These Memoirs try to fill the gap in MACH activity during the Covid 19 pandemic. Here we look at Pretoria 120 years ago when its citizens were also facing despair and uncertainty about their future.


In May 1900, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, was poised to culminate his illustrious military career by marching triumphantly into his enemy’s capital city and concluding the South African War. But it was a charade. There could be no victory without a vanquished foe and the Boer leaders were still at large with a fighting remnant of their army. Another two bitter years of warfare lay ahead.

War artist Melton Prior’s sketch of Lord Robert’s triumphal parade in Church Square on 5 June, 1900. A more widespread sentiment in Pretoria that day is probably shown by the disgruntled Boer in the left foreground.

In the city, rumours were rife and the people awaiting the British advance lacked information and were desperately worried and afraid. Morale was at its lowest. Bessie Collins, a loyal republican despite her English surname, kept a daily letter-diary addressed to her friend in Port Elizabeth. On 6 May: “We all feel that we are very near the end. One more stand and all will be over. Our hearts are heavy. We fear the worst. The men are so weary and faint hearted that we do not even know whether their officers will get them to make a last stand.” Her concerns were probably echoed by many in the town when a week later she recorded: “I cannot see the use of shedding more blood and only long for this awful war to cease. It is getting unendurable to sit here day after day and wait for those English to come.” On 20 May: “Oh! the misery of this suspense. We just live a day at a time and never know what will become of us. We may be ordered out to laager any day.” Private transport – wagons, carts, most horses and even some bicycles – had been commandeered by Kruger’s government and the fear that women and children would be forced to simply flee into the veld was a persistent theme.

Many shops and businesses in the town were run by British citizens. Most had left at the outbreak of war and their stock had been commandeered and transferred to the government stores on the corner of Church and Visage Streets. Those British who remained, did so under restrictive conditions and the constant threat of expulsion. As Lord Roberts came closer, antagonism and suspicion of conspiracy grew and so, for different reasons, they also suffered stress and anxiety.  Mrs TJ Rodda, wife of an English store manager, wrote, “no one can in the least enter into the feelings of those who went through [those times]; the sleepless hours, the strain and the heartache and … of indignities best left untold.”

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