Kimberley, South Africa


Harris, Cyril

Cyril Harris Journalist on the DFA 

(this article is taken from the Facebook group Kimberley Calls and Recalls)

It is not often that editors of newspapers are remembered fifty years after their death, and even less so for journalists unless they won prestigious awards or were involved in a well-known murder case or even perhaps wrote about a world-famous statesman. Such is the case of Kimberley journalist Cyril Bertram Harris, who, despite being the author (or co-author) of three publications, is not as well-known as his fellow Kimberlites named Harris such as Sir David Harris.

Cyril B Harris (pictured) was born on 11 October 1894 in Dawlais, Wales, and came to South Africa (and Kimberley) with his parents in 1902. At the age of 11 years, he could do shorthand at 100 words per minute, and in 1909, aged 15 years, joined the Diamond Fields Advertiser as a reporter. He was the youngest journalist in South Africa.

Possibly his major story for the DFA was reporting on John Weston’s historic flight in Kimberley on 16 June 1911 when the aviation pioneer set a South African non-stop flight record of eight-and-a-half minutes in his Weston-Farman biplane.

For a time, he worked at the Natal Advertiser (now the Daily News) in Durban and for 12 years was the parliamentary correspondent for the Cape Argus in Cape Town. In 1920 he was a foundation member of the South African Society of Journalists (SASJ). Cyril was also the South African representative for the London-based Financial Times as well as being a representative of the South African Press Association for some 35 years.

He returned to Kimberley and the Diamond Fields Advertiser, finally retiring from the newspaper in 1949 as the News Editor. In its brief existence he was also editor of the Saturday Evening News, an extension of the DFA. His daily column was entitled “The Conning Tower” and his byline, or pen-name, was “Rockshaft”. This column was a hotch-potch of Kimberley and regional gossip and included many quite amazing interviews and stories from the early diamond days.

He may have retired from the DFA but not from journalism as Sir Ernest Oppenheimer approached him to take over the editorship of the “Diamond News and SA Jeweller”, a task he loved. He was still involved with the magazine when he died.

It was not all work and no play. In his youth he was an outstanding athlete being a noted 100 yard sprinter, and he was an above average cricketer and tennis player.

As an author, he wrote the biography of Sir David Harris, titled Pioneer, Soldier and Politician, in 1931; and co-authored with AJ Beet the memoir of the Kimberley siege of 1899-1900 in 1950. He was also co-author with Conrad Lighton, “Details regarding the Diamond Fields Advertiser (1878-1968)”, published posthumously in 1969. He was also the founder of South Africa’s first flight magazine in 1937, the SA Airnews.

Harris married late in life, tying the knot with Sophie Zweiback (nee Ettin), a widow, in 1946. (Sophie’s first husband, Dr Solomon Zwieback, had represented Beaconsfield in the Cape Provincial Council in the 1920s and been a town councillor for some time. He died in January 1943).

He was Chairman of the Red Cross Society and the editor of the Diamond News and SA Jeweller when he died in Kimberley on 1 October 1967.

Cyril Bertram Harris is buried in the West End Jewish cemetery.

Did you know that it was Cyril Harris who was the inspiration behind the Big Hole or Kimberley Mine Museum?  It all began early in 1952 when Cyril B Harris approached De Beers Consolidated Mines with a plan to save certain historic buildings that were being demolished in Kimberley. The Kimberley Mine, having ceased production in August 1914, was already a tourist attraction, and it was suggested that these buildings be placed on the western edge of the pit adjacent to the then observation post. De Beers agreed, and this vision of an historic village came to fruition with the generosity of many Kimberley residents who donated their obsolete buildings as well as numerous artefacts, beginning in August 1952.

Harris’ vision was taken on in those early years by Fred Borgstrom of De Beers, who collected most of the donations and set up the original old town village that lasted until re-construction in 1968. The first building to be re-erected in the museum was Kimberley’s oldest house, a prefabricated structure originally from England and placed in Pniel Road in July 1877.

In September 1952 this dwelling was joined at the museum by the steam engine ‘Puffing Billy’, an old tram, and an original horse ‘Hitching Post’. By December 1952 the historic village next to the observation post was expanding with Rhodes’ stepping stones, a searchlight, Kimberley’s first motorcar, as well as electric street lights all being placed on display. HH Taylor, the General Manager of De Beers, proudly proclaimed that same month, that ‘A small museum has been established at the Open Mine to preserve relics of interest from the early days.’

By 1961 a small entrance fee of 6d (5c) to see the Big Hole and mine museum was being charged, with all proceeds going to the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum in Chapel Street. A tearoom was established in 1962, as was a picnic garden. Although the foundations of the tearoom are still on top of the mine dump to the left of the observation platform (behind wire fencing), most of the original concrete tables and chairs have now tumbled to the bottom of the Big Hole.

Basil Humphreys’ interest in the Mine Museum in the 1960s, saw De Beers Consolidated Mines appoint him as their museum consultant in 1967. Until his appointment, the museum fell under the control of the Public Relations Officer for De Beers, the two involved in the museum being Fred Borgstrom and JS Sandilands. This appointment of Humphreys resulted in a rather haphazard collection of buildings and artefacts being turned into an historic town reminiscent of the early days of the diamond diggings. Mr Harry Oppenheimer, Chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, assisted quite ably by backing the idea of a museum, and made company funds available for extensions, renovations and expansion. He gave £10 000 for museum improvements in June 1962, and three years later would ensure the museum grew with even more financial assistance from the mining company. This generosity would continue through to his retirement in 1994.

Two General Managers of De Beers – WS ‘Bill’ Gallagher, until 1962, and Ken Loftus, from 1962, were extremely keen on establishing the museum, and assisted in many ways not recorded in the minutes. Ken Loftus in particular, took a personal interest in the development.

The ‘new’ facility planned by Basil Humphreys, that included modern buildings with shops, an entrance and car park, as well as a De Beers Hall showing the history of the company, was officially opened by Mr Frank Waring, Minister of Sport and Tourism, on 19 November 1969. A few years later the museum included the world’s largest static display of cut and uncut diamonds, a glittering attraction known as the Alpheus Williams Collection.

Three decades later in the first years of the 21st century a decision was taken by De Beers to upgrade the museum, and this major World attraction, now known as the Big Hole Experience, was officially opened on 23 November 2006 by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Nicholas Oppenheimer, Chairman of the De Beers Group. This new facility included a suspended viewing walkway over the Big Hole, a theatre, shops, an underground experience, as well as a magnificent display of diamonds in the upgraded Pulsator Shed.