Railways In The Karoo: John Paterson and William Brounger

It was the son of a Scottish stone carter who devised a way to link Graaff-Reinet to the coast by rail. But John Paterson initially came to South Africa to teach English. He was recruited by James Rose Innes, and he arrived in this country filled with enthusiasm.  By 1841 he had established The Government Free School, but, demanding as this job was, it not challenging, nor exciting enough, for him.  So by 1845, together with a friend, John Ross Philip, he started the Eastern Province Herald, Port Elizabeth’s first newspaper. Even this, however, was not enough, so he became involved with many other entrepreneurial ventures.  By 1847, having made enough money to stop teaching, he turned his attention to journalism, politics and the development of a local infrastructure. He became closely involved with the establishment of a local hospital, library and harbor board. Bartle Logie, in Traveller’s Joy, traces the development of the first railway line from Algoa Bay into the eastern Karoo to link places like Uitenhage, Jansenville, Aberdeen, Klipplaats, Baroe, Kendrew, Graaff-Reinet and Middelburg.  Paterson proposed linking Graaff-Reinet to the coast by rail in order to move the wool clip more efficiently. He was convinced that railways were the key to future economic viability in South Africa and in 1857, proposed a major rail network for South Africa. He drew up a map showing a network of railway lines across the country. Oddly enough it differs only slightly from those that were eventually created. Sadly Paterson never saw his dreams come true. He was killed in an accident at sea in April, l880, while en route from Cape Town to England aboard the American. The ship foundered off the West African coast.  Paterson was taken aboard the Senegal with other survivors, but it ran aground off the Grand Canary Island. All but Paterson were saved. He was struck by the propeller when his lifeboat broke up on being launched.


In the mid-1800s the S A Commercial Advertiser carried an article claiming the cost of a railway system would be too expensive for the Cape.  This would cost anything from £25 000 to £40 000, said the report.   The news distressed many and most felt that never in their lifetimes would they see such a modern form of transport, but the feeling was not general – transport riders, horse breeders and wagon builders rejoiced. In Traveller’s Joy, Bartle Logie states that seven years passed before London papers reported a renewed interest in a railroad system for the Cape of Good Hope. Again nothing happened.


In 1884, a new company was formed and by the following year, William George Brounger, a young man born in Hackney in 1820, was on his way to South Africa to take up the post of construction engineer. Not only did he have degrees in engineering, he had experience. He had worked with the firm of Fox and Henderson on the London to Birmingham line and his efforts had impressed Sir Charles Fox. So, when Sir Charles was retained by the Cape Town Railway and Dock Company to help plan a railway system, he immediately recommended Brounger be given the task of supervising the building of the 240-mile line across the Hex River Mountains through the Karoo to Beaufort West. It was a job full of challenges, which Brounger, who has been hailed as one of the most outstanding railway engineers of his day, adequately met. Brounger, who also served on the management committee of the Cape Botanical Gardens, died in England in 1901.  His son, Richard, took over from him as chief resident engineer of the Cape Government Railways.


© Rose’s Roundup, June 2012 (No 221)

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