5 June 1902, Death of Johnnie Grimmer at Caledon.
5 June 2003, Oldest surviving SA Currie Cup cricketer Jack Frank dies.
Pictured in the veld, from the left: Cecil Rhodes, Tony de la Cruz, and Johnnie Grimmer.
The life and times of Johnnie Grimmer
John Robert Anthony Luckhoff Grimmer, also known as Jack or Johnnie, was born in Colesberg, Cape Colony, on 13 September 1867, the fourth child of ten to Dr William Grimmer and Jean Grimmer (nee Patterson).
Dr Grimmer, who was born in England, had studied medicine at Edinburgh, and then settled in Colesberg with his wife and brother Edward Grimmer, where the first six of his children were born. The latter four were all born in Kimberley. Dr Grimmer, who had been District Surgeon in Colesberg, was initially a medical inspector in Kimberley before being appointed District Surgeon in the dusty diamond town. His claim to fame was that he organised the first game of cricket in Colesberg in 1862, and that his sister Anne married David Arnot (the younger). Dr Grimmer died in Kimberley on 30 April 1900 from typhoid and was one of the first to be buried in the West End cemetery.
Back to Johnnie Grimmer. The first mention of Johnnie was in January 1869 when he was but 16 months old. A thunderous storm had hit the Colesberg region and the flash flood burst the town dam which then rushed down through the sluit into Colesberg at midnight. The Grimmer’s house was hit by the flood but the family managed to escape through the waist deep water, Johnnie being held in his mother’s arms.
Although his two elder brothers Irvine and William Junior had been educated at Lovedale, it appears that Johnnie was either home taught or received a basic education in early Kimberley. Whatever his education was, he was employed as a stable hand by the De Beers Mining Company when he first met Cecil Rhodes.
Rhodes had met him while standing on the stoep (verandah) of the old De Beers Boardroom on Warren Street, when the young Johnnie was trying to ride an unruly horse. Each time Grimmer was thrown off the horse, he climbed back on. “That boy has grit, I must speak to him,” said Rhodes, and from that day the friendship blossomed. Johnnie Grimmer went to Rhodesia as a pioneer in 1890 and was involved in both the 1893 Matabele War and the 1896 uprising.
Johnnie Grimmer has been described as not particularly good-looking, thickset, and a lumbering young man, with an honest, good-natured but somewhat stolid face.
Rhodes’ last private secretary Philip Jourdan rated Grimmer the closest of all his younger friends and Rhodes often told him that Grimmer’s quiet demeanour had a most soothing effect upon him. The two – Rhodes and Grimmer – often used to bicker over nothing at all, and on at least one occasion, refused to speak to one another for several days despite both being anxious to apologise. Both were stubborn men though, and on that occasion it was Rhodes who broke the ice by teasing Johnny about his shooting. Johnny did not get cross as he was appreciative of the breakthrough and within minutes both were laughing and joking as if nothing had ever happened.
Percy Fitzpatrick, who had travelled with Rhodes, especially in Rhodesia, said that Grimmer was most “…unconventional in manner, and seemingly brusque and stolid. He was the kindest, most loyal and staunchest of men. One day I saw Rhodes get up – it was in camp – and try to do something for himself, so as to spare others. Of course he made a horrible tangle of things. Johnny got up lazily and strolled over; took the things from Rhodes with the growling comment, ‘Of course you made a mess of it: why couldn’t you give me a call?’ Rhodes dropped the tangle meekly with no more than a grunt; but his face was a study. The look of deep amusement and affection in his eyes and the softened expression on his face spoke volumes.”
Although no-one ever replaced Neville Pickering in Rhodes’ affection, Grimmer came close. But they never lived together, he was never named as Rhodes heir – as was Pickering – and he certainly lacked the charm and charisma of Pickering.
Nevertheless they were good friends. Grimmer was with Rhodes the last few weeks of his life and was at his bedside when he died on 26 March 1902. The men who stood around Rhodes’ bed—Sir Charles Metcalfe, Edgar Walton, Dr Thomas Smartt, Colonel Elmhirst Rhodes, Johnny Grimmer and Dr Jameson — all gave different versions of the last hours and words of Rhodes’ death. One story is more believable than the others – that of Grimmer. Just before he died, Rhodes roused himself and spoke to Johnny Grimmer. ‘Turn me over, Jack,’ he said, and then spoke and breathed no more.
Johnnie Grimmer did not outlive Cecil Rhodes by long. He died shortly before his 35th birthday in the Caledon Sanatorium on 5 June 1902 from malaria and blackwater fever, the malaria caught on one of his many trips with Rhodes to Africa’s hinterland. He was not married.