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Kimberley's History: What happened on November 23

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY – 23 NOVEMBER

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UPDATED: 23/11/2017

23 November 1899, The Battle of Belmont.
23 November 1918, Official death toll from the Spanish Flu in Kimberley announced – 4861.
23 November 2006, Upgraded Kimberley Mine Museum opens.

DID YOU KNOW

Greater wars than the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 have pushed the conflict between Queen Victoria’s British Empire and the Transvaal and Orange Free State Boer Republics into minor chapters of military history. The battles are over. The battlefields, a legacy of a bygone age, remain.

Besieged by Boers since 14 October 1899, Kimberley was the key to the war on the western front. Lt-General Lord Methuen (Paul Sanford), with a field force of 8 500 – it was to rise to 15 000 at Magersfontein – had to march 120 kilometres from Orange River Station to relieve Kimberley.

Belmont, the site of Lord Methuen’s first battle, took place on 23 November 1899. Thirty kilometres from the Orange River the British came on the Boers on a two-ridge stronghold. After a night march on the 22nd/23rd the British attacked shortly before dawn on the 23rd.

The Scots Guards and Grenadier Guards would attack Gun Hill on the Boer left flank while the Northumberland Fusiliers and Northamptonshire Regiment would attack Table Mountain on the Boer right flank.

PT-Boer_Memorial_on_Gun_Hill-1899

Boer Memorial on Gun Hill

However, due to misunderstanding and confusion when the Boers opened fire from their positions on top of the ridges, Methuen’s original plan fell apart and the conflict became a “soldier’s battle” which, fortunately for Methuen, succeeded for the British.

The British eventually having captured the first ridge, and advancing upon the second ridge, the Boers melted into the veld and headed eastwards towards Ramdam.

General JH “Koos” de la Rey arrived too late for the battle with his Transvaal reinforcements but was close enough to witness the Free Staters retreating. He would be at the next battle, that of Graspan/Enslin/Rooilaagte on 25 November.

PT-Guards_Brigade_Memorial-1899

Guards Brigade Memorial

Although sources do vary it is believed that at least 74 British soldiers were either killed or died of wounds with between 115 and 220 wounded. The Grenadier Guards lost at least 22 men on the feature re-named Grenadier Hill after the battle. Official Boer losses were 12 killed and 40 wounded but the British buried some 30 dead Boers after the battle. At this time it is confirmed that at least 26 Boers were killed. Boer prisoners taken at the battle numbered forty.

Pictured are the Boer Memorial on Gun Hill and the Guards Brigade Memorial on Thomas’ farm.

UPDATE: 23/11/2016

23 November 1899, The Battle of Belmont.
23 November 1918, Official death toll from the Spanish Flu in Kimberley announced – 4861.
23 November 2006, Upgraded Kimberley Mine Museum (pictured) opens.

DID YOU KNOW

The Big Hole (Kimberley Mine) Museum began early in 1952 when Cyril B Harris approached De Beers Consolidated Mines with a plan to save certain historic buildings that were being demolished in Kimberley. The Kimberley Mine, having ceased production in August 1914, was already a tourist attraction, and it was suggested that these buildings be placed on the western edge of the pit adjacent to the then observation post. De Beers agreed, and this vision of an historic village came to fruition with the generosity of many Kimberley residents who donated their obsolete buildings as well as numerous artefacts, beginning in August 1952. Harris’ vision was taken on in those early years by Fred Borgstrom of De Beers, who collected most of the donations and set up the original old town village that lasted until re-construction in 1968. The first building to be re-erected in the museum was Kimberley‘s oldest house, a prefabricated structure originally from England and placed in Pniel Road in July 1877. In September 1952 this dwelling was joined at the museum by the steam engine“Puffing Billy”, an old tram, and an original horse “Hitching Post”. By December 1952 the historic village next to the observation post was expanding with Rhodes’ stepping stones, a searchlight, Kimberley‘s first motorcar, as well as electric street lights all being placed on display. HH Taylor, the General Manager of De Beers, proudly proclaimed that same month, that “A small museum has been established at the Open Mine to preserve relics of interest from the early days.”

By 1961 a small entrance fee of 6d (5c) to see the Big Hole and mine museum was being charged, with all proceeds going to the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum in Chapel Street. A tearoom was established in 1962, as was a picnic garden. Although the foundations of the tearoom are still on top of the mine dump to the left of the observation platform (behind wire fencing), most of the original concrete tables and chairs have now tumbled to the bottom of the Big Hole.

Basil Humphreys’ interest in the Mine Museum in the 1960s, saw De Beers Consolidated Mines appoint him as their museum consultant in 1967. Until his appointment, the museum fell under the control of the Public Relations Officer for De Beers, the two involved in the museum being Fred Borgstrom and JS Sandilands. This appointment of Humphreys resulted in a rather haphazard collection of buildings and artefacts being turned into an historic town reminiscent of the early days of the diamond diggings. Mr Harry Oppenheimer, Chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, assisted quite ably by backing the idea of a museum, and made company funds available for extensions, renovations and expansion. He gave £10 000 for museum improvements in June 1962, and three years later would ensure the museum grew with even more financial assistance from the mining company. This generosity would continue through to his retirement in 1994.

Two General Managers of De Beers – WS “Bill” Gallagher, until 1962, and Ken Loftus, from 1962, were extremely keen on establishing the museum, and assisted in many ways not recorded in the minutes. Ken Loftus in particular took a personal interest in the development.

The “new” facility planned by Basil Humphreys, that included modern buildings with shops, an entrance and car park, as well as a De Beers Hall showing the history of the company, was officially opened by Mr Frank Waring, Minister of Sport and Tourism, on 19 November 1969. A few years later the museum included the world’s largest static display of cut and uncut diamonds, a glittering attraction known as the Alpheus Williams Collection.

Three decades later in the first years of the 21st century a decision was taken by De Beers to upgrade the museum, and this major World attraction, now known as the Big Hole Experience, was officially opened on 23 November 2006 by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Nicholas Oppenheimer, Chairman of the De Beers Group. This new facility included a suspended viewing walkway over the Big Hole, a theatre, shops, an underground experience, as well as a magnificent display of diamonds in the upgraded Pulsator Shed.

23 November 1899, The Battle of Belmont.
23 November 1918, Official death toll from the Spanish Flu in Kimberley announced – 4861.
23 November 2006, Upgraded Kimberley Mine Museum (pictured) opens.

DID YOU KNOW

Kimberley businesses passed a motion congratulating the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, on defeating the Germans in what is now Namibia, but perhaps the most outstanding achievement during the war years 1914-1918 came after a special meeting to discuss the responsibility of the commercial community towards any of their employees who desired to offer their services. The motion was passed in that “this meeting is in complete sympathy with the movement for increasing the remuneration of those enlisting in the overseas contingent, and pledges itself to support this movement.” Families would not starve. The old de Beers Convict Station off Hull Street was used to house German internees from 1916 onwards.

The rest of the war, commercially wise in Kimberley, was passed in dealing with many mundane matters. However, the Spanish Flu epidemic from September to November 1918, and in particular the month of October, when so many thousands died, was the blackest month Kimberley had ever experienced in her history and to date. Dark clouds of gloom settled over Kimberley and businesses were closed or on short staff.
October and November 1918 – there have never been two months quite like it in the short history of Kimberley, and hopefully, there never will be again. In that short period, 4861 citizens of Kimberley, or roughly 9% of the entire population of 50 666, died from the Spanish Flu epidemic, which was sweeping the world. Some 40 000 people in the Kimberley urban area would be stricken with the influenza, the greatest natural disaster the city has ever seen, and the majority of the people affected were blacks, in particular those living in the mining compounds. The Diamond Fields Advertiser reported that the Flu ‘had a firm grip of nearly half the population, the deaths among the native element being nothing short of appalling’. Contrary to popular belief, Kimberley was not the worst affected town or city in South Africa pro rata – it was Polokwane (Pietersburg), and Cape Town had the most deaths in total.

The great black South African Solomon Plaatje and his family, living in the Malay Camp, was not immune to the disease, and Plaatje himself and his eldest daughter Olive were extremely ill. Indeed, Plaatje was laid up for weeks in bed as the influenza caused what he called an oppressive heart disease to take hold, a condition doctors announced to be incurable. It is likely this damaged heart contributed to Plaatje’s death some 14 years later. Olive, who assisted other flu sufferers before catching the disease, contracted rheumatic fever in her weakened state while ill, and this brought about her early death a mere three years later in 1921.

There was a little good that came out of the disaster in that the City Council started cleaning up the unsanitary conditions that had been revealed in the poorer suburbs of the town, and in 1919 launched a municipal housing scheme to accommodate the people removed from the overcrowded areas.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

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