Steve on Sunday
16 May 2021
Greetings fellow enthusiasts of the written word,
The days are short and the nights are long, perfect for staying at home, keeping warm and having short sips of tea sweetened, or perhaps long swigs of the chilled and bottled beverages.
It was in May 1915 that there was great trauma and drama throughout the British Empire. It would affect South Africa and in Kimberley especially so, as the events that unwound there would result in one particular man becoming quite probably the richest person in Africa and one of the wealthiest in the world.
The Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by German U-boat U20 on Friday 7 May 1915 having first been identified and then torpedoed by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger.
Great Britain had implemented a naval blockade of Germany and in retaliation Germany had begun submarine warfare.
Captained by William Turner, the Cunard liner was carrying some 1959 passengers and crew when the torpedo struck at 14h10 that day, some 18 kilometres off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland.
It sank in 18 minutes, some 1198 people drowning with 761 survivors including Captain Turner.
The sinking of the Lusitania with the death of so many civilians is arguably one of the turning points of World War I as it turned many countries against Germany. The loss of 128 Americans also contributed to the USA entering the war two years later, and Great Britain used the tragedy in their recruiting campaign.
Anti-German sentiment gave vent to rioting and looting throughout the British Empire and anyone who had a surname that sounded German became a target for retribution. South Africa and Kimberley were not immune.
Johannesburg and Durban had erupted in rioting by Tuesday 11 May and Kimberley followed suit on Thursday 13 May 1915.
By 21h00 on the evening of 13 May a group of Kimberley residents had gathered at the corner of Market Square and Dunell Street, their aim to destroy the hairdressing shop of a Mr Pfeffer on Dunell Street. The presence of police prevented them from carrying out their intention and the group moved to Jones Street where they waited until the Vaudette Theatre emptied at 22h30. A soldier in uniform harangued the group by the Central Hotel, the group singing patriotic songs such as “Rule Britannia”.
Many of the Vaudette patrons joined the group as they moved back to Mr Pfeffer’s shop on Dunell Street where they then destroyed the windows. With “increasing eagerness for mischief” the group moved on to the African Lion Bar where the windows were also smashed, as was the nearby street light. The doors to the bar were then broken and the mob rushed in and destroyed most of the interior including the fittings.
On Market Square the “Day and Night” Stall of a Mr F Wagner was totally destroyed despite the Union Jack flag flying. On Transvaal Road another barber’s shop was attacked and all the windows shattered.
It was at this stage the police arrived in force, but despite batons being drawn, were helpless to stop the rioters.
Leinberger and Company, a wine and spirit merchant on Stockdale Street suffered severe damage, with all windows on both storeys being destroyed, and once the doors had been forced, looting and destruction commenced. Several of the group were seen to loot liquor, while others set fire to the building and to shop fittings outside the firm. Liquor running down the street from broken bottles also caught alight.
The fire brigade arrived, as did mounted police, and the fire was extinguished but the building had suffered major damage.
In Dutoitspan Road the windows of the tobacconist O. Vihrog were broken and over the road, the American Stores was targeted but saved from destruction by the mounted police taking up positions in front of the shop.
The mob them moved on past the Presbyterian Church to visit Bigalke’s bakery, but beyond a few kicks to the door, could do nothing more due to the presence of the police. On the way to the Diamond Market more windows were broken and at least six stones were thrown through the windows of Ernest Oppenheimer’s office.
Rolfes Nebel and Company were then targeted and after looting, a fire was started but soon brought under control by the fire brigade.
The mob seemed intent on visiting Beaconsfield but after much discussion decided to call it off, finally dispersing at 01h00 on the morning of Friday 14 May.
The majority of the rioters were young, and there were several wearing the Union Defence Force uniform.
The Diamond Fields Advertiser reported that “Large crowds filled the streets and curiously watched a scene of violence and wreckage such as has no parallel in the past records of Kimberley.”
The next evening, Friday 14 May, saw large crowds gather in Beaconsfield and in Kimberley in order to recommence the orgy of destruction, but the police together with the army, were well prepared to counter any moves made by the mob.
In their various movements around Beaconsfield and Kimberley the windows of the following stores were broken: Mr Trechardt the hairdresser, the Humber Cycle Company, B Klenerman, the American Stores, and Mr Bigalke’s Bakery. Bigalke’s Bakery was broken into and a fire started, which was soon extinguished by the fire brigade.
City Councillor Henry Schmidt’s premises were attacked, while the Grand Hotel on Market Square, although targeted, was not attacked due to police presence.
The active presence of the police (and army) had saved Kimberley from a second night of destruction, and they were complimented on their exemplary performance and behaviour.
The sinking of the Lusitania also saw the South African government issue a proclamation that all German subjects report to the Magistrate for immediate internment. In Kimberley between 40 and 50 reported.
(The only internment camp for Germans in South Africa during the war was at Fort Napier in the Pietermaritzburg region.)
Ernest Oppenheimer (later Sir Ernest) resigned as Mayor of Kimberley and as a Town Councillor.
May 12, 1915
The Town Clerk
With reference to my personal notification to the Deputy Mayor and yourself yesterday that I had (after careful consideration) decided to resign both my position of Mayor and my seat on the City Council, I desire to place before you a few points in connection therewith.
As you know, my second term of office terminated when, owing to the declaration of war in Europe, the very serious crisis in the affairs of Kimberley commenced.
At the urgent request of ten out of the 11 of my brother Councillors, I agreed to remain temporarily in office, as I felt it would be lacking in public spirit on my part if I declined to do so under the very adverse conditions then existing.
My action in this matter must have met with the approval of the vast majority of the ratepayers, as I subsequently received a most flattering memorial signed by no less than 5000 of the citizens.
Needless to say, I valued very highly the honour thus accorded, alike by the Councillors and citizens of Kimberley, as it gave me the opportunity of proving my interest in public affairs, and also (if only in a small way) my appreciation of the benefits I enjoy as a citizen of the British Empire.
The confidence reposed in me by the Council and its citizens stimulated my efforts to do all in my power to avert as far as practicable, and to assist where possible, all classes of distress amongst the inhabitants of Kimberley which were placed before me. To this end the Mayor’s War Relief Fund was inaugurated, and in this connection I desire to place on record the very generous financial assistance I received from the De Beers Company, the commercial and general community of Kimberley, without which it would have been impossible to carry on a work that at one time involved a very large outlay.
I feel that the local distress, consequent of the war, has now been considerably alleviated, and the financial position of the Relief Fund is such that I can hand it over to my successor with every confidence that he will be satisfied with the position, and I am able to promise that the clerical assistance rendered by Mr HE Clark and other members of the Syndicate staff will be continued for the present.
The finances of the city are in a satisfactory condition.
The improvement and extension of the tramway system, together with the great reduction of fares (a work to which I devoted much time, and in which I took a keen interest) have now become an accomplished fact.
The position being as above stated, I feel there is nothing to prevent the placing of my resignation in the hands of the Council.
In doing so, I would like to add the expressions of my very sincere gratitude for the kindly assistance I have at all times received from my fellow Councillors, and my appreciation of the hearty co-operation of all mebers of the municipal staff.
I am, dear sir,
(Sgd) E Oppenheimer
Mayor of Kimberley
This resignation of Ernest Oppenheimer as Mayor of Kimberley and as a Town Councillor as a result of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and subsequent anti-German riots set in motion a few days of fear and turmoil for his family and himself.
He had no option but to resign his position and seat on the council, especially after being verbally abused by fellow Councillor Fred Hicks in the council chambers. It was Hicks that pushed for his resignation and it was Hicks who was the only Councillor to vote against him remaining as Mayor.
On the night of 13 May when the anti-German mob ran riot in Kimberley, looting and burning buildings and their contents, Ernest Oppenheimer and his young family (wife May and sons Harry and Frank) were moved from their residence at 7 Lodge Road in Belgravia for safety considerations. There were several well-known people residing in the area who were of German descent and upbringing, of whom Oppenheimer was the most prominent. (De Beers Director Fritz Hirschorn, residing at No 13 Lodge Road, also moved for safety’s sake.)
They were taken to 11 Lodge Road, two houses further up the road from the Oppenheimer family, to the home of Irvine Grimmer, assistant general manager of the De Beers Company. Grimmer was a person whom the Kimberley public respected and admired for his sporting prowess, his role in the siege of Kimberley, his position in De Beers, and for his outgoing vibrant personality. He would be able to handle any mob should they appear.
Having spent the night in sleepless but relative security while the mob rioted, the next day (14 May), Ernest sent his family by train to Cape Town, the first step on the path to England. He would remain in Kimberley to sort out a few personal and business details.
This sojourn in Kimberley did not last long.
On 15 May Ernest was travelling by car from his offices near De Beers Head Office on Stockdale Street, when he was physically accosted by a mob on Currey Street. It is quite possible that he had been at the Kimberley Club because it does appear the rioters were waiting for him. Smashing the car windows with Ernest inside the vehicle, he managed to escape, blood flowing from head wounds caused by shattered glass, and ran into the nearby Catholic Convent on Currey Street. (Adjacent to the Cathedral and opened in June 1882).
The nuns of the Holy Family gave him immediate sanctuary which was respected by the mob baying outside. His wounds coupled to shock were treated by the nuns and when it was safe, they escorted him back to his home on Lodge Road. It was a matter of hours before he too was on the train to Cape Town to join his family en route to England.
There are still today many rumours about Ernest Oppenheimer’s thoughts on Kimberley and its future. They may be true but cannot be authenticated. He most certainly would have brooded over his treatment by a minority of Kimberley’s citizens.
What is true, and quite amazing really, is that it took only 14 years from those terrible and frightening days in 1915, for Ernest Oppenheimer to launch the Anglo-American gold mining giant (1917) and to become the majority shareholder in De Beers Consolidated Mines (1929).
A comeback second to none in South African and Kimberley history.
Sir Ernest was knighted in 1921 for his contribution to Great Britain’s war efforts during the Great War of 1914 to 1918.
These efforts by Sir Ernest included:
The Mayor’s War Relief Fund (the mines had all closed)
Personally raising the 2nd Battalion Kimberley Regiment
Parcels sent to Kimberley men on active service,
canvassed funds for the Red Cross.
He had done more, much more, than any other Kimberley citizen.
Sir Ernest never forgot the nuns of the Holy Family. An annual contribution has been continued by his descendants. Of more interest to residents of Kimberley today was his allowing the nuns to utilise the Hotel Belgrave as their Convent when the hotel shut down in the early 1930s.
I thank you.