The remarkable story of Wright Harris and Jan Kok’s participation in the second Anglo-Boer War. 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 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Finally, both stories end with the creation of a bacon curing company!
Food science and the meat industry, in particular, have amazing untold stories. I was researching great bacon companies of ages past when I received a scanned copy of Bringing Home the Bacon, A History of the Harris Family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company, by Leigh Edmonds.
I discovered a remarkable link with South Africa in the participation of one of the founders, Wright Harris, in the Second Anglo-Boer War on the side of the British Empire. This peaked my interest since my own great grandfather, Jan (Johannes) Kok fought in the same war, but on the side of the Boers. Despite being adversaries in war, their stories are very much alike. Deep religious beliefs were their compass and following its direction ultimately brought us to bacon curing. In the Harris story, this happened in one generation and in the case of Johannes Kok, it would take 4 generations before his great-grandson would complete the process and become one of the founders of a bacon company. This is the story.
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 wood cutter. 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.
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.
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, “sea sick.” 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 this 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 farm houses 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 Boer’s. As soon as they landed at Cape Town, they travelled 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 misspelt)
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/ cancelled).”
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 which 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, decide 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.
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 stop over 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.
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.
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, 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 Gods 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.
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 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, Gods judgement upon them for their inaction. It is therefore not surprising that after their homecoming, Jan enrols 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, focussed 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.
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 had employed Weetman years earlier in his own bacon company in Northcote but lost his business during the depression of the 1850’s.
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.
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.
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.
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 stand and look 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 travelling and in a sense, continue to follow in their footsteps.
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.
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.
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!
(c) Eben van Tonder
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 farm house, 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)
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, Pensylvania, 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.