Chapter 12.01: The Castlemaine Bacon Company

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.


The Castlemain Bacon Company

October 1960

Over the years I have written letters to my kids telling them what I learn and about my experiences. They followed my quest to produce the best bacon on earth through these monthly communications. When I returned home I found that they kept every letter. When they were here last December, the gave me the draft of a book where they are including every letter. They even contacted Dawie and Oscar who both sent them my mails. They asked me to write the introduction to every county and the “Union Letters” as they called the letters I sent them from Cape Town.

I asked them if I can add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. This is the first of the three good examples of people who achieved what I sought. I think that for a time at Woody’s we achieved the same and when Duncan and Koos took over, things took a dip, but they are recovering beautifully.

What makes this an insanely exciting story is the fact that the main character who created the Castlemaine Bacon Company fought in the Second Anglo-Boer war on the side of Brittain. My great grandfather fought in the same war, but for the Boers. It was a fascinating project for me to compare diaries and see what our, now two, main characters did at certain times. The two men are Wright Harris and Jan Kok, my great-grandfather.

These stories begin much in the same way. Their faith played an equally important role in surviving the war and it established a legacy where hard work, faith, and opportunity determined the actions of their children’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Both stories end with the creation of a bacon curing company!

The Anglo-Boer War

The Second Boer War (11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902) was fought between the British Empire and two Boer states.  One was the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the other was the Orange Free State.  The war was fought over England’s influence in South Africa. It is called the Boer War, the AngloBoer War, or the South African War.

As it happens, we know the man in England who was in charge of the military when the war broke out.  It is none other than Lord Landsdown from Wiltshire, the man we dined with on the evening before Minette and I left for New Zealand via Cape Town who was the Secretary of State for War when the Second Anglo-Boer war broke out.

For the life of me, I can’t remember who said this, but a bacon production manager in the UK quoted an English author who described the Boers as “stinking smelly bastards but they can shoot straight!”  Such is the Boer soldier!

England approached its other colonies to recruit soldiers to fight in South Africa.  One such a man, from Australia, was Wright Harris.

WRIGHT HARRIS

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Wright Harris before departure for the Boer War, 1900

The story of Wright Harris, the Australian protagonist, begins in England where his parents were married in January 1864 and migrated to Victoria, Australia. Wright was the 7th of 11 children. His father was a farm labourer and woodcutter. Wright remarked in later life that he left school at age 12 when hard work was the lot of most boys and added that “it didn’t hurt us.” Wright was a devout Christian. A heritage he got from his mother. By 1900 he was a regular lay preacher at many churches in the area.

JAN KOK

Our second protagonist is my great grandfather, Jan Kok.

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Jan Kok at the house on Kranskop where he was born.

Johannes W Kok was born in Winburg in the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State on 4 April 1880. The Orange Free State got its independence from Brittain on 23 February 1854. Winburg itself was a self-proclaimed independent Boer territory since 1837 and was incorporated into the Free State in 1854. Jan Kok was christened in Winburg on 02 Mei 1880. He grew up right in the heart of Boer-self determination.

THE SECOND ANGLO-BOER WAR

In October 1899 the second Anglo-Boer war broke out in South Africa. In the first few months, the Boers had the upper hand, but the British government responded by massing its forces from across the empire. Wright enlisted in February 1900 in the Victorian Bushmen Contingent.

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Jack Harris in the Otto Würth smokehouse, 1993

P. L. Murray writes about the Third Bushmen Contingent in his work, Official Records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa, “This corps was largely subscribed for by the public. It was resolved that, in lieu of drawing the men exclusively from the local forces, a class of Australian yeomen and bushmen should be obtained; hardy riders straight shots, accustomed to find their way about in difficult country, and likely to make an expert figure in the vicissitudes of such a campaign as was being conducted.”

An enormous number of candidates volunteered for enlistment. The men selected were largely untrained in military matters; 230 were farmers or with some connection to farming. The selection criteria were based on their ability to ride and shoot. The men were allowed to bring their own horses. Many brought two.

They left Melbourne for South Africa on 10 March 1900 aboard the Euryalis and arrived in Cape Town on 3 April 1900. Wright suffered from severe seasickness on the voyage to South Africa and wrote only two words in his diary, “seasick.” Of the 261 men and NCO’s and 15 officers, 17 would lose their lives in the South African campaign.”

In South-Africa, thirty-seven days later, on 5 May 1900, on an autumn evening, the 20-year-old Jan Kok greeted his mum and dad, took his rifle and mounted his horse. At 20:00 he rode off with the kommando (1) from their farm Kransdrif. From there they rode to the farm of A. Nel, Kafferskop. In all, they were 11 people riding together; 6 from Winburg, 1 from Kroonstad, 2 from Thabanchu and two black people. They travel to Ficksburg, where they join the Kommando and on 18 May they set off from Ficksburg to join larger Boer forces.

I read an account about Boers getting the call to war from a story, published in American newspapers in May 1900. The events surrounding the call to arms and the mood when Jan rode off to war could not have been much different. “All night the beacon fires had been burning on the higher kops. All night native runners had been scouring the country with messages from the commandants to the burgers. All night in many farmhouses the woman had been at work preparing the rations of biltong, and cleaning the arms of the patriots. All night throughout the length and breadth of the land prayers had gone up and the veld had echoed deep-voiced songs of David.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1900)

From Jan’s diary, there was considerable disagreement where they should go and which Boer forces they should join.

The Australians, on the other hand, had none of the indecisiveness associated with a more informal military organisation of the Boers. As soon as they landed at Cape Town, they traveled to Beira and to Marondera (known as Marandellas until 1982), a town in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, located about 72 km east of Harare. Here, all the colonial Bushmen were formed into regiments known as the Rhodesian Field Force; “the Victorians and West Australians forming the 3rd, under Major Vialls. They marched in squadrons across the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to Bulawayo. From there to Mafikeng where they were again mobilised and equipped and took part in one of the major battles of the war, the siege of Mafikeng.

Wright noted the following entries in his journal at Mafikeng. 23 July, Monday. “Left Bulawayo for Mafikeng at 3 o’clock. Twenty-five in a truck, packed in like pigs.

24 July, Tuesday. “Ostrich running alongside the train. A halt for two hours at Palepwe to feed and water horses.” (I am not sure where Palepwe is. The name is probably misspelled)

25 July, Wednesday “Met by an armoured train. Reached Mafikeng at about 6 o’clock, and slept out in the rain.”

26 July, Thursday. “A look around the trenches and around Mafikeng. Saw the Boer prisoners, two sentenced to death.”

27 July, Friday. “Got our saddles. The ponies captured from the Boers allotted to us. Saw the guns that saved Mafikeng.”

28 July, Saturday. “Sent out to hold the river against the enemy with four guns. Got orders to go away and take three months provisions. Order countermanded (rescinded/canceled).”

29 July, Sunday. “Church parade. Went to the Wesleyan church in town, had a grand service. Text Timoty 21 and 22. On picket, got a piece of shell that had come through the roof. (This must be a mistake because there is no such reference. My best guess is that it is 2 Tim 2: 21 and 22 which reads: “If a man, therefore, purges himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

On 28 July, Jan notes in his own diary that the kommando, under the leadership of General Marthinus Prinsloo, decides that it is not worth fighting any further since the Boers are heavily demoralised. They ask the British to negotiate a surrender. At this time they are still in Fouriesburg, in the Brandwater Basin.

The formal surrender was on 30 July 1900, but Jan and his fellow Boers lay down arms on 31 July. They are assured by the British that they would be allowed to return to their homes and farms, but in the end, this does not materialise.

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Photo courtesy of Dirk Marais.  Boers surrendering at the Brandwaterkom (4)

Jan writes in his diary on Monday, 31 July 1900, “we have our weapons deposited on the surrender of General Prinsloo to General Hunter. On this day he notes, “a time of new experiences and disappointment, for sure.” On August 11 they sent us by train to Cape Town (Green Point).” He writes that “the Malaaihers (Malays?) and bastards (colourds?) were standing both sides of the street and mocked us all the way.”

They board the ship Dilwara on 15 August. On 18 August they leave Cape Town and stopover in Simonsbaai (probably Simons Town). On 21 August they arrived in Durban. Aboard they are tortured by an infestation of fleas. They leave Durban on 22 August. On 30 August, they anchor at the “Chysellen.” Here they are allowed for the first time to buy some fruit, “12 bananas for 6 “pence.”

On 8 September they arrive in Colombo Bay. From here they travel 160 miles by train and arrive eventually in Diyatalawa.

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On 16 September a fellow inmate and an ordained minister, Ds C Ferreira, preach from Matt. 8:12, “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” That afternoon Ds Postma preach from Luke 18:10 (probably up to: 14). On that day they were very upset that the “koelies” (a derogatory but common term for people of Indian descent) worked on that day, a Sunday as if it was any other day. Ds. Postma’s reading dealt with that judgemental attitude towards others who do not observe and worship in the same way as you do.

He writes on 22 September that he and Gert van de Venter from hut 48 started a “Zingkoor” (a choir). He attended bible study at hut 63 where a certain Ds. Roux spoke.

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Photo courtesy of Nico Moolman.  A Boer POW in Ceylon (Shri Lanka).

This was obviously a time of great reflection and soul searching. On 1 October, he writes that “as I reflect on the past year and what happened to me, I can not say anything else but that the Lord helped me through it all and that he can not but to thank Him for all that He has done for me.” It is interesting that he named his son, years later, Ebenhaezer, meaning” God helped me all the way and brought me to this place.” He never told my grandfather why he named him Eben. It was not a family name and must have been done deliberately in a time when conservative farmers gave their children the names of their parents or grandparents. From this entry in his diary, I can see how important this thought was to him and, especially in Afrikaans, the wording is similar to the words used in the bible from where we get the meaning of the name, Ebenhaezer. I suspect that in naming his son Eben, Jan was celebrating God’s faithfulness in by allowing him to return and have his own family.

There were also ministers in the camp who used Sunday school for a time to criticise the fact that they laid down arms. Ds. Roux accused them of being selfish when they surrendered and say that they were only feeling sorry for their horses and were homesick.

He spends lots of time attending bible study and Sunday school. On 3 January when a school was started, he attended. On 7 January he mentions that there was a missions prayer meeting and he starts to attend a missions class.

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Boer prisoners of war at the Sunday service in Diyatalawa camp on Ceylon. Post and photo by Dirk Marais

His grandson, Ds Jan Kok (my uncle), writes a dissertation when he completes his studies as a Dutch Reformed minister, about the development of a missionary zeal in the POW camps and indeed, many of the POW’s returned home to become missionaries. This was later published under the title “Sonderlinge Vrug” (special or unusual fruit).

Jan became one of the founders of the “Zuid-Afrikaansche Pennie Vereniging” on 1 June 1902. The goal of the organisation was to promote the missionary course and through this, to expand the Kingdom of God.

On 31 July, as Jan surrenders and is taken POW, Wright Harris is still very much part of the siege of Mafikeng and writes in his own diary, “Called out to wait for the Boers at daylight. Ordered not to start.” 1 August, Wright notes, “Starting out for Mafikeng. Passed Boer trenches.

He survives the campaign, but his health deteriorates. He suffers horrible bouts of severe illness. His Christian faith sustains him through everything, like Jan Kok in the Diyatalawa camp. Wright also continues to attend church parades, tent meetings, bible readings, and prayer meetings. I wonder if he could have imagined that on the Boer side there were men with much the same commitment and a common experience of faith with him.

In early October, as Jan is getting used to life as a prisoner of war, Wright Harris contracts deadly typhoid fever. He is taken to hospital where he lay for weeks, delirious and close to death. He is so severely sick that he later becomes convinced that his eventual recovery is a miracle. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he is sent back to Australia and arrived in Melbourne in early Feb 1901.

Wright, deeply committed to his faith, undertakes a year of church work in New Zealand, following the war. Jan is eventually released on 5 December 1902 and returns to South Africa on 27 December 1902.

FOLLOWING THE WAR

There is a deep belief among the young men at these camps that a reason for the war was that they did not do everything in their power to spread Christianity among the native African tribes. It was in a way, God’s judgment upon them for their inaction. It is therefore not surprising that after their homecoming, Jan enrolls in the Missionary Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington. The collective Boer nations had matters to resolve that, in their interpretation of events, brought about such devastation on their land and it is completely understandable and commendable that this became the passion of Jan’s life. Jan is confirmed in March 1906 in a missions church in Heilbron.

Wright did not have a nation to save and without the spiritual issues that plagued the young Boer-men, focusing on building his own life. He was ready to do whatever his hands find to do. Events in his life would steer him, not to full-time church ministry as was the case with Jan, but to a life of business and bacon curing.

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Probably through the Methodist church at Scoresby, he met John and his daughter, Janet Weetman. William Haine ran a butter factory in Kennedy Street, Castlemaine. He also ran a bacon company part-time as the Castlemaine Mild Cured Bacon Company, to earn additional income. Haine and Weetman agreed for John and Janet to take over the running of the bacon side of things and Weetman roped Wright Harris in to assist them. The three arrived in Castlemaine in 1905 and started the Castlemaine Bacon Company in a room in the butter factory. Together with John Kernihan they processed five pigs per week. John Kernihan and John Weetman were the experienced craftsmen. Kernihan employed Weetman years earlier in his own bacon company in Northcote but lost his business during the depression of the 1850s.

Wright and Janet eventually marry on 18 April 1906. John Weetman passed away on 28 March 1922 at which time Wright and Janet acquired the company and the land the factory was built on. So started a long and prolific history of the Castlemaine Bacon Company under Wright Harris’s name.

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Back in South Africa, Jan remains faithfully at the congregation in Heilbron for 39 years until his retirement in 1945. My uncle, Oom Jan Kok, who was named after his grandfather, follows in his footsteps and become a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. He faithfully serves in the Moedergemeente, Warmbad for most of his life. He tells an interesting story that when he was christened, this was done in the “black church” where his grandfather and the man who’s name he received, was the pastor, in Heilbron. In those years this was of course not permitted under the Apartheid Laws. My uncle, Jan, needed a “doopseël” (baptismal seal) for some reason and it was eventually found at the “white church” (Heilbron-South) where his grandfather must have registered it.

I, in turn, am named after my grandfather, Oupa Eben Kok and was destined to follow in the footsteps of my great granddad and uncle to become a pastor. During a year I spent in the USA after my own time in the South African Army (1988 to 1990), I returned to South Africa with a commitment to pursue a career in business. Bacon curing became my life. (2)

It was in researching an article for this site on famous bacon curing companies from around the world and a book I am writing on our setting up of Woody’s Consumer Brands that I came across the story of the Castlemaine Bacon Company and the link they have with South Africa. Since the founding of the company, our growth has been meteoric, much like Wright Harris’ Castlemaine Bacon Company. The Harris family now stands and looks back at a company which they eventually sold and they have in a sense completed the full circle, a road that we are still excited to be traveling and in a sense, continue to follow in their footsteps.

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Finally 

The great story of bacon curing is, from the beginning to the end, a human story. It took the best of humankind, over thousands of years to create a dish that mimics natural processes that are part of human metabolism, every moment. The story of bacon curing is our own story in a very personal way. It is a science and an art – human culture at its best. Telling the story of curing is telling our own personal stories. They are inseparable.

On Saturday morning I was standing in our own dispatch area, telling Oscar about this article and my attempts to make contact with the Harris family. The commitments, disciplines and great lessons from the words of John Harris and the inspiration we can draw from them.

As humans, we identify patterns, we learn, evolve and we connect. Looking at our own experience in Woody’s Consumer Brands fill Oscar and me with a deep gratitude and we take courage from the men and woman of the Harris family with their remarkable heritage which is so close to our own. Bacon curing brings together some of the greatest stories on earth!

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Graham Tonkin with sausages.

(c) Eben van Tonder


Further Reading

Lord Lansdowne at the War Office (1895-1900)


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(c) eben van tonder

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Note

(1) The Age, Melbourn, Victoria, Australia, 29 November 1899 reported in an article entitled “How the Boers Go to War”, The Boer process of going to war is simple enough. They have no clothes to change, no uniform to don. They fill their bandolier, or cartridge belt, put a piece of biltong in their pocket, mount their horse and ride off. Nothing could be more simple. Biltong, it should be explained, is sun-dried version, shredded into strips and wonderfully nourishing and sustaining. The Boers when out in the field, live on it for weeks at a time, and apparently thrive thereon. . . Everything is left to chance, and it is truly wonderful how they manage to escape all manner of horrible dangers. If they get wounded they hie them to the nearest farmhouse, where they are tended until they are well. If they get shot, – well, it is the will of God – their friends bury them and it is all over.

Practically every Boer is mounted, and although they have no regular constituted regiments, or, indeed any formal battle formation, they join together in what are called “commandos.” These are the aggregate collection of farmers and their sons from one particular district of the Transvaal, gathered together in a more or less heterogeneous mass, and under the nominal leadership of the veld cornet or the commandant of that particular district.” (The Age, 1899)

(2) I fell in love with Chemistry and in my mid 30’s decided to enter the world of food manufacturing. In 2008, Oscar Klynveld and I created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. with the ambitious goal of selling the best bacon on earth. Oscar himself is the son of a Dutch Reformed minister with deep religious convictions. I always loved writing and storytelling and when I discovered that the field of meat science is replete with amazing untold stories, I start a blog where I feature some of these amazing stories.

(3) Afrikaans: Boere-krygsgevangenes by die sondagdiens in Diyatalawa-kamp op Ceylon.

Hierdie gevangenes was hoofsaaklik van die Brandwaterkom, Oranje-Vrijstaat, onder genl. Prinsloo afkomstig. Marthinus Prinsloo se oorgawe in die Brandwaterkom was ‘n vername terugslag vir die Boeresaak in die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog. Op 12 Januarie 1901 het sowat 630 krygsgevangenes met die Catalonia uit Kaapstad gearriveer, benewens die sowat 5 000 wat reeds in Ceylon was.

Genl. Jan Hendrik Olivier staan byna regs, middel, en di. Petrus Postma (met bybel, en aldaar bekend as “the fighting parson”) van Pretoria en Paul Hendrik Roux van Senekal staan sy aan sy in die middel van die foto. Eerw. Roux van Bethlehem en di. George Murray van Oudtshoorn, Dirk Jacobus Minnaar van Heilbron en George Thom van Frankfort sou ook in hierdie kamp onder dieselde omstandighede as ander gevangenes bly.

English: Boer prisoners of war at the Sunday service in Diyatalawa camp on Ceylon, who were mostly taken captive at the Brandwater basin, Orange Free State, under general Prinsloo. Prinsloo’s surrender was a major setback for the Boer cause during the war. Reverends Petrus Postma from Pretoria and Paul Hendrik Roux from Senekal stand side by side just right of center, and general J.H. Olivier is visible at middle, right. One caption to the photo was as follows:

The Boer Prisoners at Service in Ceylon. The prisoners are guarded by the King’s Royal Rifles, under Colonel Gore-Brown, Colonel Vincent being Commandant, and Colonel Jesse Coope in immediate charge of them. Temporary hospital huts have been erected and brightened with pictures and illustrated papers, and officials of the local branch of the Bible Society have distributed Bibles and portions of the Scriptures in Dutch. These were welcomed and specially acknowledged by a letter of thanks by a prisoner known as “the fighting parson [Petrus Postma].” Colonel Jesse Coope, who is very popular, fosters productive manufactures and artistic activity among the men, disposing of their work through an agent. Tanks for the storage of water being required, the prisoners were invited to volunteer for the work at a reasonable rate of pay, and many availed themselves of the offer. The population of Ceylon does not exceed 6,000 [Europeans?], and the settlement of the Boer prisoners has had a wholesome effect, not only on themselves but on the Cingalese. The minister who is officiating (in the above photograph), is the “fighting parson” alluded to – the Rev. Mr. Postma – and General Roux stands beside him. Olivier can be identified nearer to the right margin of the picture and several rows further back.

Source: Post and photo by Dirk Marais

(4) SLAG VAN SURRENDER HILL

OP 30 Julie 1900 het 4 314 Boere op Oorgaweheuwel (Surrender Hill) op die plaas Verliesfontein naby die huidige Clarens hul wapens neergelê. Die Britte het ook 3 veldkanonne, 2 800 beeste, 4 000 skape, 5 500 perde en 2 miljoen patrone in die Brandwaterkom gebuit. Dit was ‘n geweldige terugslag vir die stryd teen die Britte.

LORD ROBERTS, opperbevelhebber van die Britse mag in Suid-Afrika, was met sy vertrek in Mei 1900 uit die Vrystaat nie baie bekommerd oor die Vrystaatse mag onder aanvoering van genl. C.R. de Wet nie. Hy het geglo sy mag sou die Vrystaters in bedwang hou.

Einde Mei en begin Junie gebeur egter ‘n paar dinge in die veld wat sy houding drasties laat verander. Op 31 Mei verslaan die Vrystaatse mag die Yeomanry naby Lindley. Twee dae later by Swawelkrans, buit De Wet 56 waens wat vir die Engelse in Heilbron bestem was. Op 7 Junie behaal De Wet ‘n verdere oorwinning oor die Engelse by Roodewal. Dié nederlae het Roberts laat besef dat hy ‘n fout gemaak het om die Vrystaters te onderskat. Op 14 Junie gee hy uit Pretoria aan sy bevelvoerders opdrag om De Wet teen die berge in die Oos-Vrystaat vas te druk en te vang. Hy het gehoop, maar nooit gedink dat hy binne twee maande amper die helfte van die Vrystaatse mag sou kon vang nie.

Genl. R. Buller moes in Standerton keer dat die Boere noord vlug. Lt.genl. sir L. Rundle, wat ‘n sterk verdedigingslyn tussen Winburg, Senekal en Ficksburg beman het, het die suide geblokkeer. Genls. R.A.P. Clements en A.H. Pagel het die Boere van Lindley af oos in die rigting van Bethlehem aangeja.

Lt.genl. sir A. Hunter, wat in bevel was van die dryfjag op die Boere, het van Transvaal via Frankfort en Reitz in die rigting van Bethlehem opgeruk.

Ná die Slag van Bethlehem op 6 en 7 Julie 1900 het De Wet en die Vrystaters dus eintlik geen keuse gehad as om suid in die rigting van Fouriesburg en die Brandwaterkom te trek nie.

Op 8 Julie 1900 bevind die hele Vrystaatse mag, behalwe hoofkmdt. F.J.W. Hattingh met die Vrede- en Harrismith-kommando wat die bergpasse oppas, hulle in die Brandwaterkom. Ook pres. M.T. Steyn en lede van die Vrystaatse regering was hier.

(c) Dirk Marais

(5)  A few photos from my visit to Castlemain

Reference

I liberally quote and use information from Bringing home the bacon: a history of the Harris family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company 1905-2005 / Leigh Edmonds. Monash University. The photo of Wright Harris, this source.

Murray, P. L.. 1911. Official Records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa. Albert J. Mullett, Government Printers.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 6 May 1900, page 3

The Age, Melbourn, Victoria, Australia, 29 November 1899, page 5.

All information and photos of JW Kok supplied by Jan Kok in private correspondence.

Photos of the Harris family and Castelmain Bacon Factory from Leigh Edmonds, 2005, Bringing Home the Bacon, Monash University.