91 YEARS AGO IN GROCOTT’S MAIL: 1 December

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The curious case of the Velour Hat of 26 Hodges Street

An ongoing trial in the Grahamstown Magistrate’s Court occupied many column inches in the Grocott’s 1 December, 1926. The details are vivid but the outcome is, at least to this writer, unknown.

Late on the night of 11 November, Agnes Thompson was lying in bed reading at 26 Hodges Street when someone ripped off the wire netting covering her bedroom window. Showing admirable sangfroid, Ms Thompson peered outside, but saw nobody. She asked the police to keep watch, as this was not the first incident of oddness that had happened on the street. A Constable Hattingh was assigned the task of keeping an eye on the street, and one evening a day or two later he took up a position in the Thompson backyard.

He had not been in place for long when he saw a man climb over the back fence from the railway line that ran behind the house. This person entered the yard, passed the kitchen door, and went over to a partly-open window. As he lifted the sash, Hattingh saw him clearly in the light from the house next door and recognised Christoffel van Rensburg, a railway porter he had known for several years. Stepping forward to arrest Van Rensburg, he called out, which may have been an error as he lost the element of surprise.

Van Rensburg had steelier nerves than most people would have if caught in the act of entering, via the window, a house in which they did not reside. He snatched up a stone and hurled it at Hattingh, cutting open his lip. Hattingh launched himself at Van Rensburg, who kicked him briskly behind the left ear. The noise of the struggle attracted an unknown third man, who, we charitably assume, wanted to help but wasn’t sure who was who, and consequently booted Hattingh soundly in the right side of the head. Van Rensburg broke free and booked it for the street, leaving behind only his dark-green velour hat.

Hattingh, his ears ringing, took a moment to collect himself before going into the Thompson house to call for police backup. When a PC Reynolds arrived, the two constables made for Van Rensburg’s house at 5 Cathcart Street. There they hammered on the front door for 20 minutes before anyone opened it, and when Van Rensburg eventually came to speak to them – claiming to have been comforting his elderly mother, who was frightened by the noise – they arrested him.

At the trial several months later, Hattingh insisted that he had correctly identified Van Rensburg as the man who had been peering into the windows of 26 Hodges Street. Van Rensburg, however, had a solid set of alibis. He had been at work until 8.50pm on the night of his arrest, and after leaving the railway charge office in the company of Railway Constable Pringo, he had walked with him as far as Lappan’s Hotel (now the Victoria Mews) on New Street, the two parting at 9.20pm. He had then dropped in at his sister’s birthday party. His nephew testified that Van Rensburg had been there from about 9.30pm to 10pm. His mother, further, testified that he had arrived home at Cathcart Street around 10.30pm, which was consistent with the time it takes to walk from New Street to Cathcart Street. When Hattingh and Reynolds arrived, he had, she said, been home for about 20 minutes.

Another hole in the prosecution’s case was Pringo’s testimony that Hattingh had been wearing a light grey felt hat when he saw him. He conceded that Van Rensburg did own a dark green velour hat, that he had seen him wear with darker suits, but that he had not had it with him on the day in question. A third problem with the case was that it would have been impossible to be seen at New Street at 10pm, go to Hodges Street to brawl with a policeman, and make it back to Cathcart Street before 10.30pm. If Van Rensburg’s family was telling the truth, Hattingh had the wrong man.

Unfortunately, nothing further was said about this case in the Grocott’s for the rest of December 1926, and although Van Rensburg was held on £20 bail, his guilt or innocence is unknown to posterity.

Queries, suggestions, tips and corrections to nervousflamingo@gmail.com.

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