Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cockney Liz and the Robbers Grave

Stanley - Thursday

Before the mid-1800s, southern Africa was largely an agricultural area.  In fact, agriculture was the reason that the Dutch settled in the Cape in 1652 - to establish a vegetable garden to provision ships going to and from the Dutch East Indies.

After the mid-1800s, southern Africa became a mining country, with diamonds being found around what is now Kimberley, and gold, first in the eastern highlands of the South African Republic (an independent Dutch country) and then south of the country's capital, Pretoria, at what became Johannesburg.

The two gold discoveries were very different: the first, around Barberton and Pilgrim's Rest, boasted alluvial gold that had to be panned.  The second, at Johannesburg, required huge amounts of ore to be dug from the ground, often thousands of feet below the surface, crushed, treated with cyanide to extract the gold, then reduced to deposit the gold.  At the first find, individuals could become rich; at the second, only companies had the resources to open mines.

Panning for gold near Barberton
Of course, when gold is discovered, there is a stampede of people eager to get rich.  People of all types: gentle, well-educated Scotsmen like my grandfather, Hugh Scott MacGregor, to uncouth, uneducated louts.  The mix can be volatile!

It was in Barberton that my story starts.

Actually, that's not true.  The story actually starts in England, in Scarborough.  One Elizabeth Webster fell in love with a wealthy banker's son, a Roy Spencer, and they became engaged.  The problem was that Roy's father thought Roy to be a waster with no future.  To prove him wrong and to build himself a fortune, Roy headed for the Kimberley diamond fields of South Africa. En route, he met and befriended one Walter Scott, who decided to join Roy on his quest for a fortune.  They decided that gold was a better choice and headed for Barberton.

The heartsore Elizabeth hadn't heard from Roy for several months , so she decided to go and find him.  She eventually arrived in Kimberley (a torrid journey in those days) only to find that her fiancé had gone to Barberton.  Undaunted, she and a friend she'd made on her travels - a woman named Trixie - took the stage coach to find her man.

Meanwhile, Roy and Walter spent their time panning for gold, then drinking their profits.  One evening, they went to the neighbouring mining town, Pilgrim's Rest, and were in the Royal Hotel bar having a toot or three.  Walter wasn't a very nice drunk and often became belligerent.  That evening he accused Roy of stealing his bag of gold.  Roy denied it.  Walter pulled a revolver, and Roy ran from the bar to the Methodist Church.  Unfortunately, Walter caught up with him and shot him dead.

Royal Hotel bar
He and a couple of friends decided the prudent thing was to bury poor Roy and not tell anyone about the incident.  This they did.

Walter cooled off and returned to his tent where, to his horror, he found his bag of gold.  Mortified by what he'd done to his friend, he committed suicide.

The same friends now took him and buried him with Roy.  They erected a cross over the grave with the words Robbers Grave on it.  This way they hoped to deflect any suspicions as to what had happened.  The gravestone still stands today.  Oddly all graves in the graveyard are oriented East/West, but the Robbers Grave lies North/South.

Back to Elizabeth and Trixie on the stage coach.

On the way to Barberton, the coach was stopped by the notorious Irish Gang, and everyone's valuables taken.  So when poor Elizabeth and Trixie arrived in Barberton, they were penniless.  What a shock it must have been to learn that Roy was dead.

What's a girl to do?

Trixie had been a barmaid around the docks of England and persuaded Elizabeth to become one herself.  Fortunately, Elizabeth was both good looking and had a good singing voice.  So she started entertaining the patrons at the Red Light Canteen under the name Cockney Liz.  Eventually she succumbed to amorous overtures made to her - probably being persuaded primarily by the size of the gentleman's wallet.
Cockney Liz dancing

Cockney Liz

She realised the economic potential in what she'd just done and started auctioning herself off after her singing act every night.  She soon made a fortune.

She left the Red Light Canteen and later opened her own establishment, which she call The Royal Albert Hall, which became the local entertainment centre.
Royal Albert Hall

Interior of the Royal Albert Hall
Eventually she accepted a proposal of marriage from an old friend, Percy Scribbens, and she disappeared from Barberton as suddenly as she had arrived and settled with Percy in England.

The story goes that a visitor from Barberton spotted her at a train station in England and went over to her.  She ignored him completely.  But as her train pulled out of the station, she started to sing one of her Royal Albert Hall songs.

What a fine lemonade from lemons story.

(With thanks to the Pilgrim's Rest blog and Roger Webster)


  1. Reads like a Hollywood blockbuster.

  2. Stan, What Leye said!

    But Hollywood would change the ending. One of the men would have to come off as heroic. When it come to the truth of the beginning of this tale, I award the first two "gents" the Darwin Prize. The women, however, were resourceful, inventive, brave, and determined.

    And Percy? Now there is an intriguing possibility for the male lead. My screen play would make something out of him. A fortune hunter who waits for her to get rich and moves in? The third point of an early triangle who remains true and is rewarded for the truth of his love?

    Sorry! Given the least opportunity, historical fiction starts blooming in my head. And this is such fertile ground!

  3. Great story, Stan! Maybe a true crime fiction opportunity?

  4. What an amazing, tragic, uplifting, HUMAN story. Thanks, Stan!

  5. That's a terrific story, Stan, but you've actually hooked me on hearing more about grandpa Hugh Scott MacGregor and the uncouth, uneducated louts he ran compared to those who from time to time cross paths with his grandson.