FRIBA, AA Dip. 'His life's ambition has been the practice of Architecture' (WJ McWILLIAMS, witness to HH McWILLIAMS' application for Associate member ship of the RIBA in 1931). McWILLIAMS practised in Port Elizabeth from about 1934. He was the son of the Port Elizabeth architect WJ McWILLIAMS, was born in Walmer, educated at St Andrew's College, Grahamstown and entered the office of BAKER & KENDALL in Cape Town in July 1924 where he remained until 1926. In 1926 McWILLIAMS left for London where he enrolled at the Architectural Association in October 1926, qualifying in September 1929. His experience in London included spending eight weeks in 1928 in Goodhart Rendel's office followed by four weeks in 1929 in A Trystam Edward's office. He travelled in Germany, Holland and Spain, having previously undertaken the AA tour of Italy in 1928. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1929. In 1930 his Associate papers were signed by both VT JONES, who was in London staying at the Constitutional Club, and by his father, WJ McWILLIAMS, in Port Elizabeth (the only Fellow of the RIBA resident in that part of South Africa at the time, so he explained to the RIBA). He returned to South Africa in 1931 and entered his father's office (JONES & McWILLIAMS) as chief assistant. In 1932 he joined an archaeological expedition to Sakkara, Egypt, organised by the Oriental Institute of Chicago University, working for six months with the University at Sakkara in Egypt making sketches and measured drawings. Thereafter in 1932 he visited Russia with a group to participate in architectural reconstruction, commenting on the trip in a letter to the South African Architectural Record (Oct 1932). He undertook a sketching tour of Holland, France and Italy in 1934. He joined the Colt-Welcome expedition to Palestine, working on the reconstruction of the Biblical city of Lachish near Hebron (see Piergabriele Vangelli Gallery). He returned to England, journeying via Anatolia and the Balkans, an account of which forms the basis of his publication 'The Diabolical'. In 1935 he returned to Port Elizabeth to begin practice. Several of the buildings with which he was first involved in Port Elizabeth, working with JONES & McWILLIAMS, were of distinctly North African or Middle Eastern nature, notably St Patrick's Catholic Church in Port Elizabeth (1934-). Many of his subsequent buildings are characterful and defy categorisation.
During the Second World War he joined the Navy as A/B RNVR in HMS Shropshire from 1940-1941. In 1941 he served with the Coastal Forces in North Sea, transferred to the SANF with which he took part in the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, South France, etc. His ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed five times in one night and was rescued by HMS Venomous off the North African coast on Armistice Day 1942. His vivid description of that night written within days of his rescue and the extraordinary ink wash drawings of Hecla sinking, now in the Imperial War Museum, London, will keep the memory of its loss alive for generations to come. He returned to Alexandria in about 1943 where he had previously spent some time and was by chance able to hold an exhibition of his depictions of the invasion of Sicily, many being bought on the spot by the War Artists' Commission (see Imperial War Museums). In 1943 he was appointed as War Artist, Naval Correspondent and Cameraman, acting as Naval editor, artist and photographer of "Parade", published simultaneously in Cairo and Naples and later Calcutta in which capacity he reported naval activity in the Mediterranean, Aegean eventually transferring to the East Asia Command, taking part in the occupation of Rangoon.
The following website South African Naval Forces provides this information as to his wartime service
1940-1941? HMS Shropshire (heavy cruiser)
1941?-1942? HMS King Alfred (RNVR officers' training establishments, Hove & Lancing, Sussex)
1942?-1942 Executive Officer, 13th Motor Launch Flotilla [HMS Minos II (Coastal Forces base, Lowestoft)]
1942-1942 11 12 HMS Hecla (destroyer depot ship) (ship torpedoed & sunk by U-515 off Morocco)
1943?-1943? HMS Saunders (Combined Training Centre, Kabrit)
1943 09 10-(1945 07) HMS Nile (RN base, Alexandria, Egypt) (additional; for press duties in Cairo)
He returned to Port Elizabeth after the War and after the deaths of VT Jones (1946) and his father (1950) he took charge of the practice in Port Elizabeth. Apart from his architecture, in which area - at least later in his career - he allowed his staff a good deal of initiative, McWilliams's skill in drawing led him to be a sought after illustrator of books and articles, among these being 'Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa' (1933) by GE PEARSE, in which some of his sketches appear (figs 23 & 68a).
He was also well-known as a yachtsman; in collaboration with a fellow architect HWE STAUCH he designed the Sprog sailing dinghy and represented South Africa in various sailing events. He was a member of the Zwartkops Yacht Club, a Commodore, 1937-38; partook in inter-club contests in Sharpie and Dinghy classes, winning the International Sharpie Trophy in 1938 and 1946, and the inter-club Sprog Trophy in 1947 and 1954. He represented South Africa in the 1948 Olympic Games in the Firefly Single Handed Class.
His life partner was Albert Milde. They were well known in Port Elizabeth and far beyond. Albert Milde was a private individual, reputedly of aristocratic Hungarian birth, orphaned at an early age, his inheritance overseen by Swiss trustees. He had been educated in Germany prior to WWII. Fire destroyed their house at Amsterdamhoek near Port Elizabeth in 1986 and tragically, most of his papers and drawings were burnt. The two had been life partners for on fifty years and Milde had, in 1990, set up a trust as a charitable foundation. During the latter stage of Herbert's life he developed Alzheimer's disease and Albert at first nursed him in their apartment off Park Drive, then in 1991 admitted him to the Munro Kirk Home. Albert died in 2002. Their legacy is The Milde McWilliams Trust, of which the School of Architecture, NMMU is one of the beneficiaries, and the Milde McWilliams Memorial Lecture a legacy.
For further biographical notes and copies of his paintings visit Holywell House Publishing.
See also an article in MyPE by Alan Straton.
ARIBA 1931; ISAA 1932; FRIBA 194.
Published: "New Russia" SAAR Oct 1932:263-265; "The Diabolical: An account of the adventures of five people who set out
in a converted Ford lorry to make a journey from Palestine to England
across Asia Minor and the Balkans" (Duckworths) (1934).