In the early 1900s Lapford’s economy was fuelled by agricultural toil—the husbanding of livestock and the digging of it’s ruby-red soil for cultivation. But not all hard earned income was ploughed back into the village. Lapford labour was indirectly supporting an altogether different land enterprise over 5000 miles away.
CITY OF GOLD
It was April 1910—early autumn on the British Transvaal. George Croote, 54, a farmer turned gold prospector, was living on the lands of farm Vogelsrenisfontein, his prospects funded, in part, by the rental income received from Lapford villagers. It was the very farm where a gold deposit, found 26 years previously, heralded an explosive period of boom and bloodshed—the nearby discovery of the world’s richest gold seam; the biggest gold rush in history; a bloody war as the lure of wealth ignited British colonial ambitions. Ten miles to the east a fledging city, Johannesburg, now graced the horizon of this once troubled terrain.
Out on the open veld pockets of pink and white cosmos were in flower. They brought a sudden splash of pastel colour to the scorched, treeless, grassland—imposters—seeded from imported grain used to feed the horses of the British cavalry. Only eight years had passed since the cavalry traversed this landscape, purging Boer farms, poisoning wells and burning homesteads. Women and children were condemned to the cruelty of concentration camps—perhaps the darkest of all Edwardian inventions. Nearly 30,000 of them died from disease and malnutrition: more than the toll of men who died in Anglo-Boer fighting. In time the cosmos would naturalise across South Africa, a war-time relic transformed into a wonderous national spectacle.
Like the cosmos, George had arrived on the plains of the Highveld an alien. He was a Devonian brought up at Crooke Farm, North Tawton and, following the death of this father, in Lapford village. During the 1899-1902 Boer War he bought his young South African family back to the safety of Lapford and acquainted himself with parts of the village that he had recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, inherited. His inheritance included some of Lapford’s best estate—Higher and Lower Town Farms, the Mill, Highfield House, and Lowerfield House. His 208 acres of land were at the centre of the parish radiating in three fingers from the parish church: South to Lapford Mill and the flood plains of the River Yeo, West as far a Lapford Wood, and North up to Blackberry Gate. Today the majority of Lapford’s resident live on a piece of George’s inherited land!
The assets had been amassed by William Croote and his son William jnr. who, between 1809 and 1876, ran a very profitable land agency from offices in the village. They were, successively, the trusted stewards of the Earl of Portsmouth’s vast mid-Devon estate. Both men were well-respected local champions of the Liberal and Non-Conformist movements. They were also generous village benefactors. One of their charities was established to help the poor of Lapford each Christmas whilst another aimed to provide needy villagers with clothes, linen, fuel, tools, medication, food and, where necessary, emergency financial aid. William Croote snr. donated the land for the building of the village Congregational Chapel.
TO THE EASTERN CAPE
George was the grandson of William Croote snr. but never had any aspiration for a wealthy inheritance. At birth he was only sixth in line to the Crootes’ Lapford estate. Instead, he looked to claim a stake in one of the exiting new frontiers of the Empire—southern Africa. Aged 24, he left Devon with 16 other young men on a scheme to help the colonisation of the Eastern Cape, specifically through the introduction of ostrich farming and coffee growing. He eventually settled in Graaff-Reinet a prosperous outback town en route to the diamond fields of the Northern Cape. Both sheep and ostrich farming were booming in the town and here farmers like George could make good money. Ostrich feathers were highly fashionable items and a perfect one could pay for a passenger fare to Europe.
George was successful enough to find time for leisure pursuits. He had acquired a love of cricket as a schoolboy at North Tawton Middle-Class School (which his father had helped found under the patronage of Lord Portsmouth). In 1885 he kept wicket for Eastern Province against England at St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth where, the very next day, the tourists played against a South African XII—now regarded as the first Test Match between the two nations.
He joined the gold rush in 1888 becoming secretary of the Great Britain Gold Mining & Estate Company. It was one of the smaller enterprises working the gold seam of the Witwatersrand. Known simply as “The Rand”, the seam became so important to the economy of southern Africa that it later gave its name to the national currency. It would eventually yield 40 percent of the world’s mined gold but for George, and other prospectors at the time, striking on extractable gold was very much a matter of luck. It was a fiercely competitive environment where fortunes could be made, and fortunes lost.
At first there were easy pickings from outcrops where gold could be easily extracted after crushing the ore but a matter of months after George arrived the outcrops were gone. The world’s richest gold reef lay beneath prospectors’ feet but it was a form that could not be extracted. Thousands left the area. For those who stayed help came in the timely discovery of extraction by cyanide. To reap potential reward financial outlay was essential. For George, the rental income from his large Lapford inheritance may have helped provide capital in the form of company shares. Annually he was receiving about £430 from Lapford tenants. It was a sizable sum: equivalent to the employ of 10 labourers back in his native Devon, but many more on the Rand. Black miners were abundant and cheap.
The Rand was a place of rapid change. Within a few years Farm Vogelsreisfontein would become part of Johannesburg’s South West Townships—Soweto—one of the most infamous ghettos in history where, at the height of its troubles, an average of 15 men would meet violent deaths each weekend. But, for now, George’s vista, beyond the ramshackle miners’ huts, was the vast expanse of the Highveld where lions roamed free on the high, grassy plains.
The autumn breeze of 1910 carried a new spirit across the Transvaal. After all the bloodshed of the past, there was a new sense of hope. The colony was soon to unite with other southern states under the charismatic President Botha, giving optimism for a peaceful future. George chose this time to cut his remaining ties with Lapford and sell his sizable village stake. He had made plans for a sale—The Malt Scoop Inn, Lapford, 25 May 1910—in the very same week that the Union of South Africa, the historical predecessor of today’s South Africa, was to be founded. The sale promised a lucrative sum, enough to provide his family with stability in their affirmed colonial future. The sale would also open a new chapter in Lapford’s history.
The Malt Scoop as packed. It was used to sales of timber, grass, land and property but never before on this scale. The heart of Lapford was going under the hammer. There must have been a real buzz of anticipation.
The sale began. Each strike of the auctioneer’s gavel setting a course for Lapford’s future layout. In the coming decades many of the lots of pastureland , arable fields and orchards would be transformed: 250 new homes, garden plots, garages, driveways, roads and pavements. Ancient names would disappear—Beara Meadow, Bibb Hay, Hollow Hay—and new ones appear—Orchard Way, Prospect Way and Moorland View.
The sale brought a rapid change to the social mix of the village. The village was in prime hunting country and the sale of larger properties to private buyers brought a succession of gentry families. There was an influx too of the rapidly emerging “middle classes”. Up country accents now conversed with the Lapfordian dialect. The sale had changed Lapford forever.
George Croote sold his Lapford inheritance for £10246. Equivalent to relative wealth today (GDP per capita) of over £9 million. It could have paid all farm labour in the village for 5 years.
George Croote extracted a small fortune from Lapford property and probably sunk the majority of it into mining. There was potentially huge reward. Mining projects on The Rand could also be a “bottomless pit” with no guarantee of any success. It seems that George did not find fortune.
Records show that George moved from Farm Vogelsrenisfontein to other nearby mining sites. There is also an intriguing record of the existence of a farm named Lapford suggesting that George may have returned to farming and that his Devon roots had not been forgotten. George’s son, George jnr., died at Farm Lapford from the worldwide outbreak of Spanish flu at the end of WW1. There are no known remains of Farm Lapford. Like Farm Vogelsreinisfontein it was swallowed under the miles of corrugated iron dwellings that arose as the authorities created the segregated black enclave of Soweto.
It is fascinating to think that the green pastures of Lapford once had a link with a place whose troubled yet inspirational cultural history would make it one of the most famous communities on the planet.