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Three Georges strike paydirt Print E-mail
georgewalker.jpg
George Walker claims to have discovered the main reef, but most historians credit his friend George Harrison

WHO discovered Johannesburg's main gold reef? We know where the discovery happened, and more or less when it happened. What we don't know is who actually made the discovery.

Johannesburg mushroomed from nothing into a tented town of several thousand inhabitants within a matter of weeks of its proclamation in October 1886, and none of those eager to strike it rich were much interested in who could take credit for the discovery.

Not until the late nineteen thirties, when Johannesburg had become the world's largest and richest gold mining area, did public curiosity focus on the issue, and a commission was appointed by the Historical Monuments Commission, chaired by a senator, assisted by university experts on history and geology. The task was not an easy one - almost all the key witnesses were long dead. The commission's report, delivered in 1941, did not settle the issue - instead it aroused huge public controversy, unresolved to this day.

The only point of agreement is that the discovery hinged on three men, all called George, and all employed as labourers building cottages on two neighbouring farms, Langlaagte and Wilgespruit. Langlaagte covered the area now occupied by such suburbs as Mayfair, Fordsburg and Sophiatown. Wilgespruit covered part of what is today Roodepoort.

George Walker, George Harrison and George Honeyball had varied backgrounds but all were drifters in search of the yellow metal. Walker was born in England where he had been a coal miner before immigrating to Kimberley, had a spell of fighting in the Zulu War in KwaZulu-Natal, then prospected for gold at Pilgrim's Rest in Mpumalanga, where gold had been found in 1871. When coal was found in the Free State he became a coal miner again, and that's where he met George Harrison.

Harrison, although an Englishman, had been a "gold digger" in Australia before arriving in South Africa. Tall and taciturn, his past was a mystery, but he was generally believed to have got into undisclosed trouble.

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The farm Langlaagte at around 1886

Walker and Harrison decided to leave the Free State and head to Barberton in the hope of changing their luck. In the vicinity of Johannesburg, they discovered that the Struben brothers, who had recently discovered gold at what they called the Confidence Reef (despite the name, it would run dry within a year), were hiring help. Walker got himself a job building a new cottage for the Strubens, close to their mine workings. Harrison got himself an almost identical job at a neighbouring farm, building a cottage for the Widow Petronella Oosthuizen, owner of the Block D section of the farm Langlaagte.


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