THE STORY OF JOHN THORBURN : 1838 - 1909
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John Thorburn taken in London ca 1890John Thorburn was a remarkable and, even, an extraordinary man. He left home as a teenager, travelled the world at a time when the only real transport was by sea and made himself a small place in history. He became rich in money and lost it all, also rich in political influence but lost that too. He made an astonishing decision to carry a steam launch across country, from Cape Town to Lourenco-Marques, an epic journey by any standards. He was a friend and ally of the King of Swaziland and an influential figure in the development of that country; he was one of the Europeans who virtually ruled the country through the Swaziland Committee and, at one time, he was almost in a position of potentially owning the entire country. He met other important figures of the day - Cecil Rhodes for sure and perhaps H M Stanley; he may well have known Paul Kruger, the President of the Boer state of the Transvaal and certainly dealt with various high ranking officials in the British administration in Southern Africa. His son-in-law, Allister Mitchell Miller, became known as Swaziland's Greatest Hero', the man credited with cementing the foundations of that nation. Another son-in-law, James H Howe, was also an important figure in Swazi politics, even summoning the King to court on one occasion. Thorburn attended the Stanley and African Exhibition in London in 1890, and a similar extravanganza in 1899 or 1900 when he brought a squad of young Swazis to England. He was, reportedly, the subject of the last anti-slavery trial to be held in the United Kingdom, in 1891, though he was acquitted of all charges despite being out of the county and represented in court by his wife. By 1900 he seems to have left Swaziland for good, he spent time in England, perhaps also in France and Austria, until he ended his days in Johannesburg, largely forgotten and virtually broke. Along the way, he had time to bring some 20 children into the world by at least 3 different women, and now has descendants spread throughout all of Southern Africa as well as in other parts of the world. The big surprise is that he is almost unknown today and no one in Hollywood has thought to make a film of his life.
EARLY YEARS - to 1864John Thorburn is, by some distance, the most colourful character so far found in my family tree. He was my 2nd cousin 4 times removed which makes him pretty distant in familial terms, though nonetheless very interesting. John was born in Marsham Street, Westminster, in May 1838 into a family of bookbinders; his father and grandfather, both also named John, had been bookbinders, and John himself seems to have followed in the same trade, at least initially, as did one of his brothers. The family origins were mixed; John's paternal grandfather was a Scot, born in Edinburgh probably in 1783, and his grandmother was Ann Atkins, an English girl from the college town of Eton, while his father was born in Eton but married an Irish woman, Mary Riley, in London 1837. John was his parents' first-born, with eight more children arriving by 1854.
EARLY MARRIED LIFEJohn certainly was back in England before the end of the Civil War as he married his first wife, Mary Davis, in Southwark in September 1864. He was then described as being a bachelor of full age and gave his occupation as 'bookbinder'; he named his father as John Thorburn, also a bookbinder, but the witnesses did not include any family members, suggesting the possibility of a 'falling-out'. Mary was a spinster and also described as being of full age; she named her father as Edward Davis, deceased, but did not state any previous occupation for him. At the time, John was living in Bennet Street and Mary in Hatfield Street, both in Southwark. It would seem that life was reasonably normal for the next few years with John continuing to work as a bookbinder and Mary producing children at regular intervals - John Horace in April 1865, Beatrice Mary in September 1866, Eliza Laura in February 1868, Kate in June 1869, Marion Louise Saville in November 1870 and Claude Walter in August 1872. The family seems to have moved with great frequency during these years; John Horace was born at 26 Bennett Street, though when the birth was registered in October, his father gave his address as 3 Castle Street, Holborn. Beatrice was born at 15 Cursitor Street in the City, but when the birth was registered five weeks later, John gave his address as 10 Wallworth Road. The birth of Eliza Laura in 1868 was registered by her mother who gave her name as Mary Elizabeth Thorburn (the same as recorded on the earlier registrations) and her address as 22 Upper Stamford Street, Lambeth, the same place as the birth. On all of these registrations, John's occupation was given as 'bookbinder' but when his next child, Kate, was born he appears to have become a 'waste paper dealer'and the family had moved yet again, this time to 106 Stamford Street; this birth was again registered by his wife, though now calling herself only Elizabeth. The two final children were both born at the same address, John registering Marion's birth and Mary Elizabeth registering that of Claude Walter, and John's occupation had reverted to 'bookbinder' on both of these occasions.
SECOND TIME AROUNDJohn Thorburn married his second wife, Catherine Mary Florence Parr, on 27th July 1878 in Hope Town, some seventy miles south of Kimberley, although the residence of both was given as Kimberley itself. John was described as being a widower and storekeeper, while his under age bride had the consent of Catherine Parr, presumably her mother. Whether caring for the children of his first marriage was a driving force in this second union or not, is unknown; his new wife was some 20 years John's junior and, at the time of the marriage, he was actually more than twice her age raising questions that will almost certainly never be answered. The marriage record records his spouse only as 'Mary Florence' and it is unclear whether Catherine was actually part of her name or not; her mother was named Catherine and it could be that the addition of this name to her own is an unjustified embellishment. It does appear that she was known as 'Florrie' although later references name her as C.M., M.F. and even C.M.F Thorburn; most references seem to name her as Mary Florence. She was born in Bedford (north of Port Elizabeth), South Africa, to English parents, George Parr and Catherine Cleaver, although the date is unknown - it was probably in the late 1850s though it may have been in 1860 as she gave her age as 18 at the time of her marriage. Known as 'Florrie', she was, apparently, educated at a catholic convent in Cape Town but later accompanied John on many of his subsequent journeys and seems to have had an active part in some of his business enterprises too. Along the way, she manged to provide a long and steady stream of children; no one seems quite sure how many but it was at least 10 and could have been twelve or even more. Despite her catholic upbringing, there is evidence that the first child of this union was born in October 1878, little more than 2 months after the marriage; Henry Claude Lewis Thorburn was baptised by the Wesleyan Methodist minister at Kimberley in November 1878, with his birthdate recorded as 2nd October 1878 and his parents named as John and Mary Florence of 'Du Toits Pan'. 'Du Toits Pan' was one of the main diamond mining areas at the time, named after the original occupier of the land. It is interesting that, although John was still in the diamond fields at this time, he seems to have turned his hand to trading rather than working as a miner although exactly what he was doing is unclear. According to Thorburn himself, in his biographical book 'Struggles in Africa', he left the diamond fields in 1880 and took to keeping a store on the banks of the 'Vaal' river, near Kimberley; the introduction to the 1978 reprint of the book states more precisely that this was near Christiana, which is to the north of Kimberley and just in the Transvaal, while Bulpin places it even more precisely as being at Vegdraai. Thorburn says that he was doing a good business from his store until it, his house and all his belongings, were swept away by a freak flooding of the river; he and his wife were apparently left without even a change of clothing. They borrowed clothes and made their way to Kimberley to find help, eventually managing to restablish the store; perhaps surprisingly, John made no mention of any children being present at this time and it may be that those still 'at home' were being cared for elswhere, perhaps with Florrie's mother. Following the flood, John began to think of the possibilities of navigating the river to create a link with Kimberley; older residents informed him that while extreme flooding was rare, the river usually had a good flow in the summer months and so, after surveying the area and deciding that various obstructions in the river could be overcome, he sent instructions to Messrs Edwards and Symes of London for the building of a steam launch. This was to be a substantial craft, being 37 feet long and with a beam of 8½ feet, twin propellors and a 12 horse power engine and made of steel; it was designed to carry 30 passengers as well as freight. Thorburn applied to the governments of the Transvaal and Free State, which bordered the river, for permission to begin work removing the assorted obstacles and subsequently spent some three years on the task. The steam launch arrived at Cape Town during this time and, according to Bulpin, was transported the 500 miles to Kimberley in a specially built wagon, by early 1882. After clearing the river, Thorburn built a barge for the transportation of coal, large enough to carry 300 sacks; at this time, coal was transported overland on wagons from mines on the upper Vaal to the regions of Kimberley and the Lower Vaal, up to 180 miles and an expensive enterprise and clearly open to improvement. Thorburn clearly had grandiose plans and was looking forward to a very profitable outcome to all of his efforts. It seems that Thorburn must have given up his store near Christiana and moved to a farm at Stilfontein, not far from Potchefstrrom, at some time between 1880 and 1884, however this is yet another event for which the date is uncertain. All that currently can be said is that he was at Christiana in 1880 and Stilfontein by January 1885. In 'Struggles in Africa', there is reference to the death of a child, a girl aged 2½, while on a trek before the epic journey with his launch, but when he was accompanied by Florrie; there must be at least a possibility that this death occurred while the family was moving from Christiana to Stilfontein, which, given that the child could not have been born before July 1879 at the earliest, would place the relocation as not before early 1882. Sadly, after spending around £4,000, a huge sum in those days, all of this planning and work came to nothing. Thorburn discovered that he could not navigate the river after all and had to look for alternative uses for his boat. His first thought was to turn to providing excursion trips on the Upper Vaal, near the town of Potchefstroom, the oldest European settlement in the Transvaal. He took the boat out of the Lower Vaal, placed her on wagons and conveyed her some 200 miles to the Upper Vaal where he relaunched her. In April 1884, he was apparently advertising daily excursions and picnic parties along the Vaal from the farm Modderfontein, on his steam boat, now named 'The President' in honour of President Brand of the Orange Free State. Though this venture must have continued for several months, it also came to nothing. Next, Thorburn heard that Colonel Warren had arrived from England with a force of some 4,000 troops, bound for Bechuanaland; furthermore, he heard that Warren need to cross the Vaal and would have difficulty. Accordingly, Thorburn again removed his boat from the river, transferred it back onto wagons and trekked the 200 miles back to the Lower Vaal; there he discovered that Warren's force had already made the crossing. (This must have been early in 1885 as Warren had landed at Cape Town on 4th December 1884, reached the Vaal in January 1885 and met the Boer leader, Kruger, on the Modder river on 22nd January) No doubt pretty fed up, Thorburn now decided to take the boat to his farm in the Transvaal, a mere 170 miles away, where he cleaned and painted it while considering his next move. Advice came that a massive gold field existed in the Transvaal and into Swazieland and it was suggested that he should try his luck on the east coast, at Delagoa Bay; when he obtained tenders for the transportation of his boat, £300 - £400 and no guarantee as to the safety of the vessel, he quickly decided to undertake the task himself. This journey eventually took fouteen months, and is the main subject of his book.
THE EPIC JOURNEY He does say that he stopped at a place he refers to as 'Buchanan's' and left his boat there in the care of one his men, George, while he and his son returned home until after the summer; this would suggest that this was late in 1885 and his planned return was to be early in the following year. The trip home seems to have been fairly uneventful, with a stop at Potchefstroom to purchase sweets and toys for his two small children - he specifically refers to 'my home, wife and two children, a girl and a boy'. This would suggest that his children by his first marriage were elsewhere, though there is no indication as to where this might have been.
In his book, John Thorburn states that he left home some time in May of 1884, but this must be wrong; given that he was still advertising pleasure trips on the Vaal in April 1884 and that Colonel Warren's crossing of the Vaal was in January 1885, Thorburn must have made a mistake with the year. This is certainly possible as he did not write down his story until many years later, having the book published in London in 1890. Neither does he specify where 'home' was, though it seems it must have been his farm at Stilfontein. He set off with two wagons accompanied by his eldest son, yet another John, two white men, Bill Davies and George Gray, and three natives, not to mention two teams of oxen totalling 32 beasts. Their first port of call was the town of Potchefstroom, where he records that their arrival with a steamship caused quite some interest, being more than 600 miles from the sea. After leaving Potchefstroom, the expedition experienced a fire on the Veldt which seems to have come close to wrecking all their ambitions, as the oxen panicked and set off at speed, dragging the wagons behind in a mad charge; Thorburn records that his heart was in his mouth on many occasions when the wheels of the wagon carrying his boat lifted from the ground. Thankfully, the oxen eventually came to a halt after a mile or two, without any lasting damage being caused, and the trek continued in a more orderly fashion. The day after the fire, Thorburn says that his party was in the vicinity of Bronkshorstspruit, about 150 miles from home and the site of a military drubbing for the British during the First Boer War in 1880; here he was the guest of a Solomon Prinslow, apparently a man who disliked Europeans and yet who gave Thorburn a fine welcome. They stayed for 2 days and Prinslow even delegated one of sons to conduct Thorburn's party to the graveyard of those killed in the old action; Thorburn actually records the names on the graves of many of the the British soldiers killed in the action and appears to have been genuinely moved by the experience. While it has to be accepted that Thorburn's recollection of visiting this place is true, it does not in any way accord with the route that he included as part of his account of the journey. This map shows the party travelling along the Vaal, well south of the Witwatersrand, whereas Bronkhorstspruit is to the north and near to Pretoria. Presumably, the map is only intended to provide a rough idea of the route rather than a detailed one. Whatever the truth, it does appear that the party returned to the vicinity of the Vaal before climbing into the Drakensbergs, indicating that their route was rather more erratic than Thorburn suggested in his book.
It is very difficult to be sure of the passage of time during this journey as Thorburn gives very little information about dates. He records that progress was sometimes very slow and that he had problems with his native drivers; one of these, named Matvias, ended up being given what Thorburn describes as a 'good thrashing' with his whip, after which they continued for a time. Matvias, nonetheless, remained surly and Thorburn eventually decided to send him home, without pay, due to the negative effect he was having on the other drivers. Unfortunately for Thorburn, soon after the departure of Matvias, one of his white associates, George Gray, also became disaffected and wanted to return home. He was apparently unheplful and sulky for a number of days, culminating an episode in which the wagon carrying the boat left the roadway. It then took two days to restore the wagon to to the road, after much careful and delicate work, although George continued to be difficult. After this the journey continued with its various difficulties, Georege being sullen, rivers and boulders being in the way. Thorburn next records 'I fancy the next day was Sunday' and gives a description of a typical Sunday on a trek; it seems likely that this was a rose-tinted view of days gone by but, nonetheless, a recollection of a Sunday at some adjacent point on the trek. John again seems to refer to his son as 'Jack' but also seems to recall the day as an amalgam of past expreiences. It also appears that this day was soon followed by further difficulties as they again became stuck in a mud-hole and had to move off the road, as much as a mile into the veldt. Even though almost all of the oxen were applied to the wagon carrying the boat, it still made little progress and became increasingly bogged down; as a contrast, the smaller wagon seems to have progresses along the, admittedly poor, road with little trouble. The main wagon sank up to it's axles and at this point Thorburn called a halt; he describes the assembled crew taking their drink and meal, him sitting on an upturned bucket, his 'normal seat', the others on pieces of wood or on stones. He describes their typical meal as being 'some kind of game' dished up with rice and with bread made from flour and water; it seems that Bill Davies was the cook, a good cook who made the most of his stores, according to Thorburn. The next morning the full horror of their situation became apparent as Thorburn realised just how far the wagon carrying his boat had sunk into the soft ground; the apparent hopelessness of the position was clearly not lost on George Davies who asked for his month's money, saying that he intended leaving. Thorburn's reactions eems to have been typical of the man; he would get the boat to the coast even if they all left him. George still left, though Thorburn refused him money and ordered his cook to refuse food also, though he seems to have turned a blind eye to the likelihood that Bill would, nonetheless, provide the man with something. All of this left Thorburn with the same problem, though now another man short - the main wagon was up to it's axles in mud and not likley to be freed easily. They tried to free the wagon with spade and jacks for some time but this was obviously no use as the ground was too soft and too deep; Thorburn eventually sent his son and one of the natives to look for a small tree or bush to use as a sled to transport stones to the site of the wagon, given that the nearest stones were some 700 yards away; unfortunately, the nearest trees were even further, this being an area or very flat and arid land. By the end of a day's effort, Thorburn was busy making a sleigh from a small tree while his son and the native driver, Jacob, were breaking rocks - all in all, a successful day by the standards of the trip. For the next 2 days, they broke stones and carried them to the stricken wagon; after this they spent an unspecified time gradually lifting and moving the wagon back to the road, not an easy task and one which Thorburn says may have taken 6 days to clear and was repeated several times before they eventually reached their destination. He refers to the help of four '20ft deals' though what these were is unclear; it may be that they were matting strips of some sort. By this time, Thorburn says they were near the headwaters of the Vaal, which he describes as being very swampy country and some 7,000 feet above sea level. It seems that passage was now very hard and the oxen were showing signs of considerable fatigue, perhaps unsurprising as the trek had already taken nearly 3 months, making the date probably somehere in August 1885. Thorburn now began considering the route they should take for their descent to the lower lands east of the Drakensberg range and into Swaziland. They still travelled for another month before a choice had to be made but others had told him that he would never manage this part of the journey which was, perhaps, the one thing certain to make him try. White men became a rarity as they travelled further east although game was plentiful. Thorburn talks of reaching the borders of Swazieland (sic) where they were now in 'the country of the Kaffirs ruled by a savage king but, although a savage, a very truthful, upright and just man'. As he had not yet met the Swazi king, Mbandine, these comments may have been based on stories he had heard or were perhaps a later and retrospective attempt to support a man who became his friend. Whatever, Thorburn now had to decide which of two roads to follow, that to the 'Monkwanana's' or one leading to Buffel's Heights, either of which would have taken them down into Swaziland. Exactly where the 'Monkwanana's' were I have been unable to determine but this is rather academic as, after spending 4 days surveying both routes with his son, Thorburn decided to take the road to Buffel's Heights and to enter Swaziland near to Mhlambanyatsi, to the south of modern day Mbabane; Mbabane was then simply a tiny European settlement. The choice of road to follow seems to have been a bad one; both the road and the veldt alongside it were strewn with rocks and pot-holes to such an extent that it became impossible to go on without effecting repairs and clearing many large boulders from their path; this they undertook for three days before setting forth again. The road was still very bad, sloping and uneven, and it was here that disaster struck; as they tried to manoeuvre the wagon carrying the boat around a particularly awkward stretch, the wagon lurched sidewards and turned over, smashing the cabin and other fittings. Thorburn's first thoughts were to check that his companions were safe, which they were but, humorously, he makes play on the colour of his two white companions who, he says, were both deathly pale and unmistakeably white, thinking that he had been trapped underneath the upturned wagon. Once it was established that all were unhurt, Thorburn set to determing what damage had been done to his precious boat and it was a sorry story; one half of the boat's side was knocked out of shape, and 6 feet of steel plates had been opened up by the springing of the rivets. The iron bulkhead was doubled up and all the wooden fittings smashed. Thorburn was devastated; his boat that he had spent so much time and energy on and that had yet to give him any return, was now lying wrecked in a wilderness, 7,000 feet above sea level. What his thoughts truly were can only be guessed at but, typical of this extraordinary man, it was not long before he was planning how to recover the situation. They removed the uppermost wheels from the axles and then set about removing the axles themselves from the bed of the wagon; this done, not without difficulty, they removed the under-side wheels and replaced the axles on the wagon. By now Thorburn had recruited the assistance of many Kaffirs who had been attracted to the scene by the strange activities; he got then to bring quantities of soft brushwood to form a bed for the wagon to be righted onto. Next, using chains and all his oxen pulling, and with 68 Kaffirs lifting, he finally managed to get the wagon upright, to the great excitement of hundreds more Kaffirs who were watching the proceedings. Now that the wagon was upright it was simply a matter of assessing the damage, replacing wheels on the wagon and setting off again - easy really, at least it seems to have ben as far as the redoubtable Thorburn was concerned. His engines had not been damaged as they were in the second wagon and he had a ready supply of rivets to repair the sprung plates; it took five days but they were soon ready to set off again, only to be halted almost immediately by a realisation that one of the large wagon wheels was damaged near to collapse. It was clear that they did not have the necessary equipment to effect the repairs and, being some 200 miles from the nearest known wagon maker, and Thorburn again turned to the Kaffirs for help; they told him that there was a Dutch farmer a day's trek away and so off he went, with two Kaffirs as guides. The Dutchman was able to provide an augur and Thorburn decided he could make the 3 iron bolts that he needed; the next day, he made his return to where the wagons had ben left, carrying the Dutchman's augur with him. This trusting soul told Thorburn not to go to the trouble of bringing the tool back but to leave it in a particular place where he would retrieve it from in due course; this he apparently did as he told Thorburn so when they met again some two years later. On his return to the wagon's, Thorburn found a fine meal waiting for him, his first good food for most of two days. The next day, he got to work to carry out his repairs, making nuts and bolts from sections of iron cut from the hand-rail of the launch and finally restored the wheel to full health and refitted it to the wagon. Ready to move again, they were now hit by bad weather that lasted for more than a week, followed by several more days of recovering the oxen which had been driven off by the rain; again, the Kaffirs proved invaluable in this latter task. By this time, the episode of the damaged wheel had cost them 20 days and the overall effort was taking its toll; one of the oxen died and the rest were nearing exhaustion. To make matters worse, the road was so bad as to make progress almost imposible; this road went around the foot of a hill and was on a steep slope once again risking an upset. Not to be deterred, Thorburn and his men spent several more days digging a trench, about ½ mile long, along the high side of the road so as to allow the wagon to run on a near level ground. If nothing else, his oxen were getting much needed rest during this time, though that could not be said for the men. This must now have been around late October or even early November, given the various estimates of passing time that Thorburn provides. The latest obstacle surmounted, they were finally arrived at Buffel's Heights from where they would descend into the low country of Swaziland. The distance to the low-lying lands was small, only a few miles, but the road was poor and much work was needed to bring it in to any sort of usable condition; yet again, the Kaffirs provided assistance. For two weeks they worked, clearing about two miles of roadway whereupon the rains came again and washed away most of their efforts; the Kaffirs were disgusted, Thorburn disheartened, but with his usual pragmatism, he simply waited for the rains to stop and then set about redoing their lost work. Eventually they were ready to attempt the perilous task of bringing the wagons halfway down the precipitous incline and somehow, with brakes, constructed banks and the help of a large tree, they managed to do so without mishap. The second half of the descent was not as difficult although there was a bad section near the bottom which took another week or so to clear. Beyond this there was a further bad section and also a 'donga', a sheer drop some 50 or 60 feet deep, but these obstacles were negotiated with the smaller of the two wagons and this was deposited safely at the base of Buffel's Heights, in the low country. They returned up the hillside to repeat the exercise with the larger wagon and all went well until they were forced to leave the bad section of road; here, they lost control of the oxen which began to run towards the 'donga', Thorburn's son chasing alongside in an effort to divert them from this dangerous area. Miraculously, he succeeded as the oxen passed by and came to a halt on level ground. Thorburn immediately measured the clearance between the wheel tracks and the cliff edge - it was 9 inches that had separated them from final disaster.
He does say that he stopped at a place he refers to as 'Buchanan's' and left his boat there in the care of one his men, George, while he and his son returned home until after the summer; this would suggest that this was late in 1885 and his planned return was to be early in the following year. The trip home seems to have been fairly uneventful, with a stop at Potchefstroom to purchase sweets and toys for his two small children - he specifically refers to 'my home, wife and two children, a girl and a boy'. This would suggest that his children by his first marriage were elsewhere, though there is no indication as to where this might have been.
'Struggles in Africa: and how I transported a steam-boat on wheels 1,600 miles across the Country' - John Thorburn (ca 1890)
'A Biographical Register of Swaziland to 1902' - Huw Jones
'Storm over the Transvaal' - T V Bulpin (1955)
Find John Thorburn in my family tree