Steve on Sunday

24 January 2021

Greetings fellow mosquito murderers,

Yip, there’s been quite a lot of mosquitoes these last few weeks, especially here in the Kalahari where, when it rains, they appear in their millions. And has it rained here these last six or so weeks and there’s more acoming, or so they say. Both the rain and the mosquitoes. Something to look forward to. No lockdown among these vicious little creatures…

Grimmer. While being a word of some foreboding such as “…grimmer times are forecast”, it is a surname that was once very well known, especially in the then Cape colony towns of Colesberg and Kimberley, and even further afield in the fledgling Mashonaland, Matabeleland and Rhodesia.

Especially three of the Grimmer family – Dr William Grimmer, and his two sons Irvine Grimmer and Johnnie Grimmer. Indeed, the first two mentioned played a major role in the business, social and sporting scene of Kimberley virtually from its birth in 1871 until 1951.

Dr William Grimmer, the patriarch of the family, was the first District Surgeon of Griqualand West, his eldest son Irvine was a prominent sportsman and De Beers Consolidated Mines assistant general manager, and his fourth child, Jack (Johnnie), was the last personal secretary and close friend of Cecil Rhodes. His eldest daughter Ellen Rachel, was married to Judge Johannes Henricus Lange.

William Grimmer was born in Waterden, Norfolk, England, on 19 September 1834, fourth child of six from the union of John Robert Grimmer and Ellen Grimmer (nee Gibbon). All of their six children were born in England before the entire family emigrated to Colesberg in the Cape Colony where they purchased the farm “Holle River” – the large area to the east of the railway line in Colesberg. This was circa the middle 1840s. William’s eldest sister Anne married David Arnot in Colesberg in 1845, Arnot being well-known for his part in the Griqua nation’s claims to the area that included the diamond fields.

Not much is known about the early life of William excepting that he went to Scotland to study medicine at Edinburgh University, which is where he met his wife Jean (nee Patterson), Jean being born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 22 May 1839.

He was back in Colesberg by 1861, being employed as a medical inspector in 1862 before promotion to District Surgeon in 1863. Marriage to Jean was circa 1861, their first child Irvine Rowell Grimmer being born in Colesberg on 7 July 1862.

It was William that organised the first cricket match in Colesberg, this in November 1862, who together with others cleared an area south-west of the town for the field, prepared a dusty pitch, appointed umpires and erected awnings to shelter the ladies from the sun. The ladies duly appeared in “fashionable gowns”.

In January 1869, a massive storm hit the Colesberg region and the river that runs through the town flooded its banks and the nearby houses. The Grimmers resided in a cottage on the corner of the Market Square closest to the river and Jean was considered fortunate to escape with her (then) three children to higher ground.

South Africa (and Colesberg) was economically depressed at the time and the discovery of diamonds on the Orange River in late 1866, coupled to the later discovery of diamonds at the dry diggings of Dutoitspan and Bultfontein in November 1869, did much to alleviate the financial problems of the Cape Colony. It was also the death knell for Colesberg as most of the citizens, including well-known names such as Ortlepp, Rawstorne, Stafford Parker, Kisch, and Giddy, had left the town to seek their fortunes.

Dr Grimmer, quite safe with a steady salary, took a few more years before he too departed for Klipdrift (Barkly West) in April 1872, having accepted the position of District Surgeon for the Pniel District paying some £400 per annum.

It was in early 1875 he took up his appointment as Resident Surgeon of the Carnarvon Hospital in Kimberley at a salary of £300 per annum, and then shortly thereafter became the District Surgeon at a higher salary.

He remained as District Surgeon until his retirement shortly before his death, the job entailing much work in connection with sudden death, and his name is mentioned in most of the murders and executions in early Kimberley in connection with the autopsies.

Dr William Grimmer died in Kimberley on 30 April 1900, having survived the siege, from typhoid fever. This plague was decimating the British army at the time (from March to June 1900) and civilians were certainly not immune.

Irvine Rowell Grimmer was born in Colesberg, Cape Colony, on 7 July 1862, the eldest of eleven children of Dr William and Mrs Jean Grimmer, early Kimberley pioneers.

The family trekked to Kimberley in 1872 in wagons, outspanning first at Alexandersfontein and later at what is now known as Newton Park. While at Alexandersfontein Irvine and his younger brother Willie walked to Bultfontein mine and witnessed a stirring sight he would never forget – the sight of hundreds of diggers at work deep in the pit. Another younger brother was Johnnie Grimmer, close friend and confidante of Cecil Rhodes.

As the city and family settled down, the family moved into a wooden three-bedroomed house on Market Square and then later to a brick house in the grounds of the present Kimberley hospital. He was educated out of Kimberley at the Lovedale Missionary Institute near Alice, a good school that produced more than its fair share of outstanding citizens.

On 1 February 1884 Irvine started work with the “old” De Beers Mining Company in Warren Street as a clerk, and by March 1897 was the Assistant Company Secretary of De Beers Consolidated Mines. This post he relinquished in November 1905 when he was appointed the assistant General Manager, eventually retiring in that position in October 1932.

During the siege of Kimberley he was a Divisional Commander of the Kimberley Town Guard, being stationed at the Kimberley Mine Redoubt Number 1, and being mentioned in the despatches of Lt-Colonel Kekewich for his good work. By 1948 he was considered an authority on the history of Kimberley.

In every line of sport he was brilliant, but his three great loves were cricket, golf and billiards, his cricketing feats being legendary on the diamond fields. He was a hard hitting batsman, a good slip fielder and an exceptionally good bowler. He was the first bowler in South Africa to demonstrate the possibility of making a ball turn on hard ground, and his mastering of the overarm “off-break” set a new technique which was soon followed by bowlers all over the country. For a couple of seasons he was unplayable.

A founder member of the Eclectic Cricket Club, he also played for the Stray Klips, a touring team from Kimberley. In one match he had the extraordinary match figures of 16 wickets for 83 runs. He was a Griqua cricket stalwart for years and held many records, but his heyday was in the 1880s before the Currie Cup made its entrance to national cricket.

Grimmer was the Kimberley Golf Club captain on six occasions between 1902 and 1916, President from 1920 to 1922 and again from 1933 to 1947. He was the club champion in 1897 and 1903 and runner-up on no less than five occasions. He won the Rhodes Challenge Trophy three times, the Thal Cup twice and the Nind Cup once. At national level too, he was no slouch, winning the SA Foursomes in 1913 with Dr May and in 1903 won the East London (Easter Championship) scratch competition, coming fifth in the SA Amateur the same year.

He held the Kimberley course record thrice, shooting 77 in 1897, 74 in 1905, and a magnificent 71 in 1907, all this with inferior golfing equipment and balls. And it was on the blue chip gravel greens, not the lush greens of today’s world.

He was a more than able administrator, and apart from serving on the committee for 44 years he had the notable distinction of ensuring the smooth running of the SA Championships held in Kimberley in 1907 and 1913. In 1939 he was elected a Life Member of the golf club.

In billiards he was the Kimberley champion on numerous occasions.

Irvine Grimmer died in Muizenberg on 5 April 1951 leaving his wife Edith Jean to mourn his passing.

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 Dr William Grimmer and Jean Grimmer.

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 man 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. 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.

Just a little history before that too gets placed into quarantine…

I thank you.


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