THE WILGEFONTEIN (WILLOWFOUNTAIN) SETTLERS
In February 1878 the Natal Land and Immigration Board (LIB) acquired 5000 acres of farmland south of Pietermaritzburg for the purpose of bringing settlers from England to farm there. This land had been granted to a former Voortrekker, Paulus Hermanus Zietsman, who had named it Wilgefontein. In August 1879, the LIB commissioned James Methley to sail to England and find agricultural families for thirty of the forty plots; the remaining ten plots were to be sold to farmers who were already in Natal.
The plan was for all families to live on their own capital for the first two years, until houses, fences, roads, irrigation and crops were established, before they had to start paying for their land in ten instalments over the next ten years. These prospective settlers had to not only produce proof of enough capital, but had to deposit it into a bank in England and were unable to access it until their arrival in Natal. This was to prevent the same mistakes made with the Byrne settler programme, in which settlers had delved into their capital before arriving in the colony. Because of both the stringent requirements and the penalties for default, Methley only managed to find twenty-three families, many of which were not even farmers.
|Passengers on deck of Nyanza 1877|
While anchored in Durban bay that evening, the male heads of the families gathered in the ship's saloon with the representatives of the LIB to draw slips of paper from a bag for their Lot numbers.
The following day, because there was no actual quay, the disembarkation process took most of the day. Each person had to be lowered in a basket down to a tug next to the ship, and then transported ashore in the tugboat. Late that afternoon, a specially commissioned train carried the settlers inland to Inchanga Station, which was as far as the railway line had been constructed. The journey was continued over the next three days in twelve ox-wagons.
At around noon on Friday 16th July, the wagon train came over the crest of a hill, giving the settlers the first sight of their new home. The so-called 'promised land' did not look impressive, mainly because a veld-fire had blackened the land in recent weeks, adding to the bleak, treeless appearance. Three of the families - the Hanns, the Liddels and the Rowlings - elected to stay on the wagons and continue into Pietermaritzburg to either settle there or return to England in due course. The accommodation on the lots consisted of tents, which were supposed to be available to the settlers for the first three months, but were never claimed back by the LIB. One lucky man, a bachelor called William Clarke, had drawn the lot with a shale house on it. Another, larger house was on the Government Reserve land, which was to be common property for the use of all the settlers. In 1884 it was put to use as a school for male children of the settlers, and the motto was 'Semper Paratus' - Always Prepared. This farmhouse was the same one later inhabited by the last members of the Hall family, the last people to move in 1975 from their farm, which they had called Brandon. The papers and documents collected and kept by Dudley T. Hall (himself a descendant of original settlers Brown and Clarke), form the basis of the Willowfountain file in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban, from which much of this material was sourced.
Some of those who chose to stay were soon to regret their decision, upon realisation that their new land was steep and stony, did not have enough fertile soil, decent roads, reasonable access to water, or even trees for firewood. In fact, the local farmers had been aware of the poor conditions there, so the ten plots originally intended for sale locally had never found buyers for this very reason. Within a few months all unoccupied lots were offered to the new settlers as well. Many settlers acquired a second lot in the hope of farming for profit rather than mere subsistence, which was all the original small lots could promise. The most popular crop to be grown was barley, which was needed to supply the garrison at Fort Napier. Due to the increased presence of Imperial Troops in the Colony, fodder was needed for cavalry horses, as well as mealies for the troops fighting in the Basuto War. Many settlers also kept cattle, which were allowed to graze on the twelve or so acres of common land.
Some families fell on bad times personally, with death or illness, crop failure or the lack of roads causing delays in getting their produce to the Market, thus spoiling on the wagons and failing to fetch the intended price. Barnett left after the first year when he realised he would never be able to make a living from his land, and Hamlyn left soon after to work for Natal Government Railways (NGR) in Durban in order to have a steady income and to live closer to a school for his children. After the first year, Mr CA Butler from the Land and Immigration Board (LIB) visited the settlement and was satisfied that most of the eighteen families of settlers that were left were progressing well, except for Bradley, Walker and Roberts. The Bradley brothers left during the second year. Unfortunately, floods, drought and Rinderpest disease took their toll on many settlements before the first instalment fell due after two years. Once the repayments began, only about two families were not in arrears at any one time.
In the Spring of 1886, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, combined with a drought in Natal, tempted the sons of settlers, if not the settlers themselves, to leave Willowfountain and journey north in search of the fortunes needed to pay off their farms. In 1888, having exhausted their original capital, both Aitchison and Haworth joined the gold rush and illegally sublet their farms.
Many petitions were sent to the LIB regarding lack of roads and right of way of water. In April 1887, Roberts, Walker, Oldfield and Powdrill spearheaded a petition to reduce the original purchase price of the land by 50%. Eventually, in 1888, the LIB agreed to reduce the price by 10% and to give the settlers an extra four years to pay, but at an interest rate of 5%. Pleas and petitions abounded from desperate settlers who had sunk life savings into their plots and couldn't afford the interest, especially since the land was clearly not worth it. Their cries were eventually heeded, and the prices were reduced by 20%, and the extension was granted for another four years, at no interest, meaning that all plots had to be paid for by 1900.
In 1889, another law was relaxed, enabling settlers to sublet their allotments and seek employment elsewhere. This was necessary because at least two settlers, Parkin and Clements, had died, leaving their widows to bring up several children and work on the farm alone - an impossible task under the circumstances. Haworth had died in Johannesburg and his widow left Willowfountain to settle in Pietermaritzburg. Christieson left to become a carpenter in Pietermaritzburg. By 1889, the population of Willowfountain had reduced from 137 to 65.
Only four families paid off their allotments within the original 12 years, and another three had paid by the end of 1892. The LIB disbanded in 1894, and the Willowfountain community began to break up as most settlers sold their allotments immediately they received their title deed upon full payment. The Surveyor-General's Office (SGO) sent letters to the remaining ten defaulters in 1895, reminding them they were in arrears. Most settlers acknowledged this and assured the SGO that they intended to pay as soon as they were able. A further five settlers paid by 1900. All allotments were eventually paid for, with the last payment being made only in 1927, having thus taken 47 years for the owner to pay it off!
A Wesleyan Church was constructed on the settlement, as well as a graveyard, and some settlers were buried there. Those settlers of the Anglican and Presbyterian faiths went to Church in town, and when they died, they were buried there. In 1932, a Memorial to the settlers was erected next to the Wesleyan Church and cemetery at Willowfountain, to commemorate those who stayed to become part of South Africa's history. This stone, unveiled by the Honourable Dr W J O'Brien, mentioned the names of the original heads of families who settled there.
Names of the original settlers and their apprentices and wards include Aitchison, Barnett, Bradley, Brown, Christieson, Clarke, Clements, Delvin, Hadden, Hamlyn, Haworth, Leiper, Martin, Neden, Oldfield, Parkin, Pearse, Powdrill, Roberts, Symons, Thornycroft and Walker, who later changed their name to St Goran.
The writer of this article (Susan Roberts) is indebted to the 1949 thesis of Donald William Bosch for much of the information contained herein.
BOSCH, Donald William; 1949; The Wilgefontein Settlement 1880, thesis presented in the University of Natal for the degree of Master of Arts; University of Natal; Pietermaritzburg.