Family and Destiny: The Origins of John Whitmore

“She said only animals did things like that and refused to speak their language.” – John Whitmore, discussing his Boer grandmother, Maria Louis Moller.

John Thorton Whitmore was a magnificent mixture of both Boer and British genes, the unlikely progeny of two disparate families of settler and immigrant blood who, centuries apart, had sailed from Europe across the Atlantic to make a new life in South Africa. He was born in Johannesburg on March 30, 1929, to Percy Thornton Whitmore, a London-born businessman, and Dorothy Mary Whitmore nee Moller, a teacher of Afrikaans farming stock.

John’s parents had met and married in Cape Town, but immediately moved to the City of Gold in the old Transvaal, where his father had several commercial interests. Besides defying the vast cultural divide between Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans post Boer War, the union of Percy and Dorothy was also quite unconventional, as they courted for several years and married and mated exceedingly late for the time.

Both were in their early 30s when they exchanged vows and Dorothy only gave birth to John when she was more than 40 years old. Back then, this was an incredibly late and risky age for a pregnancy – though it resulted in a healthy baby with pale blue eyes: John Thornton Whitmore.

Though he would one day become a pioneering ocean waterman – diver, fisherman, surfer and catamaran sailor – it seemed John would be doomed to spend his childhood as a landlocked ‘Vaalie’ – far from the beach and sea.

John aged 7 months, somewhere in Johannesburg. Image Whitmore Collection.

Boer Heritage

Before she moved to Johannesburg as a newlywed, John’s mother, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Whitmore (nee Moller) had grown up on the Atlantic Seaboard in Sea Point, Cape Town, among a clan of Mollers who lived in the area, including her mother and family matriarch Louisa Maria Moller (nee Morkel).

Descendants of the Moller and Morkel families have traced their ancestry back to German immigrants, who endured and survived the harrowing sea voyage to the Cape Colony in the 17th and 18th centuries, and set themselves up as frontier farmers, mainly around the farmlands of Somerset West.

One of John’s favourite stories throughout his life was how his grandmother Louisa Maria refused to speak English. As the tale goes, during the Boer War, British soldiers had barged into her home on the sparse, arid flats of the Karoo heartland and destroyed all of their possessions, including a prized heirloom, the family piano.

“She said only animals did things like that and refused to speak their language,” John once told a newspaper, calling the English ‘Tommies’.

After the Boer War, Maria Louisa and her husband, John’s grandfather, Johannes Marthinus Moller, settled in city of Cape Town, beneath the crags of Table Mountain. Johannes Marthinus had followed his father Gerrit Hendrik Moller’s calling away from the family farmlands, to forge a successful living as an auctioneer and sworn appraiser.

Johannes Marthinus would have to had to earn plenty of money, as he eventually fathered 14 children with Louisa Maria, including among the youngest, John’s mother Dorothy. Unfortunately, Johannes Marthinus Moller never felt the warm breath of the infant John on his face. He died in 1919 aged 63, of heart complications, a decade before John was born.

Moller family photograph, taken in 1916. John’s mother Dorothy is fifth from right, second row. His father Percy is to her left, with John’s grandmother Louisa Maria directly in front of her and his grandfather Johannes Marthinus Moller (with the large moustache), to her right. Image courtesy Roly Moller.

Johannes had left a substantial amount of inheritance money to his wife and a large homestead, Garden House in Hastings Street in Tamboerskloof, above Cape Town. This would be enough to see Maria Louisa Moller comfortably through the Great Depression and World War II, before she eventually sold the house and moved to the coastal suburb of Sea Point to be closer to her family.

Percy Thornton Whitmore

Yet while the lineage on John’s mother’s side is fairly well documented, John Whitmore’s immediate family know almost nothing about his father Percy Thornton Whitmore – beside the fact he was a successful businessman, who made a fortune in Johannesburg selling furniture and spoke with a posh British accent.

Percy Thornton Whitmore was born in Islington, London, in 1890. At the age of 10, he embarked on Union-Castle steam ship bound for Cape Town, South Africa, accompanied by his father Percy Whitmore (no Thornton) and several relatives, but it seems without his mother, of whom nothing is known.

In various public records, Percy senior’s occupation is registered as ‘salesman’ and Percy junior’s as an ‘agent ‘and the family residence as The Grove, Claremont. Like his Afrikaner counterpart, Johannes Marthinus, John’s English grandfather was also a wealthy man who possessed a penchant for commercial success – which he passed onto his son Percy – and ultimately to his grandson John.

Indeed, with the DNA of accomplished auctioneers and salesmen from both the English- and Afrikaans-speaking sides of his family, it would be inevitable that John Whitmore one day would carve his own niche as a successful marketer, merchant and manufacturer.

But beyond sharing his bloodline, Percy Whitmore was of no real influence on John beyond his toddler years – and in fact was physically absence from his life for most of his youth and adulthood. John would later receive gifts and financial support from his father as a young man, but he would be in his 30s before he would even see Percy again.

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Separation and the Sea

John would have been fiddling in his mouth with his baby teeth when Percy and Dorothy separated, and she hastily moved back to Sea Point, circa 1935. Not much is known either of how his parents met or why they grew apart, though it is suspected Percy was a shameless flirt and his infidelity led to their estrangement.

Soon after his parents split, John found himself attending school in Sea Point and living in his Afrikaans grandmother Maria Louisa Moller’s home, a few blocks from the beach. A devout member of the staunch Dutch Reformed Church, Maria Louisa played an enormously influential role in John’s early life – and in lieu of any real father figure, instilled in him the strong work ethic and conservative values he would carry to his grave.

Though he may have visited Louisa Maria’s house as an infant, there is no evidence John Whitmore had even seen the sea until he moved back to the coast with his mother at the age of six – or least not that he would have remembered. Now, standing on his toes in his new home, a squat double storied Victorian era house, ‘Morning Star’ in Albany Road, just below High Level Road, Sea Point, he might have just been able to see a sliver of blue horizon from the upstairs windows.

No doubt from here young John would have first heard the cacophonous cry of seagulls and the crackle and crash of the surf, and smelled the pungent aroma of the Cape bull kelp, wafting through his bedroom window on the salty morning sea breeze. John and his mother – no doubt eager for him to explore their surroundings – would surely have taken a walk down to the seashore soon after they arrived.

A small blond boy, gripping his mother’s plump hand tightly, young John would have peered keenly over the balustrades of the Sea Point promenade, his eyes wide, as he took in at what lay beyond. For John – though he obviously would not have known it at the time – this would be the first of several serendipitous occurrences in his life that would lead him to his true calling.

It was at this very moment that John Whitmore – the unlikely offspring of the erstwhile Englishmen of Islington and the two Afrikaner clans of Cape boers – first encountered the vast living, oscillating body that he would grow to love with every ounce of his soul – and in turn would be the source of everything he would one day achieve.

What a wonder it must have seemed to a that little Transvaal boy.

Before long, he would be immersed in it for the rest of his life:

The Atlantic Ocean.

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