Information provided by Hans Bornman from his unpublished book, Lowveld Tour Guide:
When the sea route around the Cape was discovered, explorers became interested in the continent of Africa. Some of the earliest explorers into the interior found gold and artefacts of gold amongst the indigenous people. In the beginning of the 19th century other mining activities were found over a wide area between the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers.
Gold was discovered on the farm Eersteling close to Marabastad, just south of Pietersburg in 1871 and alluvial gold on the farm Geelhoutboom and Graskop, east of Lydenburg, in 1873. On 20 May 1873 the Ohrigstad River area, in the district of Lydenburg, was proclaimed a public digging and attention was then focused on Lydenburg.
President T F Burgers (1834-1881) visited the diggings in August 1873. After he had met all the leading prospectors he inspected the list of those holding licences permitting them to prospect in the area. It was evident that more than half of them were Scots, and he decided to name the goldfields the New Caledonian Goldfields. On the farm Geelhoutboom he named the diggings Macmac in honour of major W MacDonald, the Gold Commissioner, Thomas MacLachlan, the pioneer prospector, and Bob MacFie, the local shopkeeper.
When C Evans and H Eelders discovered gold on 1 August 1873 at Steenkampsberg, the lonely figure of Alec (Wheelbarrow) Patterson was pushing his wheelbarrow along the hills and valleys to eventually stop under the spreading branches of a peach tree planted by some unknown person years before. Taking his pan he began washing the gravel in Lone Peach Tree Creek. The tail of gold left in the pan took his breath away. Without a word to anyone he continued to pan the gold, carefully filling his bags.
Meanwhile William Trafford was prospecting in the same area where Patterson was working and on 22 September 1873 he announced that he had found payable gold on the farm of a man named Guszman. Because he believed that his wandering days in search of gold had ended, he named the place Pilgrim’s Rest and Lone Peach Tree Creek became Pilgrim’s Creek.
The gold rush had begun and Patterson was rudely shaken to find hordes of fortune hunters arriving in the area. Newspaper headlines reported that prospectors were descending on the goldfields like locusts, from all directions. They came from Kimberley, Grahamstown, the coast and from overseas. In a short while 250 prospectors pitched their tents and shelters on the banks of Pilgrim’s Creek to be near their claims.
Gold was discovered at Berlin, near Kaapsche Hoop, in 1882. but the find was disappointing. However, the news soon reached the outside world and a rush of fortune hunters of greater magnitude than that which had occurred previously, took place.
During June 1882, James Murray discovered alluvial gold at the confluence of the Noordkaap River and Jamestown Creek. The news spread through the valley like wild-fire and soon a little tent-town was established, named Jamestown, after the discoverers.
French Bob found gold on Moodies farms, west of present day Barberton, and named the find Pioneer Reef. He tried to keep his discovery a secret, but when he began making a canal to the claims, other prospectors put two and two together and soon Moodies was a hive of activity. Jamestown was an extremely unhealthy place, with fever claiming many victims, and when the finds on Moodies were made, most of the inhabitants wasted very little time in clearing out to better ground. Jamestown is one of the lost towns of the Lowveld today, only the piles of stones on graves are the silent reminders of once a thriving community a century ago.
The Barber brothers and their cousin, Graham, were prospecting in a rift at the foot of the Ingudu mountains (incorrectly known as the Makhonjwa mountains), where they came upon a rich gold reef and proceeded to peg a claim. Just the next day the Umvoti Reef, next to the Barber’s claim, was discovered.
On 21 June 1884 Graham Barber wrote a letter to the State Secretary to inform him that payable gold had been found on State-owned land. The State Secretary asked the Magistrate at Lydenburg to investigate the matter and for David Wilson, the Gold Commissioner, to submit a report. Wilson made his investigation on 24 July 1884 and found that Barber had indeed found payable gold. In his book ‘Behind the Scenes in the Transvaal’ Wilson writes that he decided to declare a township at the base of the hills where the Umvoti Creek entered the De Kaap valley, broke a bottle of gin on the Barber Reef, champagne was not available, and named it Barberton.
Hundreds of people converged on Barberton to share in the prosperity. They envisaged a paradise where money was to be made. Edwin Bray’s discovery of the Golden Quarry in 1885, so named because it looked as if the rock was formed entirely of gold, resulted in the mine becoming well known throughout the world. The Sheba mine is today one of the oldest, and richest, working gold mines in the world having been in production for more than a century. It is estimated that production will continue for several decades to come.
Large amounts of money flowed into Barberton and several stock exchanges operated here. More buildings were erected, billiard saloons and music halls established. The Criterion and Royal Standard hotels were opened. Bartenders vied with each other to attract customers from the side walk and played the popular songs of the day. Inside barmaids relieved thirsty customers of their money by providing suitable refreshments. The most well known barmaid was Cockney Liz, who it was said granted her favours to the highest bidder.
Barberton flourished for only a brief period and soon the inhabitants began to move away to the newly discovered goldfields on the Reef (Johannesburg). Only the Sheba, Consort and other smaller mines continued their activities.