting up a small knitting business which produced garments for individual clients and several schools.

Recognition that it was always going to be difficult to make a living on the Muldersdrift property, no matter what they did with it, was brought more sharply into focus by the fact that Lou was now 12, and there were no suitable secondary schools near the farm. The nearest big town, Krugersdorp, was essentially a mining town with an Afrikaans-dominated culture. And so they made another major decision: to return to Johannesburg, and to establish a retail business in fish and poultry, an area, of course, in which Bob had experience and expertise. And so “Rangecrofts of Rosebank” came into being in 1956, in a small shop in Tyrwhitt Avenue, Lower Rosebank. Lower Rosebank was a satellite of the much larger and more upmarket Upper Rosebank shopping centre, which had department stores and a variety of other major retail businesses. The farm was sold and they moved to a small house in the suburb of Parktown North, only a few minutes from the shop.

In my late teens I worked part-time at Rangecrofts for three years, but I don’t think I realized at the time how typical it was of small family businesses in imposing unceasing loads of work and worry on Bob and Chris (to say nothing of making family holidays impossible). Opening hours were 7 am – 3 pm on weekdays and 7 am – 12 noon on Saturdays. However they arrived at the shop an hour before opening time to receive deliveries and start on customers’ standing orders, of which there were many, especially for fish on Thursdays and Fridays. They employed one white full-time front-of-house assistant, and as well as working alongside him and Bob behind the counter, Chris took responsibility for the bookkeeping and the monthly task of making up and sending out the accounts.

To supplement the seafood and poultry, the shop stocked frozen vegetables (then reasonably new on the market) and also eggs, butter, a range of tinned goods, and related items such as sauces, relishes and salad dressings. As well as the front-of-house assistant there was an African staff of six: three men (“boys” in white South African parlance) who dealt with the fish – cleaning, preparing, filleting – and three who were responsible for home deliveries. Deliveries in the immediate local area were made on a pushbike with a big wicker basket on the front; for those further afield there were two light motorcycles (“mopeds” in the South African idiom).

The fact that customers were able to run monthly accounts meant that a significant proportion of the day-to-day business was taking orders by phone from account customers who rarely came into the shop, and delivering their orders. For the more distant deliveries Chris had a strict rule that orders had to be placed by 11 am for same-day service, but Bob could occasionally be sweet-talked into ignoring this rule by female customers, which infuriated Chris. The upshot was sometimes the completion of deliveries by Bob in the car after closing-time.

The biggest scramble of the year, of course, came at Christmas: turkey season! Bob bought his turkeys earlier in the year when they were in good condition and priced more reasonably, and put them in cold storage in a city freezing works. So in the few days before Christmas they had to be collected, thawed and prepared, and then delivered by car, since the bikes couldn’t carry more than a few at a time.

The hard work certainly paid off, and Rangecrofts of Rosebank became a very successful business: Bob was truly expert in fish and poultry retailing. He demanded high quality from his suppliers, and set meticulous standards in the ways both fish and poultry were prepared and presented; in particular, he would insist that “fresh fish” really was fresh fish. Being so far from the sea, there was only one wholesaler who served the Johannesburg seafood market, which made supplies to retail businesses somewhat unreliable. This factor, together with vicissitudes of the weather and the transport system, meant that the wholesaler sometimes supplied “fresh” fish that had in fact been frozen, but Bob picked it without fail. If there really was nothing else then he had to accept it, but never concealed from customers that it was frozen and not fresh. I remember an irate customer who, being told that there was no fresh fish available that day, stormed out, saying that she would go to another supplier in Upper Rosebank. A short time later she re-appeared, carrying a dripping-wet parcel, and had the effrontery to ask Bob to re-wrap it “since the other fishmonger hasn’t wrapped it properly”. “It’s not the wrapping”, said Bob with a charming smile as he complied, “It’s what happens when you buy frozen fish.”

There is no question that his personality was as important as his expertise in contributing to the success of Rangecrofts. With his bright blue eyes, crinkly hair, soft Irish accent, generous nature and delightful sense of humour, he was as warm-hearted and welcoming as anyone in a retail business could be. A contemporary magazine article described him as “everybody’s favourite uncle”; certainly he was mine. Rangecrofts attracted a large and loyal clientele, and women, in particular, vied with each other for personal attention from Bob. Chris had a more hard-headed attitude to customers but, with her down-to-earth approach and her expertise in cookery (which made her a fount of information and advice), the significance of her contribution to the business matched his. I suspect that Bob enjoyed the shop much more than Chris did; what is beyond doubt is that they worked extremely hard, and their reward was the creation of an attractive and popular, indeed widely loved, business.

My personal perspective on Bob, my uncle by marriage, reflects more than the fact that he gave me my first paying job, and provided me with a role-model, as well as invaluable experience in handling social interactions with other people, both workmates and customers. My own father, an architect, was a dedicated and driven professional man, with positions on several boards as well as a busy architectural practice. He had little time or energy for family involvement, and I remember few instances when we interacted positively or felt any real sense of companionship. But Bob, both within and beyond the shop, provided opportunities where we discussed issues, worked together, enjoyed each others’ strengths and learned to cope with each others’ weaknesses. In these important respects he was more father to me than my real father was.

Eventually, however, a combination of exhaustion, rising rent and labour costs, changing tastes and (I think) poor advice from their accountant, gradually eroded the viability of the business, and in 1972 they sold it (to the great disappointment of many long-time customers). The buyers were a young couple who wanted to add fish to their existing grocery business. They moved to larger premises, “SevenSeas”, but the project failed and Bob had to rescue it. After rebuilding, the business was sold again and failed again; it was only after a second rescue that new buyers finally restored its viability, and Bob and Chris were able to retire.

He was a capable tennis player as well as a very good golfer (indeed he was president of Johannesburg’s Irish Golf Society) and I think he envisaged a future life of golf and leisure. In fact he rapidly became bored; so, in 1983, he opened another shop, “The Old Trout”, in Jan Smuts Avenue, Craighall. It was different in important respects from Rangecrofts in being strictly a fish and poultry business, and strictly cash-and-carry – no accounts and no deliveries. Numbers of past Rangecrofts customers discovered The Old Trout – to their great delight – and at least one member of the original African staff returned to his old job. Bob, Chris and a family friend were the front-of-house staff, and the business was a modest success. All I remember of the shop is its welcoming atmosphere and a little epigram on the wall that clearly appealed to Bob’s sense of humour:

Oysters are amorous
Limpets are lecherous
Prawns are passionate
But Sher-imps… Ker-ist!

Chris had by this time accumulated a collection of fish recipes, both from her own experience and from customers’ sharing favourite recipes with her. She began issuing a “fish recipe of the month” and a collection of these was eventually assembled as a booklet, “Old Trout Recipes”. It was never commercially published, simply distributed from the shop. Hence Chris’ adolescent talents (needlework, gardening and cookery) all found expression in the adult life that she and Bob shared.

In 1990 they did finally retire. The last straw was a robbery at The Old Trout in which Bob was assaulted by three men just as he was closing the shop for the day. They tied him up and fled with the day’s takings, his car keys and his car; he managed to reach the phone and Chris rescued him.

Over years of being a heavy cigarette-smoker he had developed emphysema, and in his later years gradually became seriously incapacitated, unable to undertake any real activity and requiring oxygen to be available at all times. He spent some time in the public hospital system, but the standards of care were so appalling that it was clear that he was much better off at home being cared for by Lou and Chris. He died at home on 20th July 1993, at the age of 83. Chris did not survive Bob even for a year, dying on 27th May 1994, a few months short of her 77th birthday.

Their younger daughter, Cherry, tragically died of breast cancer at the age of only 48; her daughter, Hilbré, was born in 1971. Their widowed elder daughter, Lou, is still living in Johannesburg at the time of writing.

[I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Lou Muirhead, and of

genealogical wizard Sue Delamore, in compiling this history.]

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