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The Post Office could be remarkably efficient. This misaddressed letter from the US, despite much to and fro between locations, did eventually arrived on Rabbi Moses Weiler's desk

The problem of slow postage

Aspects of the early years of the Reform movement read like a comedy of errors. One needs to understand communications in an era before instant global messaging.



t is worth a brief detour to consider the subject of communications in the late twenties and early thirties, because the development of a Reform movement in South Africa took place in a context of lengthy back and forth correspondence by letter between Johannesburg, London and Cincinnati. Much of it was slow, and in some cases, the slowness led to confusion.

Every Friday afternoon at exactly 4.00pm, a Union Castle line ship would leave Cape Town for Southampton, and at the same moment, a ship would leave Southampton for Cape Town. This precision suggests a clock-work routine, which was not the case. The newer ships were faster than the older ones, and some ships had stops on route. Bad weather could slow travel. A letter could be at sea for anything from two to three weeks. There was also sorting and distribution at each end, plus a two day rail journey between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Correspondence was therefore unpredictable and slow. Circumstances could change before letters arrived, and letters with conflicting messages could cross paths in mid-Atlantic. All letters from South Africa to the USA – or to anywhere else on earth - had to go via the UK.


Lily Montagu was the central contact for all letter writing from South

Most of the correspondence was typed, but since none of the correspondents on the South African end could type (men did not usually learn to type), they were obliged to wait for the services of typists, usually young women, to whom they would dictate their messages. When people went away, as they often did, their letters gathered in their home postboxes until their return.

It was a recipe for mayhem and miscommunication, which is indeed what happened on more than one occasion. When commercial airmail services began, Lily Montagu, as befitted a progressive, immediately embraced the idea, probably too soon. As Jerry Idelson would later explain to her, airmail letters went by ship to Cape Town along with all other letters, before being flown to Johannesburg, a trip with so many stops that it was only 12 hours faster than the train journey.

In moments of panic, wireless telegrams were exchanged via “Empiradio” and Marconigram”, but even these seem to have taken more than a day to arrive with several hops in between. They were also subject to error. An urgent telegram from Cape Town to Johannesburg failed to arrive during a moment of crisis in 1951. This non-communication precipitated a split in the union, as recounted in Chapter 12 of the book. Later investigation, too late to heal the damage, revealed that the Post Office had changed the telegraph address “Proju” to “Projee”.

A final point is worth noting: when the South Africans communicated with the international movement, they wrote only to Lily Montagu. Regardless of whether they wished to direct requests to other members of the British Liberal hierarchy, or to people in the USA, everything went via Lily Montagu. There was never any doubt as to who was in charge.

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