Mining History

In the article below, gold expert Neil Phillips looks at the origins, growth & decline of the greatest goldfield on earth. He also hints at hopes of new discoveries. The article was first published in the The Australian Geologist, issue 200, page 21.

Harking back to Johannesburg's first gold mining boom, a rare stamp battery has been revived by a specialist restoration project. The centrepiece of an open-air mining display in central Johannesburg, this massive piece of mining machinery can be seen standing tall at the corner of Hollard and Main Street.

 

This article is about William English, (1875-1915), a miner originally from the North-East of England who through hard work became a mining engineer in the gold mines of South Africa. It is based on the website williamenglish.net which includes his journal, poems and additional commentary. Creating the website has been a project for William’s descendants, Hilary Norris and Larry Cunningham.

Just prior to the outbreak of the Boer War, the small mining and railway village of Hattingspruit, only a few kilometres north of Dundee, grabbed some reflected limelight. This was due to the incredible physical exertion of 7 000 Zulu workers who walked from the Witwatersrand Goldfields back to their homes in Zululand.

Exploitable manganese deposits in the Cape Peninsular were known from around the late 1670s, and indeed many of our hikes pass on or close by manganese deposits of one kind or another.

Hike Kasteelpoort or Skeleton Gorge and you will walk over the stuff. At Mont Rochelle the link trail from Uitkyk  to the summit of Dutoitskop is known as The Manganese Trail.

A Namibian story has it that one morning during the early 1950s two men glided their light aircraft onto a diamond-strewn beach in the Namibian Sperrgebiet (German for no-go or forbidden zone) with the intention of collecting a large amount of diamonds hidden by one of them in rocky outcrops near the beach. On take-off from the beach the aircraft however nose-dived after one of the aircraft’s wheels struck a rock. They were subsequently spotted by the restricted diamond areas’ security personnel and arrested.

Jack Cockerill was working for the Chester Diamond Drilling Company when he was engaged on a contract at the Leicester Mine, on one of the kimberlite pipes found on the farm ‘Holpan’ between Windsorton Road and Barkly West in the Northern Cape. He was housed in bachelor quarters on the farm and came into contact with the family of Willie Wienand, who was in the cartage business in the area. Romance blossomed with Willie’s daughter Gladys May Wienand, and Jack became attracted to the lifestyle of alluvial diamond digging.

Magalies Memoirs focus on incidents in the Magaliesberg region and perhaps not everyone knows that it was here, in the heart of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, that gold was first discovered in the Transvaal, decades before diggers rushed to Barberton or George Harrison stumbled on the Witwatersrand Main Reef. “Discovered”, of course, needs to be qualified. We know from artifacts found at places like Mapungubwe and Thulamela that gold has been mined, treasured and traded for more than a thousand years – probably much longer.

The tiny town of Marikana (established in 1870) was never much of a town and for a long time was really no more than a railway station and a collection of shops. In fact, the outside world would not have heard of Marikana at all if it were not for the notorious Lonmin Marikana platinum mining strike and shooting, where 34 striking Lonmin miners were shot and killed by police in 2012.

In its heyday, black African competitive cycling on South Africa’s gold mines received little publicity either locally or internationally. Nevertheless, it flourished for nearly three decades, beginning in the late 1950s and extending into the mid-1980s. Today it has been almost totally forgotten. However, a recently published biography of a leading South African cycling personality of the period, entitled Basil Cohen: South Africa’s Mr. Cycling, vividly recalls this lost history of Black South African cycling.

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”.

Very few people have heard of the first borehole sunk in an effort to prove that there were payable deposits of gold in the Free State. This is its story.

Soon after the major discoveries of the Witwatersrand and its expansion east and west the search went further out into the Free State in the hope of finding the continuation of the reefs. Already in the 1890s there was speculative buying of farms to the south of Klerksdorp over the Vaal.

Readers will no doubt be puzzled by a supposed mining link connecting Cape Governor Simon Van der Stel (1639-1712) to US President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). They not only lived in different centuries, but also on separate continents 12 700 kilometers apart. Well, read on and decide for yourself!

A friend who grew up in Germiston claimed at his recent birthday bash that while you could leave Germiston, it would never leave you. His words mulled through my mind as I arrived at the Primrose Cemetery. Visiting a historic cemetery like Primrose is similar to visiting an interesting museum. Instead of viewing artifacts one sees the tombstones of people who participated in events that may have shaped one’s life in one way or another. One also starts better interpreting the tombstone symbols and appraising the epitaphs. 

 

John Lincoln's wonderful book 'Stories from a Diamond Mine'  tells the story of the Premier Mine (today the Cullinan Mine) and the village that grew up around it. We are honoured to be able to reproduce the book as a series (click here to view index). Below is the first installment which traces the history of Minnaars' Farm and reveals the complex story of how the land was acquired by Thomas Cullinan.

On 13 August 2018, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources revisited the Winkelhaak Cemetery at Evander Gold Mine, Mpumalanga. The Committee noted progress in improving the infrastructure at the grave site by the Winkelhaak Cemetery Project. Since their last visit in 2015, a wall has been built around the whole site and a granite monument has been erected. 

 

In the article below, journalist Lucille Davie ventures across old Joburg mining land tracking the activities of 21st century gold prospectors. She reveals the secret nature of their enterprises and describes the innovative processes used to extract the gold from multiple sources. The article was originally published on the City of Joburg's website on 4 October 2006 (Joburg's 120th birthday). Click here to view more of Davie's work.

On the 21 January 1960 a major calamity befell the coal mine at Coalbrook, situated in the Northern Free State 21km south west of Vereeniging. 437 miners were buried alive 180 meters below the surface when an estimated 900 pillars collapsed. A major rescue effort was undertaken, unfortunately without any positive results.

This article covers the history of the coal mine, the events leading up to the disaster, the causes, the aftermath and what we find there today. 

 

In the feel good article below, journalist Lucille Davie describes the epic return of Joburg's first stamp mills to the area where they were originally installed in 1885. The article was first published on the City of Joburg's website on 21 May 2009. Click here to view more of Davie's writing.

It always feels good when something is returned to where it originally belonged. So it is with the stamp mills owned by Joburg's first gold prospectors, Fred and Harry Struben.

South African mining photographs from as early as 1870 have been identified. These early diamond surface mining activity photographs were taken by Weber & Sederstrom at New Rush (Kimberley). When gold was found in Johannesburg some 14 years later (1884), it was initially not difficult to mine as the gold was found near the surface and prospectors had many laborers to assist them with the digging.

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.

 

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.

In the article below, first published in the Gold Fields Review 1992-1993, Eris Malan tells the story of the discovery of a remarkable set of documents that filled a significant gap in the priceless Gold Fields Collection. She also traces some of the history behind the Collection including the process that led to the Cory Library at Rhodes University becoming the custodian. The article has been shortened by The Heritage Portal Team.

Few visitors driving through Hout Bay on the way to Chapman’s Peak Drive will have failed to notice in the sea below the road a curious concrete and steel jetty - usually the resting place of a number of cormorants drying themselves in the sun! This marks the most immediately visible remnant of one of the Cape’s most remarkable early mining ventures, the Hout Bay manganese mine.

 

With a melodic sounding name the Riemland is largely an area of wide flat horizons interspersed with not much else. It is however home to some very interesting heritage hotspots in the country. The Riemland covers most of the north and north-eastern Free State, including the towns of Sasolburg, Heilbron, Petrus Steyn, Lindley, Arlington and Senekal.

Vogelstruisbult is an abandoned gold mine on the East Rand near Springs. It was registered back in 1933 and began production in 1937. Anglo American was the controlling shareholder for many years. According to the book, "History of Springs" the mine produced just under 224 tons of gold during its 31 year lifetime.

In the middle of August 2016 employees from South 32 began the move from the landmark 6 Hollard Street in downtown Johannesburg to offices in the Worley Parsons Building in Melrose Arch. The move marks the end of a long and historic association that the firm (via its predecessors) has had with the Johannesburg CBD.

 

Port Nolloth is a sleepy town located on South Africa's north western coast. Today it is a great spot for a relaxing seaside holiday but life in the town was not always so easy. In the book A History of Copper Mining in Namaqualand John M Smalberger digs into the early history of the town and describes the incredibly tough conditions experienced by those brave enough to live there.

Some time ago I posted an item on the Heritage Portal about the demolition of the 1904 ERPM Clubhouse and the 1908 (Herbert Baker) extension to the ERPM Clubhouse (click here to view). A stop order was subsequently obtained, and demolition of these two structures was halted, but only after they had been broken down by about 80%.

Johannesburg is a gold mining city and, through the decades, there have been a number of disasters related to the industry. A walk through Johannesburg's cemeteries offers a visual history of premature loss through mine related explosions. The granite memorial in the Braamfontein Cemetery erected in memory of those who lost their lives in the great dynamite explosion of 1896, is still moving and offers a unique insight into Johannesburg history. 

 

[Originally published in 2014] This wonderful article, written by Malcolm Wilson, describes the journeys of early hunters, settlers and prospectors as well as the development of Driefontein Farm on land which is now just a few kilometres from 'Africa's richest square mile'.

Early Settlers and Prospectors

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.

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.

The Struben brothers, Fred & Harry, by invitation of Louw Geldenhuys, discovered and mined gold on the Eastern part of the farm Wilgespruit in 1884-5. They learned mining from a Cornish miner, George Arnold (every body is ‘George’) and blasted and dug their way into the Witwatersrand Ridge in several places, most famously the “Confidence Reef Mine”. They imported a stamp mill from Sandycroft Foundry in England and powered it with an 8 horse-power steam engine they had on their farm, from Ransom, Simms & Jefferies, also a UK firm.

Over the last few weeks there has been considerable discussion about the shocking state of George Harrison Park in Langlaagte (the site commemorating the discovery of the largest goldfield on earth). In the following thought-provoking piece Gavin Whitfield, geological consultant and author, argues that we should 'not waste further effort on maintaining this important heritage site as it is...'

History

A few weeks ago (late September 2013) we paid a depressing visit to George Harrison Park in Langlaagte, the site of the discovery of the largest gold field on earth. The Geological Society's Blue Plaque has been removed, building rubble is scattered around the main entrance, the panels revealing the significance of the site have been damaged by fire and the main memorial looks battered to say the least. It is incredibly sad to see one of the most important heritage sites in South Africa looking so neglected.

 

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