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Francis Oats


UPDATED: 01/09/2017

1 September 1877, Jan Hoogstander murdered by William Danster near Barkly West.
1 September 1892, Savoy Hotel on Boshof Road opens for business.
1 September 1918, DBCM Director and Chairman Francis Oats (pictured) dies.
1 September 1964, Diamond evaluator Ellis Wynne Weatherby dies.
1 September 1994, Kimberley’s first black Mayor, Herbert Rose, inducted.


Francis Oats was born on 29 October, 1848, at South Torfrey Farm, Golant, near Fowey, Cornwall, England, in the parish of St Sampson. His parents were Francis Oats (1794–1871) and Maria Rundle (1810–97), his father being a farmer. His younger sister Maria was born in 1850.

The family moved to St Just in Penwith, a mining district, about 1854. Like most young men in the district Oats became a miner when he left school (at age 14), but every week he would walk to Penzance, seven miles away, to attend evening classes so he could become a mining engineer. At the age of 17, Oats placed second in the mineralogy examination for the British Isles, and obtained a high grade in mining, a subject in which he had not been instructed. He was offered free tuition at the London School of Mines but would have to pay his expenses, and no scholarship was available.

Francis Oats was first appointed a Mine Agent in 1871. He was mining captain at Botallack Mine. For a while Oats also gave science classes in the Botallack district. He married Elizabeth Ann Olds on 17 August 1874, in St Just in Penwith, the daughter of a butcher. Two of their children died in infancy. Their surviving children were Francis Freathey (born 1879), Wilfred (1883), Giles (1885) and Marie Elise (1887).

On 9 December 1874, he was appointed Cape Colony Government Mining Engineer at Kimberley, South Africa, at the age of 26 and left for South Africa on this 20-month mission in January 1875. The colony’s government had recently passed ordnances in favour of small miners which prevented mine concession owners from imposing excessive rentals on the diggers and shopkeepers, and did not allow an individual or company to hold more than ten claims. The British government had overridden some of these measures.

The proprietors continued to accumulate claims and raise rents, causing mounting unrest. Oats, as Provincial Engineer, gave the decisive opinion that “fostering a large number of individual holdings is most adverse to economy of working.” 
Oats made it clear that the restriction on the number of claims would be an obstacle to obtaining foreign capital. He wrote of the 10 claim limit:

“The local capitalist knows very well how to evade the law, and it is done over and over again, whilst the claimholder who disposes of his ground suffers an injustice through the ground not realizing as much as it would undoubtedly had the home or foreign capitalist legitimate means of competing for the ground, for no one will be found to invest money in a mine (away from the place) under such a paltry restriction.”

Oats resumed his position at Botallack as soon as he returned.

In May 1877 Oats was asked to take a position in Kimberley, which he accepted, the job being to run mining companies in Kimberley for Baring-Gould and Atkins Co. In 1883 he joined the Victoria Mine Company in the De Beers Mine. The De Beers Mining Company, headed by Cecil Rhodes, obtained control of Victoria company in 1887 using financing from Phillipson-Stow and Jules Porges & Company, who began quiet purchases of Victoria shares early in 1887, and obtained most of its share capital for ₤57,000. On learning this and that the Victoria claims were surrounded by De Beers mergers, Oats and R. Hinrichson, directors of the Victoria Company, agreed to amalgamate in April 1887 in exchange for scrip and stock with nominal value of ₤445,000 plus other assets. Both Oats and Hinrichson became directors of De Beers Consolidated Mines in March 1888.

By the start of 1890, De Beers had an effective monopoly on the South African diamond trade. The poorer mines had been closed and production reduced to push up the price of diamonds. The Wesselton Mine was discovered late in 1890. The De Beers directors were unwilling to buy the mine, but were reluctantly persuaded after Oats had investigated it and described the damage it could do to diamond prices.
There were many Cornish miners at Kimberley, particularly as the mines became deeper and their skills in mining hard rock became more important. Oats did his best for these miners. He insisted that De Beers give each miner a yearly paid holiday in Cornwall. He also forced adoption of water hydrants to lay the dust created by mining drills, the main cause of silicosis. He became president of the Cornish Association at Kimberley. Oats was elected to represent Namaqualand in the South African parliament, holding office until 1907.

Oats became known as an authority on diamonds. In December 1906 Oats visited Henri Lemoine in Paris with three others, and saw Lemoine (stark naked to show he had nothing hidden) mix substances in a crucible, heat it in a huge furnace, and produce tiny diamonds. Oats demanded repeats of the experiment, and remained sceptical of some trick, saying the diamonds were too close in colour and shape to those of the Jagersfontein Mine near Kimberley. Lemoine was arrested on charges of fraud on 11 December 1907. In 1908, a Parisian jeweller said he had sold Lemoine some small, uncut diamonds from the Jagersfontein mine that matched the description of the diamonds Lemoine was supposed to have manufactured. Lemoine fled the country before receiving judgement.

In 1908 Oats was appointed chairman of De Beers. That year he told the company’s annual general meeting, “Really, if one could believe all the stories which have been circulating about the discovery of new mines and methods for the artificial making of diamonds, it would be a marvel that people are willing to buy diamonds at all. … There have been numerous discoveries of alleged mines in all parts of the world, but none of them have come to the serious production stage except German SWA where a discovery has been made of some superficial deposits of diamonds, but fortunately for our prices, these, singularly enough, are all small in size.”

Oats was making a serious error in discounting the German discovery, which had large and high quality diamonds, and dismissing Ernest Oppenheimer’s Premier Mine, which was producing more than the total output of De Beers.

The Kimberley diamond mines were shut down on 8 August 1914, soon after the start of World War I (1914–18). Francis Oats said the 1000 men employed at the mines would be given half pay until the end of January 1915, when the company would decide what to do next. He said of the closure:

“Today we are onlookers at the greatest crisis the world has ever known. As to how long that crisis may continue we can have no foreknowledge. I have to tell you, however, that since the declaration of war we have sold no diamonds at all. We have to recognise that we are a company producing a luxury, which naturally does not find a sale in circumstances like those that we face today. We are perforce compelled to mark time. We have faith that things will eventually right themselves, and that our product will again be in demand. But today we have to face the fact that no demand exists. We have therefore to ask ourselves, shall we go on working without selling diamonds? I need scarcely tell you that the position has been very anxiously discussed. There have been differences of opinion among the Directors but in the end we came to the conclusion that while this state of things lasted we must as far as possible confine ourselves to marking time, and not further increase the stock of unsold diamonds already on hand.”

In May 1916, the Wesselton Mine and Bultfontein Mine were re-opened, but the Kimberley Mine (Big Hole) had closed for good.

Francis Oats died on 1 September 1918, in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa. He was survived by his widow, daughter and three sons.

The Francis Oats House, a hostel for pupils at the Kimberley Boys’ High School, was built in 1920 and is still in use today.
(Mostly from Wikipedia with additions and alterations).

1 September 1877, Jan Hoogstander murdered by William Danster near Barkly West.
1 September 1892, Savoy Hotel on Boshof Road opens for business.
1 September 1964, Diamond evaluator Ellis Wynne Weatherby dies.
1 September 1994, Kimberley’s first black Mayor, Herbert Rose, inducted.


Christian Vermaak, a black convict known as Bismarck, acted as executioner when Willem Danster was hanged on the scaffolds in the Kimberley gaol on Monday 15 January 1877.

Danster, a Griqua (also called a Koranna in some reports), had been sentenced to death at the previous criminal session held in Kimberley for the murder of a young Koranna boy, Hans Hoogstander, on 1 September 1876. The actual hanging was an absolute catastrophe, with Danster being strangled to death rather than by hanging. These grisly details will come a little later in the story, for first it must be realized that Danster is the criminal, the poor murdered boy the victim, and the executioner but an amateur forced into the position.

Young Hoogstander, in the employ of D.F. Stofberg, a farmer at Sanddrift near Barkly West was told on 31 August 1876 to go and look for some horses that had gone missing on the river frontage. Stofberg himself then left for Barkly West on business, returning late the following day only to find that Hans had not yet returned with the horses. This surprised the farmer immensely, as Hans was a conscientious worker who had never absented himself before. Stofberg was so concerned that the following morning he went to Hans’ father to see if he was not perhaps there. He was not, so Hoogstander senior, together with three or four friends, started to search for his son in the vicinity where Stofberg had said he must search for the horses.

The tracks of the youngster were soon found and followed to a place some three kilometers from the farmhouse where the boy’s body was discovered concealed in a bush. A “riem” – a long piece of leather – had been tied around his neck and he had died from strangulation. There were signs of a struggle and a man’s spoor was followed to where it entered the Vaal River at Sanddrift itself. At the crossing were a seemingly innocent rag cloth and an empty bottle. Hans’ father crossed to advise the police as to what had happened, and queried at a nearby store if anyone had noticed anything untoward.

The owner of the store, a Mr Olivier, said that yes, the boy had been in his store and had bought a few shillings worth of brandy, no doubt to drink later that evening in the knowledge that Stofberg was away on business. A notorious character well known in the region, Willem Danster, had noticed the transaction and had been observed following the young Hoogstander. Police arrested Danster who admitted to the crime. He said that he had followed Hans across the river for the sole purpose of robbing him of the brandy, and had indeed killed the boy. The rag at the drift was his trouser belt and the bottle was the bottle sold by Olivier at his shop to the youngster.

Evidence was conclusive and with no extenuating circumstances, His Honour the Recorder found Danster guilty of murder and sentenced to die on the gallows. The Judge went so far as to say there would be no reprieve considered and so it was.

Danster showed no remorse whatsoever, and appeared quite callous about the crime he had committed. Certainly, the crime warranted the death sentence, but what happened on the day of reckoning for Danster is just as heartless. Danster had been visited often during his last few days on this earth by the Reverend Mr Laing for counseling, but still showed indifference to his and Hoogstander’s fate.

Danster awoke at sunrise in the cell for the condemned at the Transvaal Road police barracks gaol, and partook of a hearty breakfast, even asking for some brandy, which he was given. Reverend Laing then visited him, but to no avail as he refused to listen to the minister’s words, and a few minutes before eight o’clock with the sun already high in the Kimberley sky, Danster having being pinioned shortly before, the melancholy procession started its march to the gallows. Leading the procession was the executioner; a fellow convict nicknamed Bismarck, who would receive a reprieve and some payment for acting in the position. Behind him were the prisoner, the local Sheriff, Mr Maxwell, the Inspector of Prisons, Doctors Grimmer and Matthews, as well as Reverend Laing, a representative of the Daily Independent newspaper and various prison officials. A large crowd was already in their position on the debris heaps to the west of the gaol, and when the procession was spotted, they fell eerily quiet.

Danster was the first to ascend the scaffold, and took his place on the drop without displaying any fear. Perhaps he should have because the next few minutes were to become a nightmare for all who witnessed the hanging, and naturally, for Danster himself. The hangman, Christian Vermaak, pulled a white cloth over Danster’s head, adjusted the rope around the prisoner’s neck, and then pulled the bolt. The drop was some five foot, which, if the executioner had tied the rope properly, meant the prisoner would have his neck snapped almost instantaneously. In his haste, however, the hangman had rushed and bungled the job, not adjusting the rope correctly, and it took all of seven minutes for Danster to stop struggling, and “…the convulsive struggles of the wretched man were horrible to witness.”

Not only did Danster’s sufferings then end, but so too must have the witnesses’ sufferings. If there had been any hanging that should have brought a speedy conclusion to capital punishment, it was Danster’s.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

Aeon Computer Kimberley

About Steve Lunderstedt


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