We are hugely indebted to Tony Haig for sharing a fascinating piece of local history with us. In 2000, a Mr Angus Macleod wrote the history of Peebles between 1850 and 2000, based on interviews with Brian Simmons, Paul Dell and Bobby Lawrence and reading the works of Hans Bornman, Harry Wolhuter, HS Webb and BP Simmons. There are many familiar White River pioneering names in that list!
Information about White River, Peebles and the inhabitants thereof before 1850 is scarce but we do know that the area saw a migratory pattern of seasonal grazing and hunting activities. The early farmers who settled the area after the South African War in 1904 had learned hard lessons in agriculture and many had given up and left the area.
With no trading posts or employment in a wild environment where dangerous animals were a threat to man, cattle and crops, not to mention tick borne diseases, it’s hardly surprising that it was only after dipping was introduced by Clem Merriman of the Lowveld Farmers Association in 1920 that farming became viable.
What is interesting news to us was learning of the wagon transport service pioneered in 1845 and which passed through Peebles. Connecting Ohrigstad (then capital of the Transvaal Republic) and Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) it was a lifeline to the inland town. Later wagon routes from Lydenburg and the gold diggings of Pilgrim’s Rest and Mac-Mac also rolled through Peebles and transport riders (think HL Hall and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick) made good use of this trail between 1844 until 1892, when the railway from Delagoa Bay reached Nelspruit.
In 1875 William (Bill) Sanderson and his brothers Bob and Tom, settled on a portion of land crossed by the wagon trail. Scottish immigrants, the brothers had come to South Africa seeking their fortune on the goldfields and like many before and after them, gave up hunting for gold and turned to more assured ways of earning a living. Attracted by the excellent prospects of game hunting and a conveniently situated wagon trail, they leased two sections of land known as Blinkbonnie and Klipberg from the Government, renaming them Peebles and Legogotu. As Peebles is a town in Scotland, it’s assumed the Sanderson’s had family roots there.
Bill hosted hunting parties and hunted himself and with the proceeds built himself a house, a trading store and a mill to grind maize. Farming was never his main occupation, however. The trading store on a wagon trail, and his big game hunting prowess admired by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, were Bill’s main sources of income.
After the South African War, Frank and Bill Bedingfeld joined Bill Sanderson as business partners and bought the adjoining properties west of Peebles. An assortment of unsuccessful farming ventures eventually ended when Frank’s trial planting of gum trees resulted in a profitable saligna gum plantation, spurring on a widespread timber industry in the area.
Frank lived on the property until his death in 1947 and today his house is used as a school. Frank’s children, Dick and Elizabeth became a priest and a nun respectively and had no interest in the farm, which was eventually subdivided and sold. EW Haig (Pty) Ltd, the Kay family and Mondi own the three major portions.
With Bill Sanderson’s death in 1914, his son Charlie was left on the Peebles property but soon, heavily in debt, surrendered the lease to the Badenhorst brothers. Unable to make a success of the farm, they themselves suffered heavy livestock losses. The Dell family bought Peebles from the Government in 1925 and in 1928 Charlie Dell moved lock, stock and barrel onto the property, where his three children, daughter Zane (1928) and twin sons Paul and Peter (1929) were born. Growing up on the farm, they had to be protected from the predators that still roamed Peebles.
Paul remained on the farm for most of his life, taking over the daily management of farming operations. He had an excellent command of several indigenous languages and was well acquainted with the area and its people. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, fewer than 10 local families lived on Peebles, labouring three months of the year for the farmer in exchange for permission to plant crops and graze cattle on a piece of land chosen by the farmer, which was a customary practice at that time.
From about 1946, however, the areas of Jerusalem and Mnganduzweni (east of Peebles) began to develop as a township to which local labour relocated. Now able to engage in work of their own choosing, many labourers entered the timber industry and the Dells had to find labour elsewhere. These difficulties probably lay beneath the family’s decision to begin selling off portions of land at this time. Intensive farming finally came to Peebles.
WH Haig had bought a parcel of land from Charlie Dell in 1944 and three generations of Haigs have owned and developed this ever since.
In 1948 CY Arthur bought a section of land from the Dell’s and farmed there until the 1970’s. Over the following years both the Dell and Arthur lands were sold off portion by portion as farming intensified. Parcels of land measuring approximately 100ha each were bought by individual farmers, who found the fertile soil and pleasant climate a flourishing environment for citrus, tobacco, macadamia nuts, ginger and vegetables. Today, as we know, macadamias are replacing timber.
Of course, it wasn’t all wine and roses. The land sloped and stumbled around rocky outcrops and demanded ingenuity and resourceful thinking by the farmer in order to build dams, lay irrigation, create roads and clear ground for planting.
Yet farming activity continues, employing labourers throughout Peebles and the surrounding townships. Agriculture plays an important economic role in Peebles, as it has done for since the last century.
A Macleod: A History of Peebles (1850 – 2000) in which he acknowledges the assistance of:
Mr Brian Simmons, author and authority on Lowveld history
Mr Paul Dell, son of RCM Dell, former owner of Peebles
Mr Bobby Lawrence (son of Lowveld pioneer Mr Tom Lawrence)
An interesting article on Peebles can be found here: A Short Biography of Bill Sanderson, an Anglo-Boer War Victim of Circumstance
HS Webb: A Survey of the Resources and Developments of the Southern Lowveld Region of the Eastern Transvaal
BP Simmons: First 65 years (of the Lowveld Farmers Association)
BP Simmons: In Fitzpatrick’s Footsteps
Hans Bornman: Pioneers of the Lowveld
Harry Wolhuter: Memories of a Game Ranger