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The History of Harcroft House

  31 October 2019     Archived

The history of Harcroft is bound up in an extraordinary love story which began in 1936, when British born Charles Louis Rycroft flouted the conventions of the time to marry a divorcee, Muriel Susan Elizabeth Parsons. Harcroft Estate, situated on the banks of the Ayer Tawar river in Perak, Malaysia, was a rubber plantation comprising the estate and the factory which Charles’s father, George Henry Rycroft, and his business partner, John Hartley, had purchased in 1919. Merging their two surnames, it was registered as Harcroft Rubber Estates Ltd.

In 1924 Charles was called into the business and the company began manufacturing and exporting crepe rubber, used mainly to sole shoes, to countries as far afield as Egypt, Palestine, Spain, France and America. The plantation flourished and developed a substantial workforce. Not only was Charles clearly a tour de force; he enjoyed the mutual appreciation and respect of his staff, some of whom referred to him as “Uncle Charles”.

The building of Harcroft, the residence, was a labour of love. It included every comfort and reflected the Rycrofts’ superb taste – evident in the wonderful antiques that they acquired in Perak and during their extensive travels to China, Japan and America. However, in December 1941 everything changed with the Japanese invasion of Malaysia and the bombing of Singapore. Despite the chaos, the regular bombing of neighbouring Penang and the resultant blackouts, normal life at Harcroft was maintained. In anticipation of what was to come, Charles deployed some of his workforce to help local volunteers to receive bombers at the aerodrome situated fifteen miles from Harcroft, which was to be a refuge for evacuees should the need arise. The factory’s drying sheds were to house 3 000 soldiers.


As the invasion began, however, the aerodrome had to be destroyed and flight seemed the only option.   Although they helped many of their friends leave Malaysia, the Rycroft’s delayed their own departure for as long as possible. Ultimately, the time came when they had no choice but to leave. They bade a quick farewell and left for Kuala Lumpur by car, intending to return when it seemed safe. Sadly, this was not to be. Air raids increased and bridges were blown up as the Japanese advanced, making it impossible for them to go home. Their only remaining option was to travel to Singapore. Never one to be idle, upon arrival Charles became involved in the Auxiliary Fire Service, taking over command and repeatedly putting himself in danger. Muriel became a constant source of inspiration and strength to women who had lost husbands and partners and were now travelling on their own.


Eventually it became necessary to leave war-torn Singapore, so in February 1942 Muriel boarded the last ship loaded with women and children bound for India. In her diary she recounted the harrowing trials and tribulations of being one of 1 300 refugees on a luxury liner with capacity for only 200 passengers. Due to unrest and on the advice of the military, Muriel left Bombay that same year and made safe passage to Cape Town where she took up residence at the Mount Nelson Hotel. She filled multiple diaries in order to keep Charles’s memory alive and joined the Empire Club, which was rooted in British traditions and had become a meeting place for evacuees, Malayan and other, where news was exchanged and posted. 


Charles, meanwhile, had been captured by the Japanese in April 1942, when Singapore fell. He was transferred to Changi internment camp for civilians. Not one of the family’s numerous letters reached him and it was only a year later, on their wedding anniversary in June, 1943, that Muriel learned of his whereabouts. Indian troops liberated the prison in September, 1945, and Charles was amongst those freed. After a joyous reunion in Cape Town, he and Muriel returned to England and Charles resumed the family businesses.


They finally returned to their beloved Harcroft in 1946. It had suffered the ravages of war but the remaining staff were overjoyed to see them and they set about rebuilding the property. Anti-British sentiment was rife and the area was still in a state of unrest by 1949. An estate guard was put in place to protect the estate and factory. Perak, the province in which Harcroft was situated, was only to gain independence from British rule in 1957. Despite the setbacks, these were happy and prosperous years, with various staff presentations, including the pair of silver three-branch candlesticks which feature on the auction.


Eventually, the estate and factory were sold to a Chinese couple and in the 1950s the Rycroft’s left Malaysia and retired to Cape Town. They found a suitable property in the heart of Constantia and purchased it on 8 March, 1951. The land was the most southern part of Klaasenbosch Farm and a portion of erf 118, Constantia, which had been subdivided in 1886. Arnold Spilhaus, founder of the Spilhaus emporium, bought the remaining Klaasenbosch Farm in 1906 and after his death in 1946 it was divided and sold off in sections.


The new Rycroft home had previously belonged to the Baxter family, who were great supporters of the arts. Charles and Muriel named their estate Harcroft and developed it and the manor house to its present Arts and Crafts style. The similarities between the two properties are numerous and antiques from Harcroft, Malaysia, found a new home in Harcroft, Cape Town. Added to these were others which confirm their superb taste as collectors. The emphasis lies in the oriental, and the jades, ivories, scroll paintings and furniture are a testament to this.


As well as having access to Muriel’s diaries, we are indebted to her for her love of compiling photograph albums that provide a wealth of research material, images of the interiors of both homes and glimpses into their daily lives. Muriel died in 1974 and in 1981 Charles married the widow, Louise Jackson, Muriel’s long-time friend. Charles and Louise were passionate about the preservation of endangered species and were able through the HARCROFT Foundation, to give valuable assistance to The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey and became good friends with Lee and Gerald Durrell. Louise continued her support after Charles’s death in 1998. She was well known for her love of animals and through her generosity and compassion many species are now well on their way to being saved. Louise remained at Harcroft until her death in 2014, aged 106. It is thanks to her dedication to Charles’s memory that the house has been so well preserved, allowing us to step back in time and experience the rich history that pervades the grounds and home.


It is with great pleasure that Strauss & Co will auction the contents of Harcroft House, No. 3 Norton Dingle Close, Constantia. The sale will take place on 18 November, 2019, at the house.


Viewing will run from Friday 15 until Sunday 17 November and is open to the public.


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Bina Genovese  083 680 9944

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