Stuart Cloete and Mildred West

The novelist Stuart Cloete and his second wife, Mildred West, always known as Tiny, were residents in the Overstrand for nearly 50 years, 45 of which were in Hermanus. Stuart was already a best-selling author when, in 1948, the couple purchased a farm known then as Wesselshoek, between Stanford and Gansbaai. They stayed there for five years and in 1952 moved into Hermanus and bought a property at 24 Westcliff Road in Westcliff. They later purchased the house at 50 Westcliff Road and lived there together until Stuart died in 1976, having resided in our town for 38 years. After Cloete’s death, Tiny acquired a home in Luyt Street, Eastcliff. Tiny continued to live in Hermanus until she died in 1993, having been settled here for 45 years. Stuart Cloete was not retired nor resting on his reputation while he lived in our town. Between 1952 and 1976, while living in Hermanus, he wrote and published no fewer than eight of his fourteen novels, as well as eight collections of short stories, an autobiography in two volumes and four books of social and political comment. In his spare time, he and Tiny bought, renovated, and resold at least 20 fisherman’s cottages, thereby making a substantial contribution to the heritage of the town. Stuart Cloete was born on 3 July 1897 in Paris, into a family the surname of which he believed was “Graham”. His mother was Scots and his father, South African. He left school as early as possible and enlisted in the British Army on 17 September 1914, (aged 17), with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards. In 1915, shortly before Stuart was sent to the frontline in France, his father shared a secret with him and told him that the family surname was not “Graham”, but “Cloete”. Stuart’s father revealed that he had been convicted of fraud at one time and spent time in prison. After serving his sentence, he had unofficially taken a different surname to conceal his identity and criminal record. Stuart Graham (as he still was in law), was wounded three times but returned to the trenches after recovery. In a hospital in 1917, he met a nurse, Eileen Horsman and they married. In 1924 he took legal action and recovered his real surname, which gave him the imposing new name of Edward Fairlie Stuart Graham Cloete. Because of his history, he became interested in South Africa. Cloete secured a job with the Transvaal Estates and Development Company, working as a manager on a cotton farm near Warmbaths. Later, he set up a dairy farm of his own and supplied dairy products and fresh milk to city families. This venture was commercially successful, but by 1935, he felt that he had done enough to prove that he was a capable farmer and started to write stories. He became bored with ranching, as he admits: It isn’t a bad life, ranching. But after a while, you begin to think. One day it occurred to me that I had spent enough of my life at the job of looking after cows. There is just so much you can do with cows. I had a lot of good ones, and if I would stick at it for thirty years more, I’d have better ones…it seemed to me that nothing else would change much whether I stayed on the ranch or not. So I chucked it up and went to London. That’s when I decided to have a shot at writing. By 1937, he had published his first novel: “Turning Wheels”, which was a best seller in the UK and USA, selling more than two million copies in the first year. The ‘turning wheels’ of the title are those of the ox-wagons of several fictional parties of Voortrekkers during the Great Trek. However, it is not the ‘Groot Trek’ history they taught you from school history textbooks. Battles with the black tribes (which Cloete consistently refers to as “K…..s”) are described in gory realism, with heroes and villains on both sides. Sex is an important topic, also conveyed in realistic descriptions, and the Boers are treated critically, as individuals, and not as national heroes. Not unexpectedly, there was a public outcry. The Government immediately banned the importation of any copies of the book, which had been printed in Britain. Later four more of Cloete’s novels were banned for short periods, but Turning Wheels was not unbanned until 1974. But internationally the book was a hit, being translated into fourteen languages. Stuart was invited to Hollywood to discuss filming it. With World War II just starting nothing came of the approach, but two of his subsequent thirteen novels were later made into popular films. Albert R Broccoli (who produced many of the James Bond films) approached David Lean to direct a film version of Rags of Glory, which was Cloete’s version of the Anglo-Boer War. But Lean declined and described the book as …Very good, in an awful sort of way. In 1939, Cloete travelled to the USA to publicise the book and, onboard the liner, met Millicent West. Subsequently, he divorced his first wife, Eileen, and in 1940 he married Millicent. In 1948, the couple decided to return permanently to South Africa and bought a farm between Stanford and Gansbaai. It was known then as Wesselshoek. Some accounts describe the farm as being part of what is now Grootbos Private Reserve, while others claim that it is now the health resort Bodi Khaya. Both are prime fynbos areas. Stuart invested much time and effort in clearing alien vegetation from the land and encouraging the growth of natural fynbos. However, he does not appear to have actively farmed. The couple moved into Hermanus in 1952. Tiny and Stuart remained in Hermanus for the rest of their lives. Stuart died in 1976 and Tiny in 1993. In later life, Tiny reverted to her ‘middle name’, Rhena. She was one of the founding members of Hermanus Animal Welfare, with a very substantial donation of money and the property from which HAWS presently operates. She also donated a significant sum to Rotary Hermanus for the creation of the Tiny Cloete Clinic that is part of Mollergren Park. Both were cremated, and their ashes are kept in a memorial wall in the Hermanus cemetery. In an interview given late in life, Cloete wrote a sentence that indicates that he had a definite perception of the significant problems of the early 21st century: As a man, I am very happy. But, as a human being, I am in despair, as I can see no answer to overpopulation or pollution.
Stuart Graham (Cloete) 1914
Cloete in the 1960s
Painting of a fisherman's cottage, by Stuart Cloet, 1960s
Memorial at Hermanus Cemetery
Painting by Tiny Cloete 1980s