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The Battiss Family in Somerset East

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

According to a family history written by Walter Battiss’ sister Doreen Eaton, John Battiss (1805 – 1879) was born in France, but came to South Africa as a Royal Engineer, and in 1828, in Grahamstown, married Sarah Hartley, whose parents built the famous Pig and Whistle in Bathurst.

The couple moved to Somerset East in about 1840. In the Walter Battiss Art Museum we have a family tree, commissioned by Doreen, showing the Hartley Battiss connection, and the many Battisses born in Somerset East, but it shows only the line of direct descent from Walter’s father. As Walter Snr. was one of a very large family, a document listing all the descendants of the seven brothers and three sisters born in Somerset East would need to be a very extensive document indeed. The Battiss Museum also holds the old family bible, gifted to us by Giles Battiss, with some births and deaths listed.

Walter Battiss Snr. was born in Somerset East 1879, and in 1905 married Louise Price from London, who came to South Africa for a holiday; encountered the tall, handsome, and athletic Walter Battiss who was in Port Elizabeth to play rugby; and never left. Louise came from an artistic background; her father and brother were costume designers. She had worked for an illustrious publishing house; and had been commissioned to bind private photograph albums for Queen Victoria, and her consort Albert. It is easy to see from where young Walter’s innate artistic flair came. She was the inspiration for Walter to bind some of his first books himself.

Walter was born in his grandparents’ house in Bathurst Street, then came his brother Alfred, and later his sister Doreen. In 1914 the family moved to 45 Paulet Street, where the Old Officers’ Mess was rented from the Sawtell family and run as a private temperance hotel by the Battiss family until 1917. Photographs from this time show large family groups in front of the building, and at Glen Avon Falls. Apparently Walter Snr. regularly took groups of hotel guests to the Falls. In the photos, young Walter almost always stands out, appearing to be a very poised and focused young boy.

This is the childhood he described in his book Limpopo, from which comes the famous quote “My father was a waterfall, and my mother a butterfly”.

In 1917, when the world was in recession caused by World War I, Walter’s family left Somerset East, for Koffiefontein and later Fauresmith. When Walter came back in 1975 for the 150th Anniversary of the town, plans were made to acquire the building in which he had spent happy childhood years, and to eventually open the Walter Battiss Art Museum.

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