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Joseph Benjamin Robinson

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 3 AUGUST

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3 August 1840, Sir James B Robinson, born.
3 August 1870, Transvaal President Pretorius has a claim at Klipdrift.

DID YOU KNOW

Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson, (pictured), 1st Baronet, son of an 1820 settler, was born in Cradock on 3 August 1840 and died in Wynberg on 30 October 1929. He was a diamond and gold mining magnate and one of the famed Randlords.

The son of Robert John Robinson and Martha Rozina Robinson (nee Struttan), he fought on the side of the Orange Free State in the Basuto War, and later became a general trader, wool-buyer and stock-breeder at Dordrecht. On the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1866 he hastened to the Vaal River district, where, by purchasing the stones from the locals and afterwards by buying diamond-bearing land, notably at Kimberley, he soon acquired a considerable fortune.

Robinson claimed he was the first person to “discover” diamonds in what is now Kimberley. In Jeremy Lawrence’s superb biography on Joseph Benjamin Robinson , it is stated that in either 1868 or possibly even in 1869 – the original details are somewhat sketchy – Robinson, while on his way to Hebron, now Windsorton, heard that a farmer’s wife had a stone similar to what he was looking for. He went to see the farmer’s wife, a Mrs van Wyk of Dorstfontein, and purchased the diamond from her. She had found it in a dry donga close to the house. Another tale told by J.B. Robinson was that she sold him two bottles of pretty stones, among which were six or eight diamonds for which he paid her four sovereigns. Robinson further states that during this same journey he shot a springbok antelope on the farmer de Beer’s land, the farm Vooruitzicht. De Beer, a near neighbour of the van Wyk’s, also showed Robinson a diamond that he had picked up under the tree where the antelope had been shot. Robinson claimed that this exact spot was where the De Beers mine was later discovered.

His rather forceful business tactics came in for a lot of criticism, earning him the title of “Old Buccaneer”, but even so he became a member of the Mining Board and later chairman. He raised and commanded the original Kimberley Light Horse. He was Mayor of Kimberley in 1880, and for four years was a representative of Griqualand West in the Cape colonial parliament.

On the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand district in 1886, Alfred Beit financed a partnership with ₤25 000. Robinson purchased the Langlaagte and Randfontein estates, but Beit soon dissolved the partnership because of Robinson’s temper and business methods. Robinson chose to keep the western portion of their former joint assets, while Beit took the eastern section. His views as to the westerly trend of the main gold-bearing reef were entirely contrary to the bulk of South African opinion at the time, but events proved him to be correct, and the enormous appreciation in value of his various properties made him one of the richest men in South Africa. He founded the Randfontein Estates Gold Mining Company in 1890, which was the largest individual undertaking on the Reef and one of the largest in the world. As a Rand capitalist he stood aloof from combinations with other gold-mining interests, and took no part in the Johannesburg reform movement, maintaining friendly relations with President Kruger. He claimed that it was as the result of his representations after the Jameson Raid that Kruger appointed the Industrial Commission of 1897, whose recommendations had they been carried out would have remedied some of the Uitlander grievances. On 27 July 1908 he was created a baronet of Hawthornden and Dudley House.

In June 1922 he was nominated for a UK peerage but declined the honour. The nomination, by UK coalition Prime Minister David Lloyd George was subject to much debate in parliament as Robinson was considered unsuitable for such an honour, only rewarded because of his donation (£30,000, worth over £1m in 2015) to party funds. The air of scandal surrounding the issue tarnished the Coalition government’s image, and was somewhat responsible for the Conservatives detachment of Lloyd George’s Liberals from the party, later in 1922. The general scandal of sale of peerages led to the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

A street in Kensington, Johannesburg is named after him.

His death in 1929 caused a great scandal in South Africa and Britain upon discovery of his will. His personal fortune of £12 million was given to his heirs except to one of his daughters, who was only given a mere £2 thousand. He gave nothing to charity. There was a scathing article in the Cape Times after his death.

He married Elizabeth Rebecca Ferguson on 03 October 1877 in Kimberley, a daughter of James Ferguson, the union producing 13 children, five boys and eight girls.

One of the girls died at a young age and is buried in the Pioneer cemetery in Kimberley. Elizabeth Rebecca was born on 3 December 1885 and died on 25 April 1886. Her elder sister Ida Luisa donated the gated brick entrance to the cemetery in memory of her sister buried within. Sadly the metal tablets were stolen some years ago.

(Various sources including Wikipedia. Some sources also state he was born on 2 August).

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

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