Peter Ball

South Africa was one of the last bastions for steam locomotives and they attracted many tourists from across the globe to travel on our trains or watch them go by, camera at the ready. Steam engines have an enduring appeal to railway enthusiasts (buffs & gricers will also do) as they seem to live and breathe just like a wild animal. In fact it was seriously considered to make a “Reserve” for steam engines along the Garden Route, in the province of the Western Cape, centred on the city of George, where a Steam Museum resides.

Word association is where you give me a word and I respond with the first thought that comes to mind; for instance you say “London Bridge” and I would reply “Station” (although most would say “is falling down”). Again you would say “Paddington” and my reply would be “Station” (although “Bear” is the usual response). Likewise “Waterloo” would elicit the same response from me, “Station”, thus the psychoanalyst would say that I have a one track mind, not that I need therapy as I am well aware of my condition which I have controlled since childhood.

The iconic bright red double-decker bus is part of London’s “persona”, an instantly recognisable part of London life, however it would come as a surprise to many to know that on the outskirts of the capital, buses were once painted Lincoln Green. The reason for this goes back to before the Second World War, when the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) was formed on the 1st July 1933.

I recently watched a documentary, originally screened on the BBC in 2007, entitled “Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails” presented by Ian Hislop, the editor of “Private Eye” and also a resident panellist on the long running TV show “Have I Got News for You”. It was Mr Hislop’s very informative “Take” on the controversial findings of Dr. Richard Beeching’s  report on “The Reshaping of British Railways” and in his commentary he said “I’m asking whether Beeching’s actions were a necessary evil or one of the great acts of vandalism of the 20th century?

Now I have to say from the very outset that I am “old school” and therefore know relatively little of the workings of Building Information Modelling (BIM), but being a keen observer of the built environment I am aware of the benefits that its methodology can bring to a building project with the aid of sophisticated computer software, which is now at the fingertips of the Architect, Engineer and Contractor, whether the project be “Greenfield” (new) or “Brownfield” (existing).

For anyone who has read the epic fantasy novels in the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series  by George R.R. Martin or watched the TV series “Game of Thrones” (based on his books), they will surely know that nothing cuts like Valyrian Steel. Swords made from Valarian Steel never dulled and their edges remained as sharp as the day they were forged, unfortunately the knowledge to make the steel was lost and the swords that were made from the metal became the prized possessions of the noble families of Westeros and were passed down from father to son.

Should you search on the internet for Shildon, a small town in County Durham in the North East corner of England, you will find out that it has house prices one-tenth of those in London, but that is not the town’s major claim to fame. Shildon is world famous for being the cradle of the Railways (a.k.a. Rail Roads), which were launched in the first quarter of the 19th century.

We South Africans are renowned for being sports fanatics and none more so than our rugby supporters, so we are looking ahead, with relish, to next year’s series between the Springboks and the Lions (2021 version). For those of you who are not Rugby Union aficionados, the Springboks are the national rugby team of South Africa and the Lions are a touring rugby team comprising players from the four home unions of the British Isles, namely England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

During the reign of Queen Victoria the then British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once told the House of Commons, ‘More men have been knocked off balance by gold than by love” but to be fair to the man he also said on another occasion “We are all born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end”.

It was heartening to hear our President, Cyril Ramaphosa wax lyrical throughout his State of the Nation Address (SONA2019), especially when he said “We also want a South Africa where we stretch our capacities to the fullest as we advance along a superhighway of progress.

If I was to ask that question, 9 times out of 10, the respondent would not know and would take a stab and say perhaps a railway station in London. If it was the last question on “Who wants to be a Millionaire” to win £1 000 000 (that’s Pounds not Rands) would you phone a friend, ask the audience or take a 50:50? (supposing in the unlikely event those options were still available to you).

On June 19, 1566 at Edinburgh Castle a son was born to Mary Queen of Scots and her husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, the baby was christened James and he would become the sixth of his name to be King of Scotland when he was barely 13 months old. His mother was forced by the Lairds to abdicate the Scottish throne and she fled south to England for her own safety and he would never see her again.

The year of 1812 is mainly remembered for Napoleon Bonaparte’s ruinous retreat from Moscow, when his “Grande Armee” was forced to evacuate the city or face starvation with the Russian winter impending. It was the beginning of the end for “Boney” and his defeat would eventually lead him to abdicate as emperor of France in 1814. Napoleon’s failed “Russian Campaign” would be known as the “Patriotic War of 1812” by the Russians and seventy years later would be celebrated by the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” in Moscow.

Professor Lipmann Kessel MC, MBE, FRCS (1914-1986) was an eminent surgeon and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, who wrote several important works on orthopaedic surgery, but rather like another well-known doctor, Roger Bannister (1929-2018), Kessel is best remembered for what he did as a young man. In the case of Bannister it was breaking the four minute mile barrier (in 1954) and with Kessel it was his medical role during the famous Battle of Arnhem, in late September 1944.

There are not many South Africans who have been honoured by having a statue of themselves erected in London. Only two come readily to mind and they are Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela, whose statues stand proudly in Parliament Square, Westminster. However, there is a lesser known South African who has a statue which stands outside Bank Station; he is James Henry Greathead (1844-1896), the grandson of an 1820 Settler of the same name. So why is it that a boy from Grahamstown should be so honoured and what was his achievement?

I first met Lady Anne Barnard (1750- 1825) when she was in her mid forties. It was a brief encounter, in fact only a passage in the text of “The Table Mountain Book” by Jose Burman, that master storyteller of early South African travel. Lady Anne was reported to be the first European woman to climb to the top of Table Mountain (in July 1797) and I was resolved to find out more about her life and why a high born lady was living in Cape Town (Kaapsche Stad) at the end of the eighteenth century, during what became the first British Occupation (1795-1802).

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), London, has a monthly magazine entitled the “E & T” magazine, which has a regular column, written by Justin Pollard called the “Eccentric Engineer”. It is factual, informative and above all witty. Pollard is not an engineer but a historian with an inkling for science and technology. In his column he brings  personalities that were little known or have been forgotten, along with their inventions back to life.

If I undertook a street survey and asked passers-by how much they weighed or how tall they were, the answers I would get back would be dependent on what system of weight and measures a person was brought up on and was familiar with. Grandparents would most likely answer in imperial units (pounds, feet & inches), and their grandchildren would reply in metric units (kilograms and metres), the reason for this is that South Africa converted to the metric system in the early 1970’s.

The reason I say this is that the game of football means different things to different people. If I were an Australian, football (or footy) would mean Aussie Rules, to a New Zealander football would be Rugby football and to an American, football is a contact sport where the ball is handled rather than kicked more akin to rugby. Europeans, Africans, Asians and South Americans know football as a predominantly kicking game with the passing of the ball by use of the foot between players: i.e. football played to the rules of Association Football (a.k.a. Soccer).

'Meccano' was the brainchild of Frank Hornby (1863-1936) who developed and patented in 1901, a metal model construction kit for boys called “Mechanics Made Easy”, which was the precursor of “Meccano”. The name change came about in 1908, and is thought to have emanated from the expression “Make and know” as pronounced with a Scouse accent, as Hornby was a Liverpudlian and got his brainwave by watching the cranes loading ships at Liverpool Docks.

Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham (a British peer) is a fictional character in the popular television period drama, “Downton Abbey”, set one hundred years ago. His family seat is Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, where he lives with his wife Cora, the Countess Grantham and their three daughters, the Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil. He, being one of the landed gentry, generates his major income from tenant farmers farming on his Estate which he inherited from his father the 6th Earl.

The first thing I did when researching this piece of writing was to look at a modern physical map of South Africa and envision that the urban areas and the modern road network shown thereupon were on a thin film that could be peeled away. What remained on the under layer were the physical features such as the coastline, rivers, escarpments and mountain ranges. It was a clean canvas on which I could put settlements on, but before I could do this I had to determine a date in history.

In 1884, before Johannesburg ever existed and when herds of game still roamed free across the savannah, a young man left his home in the Eastern Cape in search of adventure in what was then the Eastern Transvaal (now known as Mpumalanga). His name was Percy Fitzpatrick (1862-1931) and he went hoping to find his fortune on the newly proclaimed goldfields.

In 2014 the monthly magazine “Civil Engineering” (published by the South African Institute of Civil Engineers) ran a series of articles entitled “A brief history of transport infrastructure in South Africa up to the end of the 20th century” (comprising ten chapters issued from January/February to November 2014), which gave an interesting account of the history of our roads, railways, harbours and airports. The author of the articles was Dr.

For those of us old enough to remember, there was a tune called the “Lift Girl’s Lament” by the British singer songwriter Jeremy Taylor (he who was banished from South Africa for deriding Apartheid), which had the immortal line “I might go a thousand feet a day but I’m not going to go that far”; the song told the tale of a lift operator in a downtown Johannesburg department store in the 1960’s.

 

We South Africans live in a polyglot society, which under our Constitution, has 11 official languages that “must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”. Mother tongues range from Afrikaans to IsiZulu, from isiXhosa to Setswana, however to stop us being a modern Tower of Babel we largely use one language to communicate between each other and that is English. In doing so we are reflecting a world wide trend. In today’s world English has become the “Lingua Franca” replacing French as the language of diplomacy and German in the field of science.

Should one drive out of Johannesburg eastwards along the N12 highway, a famous landmark is passed at the Snake Road exit, known as Benoni’s mountain or more accurately the Kleinfontein Mine Dump. The Dump has been standing tall (92 metres) for over 90 years but will soon only be a memory as it is being reclaimed for the estimated 3 ½ tons of gold that it contains. For many it is an eyesore and good riddance, but others will be sad to see it go.

 

Ever since the Millennium the buzzword has been “Globalisation”, which paradoxically was given prominence by the anti-globalisation movement; those people who saw the threat of the multinational companies creating a new world order. By definition Globalisation is “the process enabling financial and investment markets to operate internationally, largely as a result of deregulation and improved communications” (Collins). The word came into everyday speech in the 1990’s having been coined first in the 1960’s by economists.

An article published in the May 2015 “Popular Mechanics” magazine (RSA edition), was entitled “SUPERTRAINS coming down the line” in which it was stated “Let’s get one thing straight: we don’t send much freight via railway because the country’s extensive rail network is too narrow”. Yes it is true that South African wagons run on a narrow gauge track (1065mm) - narrow by definition being a gauge less than the standard gauge of 1435mm (4’-8½”).

Rust by definition is a reddish brown coating formed on a ferrous metal (i.e. iron or steel) by oxidation, especially in the presence of moisture, which gradually corrodes the metal. Rust would seem to be Nature’s way of restoring iron and steel back to the state of the iron ore found in the earth’s crust. This process could well be called metallurgy in reverse.

The late Fred Dibnah, although unknown to most South Africans, was a household name in Britain. He was a true English eccentric who had a passion for all sorts of machinery powered by steam and he spent much of his life studying their construction and history.

He was a man born out of his time, as by the time he started work in the 1950’s, steam power in industry was being superseded by newer technology in the form of electric powered machines.

The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 started a gold rush that surpassed the Californian (1849), Victorian (1851) and Barberton (1885) rushes and the initial boom created the city of Johannesburg, which was literally and figuratively built on gold. The initial boom lasted for three years as the mining companies followed the sloping reef into the earth’s crust and then in 1889 the bust happened, as the gold appeared to suddenly run out which in turn caused a pall of pessimism to hang over the diggings.

The tragedy of the present day Migrant Crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War has an earlier precedent which occurred in the late seventeenth century when the King of France – Louis XIV (the Sun King) revoked the Edict of Nantes (a law protecting religious tolerance).  It was on the 22nd October 1685 that the King formally outlawed the Protestant religion in France, however, prior to that date the Huguenots (French Calvinists) had been persecuted rather like the Jews were in pre-war NAZI Germany.

In today’s world, large infrastructure projects such as the state of the art “Gautrain” rapid transit railway between Johannesburg and Pretoria (80 km in length) are constructed using mechanised plant and equipment for better productivity when working to tight project schedules (fast tracking). Occupational Health and Safety on construction sites has become a main concern when it comes to planning and executing large civil engineering projects with hazard operability studies (HAZOPS) and risk assessments being mandatory.

Field Marshal Bernhard Law Montgomery, nicknamed “Monty” by his men, commanded the Allies 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, during the last months of the Second World War. On the 4th May 1945 at Luneburg Heath he accepted the unconditional surrender of the German forces in that theatre of the War. Victory in Europe (VE day) would come four days later on the 8th of May 1945.

Dickie Jeeps who passed away recently aged 84, was one of the greatest scrum halves ever to play the game of Rugby. He came to the fore during the 1955 British Lions tour of South Africa, where he played in all four Tests against the Springboks. He went on tour as a surprise choice as he was uncapped (by England), but he proved, on the hard grounds of the Highveld, to be the ideal partner for the mercurial fly half Cliff Morgan. The Test series would be drawn with two wins apiece.

 

When someone is asked who or what is the Iron Lady, the first thought that comes to mind is usually Margaret Thatcher, but long before she became Prime Minister of Britain there was another Iron Lady. Ask any Parisian and they will tell you that “La Dame de Fer” is the Eiffel Tower.

The Channel Tunnel, nicknamed the “Chunnel” is a 31 mile (50 km) long rail tunnel beneath the English Channel (La Manche) which provides a fixed link between England and France. It is geographically situated at the narrowest crossing – the Strait of Dover (Pas de Calais). The Chunnel has been operational since its official opening on the 6th May 1994 and is run by the company “Eurotunnel” – the concessionaire until 2086.

 

Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that then you’ll do things differently”.  Alas history is littered with instances where his words would have fallen on deaf ears.

It is hard to believe that it has only been a few decades since South Africa adopted the metric system. The shift had a profound impact on the economy and the daily lives of citizens. Many of South Africa's largest trading partners at the time were either using the metric system or had committed to moving over. This provided the impetus for South Africa to get going. The strength of the apartheid state ensured that implementation was highly effective.

The question is easy to answer; South Africa was formerly part of the British Empire, which decreed that the rule of the road was to keep left in order to avoid collision, end of story.

NO not the end of story. The real question to be asked, is why does Britain (and her former colonies) drive on the left, when 65% of the countries of the world drive on the right?

The old saying that “Good walls make for good neighbours” has been taken to heart in Johannesburg, where high walls have sprung up where once there were only low diamond mesh fences and hedges to keep the children and pets from straying onto the road.

The story of the DC-3 really began in tragedy, when a plane crash caused a public outcry across America over the quality of passenger aviation. It took the death of the famous football (grid iron) coach, Knut Rockne of Notre Dame University, who with five other passengers and two crew was lost when Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) Flight 599 went down at Bazaar, Kansas (between Kansas City & Wichita), on 31st March 1931.

Limit State Design shares the same acronym – LSD with the psychedelic drug Lysergic (Acid) Diathylamide, the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” of the Beatles, even if John and Paul denied the association. Likewise more than a few Structural Engineers that studied in the “Swinging Sixties” are in denial over the merits of LSD, a design philosophy at variance with the time honoured pre-computer age method of ASD – Allowable Stress Design.

The zenith of long distance passenger travel by train world wide was during the period between the two World Wars (1919 to 1939) thereafter there was increasing competition from other modes of transport, notably the airliner and the motor vehicle (utilising modern road infrastructure), which led to a rapid decline in patronage for rail travel. At the ending of the Second World War (1945) there was a large surplus of Douglas Dakota twin engine aircraft that were sold off at bargain prices, this effectively kick started the modern airline industry.

Present day Southern Africa has inherited its railway gauge from a bygone era of 142 years ago, when in 1873 the decision was made to reduce the gauge from 4’-8½” to 3’-6”, when the Cape Government Railways (CGR) planned its extension from Wellington to Worcester for the reasons why see “Ox Wagon to Iron Horse” - click here to view.

If the question was asked what was the Crystal Palace? More than likely the answer would be an association football (soccer) team that plays in the English “Barclays Premier League”.  If this was a pub quiz the answer would be correct and it would be next question please, however the more curious minded of us would wish to know how the football team got its name.

Forty years ago at the 48th Academy Awards (1976) O.J. Simpson opened the envelope and announced that “GREAT” had won the Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film. The recipient was Bob Godfrey the film’s maker.

The fateful year of 1896 is one of the most momentous years in the history of South Africa, the reason being the coming together of events which provided the “Perfect Storm”.

The year started badly with the Jameson Raid, a blunder of epic proportions which polarised the attitudes of both Boer and Briton. However there was worse to come in the form of drought and pestilence, which would have an effect on all the people living in South Africa.

 

The competition between Structural Steelwork and Reinforced Concrete in the realm of building construction can be likened to the rivalry between the Springboks and the All Blacks, in the sense that each continually attempts to better the other. The rivalries both on the construction site and on the rugby field have been going for nigh on 100 years and both have their die-hard fans. Fortunately the competition has largely been a healthy one bringing out the best in both.

This article was prompted by my reading of a back number of the “Continental Modeller”, wherein there was a sparkling article entitled “Wanderings in the western Cape -  South African scenes to inspire modelling”, which whetted my appetite to find out more.

 

The development of structural steel as a building material and its attendant fabricating industry has played a major role in the growth of the industrialised world and has helped to create our modern way of life. Without structural steel the building of the railways, the building of bridges, the opening up of mines, the construction of factories for the manufacture of goods, and the production and transmission of power would never have progressed to the stage we are at today.

The railway line that connects South Africa to Namibia is now 100 years old and owes its origin to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. The cross border stretch between Prieska, Northern Cape and Karasburg (formerly Kalkfontein), Namibia was hastily built as a military railway to give logistical support to General Louis Botha’s troops in his 1915 invasion of what was then German South West Africa (a colony twice the size of the Fatherland).

In 1975 the singer-songwriter, Chris De Burgh released his second album entitled “Spanish Train and other Stories”. The title track was immediately banned in South Africa on sacrilegious grounds, due to the mention of the Devil playing poker for souls of the dead with Jesus Christ and the album was re-titled and issued here as “Lonely Sky and other Stories”.

The catchphrase “Cape to Cairo” was first coined in 1874, by Edwin Arnold (editor of the Daily Telegraph) and was taken up by Cecil John Rhodes as a call for the “Civilisation” of Darkest Africa. To Rhodes civilisation meant the exploitation of the mineral wealth of the vast interior of the African continent. He was a controversial figure in his day and remains so today.

Peter Ball continues his epic History of Southern African Railways series with this superb piece on the line from Mossel Bay to Oudsthoorn. He sets the historical context, highlights the incredibly difficult terrain for railway building and concludes that it is remarkable that the line was built at all.

Thousands of people in South Africa and abroad dream of the day when the famous Outeniqua Choo Tjoe will run again. In the article below Peter Ball sketches the history and potential future of this world in one branch line.

Peter Ball returns with this fantastic article on narrow gauge railways in South Africa. He believes that the line from Port Elizabeth towards the Langkloof, which can be reopened in stages, is the most viable preservation project in the country and argues that we should look to the Welsh experience over the last sixty years for inspiration.

In the previous installment of the History of Southern African Railways series Peter Ball explored the politics and economics of the Benguela Railway. In this edition he heads east and unpacks the complexities of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.

On the 14th July 1976 the Chinese officially handed over the TAN-ZAM Railway to the Governments of Tanzania and Zambia. It had taken just five years to build and its commissioning would change the pattern of economic dependencies in the region.

In this article Peter Ball jumps across a few borders and looks at some of the history and politics of the Benguela Railway which runs for over 1300km across Angola.

This installment of the History of Southern African Railways series looks at the demise of the branch line network and will be relevant to many in the heritage community. Over the last few decades many lines have been closed and the heritage assets associated with them have fallen into disrepair. We certainly hope that Transnet's strategy to revitalise the branch line network will go some way towards turning this situation around.

In the previous installment of the History of Southern African Railways series Peter Ball looked at the role of the railways during the South African War. In this piece he looks at post war reconstruction, the completion of various lines and the contribution of the railways to political union in South Africa.

Following hot on the heels of the 'Race to the Rand' here is the third installment of the History of Southern African Railway Series by Peter Ball. The article looks at the role of the railways during the South African War (the Second Anglo-Boer War).

In the first installment of the series on the history of Southern African railways, Peter Ball described some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of a number of lines into the interior. In this article he looks at the fascinating politics and economics of the 'Race for the Rand'.

Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of articles, compiled by Peter Ball, on the history of Southern African railways. The first installment looks at some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of various lines into the interior (driven by the great mineral discoveries of the second half of the nineteenth century).

The county of Cornwall, in England’s south west, is a well known holiday destination renowned for its scenic beauty and it comes as a surprise to many a visitor that the county has an industrial past. From the mid-18th century Cornwall was as industrialised as the Midlands and North of England and it was one of the most important metalliferous mining areas in the world. In fact the metal Tin had been exploited in Cornwall by the Romans in the 3rd & 4th centuries AD, after their previous source - the Spanish tin mines, were worked out.

Headgears are the ultimate symbol of the mammoth Southern African mining industry. They tower over billions of rands worth of wealth and help to sustain vast underground cities. They are appreciated by millions around the world and we are blessed to have some of the finest examples. The article below provides an overview of the purpose and significance of headgears.

Corrugated iron was developed and patented in Britain around 1830 and has travelled the world. Born during the industrial revolution it travelled to the expanding colonies of the Empire, notably to Australia, India & South Africa; it also found popularity on the frontiers of the Americas and wherever it went it transformed the landscape.

It was forty-five years ago (1970) that the Johannesburg City Council was formulating a policy to tackle the issue of traffic congestion brought about by the increased use of the motor car as a means of commuting to work.  One solution which had great appeal was an underground railway system similar to that of London and Paris.

On reaching the bottom of Robber’s Pass on a journey towards the village of Pilgrim’s Rest you will notice on your left the Golf Club, but should you glance to the right you will see at intervals elegant cast iron poles each with a curved outrigger. You may well ponder as to what they are and after three guesses will still be none the wiser. To know the answer you will have to know some of the history of Pilgrim’s Rest.

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