Share this article

Three Georges strike paydirt​
​​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.
 
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.​

 

The moment of discovery
 
Walker's account, as described by historian Eric Rosenthal in his 1970 book Gold! Gold! Gold!, is that on a Sunday in February 1886, he walked across the veld from Wilgespruit to Langlaagte to call upon his friend Harrison. Strolling through the long grass, he stubbed his foot upon an outcrop of rock, which he recognised as "banket", or gold-bearing rock. Fetching his prospector's pans he crushed a sample, mixed it with water - and spotted the unmistakeable "tail" of gold.

Rosenthal is sceptical of this account. It seems improbable to him that Walker could recognise the value of "banket" - a formation whose gold bearing qualities were still unknown at that time. But it is Walker's rather appealing version of the discovery of gold that was accepted decades later by the Historical Monuments Commisision report, and entered local mythology as the accepted account.
 
Meanwhile, Struben, whose Confidence Reef was drying up, laid off his staff. Unemployed yet again, Walker, who appears to have done nothing about his sensational find, called on Harrison at neighbouring Langlaagte. Precisely what the two discussed is unknown; but what is clear is that on 12 April 1886, they signed a contract with another of the Oosthuizen clan, Gerhardus Cornelius Oosthuizen, who granted the pair the right to prospect for gold on his own portion of Langlaagte, Block C. Clearly the men knew they were on to something big, for Harrison immediately went to Pretoria to secure a one month prospecting licence. Oosthuizen, who was required by law to inform the state of any possible gold strike, wrote a letter to President Kruger himself, advising that "Mr Sors Hariezon" believed that "the reef is payable".

Harrison never gave a description of his own discovery. But years later, historians discovered an affidavit by Harrison, written on October 12 1886, in which he claims full credit for the discovery on Gert Oosthuizen's property, and describes how he had delivered a letter to President Kruger, who appears to have called him into his office and asked him what his credentials were. Harrison said he was an experienced gold digger, who had worked on the mines in Australia. Another affidavit from Harrison supports this: dated July 24th, it is a statement to the Mines Department which concludes: "I have long experience as an Australian gold digger and I think it is a payable goldfield".
 
Certainly, the state was willing to accept the Harrison version - supported as it was by Oosthuizen - and it was he who was named the "zoeker" meaning discoverer, which entitled him to a free claim.
 
Gerhardus Oosthuizen and wife who owned a portion of the farm Langlaagte where gold was discovered
Harrison's claim is supported by a number of respected historians. Ethel and James Gray, who did the bulk of the research for the commission, and discovered the Harrison affidavits, came out on Harrison's side. So did retired judge F Krause, who wrote his own exhaustive examination of the evidence in 1946.
 
The government official charged with responding to Gert Oosthuizen's letter was Kruger's close adviser Dr WJ Leyds, who was to become intimately associated with early Johannesburg. He added a tart note to the letter that the payability of the gold had not been proved, but the matter could not be ignored. Leyds' nephew, the historian GA Leyds, who drew heavily on his uncle's reminiscences, leaves no doubt as to whose side he was on in his 1964 book 'A History of Johannesburg' (Nasionale Boekhandel):
 
"One afternoon, probably in June or July, around five o'clock in the afternoon, the two (Harrison and Walker) were walking in an easterly direction when George Harrison saw an outcrop of conglomerate or quartz on a rock ledge. He examined it carefully, then fetched his prospector's pick-axe and struck off some pieces of the rock. He seems to have had this rock crushed and panned at the Strubens' mill north of what is now Roodepoort."
 
But there was a third George as well, whose accounts, much more detailed than the others, appear to support Walker. George Honeyball was the nephew of Widow Oosthuizen, and lived on her farm, where he worked variously as a blacksmith, carpenter and general handyman, never quite managing to make a living. He met the other two Georges while helping to build the Struben and Oosthuizen cottages, with Harrison and Walker doing the masonry, and Honeyball doing the carpentry.
 
According to Rosenthal, Honeyball recounted that on Sunday morning, February 7th 1886, he was in Mrs Oosthuizen's home when Walker arrived with his sample of banket. "He borrowed my aunt's frying pan in the kitchen, crushed the conglomerate to a coarse powder on an old ploughsare, and went to a nearby spruit where he panned the stuff. It showed a clear streak of gold."
 
The next day, Honeyball persuaded Walker to show him where he had found the rock, close to the boundary between the widow's portion of the farm and her cousin Gert's. Honeyball traced the line of the reef back into his aunt's farm, and six hundred metres away from Walker's spot, he found a similar outcrop of rock. He broke off a piece, and got a prospector working on a neighbouring plot to pan it for him. There was gold in it.
 
The prospector offered to pay Honneyball to tell him the secret of where he had found the gold, which he did, to Walker's great annoyance. Nor did the prospector keep his mouth shut. Word of the discovery spread with extraordinary speed. Two days after Harrison's visit to Kruger's offices, the government telegraphed the local magistrate, asking him to verify the claims. It was already too late - gold diggers were flooding the territory, and had drawn up a petition, signed by 73 men and delivered on July 26th, calling for gold fields to be proclaimed. Kruger had no choice.
 
At 9am on 20 September 1886, prosecutor and gold commissioner Carl von Brandis stood beside his wagon and read in Dutch the proclamation made by Kruger, to several hundred diggers:
 
"Whereas, it has become apparent to the government of the South African Republic that it is desirable to proclaim the farms named Driefontein, Elandsfontein, the southern portion of Doornfontein, Turffontein, the government farm Randjeslaagte, Langlaagte, Paardekraal, Vogelstruisfontein, and Roodepoort, all situated on the Witwatersrand, district of Heidelberg, as a public digging.
 
"Therefore I, Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, state president of the South African Republic, advised by and with the consent of the executive council, in terms of Section 5 of Law Number 8 of 1885, as amended, proclaim the above-named areas as a Public Digging in the following sequence and as from the following date, to wit . . ."
 
But what happened to George Walker and George Harrison? Neither grew rich from the discovery. Harrison sold his "discoverer's" rights almost immediately, for just ten pounds. He disappeared a month after the diggings were proclaimed, while involved "as a witness in an unsavoury court case involving a native woman," according to an early historian of Johannesburg, LE Neame.
 
The Australian government is known to have asked the Kruger government to find a fugitive named George Harrison, wanted for embezzlement. Some say Harrison left for Barberton, but was killed by lions. An old prospector claimed years later to have gone to Barberton along with Harrison, who died there and was buried at Kaapschehoop, but no evidence has been found.
 
George Walker also soon left the Rand, returning many years later to lay his claim to having discovered the main reef. He was given a pension by the Chamber of Mines and lived in a house in Krugersdorp until his death at 71 in 1924. But there are many who dispute his story. Krause described Walker as a "heavy drinker and a bluffer", who only began to make his claims to the discovery late in life. GA Leyds notes in his history, as proof of Walker's unreliability, that he received four hundred pounds in compensation for phthisis - but his post-mortem revealed no signs of the disease.