Ernest Galpin

1858 – 1941

Ernest Galpin was born in Grahamstown on 6th December, 1858. His father was Henry Carter Galpin, a civil engineer, who came out to the Cape in 1848 on a recuperative voyage following pneumonia, caught by standing all day in the bogs of Kildare during a railway survey, followed by exposure during shipwreck in the Channel. He liked the Cape where he practiced for a time as an architect and decided to stay. He fell in love with Georgina Maria Luck, daughter of a wealthy Cape Town merchant, and they were married in Stellenbosch against her father’s wishes. He promptly disinherited her.

They moved to Grahamstown where H.C. Galpin followed his boyhood hobby of clock making and jewellery and founded a business as watchmaker and jeweler, which flourished. Here he designed and built the first multiple-storeyed building in the Eastern Cape, a four-storeyed structure above ground with one floor below ground-level, “”The Observatory””. On top of the building her erected a camera obscura and a observatory with a large reflecting telescope with 1000x magnification. He had the family characteristic of requiring only a few hours sleep a night and frequently rose at 2 or 3 a.m. to study the stars.

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Ernest Galpin

Ernest Galpin was the fifth of seven sons born here and one of the earliest scholars at Andrew’s College. He left school at the age of fourteen and took charge of the business owing to his father’s ill health and his elder brother’s absence studying in Europe. On their return he joined the Oriental Banking Corporation in Grahamstown (this was later taken over by the Bank of Africa, then the National Bank, later Barkleys Bank and today First National Bank). After two spells in the Kaffir Wars, he went to Middelburg as accountant in the Bank of Africa. He began a serious study of Botany, in which they had been encouraged as children by their mother, as well as entomology and natural history.

After service with the Bank in Bethulie, Aliwal North, Beaufort West and again as manager in Grahamstown, Ernest Galpin was sent to Johannesburg in 1888 as sub-manager of the Bank of Africa. The rapid growth of the town had created many difficulties: the only accommodation he was able to obtain was a tumble-down wood-and-iron shack next to the Law Courts; the Bank was housed in a large single-roomed wood and iron building, and business had outgrown it and the staff. All available space was taken and the ledgers were stacked on the floor. The staff struggled on from 8.30 a.m. until late at night, frequently passed midnight, to keep pace with the position and usually had to work Sunday mornings as well. He was, however, able to get out on Sunday afternoons and made extensive plant collections from the Parktown and Kensington hills, which were then virgin veld.

Relief came early in 1889 when Galpin had to catch the coach at a moment’s notice to take over the managership of the Bank in Barberton, which had been considered the more promising goldfields. The Bank was on the ground floor of the Lewis and Marks Building, and he was able to purchase a comfortable double rondavel on the lower slope of the Saddleback Mountain overlooking the town.

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Barberton, around 1890 – Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga)

Barberton opened up a new world for him. Ernest Galpin was fascinated with its glorious mountain scenery, the beauty and wealth of its flora and the collector in him rejoiced. It was a new and glorious field for botanical exploration and every spare hour of daylight and every holiday was devoted to the collection and study of its flora. He worked until late at night until every specimen was pressed and dried, written up and recorded and classified.

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Gerbera Galpinii

He roamed far and wide on foot and on horseback searching the countryside, diligently in every direction, making expeditions to the King’s Kraal, Horo Flats and Forest, Kamhlabane Mountains, Pigg’s Peak and Havelock Mines in Swaziland, Kaapsche Hoop and Krokodilpoort. He discoveries were innumerable and with his wonderful collector’s eye very little was missed or overlooked.

Ernest Galpin entered into correspondence with botanists and herbaria in South Africa and Europe, exchanging dried mounted specimens with Dr. Harry Bolus of Kenilworth, the Government Herberia at Cape Town and Durban, Dr. Schonland of the Albany Museum and other botanists. He also sent dries duplicates, as well as living plants and seeds to Kew and to Zrich and some to Berlin. This frequently entailed collecting six or eight specimens and he was at great pains to collect as perfect specimen as possible. He never grudged the extra labours that this incurred.

Although of slight build, he had tremendous endurance and reserves of energy. He was a tireless walker and mountaineer and believed that one should never drink any liquid during a tiring outing as, once started, it was almost impossible to stop. Frequently he would spend all day in the field only having a cup of tea on his return.

His work brought him international recognition. In 1890 Ernest Galpin was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society and in 1935 the University of South Africa conferred a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) degree upon him. Dr. Bolus referred to him as “”The Modern Burchell”” and General Smuts called him “”The Prince of Collectors””.

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Lewis & Marks Building in Barberton, Mpumalanga

His botanical discoveries include half a dozen genera and many hundreds of new species of which some two hundred bear his name including two of Transvaal’s largest trees, Adina galpinii and Acacia galpinii.

Ernest Galpin was responsible for the introduction into cultivation of many indigenous plants. Well-known garden plants bearing his name are Bauhinia galpinii, Cyrthanthus galpinii, Kleinia galpinii, Kniphofia galpinii, Streptocarpus galpinii and Watsonia galpinii. And, a Gerbera species was named after him: Gerbera galpinii.

He presented his herbarium of 16.000 mounted, named and classified sheets to the Government at Pretoria and added another 6.000 odd sheets to it. This formed the nucleus of the great National Herbarium. Other renowned botanists followed his lead and left their collections to the state also.

It was in Barberton that Ernest Galpin met Maria Elizabeth de Jongh, whom he married in 1892. Her mother (neé‚ Countess Mimi von Schonnberg) was a friend of President Kruger. On his return from a visit to Barberton, Galpin told her that he was shocked that there was no school in Barberton, and demanded that she send her daughter, in whose ability he had the greatest confidence, immediately to Barberton to start the first school there. Marie was delighted as her sister and her husband, D.F. Gilfillan, a young lawyer, were living in Barberton. She was an outstanding mountaineer with a love of the veld and a keen eye for new species. This led naturally to her marriage, in Pretoria, to Ernest Galpin, and a life-long partnership of shared botanical expeditions.

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Barberton – Pilgrim Street 1888

They went on an eight months’ tour of Europe before moving off to Queenstown and pastures new. Together they climbed the mountains and explored the flats of Southern and East Africa and combed the country in the interest of botany. In 1910 they did a safari through the wilds of Kenya and Uganda, through elephant, lion and buffalo country, armed with nothing but complete confidence that the animals would do you no harm if you evinced no fear and had no ulterior purpose.

Maria Elizabeth Galpin died in 1933 – some eight years before her husband, Ernest Galpin, who died in 1941.

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