Given that mining has almost always been a wholly male dominated enterprise, information relating to women is disappointingly sparse from the historical record. Of course, there is the odd snippet here and there detailing the more risqué role that women played in South Africa’s early mining history, but there is precious little narrative of the ‘upstanding’ ladies who were, in fact, pioneers of the various mineral rushes, either in their own right as explorers and diggers or as companions to their husbands and brothers.
This is particularly true of South Africa, a firmly patriarchal society, whose historical mining record is almost entirely skewed in favour of the stories and anecdotes of the men who explored, discovered and mined the plethora of our precious resources.
But, once in a while, a little gem of information is uncovered that gives a glimpse into the life of the pioneering mining women of the late nineteenth century. One such gem relates to a Mrs Sam Wemmer, who is considered the first female pioneer of the Witwatersrand gold rush. (The fact that she was referred to not by her own Christian name but by that of her husband speaks volumes about the patriarchy of South African society. Her actual name is believed to have been Helena, although her husband referred to her in letters as Marje.)
Scant details are available of the woman’s early years, although it is believed she was born in or around 1850 and was the daughter of PJ Hartogh, a farmer in the Middelburg district of what is present-today Mpumulanga. Similarly, little information is available of the early life of Sam Wemmer, the man she married in Potchefstroom in 1866.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the two had an adventurous spirit, for, shortly after their wedding, diamonds were discovered a few hundred kilometres west of Potchefstroom and, like many other Transvaal residents, the couple were soon infected with diamond fever and so packed their belongings and trekked off in search of their fortune. The Wemmers were among the first diggers to rush not only the farm Dutoitspan in December 1870 but also Colesburg Kopje, which eventually became the Kimberley mine, in July 1871. From the claim he bought in the Kimberley mine, for which he paid just £7 (about R11 000 in today’s terms), Wemmer mined stones to the total value of £60 000 (R95-million today) before eventually selling out a little over a year later.
The early rush days in the fledgling mining camp that became Kimberley were full of trials and hardships for the youthful wife, who was, by then, a mother of two children. Much later in life, she told journalists that there were times when as much as 6d (R40 today) a cup was paid for water, a head of cabbage could cost as much as 15s (R1 200 today) and eggs and butter could not be bought at any price.
Having made a considerable profit, the Wemmers decided to move back to the Transvaal in 1873. There, they lived a fairly staid existence for the next 13 years in Pretoria and had an additional 11 children. It would appear that the Wemmers were quite a respectable family, as they built friendly relations with all leading figures of the day, including Transvaal President Paul Kruger.
While they chose to miss out on the Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton gold rushes, they certainly capitalised on the Witwatersrand one. Having heard the rumours of the Struben brothers’ activities on the Confidence Reef mine and of George Harrison’s discovery on Langlaagte, Wemmer decided to “see what was happening” for himself. What Wemmer encountered when he arrived on the new rush scene convinced him that a second Kimberley was in the making and wrote to his wife, urging her and the family to pack up and make haste to the new Eldorado. She duly did as instructed and, before the close of 1886, the family was settled in a rented farmhouse in the vicinity of where Empire road runs through Parktown today. For this reason, she is considered the first respectable lady to have settled in what would become Johannesburg.
As he arrived so early in the rush, Wemmer was able to stake some rather good claims along the line of the exposed conglomerate reef. Before the close of 1886, he had staked 12 continuous claims on the eastern portion of the farm Turffontein, which eventually formed the nucleus of the Wemmer gold mine. Interestingly, the Wemmer mine was the first to crush gold on the Central Rand and declare a production of 887 oz in May 1887. It was also the first of the Rand gold mining companies to declare a dividend, which was 40% of its £28 000 capital, in July 1887.
While her husband busied himself with his new mine, Mrs Wemmer ensured that their household was maintained and that the family was well provided for. However, this was no easy task, especially in the early years. Before her death, she told journalists that one of the greatest obstacles during the rush days was the scarcity of food and water. As everyone was so focused on mining gold, the cultivation or even supply or food was of little concern and so provisions had to be sent by government from Pretoria. Similarly, water had to be conveyed to the fledgling camps by means of carts from a small water source at what was known as Fordsburg Dip.
Yet the Wemmers survived such hardships and stayed on to become one of the most respectable of the pioneer families in the City of Gold. In fact, the name Wemmer has deep historical significance to the City of Johannesburg, with the family’s pioneering legacy lingering on in the small lake and recreational area south of Johannesburg known as Wemmer Pan.
Mrs Wemmer, who died in February 1933, was survived by her 13 children, 43 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.