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UPDATED: 20/05/2021

20 May 1883, Robert Milne murdered in Beaconsfield.
20 May 1889, Beaconsfield Public Library and Institution officially opened.
20 May 1895, De Beers Mine Recreation Room, formerly the Boardroom, opens.
20 May 1947, Retired Head librarian John Gow Ross dies.
20 May 2014, Sylvia Lucas re-appointed Premier of Northern Cape.

Doyen of South African librarians

John Gow Ross (pictured) was described in the Diamond Fields Advertiser of 22 May 1947 as the doyen of South African librarians. This indeed was an accurate description of a man who had served not only the Kimberley Public Library but the library movement of South Africa with great distinction.


John Gow Ross

Ross was born in Perth, Scotland in 1869 and educated in Edinburgh. At an early age he showed a predilection for books and reading so that it was not surprising that his career would follow a direction which involved literature. His first situation was that of apprentice to a Mr Grant, bookseller and publisher in Edinburgh where he worked for six years.

Towards the end of 1895, Ross was persuaded to come to South Africa where he was given control of the bookshop belonging to P Davies & Sons in Pietermaritzburg. Four years later he was appointed Librarian at the Natal Society’s Public Library in Pietermaritzburg where he remained until his appointment in April 1909 to the post of Librarian at the Kimberley Public Library. He held this position until his retirement in September 1942.

As Librarian at the Kimberley Public Library, he revised the policy for the purchase of academic books and with the consent and encouragement of the Committee concentrated on the collection of Africana and rare books. His knowledge of books and particularly Africana was acknowledged and respected by his Committee and colleagues throughout South Africa.


Northern Cape Premier Sylvia Lucas

It was his interest in printing which inspired him to seek early examples of printing one of which was the Libri Cronicurum or Nüremberg Chronicle of 1493 by H Schedel, printed by the famous German printer Anton Koberger. This covered the history of the world at that time and is illustrated by over 2000 woodcuts. It was Ross’ foresight which inspired him to add manuscripts to the collection long before the collection of local manuscripts became fashionable and so the Library acquired among many other important manuscripts that of Governor Sluysken’s handwritten account of the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795.

Ross’ proclivity for collecting antiquarian items for the Library included maps and other forms of illustrated material including engravings, lithographs and items which represented the development of colour reproduction. One of his main pursuits was the acquisition for the Library of items printed at the Cape prior to 1850. It was his special relationship with the collector and dealer, WR Morrison which proved to be instrumental in adding to the Library’s collections some of its finest items.

Equally important to Ross were items relating to Kimberley and diamonds. He made repeated appeals to the public to donate to the Library such ephemera as they might possess rather than dispose of these items, pointing out to the public that an institution such as the Kimberley Public Library would safeguard the future of their treasures.

As was mentioned in Ross’ obituary in the Diamond Fields Advertiser of 22 May 1947:

“Of a retiring disposition, Mr Ross took little part in public life, but his never-failing courtesy and charm of manner will be long remembered by all who knew him.”

It was without doubt these attributes as well as the esteem in which he was held as an authority on Africana and rare books without equal in South Africa which allowed him to extract money from various sources, not least from the Directors of De Beers for acquisitions for which the Library’s budget did not allow.

John Ross’ contribution to the development of libraries in South Africa was recognised in 1941 when he was made the first Honorary Fellow of the South African Library Association – the only honour of its kind bestowed in the Union.

After a long period of ill-health, he retired from the Kimberley Public Library in September 1942 and died in 1947.


UPDATED: 20/05/2020

20 May 1883, Robert Milne murdered in Beaconsfield.
20 May 1889, Beaconsfield Public Library and Institution opened.
20 May 1895, De Beers Mine Recreation Room, formerly the Boardroom, opens.
20 May 1947, Retired Head librarian John Gow Ross dies.
20 May 2014, Sylvia Lucas appointed Premier of Northern Cape.


The case of Robert Milne, found dead in his bed in suspicious and intriguing circumstances on 20 May 1883, had all the Kimberley newspapers clamouring for details, and with the arrest of Milne’s wife, Amelia, and a man named Harry Francis later that same day the case (at least, for the public), seemed cut and dried. It appeared to be a crime of passion, but was it? The case would go to trial, but would require two juries and two judges before a decision was made on whether the accused were guilty or not.


Robert Milne Gravestone

Harry Francis, a special constable employed by Mr Bult, the Registrar of the Dutoitspan Mine, called upon Dr Daniel Currie to come to Robert Milne’s house in the New Township of Beaconsfield, between 10 and 11 o’clock on Saturday night, 19 May 1883. Milne, until lately in the employ of Mr Bult, being drunk, had fallen and injured himself on a stone, said Francis. Dr Currie examined Milne, not noted anything particularly amiss, but had dressed the superficial wound and put him, seemingly under the influence of alcohol and insensible, into bed. A few hours later, shortly after sunrise at 6 o’clock on the morning of 20 May, Francis again called on Dr Currie, requesting that he come back to the house and take another look at Milne, whom Francis claimed had suffered an epileptic fit. Francis went back to the house, but had only been gone about an hour when he again returned, this time with Mrs Milne who was urging Dr Currie to come quickly. Francis and Mrs Milne again went back to the house, but while Dr Currie was preparing to go see what was happening, Mrs Milne was again at his surgery “in a state of great excitement, saying her husband was dead, and that she wanted Dr Currie to come and hold a post mortem examination.” They were both sober according to Dr Currie.

Dr Currie immediately called for the police, and together with Sergeant Blyth and the Assistant Resident Magistrate Mr Williams, they went to the house and found Milne dead on the bed. The magistrate ordered that the body be removed to the “dead-house” at the Police Barracks and that Dr William Grimmer, together with Dr Currie, hold a post mortem on Robert Milne’s body. The post mortem revealed that there was a round puncture hole in the left temple going some four to five inches into the brain. Some sharp instrument, possibly a pick, could have been used to make the hole said the two doctors, and in their minds, the instrument was “used with great violence; and indeed, the wound is such as to leave no doubt that it was a murder.” In Grimmer’s opinion, two weapons had been used – a blunt one for the outside abrasion, followed by the intrusion by a sharp instrument. Milne’s liver was also enlarged. Dr Currie said that the sharp wound must have been there when he originally cleaned the wound as his dressing had not been touched. He too, agreed that a sharp instrument such as a pair of scissors could have caused the death, but insisted that it was probably a pickaxe, something Dr Grimmer vehemently disagreed with. Harry Francis and Amelia Milne were remanded in custody for the preparatory trial.

The preparatory trial commenced on 8 June 1883 before the Resident Magistrate, W.G.B. Blenkins. Amelia Milne said that her husband had left home at about 7 pm on the night of 19 May, and that when he returned he had the cut on his forehead. She had then called Harry Francis and together they had gone to ask Dr Currie to come attend to Robert Milne. Francis, in his testimony, said that Amelia “was the worse for liquor” that same evening. Sergeant Blyth, in charge of the Dutoitspan police station, said that when he went to the house, Francis and Mrs Milne had emerged and given him statements regarding the situation. Francis had told Mrs Milne “not to belie herself”, and that Milne was susceptible to fits.

Francis, more than a little concerned no doubt as to where the investigation was heading had called for Sergeant Blyth on the Monday or Tuesday while in the gaol cells and told him he would like to make a statement. He went on to say that Mrs Milne had told him (Francis) that she had hit her husband Robert with a chair on Saturday night.

It certainly appeared that Harry Francis was trying to push all the blame onto Amelia, but the damning evidence came from the mouth of a “babe”, the seven year old daughter of Robert and Amelia Milne, Jenny: “I know Francis. My father is dead. I remember the morning he died. I was present. I saw Francis use a chopper, which caused my father’s death. The chopper produced is the same. When Francis had chopped my father, my father and Francis had quarreled. I saw Francis strike my father with a stick. The stick produced is the same. My mother was the first to find out my father was dead. Francis was also present. My father was on the bed when Francis struck him. My father had nothing in his hand when he was struck, but after he was assaulted he picked up a pair of scissors. My mother was sitting on the bed at the time she took the scissors and struck my father on the side of the face. It bled very much. My father was drunk. My mother gave him the brandy. Francis struck my father with the instrument produced.”

Mr Blanch, for the defence, said that the child had been led by the prosecution, while the Magistrate himself thought that the charges should be culpable homicide, rather than murder. However, when the trial began on Monday 5 November 1883 before His Lordship Justice Buchanan it was for murder and not the lesser charge. The counsel for defence, Advocate Rundell Levy for Harry Francis, and Advocate Davison for Amelia Milne, immediately lodged an objection that the two accused should be charged for culpable homicide as the Magistrate had stated in the preparatory trial. Judge Buchanan over-ruled the objection on the grounds that a Magistrate cannot state what offence a prisoner should be prosecuted for, and that it was not in his personal power to alter a charge. The objection would be the beginning of a most unusual trial.

After this initial gambit by the defence, the 30-year-old Francis took his seat in the dock, while Mrs Milne had a deck chair outside the dock itself. They both pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Robert Milne. Mr Johannes Henricus Lange, later to become a Judge, opened the case for the Crown by outlining all the evidence, but being careful to not mention the testimony of the Milne children in case they contradicted themselves in front of the jury. Dr William Grimmer was the first witness called to the stand, but had nothing to add to the post mortem result other than to state that Milne’s liver was enlarged due to excessive drinking. Upon re-examination by Mr Lange, Dr Grimmer categorically denied that the wound to Milne’s brain could have been self-inflicted. It would have been impossible, he said.

According to a neighbour of the Milnes, one Thomas Alexander, Amelia had been intoxicated on the Saturday afternoon prior to the death of Robert, and had been in his yard, “…creating a disturbance with my Kafir (sic). I ordered her off and she refused to go. I went over to her house to see her husband. He was sitting on the bed, bleeding from his nose as I thought. He was bathing his face with water.” Alexander went back to his own house, but Amelia had disappeared. He next saw her the following day when she was in “a very excited way”, saying that her husband was dead, and crying continually. Alexander checked on Milne and saw that he was dead, although the body was still warm. Another neighbour, Christina Jackson, saw the two accused that Saturday morning, and said that Mrs Milne was crying a lot. She too, went to see the body and noticed froth coming out of the mouth. She told a policeman what she had seen and the policeman had gone with her to the house. Harry Francis at that stage had gone to call Dr Currie and when he returned Amelia was sitting by the fire in the Jackson’s house. “You bloody fool, why don’t you shut the door – why do you let the policeman know your business?” he had shouted at Amelia. Christina, in direct contradiction of Dr Currie’s earlier testimony, said that Amelia had been half drunk that morning, her hair disheveled, while she could tell that Francis “had had a liquor.”

A ten year old coloured girl, Mary Pitman, also a neighbour of the Milne family, had been asked by Mrs Milne to see if her husband was dead, and she had gone to the house, and had seen the body. The three Milne children, Johnnie, Clemmie and Jennie, had been sitting on the front doorstep all of this time. It appeared as if their mother had no interest in her children, and was more concerned with her own immediate future.

Dr Currie, called to the witness stand to elaborate on his statements, added that there were no symptoms to show that Robert Milne had suffered from an epileptic fit and that he stood by his testimony from the post mortem. He did say, though, that both Harry Francis and Amelia Milne had shown great anxiety for the deceased, and that Amelia showed great grief when she heard that her husband was dead.

There was tremendous interest among the spectators in the courtroom when the child Jennie was called to the witness stand. She repeated her earlier statement, but after cross-examination by both defence counsels, the Judge said that he did not think much weight could be attached to the evidence but he would rather leave it to the jury to decide. Three constables based in Dutoitspan, Patrick Tracey, Andrew Carlton and Robert Bennett, all gave their various stories concerning their involvement in the case (which was minimal), but it was Sergeant Blyth’s testimony that proved most significant.

“On Sunday morning before 8(am), I met Jeremiah Kennedy and Constable Stanbridge as I was coming from Beaconsfield. They reported something to me which induced me to proceed to a house in the New Township occupied by a man named Milne and his wife. I there found the body of a white man lying on the bed, partly on its back, and partly on the left side. On the forehead there was a rag, which I raised slightly, and saw some sort of wound. On coming out of the house I saw the prisoners coming from the direction of Tussell’s Mills. I met them about eight or ten yards from Milne’s house. The woman was pointed out to me. She came and spoke to me, making a rambling, disconnected statement. Francis said to her: ‘Don’t belie yourself, woman, the man was subject to fits.’ She was unintelligible and was crying, and appeared excited. I cannot say whether she was sober or not. I sent her to the police station after that, and went to the deceased’s house. I looked about, but saw no marks of a struggle except a broken chair. I also found two knobkerries under the bed, also a hammer and a pick. There was a white mark on the face of the hammer that looked like grease or whitewash. I also found a scissors hanging on the wall over the table. My attention was called to some dark spots on the floor some two or three days afterwards. By rubbing the smearing and blowing away the dust these marks, which I believed to be blood, were seen distinctly. I reported the circumstances to the Magistrate and the District Surgeon. No examination was made. I noticed where the chair was broken some discoloration as if something had run down into the opening. I think the District Surgeon saw the chair. P.C. Stanbridge drew my attention to this, and also to the marks on the floor.”

Blyth also noticed that the broken chair had been cleaned the very day he examined the stains on the ground. Recalled to the witness stand, Dr Grimmer hotly denied that he had been told to make an examination to see what the discolored marks were, and “…in my opinion, it is impossible to tell human blood from that of animals…” He reiterated that two different instruments had caused the two wounds in the same spot on Milne’s head.

Judge Buchanan ably summed up the case for the jury to consider but also took the opportunity of lambasting the police investigation into the death of Milne. It had been a “very imperfect examination” of the premises made by the police immediately after the tragedy, and it appeared to be characteristic on the part of the police to be most lax in this respect. A man of experience should be told to immediately take charge of the premises and to remain there for at least 24 hours making observations. Going back some three days later when important evidence had been tampered with was not good enough, the Judge stated.

The jury retired, but came back after about an hour. The foreman, R.M. Roberts, said that they could not come to a verdict and asked Mr Justice Buchanan to give an explanation of the law regarding circumstantial evidence. The judge did so, and at the same time, adjourned the court for the day in order to give the jury the time to consider a verdict.

A large crowd struggled and fought to gain admittance to the court the following day when it reconvened at 11am, but the jury had still not reached a verdict, and requested another two hours to continue discussion and argument. The judge agreed and the jury retired to the Transvaal Hotel, and the two prisoners to their cells. At 1pm the jury once again re-entered the court, Amelia Milne and Harry Francis preceding them. Francis was battling to control his emotions and was wetting his lips with his tongue continually, while Mrs Milne appeared half dazed. The jury had still not agreed, and Roberts told Mr Justice Buchanan, upon asking whether there was any possibility of the jury reaching a decision, that he had been instructed to say no, although he personally believed that they could reach a decision. The Judge said the jury must once again retire until later in the day – 5.30 pm being the time to return. They did so, and the prisoners were once more taken away. But it was only temporary as the jury returned within minutes, forcing the judge to recall the prisoners. However, it was only a request by one of the jurors to ask permission to speak to the judge. The judge declared that such a request was not permissible and that the juror must speak through the foreman Roberts. He also said that this was now a painful case as the prisoners had to keep coming into and out of court, and the jury should think of the prisoners’ feelings in this regard. The jury once again retired.

Upon their return at 5.30pm the foreman of the jury said that they were unable to reach a verdict, and that there seemed no likelihood of their ever doing so. His Lordship Justice Buchanan, after reading the rules and regulations regarding a hung jury, dismissed the jury as far as the case was concerned, and said that a new trial would have to be entered into.

Mr Justice Buchanan having recused himself, the new trial of Amelia Milne and Harry Francis on the charge of murdering Robert Milne was begun on 19 November 1883 before Mr Justice Laurence and a new jury. After two days of re-trial, a virtual repeat of the first such trial, Judge Laurence ably summed up the case and the new jury retired shortly before 6pm to consider their verdict.

On this occasion the deliberation was of short duration and the jury returned after a mere twenty minutes with a verdict of guilty of culpable homicide against both prisoners. Mr Justice Laurence, addressing Amelia Milne first before Francis, said that the jury had been merciful towards her and had come to the conclusion that “although the evidence convinced them it was by your act your husband met his death, yet not feeling satisfied that the circumstances were such as to make it one of murder in the eye of the law, they now find you guilty of the lesser crime.” The judge felt that “their verdict is a right one and that you were implicated, probably principally, in the death of this unhappy man. I am convinced that as by this wicked act, you not only caused the death of a fellow creature, but deprived your children of a parent…the sanctity of human life must be respected, and therefore the sentence is severe; it would be more severe but for the fact that I am forced to the conclusion that the jury consider you did the act without premeditation, but in a fit of drunken passion and rage; and that drunkenness and profligacy led to this miserable end of a miserable life.” He then sentenced her to imprisonment with hard labour for six years.

In his address to Harry Francis, Mr Justice Laurence said that the jury came to the conclusion that he was implicated in causing the death of Robert Milne. “I am justified, from the evidence, in giving my opinion that the part you played in this crime is of a comparatively minor character.” Despite his lesser role, he was then sentenced to four years imprisonment with hard labour. The prisoners were then led from the dock, both visibly affected by their long trial and what, to them, may have been a light sentence.

Was this sentence fair? A century and more down the timeline, it must be recorded that the police did not investigate the crime, and particularly the scene of the crime, properly. Had the killing occurred in the last fifty or so years, there is no doubt that Amelia would have found it hard pressed to escape the hangman. That she literally escaped the noose can be attributed to incompetent detective work, and a poor case by the prosecution.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

Aeon Computer Kimberley

About Steve Lunderstedt


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