Focus on Welkom, Free State, South Africa

Welkom is South Africa's youngest town and has been the centre of the gold fields since 1947. The town sprung up after gold was discovered on a farm called St Helena.

Welkom has grown perhaps with a faster rate as Johannesburg, yet is proud of the fact that its traffic system of traffic circles were so well designed that they still have only a few traffic lights. It is in the Free State the second largest town and the core of the relatively recent geologic windfall of the Free State.

Places of interest unclude:

Arts & Crafts
The work of the handycapped residents of the Ernest Oppenheimer Hospital is on show.

Ernest Oppenheimer Theatre
The town's best thespians and ballet dancers grace this modern complex. Named after the businessman who planned the layout of Welkom.

Flamingo Pan
Welkom's flamingoes inhabit this scenic recreation area.

Gold Museum
A complete history of gold and its mining and production is on display in the library.

Mine Tours
Some of the deepest and riches mines can be visited.

Welkom has many monuments including, Aandek Monument, Afrikaans Language Monument, Joanne Pim Monument, WWII Monument, Voortrekker Memorial, Dog Monument, Old Indaba bleugum tree and MOTH Memorial.

Museum of Welkom
This public library houses display the discovery of gold in Welkom, town's history and bird and animal life indigenous to this region.

North Park Fleamarket
Haggle for a bargain every second Saturday of each month.

Parks to visit in Welkom is Central Park, Peter Pan Park, Van Riebeeck Park and West Park.

Phakisa Raceway
South Africa's newest racetrack. It consist of both a high speed oval and a well designed conventional track.

Rovers Club
A municipal sports centre offering rugby,soccer, netball, tennis, hockey, cricket, bowling and snooker facilities.

Theronia Pan
A tranquil pan and bird sanctuary

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The history of the discovery of the Free State Goldfields ~ the most fantastic mineral discovery in South Africa this century ~ is essentially the history of Welkom for, without this world-shattering event, Welkom would not have been.

The clock must be turned back to the latter years of the nineteenth century when two men ~ a Mr Donaldson who was a prospector, and a Mr Hinds, an engineer ~ investigated a portion of the farm called Zoeten-Inval belonging to a Mr Barends Klopper near where the small town of Allanridge is situated today. This was believed to have been in 1896, and the pair were interested in a small outcrop of rock protruding about a foot above the ground and about two feet in length which appeared to be conglomerate pebble reef. A 60 feet pit was excavated and samples collected. The men could raise no interest among mining companies in Johannesburg, which all laughed off the idea of gold in the Free State.

Then came the first setback in the mineral history of the future Free State goldfields. The men decided to return to England to have their samples analysed and, if the results proved favorable, to form a syndicate to raise capital for the continuation of the search. Disaster struck. Gossip had it that Donaldson and Hinds sailed on the ill-fated Drummond Castle which, on that trip, sank in the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France with the loss of all aboard.

The hot mealie lands surrounding the peaceful hamlet of Odendaalsrust (as it was then called) lay almost untouched by a rock-pick until a persistent old prospector, Arthur Megson by name, heard of the venture and decided to investigate for himself. The farm had been divided up by this time, and the section on which the outcrop was situated was now called Aandenk and was owned by Hendrik Petrus Klopper.

Megson arrived in 1904 and widened and deepened the original pit to about 100 feet. He took samples of the exposed strata away with him as they seemed to indicate some promising values. But he in turn could not obtain any financial interest and was compelled to close down the shaft. He is said to have filled it with dynamite "to prevent other from interfering with the work".

For many years Megson did the rounds of the mining companies, his samples carried in a canvas bag. No one was interested until in October 1932, when he presented himself at the office of Allan Roberts, a prospector, and Minnie Jacobs, a young attorney. Megson had come to the right place at last, for Roberts had recently set himself up sufficiently by September of that year to turn his attention to his pet theory "that the Witwatersrand system of rock formation tapers down to beyond the Orange Free State, resembling the rim of a lake with Johannesburg lying in the center of the northern section of that rim".

The reef formation dips gradually to the Klerksdorp mines in the south west and to Nigel about 40 miles to the south east. The southern section of the lake ~ being submerged in the Free State.

At about this time Mr Roberts had said to his wife, Gladys, "Now I am ready to test my theory if it takes all the money I have and more". Megson's samples and his information gave Roberts, who had been called the man who "never turns anything down", a starting point. He and the old prospector left for Odendaalsrus the following day. After a few days spent in the area investigating the old pit, the pair returned to Johannesburg to have the new samples analysed. This job was done by a friend of Robert's, Dave Milne, an analytical chemist at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Roberts was so excited when he heard the results that he decided to enlarge the small pit in the middle of the North West Free State.

A Cornishman named King was enlisted, and Roberts set out on another trip to Odendaalsrus. He was convinced that there was "gold, nothing but gold - nothing more nor less".
It soon became apparent that the values of the shaft and along the reef were barren and that the area would have to be tested by drilling. The Transvaal mining houses were too busy with the Rand and its extensions to spare any thought, much less time and money, for any development in the Free State, and Roberts went it alone.

On 5 May 1933 the first borehole was started. As Roberts wrote in a letter, it was "the first borehole ever put down in the Free State in the search for gold. I feel very proud to determine the original site (it was about 200 yards from the pit) for the first borehole. "Work progressed, and in Johannesburg, Mannie Jacobs managed to interest one or two business men in the Roberts venture. They were Fritz Marx, a stockbroker, and Peter Woolf, a medical practitioner.

Roberts became known as the "klipdokter" in the area and farmers were consistently bringing him chips of rock and stone for inspection, hoping that he would have good news for them. At a depth of 2721 feet, the borehole penetrated lava formations into what was recognised as the Witwatersrand system and penetrated a number of gold reefs, one of which contained fairgold values ~ the first gold reefs ever discovered in the Free State.

On the strength of these findings, the men who had been interested in the work Roberts, Jacobs, Marx and Woolf ~ formed Wit Extensions Company Limited in 1933, and in August of that year the pioneer company of the as yet unheralded Free State Goldfields was formed to carry on boring operations. Soon money started running out, and at 85 shillings a foot boring would not be able to continue for much longer. All efforts to raise capital were unsuccessful, and Roberts put every last penny into his scheme. The drill kept going, In spite of the fact that the bore struck values of 120 in. dwt., the borderline of payability, this news was still not incentive enough to attract financial assistance. The drill, through determination and back-breaking work, had reached 4 046 feet, when the company was reluctantly compelled to stop the drill ~ finances were finally exhausted.

Standing near the door of the only hotel in Odendaalsrus that evening, Allan Roberts was heard to say: "Someday, someone will believe and have faith and come forward, and the drill will again start on its downward trend, eating deep into the earth, and eventually give up its treasure. I am convinced. I will never give in, "I have unshaken belief that gold is to be found in these Free State fields, payable gold, a new goldfields". At that time Roberts did not know how prophetic his words were. He did not realise that only 400 feet beneath the now silent drill-bit, payable gold lay ready to sweep the world's stock markets into a frenzy of excitement, the excitement caused by the striking of basal reef, which was struck 11 years later when this borehole was deepened to 4 446 feet. A sample from this borehole assayed at 37,7 dwts over 6 inch per ton. However, that was a story still to come.

Meanwhile, early in 1933, the Anglo American Corporation secured options in the Klerksdorp area, and deep boreholes soon proved the existence of gold-bearing reef and led to the opening of western Reefs Mine. The fact that gold had been found in payable quantities in this area induced geologists and others with vision to look beyond the Vaal River into the Free State. At last steps were being taken to vindicate Roberts' theory. Borehole prospecting was intensified over a wide area in the vicinity of Odendaalsrus and it was early in 1939 that the first high values were found in borehole No 5, sunk on what has since become the St Helena Mining Lease. By 1940 sufficient work had been done to show that a potential goldfield did in fact exist where Roberts had predicted.

While other boreholes had given stimulating results the potentials of the new goldfield became recognised throughout the world when, in April 1946 the borehole known as Geduld 697 yielded gold assaying 1 252 dwts over 18,4 inch equal to 23,037 inch-dwts. The phenomenal result of Geduld No 1 borehole was followed nine months later by the Geduld No 2 borehole, yielding 1 904dwts over 6,58 inch equal to 12528 inch-dwts. In the region of R 6 000 000 was spent in diamond drill boreholes to "prove" the new goldfield.

Thirteen separate mining properties were delimited within the area of the new goldfield which gave rise to the town of Welkom around which six of these mines are situated. They are St Helena, the first mine on the new field to come into production when the first bars of gold from the Free State goldfields were poured by Mr P M Anderson, chairman of Union Corporation, on 26 October 1951, Western Holdings, Free State Geduld, Welkom Mine, President Brand and President Steyn. The resulting development of Welkom ~ and its neighboring towns ~ over the past 50 years was the spectacular climax to the arduous, prolonged and often disappointing work of exploration that was carried out in the early days.

It was a triumph of scientific knowledge and of personal courage; the years of planning and investigations, the appalling dangers to overcome, and the discomforts and hardships endured. These all led to the great discovery that was splashed over the front pages of newspapers all over the world, the story of discovery and the establishment of a massive mining complex.

For Allan Roberts, his "wild goose chase" had been successful. The Free State Gold-fields is a fitting tribute to his belief and perseverance. His memorial still stands in the Free State - the town of Allanridge named after the true pioneer of the gold mining industry in the Free State.

(Thanks are due to Mrs Gladys Roberts for a number or quotations in this story which were taken from an unpublished manuscript). From The Friend, 14 February 1968).

Article obteined from VISTA's special Anniversary edition April 1997.

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