The Gifts of a Gentleman, Sir John Woodhead

5 November 2014


Sir John in his mayoral robes. These particular robes were donated to the city by Sir David Graaff. Sir John can be seen wearing the same robes at the laying of the last stone of the Woodhead Reservoir in 1894. The picture is below in this post.

One of the most colourful contemporaries of David Graaff was John Woodhead. He was not directly involved in the meat industry but had a business that closely linked him with organisations such as Combrinck & Co. John Woodhead’s business has been around the corner from our famous butcher friends business for many years.


Sir John was born in 1832 in Huddersfield Holmfirth, Yorkshire. (Gordon Woodhead)

At a very early age, he was apprenticed in the Earle’s shipbuilding yard, Hull. He was employed at the P. & O. Company as a marine engineer. He saw some active service when his vessel, the S.S. Rajah was engaged in supplying the British in the Indian Mutiny. After leaving the P. & O. Company, he was employed in the Union Line Company. It was during this employment that he started to think about making South Africa his future home. (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)

In 1854 he married Margaretta Maynard. (The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1898) In 1861 he made up his mind to remain in South Africa and John and Margaretta immigrated and made Cape Town their new home. (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897) So began an illustrious relationship with the Cape of Storms. One where Sir John gave of himself generously.


In Cape Town, he found employment in the tannery business of M. J. Louw, M.L.A. The transition from marine engineer to tanner came naturally to John. To him, there was “nothing like leather.” (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)

John was an independent thinker with an entrepreneurial spirit. He started his own business, J. Woodheads & Sons in 1867. He was described as having a benignly autocratic spirit in all affairs. (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)

A Woodheads advert 1897.

A Woodheads advert 1897.


A newspaper report on his life puts it well, that in his private and public life, he “saw clearly enough what must be done, and while others talked and moved resolutions, he planned and forced the talkers to give their attention.” (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)


He was elected mayor of Cape Town in 1886 and was re-elected in 1888, 1893, and 1896. (The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1898) His great-grandson, Gordon Woodhead, currently living in the UK, told me that Sir John came from a family of civil engineers who were known for many road and other construction projects. Gordon writes that “in Huddersfield, there is a place called Woodhead, as well as a reservoir and a pass named after the Woodhead clan.” Sir John’s home in Cape Town was called Holmfirth. (Gordon Woodhead).

“Among other projects, he was responsible for the Woodhead dam, on the top of Table Mountain, the widening of Sir Lowry Road and the modernisation of the sewerage and water system that Cape Town relies on today. In recognition of these efforts, he was knighted, Sir John Woodhead.” (

Sir John Woodhead

Sir John Woodhead


He was invited to become a member of the colonial Cape parliament, but refused this through the years, choosing to focus on the task at hand of improving the lives of Capetonians as mayor. (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)

Politically, Sir John was a supporter of Cecil John Rhodes (The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1898) and a firm believer in the future of Rhodesia (current day Zimbabwe). (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 Jan 1897)


The great works in the city of Cape Town that he is most remembered for are the Woodhead Tunnel and the Woodhead Reservoir.

Woodhead Tunnel






Laying of the foundation stone of the Woodhead Reservoir in 1894.

Laying of the foundation stone of the Woodhead Reservoir in 1894. If one looks carefully, Sir John can be seen, standing next to the stone with the robes that David Graaff had made and donated to the city.

The function of the laying of the last stone of the Woodhead Reservoir took place on Saturday, 1 May 1897. The ceremony was attended by representatives from Cape Town and the Colony. Both Houses of Parliament were in attendance. (Newspaper article supplier by Gordon Woodhead)


The business that he founded in 1867 still trades in Cape Town, currently owned by Richard Harris.

Richard Harris, the current owner of Woodhead's who led me to the genera vicinity of the site.l

Richard Harris, the current owner of Woodhead’s.

The current Cape Town offices of Woodheads, founded in 1867 by John Woodhead.

The current Cape Town offices of Woodheads, founded in 1867 by John Woodhead.


The current Cape Town offices of Woodheads, founded in 1867 by John Woodhead.


Sir John has given many gifts to Cape Town and its people over the years. On 11 August 1898, his final gift was presented to the City of Cape Town on behalf of the then, late Sir John Woodhead, Kt. The gift is a Mayoral Mace, the crowning act of a selfless life of service by one of the most remarkable citizens of the Fairest Cape! (CT Mayor’s Office)

The mace project was initiated by Councillor George Smart, J.P. Sir John took up the challenge to realise the suggestion with the support of Cecil John Rhodes. (CT Mayor’s Office)

For the construction of the mace, Sir John set out to secure wood from Nelson’s flagship, Victory. Cyclic John Rhodes gave him a letter of introduction to the Prince of Whales who finally facilitated the procurement of the required wood.

The wood turned out to be in a state of decay and the prince had to be asked for a second piece of wood. This proved to be suitable and the mace was made.

The final design of the mace is based on that of the mace presented to the ancient city of Northampton by King Charles II. The work of making the mace was commissioned by the well-known gold and silversmiths firm of Elkington & Co. Ltd, Birmingham. (CT Mayor’s Office)

Before Sir John passed away, he prepared a document to be ready for the presentation of the Cape Town mace.

“As is well known, a mace is in conception, and indeed long remained in actual practice, the warrant of delegated Royal authority. The English Corporations act under the delegated authority from the Crown, conferred by Royal Charters and Acts of the Imperial Parliament, and His Excellency the Governor of the Colony of the Cape of Good hope by Government Ordinances and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of the Colony, acting under the authority conferred by the Sovereign and the Imperial Parliament by statutes, has conferred upon and confirmed to this Corporation all the local governing rights previously exercised by the Burgher Senate, and therefore do we find that we in Cape Town today occupy a position precisely similar to that of an English Corporation.

But, Mr. Mayor, your authority is two-fold. Although under the aegis of the Crown, you are the representative chosen by the Corporation, directly elected by the Citizens, so that the mace before you will act as an outward and visible sign of that authority with which you are armed, as representing the Crown on the one and the Citizens on the other” (CT Mayor’s Office)

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Theo Esau from the Mayor’s office hosted me and showed me the Cape Town mace.

Sir John passed away at age 66, on 16 April 1898. Richard Harris, the current owner of Woodheads, tells me that in those days the cable car up Table Mountain was an exposed lift with space for two people. Sir John continued to go up the mountain to oversee work himself and on one such a trip he caught a cold from which he never recovered.

Lord Selborne

In 2021, Michael Fortune posted this picture of Lord Selborne who came to South Africa to succeed Lord Milner as High Commissioner in South Africa, and Governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, in April 1905. This photo is of the opening of Parliament, Cape Town, 1905. It may be Sir Woodhead’s mace that was used and is an interesting titbit to follow up on.

Final Resting Place

He is buried in the Maitland cemetery in Cape Town.





Even though he was only peripherally involved in the meat industry through his tannery business, he is a colourful character who left a profound legacy. I doubt that Sir John and Sir David Graaff were seeing eye to eye politically, but it is fitting for him to be mentioned with greats like Sir David in a work that not only celebrates the great culinary delight of bacon, but also the art of living life well. He lived excellently and gave liberally!

Eben van Tonder
Cape Town


(c) eben van tonder

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* Special thanks to the Mayor of Cape Town who allowed me to view the mace. To Theo Esau from the Mayors office who hosted me and Louise Ing, Head Cultural Spaces, Department of Arts & Culture, who initially handled my request to view the mace and who assisted in organising the visit. I am deeply humbled by your hospitality and eagerness to assist.


Hampshire Advertiser, Hampshire, England, 20 Jan 1897

The Mayor’s office at the City of Cape Town

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, 20 April 1898, Obituary


Figure 1: Photo of Sir John. Taken by Eben from oil painting in Woodhead’s boardroom.

Figure 2: Woodheads advert: Sent to Eben from an unknown newspaper.

Figure 3: J Woodhead & Sons. Taken by Eben at Woodheads offices.

Figure 4: Photo of Sir John supplied by Gordon Woodhead.

Figure 5 – 10: Woodhead reservoir. Taken by Eben.

Figure 11: Picture of laying of the last stone. Nigel, W. et al. 1998. Cape Town: The Making of a City. David Philip Publishers. Page 226

Figure 12: Richard Harris. Taken by Eben.

Figure 13, 14: Woodheads building. Taken by Eben.

Figure 15 – 30: The Cape Town Mace. Taken by Eben.

Figure 31 – 35: Sir John’s grave. Taken by Eben.


6 thoughts on “The Gifts of a Gentleman, Sir John Woodhead

  1. Thankyou, this is most interesting, what a superb work of art! I knew his son Stanley, and wife Marjory, friends of my Mothers. Uncle Woodhead was retired and ‘did’ the books for our flower shop in Plumstead where i grew up.Love to contact any family as i have some cutlery with the letter W engraved and would like to let them have it.
    Also books with Lady Woodhead’s name on as well.

    • Nicky, I would love to see these and have a chat to you. My email is I’ve sent the comment to Sir John’s grandson, Gordon. I will put you guys in contact with each other. Thanks for reading!! 🙂


  2. Thanks for this. Excellent work. I am researching Woodhead’s in Australia (from Yorkshire) and although I am not sure if Sir John is a relative I do note he has the same blonde balding head and long-ish nose of my family.

  3. was any of these woodheads related to a john or walter woodhead from leeds yorkshire that worked for the london & brighton railway

    • Hi Terry, good question. Would not surprise me but I have no idea. Will see if the guys from the Woodhead-clan who helped me do my article are still around and ask them.

  4. Hi Eben. As a 4th Great Grandson of Sir John Woodhead, I just want to say thank you for this wonderful article. From you I have learned so much of my paternal heritage. I am fascinated with this heritage and try learn as much as I can.

    1. Terence John NEUBERT-WOODHEAD (Woodhead) b. September 11, 1982, Vereeniging, Transvaal, South Africa
    2. John Frank WOODHEAD b. September 13, 1955, Durban, Natal, South Africa; d. April 28, 2020, Gordons Bay, Cape Town, WC, South Africa
    3. Neville John WOODHEAD b. October 29, 1928, Cape Town, Cape Provence, South Africa; d. May 19, 2015, Durbanville, Cape Town, Cape Town, WC, South Africa
    4. Ivan Joseph Elias Schreiner WOODHEAD b. February 10, 1903, Cape Town, Cape Provence, South Africa; d. July 29, 1980, Garden City Clinic, Johannesburg, Transvaal, South Africa
    5. Joseph Maynard WOODHEAD b. 1877, Cape Town, Cape Colony, South Africa; d. November 16, 1945, Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, Cape Province , Union of South Africa, South Africa
    6. Maynard WOODHEAD b. October 6, 1857, Hampshire, England, United Kingdom; d. September 5, 1911, Endcliffe, Holmfirth Road, Sea Point, Cape Town, Cape Province , Union of South Africa, South Africa
    7. Sir John WOODHEAD b. January 22, 1832, Holmfirth, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom; d. April 16, 1898, Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa
    8. Henry WOODHEAD b. April 5, 1810, Holmpworth Goots, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England (United Kingdom); d. circa January 1871, Hampshire, Southampton, England, United Kingdom
    9. John (1) WOODHEAD b. 1766, Holmfirth, Yorkshire, England (United Kingdom); d. 1826, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
    10. Joshua WOODHEAD b. September 27, 1741, Holmfirth, Yorkshire, England (United Kingdom); d. 1814, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom

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