The social lives of the gold miners of Barberton - and the opportunists who preyed on them – were colourful and wild. And while the amateur dramatics groups and temperance societies flourished, Barberton also had its wild side. Historians are still trying to work out when they had time to sleep...

Did you know?

On 21 June 1884, Graham Barber wrote a letter to the state secretary to inform him that he and his two cousins, Fred and Harry, had discovered payable gold on state land where the Umvoti Creek entered the De Kaap valley. The state secretary then asked the magistrate in Lydenburg to investigate the matter and for David Wilson, the gold commissioner, to submit a report. Wilson investigated, and on 24 July 1884, declared the township of Barberton.

Old-time Barberton was once a raucous gold settlement which resembled, in many ways, the set of the classic movie musical Paint Your Wagon.

Nestled into the Makhonjwa Mountains of modern-day Mpumalanga, young Barberton of the 1880s was awash with prospector-miners equipped with square gin bottles, picks, pans and donkeys. They lived in constant hope of a gold strike. They fought off malaria with the demon drink. They longed for the girls back home, wherever ‘back home’ was. And they laughed in the face of adversity.

Trailing them were the sideshows:

· The shysters, selling gold shares (‘Barbertons’) back on the streets of London for 10 times their real value;

· The hoteliers, fleecing the miners with extravagantly priced rooms, meals, drinks and professional girls;

· The gamblers, filling up the barroom corners with their well-marked decks of cards and stacks of chips, waiting to part a drunken gold-boomer from his earnings.

They were followed by a slew of adventurers, remittance men, faded city ladies, horse traders, chandlers, priests, auctioneers, last-ditchers and dreaded tax collectors on the lookout for the state’s pound of flesh.

Any woman arriving in Barberton was deemed beautiful. There was Cockney Liz, who broke many a heart, from Barberton to Eureka City, and all points in between. Legend says she was auctioned off every evening in 1 of the pubs and the lucky bidder would make off with her.

A certain Charlie Thomas got drunk, woke up and found he had been using a gold-encrusted rock for a pillow. Another man, Edwin Bray, wandered off from a well-used footpath and discovered the magnificent Golden Quarry, the site of the present-day Sheba Gold Mine. Someone called MacDonald followed a honeybird in the hope of something sweet, found a snake instead, killed it and in the process discovered a massive gold reef, known thereafter as Honeybird Reef. Prospector James Mayne was found murdered in a tiny creek. The search party discovered his revolver next to a rock which had been chipped away to reveal yet another gold reef. That became Revolver Creek.

Barberton is comparatively quiet these days, and open for tourism. Just watch out where you lay your head...

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Barberton Community Tourism
Tel: +27 (0) 13 712 2880

Barberton Museum
+27 (0) 13 712 4281
Email the curator: abornman@nel.mpu.gov.za

How to get here

Barberton lies 45km south of Nelspruit and just more than 60km from the Swaziland border.

Best time to visit

Barberton enjoys superb weather all year round, especially in the autumn (April and May) and spring (September and October) when the Mpumalanga heat abates.

Around the area

Visit Kaapshehoop, Nelspruit, Sudwala Caves and White River in the area.

Tours to do

You can go hiking in this area, do mine tours, and visit a local crocodile farm.

Get around

Most of the town's tourist sites are within walking distance of the middle of Barberton.

What will it cost

Entrance fees at the various museums are never more than about R10 for adults and R5 for children.

Length of stay

Barberton and its colourful history are worth a three-day visit.

What to pack

Bring something for unexpected rain showers.

Where to stay

There is a range of good accommodation in Barberton.

What to eat

Barberton has a number of good restaurants, pubs and coffee shops.

What's happening

Try microlighting over the De Kaap Valley with Pyramid Flight School - see the Barberton website.

Best buys

Gold jewellery made in Barberton.