John Syme


John Syme

Married:              1. Nesta Mary Molteno (1900 – 1985) (in 1921) (dvd c. 1939)

Children:                              1. Valerie (1922-1990)


Married:              2. Aimee Joan Molteno (1910-1960)

Children:                              2. Carin (b.  1942); 3. Jocelyn Veronica (b. 1945)


John Syme was born in Durban, but grew up, as the result of a bizarre accident that he recounts in his autobiography, with foster parents on a farm in the South African Republic. This was before the Boer War (1899-1902). The family fled as the war loomed and eventually landed up as prospectors for alluvial diamonds on the banks of the Vaal River in the early years of the 20th Century.  It was during this period that John first developed his lifelong fascination and skills with machinery of all sorts – things he learned by doing since he lacked almost all formal schooling – as well as his remarkable qualities of warmth, taking responsibility for others, and personal strength.

He tracked down his real parents roundabout 1914. Settling with them in Cape Town, he married Nesta Molteno, a daughter of Frank and Ella Mary Molteno, some years later in 1921. And instead of working in a metal foundry as he had done in Durban, he built up one of the earliest and most successful car hire businesses in the Western Cape. You can see some wonderful photos of his fleet in the Picture Galleries (Transport Gallery) here at .

But there were ongoing difficulties and tensions with his mother. These contributed greatly to his and Nesta’s decision eventually to divorce.  Both of them later remarried. In John’s case, his new wife, Joan Molteno, was a first cousin and close friend of Nesta’s.

John and Joan and their daughters lived most of their married lives in Claremont. Their house was a stone’s throw away from St. Saviour’s Church where Joan’s grandparents, Sir John Charles and Maria Molteno were buried, and just across the Main Road from Claremont House, the Molteno family home from the early 1860s through to the late 1920s. In fact, John and Nesta were the last of the family to live in Claremont House, following the tragic death of Nesta’s father in the Salt River train disaster.

In retirement, John spent much of his time in his workshop where he invented and made all sorts of things, including a new kind of ‘one turn’ tap fitting for garden hoses and tiny ‘wind up’ musical boxes, whose steel barrels produced delightful melodies. His kindness extended to many people, including notably his nephew, Patrick Molteno, who was one of the very few in the family who was also attracted to engineering.

His Autobiography 

John wrote a detailed account of his life which you can read on this website. I have entitled it  Story of a South African Boy. My Introduction to it also gives more details about his remarkable life.


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