Peter Knoop arrived in South Africa from Germany in 1951, his pragmatic father insisting that Peter should emigrate for a better life than offered in post-war Germany. At that time, there was very little schooling in Germany and English wasn’t taught at school, so Peter’s father, who’d worked in Sheffield, England, after the 1914/1918 war taught Peter English using the collection of English newspapers he’d taken back to Germany when he returned.
Peter’s attempts to emigrate to the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Canada were unsuccessful, however, when Dr DF Malan replaced Jan Smuts as Prime Minister of South Africa in 1948, South Africa opened its doors to German immigrants. By then, Peter was able to speak English and had learnt some Afrikaans from a miner working in Germany. He’d worked on a farm since the age of nine, and had studied farming in Germany and with his new language skills successfully won a three year contract to work on a farm in Malelane.
Registered in SA as an alien, he wasn’t permitted to leave the district or even the farm. Once a month, the Police Station Commander from Louws Creek (20kms away) drove over to inspect him, although he didn’t speak to Peter at all.
Peter was treated very badly by the farmer – he wasn’t allowed to write or telegram his parents and fiancé in Germany to let them know where he was. He received 3lbs of mealie meal a day and was given two bullets a week to shoot a buck for meat. Game in the area was scarce, and although an able marksman, never managed to kill anything.
After nine months, Peter decided to run away – he had not been paid his £5 pm wage, his clothes and shoes were in tatters, he was starving and worried about his family. He was 20 years old.
Never having left the farm, Peter had no idea where he was and knew no one except the policeman who’d silently observed him. Walking through the bush to avoid capture, he presented himself at the Louws Creek police station. Asked why he’d run away, he indicated his shoes and clothes and told of the conditions under which he lived. The Station Commander called for a spare set of his own khaki clothes, and burnt the rags Peter had arrived wearing. He then took Peter to his home for a bath and a good meal, and the following day returned Peter to the farm, to collect his belongings and sort out the contract.
The irate farmer said that Peter had broken the contract by running away, but the kindly policeman was having none of it, insisting that the farmer was in breach and tearing the contract up in front of the farmer and Peter. Peter Knoop, he said, was a legal immigrant treated appallingly by the farmer and it would be his pleasure to tell this to a magistrate if the farmer went to court.
Returning to Louws Creek with the policeman, the following day Peter got a job there with Willam Roux, who, together with his father, owned a large farm there. They also had a transport business, their enormous Leyland trucks carrying asbestos from Barberton. The Havelock mine in Swaziland sent the ore down the mountain by cable way to Barberton, and from there it was transported by road.
Peter, a jack of all trades, did a bit of everything on the farm and drove the trucks as well, his starting salary the princely sum of £60 per month. More importantly, he sent a telegram to his family to let them know he was alive and where he was. He worked there for three years, and his fiancé, Eleanore, came out to join him. They married, and lived in a tent. Hectorspruit in those days was untamed bush roamed by lions. Willem Roux bought an international bulldozer from Rob Ferreira in Nelspruit, a TD 24, which was the biggest in SA and with that, Peter cleared the bush, sleeping under the bulldozer at night because of the lions.
Visiting White River for the first time in 1954 he liked the town. Then Oscar Rottcher, a substantial landowner and timber man in White River, inspected Peter’s work on the site in Hectorspruit. Liking what he saw, he offered Peter a job on his farm in White River. Peter, content in his position and loyal to Roux, was reluctant to move.
Eleanore, eavesdropping, emerged from the tent, asking Rottcher if the job came with a house. If so, her husband would accept it! Assured that the job included a house with electricity and running water, she told her husband that he could decide, but she came to Africa for a decent life, not to live permanently in a tent cooking on an outside fire. She wanted a house.
Peter insisted on finishing his task at Hectorspruit before leaving, and remained lifelong friends with Willem Roux. Three months later, the Knoops moved to White River and Peter asked Rottcher if he could buy a piece of ground from him, purchasing 16Ha “under water” for the princely sum of £2500.00, which he paid off. In 1956 his parents flew out from Germany and Peter bought a horse and built a Scotch cart out of an old Model T Ford. Eleanore made the 12km round trip to White River, fetching building material, and Peter built a house which remains standing today.
His energetic wife then announced that as they now had a house, she’d work in town to learn English and Afrikaans and approached Peter Brinkman, the Hollander who owned the Bakery. Eleanore worked in the front shop, managing the orders and deliveries for the schools, hotels and hospitals. A fast learner, she soon pronounced them ready to open their own business and the Knoops opened their first grocery store, working side by side for 37 years and making a good life together.
The first shop was near the Impala Café, at the far end of town, and called Irene’s. They then moved into the middle of town, where the Total garage now stands, and renamed their grocery store Knoop’s Fresh Produce. In time, they moved further uptown to where Lowveld Stationers is today. Everyone in White River bought their groceries from Knoops, it was a popular shop for the quality and service it offered.
Peter and Eleanore’s granddaughter Ladya grew up in the shop – as a baby she nestled between the mealie meal bags and when she was old enough, she became shop security – her job being to keep a sharp eye out for shoplifters. Her parents both worked in Nelspruit, so in the afternoons Ladya went to the shop after school. Like Peter, Ladya was a talented gymnast.
The Knoops initially bought local produce from the farmers, then they bought a truck, a petrol driven Chevrolet, with which they went to the fresh produce market in Pretoria. Petrol was very cheap then, the Pretoria trip cost about £9 return. When the cost rose to £15, however, Peter traded the Chev in for a diesel Bedford, a good truck but very slow. He stuck with diesel in later years, when the Bedford was replaced by a Japanese Hyundai.
The Swedish Mission Hospital and the old age home in White River were amongst his delivery clients, and Mr Howard Kirk of Jatinga was also a customer. Shoppers visited Knoops with their own baskets, there were no plastic carrier bags in those days.
Knoops sold newspapers as well as groceries, and they were laid out in two piles, English and Afrikaans. Eleanore wrote the names on the paper for folk who bought a copy daily. One day Brigadier Metford sternly said to her that Metford is not his name, his name is Brigadier Metford and she must write that on the newspaper. He also had a bad habit of throwing his money onto the counter, upsetting Eleanore who successfully challenged him to tender his coins more politely. Peter remarked that the officer class, whether British, German or French, were all arrogant in those days.
The Misses Illingworth and White were well known in White River. They wore khaki shirts and skirts and smoked like men. After the war, they travelled from England over Europe to Cairo and then to White River through all the British colonies (they avoided the Portuguese ones!) Buying a farm in White River, they bred Jersey Cattle, Afrikaner Cattle, Black Persian Sheep and French Ponies. Sadly, Miss White was killed in a car accident on the railway crossing in town. Miss Illingworth remained on alone, and she had the unfortunate habit of slapping all the men who worked for her. Owning a lot of timber on her farms, she sold it to Oscar Rottcher who asked Peter to cut and fetch it for him. Ostler sent his induna to Peter’s house one night, saying that he’d paid for the timber but no one would go and fetch it, fearing the formidable Miss Illingworth!
Peter had no trouble felling all the timber on her farm in White River, and then set off to her second farm Waterfalls, up towards Sabie, to cut the timber there. The trees lined the road, but felling them was awkward due to the cattle and horse camps either side – Peter had to cut the trees to fall into the road rather than onto the fences. Successfully cutting a few trees, he cleaned and loaded them and began another batch. Miss Illingworth arrived, in a bad mood and summoned him to where her car was blocked by a felled tree.
Knowing what was to come, Peter stood across the large tree from her and when she tried to hit him, he grabbed her wrists saying “Miss Illingworth, when you forget you are a lady, then I forget I’m a gentleman.” She fainted clean away and he loaded her into her Landrover.
Rottcher called him the following day, wanting a report so Peter told him what had happened. Bizarrely, Miss Illingworth had requested that Peter cut all her timber in future, and it was the beginning of a long friendship between them, she became a loyal patron of Knoops Fresh Produce.
One day, she arrived at the shop, calling for Peter to come outside. Thanking him for his friendship and service, she advised that she was going to hospital and wouldn’t be back, she was dying. His last order from her was to attend her funeral. That done, she called Eleanore out and thanked her, excusing her from the funeral on the grounds that she had to look after the store. Peter went to the funeral, and before the service began the priest produced a long list and proceeded with a roll call. Miss Illingworth had given him a list of everyone she had invited and wanted to know who turned up!
In those days, White River was a very safe place and there was no crime. Doors were left unlocked, blacks wore Swazi traditional garb and carried weapons – knobkerries and short assegais. House staff ate in the kitchen with the cooks, and there was no bad feeling between employer and employee. Many times Peter was called out in the middle of the night to help ill staff, and ventured out confidently.
The Knoops have a proud history of military service – his grandfather and father both served in two wars, Peter had served in WWII as a youth, so it was natural that in the 1970’s, when the local Kommando was formed, that he volunteered. His work experience saw him put in charge of the stores for the unit. The Kommando assisted the police, and undertook area patrols. This was a time of many riots and strikes and Peter remembers the Bakers strike. He took 25 men and some lorries, issued the troops with ammunition and set off to Nelspruit. They peacefully entered the bakery, which was being held by armed strikers, loaded and delivered bread to Nelspruit and White River.
In the tourist season, the Kommandos escorted tourists into Kruger National Park through the Numbi gate. They were also used for firefighting in the district. It was paid work and after four hours duty they received ration packs, including malaria pills, bully beef, tinned beans and sweets.
Peter’s final story concerns Colonel Macgregor, who farmed oranges, cattle and timber on his farm Heidelberg. Twice a year Peter would start at the bottom of the canal, and Colonel Macgregor’s man began at the top and after a few days of inspecting the canal, would meet to give their reports on the state of it. The Colonel’s man, Karris, had served time in the army. In true military fashion, the Colonel would bellow Karris, and Karris would march forward, salute the Colonel and give his report. Then the Colonel would bellow “Knoop!” and Peter would march forward and salute. After a few times, Peter thought it ridiculous, and on the next occasion didn’t march or salute, but walked forward normally. The irate Colonel demanded to know why, and Peter said:
“Colonel, the war is finished, and I’m not a soldier. You can call me Peter, or Mr Knoop, but you may not call me Knoop and I won’t salute.”
From then on, Colonel Macgregor called Peter Mr Knoop, and bought all his groceries from Peter’s shop too.