In the article below, Esme Lownds uncovers some interesting snippets about James Stopworth and Barberton during its early days. The article first appeared in the 1975 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish. Stopforth House is one of the attractions of the very impressive Barberton Heritage Trail (click here for details).
James Stopforth came from Pilgrim's Rest to Barberton in 1886. On the way his wagon turned over in a drift and his daughter Alice called out "I'm drowning in gin". The gin bottle had broken and the wagon had to be taken to bits to free her.
He managed to get an industrial stand on the Market Square, only because the man who had acquired it had not paid his dues. He was also given a stand in Bowness Street for his home. He loved horses so first of all he built a wood and iron stable for them and the family lived in tents. When Mrs Nelson was about to give birth to her son, Philip, the tent fell down in the wind so she was moved into the stable and here her son was born.
Ox wagon traffic in front of James Stopworth's store on Barberton's Market Square
The house was built of wood and iron in 1886 and then rebuilt in the same style in 1892. It is still in good condition. Some time ago when repairing the planks on the verandah, bombs were noticed on the walls of the cellar. Police were notified and they sent for the disposal squad in Middelburg. One Boer War bomb was alive. They had lived in a wood and iron house all those years with a live bomb in the cellar! The other two were harmless.
On Sundays the family rode out to the Caledonian Hotel or to the Queens River hotel. Mr Stopforth's first store was burnt down so he bought the Royal Albert Hall where Cockney Liz had reigned supreme. He took away the front steps and opened his grocery store on the Market Square. Before this the Royal Albert Hall had been used as a school and when paytime came the boys smelt the buns cooking next door at Stopforth's bakery. They asked for a penny bun and while the attendant was busy they helped themselves to the biscuits on the counter. Mr Stopforth was a kindly quiet man and I feel sure he left the buns for the boys. He helped so many people unobstrusively. Poverty stricken people received loaves of bread. He also scattered oranges on the Market Square for the boys to scramble for.
James Stopworth's Bakery
Barberton's best known loafer remittance man was Jimmy Jack. He slept in any doorway. Mr Stopforth supplied him with a bun and coffee each morning. One day he complained - the coffee was cold and the bun not up to standard and if this did not improve he would take his custom elsewhere. It was discovered later that he was in the habit of washing his socks in the reservoir in Rimer's Creek- the town's drinking water.
One day while Percy Fitzpatrick was sitting on the counter in Mr Stopforth's grocery store, he noticed his boots were in ribbons. Percy had just lost all his cattle. Mr Stopforth bought him a new pair of boots.
On one occasion Stopforth' s donkey was stolen and this is the letter he received:
Barberton 20th March 1887
Dear Mr Stopforth,
I owe you a humble apology for the disgraceful conduct of yesterday and my earnest thanks for the generous way in which you have excused and overlooked it.
I trust you will believe that there are grounds originally for my claiming the donkey, which was the first cause of disagreement between us. The animal was sold to me on the farm "Weltevreden" where I am working by a Yankee whom I had known previously. I can furnish his receipt of the money I paid. I am now satisfied that he had previously stolen the donkey from you.
Nothing can excuse my conduct at the end of the dispute when I fired my revolver in your direction as you rode away, but I only ask you to remember that I was under the influence of liquor, and only that morning had been induced, whilst drunk, to buy the revolver by Mr Erasmus of the Concession Canteen on Moodies. I feel justified in suggesting that Mr Erasmus was greatly to blame in allowing a drunken man to get possession of a loaded weapon.
You have already expressed your intention of allowing this painful matter to drop, and on behalf of my wife and children, I thank you most earnestly for your consideration to them. I cannot bear to think if what might have happened to them as well as to your own family had my mad act been attended with disastrous results.
I hand over the revolver to you.
I remain, Dear Mr Stopforth
Yours very obediently
signed E Houghton.
Another character of the time was old Bobbejaan who brought milk to Barberton from the Lomati daily. He used to receive food as well as payment by the Stopforths. He lived to about 103 and collapsed on their back verandah. Somehow he got back to his kraal but was not seen again. His milk was good and he never missed a day.