Outstanding in the history of Barberton was he visit of the President, Paul Kruger, to the new goldfields in 1885. Wilson, the gold commissioner, was a little nervous of the unpredictable reception awaiting “”Oom Paul”” in Barberton, and warned him of possible hostility. But after a church service on the Sunday, the day after his arrival, he received the diggers with their complaints and grievances on the Monday, and completely forestalled them. The canny President, standing on a table, waved his interpreter aside and gave one of his very few speeches in excellent English. The effect was electrifying. The diggers took him to heart, and at his request drew up a formal petition which he promised to present to the Volksraad. They then stood him to typical digger’s champagne lunch, and sent him off chuckling homewards.
Activity on the fields increased daily. Capital and manpower poured into Barberton, and no less than 2.000 different reefs were discovered, named and worked. Most of them were poor, a few were profitable, one at least was sensational, the famous Golden Quarry, discovered by Edwin Bray, one morning in May, 1885. This find, the Sheeba Reef as it was called, became the most famous gold mine in the world. “”Not gold in rocks””, the whisper went around, “”but simply rocks incased in gold!”” The discovery was at once the greatest curse and blessing of Barberton. It turned a gold frenzy into utter mania. The fact that Bray’s Golden Quarry Mine yielded 50.000 ounces of gold from the first 13.000 tons of ore sent shares in the company from 1 Pound to 105 pounds each.
All sorts of racketeers now jumped into picture. Claims were pegged indiscriminately along supposed extensions and deep levels of the Sheba Reef in all directions. Companies were floated with lavish capital. Other minor discoveries were magnified by the general infection into sensations of the hour. New villages and towns sprang up everywhere. In the centre of the numerous companies on Sheba Hill an ex-Durban butcher named Sherwood established a butchery and later the Queen of Sheba Hotel in December 1885. This became the nucleus of Eureka City, a town which, in 1886 had a population of about 650 diggers and three stores, three hotels, a dozen canteens, a chemist’s shop a baker, a race-track, a music hall and some doctors. But it was short-lived, and in due course vanished into the limo of the forgotten. Today it is simply a ruin.
Companies like the Kimberley Sheba and the Great Sheba were floated mainly on the strength of the resemblance of their name to the Sheba Reef. Beautifully printed prospectuses were displayed by these companies, and artistic illustrations showed ocean-going ships sailing up the Kaap River to collect cargoes of gold dug out by smiling workers. The history of most of these companies is still written large in the memories of British Investors, but that is more than can be said for any dividends from them. Fortunes were won and lost – but mostly lost.
The very frenzy of Barberton, it has been said, proved its downfall. It was a town built with the bricks of hope cemented by the mortar of imported capital. When the mortar crumbled the bricks collapsed and the town was ruined. Over-speculation and over-capitalization combined to reach a climax early in 1887, when investors realized they had lost 500.000 Pounds. Another 5.000.000 Pounds was invested in shares whose face value was only 1.800.000 Pounds and whose real value was next to nothing.
There was an immediate slump. People started to pour out as quickly as they had poured in. The barmaids packed their finery and followed the money to the newly-opened Witwatersrand. The streets were emptied,the tinkling pianos silenced.
By the end of 1887 only Sheba, the Oriental and a few minor enterprises continued substantial work,and Barberton existed on their earnings.
The Barberton fields were now eclipsed through the discovery of gold and the meteoric progress of gold mining on the Witwatersrand. As the adventurers departed for pastures new, they left a ghost town, a multitude of freshly-begun workings to scar the hills, and tumble-down shacks and hovels along the creeks and streams, their shutterless windows gazing blankly upon the advancing shrubs and bush.
The state of virtual decline persisted for many years. A few companies and individuals, however, retained their faith and interest in the Barberton fields, among whom were Thomas Andrews, who never lost faith in the potentialities of gold mining in the area, and E.C. Dicey, who by private enterprise kept the Consort Mine going with credit to himself and the district. To the enterprise and courageous efforts of such men must beascribed the revitalised activity which is manifest in Barberton’s mining industry today.
Yet few Barbertonians of today can regret the fact that Johannesburg and not Barberton became the great metropolis of the gold industry in our land. The very charm of modern Barberton, which is continually attracting people to come and settle within its narrow precincts, is its quiet beauty and its perfect combination of peace and prosperity. Spick and span and modern, it has become the centre of a prosperous farming activity, but with its pulse still set to the rhythm of the rusted mills whose clamour seems to haunt the creeks and valleys. What more could one desire?
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