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Who was Percy Fitzpatrick

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Today, if you asked the average South African the question, ‘Who was Sir Percy Fitzpatrick?’. The answer would be that he wrote the classic dog story Jock of the Bushveld. A tale of his experiences as a young man and told to his children as bedtime stories. Whilst this is a wonderful epitaph, Percy Fitzpatrick packed much more into his life, and this article seeks to record some of his activities, adventures and achievements.

Percy or Fitz, as he was popularly known, was born of Irish parentage in 1862 at Kingwilliamstown, when that part of the country was known as British Kaffiaria, his father, who was Irish, had taken up an appointment there as a Judge in the Supreme Court. When the area was incorporated into the Cape Province, the family moved for a short while to Grahamstown before Percy’s father was appointed to the bench of the Cape Town Supreme Court and the family moved south to join him.

Fitz, who was christened James Peter, and known to his parents as Jim, did not like any of these names and took it upon himself to be known as Percy. He grew up in Cape Town with a love of the open air and enjoyed swimming, cricket, tennis, boxing and shooting. He believed from an early age that life should be enjoyed to the full so in addition to his love of sport he learnt both the guitar and concertina, which enabled him to lead the sing-songs at parties. This talent he inherited from his father who, it is recorded had a lively mind, musical ability and independence as well as what was noted at the time as the gift of conviviality. This latter trait was to get the father into great deal of trouble, for he is the only South African judge, accused by members of the Cape legal profession of being unfit to carry out his duties. He appeared before a select committee of the Cape House of Assembly, appointed to investigate the complaint. The Judge conducted his own defence and was successful in being acquitted of the charge. His closing argument included the plea ‘I am guilty of no more than the unaffected enjoyment of social intercourse and guilty to the enjoyment of my friends after the labours of the day’.

By the age of seventeen Percy had grown into a well built man of just under 5ft 10inches in height with a very fair complexion. While intelligent he was, he was like so many other young men, lazy and idle through his school career and failed the entrance exam of Cape Town University. Unfortunately for Percy and the family, his father died from blood poisoning at this stage, leaving them in dire circumstances, for in those days no pensions were paid to judges. Percy, as the eldest child, had to find employment, which he did with the Standard Bank Branch in Adderley Street, Cape Town, but with his independent streak he found difficulty in adjusting to office life. He kept calling the bank - The Cage - but toiled at his job for four years, until he reached the age of twenty one, when he decided to seek adventure at the gold diggings opening up around Pilgrims Rest and Barberton.

Soon after arriving there Percy met up with another young man, Hugh Hall who was also looking for adventure. Together they set up in business as Transport riders using oxen to bring up goods and supplies from Delagoa Bay through Mozambique and the Lowveld to the mining settlements which were booming. They led lives full of adventure, living off the land and by their wits. Both of the them rented farming land, but Percy could not afford the rental of twelve pounds a year and let it lapse. The town of Nelspruit now stands on the site of the farm.

Eventually Percy was able to start his own transport business. In the early days he staked all his resources on one trip to Mozambique which ended in disaster with his oxen collapsing from disease. He was forced to walk back through the bush, leaving the consignment of goods behind, arriving in Barberton penniless. He was fortunate that he was able to obtain a position with a local business house whose interests included mining, hotels, property, stock jobbing and the local newspaper, the Barberton Herald. Percy soon became a partner but capital was scarce and the partners were required to carry out all sorts of duties to keep the business successful. It was here that he had his writing first published, for he wrote the column -Chat of the Camp- for the local newspaper.

During this time Percy met and married his wife, Lillian Cubbit, who was related to the Meintjies family from Pretoria. The young couple settled down to married life among their friends in Barberton but the boom was over and Percy’s firm needed their junior partner for their new office in Johannesburg, which at that time was little more then a mining camp. Percy needed the challenge and in 1889 set off with his young wife to develop business for the new office. He also attracted the attention of the editor of the Star newspaper, at this time, who was one of the first to recognise his literary ability

The time that Percy had spent in the Lowveld had developed his character and he was known as a natural storyteller, a good companion and a very able handyman. It was during this time that he developed his love for the fauna and flora of this country, his interest in photography and started his book collection. It is interesting to reflect on the lives of two of his closest friends from those days. The first, Hugh Hall, mentioned earlier, stayed in the Lowveld all his life developing substantial business interests in the area which still flourish to this day under the name of H. L. Hall and Sons. The other, Alan Wilson, came to the area after having served in both the police and the military, and at the time, he was managing a mine near Barberton. The Fitzpatricks named their second son after him. Wilson however could not settle down and continued to hanker after the life of adventure, rejoining the British South Africa Police. As Major Alan Wilson he was in command of the ill-fated Shangani Patrol, sent out to capture Lobengula, and were cut off by the swollen Shangani River. Three men were sent for help, but the rest fought to the end and Wilson was killed at the head of his men. Fitz’s brother, Tom, set out as a member of the patrol, but was suffering from dysentry and had been sent back to base. Tom was to pass on two weeks later, killed in a minor skirmish.

The Fitzpatrick’s first sojourn on the Reef was not successful, his firm being dragged under by the mining slump of the early 1890’s and he was forced to return to Barberton where he wanted to make a fresh start. Every setback brought out the Irish streak in his make up and made him even more determined to succeed. He refused to admit failure and obtained the concession to start three trading stores with liquor rights along the railway line being built from Pretoria to Lourenco Marques[now Maputo] on Delagoa Bay. Competition was cut throat and he was not successful. With his capital running out and his wife expecting their second child things looked bleak, but his life was soon to change dramatically. Through contacts from his Johannesburg days he was offered the position of transport manager of an expedition going to Mashonaland being put together by Alfred Beit, a business colleague of Cecil Rhodes, and sponsored by a London newspaper. The leader was Lord Randolph Churchill, whose son Winston was to become more famous this century. Percy’s role on the expedition enabled him to watch events closely and he recorded his adventures which were published in the book ‘Through Mashonaland with Pick and Pen’. His descriptions of Lord Churchill whom he found pompous, arrogant, aloof, critical and high handed, delighted the rough and ready mining community of Johannesburg and his first book became a best- seller. It is also believed to be the first book ever published in that city. His relationship with Alfred Beit, after whom the town Beit Bridge is named, developed into a warm and strong friendship. So much so that on their return from the expedition Beit offered Percy employment in a firm of which he was a director, H Eckstein and Co., which was one of the early giants in the mining industry. The firm later changed its name to Corner House, which floated Rand Mines, with Percy as the first Company Secretary. The firm was then absorbed into what is now the Barlow Rand group of Companies. Percy was to spend the next fifteen years in the mining industry appointed to the Board of Directors and serving as President of the Chamber of Mines in 1902.

From the time he started with Ecksteins, through the next thirty years, Fitzpatrick was present or played a crucial role in all the important events which occurred in this country. Starting with the Reform movement and the Jameson Raid, leading to the outbreak of the Boer War, the involvement with the Milner administration as an unofficial advisor, to the formation of the Union of South Africa and the 1914 rebellion. His political views, which must be looked at in the context of his time, favoured the development of the British Empire, however his proposals and actions showed that he thought South Africa first. In the latter part of the last century people called themselves either Cape Colonials, Transvalers, Natalians or Afrikaners, Percy called himself, a South African, being one of the first to do so. In the mining industry in those days when executives stated that they were going home, they meant England, when Percy said it, he meant that he was returning to this country.

Percy Fitzpatrick had a compassion for people, believing in getting involved in all the issues of the day and working with his fellow men. His involvement with the Reform Committee, which was seeking political rights for the Uitlanders who flocked to the Reef when gold was discovered, began in 1895 when he was elected secretary. The timing of the Jameson Raid surprised both him and his committee but they were all arrested and charged with sedition. They were placed in gaol in Pretoria, awaiting trial, and it is interesting to see how the legal process worked in those days. They were allowed an exercise period, each day, and this consisted of an hours bicycle ride in the afternoon, with the Reform committee starting out, line abreast followed by their armed escort consisting of an Officer and two mounted constables. Behind them rode their families and supporters on a variety of transport. The procession would travel through the city of Pretoria, watched by the entire population. The court, nevertheless, found them guilty of the charge and they were all sentenced to two years imprisonment with a fine of two thousand pounds. Whilst in prison they received a visit from the touring British cricket side which included a dinner supplied by the Pretoria Club followed by an evening of poker. Another visitor to the prisoners was the celebrated American author, Mark Twain, whose impression on Percy, a great fan, was that - he was not the man of former days being very much in decay.

The public outcry at the severity of the sentences imposed led to their review a month later with the members of the Reform committee being released subject to the payment of their fines and a signed undertaking not to meddle in politics for a period of three years. Percy used this period to sit down and write his second book - The Transvaal from Within - which defended the role of the Reform movement and proved to be highly popular selling over 200,000 copies, in all. He also tried, at this stage, to document the full story of the Jameson Raid and approached his friend Dr Jameson on several occasions, to get at the real truth regarding the involvement of Cecil Rhodes, the British Government and the role of their Foreign Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. He nearly succeeded on one occasion but at the last moment Jameson threw up his hands and blazed out of the room saying, over his shoulder ‘God in Heaven!. What is the use of talking’. In 1897 he also published a book of short stories ‘The Outspan’, which were based on his experiences in the Lowveld and Swaziland. It was a book of which Percy was intensely proud of.

Percy fought hard to prevent the outbreak of war in 1899 but to no avail. When the conflict ended in 1902 he was President of the Chamber of Mines and was heavily involved in getting the mining industry up and running as soon as possible. In this role he visited Lourenco Marques and endeavoured to lease the whole or part of Delagoa Bay for a harbour and railroad to make the Rand independent of the Cape and Durban ports. He sought British aid but the plan was scuppered by the Portuguese authorities.

It was 1907 before Percy, by then, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick entered politics being elected to the Transvaal Legislative Assembly on the ticket of the Transvaal Progressive Party, of which at one stage he held the post of deputy leader. His seat was in Pretoria. For eighteen months from June 1907 through to the end of 1908 he was a delegate to the National Convention which led to the formation of the Union of South Africa two years later. After the traumatic events of the Boer War, Percy believed strongly in reconciliation and national unity. His fluency in Afrikaans and the fact that his wife’s family had been resident in Pretoria for many years, enabled him to work behind the scenes, to achieve success. He was to spend another twelve years in politics but the always believed that this particular period was the finest hour of his political career. Politics generally bored him and he only enjoyed the cut and thrust of the arguments, the moments of humour on the debating floor and the excitement of negotiation. He hated the detail and committee work involved. In 1910 when elections were held for the first Union Parliament, Percy stood in the Pretoria East constituency, his opponent being General Louis Botha, who became the first Prime Minister of the Union. Percy won the ballot by 96 votes, forcing Botha to seek a safe seat elsewhere. Four years after he had left politics in 1920 Percy was approached by General Smuts, by then the Prime Minister, to take on role of Speaker of the House which he was keen to do but, Smuts lost the election, and nothing more became of the proposal.

It was not only in the major issues of the day that Fitzpatrick was involved. He was the originator of a host of other schemes, some of historical importance whilst others merely reflected his wide range of interests. On the Educational front he was instrumental in raising the funds for the establishment of modern educational facilities in Johannesburg, from which the University of the Witwatersrand developed. He helped finance Roedean school and remained a member of the governing body all his life. He was involved in the foundation of the Queen Victoria Maternity home and when his business colleague, Herman Eckstein, passed away Percy felt that his memorial should take the form of a public park which would bring as much joy to the people of Johannesburg as Hyde Park did to Londoners. To this end he started a collection of wild animals which formed the nucleus of what is now known as the Johannesburg Zoo, which is housed in the Herman Eckstein Park.

Sir Percy was instrumental in founding a Johannesburg morning newspaper - The Transvaal Leader - which was later absorbed into the Rand Daily Mail. He found time to serve on the board of the Pretoria News when it was still an independent newspaper and wrote two more books including the legendary Jock of the Bushveld. The man who persuaded Percy to put his stories down on paper was none other then Rudyard Kipling, a family friend who was staying with the Fitzpatricks and heard Percy telling his children of the adventures of his youth in the Lowveld. The book was highly praised by Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who called it ‘the best and truest story of a dog that I have ever read and I think that I have read them all. It was a compliment that Percy treasured dearly. His last book was ‘South African Memories’ which were his personal reminiscences of the characters involved and events which took place during a turbulent period of our history.

In the military field Fitzpatrick was a joint founder of the Imperial Light Horse Regiment, which was raised in 1899 and fought with honour during the Boer War, World War One as well as the Second World War. Despite his constant efforts to join up he was rejected as a recruit but remained an active supporter of the regiment for the rest of his life. It was Percy’s proposal, which gained international acceptance, that the Armistice Day of World War One be remembered with a minute silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He purchased the ground and set in motion the train of events which led to the erection of the Delville Wood memorial to honour those South Africans killed in the Battle. Earlier, prior to the formation of the Union of South Africa, Percy put forward the proposal that the Battle of Blood River be remembered as a Public Holiday, which in turn became the Day of the Covenant and is now known as the Day of Reconciliation.

On the sporting front he was a founder member of the Claremont Cricket Club in Cape Town, for many years the leading club in the Western Province. He also played in the inaugural inter-town cricket tournament between Barberton, Johannesburg and Pretoria held over the Easter week-end in 1891. This was the fore - runner of Inter - provincial cricket. Later, from 1902 he served as President of the Transvaal Cricket Union and was Patron of the Wanderers Club for many years. Whilst still in Cape Town he and his friends constructed the first tennis court in this country. Percy is also credited with the introduction of Trout into the Transvaal. Another facet of Percy’s club life, though not on the sporting scene, was his proposal at the Rand Club that members entrance fee be increased by Five pounds to found and maintain the club library. Today this library houses a magnificent collection of books.

While Percy was a pioneer in his attempts to preserve and restore South African fauna and flora. In addition the Sir Percy Fitzpatrick School of Ornithology is based at the University od Cape Town. His greatest agricultural feat occurred when he was advised to more to the coast for health reasons, and that was the founding and the development of the citrus industry in the Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape, which today is a flourishing industry. He drafted the the regulations covering the export of of citrus and helped found the S. A. Fruit Exchange and the Citrus Board. During this time he was also responsible in introducing the Hume concrete piping, an Australian invention into this country.

Sir Percy Fitzpatrick was active in mining, agriculture, business and politics. He was a friend and confidant of men such as Rhodes, Milner, Smuts and Botha. He lunched at Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen. His biographer, A.P.Cartwright described him as a man of imagination and wit, who loved excitement and adventure and who went out of his way to find it. He could be criticised in that he did not remain focused on an issue for very long and that he spread his resources, both physical and financially, too thin. An example of this was a farming enterprise in the Free State which cost him heavily. He did achieve an awful lot in his life which was unfortunately marred with indifferent health, suffering both from a duodenal ulcer as well as diabetes, in the days before insulin was used in treatment. His final years were sadly fraught with illness and loneliness, his wife passing away in 1923. All three of his sons were to pre - decease him, the eldest Nugent, serving as a Major in the South African Forces, was killed in action in France in 1917. The other two sons died in 1927, within two weeks of each other, Oliver of typhoid fever and Alan in a shooting accident. He spent the remaining time mainly on his farm in the Eastern Cape and it was there that he passed away on the 24th January 1931 at the age of 68. He is buried on the farm, on a hill overlooking the Sundays River, and the epitaph on his grave simply reads ‘a man men could but love - Pioneer and Patriot.

It is somewhat sad, that for a man who contributed so much, that he is known today by most only as the writer of a classic childrens tale.


1.Fitz. - J.P.R.Wallis. 2.The First South African. - A.P.Cartwright. 3.Interferring in Politics. - Andrew Duminy and Bill Guest. 4.History of Transvaal Cricket. - Hayward Kidson. 5.W.P.Cricket 100 Not Out. - A.C.Parker. 6.Diamond Magnates. - Brian Roberts. 7.Old Gold. - Thelma Gutsche. 8.Lost Trails of the Transvaal. - T.V.Bulpin. 9.South African Memories. - Percy Fitzpatrick. 10.The Purple and the Gold. - Joy Collier. 11.Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. - Eric Rosenthall. 12.Todays News Today. - Published by the Argus Printing and Publishing. 13.South African Military Who’s Who 1452 -1992. - Ian Uys.