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Posted on: Monday, 12 August 2013

Cockney Liz – The Lady Who Gave The Barberton Daisy Its Name

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A great many stories about the legendary barmaid known as Cockney Liz circulate, many of them rumours. That the classy barmaid became famous not only for her musical abilities but also for her regular offerings of herself on auction to the highest bidder, is true. But little is actually known about her beyond her time in Barberton.

But a recent discovery of her diaries has uncovered enough of a story to mean the making of a movie about Elizabeth Jane Webster that connects her, not only directly to the Barberton daisy, but also to the robber’s grave in Pilgrim’s Rest.


Barberton Daisy


If that isn’t enough to tempt you to know more about the lady, known as Cockney Liz for her tendency to sing in a cockney accent, then perhaps the film, still in the preparation stages that may reveal more about the mystery of her disappearance from Barberton, will.

Hans Bornman, the author of the book, might not be keen to disclose the whereabouts of the diaries or from whence they came, but they do definitely exist.

They also hold enough juicy details for Duncan McNeillie, who has recently finished shooting South Africa’s first 3D movie, Jock of the Bushveld, which was released a  month ago, to agree to make a film about, Hans reveals to me excitedly over the phone.

Andrea Botha, intensely passionate about her home town Barberton, sits opposite me, on the wall behind her a couple of paintings by her young artist daughter are a sure indication that I’m not sitting in an ordinary tour organiser’s den.

Andrea, who talks a lot with her hands, runs Barberton Odyssey to promote all activities and tours in and around Barberton. She was born here, thoroughly identified with history at school, and stayed, intent on placing Barberton on the map.

She hops off her stool to thrust a recently published book by (Uncle) Hans Bornman called the Legandary Barmaid of Barberton in my lap and proceeds to rattle off at least ten reasons to visit her home town.

She whets my appetite with an appealing story about illegal miners on the east side of town, armed with more than a few firearms. They managed to find their way into four of the commercial mines around the former gold mining boom town. My eyes wide, she assures me it is all under control.

Now that she has my attention, she continues: “Barberton is in the process of being listed as a World Heritage Site, and the geological value of the rocks around the town is enormous.”

“They include some of the best preserved truly ancient rocks on earth.” Andrea goes on to describe the Barberton Greenstone Belt (BGB) found within Barberton Mountain Land or BML, made up of rocks called the Barberton Supergroup that are 3 400 million years old.


Barberton Daisy


Andrea continues about the historical relevance of Barberton due to the gold mining boom that hit Barberton before things on the Witwatersrand hotted up – as much relevance as Pilgrim’s Rest, but, as Andrea laments, Barberton is at least fifteen years behind in terms or marketing. Something she intends personally doing something about.

Andrea continues: “There are three exclusive butterflies found in the area, we have the largest and the smallest aloes growing right next to one another, Percy Fitspatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld, was not only married in the local church that is on the historical walk through town, but he was also a transport rider, and editor of the Gold Fields News during the days of the gold rush.”

Andrea’s room where we sit is in the lower corner office of the still splendid Lewis and Marks Building (that’s Sammy Marks), which was the first double-storey building in the Transvaal. The town also lays claim to the very first stock exchange in the country.

And then, there is the legend of Cockney Liz. Andrea’s eyes shine when she speaks about this particular story.

Cockney Liz, known as such for her musical prowess and tendency to sing in a cockney accent, arrived in South Africa from England in 1886 alone and in search of her fiancé, Roy Spencer, a task that, even in those days, was not usually performed by a woman alone.

She followed his trail to the gold rush town of Barberton where she discovered that he was dead, shot only a little while after his arrival in the country (I’ll drop a large hint about now that this is the link with the robber’s grave at Pilgrim’s Rest).

Devastated and with no money to call her own (Hans Bornman’s book reveals that a stage coach heist robbed her of the little jewellery and money she had to her name), Liz had no choice but to join the ranks of the town’s barmaids in the Red Light Canteen.

Liz was in good company. The barmaids Florrie, the Golden Dane and Trixie (who travelled into Barberton on the same coach as Liz and already had a reputation for wheeling her customers home in a wheelbarrow) had Barberton humming. Liz, in particular, soon had diggers flocking to her auctions, the most lucrative of which left Liz with 96 Kimberley Imperial shares, worth over £800 at the time.

With this money and other money from well wishers, Liz was soon able to buy the Red Light Canteen, which she re-named the Cockney Liz Billiard Saloon and then went on to build the Royal Albert Hall, revealing her shrewd business sense and her ability to make the best of a situation.


Barberton Daisy


The book also reveals a woman with great sense and compassion, who, despite shocking the town’s tea ladies with her hairstyles, mannerisms and behaviour, as well as her obvious independence, achieved a great deal in the three short years she spent in Barberton.

She arrived with nothing and was soon the owner of an excellent music hall and restaurant. Their gossip only added to her reputation.

Barberton, at the time, was at its height. Stockbrokers, speculators and reef inspectors filled the town. Canteen keepers, like Liz, pocketed enormous profits.

She also kept good company and hosted a number of reputable gentlemen like Stafford Parker, Samuel Marks, Percy Fitzpatrick, Abe Bailey, and Alfred Beit in her establishment.

Parker was regarded as her protector and she would often arrange for him to act as the bidder in her auctions, making sure that his was the highest bid. She could, over time, become more discerning in her choice of men, preferring her ‘clients’ to have more distinction.

Liz was also generous with her time and money when not working. She looked after patients at the Phoenix Hotel, during which time she re-met Percival Scribbens, who had also initially travelled with her on a coach from Kimberley. Once recovered, he became a regular visitor to the Royal Albert Hall.

And the Barberton daisy and its link to Liz? The story goes that members of a syndicate to which Scribbens belonged that was doing well, visited Barberton. Robert Jameson was one of these visitors and he collected live specimens of plants whilst on his visit. Scribbens too was an enthusiast and had a collection of plants in his garden.

On a visit to dinner with Liz, Robert presented her with a bunch of daisies he had collected close to Caledonia. He didn’t know the name for the plants and would still need to identify them. Liz suggested he name them the Barberton daisy, which Jameson thought was rather apt.

And the end of the story of Liz’s stay in Barberton, her subsequent disappearance, as well as the connection with the robber’s grave in Pilgrim’s Rest?

I’m afraid you will have to catch the film to find out…

Barberton Info:

You can visit the Cockney Liz hotel in Barberton at 73 De Villiers Street, and to find out more about Cockney Liz, read the book Cockney Liz by Hans Bornman, available via Andrea Botha: barbertontours @ gmail.com

Wanda Coustas


Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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