The Enigmatic Mervyn Bosworth Smith
Updated: May 31, 2022
An account of the life of one of Lesotho's larger-than-life traders and founder of Malealea Lodge.
Although not many people may recognise his name, Mervyn Bosworth Smith was a well known trader and founder of the Malealea trading post. He was also was one of most enigmatic, larger-than-life characters to be a part of Lesotho’s pioneering community. The Malealea trading post started as a tent but soon grew into a store and sandstone house with materials being transported by ox-wagon to this remote plateau.
But who was Mervyn Bosworth Smith?
Born in 1878 at Harrow School where his father was a master for 37 years, he was one of nine children. He excelled as a scholar and sportsman, and attended Oxford University after leaving school. He arrived in South Africa during the last years of the 1890’s to teach and coach rugby at the prestigious Cape Town school, Bishops. When this proved too tame for him he decided to try his luck on the diamond diggings in Lichtenberg. However, a fortune in diamonds eluded him so he decided to join the British South African Police (B.S.A.P) in Rhodesia. He is on record as saying that he really didn’t do much police work and spent most of the time playing rugby! There are accounts of how he would set out on horseback in the early hours to play in distant rugby game in with an alarm clock tied around his neck. This enabled him to doze off in the saddle and wake at intervals to check that his horse was on course! He is also reputed to have galloped down the very steep gorge into the Ribaneng River on one of these trips; from then on that path was always known as ‘Mervyn's Ladder’.
At the outbreak of the Boer War he returned to join the Dorset Regiment and served throughout the war. At the end of the war his visited his brother, a Government Secretary, in Basutoland.
Mervyn was fascinated by the country and spent months exploring while shooting for the pot. One of the places he camped was Malealea. It was love at first sight and he decided to open a trading post there. He returned to England and, thanks to old school friends in high places, managed to get the necessary licenses to pursue his plan.
On returning to Malealea he started trading from a tent, first building the store and sheds and then the cut stone and thatch house. A thatch-covered swimming pool and a tennis court were soon added. As Mervyn was a fanatic for bridge and billiards he had a billiard table brought to Malealea by ox-wagon. This was hauled up the ‘Gates of Paradise’ pass which he had built to bring building materials and supplies to the site.
Both the billiard room and the lounge were wood paneled with the lounge being a replica of that at Binghams Melcome, Dorset, which was the family house when his father retired from Harrow. The walls of the big veranda housed his shooting trophies.
There are many accounts from government officials, police officers, minor dignitaries and tourists, who enjoyed Malealea’s hospitality, especially if they played bridge and billiards! Snooker, however, was only tolerated for ladies! The leather bound billiard score books also stand as a diary for important happenings such as bomb raids over Germany, the invasion, visits by important guests and other such notable occasions.
Mervyn always maintained that the first thing a person saw when visiting a Trading Station in Basutoland was the ‘Long Drop’ or ‘Kleinhuisie’ (outside pit-toilet). He built Malealea’s long-drop hidden away inside the bank below the house with a beautiful view of the Thaba Putsoa range of mountains to gaze upon, in complete privacy. The long-drop has since been restored.
He was well established when the 1914 - 1918 war broke out and he returned to England to join his old regiment, with whom he served with throughout the war. Unfortunately he developed ‘Trench Leg’, which remained a problem for the rest of his life.
After the war he returned to Malealea and in 1919 got married. These were golden years. Trade flourished and there were many shooting safaris in Rhodesia, Caprivi Strip and the Zambezi Valley which, on one occasion, they took their favoured Basotho Ponies with them. The couple also travelled frequently to England for family visits. The Smith’s loved to entertain and numerous guests and dignitaries were common. They would often ride to Qaba to play tennis with Mervyn’s great friend, Jarvis. Mervyn's wife had a cheetah as a pet, but as it had a depressing effect on the local trade, it was given to the Johannesburg Zoo!
After a wild party in Bloemfontien, Mervyn and his friends decided to go back to Malealea to continue the party. A stranger that they had met joined them. In the car the stranger started to loll from one side to the other. No one took any notice of him as they thought he was drunk. On arrival it was found he was dead!! A wake was held that lasted several days to see the dear departed on his way to the pearly gates, during which time he lay in state on the billiard table. The grave of this total stranger still can be seen near that of Mervyn Smith’s, who out of the kindness of his heart brought the old man to die in peace and tranquility at Malealea.
The depression nearly put Malealea out of business, but Mervyn secured a bond of £12,000 from a Johannesburg based friend to tide him over. Many of the local Basotho has credit to buy food during this dark period, and they never forgot ‘Mofana’ for this. They called Smith ‘Mofana’ because when he first arrived he could only speak Fanagalo (a hodge-podge of various South African languages). Later he mastered Sotho and spoke it fluently.
During the war R.A.F. pupil pilots were entertained at Malealea. Pay for the Basotho serving in the army was paid out to local families at Malealea. Mervyn arranged that on these days the R.A.F. sent a plane over Malealea to do a few acrobatics and Victory Rolls. At the end of the war he had name plates made with the name and rank number of all the Basotho who had fallen in the war. Oak trees from Malealea were planted at the police camp in Maseru and the idea was that each oak tree would have one of the name plates nailed to it
During the last years of Mervyn's life he used to spend the winter months on the Zambezi at a Shooting Lodge he had built. His patriotism showed in the name of his motor boat ‘Queen Elizabeth’. His one car was called "George" and the other "Elizabeth" in which he would use to go to Johannesburg for a week at a time to play bridge.
During the Royal Visit the King and Queen were to have visited Malealea, but only the rest of the Royal Party came for a sumptuous luncheon which well known BBC announcer Wynfred Vaughn Thomas gave a report of in one of his BBC reports. Mervyn attended all the royal functions in Maseru and he proudly wore his war medals at the Ex-Service Men’s Parade. The King stopped to speak to him and said, "I see you served in the SA War, as well as 1914-1918". To which Mervyn replied, "No Your Majesty, not the SA War, I served in the Boer War". A cousin of Mervyn's was one of the Ladies in Waiting to the Queen, so he got a few `behind the scenes' stories of the tour.
His other passion was letter writing. He used to write to "The Friend" newspaper in Bloemfontein entitled "Basutoland from within", which covered every subject from Incorporation in the Union to strip roads for Basutoland on the Rhodesian Model.
Mervyn died suddenly in January 1950 and was buried in the garden, by the Bishop of Basutoland. He had no headstone as Malealea is his memorial. Malealea was left in trust to his son, Anthony, but his partner, aptly named Crooks, had an option to purchase under the partnership agreement. After a long and expensive court action in the Supreme Court, it was ruled that the Trust Deed was not valid because it had not been initialed on one page and Crooks exercised his option to buy.
Ironically, soon after Crooks moved into the big house from the Cottage, the big house burnt down. There is only a bird bath remaining of the old house which Mervyn built out of stone to commemorate the end of WW II , with its inscription ANNO VIC (Year of Victory), chiseled around the top.
Mervyn Bosworth Smith passed away nearly 70 years ago, but his spirit can still be felt in the Malealea Lodge of today and the magnificent scenery that surrounds it.
This account of the life of Mervyn Smith was taken from Di Jones archives the history of Malealea' which she and Mike bought from the previous owners in 1986. She built it in to a thriving tourism venue and spearheaded the Malealea Development Trust which empowers the local community. The next generation of her family now carry on the tradition and manage the lodge. Visit the Malealea Lodge website at www.malealea.com.
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