Time out

At 6 a.m. the prisoners were allowed out into the yard, where they had the option of exercising throughout the day. The lavatories and bathing arrangements consisted of a tap in the yard and an open furrow through which the town water ran, the lower end of which was used as a wash-place by prisoners, white and black alike. Within a foot or two of the furrow where alone washing of the person or of clothing was allowed stood the gaol urinals. There was neither adequate provision in this department nor any attempt at proper supervision, the result being that…the ground on both sides of the water-furrow for six or eight yards was horribly stained and saturated by leakage…there were at that time over 250 prisoners, about 100 of whom were white. There were three closets and six buckets for the accommodation of all, and removals took place sometimes once a day, sometimes once in every four days. Nothing but the horror of such conditions, and the fact that they prevail still in Pretoria Gaol, and presumably in other gaols more removed from critical supervision, could warrant allusions to such a disgusting state of affairs. At 6.15 breakfast was served. A number of tin dishes, containing one pound of mealiemeal porridge (ground maize) each were placed in a row on the ground in the yard in the same manner as a dog’s food might be set out. A bucket nearby contained some coarse salt in the condition in which it was collected in the natural salt pans, the cubes varying from the size of peas to the size of acorns. No sugar, milk, tea, or coffee, was allowed. In order to utilize the salt the prisoners were obliged to crush it with rough stones on the cement steps…To those who had not tasted it before in the course of prospecting or up-country travelling where conditions are sometimes very hard, it was no more possible to swallow it than to eat sawdust.  Dinner was at twelve o’clock, and it consisted of coarse meat boiled to that degree which was calculated to qualify the water in which it was boiled to be called soup, without depriving the meat of all title to be considered a separate dish. With this meal was also served half a pound of bread. Supper, which was provided at five o’clock, was exactly the same as breakfast.[1]

These were the conditions that greeted four Uitlander reformers in the wake of the failed 1896 Jameson raid, as reported by James Percy Fitzpatrick.  Better known as the author of Jock of the Bushveld, Fitzpatrick was a South African politician, mining financier and farmer, as well as an advocate for English-speaking Uitlanders in the ZAR. He reserved his harshest criticism for the judge who had initially sentenced the four, one of whom was Colonel Frank Rhodes – brother of Cecil – to death.  In describing Reinhold Gregorowski, Fitzpatrick referred to  ‘…the peculiar severity of his sentences on all except Boers.  He had moreover expressed openly in Bloemfontein his wish that he might have the trying of “those reformers; he would give them what for.”’[2]  The Uitlanders‘ sentences were subsequently commuted to 15 years in prison, but they were released within a few months on payment of a fine.

Constructed in 1873, Pretoria’s second gaol accommodated prisoners of all races.  It had a yard and wardens’ accommodation on site, and a gallows in the garden where public executions were carried out on Saturdays.  A couple of photos survive (Source: http://www.dcs.gov.za/AboutUs/Museum.aspx).






Walking past the gaol one Saturday in 1896, Jan de Veer made the following observations:

‘Around the old jail a thick stone wall had been built and on top of this was a lot of broken glass to prevent the convicts from escaping. One morning, when we went to the station at quarter to six, the whole area was surrounded by armed police on horseback. We enquired what was going on and were given the answer that six murderers were to be hung and if we went to the other side of the street and stood on the big rock we would be able to see them being hung. From there we could see the gallows, the murderers coming with a bag over their head. The noose was placed around the neck and suddenly they fell down and we saw nothing more than a moving rope.’[3]

The gaol continued to host prisoners during the Anglo-Boer War.  After being taken there on 21 February 1902, Lieutenant George Witton had this to say about it.

‘…This was the first time I had ever been inside a civil prison. My first impressions were anything but encouraging; the warders appeared most uncivil. The first one we met told us in a domineering manner to “face the wall,” then commenced to order us about. On being taken to the reception room, we were stripped and our clothing carefully searched; we were then examined, and a complete description for identification purposes taken. Our own clothes were returned to us, and we were then taken to separate cells and locked up–in the quarters where Dr. Jameson and his followers had been confined after his disastrous and abortive raid on the Boer Republic a few years previous.’[4]

The British Army had charged Witton, together with Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock[5], with the shooting of eight Boer prisoners in a vengeance killing in the Northern Transvaal in 1901.  Morant and Handcock were also charged with the separate murder of three Boers, and Handcock with the murder of a German missionary and one of his own troopers.  Witton petitioned Kitchener, and his sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison, of which he served two, most of it in England.  Morant and Handcock – whose story is immortalised in Peter Weir’s film, Breaker Morant – weren’t as fortunate.  They were executed on 27 February 1902, less than a week after having set foot inside Pretoria Gaol.  It was a Thursday.

The prison was not well fortified and several escapes occurred during its lifetime.  In August 1903, 500 black convicts tried to break out.  One of the prisoners dashed his plate of porridge into the face of a warder, a signal for the others to follow suit.  In the confusion that followed they tried to rush the gates, but were pushed back by the warders ‘after a fierce and exciting struggle.’[6]   Also around this time, six black prisoners escaped by ‘cutting their way out of the gaol with a tin opener.’[7]

By May 1904, Pretoria Gaol had become home to Harry and an accomplice, Simon Schapiro.  Their six-month sentences provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on the events that had put them in there.

On 3 December 1903, Harry met with Daniel Donavan, a liquor traffic inspector.  A client, Herman Hamburg, had applied for a liquor licence to the Liquor Licensing Court and Harry made Donavan aware that if he would guarantee safe passage of the application through the Court, then Hamburg would give the inspector £500.  The day before the Court was due to decide the matter, the offer was repeated to Donavan, this time by Schapiro.

Both Harry and Schapiro were indicted at the Pretoria Criminal Sessions on charges of bribery and being guilty of knowingly committing a crime on behalf of another person.  Arguments on question of law raised the matter for consideration before the Transvaal Supreme Court.  It was heard on 23 April, the day after Harry turned 28.

On opposite sides of the bench were counsel for the accused, Reinhold Gregorowski – who after the War had resumed practice at the bar – and his successor as Chief Justice of the Transvaal Court, James Rose Innes.  The latter, whose resumé included a parliamentary career in the Cape Colony and leadership of the Cape bar, had been critical of Kruger’s Uitlander policy in the lead up to the War.  In 1896, the British government decided to send him to observe – on behalf of British, American and Belgian subjects – the trial of Uitlander reformers associated with the Jameson Raid.  The then ZAR government objected to Fitzpatrick’s involvement in the trial, and his participation was limited to sitting at the counsels’ table and consulting and advising with the Pretoria barristers employed to defend the prisoners.[8]  At that time, Gregorowski was a judge of the ZAR High Court.

It would be impossible to intuit whether old antipathies had any bearing on the outcome of Harry’s and Schapiro’s trial.  From available accounts Innes was a skilled lawyer and an honourable man who earned respect across the different language groups and races; he would go on to become Chief Justice of a united South Africa. In delivering judgment, he found the accused guilty of

‘…wrongfully and unlawfully promis(ing) to the said Daniel Donavan, being…in the service of the colony of the Transvaal, that if he…would in conflict with his duty…recommend the granting by the Liquor Licensing Court…of a liquor licence to Herman Hamburg,…, he,…Daniel Donavan, would receive the sum of five hundred pounds sterling.’[9]

and sentenced the two men to six months prison without hard labour, ordering them to pay a fine of £400 pounds each.  The fine was set aside after Harry and Schapiro declared that they had no funds, and no goods could be found to an equal value.

By early October, Harry was due for release from Pretoria Gaol.  But the courts weren’t finished with him yet.

[1]              Fitzpatrick, J.P. The Transvaal from within: a private record of public affairs 1899 pp204-5

[2]              Ibid page 245.

[3]              De Veer, Jan Memoirs Historical papers, Wits University A.D. van Doornum, 2013.  Page 24.

[4]              Witton, G. Scapegoats of the Empire: the true story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers 1907, page 68.

[5]              At the time the three were serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers, an irregular unit based in the northern Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War.

[6]              Report syndicated to various overseas press e.g. The Ballarat Star 1 September 1903.

[7]              Reported in The Johannesburg Star, syndicated to various overseas press e.g. The Lithgow Mercury, 4 September 1903.

[8]              Fitzpatrick, op.cit. pages181-2.

[9]              Rex v Saltman & Schapiro, 355, Transvaal Supreme Court May 2,3 1904.  Innes, C.J., and Solomon and Curlewis, J.J.


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