The 100 years of Ladysmith’s existence has three distinct era’s, the first commenced with the arrival of the Voortrekkers who had crossed the Drakensberg in the Spring of 1838 and occupied the good pastoral land in the neighbourhood of the Klip River. After the murder of Piet Retief by Dingaan’s Zulu, the Wen Kommando outspanned at what is now known as Danskraal, approximately 4km from the business centre of present-day Ladysmith. Here, it is believed, the historic vow was taken invoking God’s assistance for victory at Blood River.
After the might of Dingaan was broken, burgher families staked out large farms in this area. These hardy pioneers did not design the town, but they had nonetheless blazed a trail to the spot. The community was very unsettled owing to the attitude of the local Bantu tribes, and after the annexation of Natal in 1842 by the British government; many burgher families packed up and trekked over the Drakensberg. Due to dissatisfaction with Colonial rule by those who remained, a treaty was signed with Mpande, Dingaan’s brother and successor, whereby the short-lived Klip River Republic was established – with Andries Spies as their commandant.
On the collapse of the Republic, Sir Harry Smith, the Governor of the Cape colony, arrived in December 1847 to dissuade the local farmers from their planned exodus. For the purpose of stabilising the situation, Mr. John Bird was instructed to find a suitable site and establish a town from whence he was to administer law and dispense justice. Bird chose and purchased a farm belonging to a certain Mr. Van Tonder because of its defence potential, being situated in a bend of the Klip River where the high banks made attack difficult. Bird surveyed the town and established it as administrative centre for what was then called the Klip River District. Lots were sold by public auction at an initial price of £1 O per acre.
In 1849 the town was described as a “well adapted village”, and on 20 June 1850 Benjamin Pine, Lieutenant Governor of Natal, officially proclaimed it a township. Little however is known of the name of the town in those days, but in September 1850 the town was referred to locally and in the press as Windsor. On 11 October 1850 the town was officially named Ladysmith after Lady Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon Smith, Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, governor of the Cape. The town of Harrismith had a short time before been named after the governor of the Cape Colony, and it was thought that Ladysmith would be a suitable partner to this Dutch settlement on the further side of the Drakensberg.
At this time there was an influx of British immigrants into the area, who had arrived under various colonisation schemes such as the Byrnes Scheme. This hardy farming folk, mostly from Yorkshire, injected a new spirit and enthusiasm into the progress of Ladysmith. Winder, Knight and Anderson set up shops. King erected a mill on the river, and two unnamed Scotsmen set up a lard factory, slaughtering the herds of Zebra inhabiting the area and melting down their fat. The town developed quickly, its growth being stimulated by the over• Berg trade, and in 1854 Bishop Colenso reported Ladysmith to be a “neat hamlet of twenty• three houses, all of them well built, besides soldiers’ tents and huts”. In the 1850’s a road, no more than a track, was established as a link to the capital, Pietermaritzburg. A horse-drawn bus service carrying passengers and mail followed, and in 1861 Ladysmith became the railhead.
With the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold at Barberton and the Witwatersrand, Ladysmith grew in size, owing its importance as a stopover for transport wagons between Port Natal Harbour and the gold and diamond fields. At its peak some 3 000 wagons passed through per month, the rugged characters who undertook the arduous task of transport riding, giving the place the air of a Wild West town.
About the time of the discovery of the Witwatersrand Main Reef, gold was discovered in the ridge above what is today known as Residency Road. The Ladysmith Gold Mining Company was formed by public subscription to exploit this very promising discovery. After following the reef for about 7 feet it petered out and, with it, the public hopes of an easy and golden future.
The second era, which saw the town, plunged into the depth of war and siege had its embryo stages in 1879 with the outbreak of hostilities in Zululand between the British forces and the Zulu under Cetchwayo. Fear of an attack on the town caused much anxiety amongst the local population. A fort was hastily erected on the site of the present-day police headquarters and an organisation was established whereby local residents could be speedily brought into the fort in case of an attack. It fortunately never materialised and after the defeat of Cetchwayo, life in Ladysmith returned to normal. This was, however, temporarily disrupted early in 1881 during the short-lived First War of Independence in the Transvaal. With the passing of this crisis Ladysmith was to enjoy nearly two decades of tranquility.
In October 1899 war broke out between Britain and the two Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Ladsymith, as the gateway to the Cape Colony, was to be the key point of the struggle for Natal. The Boer forces under General Piet Joubert established themselves around the town and on strategic points such as Gun Hill, Pepwoth Hill, Lombardskop and Umbulwane. It was at 05h30 on 30 October 1899 that the bombardment of the town opened and this was the start of a 120-day siege, which catapulted the name of Ladysmith into newspaper headlines throughout the world. General Sir George White VC, in command of the British forces in Ladysmith, decided to hold the town. The water supply was cut off and shortage of food became acute, resulting in a rapid deterioration of general health conditions and caused many deaths, mainly as a result of enteric fever. Attacks from both sides, in bids to break through each other’s lines, claimed the lives of many men.
260 Officers and men of the British forces died as a direct result of the hostilities during the siege, while 541 of them died of enteric fever and other diseases. The siege was lifted on 28 February 1900 after the British forces under General Sir Redvers Buller succeeded attempts in breaking through the Boer lines. The dogged defence by the besieged and the stubborn resistance offered by the Boer forces established Ladysmith’s claim to historical fame.
The town entered its third era when peace and prosperity descended upon its inhabitants after the war. It steadily grew in size and is today an important commercial and industrial centre.
The Klip River, on whose banks the town lies, is very erratic – sometimes hardly moving and at other times washing away the town.