Imagine a turquoise sea so flat and clear you can see the shadow of a small boat gliding across the sand below it. Imagine small outcrops of lushly vegetated islands rising like shaggy green pillars from the water. Islands with frilled skirts of ivory sand, too numerous to count, untouched, unspoilt, languid in vast fields of sea and sky. Imagine sea-gypsies, nomadic, living in their wooden boats, subsisting from the sea. In this place, idyllic beyond conception, Stella Hancock spent most of her first few years of life.
Stella and her mother, Mary Clarke, came to Mergui Archipelago when Stella was barely a year old. She admits her memories of Mergui are vague but, somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, the images remain. Her father was a skipper in the merchant navy and they saw little of him. But when he could, he brought them nearer to the seas he sailed; and the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Burma, was within his range. But illness brought this period to a sudden close, when Mary contracted the mosquito borne dengue fever. They sailed for Britain, Harry, Stella’s father, accompanying them.
After a spell in a tropical disease hospital in London, Mary recovered fully and they returned to Scotland. Stella had been born in Arbroath, Scotland, a small town a little way north of Dundee on the North Sea coast. They settled back in Arbroath, a new baby on the way, and Harry returned to sea.
Stella was nearly six when Joyce was born. They spent a quiet couple of years in Scotland which, in Stella’s recollection, revolved around a growing baby sister, and around her own first years of schooling. But after two years they were off again to South East Asia, this time Singapore.
Stella talks of Singapore with fondness. A cosmopolitan place of diverse culture, she recalls the Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans, English and Dutch, and she smiles when she remembers their ‘amah’, a Chinese nursemaid. After two years they left Singapore to its last decade of placid pre-war British rule, and returned to Scotland. A third daughter had been born in Singapore, an invalid, who Stella describes with affection and sadness, recalling that she had only lived a few short years.
Stella and Joyce attended school in Arbroath for an undisrupted five years. When they sailed again they were headed for Aden. They sailed across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, and down the Red Sea. Aden, then a British Colony, is on the southern coast of Yemen, and there they had a rendezvous planned with Harry’s ship.
Harry, on long leave, transferred to their ship and they continued on, through the Gulf of Aden, round the Horn of Africa, down the east coast, docking at several exotic African ports, Mombasa, Zanzibar with its Arab-looking fort, Dar es Salaam with its striking beaches. At Mombasa they had disembarked and travelled to Nairobi, taking a safari tour to Namanga, on the Kenyan-Tanganyikan border, a vast protected area of wildlife, with a magnificent view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Their final port was Beira, where they disembarked and travelled by train through Portuguese East Africa to Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. They continued on to the Victoria Falls and experienced one of British Colonial’s famous establishments, the Victoria Falls Hotel. Their final journey on the train brought them to Pretoria.
The family spent several months in South Africa, visiting relatives who had immigrated here, touring in the Kruger National Park, and finally spending a month on a holiday farm in Manderston near Pietermaritzburg. Stella has vivid memories of carefree days of horse riding in the green, rolling hills of the Natal Midlands. Finally the holiday was over and they sailed from Durban. This time it would be to another new home – Bombay, India.
It was two years before the war broke out and Stella, aged seventeen, threw herself into Bombay life. She signed up with a commercial college to study shorthand typing and joined the YWCA hockey club. She talks about that time as her ‘coming out’ year; perhaps the Bombay equivalent of a debutante year. She seemed to thrive. Once qualified, she took a shorthand typist job with an insurance company, and on her first leave she embarked on a sea voyage on her own.
Travelling across the Gulf of Oman, they entered the Persian Gulf and sailed past places famous today, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, until they reached the southern tip of Iraq, and Basra. There she recalls the sudden change in atmosphere. The tension, the urgency. She recalls the American oilmen, packing up and leaving. She recalls the blackouts on the ships. The Second World War had started.
With the outbreak of the war, younger sister Joyce was taken to South Africa to finish her schooling. Stella moved to Calcutta on the far eastern side of India, taking a job at the Swiss Consulate. During a holiday she and her mother spent time in much sought after Darjeeling, an area of mountainous tea growing estates, high up near the border of Nepal in the Lower Himalayas. She vividly recalls seeing Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Another thing Stella fondly recalls about India is the friends she made, particularly those made during the early war years, who she kept up an enduring correspondence with. She mentions a young man, the brother of a friend of hers. She continued to write to him over a long period during his life on the seas as a junior officer in the merchant navy. His name was Jimmy Hancock.
Tensions were growing as the war progressed. The Japanese had occupied Burma and air raid drills had started. Harry made a decisive move. He took leave from his ship and removed the family from India. He took them to South Africa.
Very quickly Stella decided to apply for a job with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in Johannesburg. Kimberley, a well established base in South African aviation, had a South African Air Force training base, to which Stella was transferred. There she worked until the base was relocated to Tempe, Bloemfontein, about a year later. She was transferred back to Johannesburg. The war dragged on. Then a letter came from Jimmy Hancock.
Stella took a short leave and travelled to Durban. Jimmy’s ship was docking and he would get a few days shore leave. When she returned to Johannesburg, she was engaged to be married. Jimmy went back to sea, but plans were made for the wedding, which was to be on his next shore leave in Durban. In January 1944 Stella and Jimmy were married at the Old Fort Road Chapel in Durban.
Once again Jimmy returned to sea and Stella returned to Johannesburg, this time armed with a marriage certificate, which facilitated her legitimate discharged from the WAAF. The whole family moved to Durban, renting two flats in a block in the city. Jimmy in due course returned for a long leave, and during this time he announced the plans for their future. He, being from Cheshire in England, would take Stella to Crew, the town of his birth, where she would live while he continued in the merchant navy. She smiles when she recalls his plans, and how she thwarted them. She knew she would not be going anywhere. She was going to have a baby.
He left the merchant navy and found a job in Durban. Stella produced three sons, Bobby, Barry and Doug, in quick succession. After many years Jimmy was transferred to Port Elizabeth, where their fourth son Tony was born. After eight years they returned to the Durban area. It was the late sixties.
Stella becomes grave at this point. She talks about the early seventies as the time when ‘everything went wrong’.
She talks about how Bobby died in a road accident in 1970. He was only 23 years old. Harry, long retired from his career at sea, had settled with the family in Durban. In 1972 he and his wife, Mary, an elderly couple then, while crossing a road in Durban, were struck by a speeding car. He saved his wife’s life by pushing her aside, but he took the full blow and died. During 1974 Jimmy took ill suddenly and was admitted to a hospital where he died shortly afterwards. Later in the decade her mother too passed away.
After this difficult time in Stella’s life, she and young Tony moved back to Port Elizabeth, where she revived her interest in art, taking lessons and exhibiting at Port Elizabeth’s Art in the Park For many years she lived in Port Elizabeth, but finally moved to Johannesburg to be closer to her two older boys. During this time there was a wedding. Stella’s granddaughter, Kerry, was to marry Gregg Mousley of Clarens. The family came down to the wedding. That was the start of the Hancock migration to Clarens.
Stella moved into a house in Larola, Clarens, ten years ago and several members of her family have established themselves in the area as well. Last week, on 2 December, she reached the age of 93, which she celebrated with her many family members. She remains active in art circles and other social circles and continues to drive her car.
Stella casts her mind back over the many decades, to Scotland. The day her family sailed for Aden in Yemen, when she was a mere sixteen years old, was the last time she would sail from Scotland. This is her only regret, she says, that she never again saw the land of her birth.