I first visited Lindfield House in early 2011, a few months after I moved to Joburg. I blogged about it then, but after visiting for a second time two weeks ago I now realize that my original post was inadequate. I can’t say enough about how amazing this place is, and the Jozi blogosphere needs a reminder.
Lindfield House is part museum, part tea room, part events venue, part educational facility. It’s also a private home where a modern-day Victorian lady lives.
A Tour of Lindfield House
Every inch of every room in Lindfield House, from the drawing room to the kitchen to the bathroom to the pantry, is decorated to look like a late-19th-century/early-20th-century home in an English colony. The house is filled with thousands of antiques, collected over a lifetime. Katharine and her parents moved here when Katharine was a young girl, and she and her late mother have been collecting Victorian antiques ever since.
Perhaps more remarkable than the thousands of antiques themselves, at least for me, is the fact that Katharine cleans and dusts every single one of them herself. She doesn’t trust anyone else to clean so many priceless relics, and I can’t blame her.
A replica of a Victorian teenage girl’s room. “A girl living in a room like this would be ‘coming out’ soon,” Katharine explained. “She would travel back to Europe for her coming out, and hopefully return home engaged.”
I know what you might be thinking: This is Africa, not England. Why would I visit a Victorian museum in Johannesburg? I’ll tell you why: Because you won’t find a house like this, or a person like Katharine, anywhere else in the world. Katharine’s encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian culture and society, and her unusual manner of imparting that knowledge, are one-of-a-kind.
Katharine is formal, almost stiff — probably much like a real Victorian housekeeper would be — upon first meeting. But she warms as the tour goes on, and is so patient and kind when answering questions. Katharine’s manners are impeccable, of course. And I can’t imagine that there is anyone else on earth who knows more than Katharine about the way that colonial Victorian houses were run. She could easily be a curator at the British Museum or the Smithsonian, but instead she has devoted her life to curating this modest house in suburban Johannesburg.
The Life of a Victorian Lady
I’ve done the Lindfield tour twice now, and both times I’ve been most fascinated by Katharine’s description of women’s roles in upper-class Victorian homes. There was so much complexity, so many strictures and unspoken rules, to the way that women were expected to behave and interact both within their homes and in the outside world. Women were limited in the topics of conversation they were allowed to make. They were forbidden to talk to men about business or politics, or really about anything more significant than the weather. Women rarely left their own homes except to make social calls to other ladies in the neighborhood; these social calls took place only between three and five p.m., and were meant to last no longer than the time it took to drink a shallow cup of tea.
The lady of the house was not supposed to visit her own kitchen, ever, as that was the domain of her servants.
Katharine in her kitchen. The whole kitchen is Victorian — note the massive iron stove on the left — with the exception of a small gas stove (still extremely old) in the corner that she uses for cooking.
These women were expected to exert as little energy as possible; they had servants to help them with literally everything, assuming their husbands could afford it. There were kitchen maids to do the dishes and house maids to dust the furniture. There were parlour maids to help the lady dress and brush her hair, and footmen to help her alight from her carriage. The fashion of the time encouraged repose: Women wore suffocatingly tight corsets and huge hoop skirts that prevented them from walking faster than a slow stroll.
I could go on forever — I haven’t even touched upon the lives of the men or the servants or the children — but you really must take Katharine’s tour and hear it all from her.
There were three particular highlights of my recent Lindfield tour. First was the wedding dress exhibit.
Katharine doesn’t always have her wedding dresses on display. But she recently hosted a wedding at Lindfield House and displayed her dress collection for the occasion, and hadn’t taken it down yet on the day we visited. The house’s conservatory (music room) was filled with wedding dresses representing various historical eras from the 1890s through the 1950s.
The second highlight was the doll’s house. I saw it on my previous visit but had forgotten how utterly spectacular it is.
A look at the doll’s house with its front doors open. The house itself is huge by doll’s house standards. As you can see, there are eight rooms in the front half of the house and an equal number of rooms in the back half, which also opens out.
The doll’s house drawing room. Note the two-tiered platter of afternoon tea cakes. Every tiny detail of every room in the doll’s house is 100% Victorian and 100% perfect. Katharine inherited the house and much of the furniture as a child, but she has also built many of the installations herself.
The third highlight was the high tea, or — as Katharine politely corrected me — the afternoon tea. (High tea and afternoon tea are actually two different things. Read more here.) Upon request, Katharine serves a delicious afternoon tea (all homemade, of course) at less than half the cost of the fancy afternoon teas served in many upscale Joburg hotels.
Lindfield House is a one-women operation, run on a shoestring budget. Go support Katharine, as Lindfield House is a legit historical treasure and these tours are Katharine’s only form of income. (The tour plus afternoon tea costs R120 — less than $10. Cheaper tours are also available without the afternoon tea. Advance booking is essential.) You’ll have fun, learn a lot, and leave with a full stomach.
To book a tour of Lindfield House, contact Katharine at 011 726 2932 or [email protected].