There’s something really intriguing about looking at old photographs of Durban and imagining how people once lived. But even more exciting is to get to walk through a physical space that’s been staged like one of those old photographs – a space where you can see the detail and textures of that old life, which is exactly what the Old House Museum in Diakonia Avenue offers! The house has been dressed to resemble the life of its one-time inhabitants, the Robinsons, a very respected Durban family.
Sir John Robinson was the very first Prime Minister of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Prime Minister, you ask, but how is that possible? In fact it was John Robinson who argued for the idea of Natal becoming a self-governed colony and, after many years of petitioning the legislative council, Robinson eventually succeeded. In 1893, a bill was passed establishing a responsible government accountable to parliament, with Robinson elected Prime Minister. He also acted as Colonial Secretary and Minister of Education, which was ironic given that Robinson himself had only a limited education.
Born in England in 1839, Robinson was only eleven years old when his parents moved to Natal, where there were no secondary schools. But, with the assistance of his family, Robinson went onto achieve great success in his chosen career as a journalist, co-founding the Natal Mercury with his father in 1852. In 1860, with his father’s health failing, Robinson took over the running of the newspaper, entering into a partnership with Richard Vause, who would later go on to become Mayor of Durban. The pair grew the newspaper from a weekly paper, to three issues a week, with the Natal Mercury eventually becoming a daily paper. Despite being elected to the Durban Council in 1863, Robinson’s time was chiefly taken up with his work as an editor and writer, publishing his novel, George Linton, in 1876.
In time his passion for politics took over and his mission for Natal’s self-governance became his primary purpose. After numerous trips to London, representing Natal and presenting the colonist views, Robinson was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1889, and received her seal of approval, as well as that of the council’s, to establish a new regime.
Sir John Robinson took office as Prime Minister on the 4th July 1893 but after only four years of service, stepped down in March 1897, due to ill health. He passed away on the 15th November 1903. The staff of the Natal Mercury bore him to his grave, where he was laid to rest in the Durban Cemetery.
P.S. As an interesting aside, between 1893 and 1910 Natal had seven Prime Ministers. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed with the unification of the Cape Colony, the Natal Colony, the Transvaal, and the Orange River Colony.