Chapter 12.11: The Quilliam Family and the Early Days of Pig Breeding in South Africa

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

The Quilliam Family and Pig Breeding in South Africa
Cape Town, January 1970

Dear Tristan,

It has been many years now since I boarded the steamer from Cape Town to Denmark. I learned about bacon from industry legends. Yes, through all my experiences I unlocked for myself the mystery of the eternal. I found it in bacon. Before I elaborate, there is a South African pig farming story that I have to tell you about. Lauren and I hiked across the old Quilliam farm today and it brought back amazing memories. Meeting Joe Quilliam years ago and hearing his story made me realise that the pig industry in our new country came of age. This farm played a pivotal role in its development.

As a boy, my dad told me about the farmers who left the Colony and moved north, into the interior. This great trek or Groot trek as it is known in Afrikaans is the background to one of the most remarkable families I got to know in the Transvaal after South Africa became a Union, the Quilliam family. They were one of the pioneers of the formal pig industry of the Union, located just south of Johannesburg.

Piet Retief

How the farm was established is itself a fascinating story and I begin right at the beginning. In the early part of the 1800s, about 10 000 farmers who settled along the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony asked Piet Retief to compile a “trekkers manifesto” as a kind of a mission and vision statement of the disgruntled farmers. It started out as a discussion document with the colonial rulers and in the end, was left behind as the reasons for the settles immigrating north to a land where they could govern themselves.

In late 1836, Retief led the main party of ‘trekkers’ out of Grahamstown and on to the Beaufort West from where they joined the main trekker group at Colesburg. One of the families who were part of the trek party was the Marais family, led by their father G.S. Marais, and his two sons Sarel and Jan. Sarel was 22 years old at the time. Another family in the group was the Schmidt family and their two daughters, one of whom was named Hermien.

Sarel and Jan Marais move to the Transvaal in mid 1800s

“As far as can be established, the family stayed with the main trekker group until Retief decided to settle in Natal. By this time Sarel married Hermien Schmidt and Jan had married the other Schmidt daughter. The brothers and their families decided to trek into the Transvaal arriving there in the mid-1800s. After spending some time in the Potchefstroom area they eventually moved to the Witwatersrand. Jan bought the farm Doornkloof, the site of the present-day Suikerboschrand Nature Reserve and Sarel bought the western portion of the farm Rietvlei.”

It is interesting that both farms were established on the sites where two of the largest Tswana settlements around the Johannesburg area were located. Is it possible that they chose these sites for their close proximity to possible farm labourers? Was the deal for the purchase of the farms brokered by someone with close ties to the two settlements? Was it done with the permission of a powerful chief? These questions beg further investigation!

The hills around the Rietvlei farmhouse are covered with impressive old stone ruins. The original settlement area is gigantic! Right behind the old farmhouse are stone ruins built in a rectangular pattern, indicating western influence in architecture. Further away are older stone ruins, built in the much older round and semi-circular patterns. They are far less preserved, indicating a much older construction. The impression one gets, at least from the proximity of the buildings, is a “friendly” relationship between the new western immigrants and the original owners of the land. Could it point to a mutually symbiotic relationship after the devastation caused by Mzilikazi who settled along the Vaal River until Korana cattle raiders became a threat and in the winter of 1827, he started his march northwards towards the Magaliesburg mountains? Mzilikazi decimated the two cities where the Marais brothers settled and those left behind lived a pitiful existence of scraping out a meagre existence amidst the widespread destruction of the once mightly settlements. I believe that the indigenous population welcomed the opportunity for employment by the new arrivals on their ancestral lands.

The earliest Tswana inhabitants build stone walls to surround their inner kraals and living areas, shaped rather like a sunflower. Their most precious possessions, their cattle, were housed in the inner circle, safe from predators. The petal of the sunflower housed different households, and between these enclosures were smaller enclosures housing smaller animals like calves, goats and chickens. The outer walls reached around 1.5 metres in height. Excavations of nearby sites provided great insight into the lives of these early inhabitants. They grew sorghum, raised cattle, sheep and goats, and hunted wild animals. They, no doubt cured meat – a matter of huge personal interest to me.

There were many initial housing sites in the koppies. Two sites were large – 150 metres by 50 metres – and would have housed up to 100 people in a single settlement, made up of 10 households. The earliest settlement was deserted due to changes in climate, and the population decreased till it was no longer a viable place to live. In the 1700s groups re-established themselves in the area. They were pastoralists who traded with settlements at Melville Koppies, 25 kilometres to the north, who mined iron, not found down south.

A remarkable feature of these people was their light footprint on the environment. They lived harmoniously with the natural world and other tribes till their peaceful existence was shattered by the imperial aspirations of Mzilikazi who incorporated the area into his Kingdon which stretched from the Vaal to the Magaliesburg Mountains.

Garden of Eden

Like the Tswana who had previously lived in the area, Sarel Marais had acquired a veritable Garden of Eden. Ample grazing, fertile soil, plenty of water and an abundance of game. The site that Sarel and his wife selected for their homestead, faced west and had an unobstructed view of the Bloubosspruit. The back of the homestead snuggled into the base of a ‘koppie.’ The ground to the south, being lush grassland, was ideal for cultivation and grazing.

Sarel constructed the farmhouse, ruins of which can still be seen in the southern part of the reserve, from bricks made from clay that was found locally.

The roof was thatched and supported by yellow wood timbers and the ceiling was also constructed of wood. The floors were made of the traditional mixture of mud and cow dung. After finishing the house, Sarel started building a wagon shed. The construction of the shed differed from that used on the house, in that the walls were built from rocks to a level of about a metre, with large clay blocks being laid on the rocks, to roof height. The roof of the wagon shed was also thatched and supported by yellow wood beams. The remains of the wagon shed can also be seen in the south of the reserve.

Near the wagon shed are two large rocks that have been placed vertically into the ground. They indicate the entrance to the walled orchard. Most of the trees in the orchard were peach trees. Apart from the fruit that was either dried or preserved a large portion was used to produce Sarels’ excellent peach brandy. The orchard was irrigated from a weir that was erected across the spruit. Water was channelled to an earth dam and then into the orchard.

Thirteen Children

Sarel and Hermien had 13 children and as they prospered they were able to employ a teacher, who lived on the farm. Other children from the area also attended classes at the Marais farm. Hermien Marais died in the early 1800s. Sarel passed away in 1893 at age 79 (one reference says that he died in 1897, aged 83). About 500 metres north of the farmhouse is the Marais family cemetery. Seventeen members of the Marais family are buried in the stone-walled area. There are a further 56 unmarked graves, on the northern side of the cemetery, outside the wall. These graves are thought to be those of farm labourers.

Jakob sells to Quilliam

“When Sarel died, Jacob (Jakob) Marais, his son, inherited the farm. He had 10 daughters from two marriages and since he had no son, he sold the farm to the late father of Joe Quilliam in 1917 who told me the rest of the story himself. It was 2 000 acres which were sold for £6 OOO! Quilliam built a large milking and a cooling shed. On the farm, he grew lucerne, barley and mielies.

Pig Farming

Quilliam was an accomplished farmer and his inclusion into my recollections of the pork trade in South Africa comes into its own at this point. It is reported that he farmed with as many as 10 000 pigs at one point. He ran an extensive dairy operation and as is the case around the world, the pork industry follows dairy due to the fact that it takes care of the by-products from milk production. This was true in Wiltshire in the UK and in Johannesburg. The fact of the 10 000 pigs raises a small controversy. Some descendants claim that this was never the case, but I traced the person down who first reported on it and she insisted that her sources are sound and this was indeed the case.

When Lauren and I hiked the farm we could not find any evidence of pig housing that would be required to keep such a large herd. I assume that they roamed freely in the hills as was the custom in the 1700s and 1800s at the Cape Colony. We paid a visit to a hill in the area that was called “Butchers Hill” where the animals were slaughtered. There were no buildings remaining on the hill, but we found ample evidence that there was extensive buildings on the site previously and a rubbish dump which still exists and is consistent with a slaughtering operation. I have no tales of meat ever being processed at the site into bacon and assume that either carcasses or meat cuts were sold to the developing city of Johannesburg and undoubtedly to its extensive gold mining operations.

Grandpa Jacob

Jacob died in the early ’30s and was about 100 years old which meant that he was born around 1830 and that he too must have participated in the Great Trek. Grandpa Jacob, as Joe knew him, lived on the farm as a “bywoner,” and was almost penniless as well as illiterate. He used to visit the family every Friday, have tea and cake and borrowed a ten-shilling note which was promptly repaid on the following Monday. This happened over a long period of time and Joe’s father, becoming suspicious, marked a note and received the same note back. On querying this, Jacob said, “I just want to have some money in my pocket over the weekend.”

Joe recalled that if you held a plate of cake for him to take one, he always accepted the whole plate and ate the lot! One Xmas, Jacob was given a large piece of Xmas pudding in which trinkets and “Tickeys” were placed. In case the old man missed some, additional items were placed in the cake. As a young boy, Joe anxiously waited for Jacob to find them and say “Look what I have found. ” However, the whole piece of pudding was eaten, to Joe’s dismay without a single trinket being produced. The possible explanation was that the old man was toothless. In reminiscing, the old man often referred to the wildlife which abounded in the early years.

Random Recollections

Joe recalled that the following events which he recounted to me with great precision.

Many varieties of snakes, as well as grey duiker, caracal lynx, porcupine, jackal, aardwolf (a degenerated hyaena) which used to eat the Quilliam’s chickens, were found on the farm. There were also leguaans, rock and other rabbits. Birdlife abounded.

In 1967, when workmen were putting sewerage pipes in Mondeor, North of the farm, 2 pythons were killed on what is now the corner of Bellefield and Daleham Avenues.

The old farmhouse originally had a thatched roof. During the Second World War, the house was gutted by fire and the roof was replaced by corrugated iron.

The Old Farmhouse burned down after grandfather Quilliam’s wife moved from the farm in the mid-1980s when it was no longer safe for her to stay there on her own.

The house, because of its originality, and as no others of its age could be found, was the site of many films. At some time after World War I a film entitled “Die Voortrekkers” was made by the late I. W. Schlesinger. During the making of this film, an actress taking a part, Mabel May, was married to the producer.

In 1939 a film entitled “Die Bou van ’n Nasie” was made in which Joe took the part of Dirkie Uys at ten shillings a day. This was never finalised because of the outbreak of World War II.

After the war there followed “The Scavengers”, “Stroopers in die Laeveld”, ”The Battle of Majuba” and “The Battle of Blood River.” Before the filming of “Die Bou van ’n Nasie,” the Quilliam family received a handsome, sun-bronzed, gentleman visitor. He wished to look over the farm and turned out to be the Afrikaans director, A. A. Pienaar, the famous author of “Op Safari”. At that time Joe was in Matric at school and the Afrikaans set book was “Op Safari.” Joe was very proud to have met the author and boasted of the fact at school.

On the banks of the Bloubos River, there are a number of stone horse jumps of unknown origin. They were used at weekends by members of the Rand Hunt Club. When the then Prince of Wales, later to become Duke of Windsor, visited South Africa in about 1926, he was driven one Saturday morning in procession through the streets of Johannesburg. The Quilliam family left the farm early to gain a good vantage point on the route. Before entering the suburbs they noted members of the Rand Hunt Club, all mounted and assembling. One of them rode up to them and said “That gentleman,” pointing out a particular horseman, “is the Prince of Wales and we are going to do the jumps on your farm”. They immediately retired to the farm to see the prince enter one of six Humber cars and drive past the farmhouse back to town. A member of the Rand Hunt Club, noting their disappointment, said not to worry as the Prince was going to follow the same route the next morning.

The next morning they were ready for him. The road past the farmhouse was filled with cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. completely blocking the route. It confirms the notion I had that the pigs were not penned up, but roamed the farm free. The six Humber cars duly appeared and were blocked by the animals. One aide-de-camp asked my father to kindly clear the way. Joe and his dad moved from car to car until the one containing the prince was approached. Joe’s father doffed his hat, bade the prince good morning and apologised for blocking the way. The prince praised my father for the variety and condition of his stock and the cavalcade of cars passed on.

On the boundary between the farm and what is now Mondeor, where the Bloubos River enters the Klipriviersberg, there is a foundation of rock and a cutting into the hillside. This is still visible today and the area is known as the “Silent Pool”. It was an early attempt (sometime before 1914) to block the river and turn what is now Mondeor into a water reservoir. History states that Dutch engineers (Dyke experts) were called in and condemned the plan. Because of the geological formation viz. Ventersdorp Larva overlying the Witwatersrand System, the plan could not work as the water would drain away and the work was abandoned.

At the time when Joe told me the story, his mother of 88 years old was living at Dale Lace House having spent 63 years on the farm. Finally, Joe made mention of the fact that the producers of the various films referred to above, all stated that they chose the site because of the farmhouse, it being the only one of its type in the vicinity of Johannesburg.

Joe expressed the wish to me that since the Klipriviersberg was to be declared a nature reserve, he was hoping that the house would be restored to its original and be declared a national monument. He hoped that this suggestion be brought to the attention of the National Monuments Commission, but sadly it never happened. The farm remained in the Quilliam family until 1939 when it was sold to the Johannesburg City Council.

I love this story of the Quilliam family! I’ve spent so many happy days on their farm and met the most interesting people there. One of the men I bumped into and did a number of hikes with is a fascinating man whose son in law is one of the most notorious gangsters in Johannesburg. Gert Koen who worked with me for many years at Woody’s and who became a very good friend and confidant grew up in the area and he and his brothers used to roam the farm after school and during holidays. There are so many amazing stories in Johannesburg! Most of all, I include the story because it traces the development of the pork industry in South Africa. There were smaller farms around Johannesburg and Pretoria such as the Littleton Farm in Pretoria who boasted with the latest and best English pork breeds but none that I could find that rivals the Quilliam families operation.

I smile because the history of bacon is now teaching you about your own country! Well, my son, that is enough of my recollections for today. All that is left is for me to say how much I miss you and your sister. I can’t wait to receive news from you!

Lots of Love,

Your Dad and Minette


This is where my information about the farm and the Quilliam-family ends. Obviously, my interest is mainly in their pig farming. I reached out to the family, now mostly living abroad, but without success. I am eager to find any information on the massive pig herd.  What pig breed was it?  I assume it was either Large White, Berkshire or Landrace. I would love to get photos of the family, including Joe Quilliam and of the old house and farm. Any information will be of huge interest.

Apart from the Quilliam family, I am looking for any information on the early days of the pork industry in South Africa. 

Whatsapp:  +27 71 545 3029

I liberally quoted from Joe Quilliam's piece which he wrote for the Southern Courier Vol. 12, No. 40, 26 October 1982.  I chaged the first person to the 3rd person, but retained the original almost in its entirety.  Once I have much more information, I will re-write the entire chapter. 


(c) eben van tonder

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Southern Courier Vol. 12, No. 40, 26 October 1982, Quilliam Farm – Saga of the South, by J. H. Quilliam from

Photos of my hikes on the Farm with Lauren

The photos feature the terrain, wildlife and many of the old Tswana ruins dotted across the landscape.