The Devotion of Joan

Sisters Joan (L) and Barbara (R) riding together at Herschel in 1939

Sisters Joan Millard (L) and Barbara Hughes (R) riding together at Herschel in 1939

The Devotion of Joan

Rosemary Paget, a family friend, a few days after Barbara’s funeral, organised the packing and travel arrangements for Gervas and the children, Angela and Timothy.   They’d go by train to Barbara’s father at Herschel, a little village just south of Basutoland. Gervas employed a retired farmer to take care of his business for a month.

The Devotion of Joan

In Bulawayo the Grants, Rosemary’s friends,  fed, washed, and provisioned them.  Next day in Johannesburg Jean, Gervas’ niece did the same.

Jean returned them to the station, to catch the southbound 8pm Sunday night train, another day’s journey. They hadn’t been booked! Due to petrol rationing and troop transport, all the trains were full. Tim fell asleep on a luggage barrow, there were no porters. After three trains had left for Bloemfontein, Gervas managed to force his way into an empty compartment.  Kindly strangers handed his children and luggage through the carriage window. He just managed to catch the connecting train from Bloemfontein to Aliwal North.

Luckily, Dr. Millard had to visit one of his distant clinics near Boesmans Kop, on the way to Aliwal North. To the delight of the children, Joan, Barbara’s sister,  met them there, hours before they were due at Aliwal North.

Gervas stayed four weeks, devoting plenty of time to the children, writing letters and riding horses. One day he and Joan climbed the 3500 ft. Herschel mountain which rose sheer out of a huge grassy plain at 6000 ft above sea level. They took a mirror with them and reflected sunlight to the house, much to the children’s delight.  Joan was the one person they knew really well and loved.

Gervas was running two other farms besides his own in Que Que (having had polio he couldn’t join up). It seemed impossible in war time to find anyone to care for Angela and Tim—so here was Joan’s job for life, to make it up to them as well as she could.  It was the accepted thing in those days that unattached daughters stayed home and looked after their parents, so all thoughts of training to be a nurse and going off to work all over the world were  shelved.

Both children slept very badly.  She never had a full night’s sleep but was determined to make their childhood very special despite their mother’s death.

They only saw their father when he visited Herschel for Christmas. Tim did not speak until he was three years old, but one night he woke up crying for his mother. Angela sat up in bed saying, “Shut up Tim. Mummy is with God and Daddy is with his cows. We live with Joanie now – go to sleep.”

Silence reigned.

 Excerpts taken from Rain on the Roof, by Joan (nee Millard) Freyburg (1999) ISBN 0 646 38477 5 with  family permission.   Tim Hughes has electronic copies of this wonderful book that may be available on request via the comments section of this blog.



  • betty goolsby

    Reply Reply January 18, 2013

    Wow…what dedication and sacrifice…a remarkable tale. did the children finally accept Joan as their mum….wish Gervas could have married her and lived happily ever after. where else could he find a fine woman? Things seemed to be way tougher for you and your community than anything I could imagine for my own life. no wonder you are so resilient!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 18, 2013

      Betty, You have to wait for next week’s installment! Yes, life was tough in the early days. But after WWII things really improved for a number of reasons and life was wonderful for me growing up.

  • Bruno van Swinderen

    Reply Reply May 30, 2015

    I just read “Rain on the roof” by Joan Freyburg. I found it at a book fair at UQ. I love it, and am wondering what other books she or her extended family may have written about their life in Africa and/or transition to Australia. I realise Joan must have passed away (she’d be 100), but I’m also curious if Tim Hughes is still around, and if he’s written anything, or any of Joan’s children.

    Sincerely, Bruno van Swinderen

    • Diana

      Reply Reply June 10, 2015

      Bruno, Yes, Tim is working on a book of his father’s and his memoirs. There is also an autobiography by Tim’s uncle, John Millard, called Never a Dull Moment that you can order on Amazon…another great read about Africa.

  • Louise Benson

    Reply Reply August 18, 2021

    Good day
    A friend of mine is looking for a copy of this book. I see you have an electronic copy available. How do I get one, and what is the cost?

    Thank you and regards
    Louise Benson
    082 391 4203

    • Diana Polisensky

      Reply Reply August 20, 2021

      Sadly, Tim Hughes (Joan’s nephew) who has the electronic copy of Rain on the Roof passed away this week. I will see if I can get a copy for you from his family.

  • Diana Polisensky

    Reply Reply August 22, 2021

    I can forward you a pdf copy of Joan’s book Rain on the Roof. Email me your address.
    My address is:

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