Lead up to the establishment of Barberton
On 12 January 1874, Thomas Mac Lachlan announced that he had found
gold in the De Kaap area. Although his discovery was not viable he believed
that rich deposits would be found if properly investigated. Nobody paid
attention to Mac Lachlan and he eventually took his pick and shovel
and went to prospect in the wilderness of Swaziland. The De Kaap area
would not reveal its treasures for another 8 years.
In 1876 a veil of uncertainty fell over the goldfields. The war against
Sekhukhune made many prospectors decide to leave and make a living elsewhere.
In 1877 the British annexed the Transvaal and in 1880 the First Anglo-Boer
War, which lasted for 3 months, ending on 27 February 1881, broke out.
After the war Paul Kruger granted a concession to David Benjamin allowing
him the sole right to all minerals in the area surrounding Pilgrim's
Rest. The prospectors sought compensation for the alienation of their
claims and after being paid, most of them moved on to the De Kaap area.
Gold was discovered at Berlin by B. Chompse in 1882, but his find was
disappointing. However, the news soon reached the outside world and
a rush of fortune hunters of greater magnitude than that which had occurred
in the Transvaal previously, took place.
Encouraged by signs of ancient mining activity, Berlin was proclaimed
a digging. On adjoining state land a town known as Duivel's Kantoor
(the Devil’s Office) soon developed. The rocks in the mist must have
looked eerie and possibly gave rise to the name Duivel's Kantoor. Owing
to the growing activity at Duivel's Kantoor a commission of enquiry
was formed consisting of General Piet Joubert, M W Pretorius, C J Joubert
and the Gold Commissioner, C F Hoolboom from Pilgrim's Rest, authorising
them to investigate matters, to appoint the necessary administrative
personnel and then to report back to the government.
During their stay the members of the Commission stood on the Duivel's
Kantoor escarpment or Kantoorberg, as it was then known, at the very
edge of the great drop into the De Kaap Valley, and looked down on the
beautiful valley below and the surrounding 1000m high mountains. To
the South the Ingudu mountains could be seen, to the West the mountains
of Jambila and the rugged edge of the escarpment known as the Devil's
Knuckles. To the North the Crocodile Gorge mountains and a further range
of mountains stretching east to where streams and rivers merged and
flowed to the sea. The-red earth at the foot of the Kantoorberg had,
through the centuries, eroded into deep ditches and furrows. Looking
down on the scene Pretorius turned to his companions and said "Here
we have Table Mountain, and those red erosion ditches represent the
houses of Cape Town and I now rename Duivel's Kanfoor, Kaapsche Hoop,
the valley below will be known as De Kaap Valley and the river as the
During the Commission's visit they appointed J P Ziervogel, Chairman
of the Prospector's Committee, as the Justice of the Peace and Gold
Commissioner for KAAPSCHE HOOP. The prospectors would not accept Ziervogel's
authority and when Charles and Benjamin Barrett, from Middelburg, bought
the farm Berlin and obtained the concession for prospecting right’s
the prospectors were incensed and went on the rampage. Ziervogel tried
to stop them but was obIiged to flee for his life. He begged the government
to release him from his post, a request which was eventually granted.
During June 1882, James Murray discovered
alluvial gold at the confluence of the Noordkaap River and Jamestown
Creek. His partners were Bob Watson and Tom Elsie, whose daughter Nugget
was the first White baby to be born in the De Kaap Valley. At the end
of year Auguste Robert, known as French Bob, and Ingram James moved
down from Duivel's Kantoor and found James Murray working the alluvial.
They joined the small group, and were later, themselves, joined 'by
Magnus Jefferies. They kept the location of their finds secret, but
every digger was anxious to know where they were obtaining the gold
with which they paid for the supplies they bought at Duivel's Kantoor.
Early in 1883, Harry Culverwell came upon them where they were
panning and, after pegging his own claims, spread the word. The news
spread through the valley like wildfire and soon a little tent-town
was established, named Jamestown, after the discoverers. Among the more
successful of the new arrivals were George Taylor, Shepherd, Campbell
and Tom Meikle.
The Meikle family immigrated from England in 1868 when John Meikle and
his wife Sarah, with their children Tom, Jeanne, Stewart, and baby John,
later to be known as Jack, sailed with the Umgeni and landed
in South Africa in March 1868. The Meikles farmed on their farm Avondale,
near Mooi River in Natal, and in 1883 the 21 year old Tom, set out with
a scotch cart, six oxen and a partner, a Russian carpenter, for the
newly discovered alluvial goldfields at Jamestown. They pegged their
claim and soon unearthed the biggest nugget, of 58 ounces, found there
The Russian spent his spare time hunting, and during a bush fire burnt
his hands and face badly and was confined to bed. One Sunday Tom visited
friends who lived some miles away. When he returned he found the box,
in which he kept the nugget, forced open and both nugget and partner
missing. The Russian sauntered back to camp eventually, but from what
one gathered of Tom Meikle's temper one can imagine the scene that ensued.
The partnership broke up on the turn and the Russian returned to Natal.
But the thief found it impossible to dispose of the nugget and decided
to return it. A letter arrived at Avondale; addressed to 'Master J Meikle,
and when Jack opened it, it contained a rough map of the homestead and
its surrounds, with a large tree, which stood at the back of the yard,
marked in. 'The attached letter had been composed with words and letters
cut from newspapers and pasted together on a sheet of paper to
form the message: 'Tree gold dig find.' The excited family rushed
out there and then, and by lantern light began digging. They did indeed
find the nugget. The sale of it realised £200, and it is typical of
Tom that, despite all the circumstances, when he met the Russian some
time later he duly paid the man his half share.
It was in mid 1892 that the three young Meikle brothers, Tom, Stewart
and Jack made the arduous 700 mile (1120km) trek from Natal to open
their stores in the new land and later, to build their hotels, sink
their mines and establish their ranches. The name 'Meikles' it was said,
was one of the first words a newcomer to early Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) heard.
In fact, it was a well-known name north of the Limpopo River even before
the country had been formally christened, and for many years it was
a stock joke that Rhodesia consisted of Meikles and the white ants (Whyte,
With the advent of over a hundred newcomers, French Bob, Ingram James,
James Murray and Magnus Jefferies left Jamestown in disgust, and prospected
on the southern escarpment of the De Kaap Valley. French Bob found gold
on Moodies farms and named the find Pioneer Reef. He tried to keep his
discovery a secret, but when he began making a canal to the claims,
other prospectors put two and two together and soon Moodies was a hive
of activity. Jamestown was an extremely unhealthy place, with fever
claiming many victims, and 'when the finds on Moodies were made, most
of the inhabitants wasted very little time in clearing out to better
Others, however, continued to arrive, and Tom Andrews came up from Pinetown
in 1884. He founded the Pinetown mine (later renamed the Worcester)
and Albion reefs, and started Andrews' alluvial diggings. He and his
descendants were to play a long and important role in the history of
the De Kaap Goldfields.
After a further discovery of gold and the establishment of the Worcester
Mine, some 700 inhabitants still lived and worked in the Jamestown area.
Michael Welensky, who owned the Twelve Mile Hotel, just south of Jamestown,
closed his hotel in 1890 and joined the Mashonaland expedition to Rhodesia
(Zimbabwe). His 13th child Roy, born in Rhodesia, later became Sir Roy
Welensky, Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyassaland.
George Piggott Moodie was Surveyor General of the Transvaal and obtained
a concession from the government in 1872 to survey the area between
Delagoa Bay and Pretoria for the purpose of laying a railway line. The
line was to have traversed Barberton and Klipstapel (Breyten) to Pretoria.
He was given 13 farms west of Barberton for his services. This line
was, however, never built.
The discovery of gold on Moodies attracted the attention of people from
all over the world and soon there were three digger's camps, known as
the Top, Middle and Lower camps.
Moodie engaged the help of Henry Nourse to discuss and negotiate matters
with the prospectors. Nourse met Graham Barber and his two cousins Fred
and Harry Barber on his journey at Chrissiesmeer and prevailed upon
them to accompany him to Moodies as he expected trouble. Fortunately
Nourse could persuade the diggers to listen to his proposals and he
and his companions joined in the search for gold.
David Wilson was appointed the new Gold Commissioner in January 1884
and in May of the same year took up his post at Kaapsche Hoop. The diggers
were still unruly and his duty was to restrain them and restore law
The Barber brothers and their cousin, Graham, were prospecting in a
rift at the foot of the Ingudu mountains (incorrectly known as the Makonjwa
mountains), where they came upon a rich gold reef and proceeded to peg
a claim. Just the next day the Umvoti Reef, next to the Barber's claim,
was discovered by Sam Newmarsh, Alan E Ede, J T Rimer and R Otto, who
pegged off their claim. The Barbers kept their find a secret while they
interested Rimer and Newmarsh in putting up the money to start crushing.
On 21 June 1884 Graham Barber wrote a letter to the State Secretary
to inform him that payable gold had been found on State-owned land.
He wrote this letter in accordance with the Government proclamation
of 21 December 1870, which stated that diggers would be rewarded for
finding precious stones or minerals on State land. Barber ended his
letter with the words "Should there be a reward for such discovery,
I beg to claim that reward”
The State Secretary asked the Magistrate at Lydenburg to investigate
the matter and for the Gold Commissioner to submit a report. David Wilson
made his investigation on 24 July 1884 and found that Barber had indeed
found payable gold. According to Wilson the reef yielded 7 ounces of
gold per ton while the gold from the Newmarch and Ede claims was much
higher and here the yield was between 12 and 15 ounces per ton. In his
book 'Behind the Scenes in the Transvaal' Wilson writes
that he decided to declare a township at the base of the hills where
the Umvoti Creek entered the De Kaap valley, broke a bottle of gin on
the Barber Reef, champagne was not available, and named it Barberton.
There was apparently a choice between calling it Rimerton or Barberton,
but because there was only one of the former and three of the latter,
the vote went in favour of the township being called Barberton and the
Umvoti Creek, flowing through its centre, being renamed Rimer's Creek
after J T Rimer.
As far as is known, Graham Barber never received his reward.
A. Ten-stamp Sandycroft battery was soon erected on a site close to
where the Impala Hotel is now located in De Villiers Street. The first
crushing of 100 tons from Barber's Reef yielded five ounces of gold
to the ton, and the rush became a stampede.
There were three routes to Barberton. The one road left the Delagoa
Bay/Lydenburg route near Pretoriuskop and proceeded through the Crocodile
River, over Mara to Barberton. Later a shorter route was constructed
from Furley's Drift, parallel to the Crocodile River to Kaapmuiden,
over Low's Creek, Noordkaap to Barberton.
The second route was linked to the Durban/Lydenburg route. This route
was via Badplaas, Jambila, through the 'Glenthorpe Chute', to Barberton.
The 'chute' was some five kilometres long and the 'dreaded chute' was
the length of a wagon and a span of oxen. It had a very steep gradient
and wagons sometimes careered downhill out of control. At the lower
portion was the 'slide', which was not so steep but dangerous. At the
bottom of the slide, across Gin Creek, was Jenkinson's Hotel where the
transport riders re-filled their gin bottles, hence the name Gin Creek,
before proceeding on their way to Barberton.
Later another route was made from Ngodwana via Kaapsche Hoop to Barberton.
Two stagecoach services were introduced to transport passengers to Barberton.
They were the Gibson brothers' Red Star Line and the other run by Geo.
Heys and Co.
Hundreds of people converged on Barberton to share in the prosperity.
They envisaged a paradise where money was to be made. A settlement started
forming around the site of the mill in Rimer's Creek. Values soon faded
and the Barbers decided to sell and get out, starting a series of journeys
which ended in Kenya, where Harry Barber died in 1920. Rimer stayed
on and turned his battery into the Central Mill where ore from many
mines around Barberton and Sbeba was crushed until such time as the
larger properties established their own recovery plants.
As a result of difficulties with Moodie, French Bob and Bob Watson left
the Pioneer Reef and went to investigate the eastern side of the De
Kaap valley at Mbayiyane (Three Sisters) where they discovered gold
and began working the Carolina Reef at what was to become known as French
At the foot of the Mbayiyane range, David Low found gold on the banks
of a stream. He started mining and called it the Lily Mine, after his
youngest daughter. The little stream eventually became known as Low's
Edwin Bray's discovery of the Golden Quarry in 1885, so named because
it looked as if the rock was formed entirely of gold, resulted in the
mine becoming well known throughout the world. The Golden Quarry, the
Oriental, the Edwin Bray and Nil Desperandum together composed the Sheba
Reef Gold Mining Company and production from these mines astounded the
world. Shares of £1 were re-sold for £120 per share.
The Sheba mine is one of the oldest, and richest, working gold mines
in the world having been in production for more than a century. It is
estimated that production will continue for several decades to come.
After much capital had been lost through investment with other gold
mining companies, confidence
in the South African gold mining industry was restored.
Many well-known people came too settle in Barberton, a few of those
who featured in the history of South Africa, such as Sir Abe Bailey
(1864-1940), Alfred Beit (1835-1906), Sammy Marks (1850-1920) and Sir
Percy Fitzpatrick (1862-1931). According to 'De Volksstem', dated September
1886, the population was between 1200 and 1300, while the 'Cape Argus',
of March 1886, estimated the population between 800 and 1000 Whites,
while some 2000 Blacks were employed on the Gold Fields.
The demand for transport increased and one of the first to use the new
route between the Lebombo mountains and Barberton, was Robert (Bob)
Pettigrew. He was originally from Rutherglen, Scotland, and came out
to this country on the boat 'Earl of Southes' arriving in Durban on
8 October 1868. In 1870 he moved to the McCorkendale Settlement, near
Lake Chrissie, where he became a farmer and businessman. When gold
was discovered in the De Kaap valley in 1884 he moved to the Lowveld.
Pettigrew improved the road from the Lebombo mountains via Malelane,
Kaapmuiden, Low's Creek
and Noordkaap to Barberton, which became known as Pettigrew's road.
Soon some forty 'hotels' were erected along this road. The refreshments
to be had along the way resulted in the necessity to crawl from the
one 'hotel' to the next and the route then also became known as 'leopard
On account of the magnesite deposit, just south of Kaapmuiden, over
which Pettigrew's road was made, the route became a nightmare in wet
weather and it was impossible for the oxen to pull the wagons through
unless two spans were used.
Owing to the danger of tsetse fly, to the east of Low's Creek, Pettigrew
made a second route known as French Bob. The new route left the existing
road at Fig Tree Creek (now Sheba Spruit) then via Crystal Stream, Low's
Creek, French Bob mine, then through the northern part of Swaziland
to join up with the old route at Furley's Drift.
Transport riders used to repair their wagons under the spreading branches
of a large fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) and named the creek nearby
Fig Tree Creek. As recently as 1952 an old rusty bellows and wagon wheels
were found there. Unfortunately this old tree was almost completely
destroyed in a violent storm on 13 March 1989.
Pettigrew's road played an important role in the development of the
Onderberg and the Lowveld in particular and to commemorate this Leon
van Rensburg, then Chairman of the Onderberg Regional Development Association,
in conjunction with the Transvaal Roads Department, arranged for road
signs to be erected at Pettigrew's Nek, 2km south of Kaapmuiden. On
19 November 1987 a function was held at which Jacob de Villiers, then
Chairman of the Eastern Transvaal Regional Development Advisory Committee,
Region F, officiated and named Pettigrew's Nek.
Large amounts of money flowed into Barberton and several stock exchanges
operated here. More buildings were erected, billiard saloons and music
halls established. The Criterion and Royal Standard hotels were opened.
Bartenders vied with each other to attract customers from the sidewalk
and played the popular songs of the day. Inside barmaids relieved thirsty
customers of their money by providing suitable refreshments. The most
well known barmaid was Cockney Liz, who it was said granted her favours
to the highest bidder.
In December 1885 J Sherwood started a butchery and hotel near Sheba
mine. This area became known as Eureka City. Sherwood was one of the
pioneers who took part in the gold rush at Moodies and was the first
person to establish a business at Barberton. Sherwood's wife, according
to reports, was no beauty but the diggers called her the Queen of Sheba.
The hotel was named the Queen of Sheba.
The road from Barberton to Eureka City was via Elephant's Kloof, a gorge,
4 km northeast of Barberton. According to a report, published in the
De Kaap Goldfields, Elephant's Kloof was one of the most picturesque
roads to Eureka City. The Creek is named after the large number of elephant’s
bones found in the locality. It is believed that tribesman used to trap
them in the dense bush, which covered the creek. Tall trees, huge rocks
and high mountains flanked either side of the pathway, and as the track
climbs higher the bush becomes thicker, all kinds of tropical ferns,
flowers, and creepers amongst the trees. Streams of water frequently
crossed the path, and the creek had all the appearance of a fairy glen.
Eureka City reached its peak in 1886. There were now three shops, three
hotels, a bakery, chemist, racecourse, music hall and the ever-present
bars to cater for the estimated 700 inhabitants.
Owing to the increased activity at Barberton, and the improvement of
the roads, the number of crimes, which took place, also increased. Theft
and murder was rife and at times the gaols were so full that some of
the prisoners had to sleep outside. Others were allowed to stay out
until 23:00 and latecomers spent the night outside.
The 'Irish Brigade', a band of highwaymen, was active in the De Kaap
valley robbing coaches. After one such coach was robbed of £1000 near
Kaapsche Hoop and another of £1500, the Gibson brothers, mining companies
and the Standard Bank combined to offer a reward of £100 for information
leading to the arrest of the robbers. Although the amount was a considerable
sum in those days, it was never claimed. The passengers were not molested
or robbed as they concentrated on gold bullion and money carried by
The Irish Brigade did not only concentrate on coaches but was also a
menace to the town and innkeepers. They paid a visit to Eureka City
where they manhandled bartenders, helped themselves to liquor and generally
created havoc. As an 'encore' they almost completely destroyed the hotels
which were built of wood and iron. The small police force was unable
to act against them and called for assistance, but by the time help
arrived the troublemakers were well on their way to the Kaapsche Hoop
road and their next adventure.
In January 1887 Henry Nourse and Drew also introduced a passenger coach
service from Pretoria to Kaapsche Hoop and Barberton. While the coaches
were in the town they undertook trips to the different mining camps
The discord between the Government and the diggers was never resolved
and when Paul Kruger visited the goldfields in 1886 he expected trouble
from the diggers. They were discontented because of the way in which
the goldfields had been proclaimed and had written a strongly worded
letter to the President. This document reached the President at Kaapsche
Hoop on his way to Barberton.
The diggers were hoping that the letter would make the President cancel
his visit to Barberton. The President however, decided that he was going
to confront the diggers and after a day in the saddle the President
arrived at the Phoenix Hotel where 600 diggers awaited him.
Wilson, the Gold Commissioner, accompanied the President and when he
heard the remarks passed in English by the diggers about the President's
looks, they took his breath away. He was also under the impression,
like the diggers, that the President did not understand English and
did not protest. The next day the diggers gathered under a large tree,
possibly on the market square, and were ready to confront the President.
They wanted certain amendments made to the proclamation, amongst other
demands. Before the digger’s tempers could flare up, the President remarked
that he had seldom seen such an excellent gathering of people and promised
to put their grievances before the government. He asked them to prepare
a petition, which he would then put forward. The diggers cheered the
President and the meeting proceeded without incident.
The diggers immediately arranged for a meal at the hotel and one flattering
speech after the other was made in honour of the President, while champagne
continued to flow and toasts were drunk. In response to the diggers
praise the President delivered his speech in English, to the consternation
of Wilson and his English-speaking friends. Paul Kruger thanked the
diggers for their excellent behaviour and expressed the hope that his
countenance had improved since his arrival. He again promised to lay
their grievances before the government. As far as is known this petition
was never put forward.
Barberton flourished for only a brief period and soon the inhabitants
began to move away to the newly discovered goldfields on the Witwatersrand.
Only the Sheba, Consort and other smaller mines continued their activities.
Information supplied by Hans Bornman.