Sundry Incidents: My experience as a Doctor—A Rude Awakening—A Prince without a Bed—Baron de Rothschild's Wedding—Royalty and German Down Pillows—Lost in The "Waratah"—My Escape from The Carlton Hotel Fire-Fortune that was Missed on The Rand—Card Sharpers at Sea—Kimberley's Nightmare of Plague—The Sergeant's Grammar—Three Mysterious Initials.
During the course of a long and varied career, I have played many roles, but only once have I appeared in the guise of a doctor, as the following narrative will serve to show.
In my young days, and even up to the age of thirty-five, I suffered periodically from abscesses. Frequently the doctors would say to me, "they will be ripe in a day or so, and they can then be lanced so as to exude the purulent matter."
This by way of preface to a memorable trip by transport wagon I undertook in 1887 to Victoria West, where I was to meet my family who were arriving from England. About thirty or forty miles beyond Hopetown the coach cried a halt, and at midnight the horses were outspanned for two or three hours. The guard abruptly shouted to his fellow passengers, "Very sorry, but you cannot get anything to eat at this farmhouse." It appeared that some of the passengers on previous occasions had been rude to the proprietor, and he intended to refuse all others by a total prohibition of refreshments.
Cold and hungry, my hopes of getting something to eat entirely vanished. I was lamenting my bad luck when suddenly I saw the door of the farmhouse open, and a young woman walked towards the coach in apparent distress. " Is there a doctor here?" she asked solicitously. The guard made inquiries, but there was no medical man aboard. Thinking of the possibility of getting something to eat, I became interested in the stranger and asked her what was wrong.
"My father is very ill," she said, "and must have immediate attention." I sympathised with her in her plight, and volunteered to see the patient. I entered the house which was dimly lit by candles. In the far corner of the room sat a sturdy Dutchman of about forty summers. He was sitting on an easy chair with his right leg resting on a stool, and was obviously in pain.
I walked up to him and inquired sympathetically whether I could be of any assistance. He replied in Dutch, "my leg is very sore," at the same time pointing to his hock. When I cut the seam of his trousers I beheld a big abscess on his leg. I recognised it as such at once; it was an old acquaintance of mine.
I thought of what my doctors had said, "when it is ripe I will lance it." I ordered hot water, and soon made a bread poultice. With the aid of a pair of large scissors, which I first sterilised, I slit the abscess, and afterwards poulticed it. I advised the daughter to make another poultice, and then told her to sit up all night and to frequently apply the mollifying remedy. She promised to look after her father in the manner suggested, and after enjoying my much sought-after "bite," I departed to meet my family.
On my return forty-eight hours later, I again called at the farmhouse, where I was welcomed with open arms. The farmer blessed me, and said that through my attention and advice the pain had entirely stopped. So appreciative was he that he said, "Doctor, if you care to settle down in Hopetown and practice here, I will introduce you to all my friends, and you will make your fortune."
I did not disillusion him in his belief that I had soared to the realms of a medical practitioner. He wanted to pay my fee, but I naturally refused to accept any money. He invited me to dine with him, and insisted that I should be joined by my wife and children who were waiting outside. We had a good meal, and when I left he was still under the impression that I was a doctor.
It is not always true that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
I paid a second visit to Johannesburg in 1888. By this time many buildings had been erected, and several stamps were crushing the banket and producing gold. There appeared to be a plethora of mining engineers, some genuine, others self-styled. Company "mongering" was in full swing, and speculation was rampant. It was not a difficult matter to get favourable reports from so-called engineers of the value of properties and their prospects.
Many worthless concerns were foisted on the public. The rich ground I previously had under offer had changed hands, and was held by strong syndicates and powerful combines, who must have netted many millions in their transactions. I was persuaded to take an interest in certain gold-bearing reefs. Unfortunately I assented, which left me the poorer by some £5,000.
Mr. Woolf Joel, another cousin, and I left Johannesburg for Kimberley by Gibson's coach, having before us a journey of 300 miles. We reached Klerksdorp about 10 p.m., a third of our journey being covered. The crowded coach was due to restart at 1 a.m., which left three hours for rest and refreshment.
I had a meal at the Palace Hotel, then brilliantly lit up by electric light, and subsequently adjourned to the bar for some other refreshment. On entering the first person I met was Captain Hinton, a retired officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had lived in Kimberley for many years.
As we were in conversation, a man approached. After heartily shaking hands with the Captain, he invited him to have a drink. Hinton was not slow in accepting, and turning to me he said, "Major, let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Deeming." "Glad to meet you," said Deeming, "please join us in a drink." I imagined that my new acquaintance was a " get-rich-quick-Walling-ford." I had a rude awakening when I learned afterwards of his arrest and extradition, and read that he had been hanged in Australia for murdering a couple of women, one of whom was his wife.
We left Klerksdorp at the appointed time. It was very dark, and we had only been on the road twenty minutes when the coach capsized in a sluit—a nasty smash. The driver had his arm broken, an outside passenger had his teeth knocked out, while an inside passenger also suffered injury. I must have been stunned for a while, as when I rallied I really thought that all the passengers, with the exception of myself, had been killed.
An old Kimberley man, named Armstrong, was the first to render help. He lit the two lanterns of the coach, and together we surveyed the position. The most seriously injured person was a Mr. de Vos, an old-established produce dealer, who weighed much over twenty stone.
After the uninjured passengers had regained their senses, they managed with great difficulty to get de Vos out of the coach. One man ran back to Klerksdorp, where he obtained assistance. Four of the injured were taken to Klerksdorp in a Cape cart, and poor de Vos was placed on a hurriedly-made stretcher composed of a door which had been taken off its hinges, with a mattress placed on top. We arrived in Kimberley twelve hours late. De Vos never recovered from his injuries, and died some months later in Kimberley.
At the end of the Matabele War, in which Prince Alexander of Teck took part with his regiment, the 7th Hussars, he passed through Kimberley on his way to Cape Town en route to England, bringing with him a letter of introduction to me. He remained in the Diamond City one night, with the intention of leaving the following day.
It was also my son's intention to sail on the same boat, the R.M.S. Moor, so the next day the three of us took our departure by the same train.
On arrival at Cape Town, the Prince immediately proceeded to the Castle to collect his kit, which had been sent on to him from Natal; and my immediate business was to secure accommodation for the night.
On inquiry at the Grand Hotel, Mrs. O'Callagan, the then proprietress, told me that she had only one vacant room in the hotel for myself and two friends. Accommodation at the time was scarce, and I was compelled to take what I could get. There was only one single bedstead in the room, so two mattresses were placed on the floor with the hope that "we would be comfortable."
When the three of us retired that night, Prince Alexander of Teck insisted on my occupying the bed. The Prince and my son slept on the floor, and the next morning he declared that he had had a good night's rest after many months of the discomforts of active service.
Before leaving for the docks, the three of us called at the hotel office to settle our accounts. Mrs. O'Callagan eyed us up and down, and then remarked, "Surely, Colonel, you have two fine sons."
I assured her that the tall man in uniform was not my son. "Now don't be after pulling my leg," she answered with a twinkle in her eye, and handed me one account for the three of us.
I was about to settle when the Prince intervened. "Please, madam, will you be good enough to give me a separate bill?" he requested.
Turning to me, she said, "Then who is this gentleman?" I smiled broadly. "That gentleman," I proudly answered, "is Prince Alexander of Teck, the brother of the future Queen of England."
"Holy Mother," exclaimed Mrs. O'Callagan, " why didn't you tell me that yesterday!" Pointing to pictures of Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales, she added, " My husband and I are very loyal to the Throne. If I had only known who the gentleman was, I would gladly have given up my bed for him. I'll never forgive you for this."
We all laughed heartily at the joke, and rushed to the docks to catch our boat.
I well remember Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who married the daughter of Sir Lionel Rothschild in 1864 or 1865, visiting Kimberley shortly after the end of the South African War. Mr. Gardner Williams, the then General Manager of the De Beers Company, invited us to dine with him at the Kimberley Club. During conversation, Mr. Williams surprised the Baron by telling him that I had been present at his wedding.
The Baron looked at me in astonishment. " You must have been very young," he observed. "Yes, I was," said I, "in my thirteenth year."
I then recalled the ceremony to him. There was a full choral service, I said, and I was one of the selected choir boys from the Great Portland Street Synagogue. Our master was Mr. Mom-brach, then a celebrated choir conductor. Even to-day I have a vivid recollection of the service, conducted according to strict religious rites. The bride and bridegroom stood under the canopy, together with their parents, while the Chief Rabbi officiated. The choir and harmonium were located on a railed platform in the large ballroom of Sir Lionel's town residence in Piccadilly.
The room was crowded with guests, and among those present was the cream of English society, statesmen and Cabinet Ministers, all anxious to witness an orthodox Jewish marriage. I well remember seeing Disraeli and Gladstone among the brilliant company. It was a remarkable gathering, and was easily the outstanding social event of that particular season.
Baron de Rothschild marvelled at my wonderful memory, and was surprised to know that the event had been so indelibly impressed on my mind. I felt I had known him intimately all my life.
In 1906 the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Princess Patricia visited South Africa on a tour to the battlefields. The Royal visitors were handed over to my charge in Griqualand West territory, and it was at Paardeberg that I welcomed them as the guests of De Beers Company. I escorted them to the Belgrave Hotel, where they were in residence for some days. The De Beers Company was most anxious to make their apartments as comfortable as possible, and placed the entire hotel at the disposal of the distinguished party, which numbered seven in all.
In an effort to complete the decorative scheme, I consented to many appointments being transferred from my own home, and among these were some German down pillows, which were despatched to the hotel with instructions that they should be placed on the Duchess's bed.
Subsequently I was invited to dine with the Royal party, and it fell to my lot to escort the Duchess to the table. During the course of conversation my guests commented eulogistically on the comfort which had been provided for them. The Duchess was loud in her praise of the cooking, and said the establishment generally reminded her of an old country mansion tucked away somewhere in a quiet part of good old England. " Even the pillows," she added with a nod of appreciation, "have apparently been specially ordered, and they remind me of my girlhood days in Germany."
As we approached Magersfontein a day later, we were surprised to find that a gathering of some 200 or 300 people had assembled to pay homage to the Royal tourists.
" Who are these people ?" inquired the Duke of Connaught, seemingly surprised at the reception. "They are the farmers from the district," I answered, " and they have come very long distances to pay their respects to your Royal Highness."
The Duke, appreciating the situation, immediately dismounted from the motor car, and, proceeding to the right of the line which had been drawn up, he conversed affably with many members of the crowd, and thanked them sincerely for having travelled so far to greet him. Though surprised at the reception, the Duke was in a most gracious mood.
In the year 1908 two miners employed by De Beers Company voyaged on three months' leave to visit relatives and friends in Australia. They were chums, and arranged to travel together throughout the entire trip. They embarked at Cape Town. Franklin (I forget the name of the other man), took his gun with him hoping to get some sport, and to avoid the payment of £1 duty on his return, he registered the rifle with the Customs at Cape Town.
After spending some five or six weeks in Australia, it was time to leave, so they embarked on the ill-fated ship, the Waratah, which put into Durban for a few days before proceeding to the Cape.
Franklin suggested to his pal that they should both return to Kimberley via Johannesburg, which would enable them to spend a week in the Golden City among many old friends. This would have obviated the sea trip from Durban to Cape Town, and enabled both men to resume work just before the expiration of their leave.
Tom (let us assume that this was his name) declined the suggestion on the grounds that he could not afford the extra expense; so Franklin went alone. Before he left he handed his gun to Tom, together with the Customs form for clearance at Cape Town. Franklin travelled to Johannesburg by train, but Tom went down in the Waratah, which was lost with all souls aboard.
When Franklin became aware of the terrible disaster that had overtaken the Waratah, he was overheard to remark, "Just my bally luck. Now I've lost my blinking gun!"
It was during my stay at the Carlton Hotel, Pall Mall, London, in 1911, that I almost perished in a sensational fire which unexpectedly broke out in that establishment. How I escaped alive is to this day a miracle to me, but Providence and a fireman were kind enough to help me extricate myself from a perilous position and to dodge the inferno of flame which did an enormous amount of damage to this well-known hotel.
I arrived at the hotel at 5.30 p.m., on August nth of that year, and immediately went up to my bedroom on the fifth floor to settle down to some correspondence. It being an exceptionally hot day, I divested myself of my coat, waistcoat and boots, and, making myself perfectly comfortable, I began to write some private letters. There were two doors to my bedroom—the one an ordinary door, and the other padded so that no noise could reach the room. I had left both doors slightly ajar to allow a light breeze to pass through. After writing for a while, I rang the bell for the waiter and ordered a lemon squash. He brought me the drink, but unfortunately he closed both doors when he departed. This unforeseen happening was nearly responsible for my death, for if he had left the doors open, as he had found them, I would have seen the smoke at the outset of the fire, and would have had ample time to make my way to the fire escape.
I was about half way through a letter I was writing to Sir Julius Wernher when I heard the breaking of glass in the corridor. Thinking that some waiter had carelessly dropped a tray of glasses, I took no notice of the incident and continued writing, unaware of the serious state of affairs which suddenly overwhelmed me. Before concluding my letter I, perchance, glanced up to the roof, when I noticed several members of the hotel staff making their way hurriedly in the direction of His Majesty's Theatre. My first thoughts were that some unusual happening had taken place in the Haymarket, and, being curious, I opened both doors with the intention of learning of the occurrence. To my great consternation on opening the second door I discovered the corridor in flames. It resembled a red-hot furnace, with tongues of fire leaping towards my room. I was trapped in the burning building!
The hotel's permanent fire escape was not more than thirty yards distant, but to attempt to reach it was certain death. What was I to do? I was in a terrible predicament, and felt that my end had come. It was a thrilling moment, when all the courage and resource at one's command was necessary to extricate one's self from a perilous and impossible position. I closed both doors unhesitatingly and then tried the communicating doors, but all were locked. Occupying an inside bedroom I was in a dead-end of the building. Had they been facing the main thoroughfare, I could have reached safety quite easily down an ordinary fire escape. It was not long before a big contingent of engines and firemen, with all the necessary appliances for rescue work, arrived on the scene, which from the outside must have been awe-inspiring.
I felt it would not be very long now before the two doors of my bedroom would be destroyed. I immediately looked round for a means of escape. It was impossible to bring the fire escape through the hotel, and that was the only way of reaching the bedrooms overlooking the Palm Court. As I had anticipated, the doors soon commenced to crackle, and now I was completely trapped in this furnace of destruction. Luckily, I had a bathroom attached to my bedroom, and as the flames entered my apartment I was forced to seek refuge in this only remaining spot, so far untouched. Here I found two big bath towels. I turned on the water in the bath, soaked the two towels, and threw them alternatively over the communicating door.
This idea served to keep the fire away for about fifteen minutes, but soon the heat grew so terrific in the bedroom that in a short time the towels became useless. I then spotted a little cement ledge about three inches wide so squeezing myself through the small window of the bathroom I steadied myself with my hand on a drain pipe. By this time the courtyard had become full of smoke, and molten lead was falling in all directions. I saw death staring me in the face, and the thought flashed across my mind, "What harm have I ever done anybody that I should meet this terrible fate."
By now the firemen had gained access to the hotel and were working on top of the Palm Court. In the meantime they had rescued a number of people. I had been in my precarious position for about twenty minutes when I heard the smashing of glass, an ominous sign, which prompted me to exclaim aloud "My God, the whole hotel is now on fire!" All means of escape appeared to me to be shut off; I was being badly burnt, but despite all these adverse circumstances I fully made up my mind that I was not going to be incinerated. I did not fancy the idea of dropping fifty feet before reaching the glass roof of the Palm Court, which would have meant certain death.
Just as I had given up all hope of ever being saved, I heard a voice exclaim, "I will try it on my own." Shortly afterwards there came the query "Are you there?" I quickly answered "Yes." "Can you help yourself?" queried the approaching fireman. "I will try," I replied. Then up came a little hooked ladder which the fireman had hoisted from the window-sill of the fourth floor. There was a little iron rail outside the window, and the ladder, barely ten or twelve feet long, secured a safe fastening on to this. How I got on to this ladder with my left hand burned to the bone is a miracle to me till this very day. But risks are taken when one is in a tight corner, and this, I felt, was my only chance. I clutched grimly to the ladder with one of my hands disabled. Had I overbalanced I would have been killed. On the other hand, had I remained where I was I would have been roasted alive. It was the choice of two evils, so I took what I thought was the only opportunity open to me. I was more dead than alive when I got on to the ladder which, be it here said, had been placed in a perpendicular position against the wall. Unaided, I got down to the window-sill on the fourth floor, and now, for the first time, I made certain that my would-be rescuer was a fireman. He said to me, "Are you badly hurt?" I replied, "Yes, I am a bit burnt." He then said to me, " Do you think you can hang on here a little?" to which I said I would try.
By pushing the ladder up slightly he unhooked it from its previous fastening, got it down to wherd he was, and then secured a grip on the window on the fourth floor. "I will go down first," he said to me. "Don't you come down till I say 'all right,' because if our combined weight is placed on this ladder, we might go to hell together." He slid down like a cat, and I afterwards climbed down the ladder to the window-sill on the third floor. When I joined him on this lower storey he asked me whether I knew the hotel well, and when I said that I did, he informed me that the fire was raging mostly on the fourth and fifth floors. I eventually reached the basement by means of an ordinary staircase to find the hotel staff very excited, some of whom had actually lost their heads.
Safe at last! But what a sorry picture I presented among the throng, dressed simply in trousers, shirt and a pair of slippers. My hair was burnt off my head, my eyebrows and moustache were singed, my face was blistered and my left hand was in a terrible state. A hotel flunkey came to me and said, "Can I do anything for you, Colonel?" How he knew my name I did not know at the time, but I afterwards learned that he was an ex-member of the Bechuanaland-Border Police, and that he had served under me in some campaign. I said to him "Take me to a doctor at once," as I was then afraid of blood poisoning. When I was escorted out of the hotel I was faced by an enormous crowd of sightseers, who had been reinforced by a number of shop assistants after the closing of the big stores.
I was in anything but a presentable condition, and a policeman came up to clear a way for me through the crowd. I had not gone far when I heard one good-looking girl shout to another, "Oh, May! Look at this poor old man." I could fully appreciate the remark, as I must have looked more like a chimney-sweep than a knight. Turning their way, I exclaimed, "Never mind the poor old man, there is life in the old dog yet!" I was taken to a doctor, but unfortunately he was not in at the time. I was invited by the housemaid to partake of a little brandy in the surgery, and my police escort then suggested a visit to the Charing Cross Hospital a few hundred yards away. A taxi-cab was hurriedly summoned, and I was driven to the institution. On entering I noticed an injured fireman lying on a couch.
I was grateful to the policeman for his assistance, and, finding some silver in my pocket, I offered him half-a-crown. He refused to accept it, saying, "I don't mean to say that a policeman does not take tips, but on an occasion like this I could not do it."
At the hospital they treated my hand with some antiseptic lotion, and they bandaged my head. They offered me a bed, but I did not like the idea, and was anxious to get away. It so happened that at the time—it was in the middle of August —all my friends were out of London, and for the time being I felt that I was stranded socially. I decided not to remain in hospital, so I instructed my flunkey to take me round to the Post Office opposite the Charing Cross Railway Station, and to telephone to Mr. J. B. Joel at Childwickbury to inform him of what had happened, without wishing to alarm him. The fire had broken out on a Wednesday night, but previous to that I had arranged to spend the week-end with him. My flunkey saw the postmaster, who was very obliging, but unfortunately he could not get through the necessary message because the telephone wires had been dislocated as a result of the fire. However, when the official realised the exact state of affairs, he agreed to do his best to get the message through by means of another line. When the news reached him, Mr. Joel was very perturbed, and immediately asked whether I was very badly injured. The reply was "Not very much."
It was now 8.30 in the evening, and it was becoming very cold. Meanwhile I was resting in the taxi-cab in my shirt sleeves. My flunkey purchased a cap for me in the Strand, and the taxi-man very thoughtfully lent me his coat, but of course I could not put my arm into the sleeve. I explained to him the route I wished to take, but in spite of this we lost our way. It was rather annoying, but I was not in a fit state of mind to argue. My flunkey stuck to me like a leech the whole time, and was most assiduous in looking after my physical welfare. It was an easy drive of an hour to St. Albans, but because we lost our way it took us two and a half hours to get there. At 11.30 we arrived at our destination, and when the motor driver blew the horn to signalise our arrival, Mr. Joel immediately rushed out of the house to meet me. "Is that you, Dave?" he asked. "Are you hurt?" "Just a little," I replied.
There was a house party proceeding merrily at the time, and the entrance hall was a blaze of light. I was helped in, and was immediately assisted to a couch feeling very queer. I must have presented rather a weird picture, because the guests gathered round me and visibly changed colour as they beheld my appearance. Mr. Joel himself seemed thunderstruck when he saw me, and shouted to the butler to bring me a long glass of champagne. I drank it greedily, and then said, "Jack, I would like to see a doctor, as I fear blood poisoning may set in." He answered, "I have telephoned for a doctor already." The doctor had to come a distance of eleven miles, and on his arrival I was put to bed. Mrs. Jack Joel, who had done a lot of nursing, attended to me with all the skill of a trained nurse. The doctor remained with me for over an hour, and Mrs. Joel sat up with me that night in view of the fact that I was a little delirious. She looked after me throughout my illness with a devotion and care that were wonderful; indeed, she was so good to me that I will never be able to repay her for her great kindness. Had I been her own father, she could not have been more attentive to my welfare and creature comforts. She provided the best nourishment and delicacies she could procure, and throughout she displayed a monument of patience for which I have always felt grateful. It took several weeks to nurse me back to convalescence, and only when I was completely restored to health did I fully realise what a miraculous escape I had had.
My next thoughts turned to the bravery of the fireman, whom I was anxious to reward for having come to my assistance. As soon as I was able to get about I made my way to the head station of the Fire Brigade at Southwark, and interviewed the chief officer. I expressed an anxious desire to reward the fireman who had risked his life to save mine. Then, for the first time, I learned there were two firemen. The one had been injured in endeavouring to reach me. He had been burnt on the window ledge of the second floor, and had had to be carried to the Charing Cross Hospital. He was the man I had seen as I entered the institution. "The men have only done their duty, and they are not allowed to take any reward," said the chief officer to me. "Monetary recognition is against the rules of the County Council." He promised, however, to speak to the chairman of the County Council Fire Brigade, with the ultimate result that I was allowed to present each of the two men with a watch, suitably inscribed.
To give some idea of the critical position I was in during the burning of the hotel, the fireman with the hooked ladder, whose name was Blampied, was the recipient of the fireman's V.C. for that year, as well as the King's medal—due recognition for having saved my life. I returned shortly afterwards to South Africa. Subsequently, I endeavoured to trace the whereabouts of the second fireman, whose name was Spence, but ascertained that he had left the brigade and had gone to Canada. He must have joined some Canadian regiment, and was afterwards apparently killed in the Great War.
Before concluding this exciting chapter, I should mention that I was informed after the fire that everything in my room had been reduced to cinders. My medals and decorations were lost in the outbreak, and even my beautiful wardrobe, which I had only just replenished prior to returning, disappeared in the conflagration. Needless to say, ten five pound, crispy Bank of England notes did not escape the destruction; I had nothing left. All that was recognisable in my bedroom after the flames had wrought their havoc were the castors of the bedstead.
Thus ended one of the most sensational incidents of my career. I had faced many an ordeal with powder and shot, but this was an experience of a lifetime—a nightmare which it is difficult to erase from my memory.
The Oriental Company, a portion of the De Beers Mine, was managed by a Mr. Heath, a man who claimed some experience of gold mining in New Zealand. The underground system was not at that time in operation; it was then nearly all open workings. Heath was in receipt of a salary of £125 a month, and was comfortably settled with his good wife and two pretty daughters. " Barney " Barnato held a very high opinion of Heath, who was a hard-working and conscientious official, and what was equally important, a very successful man —a great factor in securing the confidence and winning the good opinion of an employer. So much as a prelude to after events.
During the year 1886 the Witwatersrand gold reefs were discovered. The formation of the ground was distinctly different from anything previously found. Many of the "knowing ones," including experienced mining engineers, condemned the Rand as a commercial proposition. Mine gold is always contained in quartz reef, they said, and not in a peculiar conglomerate called '' banket," such as exists in the Transvaal. Rumours and reports concerning the richness and possibilities of the Rand reefs came trickling to Kimberley. I became interested in the prospects, and decided to proceed to Johannesburg to secure first-hand information. I immediately got into communication with a relative of mine who happened to be on the gold fields, and he informed me that he had several good things under offer, including some of the richest properties, though he was short of cash to buy even the cheapest. Like the majority of speculators, all he could afford was to be on the look-out for bargains.
I talked the matter over with Barney Barnato and Woolf Joel, and they agreed to provide the capital if they were satisfied with the prospects. They agreed to my sharing the speculation. At that time I had very little money to spare, and I was glad of their promise of financial support. I lost no time in booking a seat in Gibson's Coach, and after three days and nights of hard travelling I arrived at what is now known as Johannesburg. I was met by a relative who escorted me to a tin shanty that was styled a boarding-house, and here a bed was made up for me on a bagatelle table. An old dilapidated farm house marked almost the only place of residence on the fields, but numerous wagons and tents made up for the shortage. Money was scarce, and property cheap. Here, in a dreary stretch of land, immense fortunes lay at one's feet. But who could ever dream of such romance?
With no telegraph lines and no post office everything was in a most primitive state. My relative acted as my guide, and we were soon inspecting the different properties he had under offer. We pounded and panned the gold-bearing banket, and some exhibited fair, some good, and others marvellously rich indications. As we did at least 100 pannings, I gained a fair idea of the yield of gold per ton of reef. My observations greatly impressed me, and I had visions of a great fortune looming on the horizon.
After a tour of inspection which took me two weeks, I at length decided which of the properties it was advisable to buy. I thereupon secured a back seat on a post cart bound for Pretoria, about thirty-six miles away, with the intention of telegraphing my opinions to Messrs. Barnato Brothers (the partners then being Barney and Henry Barnato and Woolf Joel). En route we encountered a terrible storm, and the rain came down in torrents. The mules would not face the wind and rain, and as they turned round to dodge the fury of the weather, they exposed me to the full force of the deluge in my uncomfortable seat on the mail bags. In a few seconds I was wet through, though my ardour for the new venture was by no means damped. I was young and hardy, with the vista of immense riches dangling before me.
Well, like all storms, this one abated, and after a lapse of about half an hour we continued our journey. On arrival at Pretoria I did not wait to change my dripping garments, but hurried to the Post Office to send a long and glowing telegram to Kimberley. I waited patiently for a reply, which came during the evening. It was to the effect that the Barnato Brothers were sending Messrs. Heath and Marshall to examine and report on the properties under offer. Both these gentle-ment [sic], who had had experience in gold mining in New Zealand, duly arrived. They saw several properties, examined the cuttings in the reefs, and made many pannings.
When they had completed the work of inspection, they informed me that they could find more gold on the sea shores of New Zealand than in the present locality. My disappointment was intense, and all my hopes were for the moment blighted. I certainly did not agree with their verdict, but I knew that the Barnatos would be influenced more by their judgment than by mine. I told them in no uncertain voice that they were mistaken, and in my opinion this was the richest gold field yet discovered. But I could not persuade them to accept my views, and they stuck firmly to their opinions. I said, "Perhaps you will get a better idea to-morrow when I show you the best and richest property on which we have an option."
On the morrow we hired a cart and horses, and reached the farm on which the reef had been cut in several parts. They dug out many' pieces of banket, treated it with pestle and mortar, and also did some panning. Suddenly a streak of gold showed all round the pan. With beaming eyes, I turned to Heath and said, "Well, what do you think of this?" He replied, "There's enough gold here to salt the other claims." My disappointment can better be imagined than described. I felt like a gambler at a game of poker holding four aces to meet an opponent with a royal flush.
Heath and Marshall returned to Kimberley, and reported adversely to the firm on the prospects of payable gold on the Rand. Naturally my principals decided to allow the matter to drop. A year or two afterwards, however, they bought several properties much poorer than those I had originally selected, and paid very much more for them. The Oriental Company of De Beers Mine was merged when the big amalgamation of diamond companies took place. Heath's services were no longer required. He was granted a substantial bonus and left Kimberley. When I next heard of him he was managing a big gold mining company on the Rand. What an irony of fate! Here was a man who had strongly condemned these gold fields root and branch, and now he was extracting gold for a company which was paying regular dividends. I wonder whether in those later years his mind ever reverted to the time when I showed him much richer ground than he was working, and which he had pronounced to be unpayable?
I was sitting in my office one day during 1915 when one of my clerks entered and told me that somebody wished to see me. I walked into the outer office, and was there confronted by a man who appeared to be trying to put on a good appearance. His clothes were well worn, but his shabby appearance was relieved by a clean soft shirt and collar, though, generally speaking, he looked very dejected and careworn. He could see that I did not recognise him.
"It is not surprising that you have forgotten me," he began, "for we have not seen each other for over twenty-five years. Don't you remember me? I was once manager of the Oriental Company for Mr. Barnato. My name is Heath."
Without thinking, I looked him straight in the face, and said heatedly, "Good Heavens! You are the man who told me thirty years ago that you could find more gold on the sea shores of New Zealand than on the Rand." These words had slipped out in a flash, but I would have given anything could I have withdrawn them. Here was a man who was " down and out," and, thoughtlessly and in a moment of uncontrollable rebuke, I had hurt his feelings—the last thing I had wished to do. I told him I thought he was still managing a big gold mining company on the Rand.
"So I was until six or seven years back," he replied, "when I had to give-it up. You must understand that I am not a fully qualified mining engineer. I was able to manage the Oriental quite comfortably because it was a case of all open mining, but gold mining is much more difficult, with its different levels, stopes, passes and offsets. I stuck it for several years, but at last it got beyond me. I felt if I remained much longer there would be a crash, with the loss of many lives. So in fairness to the men who worked under me, I handed in my resignation. I then sent my family to England, and proceeded to the river diggings to try my luck on the alluvial fields. Here I lost everything after years of hard work. Can't you get me a job in De Beers Company ? I am willing to do anything, and would gladly accept a billet as overseer so as to make a bare living in order to send a few pounds to my family overseas, to whom I have not been able to forward a farthing for nearly two years. What will become of them goodness only knows!"
I sympathised sincerely with the poor fellow, and admired his conduct very much for having resigned a lucrative position out of sheer regard for his fellow men. But he was at least sixty years old, and the maximum age for taking on new men in De Beers Company was forty.
"Heath," I said, "I am indeed sorry that I cannot get you a job in De Beers. You are too old by twenty years. The company does not take men on who are over forty, but if £100 will help you in any way you are quite welcome to it." His eyes beamed. "It will be a Godsend," he remarked. I wrote out the cheque, and handed it to him. He told me he would go to the bank, send £50 to his wife, and with the balance he would again try his luck on the river diggings. When bidding me good-bye he gave me a hearty grip of the hand, but I have not seen or heard of him since.
Card playing with strangers, especially at sea, is a practice to be strongly deprecated. In October, 1912, I was returning to South Africa in the Balmoral Castle, and among the passengers were Lord Gladstone (then Governor-General of South Africa) and his good wife.
Two days after sailing from Southampton, a strange passenger with a strong American accent accosted me as I was pacing the deck. " Say, guy," he blurted, "Sunday is a very dull day on your English ships. What about a small game of Bridge?" I declined politely, and with many thanks, for perfect strangers are not the most desirable people with whom to play cards on a voyage or at any time.
This enterprising stranger, however, was not long in mustering his "school," and with one gentleman already waiting in the smoking room, he inveigled two others into playing what appeared to be a harmless game.
I was an interested onlooker for a spell, but it did not take me very long to form the conclusion that my American acquaintance, and the man who had been waiting patiently in the smoking room, were confederates in the card sharping business. A passenger from Natal, who professed to be a "knowing" one and a hardened traveller, lost £70, but a good-looking man, young and of military appearance, got up with £3 or £4 to the good.
The following afternoon this young man, who I imagined was proceeding to Cape Town to rejoin his regiment, was playing a deck game in company with some lady passengers. He was wearing a pair of white flannel trousers, and I rather admired his appearance and general manner. At the end of the game I approached him diffidently, feeling it my duty to warn him against the machinations of these card sharpers. How grateful would I have been if under similar circumstances some good counsellor would have warned my sons. "Excuse me," I said cautiously, "but I noticed you playing cards with two Americans last night. Take my advice, and do not play with them again. I feel sure they are not honest players." "Surely that cannot be the case," he answered in a voice brimful of apprehension. "I have won a few pounds, but I thank you all the same for your timely warning. I have promised to play with them again tonight, but I will stop when I have lost what I have won." I then remarked if I could have my own way I would throw those two rascals overboard.
I left this young man with a feeling of confidence that what I had told him would put him on his guard, and might possibly be the means of preventing his falling into the clutches of these two suspicious characters, who, I was told, were leaving the ship the next morning.
I mentioned these "sharpers" to my bedroom steward, and asked him to issue a warning to some of the passengers. On the Tuesday morning at sunrise we anchored at Funchal. When the steward brought me my morning coffee, I inquired whether the two men had gone ashore. "Oh, yes," he said, "four people left the ship soon after we anchored." " Four of them!" I exclaimed; "I thought there were only two." "No, sir," he assured me, "there were four of them. One was a good-looking young woman, but she was seasick for three days, and therefore could not act as a 'decoy duck.'" On further inquiry I learned that two of them who had left the ship were stout fellows, while the third was that good-looking chap with a slight moustache and white flannel trousers. And then, for the first time, I realised that I had warned a confederate against his fellow card sharpers.
An examination of their cabins later revealed marked cards which corresponded with some well-known systems described in books. The story travelled right through the ship, and I was chaffed unmercifully for the error I had made. "How nice of you to take such a fatherly interest in such a 'charming young gentleman'," said one of my fellow travellers. "What a fine judge of character you must be," said another.
But the incident gave us all something to talk about during the remainder of the voyage, and I at least had the satisfaction of knowing that I had saved some of the gullible ones from falling victims to the wiles of a clever band of miscreants.
The most terrible catastrophe that has ever overtaken Kimberley was the influenza epidemic of 1918, which reached its apex between September 26 and November 4 of that year. These were indeed dark days for the town. Well-known men and women—robust in health and in the noonday of their lives—were attacked by the dread disease, which wreaked its fury on the flower of the town's population.
Public buildings, schools and other institutions were closed down completely, and Kimberley, both literally and figuratively, was transformed into a " City of the Dead." Unhappily the nature of the situation with which the public was so suddenly confronted made it unavoidable that a large number of the population should expose themselves to the risk of infection, owing to the impossibility of otherwise rendering help to, and securing the necessary treatment for, the many cases in which a considerable part, if not the whole, of the household concerned had been stricken down.
During the continuance of this unparalleled crisis, and long after the immediate contingencies created by the epidemic had been surmounted, there was urgent need for special financial provision to meet the resultant cases of distress. Happily, all who could afford it responded nobly to the call for help. A brighter feeling, however, prevailed on October 10, 1918, when it became known that the Government was reinforcing the medical and nursing personnel for fighting the epidemic. This was invaluable aid at a stage when all existing local resources had been strained to the utmost limits.
So heavy was the mortality that at all times of the day in different parts of the town funeral processions were to be seen wending their winding way to the nearest cemetery. Many burials took place simultaneously, and it was a matter of common occurrence for several coffins to be lowered in quick succession into a hastily prepared vault.
To cope with this depressing situation, a special Burial Committee for Europeans was formed, and the following notice was prominently displayed daily in the local Press:
"To facilitate arrangements, and to avoid further distress, a small Committee has been formed to assist the Undertakers.
The following instructions should be followed: Let relatives first apply to the Undertakers. If they fail, then they should apply to the City Hall.
(1) The supply of coffins is in the hands of some firms who have promised the Mayor to do their best. Standardised coffins; no fittings beyond the plainest. Costs to be incurred by relatives. Permit from City Hall.
(2) Conveyance from carpenters to deceased's residence and to cemetery. Major Doyle is undertaking this section.
(3) Registration and leave to inter. Relatives must undertake this if able to do so. If not, send message to City Hall.
(4) Arrangements might be made for all Roman Catholic and Wesleyan funerals to be held at 9 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. All Church of England and Dutch Reformed Church at 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. All Presbyterians and Baptists at 11 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. Major Doyle could then convey several coffins at the same time. See your respective Ministers about the possibility of arranging the time of interment."
Though the plague visitation was common throughout the Union, Kimberley bore the brunt of the attack. The doctors described the outbreak as pneumonic plague, but from descriptions of the Great Plague in London in the seventeenth century, and having seen the condition of many local sufferers it appeared to my lay mind that the scourge was identical.
Organisation to cope with the emergency of the situation was put into effect immediately, and Mr. Alpheus F. Williams (General Manager of the De Beers Company) undertook the onerous duties of superintending all arrangements—a herculean task which he discharged with great credit to himself and entire satisfaction to the community.
In a very short space of time, the Kimberley Hospital was crowded to overflowing. As an emergency measure, the Belgrave Hotel was converted into a nursing home, and despite the hurried nature of the preparation, the organisation, even during the first two or three days, left nothing to be desired. Unfortunately, the chef himself was earlv stricken down, and died. This meant that no one remained to cook either for the patients or nurses. Hearing of the plight, I sent my housekeeper, Miss Ingham, hastily to the scene, and this enabled the carrying on of " business as usual."
The nurses were mostly volunteers, a band of young girls who had left comfortable homes to attend to the sick and dying. Many of them were quite inexperienced, and possibly had not seen a case of sickness in their lives. They battled on with great perseverance, and as a result of tender devotion to duty several of them contracted the disease and died. But as their ranks became decimated, there were further reinforcements of heroines to fill their places.
During these dark days much difficulty was experienced in obtaining an adequate supply of milk from the districts around Kimberley, owing to the drivers also being down with 'flu. There were, however, many European volunteers to take their places on the carts, and so the town was favoured with a limited supply of milk which it otherwise would not have obtained.
In all the stress of a desperate situation, the Kimberley Club, with Mr. Harper (now of Polley's Hotel, Bloemfontein) as its manager, proved a great distributor of nourishment, the expenses for which were proportionately borne by the different members. Mr. Colin W. Lawrence, then Acting-Mayor, together with his good wife, rendered invaluable service at the City Hall, where a soup kitchen was started for the benefit of the needy. Even here scenes of unusual distress were witnessed. Some of the callers for soup were already in the grip of the influenza, and it was most dramatic to see one or two of them obtain their rations and then drop down dead but a few yards away.
The real pressure lasted some three weeks, and during this period it was impossible to dig the graves fast enough. The grave-diggers themselves were stricken down, and the De Beers miners were compelled to dig pits to cope with the burials. Even the personnel of the tramway service was depleted, and from over 100 men employed in the tramway service only one solitary individual was left to fill the role of driver. This was a great handicap, as a special service of trams was necessary if only to allow people to visit their sick friends and obtain medicine when the chemists' shops were open. The De Beers Company, however, managed to run one tram, though through the absence of conductors people were allowed to travel free.
The total population of the urban areas (Kimberley and Beaconsfield) at the outbreak of the epidemic was 17,497 Europeans, 8,754 coloured people and 2,806 natives (exclusive of Compounds), making a total of 29,048. The number of persons affected was 19,074, being 10,844 Europeans, 6,841 coloured and 1,749 natives. These figures go to show that 65-66 per cent, of the total population were affected, while the Europeans suffered to the extent of 61 '98 per cent., coloured 74-11 per cent., and natives 62-33 Per cent. The population of Kimberley (including locations, Compounds, etc.) at the outbreak of the 'flu amounted to 50,666 persons, there being 17,529 Europeans, 8,745 coloureds and 24,392 natives. Among these occurred the following deaths:
Thus there was a grand total of 4,483 deaths. These figures show that the death-rate of the whole population was 8.85 per cent., made up as follows.
Europeans 3.10 per cent.
Coloureds 6.48 per cent.
Natives 13.83 per cent.
The strongest went to the wall. A young man, named Pretorius, robust and athletic-looking, who was a De Beers Company farm hand, was among the victims. During the shooting season it was customary for Pretorius to be stationed at one of the company's shooting boxes, and an official more anxious to please those sportsmen who went in search of game I have never met. Often did I offer Pretorius ten shillings per head for every hartebeeste he brought back that had been wounded by me, and never once did he fail to locate it and bring it to camp. During the epidemic Pretorius volunteered to bring Kimberley some of its milk supply, but, like so many others, he contracted the disease, and though he had strength and youth on his side, he failed to battle through.
Colonel Orenstein (Director of Medical Services for the Union) and at one time associated with the late Colonel Gorgas, of Panama Canal fame, visited the town on several occasions during the outbreak, and we were fortunate in having the benefit of his unusual experience and sound advice. He was greatly impressed with the organisation in operation for the prevention of the spreading of the disease, and before leaving Kimberley on October 17, 1918, he addressed the following letter through the medium of the Press to those medical officers, nurses and others who had rendered such yeoman services to the Board of Health organisation at such a critical period:
"My duties make it imperative for me to leave for Pretoria this afternoon. Before leaving I desire to put on record my admiration of the wonderful organisation which Kimberley has built up to cope with the unprecedented outbreak of disease. The spirit of self-abnegation and generosity exhibited by your citizens is a memory I shall always carry with me as one of the brightest in my life. Where so many have demonstrated how near is man to God, it would be invidious to pick out anyone for special praise. I wish to thank you one and all for the recognition you have paid to me personally for whatever little I was able to do. The clouds have now broken. May they soon pass from over your heads."
Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) found the dawn of a brighter to-morrow. About mid-day De Beers hooters were blown. What was the significance of these long-drawn blasts? People who were convalescing rushed from their homes to hear the latest news. On the Market Square the good tidings were broadcast that peace had been declared, and that hostilities had ceased among the nations of the world. A finer tonic could not have been dispensed by any chemist. The stimulating news brought about a different atmosphere; invalids soon became healthy people, and it was not long before those dark and fateful epidemic days were relegated to oblivion.
But I, for my part, would preferably lead a battalion of soldiers across a cannon-swept battlefield than have to pass through another such period of misery. Ten sleepless nights during a period of so much strain is a lifetime of agony from which the bravest would shrink.
Early in 1919, I voyaged to England in the Saxon. In addition to a full complement of passengers, 1,200 white troops embarked at Cape Town. They were composed of men from almost every station in life—mechanics, miners, clerks, traders and others who had seen service in India, German East and on other battle fronts.
The troops were allocated the starboard side of the ship, and the passengers the port side. Every morning at four bells (6 o'clock) about twelve Public School and University lads were put through a course of physical instruction under a sergeant of the Regular Army, with a few "tommies" as interested spectators.
One morning I overheard the following conversation between two soldiers just underneath my cabin window on the starboard side:
First Tommy: I say, Fred, how do you account for the sergeant saying "as you were" to these boys, but when he talks to the likes of us he says "as you was."
Second Tommy: You blinking ignoramus. Don't you know "as you were" is military, and "as you was" is grammar.
First Tommy (perfectly satisfied): Oh! I see now?
Like many other towns, Kimberley boasts of an institution known as Nazareth House, the management of which is under the able control of a noble band of Catholic nuns. The good Sisters devote their lives to the welfare of those unfortunates, both old and young, who have not been favoured with some of life's beneficent smiles. This establishment depends on voluntary contributions, which the hard-working nuns collect during the year. From day to day, week to week, and month to month, they trudge round the town, in heat or in storm, in search of the wherewithal to fulfil their Godly mission of bringing succour to the poor and homeless. They are even glad of the crumbs from the rich man's table, whether it be at hotel or private house, for these, together with fresh food purchased daily, are transformed into palatable dishes.
These women are veritable angels on earth, living only for the good they can do for the crippled, destitute and helpless. Fervently religious, one cannot but help admiring their modesty. In a humble way I have always endeavoured to help them on in their worthy labours, and every Christmas I am favoured with a charming letter from the Mother Superior expressing gratitude, and blessing me for my small measure of aid.
Many years ago I was the recipient of an exceptionally flattering note. It ended:
Yours in 'J.C,'
I was so charmed with its simple wording of appreciation, that I felt myself compelled to respond, so I concluded my letter:
Yours in 'A. I. and J',
A few days later a priest I knew very well, named Father Ogle, who took a keen interest in the Kimberley regiment, and who was a frequent and welcome visitor to the Officers' Mess, called to see me at the Drill Hall after a Commanding Officer's parade (at the time I was O.C.). He approached me diffidently with a letter in his hand—a letter which I immediately recognised as being the one I had written to the Sister Superior.
"You have really puzzled us," he said with a stare. "We do not understand the last part of your letter." "It is very simple," I rejoined. " Sister Panzera, in her letter to me, signed herself, 'Yours in J.C, which I presume means Jesus Christ. The initials before my signature, 'A.I. and J.', mean nothing more than 'Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'."
He laughed heartily, and we had a drink together in the Officers' Mess. Whenever we met, he always reminded me of my little joke.