While it is known that gold was found, and even exploited, at various places across the Witwatersrand prior to 1886, the fact remains that the most pivotal watershed moment in that early history of gold mining was the discovery of the Main Reef Series on the farm Langlaagte in the early months of that fateful year. This event not only served to confirm the auriferous nature of the Witwatersrand but also proved to be the catalyst for one of the world’s greatest gold rushes.
Yet, despite the catalytic nature of that discovery, the details of exactly when the golden outcrop was stumbled upon and by whom remains, to this day, clouded in controversy. The controversy stems from the fact that not enough official documentation ever existed to prove the claims of the different men and that no one bothered to verify the facts of the discovery of gold.
Although many names have been bandied about as the ‘true discoverers’, the controversy ultimately comes down to whether it was George Walker or George Harrison who was the first to stumble over the golden outcrop.
While there has certainly not been consensus among South African historians on the matter over the past century, there is now a definite lean in favour of Harrison, if South Africa’s history and tourism online resources are anything to go by.
The problem is that, while Walker’s and Harrison’s story of how they came to be on the Witwatersrand in early 1886 may be the same, their tale of the actual discovery is considerably different.
The story goes that, towards the end of 1885, Walker and Harrison, who were friends and fellow prospectors, stopped on the Witwatersrand while on a trek from the Orange Free State to the Barberton gold diggings.
Little is known of Harrison except that he was of Australian, and some say English, origin and had been a digger in the Australian gold rush. Walker, on the other hand, was definitely English and had begun his career as a miner in the English coal pits before making his way to Kimberley at the age of 26. As he had little luck there, he tried his hand at digging gold at Pilgrim’s Rest and the De Kaap valley before making his way to the Orange Free State, where he worked on a coal mine near Kroonstad.
It was while he was in the Free State that Walker met up with Harrison and the two decided to try their luck at the new Barberton gold diggings. As the trek was very long, they decided to break the journey on the Witwatersrand and earn some money. They approached the Struben brothers, who were mining the Confidence reef, for temporary work. As it happened, the Strubens needed help in erecting their stamp battery and so offered Walker the job. Harrison was advised to contact Petronela Oosthuizen, who wanted a house built for her son on her portion of the farm Langlaagte, just a few miles away. The two friends parted ways and agreed to meet up again once their contracts had been completed. It is at this point that each man’s story takes a different trajectory.
Writing to the gold commissioner of the Witwatersrand goldfields from Langlaagte on October 12, 1886, Harrison set out his claim to recognition as the discoverer of the Witwatersrand goldfields thus: “I, George Harrison, do hereby declare in the matter of my claims, on above-mentioned farm, that I am the original prospector of the quarter of the farm Langlaagte belonging to Gert Oosthuizen, and when I discovered reef on the said place, which was payable, me and the owner of the said place went to Pretoria and exhibited the quartz to His Honour the President, and there declared it was payable.”
Walker’s story, on the other hand, is much more elaborate, even though it was only recounted some 38 years later. In an article published in the Sunday Times on April 6,1924, Walker, aged 71, described his version of the discovery thus: “When I left Mr Struben, I went to see if Harrison had finished building the house. I decided to help him to get the work finished, so a portion of February 1886 we spent on the farm. One Sunday morning in that month I was so impatient to get away and felt a little down at the delay of staying there. I went for a walk. While strolling about across the farm of Willem Oosthuizen on the western boundary of the farm on which the farmhouse was being built, I made the discovery. I stumbled over an outcrop of rock and, on examining it, found it to be conglomerate. I became the prospector chipping a bit here, a bit there, of the rock. Then I took it to where we were building the house of Oosthuizen, where the house stands to this day . . . When I had crushed it as fine as I could get it, I found an old frying pan belonging to Mrs Oosthuizen. The result in the pan took my breath away. The bottom of the pan was covered with gold. I had seen some rich pannings in my travels, never like that after finding it.
“All idea of going to Barberton was knocked in, and I kept the find secret even from my chum Harrison for the time being. My first move on Monday morning was to interview the owner of the farm property [where] I found the reef. I was after an option contract, but the old farmer was obstinate in his refusal. He told me he would not let me, a Rooinek, put pick or shovel in his land. At the end of the argument, he came round to my way of it. It was best to give me three month option on that portion of the land where I struck the outcrop. “Then I had to think to find someone to finance me as I had to pay for the first-year option contract.”
Indeed, it would be difficult to verify either story. However, the next instalment of this column will elaborate on the outcome of a commission of inquiry set up in 1938 to determine who the rightful claimant to the title of discoverer of the Main Reef Series should be.