VASSA founder James Walton, OBE, BSc, was born of farming stock near Brighouse, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on 2 November 1911 and went to Rastrick Grammar School, which he left in 1927 to become a ‘chemist’s assistant’.
He later took a science degree at London University and also studied at Leeds University, probably for a postgraduate teaching diploma.
Walton joined the Halifax Antiquarian Society in 1938 and focused his research on local farm buildings and implements, much encouraged by W.B Crump, a prominent local historian.
Walton’s first article, ‘Some decadent local industries’ was published in the Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society in 1938, followed by others in specialist journals on Yorkshire woodcrafts, tithe barns and stone slate roofs until, following the appearance of ‘Timberwork of English Barn Buildings’ in Country Life in 1942 he was unable to spare time for writing until the war was over.
In 1947 he arrived in South Africa as an education officer in Lesotho and took early retirement in 1960 as Deputy Director of Education there.
He went to live in Cape Town in the same year; was appointed managing director of Longman’s, South Africa, and decided to settle permanently in the country.
Nevertheless he always kept in touch with the homeland and in 1952 was a founder member of the Vernacular Architecture Group to promote the study of ‘lesser traditional buildings’ and to put researchers in touch with one another. Appropriately, Walton was elected the first honorary life member of the Group.
He continued to publish papers in English periodicals but his first monograph, Homesteads and Villages of South Africa, was published in 1952 in that country, illustrated by Walton’s own photographs and detailed drawings.
It included material on the interior of the houses, utensils, cupboards, pottery and a host of other aspects of household life, beginning and ending with an urgent plea for the establishment of a South African folk museum on the Scandinavian pattern, where surviving early house types are re-erected and conserved, since they are fast disappearing.
When Walton was elected a Fellow of the Antiquaries in 1953, his blue paper was headed by Sir Cyril Fox and signed by Iorwerth Peate, founder of the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan’s.
In 1951 Walton was awarded a two-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship to study prehistoric tribal habitations and settlements in South Africa, a subject which had already occupied him for several years.
The result was African Village, covering South Africa, Basutoland, the Rhodesias, and Nyasaland.
Walton was the first to acknowledge that his own painstaking fieldwork left many questions unanswered, but he had at least posed them and blazed the trail for the formation of research groups of architects, ethnologists and archaeologists to undertake studies of individual tribal cultures.
Only with the co-operation of such experts and scholars could the history of the African people be unravelled and recorded.
To this end, he was instrumental in founding the Vernacular Architectural Society of South Africa in 1964 and was its honorary president until his death in 1999.
In 1973 he received the Award of Merit of the Cape Tercentenary Foundation for ‘outstanding services to vernacular architecture in the Cape of Good Hope’, followed by the gold medal of the South African National Monuments Council in 1981.
The University of Natal conferred an honorary doctorate in architecture upon him in 1987, and in 1992 he was awarded a gold medal by the Society for Afrikaans Culture.
Walton published papers regularly in African Studies, the South African Archaeological Bulletin and African Notes and News in South Africa and, in England, in Country Life, Man and Antiquity.
He gave his archive of articles and notes (annotated in his neat calligraphy), pen and ink drawings and photographs to the University of Stellenbosch, where they are deposited in the J S Gericke Library for the use of future researchers.
Many of Walton’s pioneer studies in Britain, Europe, Southern Africa and elsewhere have engendered more extensive research in those fields by successive students and this is, perhaps, the most important aspect of his work.
His drawings and photographs are often the only surviving records of hundreds of buildings, now demolished. They have also provided a basis for subsequent restoration.
Walton was hailed as ‘The father of vernacular architectural science in South Africa’ by the national press when he died peacefully in his sleep, aged eighty-seven in the early hours of 24 April 1999.