The following account was written in c. 1994 by the late Barbara L. Nicholson (née Ball) and was kindly provided to me for use on the site by her sister, Jane Browning.
NC Chase - Reflections on a friendship
Umtali, Rhodesia 1943-1970
Mr. Norman Centlivres Chase had retired from the Standard Bank when I met him. He had been in banking all his working life and had retired somewhat early though in good health. He was a gentle man, most meticulous in all his ways. He said he preferred to work slowly and correctly, to do a thing well rather than quickly and that he was not adaptable to modern ways even if they were timesaving. His neat, copperplate hand-writing bore testimony to his consistent thoroughness.
He grew up in Uitenhage and spoke nostalgically of the mountains and flowers of the E. Cape, of the delight of weekends when he would go camping with friends and cousins into the Winterberg. He was in his element in the mountains and making tea on little camp fires. There were years spent in Kimberley and then he came to Umtali, having heard from a cousin of its beauty. Incidentally he was also related to Dr. S. Schönland of the Albany Museum.
He lived at the Cecil Hotel all his years in Umtali. He had a cool south facing room upstairs, which was to become his herbarium, and over the years to become packed from floor to ceiling with presses and paper and specimens, leaving very little space for habitation. But he had need of very little as he was small in stature, light in weight and was careful and caring in his lifestyle. His finances were meagre and the hotel management very kindly kept his rate in accordance with his means, to his great appreciation. He ate very little, enjoyed a biscuit from a shared lunch packet, but normally subsisted on an apple from the table over long days' hikes. He never carried water as it was extra luggage, sometimes sipping his small requirements from mountain streams.
The verandah of the Cecil Hotel was the meeting place and tea venue for country people and it was from this vantage point that he met acquaintances and friends. Since he liked walking, especially in the veld, our mother introduced him to our home, thinking correctly that he would be useful company for a student daughter on outdoor projects.
From our earliest forays together on the Umtali commonage he was immensely interested in all I could tell him about the trees, shrubs and flowers of the veld, though that was little enough, inaccurate, far from reliable. We drew information together from Miss Gyde's book on Veld flowers and on Miss Steedman's "Trees, Shrubs and Lianes of Southern Rhodesia", of which he managed to obtain his own copy to treasure with pride. Over the years he must have filled a number of little black notebooks in neat pencilled handwriting, notes on where, when, names if possible, features, characteristics, peculiarities. Delighted, learning, observing and seeking more and further afield with ever increasing enjoyment and broadening knowledge. Botany had become his love and his ardent pursuit. Down hot to steamy valleys (where I collected insects) and up forests to misty mountain tops he carried his apple in one pocket of his jacket and his secateurs in the other pocket. The going would be slow, the day long, as he with gentlemanly intent cut a pathway through thorn and bramble. He must lead the way and his companion must not suffer a scratch.
Later a collecting bag was added to his equipment and he went almost daily on long walks in every direction. He could name and pinpoint every tree, fern or flower in the district. In particular the ferns were to become his favourites. "Asplenium splendens, the Splendid Fern" he would say, with equal fervour each time we found it. Perhaps influenced by professionals he later became somewhat secretive about where he found his special discoveries. "Somewhere in the mountains" was the stock answer. And because the answer amused, the question was often asked. Our brother, who was good at tracking, once followed Mr. Chase's route to where the Vanilla orchid grew, and was not in favour for a while.
Norman had no transport and walked wherever he went. Otherwise people took him out to their farms and estates to identify trees and advise on gardens. He was often at the home of Sir Stephen and Lady Courtauld in Imbeza valley, and at Mrs Meikle's Mountain Home in Penhalonga. He said the happiest time of his life was the fortnight he spent at Thordale in the Vumba about 1960. Stirring the porridge, making toast on the fire and attending to little children were homely activities, but supremely enjoyable. A family setting.
The Museum Society of Umtali conferred on him Honorary caretakership of their Murahwa's Hill conservation project and for several years he went there daily. He covered the distance on a museum bicycle to save time and there with one assistant he cut contoured paths, labelled trees and laid rocks aside. Dr. Bernhardt would be with him sometimes for the area had archaeological significance as well as being beautiful with its superb Brachystegia. Norman kept the paths open with his secateurs and maintained them faithfully. With eyesight failing he could still identify every tree from the shape and feel of the leaves and would run a tender hand down the bark of a trunk.
Almost blind but walking onwards and botanising to the last he was accidentally knocked down by a car and died soon afterwards. His spirit rests on Murahwa's Hill, Mutare (Umtali).