HMS Drummond Castle almost claims famous composer’s life

Rocco Catorzia de Villiers (1838-1902). Photograph taken on 19 June 1890. Drakenstein Heemkring, Gribble Collection

Rocco Catorzia de Villiers (1838-1902). Photograph taken on 19 June 1890. Drakenstein Heemkring, Gribble Collection

Tragedies like the recent crash of the Air Malaysia flight over the Ukraine, are often accompanied by extraordinary stories of people who narrowly missed tragedy by some seemly random event. Something similar happened to one of Paarl’s most famous 19th century musician-composers – Rocco de Villiers.

In May 1896 Rocco de Villiers booked a berth on the HMS Drummond Castle to visit London and Germany from where he imported pianos for his shop in Paarl. His travelling party included MS du Toit, Rev Frans du Toit, Jan Moll, Dolf Moll, Frans Retief and Frans Roux – all from Paarl.

A week or so before their departure Jan Moll was in Cape Town on business, and decided to check in at the Castle Company’s office to finalise their travel documents. A clerk at the office mentioned that the Warwick Castle was due to sail a few days before the Drummond Castle, and suggested they consider travelling on the former.

Jan Moll returned to Paarl and discussed the possible change in travel plans with his friends, and they decided to take up the offer.

Soon after arriving in London they were shocked to hear that the Drummond Castle had sunk off the north-west coast of Brittany on the 16 June. There were only three survivors.

What is really interesting is that this was not Rocco de Villiers’ first brush with death. He was apparently a very sickly a child. JJC Esterhuysen recalled the following anecdote in “De Kerkbode” of 1922:

Van muzikale bekwaamheid gedurende zijn kinderjaren kan niet veel gezegd worden, omdat hij zeer zieklik was. Hij was eens zo ernstig ziek, dat voor zijn dood gevreesd werd. Wijlen Ds van der Lingen had zo ernstig voor zijn herstel in de kerk gebeden, dat Mev van der Lingen aan hem zeide, “man, jij heeft vandaag zo ernstig voor de Klein Rocco gebeden, als jij niet voor jou eigen kind zou gedaan hebben”.

De Villiers went on to study music under Jan Stephanus “Jan Orrelis” de Villiers, was Caledon’s organist for 22 years before returning to Paarl in 1883. In Paarl he opened a music instrument shop, founded the town’s brass band and string orchestra.

The Heemkring has a number of his compositions and notebooks, including a copy of his famous Koraalboek.

Rocco Catorzia de Villiers (27.2.1838 – 21.5.1902) was the eldest son of Abraham Matthys Johannes de Villiers (8.5.1814 – 8.9.1888) and Gertruida Catharina Catorzia (1819 – 1902). He married Maria Magdalena Louw (8.7.1843 – 26.2.1896) in 1861, and Johanna Frederica Albertyn (3.8.1844 – 10.8.1917) in 1896.

Kerkbode, Desember Uitgawe, 1922
Transcription of letters sent to the Heemkring by Glover de Villiers in 1987


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s