Kimberley, South Africa



Kimberley’s Fashionable Resort


Alexandersfontein – its illustrious history by Geraldine Auerbach MBE

Early days

The original farm Alexandersfontein, 7 miles South East of Kimberley, near the current airport, was granted to a Mr J.C. Coetzee under an Orange River Sovereignty title in 1848. When diamonds were discovered in the area in the early 1870s the area became very desirable. The farm was in the disputed territory with the result that part of the farm was annexed from the Orange Free State and added to the British Colony of Griqualand West. This part of the farm soon passed into the hands of the London and South Africa Exploration Company.

The farm had one great natural advantage – water!  There was an ancient natural pan or lake there which made it very attractive as a farm, but also for what was to become a fashionable holiday retreat for the people of Kimberley.

No diamonds worth mentioning were discovered on the farm, but as the main Cape Town to Kimberley road ran through Alexandersfontein, it became well known for its gardens, large springs and licensed premises. The Roadside Hotel was built on the farm in 1872. It was renamed the Thatched House Inn and later the Thatched House Tavern. It was well known as the resort of the pleasure-seekers of the Diamond Fields. Christmas advertisements offered: ‘Horse racing, pigeon shooting, sack racing, target shooting — civility, attention — the coolest of drinks and the finest of watercress.’ By 1882 there was even a swimming-pool on site and Kimberly-ites came out for dances at the weekends.

The original owner was a Mrs Bisset. In 1885 the Exploration Company’s assets were taken over by De Beers mining company who ran the resort and intended to develop the site and increase the amenities. A plan for a new hotel existed in 1893, interrupted by unrest in the Transvaal. Again in 1897 De Beers contemplated enlarging the existing hotel, but this had to be postponed because of the outbreak of hostilities in 1899.

The War and its Heyday After

During the Anglo-Boer War the Boer lines besieging Kimberley cut right through Alexandersfontein and the Boers occupied the site. With the arrival of General French to relieve Kimberley, a sharp action was fought there on 14 February 1900, the day before Kimberley was relieved, resulting in the death of three Boers – who may be buried in the vicinity. The position was afterwards occupied by General Kekewich, the defender of Kimberley. You can read here how Alexandersfontein became quite an intense battleground between British and Boers in the Anglo-Boer war. 

After the war, in 1902, at the instigation of Cecil John Rhodes, De Beers set about expanding and refurbishing the hotel and developing the grounds and amenities for the wealthier inhabitants of Kimberley and Beaconsfield. It soon became a fashionable and luxurious pleasure resort with restaurant, ballroom, lakes and gardens.

In 1904, it was connected with Kimberley and Beaconsfield by a smart and advanced electric tram service. Enlargements to the hotel also were carried out and completed in 1908.

(A contemporary report published in 1908 says that ‘on the influence of De Beers alone has Kimberley grown with some fine buildings eg the City Hall, Sanatorium, Kimberley Club and Alex resort – and adds that on De Beers alone can Kimberley depend for future support.’)

1910 Aviation Centre

Apart from the hotel complex, Alexandersfontein has a rightful claim to being the cradle of aviation in South Africa.  In 1910 Rear-Admiral Dr John Weston, gave a flying display close to the ‘Alex’, as the hotel was called, in his Weston-Farman biplane, on the Kimberley Race Course. He succeeded in remaining aloft for over 8 minutes at an altitude of sixteen meters.

News of Weston’s demonstration lured other prominent aviators to Kimberley. English pilots Cecil Compton Paterson and Guy Livingston together with Evelyn Frederick (Bok) Driver, in 1911, formed the African Aviation Syndicate which established a permanent headquarters at Alexandersfontein. They believed that Kimberley, with its crisp, dry air and expansive flat, bare veld, had the best conditions for flying and training students. (The picture above is of Paterson in his 1911 record breaking Biplane.)

Paterson had already made a name for himself by constantly circling the Honoured Dead Memorial. During the Easter holidays of 1912 he made his name in Kimberley by staging “…the most brilliant aviation display ever seen on the diamond fields.” He challenged Arthur Wright to race him on a motor cycle from Alexandersfontein to the Kimberley horse race course (today the semi-industrial area opposite the new shopping mall called the Diamond Pavilion). The Kimberley newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser reported that Compton Paterson won the race easily but some of the crowd disagreed.

Paterson then went on to give a display of bombing an “enemy” camp with melons and afterwards flew back to Alexandersfontein in the dark. The crowd were suitably impressed.

It was shortly after this display that Paterson accomplished the first-ever cross-country flight in South Africa, flying from Kimberley to Klerksdorp in four hours and forty-two minutes.

The primary objective of the syndicate was ‘to promote the science and practice of aviation in South Africa’ and to promote interest in flying. Fortunately, these men did not have to campaign too hard, for flying had become Kimberley’s latest craze. In fact, such was the locals’ enthusiasm for flying that the two men decided to establish a flying school at Alexandersfontein. The land was owned by De Beers Consolidated Mining Co. but, given the company’s philanthropic nature and its interests, which extended beyond diamond mining, the large tract of land was placed at the school’s disposal. For the Flying school they had a Paterson biplane and a Bleriot monoplane, and in 1912 acquired another Paterson and Bleriot.

The new Union government soon got wind of Paterson’s intention and, because the country did not have any training facilities for military pilots, an agreement was negotiated between Paterson and General Jan Smuts for his school to train ten pupils for the Union Defence Force.

1913 First aerodrome in South Africa and training for pilots

The new Alexandersfontein aerodrome, the first to be established in South Africa, featured a runway cut from scrub so thorny that the aircraft had to have their wheels protected by thick leather coverings to avoid punctures. They constructed a corrugated-iron hangar that also served as a workshop where trainees were taught to carry out aircraft maintenance. While highly primitive, compared with modern aviation infrastructure standards, it served training purposes very well.

The first batch of military pupils arrived in 1913 for training by Paterson and Edward Cheeseman. In addition to those ten military men, the school took on three private students, including Ann Maria Bocciarelli, who became Africa’s first female pilot.

Training was done on a Paterson biplane (No 36) by British aviator Edward Cheeseman. (An interesting fact about Cheeseman is that he was South Africa’s first aviation casualty, having died after sustaining serious injuries when his plane crashed on October 15, 1913.) Testing of the pilots was supervised by the Aeronautical Society of South Africa, as prescribed by, and on behalf of, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

While the flying school at Alexandersfontein was a marked success, it had to be abandoned the following year, 1914, owing to the outbreak of the First World War. After that, the mantle of civil aviation was then passed, naturally, to Johannesburg, where the needs for proper airport infrastructure were most apparent.

Having long since been abandoned as an aviation facility, the original Alexandersfontein aerodrome has been converted into a ‘Pioneers of Aviation’ Museum. It comprises a memorial, a reconstructed hangar and a life-size replica of the Compton-Paterson biplane used for the training of pilots who included the nucleus of the future South African Air Force. The museum can be visited only by appointment with a guide from the McGregor museum. 

1910s and 20s Hardship for the Hotel

The Alexandersfontein Hotel owners struggled to make the hotel pay in the 1910s and 20s, as after amalgamation and the war, many diamond firms left Kimberley and its potential clientele diminished. The hotel continued to provide high standards at low prices and the resort was popular with those that remained.  Here is an advert which appeared in the Diamond Fields Advertiser in 1915: ‘Notice is hereby given that the charge to admission to the swimming-bath at the Alexandersfontein Hotel is reduced as from this date, from sixpence to three pence and includes a bathing costume and towel’.

Although the hotel frequently ran at a loss, and was even closed for a short while during the First World War, De Beers tried to keep it open as a service to Kimberley residents. The Depression saw it close, re-open, close and re-open again only to continue losing money. The site was owned by De Beers up to the end of 1929 when steps were taken to transfer it to the Kimberley City Council.

Bad luck continued to afflict the management; in 1937, the skittle alley was burned down and in 1939 the hotel, as such, was closed for good. Most of the furniture was sent for auction in Kimberley on 11 December 1939.  But that was still not the end of the story.

1939 Ministry of Defence Take Over

On December 1,1939, the aerodrome, the old hotel and aircraft buildings and much of the surrounding property was leased by the City Council to the Government and taken over by the Ministry of Defence for the duration of the war. 

A Flying School for the training of instructors was established. Other military units also made use of the facilities. In December 1939, the old Alexandersfontein Hotel was turned into an Officers' mess, and during the war, housed all the officers stationed at Kimberley and at the Alexandersfontein Air Flying Station.

At this time two auxiliary landing grounds were constructed - one at Wildebeestkuil, 5 miles to the west of Kimberley and one at Tayfield, about twelve miles to the south of the aerodrome. Three smaller landing fields were also made. Soon after the SAAF took over the aerodrome twelve large hangars were erected. In addition, a large camp was built adjacent to the airfield including barracks, offices and technical buildings. This was later called Air Force Station Kimberley.

After the war 21 Air School Depot maintained a section at the airport until 1950, while the camp section, with all these buildings, was handed over to the Department of Education and used under the guidance of Danie Craven (yes, the Springbok Rugby player) for the Physical Training Brigade for boys with slight, curable disabilities. Seven hundred boys and one hundred and eighty-six staff members undertook technical training in a variety of trades; commercial courses and a full academic education from standard six to standard ten. Physical education was of paramount importance.

1950 Special Needs Schools Established

In 1950, the Technical High School closed and in its place a complex of Special Schools was established on the Alex site. These included a Boys' School for the Physically Handicapped; a Girls School for the Physically Handicapped, based in the old hotel, and a Vocational High School. The first two schools were combined to form the Elizabeth Conradie School. Also, the Alexandersfontein School for Epileptics was inaugurated. These ran successfully until 1967.

1967 Combat Station

In November 1967, the Danie Theron Combat School moved in to Alexandersfontein. (The other schools had to move or were closed down.) This was needed because of the increasing numbers being conscripted for South Africa’s defence and also the need for more specialised training.  Officers and non-commissioned officers were trained in conventional and counter insurgence warfare. To ensure more practical knowledge of the nature of the battle against insurgents on our borders as well as the terrain, the leaders of the Commandos were trained in the operational area. This practice started in 1977 and resulted in the leaders – and trainees being used in actual operations. Specialists in sniper tactics were also trained at the Danie Theron Combat School. This included members doing National Service, Commando and Civilian Force members. They were trained in camouflage, hiding, stealthy movement and accurate firing, to gather information or to dominate a specific area.

The former hotel building was still standing, although slowly deteriorating. Birds used its roof as a nesting place and many of the wooden pillars and floors had rotted. As it was decided to use the building as an Officers' Mess, it had to be completely renovated. In attempting this task, the idea was to restore it to its former glory. The original structure was not changed, but new bathrooms and a kitchen had to be added. To restore the original as authentically as possible, bricks of the same size as those in the old hotel were specially baked. The resulting building was a remarkable success; the old dance hall is now the main dining-room; in addition, there is a lounge for men, a lounge for women, a suite of rooms for important guests, and rooms upstairs for officers. A magnificent staircase forms the centre-piece of the whole building, with a chandelier, an ornate ceiling and wall-to-wall carpeting, it makes an impressive entrance to the mess. Much of the old furniture was discovered and has been re-installed, while the rest consists of furniture in the style of seventy-five years previously.

SADF Officers Club

The Jack Hindon Officers' Club, as it was called, was officially opened in February 1972. The formal dinner on that occasion was attended by amongst others, the Minister of Defence PW Botha. who unveiled a bust of Jack Hindon made by Charl Engela, the sculptor of the Danie Theron statue. Colonel Piet Bosman. who was then Officer Commanding the Combat School, announced at the same time that it had been decided to name the lounge for women the Elize Botha lounge, in honour of the wife of the Minister. About one hundred and eighty guests attended the ceremony. Since then many an officer and lucky guest have enjoyed the luxurious comforts of the Jack Hindon Officers' Club, surely the most beautiful Officers' Club in South Africa.

It is not only the Alexandersfontein Hotel which has been restored to its former glory. During 1975 the then Officer Commanding, the Combat School, Colonel Hennie Riekert, planned to restore the old duckpond as well. The scenic pond and three hectares of valuable grazing land was surrounded with a security fence to keep out vermin and vandals. An appeal was made to the public to donate game and a favourable reaction was immediate. By the end of the year there were various kinds of water- and other birds, as well as three springbuck, a duiker, reindeer, tame rabbits and a tame zebra, Garby. The latter was brought in from the northern border in August.

Once one of the country's three finest hotels, the ‘Alex’ was renowned and loved by Kimberley society including our parents and grandparents who dined, danced and even had their honeymoons there. In the 1970s, it was refurbished and used by the SA National Defence Force as the Jack Hindon Officers' Club. Who knows of its fate since then.

Geraldine Auerbach MBE London August 2017.