Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alec "Wheelbarrow" Patterson and the Pilgrim' Rest gold rush

South Africa’s history, particularly in the last 150 years, is woven around the discovery of its amazing mineral wealth, particularly diamonds and gold.  It is the history of people and countries trying to grab these resources to make themselves rich.

Needless to say, there are interesting people associated with these developments – names such as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato (read about him here) to name two.  But one of the strangest is a man few know about – Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson, a taciturn, eccentric loner.

The search for gold in South Africa goes back at least a thousand years, perhaps even more, with diggings at Mapungubwe in Limpopo province.  Gold from there found its way to such diverse areas as Arabia, India and Phoenicia.

In modern times, the first gold rush occurred at what is now known as Sabie in the province of Mpumalanga (Place of the Rising Sun) in 1873.  [The name Sabie is derived from the local word ulusaba, which means 'fearful river' because of the ferocious Nile crocodiles that lived in it.]  

One of the people who arrived in Sabie to make his fortune was Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson.

He earned the nickname “Wheelbarrow” because, as the story goes, when he headed north out of Cape Town (1700 kms south of Sabie), he had a donkey to carry his meager possessions.  Apparently, one say when he was loading it, the donkey kicked him, so he decided to move to a more technologically advanced machine, one that wouldn’t hurt him as much - the wheelbarrow.  So he ended up pushing the wheelbarrow the remaining 1600 kms or so.  If that was not enough, the area around Sabie is mountainous, making the feat even more amazing.

"Wheelbarrow" Patterson

After some time, Wheelbarrow decided that the diggings at Sabie were too crowded for his liking, so he wandered off and soon found alluvial gold in a stream about 5 kms from Sabie.  Not liking crowds, and possibly because he, like all gold seekers, was greedy, he didn’t tell anyone.  He just kept on panning.

Panning for gold

Unfortunately for him, another wandering gold digger, William Trafford, came along and also found gold in the stream, which became known as Pilgrim’s Stream because, as another story goes, when he found his first gold, he shouted “The Pilgrim is at rest!”  Unlike Wheelbarrow, who had kept his find a secret, Trafford officially registered his claim.  The area, which became known as Pilgrim’s Rest, was officially proclaimed a gold field on September 22, 1873, causing a huge gold rush, far bigger than that of Sabie,  In less than a year 1,500 diggers were working 4,000 claims.

The site of the gold rush next to Pilgrim's Stream

A claim, by the way, was 150 feet by 150 feet (47 metres square) and marked by corner pegs, which were scrupulously observed by the diggers.  Despite the reputation of gold seekers as being no-gooders, no claims were allowed to be worked on Sundays, nor between sunset and sunrise on all other days.

Although most of the gold was in the form of dust, some nuggets were also found, the largest verified one weighing 6 kgs (214 ounces).  At today’s prices that nugget would be worth more than $250,000.

When the alluvial gold started to run out, some diggers went to nearby Barberton where more gold had been found, some went to Johannesburg, where gold was discovered in 1885, and some stayed and started mining deeper into the soil.  This, of course, required heavier machinery, so the largest hydro-electric power plant in the southern hemisphere was built nearby and Pilgrim’ Rest became the second city in what is now South Africa to be electrified.  The first was another mining town – Kimberley, which Michael has written about (Click here to read that blog.).  The real cities and towns came later.

Electricity was needed to move the ore.

The Pilgrim’s Rest mines continued producing well into the 20th Century – and was the reason my grandfather, Hugh Scott MacGregor, left Scotland for South Africa.

So what happened to Wheelbarrow?

I wish I had a romantic story of how he pushed his barrow to the next stream and found more gold, or of how he made his fortune and retired to a life of luxury with someone else pushing the barrow.  But nothing is known of what happened to him.  He just passed into history having found an area that ended up producing hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold.

Most of the land in and around Pilgrim’s Rest was owned privately by a company that became known as Barlow-Rand.  It sold the land to the government of the then province of the Transvaal.  In 1986 the entire village of Pilgrim's Rest was declared a National Monument as a living memory of the early gold rush days.  It is a delightful town to visit, as are other gold-rush towns in the area.

Pilgrim's Rest today

Downtown in Pilgrim's Rest

Stan - Thursday


  1. Congratulations, Stan, your post is leading us into our 1,500,000th visitor to Murder is Everywhere! The actual event will happen on Caro's watch, but in thinking of a suitable event to commemorate the occasion I thought you might fess up an tell us what your Scottish grandfather did with poor Patterson's wheelbarrow. We know he had to be involved, the coincidence is just too great.

  2. So Hugh Scott MacGregor left Scotland purely for the demands of his job - nothing to do with the weather then!

    Oh and - what happened to the donkey?

  3. my first visit to your blog, Greetings