25 AUGUST 1900
The De Kaap Valley lies some fifty miles south of Lydenburg, and in its centre stands the town of Barberton. In ’75 when the Lydenburg diggings were panning out merrily, a wandering fossicker struck gold in the De Kaap, but no one troubled about it then. Later on, when capitalism began to rear its ugly crest up Lydenburg way, a number of honest fellows trekked De Kaapwards and fossicked and washed in that virgin valley at peace with themselves and God. One day two peripatetic Cornishmen found themselves inside the mountain ring, and wandering along stumbled on the dazzling Sheba. The news spread abroad, and the Jew, the Englishman, the digger, and the desperado came spying out the land. The two Cornishmen were bought off for a good round sum, which sent one to his grave in delirium tremens and another to a prison far from the country of Tre, Pol, and Pen; the town of Barberton sprang up like Jonah’s gourd, and where a space before a dozen diggers had ranged ten thousand cosmopolites were huddled striving for wealth.
On the whole, Barberton was not too bad a place in those early days, though Jews and English and cut-throats were fairly common. The morality of Barberton was not up to the standard of Pretoria or Potchefstroom, but it compared favourably enough with Durban and Capetown. In fact, until the English resolved on building a church Barberton was comparatively godly. The story of that church is one of the cherished reminiscences of the town. The innocent traveller who strikes Barberton nowadays must listen to that story—and the tale of the young English dude who, coming straight from the land of his mammas, demanded quail on toast at the Grand Hotel, and was compelled by the scandalised diners to eat tinned beef whilst they sat on the dining-table toying with their revolvers and making rude remarks about his epicurean tastes—and many another tale from the lips of each and everyone of the prominent townsmen, and laugh heartily each and every time if he wishes to be considered a good fellow; for Barberton, like an old man garrulous, loves to live again in fancy its hot and merry youth. One evening, the grey-beards chuckling tell, an English sky-pilot, as the pious Anglo-Saxon terms his pastor, wandered into Barberton, and was received with enthusiasm by his countrymen. His popularity increased each day, for no man could drink deeper, play poker more skilfully, or troll a ribald song with a rollicking chorus better than he. So the hat was passed round to build him a church, and the money piled into it up to the brim. The sky-pilot departed with it to Pretoria to look up an architect, and thence he despatched an epistle to his brethren, in which he exhorted them to study the Book of Job. He has not been seen near Barberton since, and his defection so affected his countrymen that many of them who had never known to use the name of God save in connection with eternal damnation gave up religion. An English Church stands in Barberton now, but it does only a very poor business.
There was a cheerful and honest gang of scoundrels—comprising Irishmen, Germans, and Americans—who lived in and on Barberton in those days, and who were popularly known as the Brigadiers. The Brigadiers ‘held up’ mine managers and relieved them of their gold. Sometimes the mine managers shot a couple of the Brigadiers, and sometimes the Brigadiers shot a couple of the managers. But there was no ill-feeling, and the fighting was fair and square. But in the end the Brigadiers became a nuisance, and old Anthony O’Neill gathered a score of Irishmen and fell on them and smote them hip and thigh in the Devil’s Kantoor. The Transvaal Government appreciated Anthony’s work, and made him Chief Constable of Barberton, and gave him a grant of land, whereon he discovered coal mines, and built the town of Belfast, where Botha to-day has pitched his camp. The Brigadiers took their overthrow philosophically. They were the most courteous ruffians I have ever known, and never picked pockets.
But the discovery of gold by the Dutchman, Struben, on the desolate Witwatersrandt played havoc with Barberton. Away from the De Kaap Valley to the Ridge of the White Waters fled the fickle gold-seekers; and to-day in the mountain-walled town the long lines of unfinished and empty streets tell the tale of what Barberton would have been had not Johannesburg arisen in the wilderness. It is perhaps, all the better for Barberton—now a quiet little town, with a peaceful and decent population, once mostly uitlanders, but now burghers to a man. Outside, the Sheba and one or tow other mines stamp away the rock. By-and-bye Barberton will expand and become a great city; for there is more gold in the De Kaap Valley than ever was formed in the Witwatersrandt. But its expansion is time enough. Just now the Boers are reported to be considering whether they should not retire on Barberton instead of on Lydenburg, and Barberton might, for more than strategic reasons, form a better headquarters for the burghers.