A whole book might be written on the local characters of Barberton, who became well-known, some of them being regarded to-day as famous and even notorious. Men who achieved fame in other spheres, like Abe Bailey, Alfred Beit and Percy Fitzpatrick, began their professional life in early Barberton. Nearly every well-known name associated with South Africa’s early mining history had Barberton as their postal address at some time or another. Of these many famous human characters, only a few can be mentioned in this short survey.
One noted figure was Henry Culverwell, chairman of the Digger’s Committee at Moodies, who according to Sir Henry Graumann, was very fond of hearing his own voice. He owned a mule, which became as famous as its master. It attended all diggers’ meetings, knew all prospecting paths and the bars of the town, and was said to be invulnerable to sickness.. Finally, however, it did become sick, and young Grauman offered Culverwell a fiver for its chances. This was accepted, and to everyone’s surprise the animal recovered, and the speculator became famous as the owner of the coveted mule and the envy of all his friends.
One of the most voluble speakers at Moodies was the well-known character Ikey Sonnenberg, whose name was a household word throughout the Transvaal. He did not mind what he said, how he said it or to whom. On one occasion he told the diggers that he was quite prepared to support both sides in the dispute, because not knowing the minds of the judges he could not guess which side was going to win. He was an inveterate gambler, and the tale is told of how he once settled down to a quite game of cards with a congenial spirit, the stake being a row of cottages. Ikey won.
Percy Fitzpatrick, already mentioned, had a remarkable career. He was the son of Judge Fitzpatrick of Cape Town’s supreme court, and according to some was more Irish than South African. Before coming to Barberton he had been transport riding for some time at Lydenburg. Later he struggled against a period of ill-luck culminating in the loss of all his oxen, and he found himself stuck with his wagons in the Queen’s River, nine miles from Barberton. E was given a job in a Barberton broker’s office at15 a month and a little later was given charge of Lord Randolph Churchill’s transport on the expedition to Mashonaland. Subsequently he obtained a billet in Alfred Beit’s firm in Johannesburg. During the time of his employment in Barberton he wrote a clever and amusing column, “”Chat of the Camp””, in the local “”Barberton Herald””. It was at this time that he began to display the literary talent that was so fully developed in later years in his “”Jock of the Bushveld””
Sir Abe Bailey, one of South Africa’s leading financiers, started as a broker in Barberton. He soon proved himself a very clever business man, with a happy knack of smelling out the “”goods””. He became one of the town’s leading sportsmen. Later he was one of the first to realise that Barberton was on the down-grade, and was smart enough to clear off to the Witwatersrand whilst the going was good. He soon became famous as a financial expert and politician.
Another spectacular figure of early Barberton was Stafford Parker, whose name is well-known in the Transvaal. He had a flamboyant career, and in the very early days of the diamond fields occupied the position of president. At Barberton, where he was market master for a time, he enjoyed making speeches when not engaged in selling vegetables or superintending the accommodation of poultry, but it is said that his cabbages were undoubtedly superior to his speeches.
Among many mining notabilities were French Bob, a fine prospector and honest as the day, whose name was given to a mining locality in the de Kaap district; the celebrated “”Charlie the Reefer””; J.C. Rimer, after whom Rimer’s Creek is named; Aubrey Wools-Sampson the mining engineer, and many others. Sammy Marks, Jim Taylor, Mark Lowinsky and Alfred Beit were early citizens of the mushroom town. Everyone had a nickname, and among the better known were “”Harry the Sailor””, “”Rocky Mountain Thompson””, Charlie the Tinker””, “”Californian Wilson””, “”Yankee Dan””, and hundreds of others.
The Barber brothers have already been mentioned in connection with the founding and naming of Barberton, but the following tribute from I. Mitford Barberton’s “”Barber of the Peak”” deserves a place in this record:
“These hardy pioneers blazed many trails into the wilds. They were brave hunters and friends of all men. They founded Barberton in 1884 and were leading pioneers in Kimberley and Johannesburg. England were not England were her sons other than these…. They were well-liked and held in high esteem by all….Liberal with their money and advice, they were always helping the less fortunate and their characters were not impaired with the taint of gold. They lived for one another, which endured to the end, kept their destinies closely associated, and even in death they were not divided. They were interred in the Eldoret Cemetery in Kenya Colony.”
The place of David Wilson in the history of Barberton has already been indicated, and mention has been made of his successor as gold commissioner, the Dutch Reformed parson Johannes van der Merve. The names of other outstanding figures of the early days are perpetuated in local nomenclature, and we have Bray’s Golden Quarry Mine, Jamestown(after Ingram James), and numerous streets in Barberton named after well-known characters.
This chapter would not be complete without mention of those notorious females who came to Barberton in the eighties as barmaids in the local canteens. Trixie the Golden Dane, Florrie, and Cockney Liz were all bright specimen of their type, and were given fabulous presents by diggers to whom they offered their favours. One of the most popular entertainments was the nightly auctioning of Trixie and Liz by the market master, who had no option in this matter, for it was as much as his life was worth to refuse.
Many other well-known characters had a share in the history and development of Barberton. Apart from these, however, thousands of ordinary people, whose names are forgotten save by a few, played their part in the progress of the de Kaap Goldfields. To those members of the rank and file, among whom must be included the native labourers without whose exertion in a humble capacity the development of mining would not have gone on, we pay sincere tribute as we look back over the history of the town and district. Each in his own way has helped to place a brick in the building we see today as modern Barberton.
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