Fonds BC625 - Levyns Family Papers

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Levyns Family Papers


  • undated (Creation)

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Extent and medium

26 archive boxes; ca.2000 items

Name of creator


Biographical history

MARGARET RUTHERFORD BRYAN MICHELL was born at Sea Point, Cape Town on 24 October 1890. She was first educated at home, by her mother and then at Ellerslie Girls' School, where she matriculated lst class and won two bursaries. In 1908 she proceeded to the South African College to study for a B.A. degree, her subjects including mathematics, geology and chemistry, with Botany for her 4th year Honours degree.
She was awarded the Queen Victoria Scholarship as well as an 1851 Exhibition Memorial Scholarship, which enabled her to enrol at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1912 for botanical research. After three years, she worked at the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park, London, returning to South Africa in 1917 to take up an appointment in the Botany Department of the South African College.
For 54 years she was on the staff of the College, later the University of Cape Town,. or closely associated with it and became the first woman staff member to retain her post after marriage, establishing an important precedent. In 1932 she became the first woman to receive the degree of D.Sc. from U.C.T., awarded for her thesis 'A taxonomic study of Lobos-temon and Echiostachys' and she was also the first woman to become president of the Royal Society of South Africa.
In 1923 Margaret Michell had married J.E.P. Levyns, who was later to become Assistant Provincial Secretary for the Cape. Although not himself a botanist, her husband appreciated the importance of her research work and was her companion to many parts of Southern Africa and other countries, enabling her to reach places that would have been inaccessible to her alone. Together they hunted for plants, on foot and by wagon and cart, over veld and mountain, as well as making a memorable trip across Australia by motorcar in 1959.
During her long career, Dr Levyns published numerous papers and 8 monographs; after her retirement in 1946 much of her time was spent working on contributions to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. An earlier publication called 'A Botanist's Memoirs' was combined with notes recording events of her life, discovered by her husband after her death, and published as 'Insnar'd with Flow'rs' by the Botanical Society of Southern Africa in 1977. She died in Cape Town in 1975 aged 85.
JOHN EDWARD PHILPOTT LEVYNS was born in Johannesburg on 2 October 1897, the elder son of John Levins Kuhlmann, who adopted his mother's name (misspelt Levyns on her marriage certificate) because of anti-German feeling during the 1914-18 war.
JEPL attended the Johannesburg College, afterwards King Edward VII School, from 1907-11 and completed his schooling at the Diocesan College when the family moved to Cape Town in 1912. After a short period at the South African College in 1916, he joined the S.A. Scottish Regiment, served in the trenches in France, was invalided back to England and ended the war as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.
When he returned to South Africa in 1919 his father's health had broken, his brother had died and JEPL was the sole support of his mother and two minor sisters. He joined the Public Service as a minor clerk at 7/6 per day, in what he thought was a temporary capacity, but rose in the service over the next 38 years to become chief clerk, Provincial Accountant and finally Assistant Provincial Secretary for the Cape, from which post he retired in October 1958.
After an extended overseas trip to England, Europe and Australia in 1959 the Levyns' pursued their individual activities - Dr Margaret with her botanical research and contributions to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa and JEPL with many interests including writing for the South African Broadcasting Co. school programmes (1960-61); as treasurer of the Ecan Group (1962-64); the Committee of Friends of the South African Library and, until the very end of his life, he assisted at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Society office.

JEPL and Dr Margaret Levyns lived for most of their long married life in Linkoping Road, just below the University of Cape Town. After she died in 1975, he moved to Sheldon Park in Pinelands, where he lived until his death in 1984, aged 87.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Series A-G were donated by Mr JEP Levyns in 1976, with additional material in series H-O mainly relating to his activities being received after his death in 1984.

Scope and content

The first part of the Levyns Family Papers was donated to the University of Cape Town Libraries by Mr J E P Levyns in 1976 and is material mainly connected with Dr Margaret Levyns. These papers have been sorted and listed and number 1707 items. They comprise personal documents, notebooks, diaries and correspondence as well as drafts of her writings. The latter include "Guide to the Flora of the Cape Peninsula", and the original TS of her memoirs 'Insnar'd with Flow'rs', with Chapter XI - the account of the Levyns' motor trip across Australia in 1959 - in manuscript form. Of particular importance to botanists is her account of the evolution of the University of Cape Town Botany Department, the complete list of her publications in Addendum I on p.193 of 'Insnar'd with Flow'rs' and the list of her collection of dried and mounted botanical specimens, now in the care of the University of Cape Town, and which exceeds 11,000 in number. As John Rourke says in his foreword to 'Insnar'd with Flow'rs', there was an almost lifelong association from the beginning of the 20th century until recent times between this extraordinarily accomplished woman and the University of Cape Town. It is also the record of a woman's struggle for acceptance in a male-dominated world and we are given glimpses into the leisurely life of the Cape 100 years ago. The second part of the collection was added in October 1984, after Mr J.E. P. Levyns' death and is mainly connected with him and his activities. These papers have been sorted into categories and number ca3325 items. They comprise personal documents and diaries (both MRL and JEPL) 1918-1984; correspondence 1917-1984; JEPL's career in the S.A. Public Service 1920-1958; details of overseas trips 1933/34 and 1959; his interest in Genealogy, particularly the history of the Kuhlmann-Levyns family; many photographs of family, places visited and botanical subjects; newspaper clippings 1882-1983 etc. JEPL kept up a voluminous correspondence with family members and friends, in many cases for over thirty years. He commented on the South African social and political scene during the period 1920-84 and letters to and from his family during the 1914-18 war make interesting reading, as do the changes in the S.A. Public Service from 1920-58.


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  • English

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  • English



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