Amongst Barberton’s bustling streets, slotted between people’s homes and hiding in plain view are relics of the past. Remnants of when Barberton was more than just another ‘Gold Rush Town’, lasting reminders that Barberton was the Gold Rush Boom Town. How do you find these portals to the past? Simple, you can collect the Heritage Tour Map from the information centre located on Crown Street and take yourself on a tour of these survivors of Barberton’s Gold Rush days. Or, better still, you can join a guided tour and allow these Boom Town survivors to be brought back to life.
The beauty of the guided tour is that the guides provide the extra insights, the little twists in the stories and the savoury titbits that surround the 24 attractions on the official Heritage Walk. This extra spice and “flesh on the bones” brings the remarkable story of Barberton’s past to life in the here and now.
One of the extra sights pointed out by the guide was the Fountain Baths Guest House, run by Sue Hicks. This rather beautiful and slightly quaint guest house positioned perfectly on the outskirts of the town centre is home to the Transvaal’s first public swimming pool. In the entrance foyer are black and white photographs of the miners enjoying a dip and newspaper cuttings about its opening. While round the back is the pool itself, rediscovered and restored by the previous owners after it had been filled in during the 1970’s and now it’s a feature that any of the Fountain Baths’ guests can enjoy. Back in the Gold Rush era ladies could only bathe on a Wednesday due to the old segregation laws. At first I thought this was grossly unfair, however after seeing the pictures of the gnarled looking miners I think the ladies probably appreciated their privacy! The Fountain Baths guest house is a great additional to the official walk, and I now know where I will be staying next time I visit Barberton.
On the actual Heritage Walk are the Stopforth and Belhaven Houses. Walk into either and you will be instantly transported back into the late 1800’s. Both are zinc and wood framed houses that came across as kits from Britain. The Belhaven House had been lived in and updated until the 1970’s, since then it has been carefully restored to the late Victorian, early Edwardian era. The Stopforth House is as original as it gets. Every piece in the house once belonged to James Stopforth and his family and was donated, together with the house, by his granddaughter Beullah. So while you feel like you are walking around a beautiful restored museum at Belhaven, in Stopforth you really get the sense that this was once someone’s home. Both are fascinating, both have great stories and both are filled with beautiful curiosities. But for me the personal element of the Stopforth House, knowing it was their home and they drank from the china, played with the dolls and slept on the coconut hair mattresses (I can’t imagine how!) makes the house really special.
Another fascinating building along the Heritage Walk is the De Kaap Stock Exchange. During the late 1800s Barberton was like Johannesburg is today, a buzzing metropolis drawing all sorts of characters from near and far. The De Kaap Stock Exchange is testimony to this. It is the second ever Stock Exchange in South Africa and replaced the first, also in Barberton, which unfortunately burnt down, where all the gold dealings were done and huge transactions happened on a daily basis.
Barberton drew all kinds of characters during the boom years, including Sammy Marks. He propelled himself from a cheap jewellery peddler to one of South Africa’s leading industrialists. Along with his cousin and business partner Isaac Lewis, Sammy built the Lewis and Marks building. It was the first double story building in Barberton and housed the Bank of Africa on the ground floor. Like its entrepreneurial creators the building was ahead of its time and has left its mark in the history of the town and is still in use today.
Walking around Barberton taking in all its old buildings along the beautifully marked route was a great way to spend a morning. Between stops the walk was filled with tales of the unstoppable Cockney Liz, the legendary Percy Fitzpatrick and the towns founders the Barber and the Rimer Brothers. Their stories played out amidst the buildings that I could see, smell and touch, and brought their tales to life. Yet of all the characters to have walked these streets, it is the story of a small dog that captured my heart and the hearts of a generation of South Africans. The story of Jock began as a bed time story Sir Percy Fitzpatrick told his children about his cherished dog. He turned the story into a book and South Africa has turned Jock into a national treasure, a movie and most recently a cartoon. It was fitting that my walk ended at his statue, a monument to a Barberton icon whose story like those of the buildings along the route will be etched in Barberton history forever.
Heritage Tour Information