Margaret Whiting Spilhaus [1889-1981]: “Doorstep-Baby” to Decorative Cartographer

“Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton but the effect of teaching geography and history intelligently and in correlation in the schoolroom would be far reaching, and would contribute substantially to the avoidance of Waterloos in future”

So wrote the South African artist, writer and educationalist, Margaret Whiting Spilhaus in an article entitled The Significance of Geography, published in the magazine, The New Era in Home and School [Vol 12], in 1931.

Her work as a pictorial cartographer fully embraced this same goal & message. As well as geographical & historical education being held up to be an ideal way of fostering international cooperation and world peace, Spilhaus’ series of five “Picture Maps” of Africa (2), North America, South America and Australia, published over a period of about twenty years from the mid 1920s (and reissued in the post-war period as well) served as a model for the manner in which these two core teaching subjects might be visually synthesized & harmoniously brought together. They also demonstrated how such maps might serve as engaging contemporary teaching aids in schools not only in Britain but also in far-flung corners of the pre-war Empire & post-war Commonwealth.

George Philip & Son Ltd – Margaret W Spilhaus – Picture Map of Australia [1929/1944]

Spilhaus Papers [BC319A] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

Spilhaus’s world view, like that of  other pictorial mapmakers of the inter-war period such as MacDonald Gill, was one framed by the enduring legacy of European colonialism and British imperialism. It was a vision of the world that, for Spilhaus, as for Gill, drew particular inspiration from the 17th Century Golden Age of Dutch cartography. Within the great atlases of Blaeu & Jansson, she noted,  “the whole map is such a delicate picture to the eye, the symbols immediately intelligible”. By contrast Spilhaus suggested that the modern map was a wholly “static affair” which frequently left the young completely cold and unengaged.

Not so, Spilhaus’ first “Picture Map” of Africa, which was endorsed by leading educational experts and heralded as “a pictorial presentation of the natural features by means of quaint drawings, with tiny sketches depicting the different types of human population and suggesting their various activities. Along the top and bottom edges of the map are included seventeen historical scenes in colour arranged chronologicially, illustrative of the gradual progress of discovery of the Continent and the principal events concerned with the more important explorers. The Map is artistically drawn and beautifully printed in colours”.

As the Morning Post reviewer wryly commented, Spilhaus’ maps “should induce the most recalcitrant child to take an interest not only in geography but also in history.”

Margaret Whiting Spilhaus was born Phyllis Margaret Whiting on September 27th 1889, at No.15 Aylward Road, Forest Hill, a modest semi-detached South London villa, where the Whiting family are recorded in the 1891 Census. Baptised at St John’s United Reform Church, Lewisham on November 17th 1889, she was the second child (of four) and eldest daughter of William Ashby Whiting [1859-1895] and Emily Whiting (née Doble) [1867-1952]. Both of Margaret’s parents were natives of Devon. William had moved from Bideford to Croydon, South London in the late 1860s or early 1870s when his father took up the post of minister of the local Congregationalist  Chapel. William & Emily appear to have married and settled in the Lewisham area in the late 1880s, where William is recorded as a cement manufacturer.

In her autobiography, Doorstep-Baby (published in 1969 and written in the third person and with all individual identities disguised) Margaret noted how her paternal ancestors (the Ashbys of Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire) had deep and long-lasting connections with the Society of Friends dating back to its earliest years under founder George Fox. Indeed it was the influence of several kindly & affluent Quaker relatives that led to her formative years, in the period between 1898 & 1902, being spent as a boarder at Sibford, a renowned co-educational Quaker School near Banbury in Oxfordshire, a period of her life which she later recalled with considerable affection.

The Friends’ School, Sibford, c1900

(Image courtesy of

However the immediate impact of William Ashby’s death was devastating upon mother and children. Emily was left a young & impoverished widow faced with trying to find employment and support a family of two sons and two daughters all still under the age of 10. For much of the period from 1895 until Emily’s second marriage to  Lee (Llewelyn) Sherris Hallamore, a London shipping clerk, in November 1902, her four young children – Roland, Marianne, Phyllis Margaret & John – were frequently entrusted to the safekeeping of understanding London relatives and supportive family friends for long periods, a disjointed & peripatetic childhood which led to Margaret’s being dubbed the “Doorstep-Baby” by one of her kindly & long-suffering spinster aunts.

During this period, her mother, a lively disciple of William Morris and the Arts & Craft Movement, began to earn a modest independent income as an increasingly accomplished fabric designer & embroiderer. By the turn of the Century, she had taken up an important teaching post in the School of embroidery at Sydenham’s Crystal Palace.

Family circumstances changed yet again when Emily & Llewelyn decided to emigrate to South Africa shortly after their marriage. The four Whiting siblings would remain separated & largely estranged and it would be several years later before they were reunited again as a quartet in South Africa. And it was not until September 1904 that Margaret herself finally arrived in Cape Town to join her mother, step father and elder brother Roland who had settled in a sprawling former army bungalow in the suburb of Rondebosch.

After another period of interrupted education, Margaret eventually found employment in the summer of 1907, shortly before her 18th birthday, as a clerk in a branch of the local Civil Service in Cape Town.

Just two years later, following a brief courtship, in October 1909, Margaret married Ludolph Spilhaus [1876-1972], then a 33 year-old merchant and graduate of the University of the Cape of Good Hope, whose family farmed one of the ancient Dutch farmsteads set amid the vineyards of the beautiful  unspoilt valley of Constantia a few miles outside Cape Town.

St. John’s Church, Rondebosch where Margaret & Ludolph Spilhaus married in 1909

(Image: Zaian [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Ludolph’s father, Arnold Wilhelm [1845-1946], a native of Lubeck in northern Germany, but now a naturlised South African, had established one of Cape Town’s most successful merchant houses in 1876 (a company still in existence today). The Spilhaus firm suffered particularly badly because of its perceived German links during the infamous “Lusitania riots” in Cape Town in 1915 when its warehouses were attacked & burnt to the ground.

Margaret’s own relationship with Arnold Wilhelm would develop over the years into one of mutually “affectionate companionship” according to Doorstep-Baby, and it was she who would edit his memoirs & reminiscences, published after the centenarian’s death, in about 1950.

In the period immediately after the First World War, as her personal papers in the archives of the University of Cape Town highlight, Margaret devoted much time to writing several children’s books & plays, compilations of nursery rhymes and designs for doll’s houses. As well as being reflections upon the early childhood & development of her own two daughters, Patricia (b.1912) and Marian (b.1922), they were also engaging entertainments for the young pair and other members of the extended family.

Many of these projects would subsequently reach a far wider audience, as the publication of The Limber Elf [Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1920]; the Happy little house; a hand-craft book (containing plans & diagrams for a doll’s house & furniture) [Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1926] and South African Nursery Rhymes [Juta, Cape Town, c1925] reveal.

And it was in this early 1920s period that Spilhaus first began to dedicate her time & attention to the design and production of her first “Picture Map” of Africa, described at the time as the “Children’s Map of Africa”. First designed & drawn in 1921, the initial printing plate was engraved in Germany and the map’s first edition printed there, seemingly in relatively small numbers, in about 1923. A second “improved” edition was published by the Cape Times and its inclusion on the school list of the Education Department was announced in the Cape Times of July 24th 1925.

Spilhaus Papers [BC319A] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries 

In late 1928 Spilhaus visited London and on November 1st met with the directors of the London Map Publishers, George Philip & Son Ltd of 32 Fleet Street to finalize an agreement for them to acquire all of the residual stock of the first and second editions of the Africa map (over 4000 map sheets in total). An offer had already been submitted to Spilhaus in late October by John & Edward Bumpus of 350 Oxford St, Booksellers to the King, for all residual British stock of the Africa map.

In a letter of November 2nd, the directors of George Philip also confirmed that they would proceed with the publication of a new revised London edition of the Africa map and that the firm of Juta in Cape Town would be granted sole agency for its sale in South Africa. The final terms and royalty agreement in respect of the Africa map were signed off on January 1st 1929. A month later a further agreement confirmed arrangements for the production & publication by Philip of a new “Picture Map of Australia” also based on Spilhaus’ designs. Copyright of both maps was vested in the publisher.

The appearance of this new edition of the Africa map was announced in the provincial British press in mid-February 1929. Five months later, in late July 1929, a letter to Spilhaus from George Philip & Son confirmed the first availability of the Australia map, mounted on cloth & with wooden ledges, for a price of 6 shillings. The publishers also confirmed the despatch to South Africa of three presentation copies for Spilhaus’ review & approval.

So began Spilhaus’ 15 year collaboration with the London firm of George Philip & Son, which produced two further “Picture Maps” depicting North America [1931]:

Spilhaus Papers [BC319B] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

and South America [1938]:

Spilhaus Papers [BC319C] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

Spilhaus later noted that the research and design work in preparing the North and South American maps had, in each case, taken over two years. Interestingly whilst copyright of the North America map was still vested in the publishers, by the time of the South America map agreement in July 1938, the 1000 worldwide copies of the map were now to be produced under licence by Philip with Spilhaus the copyright holder and remunerated on far more favourable terms (50/50 basis as opposed to earlier 10% royalty terms). Belatedly & much to her annoyance at the time, Spilhaus discovered that under the terms of this new 50/50 agreement, she would also be billed for half of the costs of map’s production, which she grudgingly accepted with good grace & subsequently recouped through ongoing sales of the map.  The initial pulls of the South America map were produced in black and white and printed on coloured paper.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the continued publication of Spilhaus’ “Picture Maps” by Philip became increasingly problematic & spasmodic. British map publishers were heavily constrained by the Government’s unwillingness to grant licenses for the purchase paper other than for official or war-related projects.

Spilhaus Papers [BC319A] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

One of the few successes of the wartime period was a particularly large order for her Australian map, completed by George Philip in October & November 1944, the first two batches of 1080 and 580 copies of the map being specially overprinted & distributed as Christmas gifts for Australian Army personnel based in Britain.

The vignette panels around the map depict scenes from 17th & 18th Century voyages of discovery to Terra Australis as well as subsequent early 19th Century explorations of the coastal hinterland & interior

Spilhaus Papers [BC319A] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

A further follow-up order of 1050 copies, also in November 1944, was made by the Australian News & Information Bureau in London. Two years later, the Australian government would place another large order of 5000 copies of the map for use as teaching aids in Australian schools.

By this time, all of Spilhaus’ original agreements with George Philip had been terminated and the lithographic plates for her four maps shipped out from London to South Africa. In later correspondence Spilhaus revealed that during her fifteen year association with George Philip & Son, a total of about 10000 copies of the four maps had been sold, from which she felt considerably aggrieved, through iniquitous royalty arrangements, to have garnered an income of just £200, an additional element also being pocketed by the British taxman (unjustifiably so in Spilhaus’ eyes, as a longstanding expatriate & Cape resident, who had also conceived & designed the maps outside Britain!)

By early 1945, plans were already in hand for new editions of all four maps to be printed on the presses of the Cape Times. Spilhaus coloured a pull of the original black and white edition of the South America map which was then reprinted in colour by the Cape Times, apparently with much greater clarity & success than previous results at George Philip. Considerable interest had already been expressed by Dr de vos Malan of the Cape Province Education Department in placing an order for some 3000 copies of the North & South America maps for the Province’s schools. Spilhaus also found a strong supporter & advocate for her maps in the Union’s Secretary of Education, A A Roberts, whom she met in Pretoria in February 1945, and who agreed to circulate prospectuses and copies of all four Picture maps to the country’s Provincial Directors of Education and expressed his personal desire that the whole series of maps should feature in all schools of the Union.

In December 1945, Roberts further confirmed that orders were being issued for all schools under the control of his Department to obtain copies (direct from the Cape Times publishers) of her most recently published pictorial map, the so-called Pan-Africa map. This was to be her final map design and perhaps the most controversial, due to its close association with political views of the wartime South African Premier, General Jan Smuts [1870-1950].

Prospectus for the Cape Times Pan-Africa Map 1944

Spilhaus Papers [BC319D] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries

Discussions between Spilhaus and Major Hope Brankston Viney, sales manager of the Cape Times, over the design, production and publication of the Smuts Pan-Africa map first began in the autumn of 1943. According to Spilhaus the idea for the map was conceived in conjunction with The Cape Times’ Editor, G H Wilson, and first put to Smuts during this period. It was proposed that the map would include a quotation from Smuts regarding his vision for the future of the Continent, which as Spilhaus later noted would be a valuable tool for moulding attitudes & establishing the idea in the public mind. Smuts evidently agreed, recognizing the map’s publicity and propaganda potential both abroad and at home, particularly if, like Spilhaus’ other maps, it were also to be widely distributed throughout South Africa’s schools.

Smuts’ wartime Pan-African ideals had been first outlined in a speech given at the Rand Show in April 1940 in which he concluded that “the African idea should become a practical force in the shaping of the destiny of this Continent”.  This vision dovetailed easily with the personal philosophy that he had also first propounded in his book, Holism & Evolution [1926]. Smutsian holism underlined the way in which smaller parts (and countries) might play equal & important roles in a large whole. With the end of the war in sight, Smuts also perhaps recognized the need to reformulate a post-war vision of the African Continent that built upon the vital military & strategic role that South African troops had demonstrated in recent wartime campaigns in Abyssinia and North Africa, whereby he had also banked considerable political capital with the other Allied leaders, especially Churchill. This was also a vision that carefully underlined the future wealth & economic potential of the Continent within a new & dynamic Pan-African “commonwealth of nations”, seemingly without appearing to challenge the existing status quo or threaten wider British or European interests on the Continent.

In October 1943 Spilhaus made a special visit to Pretoria, at the Cape Times‘ expense, to deliver an initial sketch of the map to Prime Minister’s Office (Smuts himself being absent in Britain) and meet with other officials of the South African Defense Headquarters.

It is interesting that in her own hand-written notes of this visit, Spilhaus underlines the importance of Smuts himself being cabled with details of the sketch, evidently being in great fear that fellow British pictorial cartographer MacDonald Gill and her former publishers, George Philip & Son of London, recent collaborators on the Time & Tide Map of the Atlantic Charter, might have plans afoot for publishing a rival pictorial Pan-Africa map of their own with which they might steal a march upon her own project.  It was clearly from Gill’s Atlantic Charter map that Spilhaus took the idea of prominently imprinting her map with the facsimile of Smuts’ signature.

Through A N Wilson, Director of the Bureau of Information in Pretoria (& son of the editor of the Cape Times) Spilhaus was warmly received by Acting Prime Minister (and Minister of Education), Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, who was “very impressed” by her plans & map design. Sent on directly to the Defense Headquarters, she here obtained considerable assistance from Colonels Malherbe & Kraft (a former Cape Times staffer), the latter finalising a detailed tracing of the map and incorporating additional topographical details such as arterial roads, aerodromes, and, most importantly, an accurate scale of miles.

Production plans proceeded afoot and by early 1944 the drawing of the map was almost finished. Even the British High Commissioner in Cape Town, Lord Harlech, an experienced old Africa hand & close friend of the Spilhauses, was given a sneak preview and offered his own comments and feedback.

South African Premier, General Jan Smuts in 1947

(Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons)

On January 28th Spilhaus finally met with General Smuts in Pretoria, her notes recording the frustration & regret that she felt that her “wits did not make full use of the opportunity”. Her recollections of the meeting are nonetheless interesting & illuminating:

His Secretary, Mr Cooper…showed me into his room and left us together. The P.M. got up and came forward to meet me. We spread the map over the big dining-room type of table which stood in the middle of the room…the P.M looked over the map carefully. I said nothing for a few moments. Then I pointed out how the exports were listed under the pictures of natives types and so forth, dragging him away from my animals at the bottom which he appeared to find interesting or attractive. I showed him where I wanted his pronouncement to appear. “Tell Wilson (Director of Bureau of Information) to have something drafted for me for this – I shall probably pull it to splinters but tell him to get on with it”. He turned to me: “What space is there for it?” “Here, Prime Minister, but I can give you more if you want it.” “That helps, I don’t want to write my last will and testament.” He smiled. I murmured in parting something not very coherent about it being an honour to help. I really forget what he said as we parted “Thank you”, I expect. Mr Cooper was already telephoning Mr Wilson when I came out….”

details from The Cape Times Map of Pan Africa [1944] – author’s collection

Spilhaus also obtained a copy of Smuts’ signature directly after the meeting. It would soon embellish the important five line quotation at the top of the map that encapsulated his Pan-African vision of “the continent of the future”.

By late July of 1944 the first coloured maps were rolling off the Cape Times presses.

A letter from Smuts’s Private Secretary, Mr Cooper, in October 1944, reported that the Premier was proudly displaying a copy of the Pan-Africa map in the main lounge in the modest family home that he had built on his Doornkloof farmstead at Irene, just south of Pretoria. This was the place to which he & his wife frequently retired from the busyness of South African politics and state affairs and where they would famously entertain the Royal Family in 1947. It would also be here that Smuts would find his final resting place, in September 1950. It is now a Museum.

By early 1945, an Afrikaans edition of the map though mooted, was considered very unlikely to sell & quietly shelved. Indeed over the next three years Smuts would find himself increasingly out of step with the rising tide of domestic Afrikaner nationalism and unable to square the circle over the increasingly thorny issue of race relations & racial segregation, factors that would ultimately lead to his defeat at the hands of Malan & Hetzog’s Reunited Nationalist Party in the 1948 General Election.

For Spilhaus, sales of her other four Picture Maps appear to have continued in the post-war period, particularly through schools at home and abroad. However it was to writing that she now increasingly turned her attention.

Building upon the reputation already established by her much-loved children’s books of the 1920s and a popular work on geography published in 1935, after the Second World War Spilhaus’ literary career gradually began to take off. From 1949 to 1974 she penned nine books. The works comprise: The First South Africans [Juta, 1949]; Indigenous Trees of the Cape Peninsula [Juta, 1950]; Arnold Wilhelm Spilhaus: Reminiscences and Family Records (Editor) [Standard Press, c1950]; Under  A Bright Sky [Howard Timmins, 1959]; South Africa in the Making 1652-1806 [Juta, 1966]; The Land They Left [Juta, 1969]; Door Step Baby (autobiography) [Juta, 1969]; Company’s Men [John Malherbe, 1973]; Pacific Adventure – The Story of the Pilot Pedro Fernandez de Quiros [John Malherbe, 1974].

Ludolph Spilhaus died in 1972. Margaret passed away nine years later on July 7th 1981, aged 91 years.

Innumberable teachers & school students of the inter- and post-war years owe a enduring debt of gratitude to Margaret Whiting Spilhaus, who through her books and wonderfully designed “Picture maps”, brought a new vibrancy, vitality and excitement to the “dry-as-dust” world of geography and history:

Spilhaus Papers [BC319D] – ©Special Collections – University of Cape Town Libraries



I wish to express my very special thanks to Renate Meyer, Head of Special Collections, and her team at the University of Cape Town Libraries for allowing me special access to Margaret Whiting Spilhaus’ papers (Ref: BC 319 (D64/580)), originally presented to them (by MWS) in August 1971 and now preserved in their archive collections. And for permitting me to reproduce images accordingly (N.B These images, as indicated, are copyrighted and may not be reproduced or republished without the prior agreement & permission of UCT Libraries). Without all their invaluable help and patient assistance, this blog post would not have been possible.

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