An Englishwoman writes home from a Rhodesian goldfield in 1936

Black and white lantern Slide of a Gold Mine. Part of Box 288, British South Africa. Boswell Collection. Slide number 43 Gold mine Date: circa 1890s

Black and white lantern Slide of a Gold Mine. Part of Box 288, British South Africa. Boswell Collection. Slide number 43 Gold mine Date: circa 1890s

During the early years of the twentieth century the goldfields of southern Rhodesia, like those in California in the 1840s, attracted prospectors from all over the world but chiefly from the Commonwealth. The mine at Mahaka, abutting the border with South Africa, was one of the biggest and best known and its history is well documented among official papers. What is less well documented is the experience of the gold diggers from Britain who found themselves camping in hostile territory with no guarantee of success. Among an archive of poems and other material at Jot HQ is an entertaining account by a young woman named Jo, who wrote home to her family on June 26th1936 about her life as a prospector.

Dear Mummie, Uncle Bill, Coo, Tom, Basil, John, Jimmy, Ronnie and the Rest of You !!

It is Sundowner-time 1) , and I am writing this in our little thathed ( sic) hut on he hill in the Mahaka valley—to the tune of the un-ceasing Mill—crushing—crushing on and on, to give men GOLD!!! It sounds good, but oh! Wouldn’t it be lovely to have lots of it in our pockets—little pieces to jingle and say—“ Well—I have the means and the world is MINE—LETS GO !!! “

            But I do not care two hoots at the moment, for my days have lately have been a dream; I suppose by now you have heard of our trekking into Lawley’s Concession 2)—into the wilds of wildest Rhodesia. We started off with the lorry loaded with fifteen black n—–, –picks, shovels, axes, guns, dynamite , windlass ( for going down the mines ), Mealie meal ( boys food)3) petrol, oil—oh, and a hundred and one things , then came Oliver’s Doge vanette—with Oliver driving—me and the head of the mining engineers , old Mr Taylor –at the back balanced Tozer—two other mining engineers—my personal boy ( who’s special job is ME ) –all on top of boxes of Gin, Whiskey, Brandy, Orange and Lemon crush, Beer, Stout and- oh, Ginger ale too—for the Brandy !! Also stacks of food –Guns & Ammunition—WHAT A PARTY !!! We had to make the road as we went along –coming to one empty river-bed, Oliver’s car gave up the ghost —we had to sit for over an hour in the boiling sun until by some stroke of luck someone touched a little gadget and off she started again. During that time Tozer was directing the gang of boys in road making in his best Kaffir—really he is a scream !! —but somehow seems to make the natives understand. He really is getting on splendidly and might have been an old Pioneer !!

         Well, first night we camped by the Nyamazizi river 4)—I had a tent to myself, and the men slept under a grass-shelter—Tozer in the hopes of getting a Lion, slept by the fire with a gun at his side—but all he heard was a jackal and some birds twittering in the morning. The next day we pushed on—you have no idea what we went through grass high over the car –mountains—rivers and bush—but by sundowner-time we arrived as far as we could and trekked the last little bit on foot and a world so wonderful greeted our tired eyes —that we knew our journey was well worth it—the Ruenya river5) —clean and clear—rushing over jagged rocks—by the side of a perfect beach of sand –big enough to hold us all !! So we pitched camp and flung ourselves down by the log-fire—tired but gloriously content.

            WHAT A COUNTRY !! The first night I pitched my tent about fifty yards from the men round the other side of some huge rocks—and although I slept with a Revolver and Dagger under my pillow, and Shotgun by my side—I didn’t think it was such a joke when I heard the creepy tread of some wild animal—and a sniffing at the flap of my tent—-I thought a bit, and decided the best thing I could do, was to put my head under my pillow and pretend I couldn’t hear. Next morning the fresh spoor of Leopard and also of Lion was clearly visible in the sand outside and all round my tent—anyway, they couldn’t have been man-eaters, or perhaps they didn’t like women !!!!

However, the men insisted upon me sleeping among them after that—so the next night I took my mattress to their grassy shelter in front of the camp-fire, and slept peacefully between Tozer’s snores on one side and Oliver’s 6) grunts on the other. But the early mornings were the best, when one woke at dawn and saw the sky surfused (sic) by glorious pink, fluffy clouds—before the sun got high enough up—to make us get out of our blankets and bathe in the icy, glorious rushing river.—All day was spent searching for ancient mines and in finding them, Leopards—actually we only shot two huge Porcupine, which we ate for dinner and jolly good too—besides them I shot a Toucan bird and some smaller fry—although the spoor of  Leopard, Lion  and Koodoo7) were plentiful we didn’t get a chance of a shot—In the evening when the sun had sunk behind the mountains and the stars were high and bright in the heavens, we all crowded round the camp-fire and sang songs of love, laughter, and Mother Goose, Fox-in-the-Den and Hunt –the Slipper—really if only you could have seen us—old Mr Taylor—Daddy as we called him—( 65 years old) and a darling—David Dowie (Australian aged 32)round faced and cheery—the little “Twirt”8) Barnett and old Tozer with three days beard on his chin—making him look like Pop-eye—the Sailor, and funny little me —all brown and a mop of untidy sun-bleached hair !!—oh and of course Oliver—looking like a tramp ( imagine John Oliver Kirk—grown up and you have got him !!).


  • A cocktail composed of Cognac, Grand Marnier, orange juice, lemon juice and ice.
  • A concession secured in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes and his associates granting mineral rights north of the Zambesi river.
  • A sort of coarse flour manufactured from maize in southern Africa. It was often made into porridge.
  • A river in NE Zimbabwe
  • Another more significant river in the same part of the country
  • A letter from Oliver H. Newton dated 1935 and sent to Messrs Hubert Davies & Co, Salisbury forms part of the archive
  • The Kudu is a sort of antelope
  • Not in Chambers and possibly an amalgam of ‘ twit ‘ and ‘flirt’.      

To be continued…




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