Many stories surround Salome Welayo (later Mrs A J Tyler of Wychwood, Winterskloof, near Pietermaritzburg), the African girl adopted in the 1860s by Miss Catherine Barter, and brought up as an English lady. She was the daughter of Catherine’s retainer, Uluhunga.

About ten years before her birth Uluhunga had accompanied Miss Barter to England during her extended visit from 1855 to 1857. During this period she and Uluhunga visited her friends the Moberleys in Winchester, where Revd George Moberly was Headmaster of Winchester College. One of the Moberly daughters, in a 1931 letter to her nephew G S Moberly in Natal, recounted how the Moberly servants were frightened of Uluhunga and refused to eat with him, so he was obliged to dine with the family.

Catherine was the sister of Charles Barter, pioneer horse-breeder, M L C, and finally Magistrate of Maritzburg, and she devoted much of her time whilst in Natal to missionary work. She had the theory that an effective way of christianizing and civilizing the African population would be to take away and educate children of a family, and then at the age of about 16, restore them to the family circle, where they might act as leaven in the civilizing process. It was with Salome that Miss Barter was able to put her theories into practice.

Differing oral versions of Salome’s life exist, but solid facts are few.

It would appear that the first time she received attention from the Natal press was on the occasion of her marriage in 1882, and from newspaper accounts of the wedding one gleans a certain amount of detail. The Natal Witness stated she was the daughter of one Uluhunga, whom Miss Barter had encountered while doing missionary work on her brother’s farm The Start ‘in the Zwartkop’ [sic -this should be the Karkloof].

Uluhunga, in due course, had been baptised and Catherine had adopted his daughter and taken her to England, where she was educated with Miss Barter’s nieces. The account stated that Salome had been an apt scholar, was an excellent pianist and spoke two of three European languages ‘and not a word of Zulu’. Miss Barter was reported to have built the young couple ‘a house high up in the Zwartkop’.

The Witness version, except for its translocation of The Start from Karkloof to Zwartkop, seems fairly reliable, but that in The Times of Natal (which was repeated verbatim in the Natal Mercury), was filled with inaccuracies. So many, in fact, that Charles Barter (himself a previous Times editor) felt compelled to write a letter of protest to the editor. In the Times account, which lays emphasis on the uncouth behaviour of bystanders outside St Saviour’s Cathedral after the ceremony (rice and flour were showered on the couple and Mrs Tyler was hit on the cheek by a rotten egg), Miss Barter was described as being late of Shipton, Yorkshire (untrue), and Salome’s husband, whom she is stated to have met in England, was said to be the son of the American missionary, the Revd Josiah Tyler (untrue).

With not much more to go on than these press extracts, an appeal was made to Mr Desmond Craib, the present owner of Wychwood at Winterskloof. Mr Craib supplied the information that Catherine Barter had been granted Wychwood (100 acres) in 1874, and that in 1883 she had transferred it to Tyler – this was the year after the marriage. Mr Craib also produced an undated newscutting given him by Mr C P W Francis of Maritzburg, entitled Salome Melayo [sic]: the tragedy of a native girl ruined by education. This was written from information supplied by information by the sister of one of Salome’s schoolfellows.

It was stated that Miss Barter wanted Salome to have the normal upbringing of an upper-middle class English girl, mixing with children of her own age. For these reasons an ‘ordinary girl’s school would not meet the case’, and neither would a governess, so Miss Barter started a girls’ boarding school. She engaged good teachers and endeavoured to make a success of the school, with the result that it became ‘a popular institution’.

Where was this school? The only clue in the article was that it was in Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire happened to be the Barters’ home county, their father having been the Rector of Sarsden-cum-Churchill there).

Clues from the press reports of Salome’s wedding helped to narrow the field. The Witness account stated she had been educated with the Barter nieces – one of Catherine’s brothers, the Revd Henry Barter, was the Rector of Shipton under Wychwood in the county. This combined with the inaccurate Times of Natal statement that Miss Barter was late of Shipton, Yorkshire [sic], led to the conclusion that Shipton under Wychwood was the site of the school.

Mr Ron Brown, retired University Librarian of the Pietermaritzburg campus, now living in Oxford, kindly researched the problem in 1982 in both the Oxfordhsire County Record Office and Bodleian Library, but without success. On his suggestion the Wychwoods Local History Society was approached.

The query was laid before a meeting of the Society by its archivist, Mr J T A Howard-Drake. He reported that there was a fair amount of ‘folk memory’ of at least one girls’ school at the time Salome would have been there, and that he would make further enquiries. In due course he wrote that the 1871 Census confirmed the existence of Miss Barter’s school. It was situated in two adjoining houses, and the establishment consisted of Miss Barter, 11 pupils and two teachers, a cook and a housemaid. Salome appears first on the list of pupils – her age is given as 7 [i.e. born c.1864], and her birthplace as Natal. With the exception of a girl born in Madras, the others were all English-born. The school is not mentioned in either the 1861 or 1881 Censuses. Mr Howard-Drake was later able to identify the buildings – two houses facing the village green.

Authentic details of Salome’s life are sparse. There is one reliable story about her before her marriage which came from a lady whose parents were prominent in Maritzburg’s social and official circles. She recalled her mother relating how she and her husband were invited to a soirée at Mr and Mrs Charles Barter’s home The Finish (the site of today’s Sobantu Village). This was Salome’s introduction to Maritzburg society, at which she sang and played the piano for the guests. Salome lived at The Finish until her marriage.

Many stories surround Salome’s courtship and marriage. The only published one is the highly-coloured newscutting already mentioned. It states that once in Natal, she was not allowed to mix with the whites, who tried to ‘put her in her place’. The majority of them ignored her altogether, or, at best, treated her as a curiosity. She could not go to any public place of entertainment, and when she went into town she was jostled off the pavement and told to ‘keep with the other kafirs [sic]’ (in those days Kafir was not a term of abuse. However, blacks had to walk in the street, not on the pavement). This account says she was heartbroken at this treatment, and tried to take her place as a Zulu. However, she could not even do this, shrinking from the thought of returning to her father’s kraal, and living in a hut. She wanted to go back to England, but Miss Barter persuaded her to stay in the hopes that the situation would improve with time. It is stated that Tyler, who was farming in the Hilton district, near the kraal where Salome had been born [sic], met her in Maritzburg and fell in love with her. She did not love him, but longed for companionship and a quiet life away from the insults to which she had been subjected. People were horrified at the engagement and tried to dissuade Tyler, but he refused to give her up. However, after their marriage he soon tired of her, and she was ‘desperately unhappy’. All the people in the district cut them, and her relations would hang around the house ‘pestering her for money’. When Tyler realised these were her kith and kin, he was disgusted and rejected her.

Oral tradition has at least two versions of how Tyler came to marry Salome. One is that he met her and fell in love with her on the voyage to Natal. Not having been to Africa before, he had no idea of the repercussions such a match would have. Another story is that he was bribed to marry Salome by Miss Barter, who wished to bring her experiment to a successful conclusion with a suitable union for her protégé. She is said to have offered him Wychwood.

Of the three accounts of their courtship it would seem that the least likely is that Tyler became infatuated with her while farming at Hilton, because one would think that after living in Natal for a time he would have become so conditioned to the local prejudice that he would not have transgressed the mores of the time by marrying a Zulu, however attractive and well-educated she might have been. The norms frowned on cohabitation between black and white, but marriage was that much worse! The story of their meeting on board ship also seems also to fall by the wayside when one weighs up the facts in an item on Tyler which appeared in ‘Jennifer’s Journal’ in the Natal Witness on 25 September 1947, at the time of his 91st birthday. He is stated to have come to the Cape in about 1878, where for a while he was lay assistant to the Revd Dr Arnold at Worcester [sic]. (Further investigation reveals that the Revd Dr J M Arnold started a special mission to the Muslims at Woodstock, not Worcester, and that from about 1878 he was assisted by two lay catechists. After Arnold’s death in 1881, this mission lapsed entirely.) Thereafter Tyler had travelled in other parts of the country before coming to Natal. The version of Tyler’s having been bribed may have a certain amount of truth in it, in that Miss Barter transferred Wychwood within months of the marriage, also that Tyler did have a quantity of the Barter silver. (He sold Wychwood in about 1945, and moved to Ladysmith, where he lived with his friends, Dr A E Pinniger and his wife. According to Mrs Gillian Tatham, a former Ladysmith resident, the Barter silver went to Dr Pinniger, and he would hand it out, piece by piece, as presents to bridal couples to whose weddings he had been invited).

There are two reliable stories of Salome’s life after marriage. One comes from the late Mrs Anna Holliday (née Masson, the widow of Ralph Holliday). She recalled that, as a child, poring over the window of ‘Cockney’ James’s general store and toyshop in Church Street, Mrs Tyler emerged from the store. Anna and her companion gaped at this elegant African woman, something quite new in their experience. Salome chided them, saying in ‘upper class’ English, ‘Little girls, don’t you know it’s rude to stare?’. Another story comes from Mrs Tatham, who heard it from the daughter of a man who used to deliver meat to Wychwood. On occasion he would see Mrs Tyler, in fashionable riding attire on a beautiful horse. However, she always wore a navy-blue veil on her hat, covering her face, when out riding.

The report in ‘Jennifer’s Journal’ makes no mention of the marriage, merely stating that Tyler had ‘acquired’ Wychwood 61 years previously(i.e. 1886 – incorrect), and that from ‘virgin veld’ had created one of the most beautiful gardens in Natal. He is said to have gone to Zululand in 1883, and to have lived there for two years, during which time he had represented The Times of Natal. It was after his Zululand days that he settled at Wychwood. However, it is known that the Tylers lived at Wychwood from their marriage in 1882, so one can only presume that Tyler’s memory, at least, was fading, even if age had not dimmed the ‘old world courtliness and gallant charm of manner, and his impeccability of dress’ referred to by the reporter. The raison d/etre for this article was Maritzburg’s first Azalea Week, linking Ladysmith with the festival in that Tyler was a Ladysmith resident. He was described as famous for his Wychwood azaleas, the property having become known ‘all over South Africa and beyond’ for its wonderful azaleas. These had originated with a bunch of blooms given him by Henry Pepworth from imported plants growing in Maritzburg’s Botanical Gardens. (Pepworth had a great interest in the Gardens. He imported azaleas from China and Japan, and also from Asia, trees such as cork, rubber and cinnamon. It was during his mayoralty [1874-1875] the road to the Gardens was constructed. At first it was called Pepworth Walk, but later came to be known as Mayor’s Walk). Tyler died 17 days after the Witness article appeared. Dr Pinniger was his executor and residual heir. As executor, he was called on by the Master of the Supreme Court to supply information on Tyler’s pre-deceased spouse. His reply was that she had died in England 40 years previously (i.e. 1907).

What is the story behind this bald statement? No reliable information has been found as to Salome’s later years. The story in the unidentified newscutting of her family hanging around Wychwood has a dramatic local version in which her father, who is said to have been an induna at The Start, is supposed, after having seen what a good marriage his daughter had made, to have demanded lobola, and to have pestered Tyler to such a degree that to extricate himself from the situation, he shot and killed his wife! Another story which also mentions a firearm is that of Mr C P W Francis, whose family lived at Winterskloof. The tale he heard was that, on showing Salome how to load a gun Tyler shot her. This was the final straw that decided her to leave him.

Miss Barter died at Wychwood in 1895, and was buried there. From the lines about her death by her brother Charles’s poem Stray memories of Natal and Zululand it would seem that Salome was with her at the end. Salome seems to have left Tyler some time after Miss Barter’s death. One version maintains she ended up singing in the streets of London and died of tuberculosis, while the sister of her school friend claims she took part in the film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but was not a good actor, and was not offered any further parts. She then became a waitress in a low-class café, ‘but the sadness and misery of her life broke her heart and she died soon afterwards’.