The Streets of our Names 


11. The (secret) story that started with Piet Retief

Date: 01 August 2016 Viewed: 29838

This week we turn to a rather secluded and fairly small street in the upper part of town, namely Piet Retief Street. It was, obviously, named after the Voortrekker leader, Pieter Retief, who was killed by Zulu chief Dingaan on 6 February 1838, only a year or so after Louis Trichardt’s trek reached the Soutpansberg.

Our more observant readers would probably already have asked why are we focusing on someone who had never set foot in the Zoutpansberg. After all, he turned right and went to the then Zululand (Natal) when Trichardt and his companions ventured north. Well, it turns out he influenced the local history in an indirect way, but we will get to that later.

Our short history on Piet Retief starts on 12 November 1780 at a town called Wagenmakersfontein, today known as Wellington. He was the fifth of ten children of Jacobus and Deborah Retief. The Retief family originally came from Provence in France.

After assisting his father with the farming business, Piet Retief moved to Stellenbosch, where he tried his hand at a number of small businesses that even included running a liquor store. In spite of being described as a very honest person with moral integrity, he never truly succeeded in business and was constantly involved in lawsuits and financial difficulties.

In 1814 he married a widow, Lenie Greyling, and adopted three sons and two daughters. Retief was known for his restless nature and energy and he was a natural leader. He was very active in, among others, the various commandos and when the time arrived, he was the logical choice to lead the disgruntled Voortrekkers who wanted to break away from British colonial rule. He was one of the organisers of the migration to the north, which later became known as the Great Trek.

In a manifesto published in the Graham’s Town Journal on 22 January 1837, Retief describes the reasons for this breakaway from their place of birth. He writes: “We solemnly declare that we quit this colony with a desire to lead a more quiet life than we have heretofore done. We will not molest any people, nor deprive them of the smallest property; but, if attacked, we shall consider ourselves fully justified in defending our persons and effects, to the utmost of our ability, against every enemy.”

Retief even stated their expectations when meeting indigenous tribes in the new land: “We propose, in the course of our journey, and on arriving at the country in which we shall permanently reside, to make known to the native tribes our intentions, and our desire to live in peace and friendly intercourse with them.”

Well, of course, this did not totally work out the way Retief envisaged.

Not long after the manifesto was published, Retief and his group arrived in Thaba Nchu, where they met up with a group of 300 Voortrekkers who had arrived in Thaba Nchu earlier. They considered Piet Retief to be their leader and elected him their governor.

From Thaba Nchu, the Voortrekkers made their way across the Drakensberg mountain range to the east, with the hope of settling in a more fertile Zululand. The area they ventured into was under the kingship of Dingaan, the half-brother of the feared Shaka Zulu.

The story of Piet Retief ended for him on 6 February 1838, when he and his group of men were ambushed by Dingaan and killed. Much has been said and written about the circumstances surrounding his death, but that is not the focus of this article. We focus on another aspect of Piet Retief that echoed for decades to come in the Zoutpansberg:

Piet Retief was, like many of the other prominent Voortrekker leaders, also a Freemason. He was one of the pioneers who took the movement north, where it also settled at the foot of the Soutpansberg.

A very historic photo and probably published for the first time: The first Officers of the Lodge taken shortly after the congregation of the Lion of the North Lodge in 1914. At the back, from left, stand (unknown), M Himmelhoch (Inner Guard), ET Stubbs (Director of Ceremonies), DH Stewart (Secretary), (unknown) and A Connel (Tyler). In the front sit G Himmelhoch (Senior Deacon), JP Kleinenberg (Senior Warden), (unknown), CE Schlesinger (Charter Master), BL Lewis (Junior Warden) and TV Setterfield (Junior Deacon). The three “unknowns” are LP Lange (Chaplain), F Harris (Treasurer) or the two Stewards, L Gottlieb and CL Harries.

Before we have a look at the local Freemason lodge, we need to go back in history and find out when and where this fraternal, fairly secretive, society entered the country. (Perhaps we need to qualify this – the Freemasons often say they are not a secret society, but simply a society with secrets. There is a difference.)

Freemasonry is several centuries old and, in all probability, originated in medieval times when the great cathedrals of Europe were built. The stonemasons who created these structures formed craft guilds to protect the secrets of their trade. The idea was to help one another and pass on their knowledge to worthy apprentices.

In 17th century England, the guilds began accepting honorary members. These members were men of learning and were not working as stonemasons or even associated with the building trade. These honorary members were later referred to as the Free and Accepted Masons and from this the Freemasons were born. The first Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717.

In broad terms, the Freemasons became a humanitarian organisation. Members are only men and membership is open to those who have “…a general desire of knowledge, and a sincere wish to render (them)selves more extensively serviceable to (their) fellow creatures.” The most important function of a Freemason is to be involved in charitable work and community development. One of the interesting requirements for membership is that you must be of sound mind and believe in a Creator.

Freemasonry officially arrived in South Africa on the 2nd of May 1772 when the Dutch citizens established the Lodge de Goede Hoop under the Mastership of Abraham Chiron. The lodge depended for its existence on visitors (who mostly worked for the Dutch East India Company) and did not attract a lot of free burghers (local residents). It was only in 1790, following a “quiet” period of nine years, that the Lodge started attracting prominent residents such as Johannes Andreas Truter, who later became Chief Justice of the Cape.

The British started playing a more prominent role in South Africa in the late 18th century, and after the British occupation in 1795, a large number of members from overseas Lodges were living in Cape Town. De Goede Hoop Lodge allowed them to use the facilities, but in 1811, following the second British occupation of the Cape (1806), the British Lodge was formed. This was the first permanent Masonic involvement of the United Grand Lodge of England.

In the early 1800s, a couple of developments such as The Great Trek and the influx of English Settlers took place. As far as the Freemasons were concerned, this caused a movement of the English Freemasonry to the east, while the Dutch Freemasonry moved north.

The peace among the divided Freemasons, unfortunately, could not last forever. The use of English among the Dutch Lodges created tension and this resulted in 1860 in the formation of the very first Lodge under the Scottish Constitution, that being Lodge Southern Cross. In 1897, the Irish also arrived with the first Irish lodge, St Patricks. Before the start of the 20th century there were thus four Constitutions at work in Southern Africa.

We need to move back to Piet Retief, one of several Voortrekker leaders who were also active Freemasons. The list of early Freemasons is extensive and includes a large number of church ministers and political leaders.

In the early years, Sir Christoffel Brand, father of Jan Brand -who later became president of the Free State - was a driving figure for the movement, establishing Lodges in places such as Burghersdorp and Bloemfontein.  

The Lodges started appearing all over and in 1865, when the ZAR was under leadership of president MW Pretorius, a lodge was established in Potchefstroom. 

It is said that the ZAR president Francois Burgers, who succeeded Pretorius, as well as the acting presidents Schalk Burger, Stephanus Schoeman and Daniël Erasmus, were all Freemasons.

The discovery of rich diamond and gold fields in southern Africa changed the demographics of the country in a very short space of time and this also affected the rise (and fall) of Masonic lodges. When another prominent Freemason, Cecil John Rhodes, entered the arena, the landscape changed forever and Rhodes’s imperialistic ideals created the backdrop for the Anglo Boer war a few years later.

The newly found riches meant an influx of people from across the globe and both the Dutch and English lodges grew rapidly. In 1892, the Dutch Constitution’s membership was estimated at 587. In 1898, the English Constitution had 24 lodges with 1 838 members. Eleven of these lodges were situated in the ZAR. One of these was the Zoutpansberg Liberty Lodge, established in November 1893 in the then Pietersburg.

This, of course, brings us to the local Freemasons and we can discuss how they influenced life as we know it today. Perhaps just a final word on the Freemasons in the ZAR. It is said that when the Vereeniging peace treaty was signed to mark the end of the Anglo Boer War, the British and Boer leaders all gathered around a table. Without exception all of them were Freemasons.

In December 1896, another Lodge was established in Pietersburg, namely the Star of the North Lodge. The two lodges merged in later years and in 1916 became known as the Pietersburg United Lodge. 

The Lodge also accommodated members from the Soutpansberg, one of them being Charlie Schlesinger, who regularly travelled by bicycle between Louis Trichardt and Pietersburg to attend meetings. He was one of the pioneer businessmen in the region with ventures such as the well-known Zoutpansberg Hotel.

On 18 April 1913, the Lion of the North Lodge (No 3640) was consecrated in Louis Trichardt and opened by J Venning.  Bro Schlesinger was elected as Charter Master. It is not recorded where the first meeting was held, but the meeting on 7 August 1913 was held in the “school room”. One of the first projects was to raise money to build a Temple (a meeting place).

The site where the new Lodge was to be built, was donated by T Kleinenberg and on 14 May 1914 the first ceremonial stone was laid. The new building, situated in Burger Street, was finished a few months later and the first meeting was held on 3 September 1914.

The Lodge had a strong Jewish bias, with some 30% of the members being of Jewish origin. The Jewish businessmen were at the forefront of development in the region in the early 1900s and were very influential. The names included that of Himmelhoch, Gotlieb, Abramowitch and Cohen. Mr SS Himmelhoch owned the first business in town, a general dealership. The family also owned the mill and butchery.

Seeing that this series of articles concerns street names, we should perhaps first stop and check how many of the Freemasons’ names appear on the street poles. We have already referred to the early Boer leaders, such as Pretorius, Joubert, Burgers, Louis Botha, Cronjé and Erasmus who were Freemasons. Of the local residents, the names of Brig ET Stubbs and Van Breda are there, and in later years there were names such as Mannetjies Bergh and PA Otto.

The local Freemasons clearly played an important role in the management of the early Louis Trichardt. CE Schlesinger was instrumental in getting the first Health Committee established in 1910, on which ET Stubbs, the assistant magistrate, served. In 1913, another Freemason, B Lewis, became one of the first elected officials to serve on the Health Committee.

Further north, in Musina, the Freemason membership started to increase and so also the need to have an own Lodge. This ideal was only realised twenty years later, on 25 August 1934, when Messina Lodge was consecrated.

For more than 100 years the Freemasons of the Soutpansberg included some truly fascinating characters who added colour to the region and made a lasting impact. The names include that of Dr Solomon Kirk-Cohen, who was a driving force in the local medical field and also served on the Town Council. The surname Thompson appears a few times and is testimony to a family that left deep marks in the region. There were the farmers, such as Ridgeway Bristow, and entrepreneurs like Claude Hanlon, who started one of the biggest garages in the district. Piet Otto was a town clerk who later became a councillor and mayor of Louis Trichardt.

To discuss all the names that appear in the minute books of the local Freemason Lodge will make for a story much too long to be published in one edition of a newspaper. It is, however, certain that the region would not have been the same, were it not for the influence of these men. 

The Freemason building, with its timber and iron structure and suspect foundations, was eventually discarded as it became too small to accommodate the large number of members who joined after the end of World War II. On 17 May 1952, the foundation stone for the new building at 125 Munnik Street was laid by the District Grand Master, JH Vivian. This building still serves as gathering place for the Freemasons today.

When Piet Retief embarked on his big trek northwards, he probably had no idea that he took along much more than a “voorlaaier” a “wakis” and a Bible. He also exported a fraternity with ideals to change the world for the better. Whether the men who gathered behind the closed doors always heeded this call is perhaps debatable, but in the Zoutpansberg they definitely left a lasting impression.

* (A word of thanks to Malcolm Tucker who made his research available and also spent a lot of time explaining the history of the Lion of the North Lodge.)
* Jan JP van der Merwe, Vrymesselary voor die aanvang van die Suid-Afrikaanse Oorlog, 2013.
* Tucker, M, A History of Lion of the North Lodge No 3640 EC Louis Trichardt. (Compiled for the centenary celebrations in 2014.)