South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 190

July / Julie

We were delighted to host no less than 36 attendees at our June meeting to which we all zoomed in! This new form of communication during this lockdown period has certainly been the saving of our society. We have been able to continue to “meet” and at the same time have been joined by others including those globally situated.

We in fact ran two 40 minute sessions in order to accommodate Zoom’s regulations. The second proved very fruitful for it allowed participants to partake in a Q&A session and to appreciate the very worthwhile presentation made by Mac Alexander on his Wiggill family.

Our Zoom presentation from last month together that presented by Mac has been stored in the new Zoom library of the SA Military History Society. This is a new innovation and which will no doubt be followed by other branches of the society.

Field trips have come up for discussion and depending on when a state of normality is reached we have a number of options at hand. In recognising the arrival of the 1820 Settlers we have a proposal to spend a night in Bathurst and to visit a number of sites in the immediate vicinity. Our annual one day Grahamstown trip has been planned and the third option is to visit the Nananga area. The name is synonymous with probably the best known farm stall in the country but the neighbourhood has a rich Settler heritage and there are unlikely sites that will be of interest.


My 1820 Settler Forebears in the wars of the Eastern Cape Frontier - by McGill Alexander.

Two things of significance happened 200 years ago – but only one appears to be regarded as important enough to be recognised in South Africa.

The year 1820 saw the birth of Johnny Walker Scotch Whisky. Today, whether Blue Label, Black Label or any of the other six blends between, Johnny Walker is held in high esteem by those in authority. But apparently not so, the contributions of the British 1820 Settlers and their descendants. Certainly not enough to celebrate the bicentennial of their arrival in our country.

It so happens that I am a direct descendant of one of those Settlers, one Isaac Wiggall, or Wiggill, as his surname came to be spelt in South Africa. I’m proud to say that following the line of the firstborn in each generation leads straight to me. I certainly have no intention of downplaying the contribution of the 1820 Settlers to the development of our country.

You will see from the places that successive generations of the Wiggill family were born, that they initially farmed the land (and many still do!). However, crises like drought, the Great Rinderpest and frequent wars drove some to the towns and cities, and after the discoveries of diamonds and gold opened new opportunities, the mines became magnets. These Settlers contributed, therefore, not only to the agricultural sector, but to mining, industry and commerce.

But because our interest in this Society lies in the military field, my intention this evening is to share with you how my ancestors were affected by the wars in the Eastern Cape.

The Cape Frontier Wars (also known as the Xhosa Wars, Africa's 100 Years War, the Wars of Dispossession and the K-word Wars) were a series of nine wars or flare-ups (from 1779 to 1879) along the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony (what is now known as the Eastern Cape). Some sources have different numbers and dates, but this table gives a generally accepted outline.

Although the wars were an almost inevitable outcome of the clash between two pastoralist/agrarian migrant cultures competing for land, they were far more complex than the Xhosa Kingdom versus European settlers (initially Dutch, later British and even German).

Frontier politics on both sides were intermeshed by intrigue and distrust, characterised by changing sides and personal agendas. Enemies were sometimes allies; while allies could rarely be trusted. Factions and clans within the greater Xhosa tribe sometimes vied with one another, and the Dutch burghers were deeply suspicious of the British authorities. The Cape authorities, especially after obtaining a measure of self-government, were at times openly hostile to the Colonial Office and its representatives, even going so far as to refuse to allow its forces to operate under British Army command.And then there were the Khoi and mFengu communities, who were frequently wild cards in the pack.

The 1820 Settlers arrived almost halfway through this century of conflict. They found themselves caught up in (and sometimes partly one the reasons for) the Sixth, Seventh and even the Eighth Wars. Most, however, were too old for the last of these, and in that and the final Ninth War; it was their descendants who were involved. After the Ninth War, the focus of armed conflict in South Africa shifted to Zululand.

The Wiggills were not from military stock. They were generally illiterate artisans, and Isaac Wiggill was a carpenter and millwright. He was not part of a warrior caste – just a simple, hardworking family man in economically straitened Britain, who wanted to better the lot of his family. The Wiggills had lived in or around the area of the village of Cranham, where, for several centuries, most of them were baptised, married and buried at the little parish church of St James the Great.

For generations of Wiggills, the world had been their village, within sight of the small city of Gloucester. As far as is known, they were not involved in the fighting during the Civil War (1642-1646) and provided no soldiers for the recent Napoleonic Wars. There seems to have been no military tradition in the family.

In 2012, a distant kinsman of mine who grew up in the Eastern Cape (Queenstown and East London), Theo Wiggill, and who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, published a biography of our mutual ancestor, Isaac Wiggill.

A magnificent publication, it is meticulously researched and profusely illustrated. It provides fascinating background to the Wiggill ancestry, insightfully describes conditions in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, explains Isaac’s decision to emigrate to the Cape, recounts details of the voyage to South Africa and the landing at Algoa Bay, relates tales of the early years in Albany and chronicles the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Frontier Wars, often from Isaac’s perspective.

Furthermore, Isaac’s eldest son, Eli (1811-1884), who arrived with his parents as a nine-year old boy in Bradshaw’s party of settlers in 1820, penned his memoirs before he died. The original is held by the Historian’s Office, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. A copy is kept by the Cory Library, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

It was carefully edited to be more readable by an aunt and cousin of mine, and another of his descendants, Vyvienne Meston of Llandudno in the Western Cape, self-published an annotated and illustrated copy in 2008.

It is a fascinating and remarkable document, throwing a very personal perspective on events by a participant. It includes his childhood memories of arrival in South Africa in 1820 and his early years in Albany, his abduction as a teenager by a trader, his experience of the Sixth Frontier War, how he became a Wesleyan Missionary in ThabaNchu, the Seventh & Eighth Frontier Wars, the Xhosa Cattle-Killing, his conversion to Mormonism and his emigration to the USA, crossing the Great Plains by wagon, settling in Utah.

His return to South Africa for a three-year visit, is described, transport-riding with son, his visit to the diamond fields, a six-day stagecoach journey from Kimberley to Cape Town and his final settling in Salt Lake City, USA.These two books obviously supplied much of the material for this talk.

Isaac and Elizabeth Wiggill and their young family (including a one-year old baby) set foot in Africa for the first time on 1 May 1820. Their trials, tribulations and triumphs do not form part of this talk, so I will move on to the wars that they were involved in.

Like many settlers, Isaac’s farming enterprise near Bathurst initially failed because the property was too small and they had been beset by drought. Isaac first helped Samuel & Richard Bradshaw build a water-driven wool mill in Bathurst – the first such mill in South Africa. He then moved to Grahamstown, built his own mill and established a very successful wagon-building business. But in 1833 he returned to Bathurst, where he worked as a carpenter and wagon maker.

He had been rostered in the Albany Levy for military duty if needed, and although the exact nature of any training he might have received is unknown, he, like others in the levy, was issued with “one stave of arms & ten rounds of ball cartridges”.

The Sixth Frontier War.

When the Sixth Frontier War broke out in 1834, Isaac was living in Bathurst with his family. They joined the other settlers in the defence of the little Anglican church (later called St John’s Church), where a baby was born to one of the women during the fighting on Christmas Day. Isaac Wiggill lost almost all his possessions during the looting by the marauding warriors who had taken the settlers by surprise when they swarmed across the Fish River to attack.

However, his house in Bathurst, built by him of stone, was undamaged. It still stands in Bathurst today, one of the only surviving buildings from the early 1820s, and has, in recent years, been beautifully restored by a Wiggill descendant.

This was the war in which Colonel Sir Harry Smith carried out his epic 6-day ride from Cape Town to Grahamstown to take charge of the campaign. It seems that for the rest of the war, which ended in 1836, Isaac did commissariat driving for the British troops and burgher commandos. He moved supplies from Grahamstown by wagon to the somewhat fluid front as the Xhosa warriors were pushed back. There were 32 wagons involved in this operation. This was a particularly dangerous job, as the wagon trains were frequently subject to ambushes. But it was lucrative for the wagoneers, as the British Army paid them well!

Eli, Isaac’s eldest son, living in Grahamstown and by then married and with a child, was permitted to continue with his business of wagon-building, but did military garrison duty within the town. Apparently he later joined his father in transport driving for the military forces.

After the war, both Isaac and Eli cut sneeze wood poles in the forests around Fort Beaufort for building military outposts. Isaac purchased a farm called Kaalhoek in the Winterberg area, and soon afterwards moved with his family to the Winterberg, where he shared his father’s farm. His brother George was already farming there. Isaac appears to have divided his time over the next ten years, between the Winterberg and Bathurst.

His kraal on Kaalhoek farm was attacked four or five times one night in 1839by a band of marauders. They were driven off by the Wiggill family, but did kill one sheep. A number of assegais were left behind. The kraal, built by Isaac and his sons, still stands on the farm. Isaac, who was particularly skilled at stonework, also built an unusual “horizontal windmill”, which, although no longer functional, still stands on the farm. The blades were mounted on top, resembling helicopter rotors. It is the only one known to have ever been built in South Africa and the grinding stones, which must have been cut and dressed by Isaac, can still be seen. It remains a mystery as to how Isaac and his sons got those large, heavy stones to that height.

The Seventh Frontier War.

The Seventh Frontier War, or the War of the Axe, broke out in 1846. Farmers were ordered into the forts in their areas. Isaac was in the Winterberg at the time and the Wiggills, with other settlers in the Winterberg, sought refuge at Post Retief. There, Eli found himself taking his turn at the defences. But the fort was not attacked and most of the fighting took place far away in Lower Albany. His brother George formed a camp of about 40 other men (including Isaac) about 12km from Post Retief, which enabled them to still work their farms by day.

Eli Wiggill and his family remained in Post Retief for a year, where he worked at his trade of wagon building and carried out routine military duties. His daughter, Rosanna Maria, was born inside the fort during this time.

Isaac was prevented by the war from returning to his family in Bathurst for eight months. He had remarried after the death of Elizabeth and now his second wife and three young sons, with the other settlers around Bathurst, again had to shelter in the little Anglican Church. At times it was accommodating up to 300 people (more than half of whom were Xhosas and Koi workers). Two children died in the crowded and unsanitary conditions but the Bathurst settlers successfully withstood an assault by the Xhosa warriors.

When Isaac was able to return to Bathurst, he again took up his military duties, patrolling the Lower Albany area. He also repaired the leaking roof of the Anglican Church. His sons, Eli, George, Joseph and Elijah, were apparently employed as commissariat conductors, driving wagons laden with foodstuffs, ammunition and other supplies. Once again, the wagon trains were frequently ambushed.

Eighth Frontier War and the Siege of Post Retief.

The simmering hostilities along the frontier continued, and over Christmas, 1850, the Eighth Frontier War broke out. Isaac was by then 62 years old (an advanced age for the time!) and was again back in Bathurst. From some records, it seems likely that he may have been in a wagon train that was attacked at BlaauKrantz while bringing supplies from Grahamstown to Bathurst.

His son Thomas Moses Wiggill, was involved in a skirmish with Xhosa warriors in which he nearly lost his life. Confronted at close range by a minor Xhosa chief armed with an assegai, he fired his muzzle-loader, killing him as he was about to launch his spear.

High up in the Winterberg, far beyond the other side of Grahamstown, the farmers had flocked to Post Retief again. Eli makes mention of attempts to boost the morale amongst some of them, given the sure knowledge that their farms were likely to be destroyed in the conflict. About a group of the farmers, with whom he was overnighting on their way to Post Retief, he wrote:
“As there was a fiddler among them, we decided to have a good time, so we danced and made merry, but I was too sad to join them. My heart was full of anxiety.”

He goes on to relate:

“The first attack on the Post Retief (fort) was made on January 1, 1851, in the night, between twelve and one o’clock. That night, thousands of sheep were run off, which were outside the walls. A wagon was returning from Fort Beaufort in charge of four men, John Edwards, James Holt, John Austin and George Gibbons. On the Lower Blinkwater this wagon was attacked and plundered. John Austin and George Gibbons were killed, James Holt was wounded, but managed to make his escape to Fort Beaufort. John Edwards escaped unhurt and reached his home in Post Retief. The wagon and its load of ammunition were in possession of the enemy.”

When there was a lull in the war, some men went out from the fort to visit their farms. But the Xhosa immediately appeared and began to drive off cattle. There was a skirmish, but the farmers lost their cattle. Eli Wiggill lost ten cows and a span of oxen. Eli told how an 80-year old settler named Bloake Beare, reached the fort on foot at night, after crossing the rugged mountains. Eli went on to relate:
“The enemy now took thought of another plan, which was to turn off our water supply. Then place old cannon on the hill above us. The only damage it did was to wound some cattle. Oh, how the bullets flew over the Fort, bounding onto the zinc roofs. While one party was firing on the Fort, another lot would be threshing the farmers’ wheat out with sticks, women and children helping. We could see them carrying it away in sacks, on wagons. Farm after farm they plundered, what they could not carry off, they burned.”

It was fruit season, and fruit was ripening in immense quantities on the farms. The settlers in the besieged fort longed for fruit, but their orchards were all plundered and burnt. A heavy rainstorm provided the opportunity to catch water on the tin roofs, and this enabled them to hold out after their water supply had been cut off.

When news reached them of an attack on an outside farmer’s camp, a scouting party of seven men was sent to investigate. Eli’s son John (then 18 years old) was one of the volunteers. This was my great-great-grandfather. They were tricked by a band of Khois and captured. The Xhosa wanted to kill them, but the Khoi protected them because they respected the preaching of Eli, and they knew who John was.

The Xhosa/Khoi allies brought their captives to Post Retief, hoping to arrange a prisoner exchange. Here, John’s mother (Susannah Bentley), deeply anxious about her son, walked out to meet them and negotiated with them. They told her they had offered to release John if he gave an undertaking not to take up arms again, but he had refused! The arrival of a relief force persuaded the captors to finally release their prisoners and flee.

Eli’s brother George had remained on his farm in the Winterberg, fortifying his mill. Others joined him. They were attacked and his house burnt down, with everything taken, but they survived with only two of their number suffering wounds.

Eli’s son John volunteered to join the burgher forces that were formed and participated in the relief of Fort Armstrong under General Somerset. Many farmers began to return to their farms and commence the work of rebuilding everything. Eli remained at Post Retief, by then virtually a small village, until the war ended. His wagon-building and wagon repair skills were much sought after. Another of his children was born in the barracks while he and Susannah lived there.

The fort was garrisoned by a company of the 74th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders) for the final months of the war. Their commander, Captain Bruce, organised a target shooting competition on 31 July 1853. It was won by John Wiggill, who received a state-of-the-art rifle as a prize, donated by Captain Bruce.

The Final years of the Wiggill Settlers, Isaac & Eli.

Isaac Wiggill continued living in Bathurst, as he dearly loved the Albany district. He and his third wife moved to Grahamstown in about 1855 or 1856. Later they moved to Uitenhage, where he died in comfortable circumstances in 1863, aged 73. He was a self-made man, illiterate, but stubborn and hard-working. More than once, he lost everything. But he never lost hope! He believed in his adopted country.

Eli farmed in the Bongolo Basin, near Queenstown, until embracing the Mormon faith. He then sold all he had and with some of his family, sailed for America in 1861. His eldest son, John, my direct ancestor, would not convert to Mormonism and remained in South Africa. Eli returned to South Africa in 1870 for two years, hoping to convince John to return to Utah with him. He was unsuccessful and after arriving back in Utah, he died in 1884, aged 72. Both men missed the Ninth and final Frontier War. Isaac was already long dead, and Eli was living in America, an old man by then.

They were not soldiers, nor had they any particular interest in things military. They were simply tradesmen and farmers. But they were frontiersmen on a very troubled frontier. They arrived in the midst of a century of armed conflict. Like many farmers in our country’s turbulent history, they found themselves at war. This made them soldiers by default. Their legacy lives on.

The Zoom link to the above presentation may be found on the SA Military History website. On the Title page click on Zoom Lectures Library and go to the Military Service of the 1820 Wiggell Settler family.


PAX MEMORIAL 1918, WALMER GOLF COURSE, PORT ELIZABETH – with thanks to Richard Tomlinson

The following description is taken from the book Walmer by F A Longworth (1998, QS Publications, Port Elizabeth), pages 115 - 116:

The First World War [or Great War] - 1914 to 1918 - played its part in the life of the Walmer Golf Club. Not only were loyal members lost, but also were nine of the eighteen holes.On the highest point of the course stands a concrete obelisk with "PAX 1918"inscribed on it. It is self-explanatory.

After the armistice ending the First World War was signed on 11 November 1918, the locals formed a peace celebrations committee which was responsible for the construction of the obelisk and the brushwood fortress that surrounded it. The fortress measured 106 feet [32.31 metres] in diameter and the brushwood was stacked up to 12 feet [3.66 metres] in height.

In the centre, reaching 27 feet [8.23 metres] total height was a brushwood effigy of a German soldier holding a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. On either side was a brushwood long range gun and behind was a large howitzer. The whole complex was the brainchild of William John McWilliams.The peace treaty was finally signed and on the evening of Saturday, 19 July 1919, a cold night with a raw wind blowing, the crowds gathered around, many brought by a specially laid on train. The Mayor of Walmer, John Syme Neave, addressed the crowd. The torch in the soldier's hand was then electrically lighted and, at the same time, the whole fortress was set alight. As the bonfire burnt away, the concrete obelisk was revealed.

The obelisk remains standing on its own holding enclosed by a wire fence being maintained by - nobody seems to know.


Our next meeting will be held on 13 July at 19.30hrs and it will be a Zoom meeting.

The subject for the evening is: “Knit your bit - patriotic knitting” – by Barbara Ann Kinghorn

Ian Pringle - Scribe.


Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn
Scribe (newsletter):Ian Pringle.

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South African Military History Society /