Steve on Sunday
1 November 2020
Greetings my fellow sufferers,
Not quite a prophet of doom today, but if I look back over the last five decades – have I been around that long, goodness – there has been suffering both personal and otherwise throughout.
Sure, the suffering when a teenager was more to do with rejection of heart offerings and a tad later the mean mother of all alcohol induced headaches. Which was actually quite often those days. Funny how the cure for a hangover was to consume another strongly flavoured beverage. Never believed it until I tried it and it worked! My cure in those early days of imbibing was one massive breakfast cum mixed grill. That worked too, but just made one well enough to start again as soon as possible.
Suffering continued. Leaving one’s home town, one’s country, hangover, loss of loved family members, loss of family friends, loss of family pets, hangover, leaving a job for another job, saying farewell to friends, watching the TV news, watching Dallas and Dynasty (remember who killed JR?), hangover. All very easily handled and then along came a certain age. With me it was 55, with others 65 or 75 or even 45. Aches and pains, illnesses not even mentioned or thought of by google, arthritis, getting out of bed, the list is endless.
Just suffering but like my eleven readers, mostly in silence until your neighbor has systems of illness worse than yours and then suddenly the contest is on! I will and must have more fatal diseases than he has.
Which brings me to the point of this particular blurb today – the siege of Kimberley of 1899-1900, and in particular one young citizen of the United States of America who lies buried in Kimberley, George Frederick Labram. While it may not be he who suffered but rather his family, the suffering of the people of Kimberley would have been a lot worse if it were not for this George Labram.
Food rationing started in Kimberley, besieged by the Boers since 14 October 1899, on 31 October some seventeen days later. On 1 November, 121 years ago today, General Koos de la Rey’s men blew up the De Beers dynamite magazine on the farm Dronfield some 10 kms north of Kimberley. The mines would shut within a few days because of this.
Back to the American. George Labram was the engineer for De Beers Consolidated Mines and invented the famous grease table after discovering that diamonds stick to grease while under water, but nothing else does.
He was staying in the Grand Hotel on Market Square until his death in the same hotel by a Boer Long Tom (94 pounder) on 9 February 1900.
Despite the history books stating that he was employed by De Beers, he was certainly not at the time of his death.
(I also stayed at the Grand Hotel when arriving in Kimberley in June 1980 and met up with the British and Irish Lions and the local Griqua rugby side. Good memories other than the hangovers.)
Let us get back to Labram – he’s a lot more important than myself, Griquas and the British and Irish Lions combined.
Labram had resigned from his position as Chief Engineer (Mechanical and Electrical) of De Beers Consolidated Mines, his letter of resignation dated 23 September 1899 stating his last day of employment would be 31 December that year, thus giving three months notice to De Beers.
He had been working closely with local Lt-Colonel Henry Scott-Turner and the rest of the Staff Corps who had been in Kimberley since June that same year, and there is no doubt that the influence of Scott-Turner, whose company he enjoyed, ensured that he stayed in his position longer than he probably intended.
All historical books dealing with Labram and the making of the famed Long Cecil gun always mention that he was killed in his room at the Grand Hotel, but never question as to WHY he was staying at an hotel if he was an employee of De Beers. By June 1899 he had already been negotiating with his employer-to-be in the USA, and in his top position would have had a company house in Belgravia, Kimberley.
Mr Sadler, at the time of Labram’s death, was the manager of the Grand Hotel. He wrote that the room occupied by Labram at the hotel was known as the De Beers room, “…for many men in turn occupied the position of chief engineer lived at the ‘Grand’ and had that room.”
Labram’s decision to remain would cost him his life, but it definitely saved the town from surrendering to the Boers.
His wife Flora, writing to Cecil Rhodes in April 1900, was naturally very bitter about her husband remaining in Kimberley while she waited in Cape Town for him to join her.
“We, who are left, feel his life has been sacrificed for the De Beers Company, English nation, and others. Had he returned at the outbreak of the war as he should have done, he might have been with us now, but he did not and stayed to do a grand and noble work, only to be taken at the last. How cruel [that] poor Fred and I must be the sufferers.”
Flora had asked husband George to leave Kimberley and return to America and his new job before the war began, but he refused. “No, Flora dear,” he said to her, “I am not a coward and if I were to come away it would look as though I was. I know I could do more than any one man in Kimberley to help protect De Beer’s properties and help the town of Kimberley…but, don’t worry my dear, nothing will happen to me.”
Tempting fate it may have been, but George Labram was killed in his room at the Grand Hotel by the last shell fired by the Boer Long Tom into Kimberley on the evening of 9 February 1900, a mere six days before the town was relieved. Mr Sadler commented that “…he was in the act of changing dress and had raised his arm to divest himself of his coat when the shell came, not through the window as reported, but through the roof at the back and struck the corner of an adjacent room with sufficient impact to explode the shell, which went through the double plate-glass mirror of a wardrobe without injuring the woodwork. Portion of the shell had taken a piece out of Mr Labram’s hat, which had been placed on the table. Mr Labram was buried beneath the debris.”
What did this genius do for Kimberley that he saved the town?
- Designed and built the 28.1 pounder Long Cecil gun (with the assistance of Goffe and the De Beers Workshops). This was considered to be one of the greatest feats in the history of besieged towns in the world;
- Designed and fitted out four armoured trains, two of which did sterling work during the siege of Kimberley;
- Converted the headgear of the De Beers Mine into a watch/observation tower by building a protected platform upon the summit;
- Connected this watch tower (known as the Conning Tower, conning being short for Reconnaissance), by telephone to the various positions around the town’s defensive line. This included the artillery and ambulance HQ, the railway station, and the armoured trains. This proved most successful;
- Designed and erected the platforms for the massive De Beers searchlights;
- Designed and set up a new water supply system for Kimberley by pumping water from the Wesselton Mine and connecting it to the Kimberley system. This after the Boers had cut the water line from the Vaal river to Kimberley;
- Planned and erected a cold storage facility of 14 000 cubic feet with a plant to preserve carcasses of cattle and sheep while they were still fat. Although the building had been planned and built well before the war, the plant had not yet arrived and he made one), and;
- Manufactured shells and fuses for the Imperial forces besieged within Kimberley from middle November 1899, a good 6 weeks before designing Long Cecil.
What more could one man have done – he had saved Kimberley.
It is, perhaps, his discovery and subsequent invention of the grease table in the diamond recovery system, that he is best remembered today. This system, patented by Labram and his co-discoverer, Fred Kirsten, was sold by Mrs Labram to De Beers after her husband’s death. (The discovery that diamonds would adhere to grease in the presence of water was made by Kirsten, and Labram designed the method of recovering diamonds from the concentrate applied practically in a shaking table covered by grease.)
And how did Kimberley remember this man of America, her adopted son who lies in the Gladstone cemetery? He who saved Kimberley? Not very well, I am afraid. There is a small suburb named after him. And, there is a bronze tablet on the Honoured Dead memorial recording his work with the Long Cecil, the gun positioned on the stylobate of the memorial.
De Beers though, did not forget. Apart from the purchase of the diamond recovery patent, they paid for the entire education of his son, Fred. It was the very least they could do.
Also from De Beers, Mrs Flora Labram received $500 per annum for the remainder of her life and their 13-year-old son $1000 per year until he came of age. Great Britain also granted Mrs Labram a once-off sum of £1000 for the services her husband had rendered during the siege.
November each year includes Remembrance Day where most of us remember those who fell in wars, especially World War I and World War II. It came as quite a shock a few days ago to find out a few days ago that Kimberley will not be having a memorial service this year, the first time since 1919 that there will not be a service. The excuse, naturally, is the plague, but methinks it may be the beginning of the end for these imperial and colonial memorial services.
The realisation that these men, Black and White, gave their lives in sufferance, has obviously not hit home and may never do so. Had it not been for their sacrifice the chances of a democratic South Africa would have been slim and perhaps, just perhaps, we may all have been jackboot marching, speaking German, giving a straight high five now and again, and humming Beethoven’s tunes. If the Germans had won of course, but they did not. Assuredly, had that been the case, that EFF(ing) chap would certainly not be around.
Suffering is not easy, is it?
I thank you.