Grandfather of Aviation and a caravan

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John Weston was a South African aeronautical engineer, pioneer aviator, farmer and soldier. He travelled in a motor caravan that he designed and built himself with the help of his family.

Weston was born on 17 June 1873, in an ox wagon at Fort Marshall, South of Vryheid, Kwa-ZuluNatal.  He was married to Elizabeth Maria Jacoba Weston (nee Roux) a direct descendent of Adam Tas. The couple had three children, Anna, Kathleen and Max.

Known as the THE “GRANDFATHER OF AVIATION IN SOUTH AFRICA

John Weston, a civil engineer, began the construction of his own aeroplane in 1907 at Brandfort, in the Free State. This was the first South African built aeroplane. He lacked an engine with enough power so he dismantled the aircraft and shipped it to France. In France he fitted a Gnome rotary engine (50hp) and flew it successfully (in France) in 1910. On 16 June 1911 John made the first flight in Kimberley establishing a South African non-stop flight record of eight-and-a-half minutes in his Weston-Farman biplane.

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On his return to South Africa in 1933, Weston bought a farm in the Bergville district, near the Sterkfontein dam.

At the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) Weston was appointed ground officer in charge of landing grounds in South West Africa and prepared an airfield with hangars and workshops at Walvisbay. For services rendered to the Greek Ministry of Marine he was made an honorary vice-admiral in the Royal Hellenic Navy.

In 1918, John Weston who is often glorified by the title of admiral, took his family on an amazing adventure in this motorhome. From about 1920 for 12 years, he and his family travelled with a motor caravan.

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 It doesn’t look like much, from the outside. And, if the truth be told, the interior is enough to give anyone claustrophobia. Yet, remarkably, this ingenious camper van once travelled the world − the ‘seven-by-fourteen-foot mansion’ ferrying the pioneering Weston family on the kinds of far-flung adventures many of us can only dream about. Even the girls are handy mechanics. The result has been a neat and compact arrangement of luggage, folding bed, ext, all of which can be removed from the chassis proper with the minimum trouble in 10 minutes.

The ‘Weston caravan’, as it’s called, is an extraordinary example of our forefathers’ tenacity and ingenuity, and can be found in the museum of the picturesque little town of Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal.

The ‘motorised caravan’ took him and his family on various journeys, including a 15-month Trans-African trip: an odyssey fraught with challenges and tribulations. They had run-ins with elephants, occasionally had to float their vehicle across rivers on logs, and on several occasions, ‘entire villages of more than a hundred natives’ had to dig them out of mud and thick sand, and pull them up river banks. And, in those days, there were no fuel stations dotted along the route; and there was no easy access to water or spares shops.

After fifteen months spent in caravanning from Cape Town to Londen. During the caravanning trip they had suffered misfortunes in the Southern Sudan when the rains broke later than usual. Weston broke a bone in his foot and the two daughters were laid up with injuries.

On the family’s caravan trip Weston used to fly the South African blue ensign from a long bamboo pole on the sides of his “South-Afrika” as he called the caravan conversion of his Commer truk, the following inscription was painted:

“Our mansion: seven by fourteen feet

Our field: the whole world

Our family: mankind”

 

On Friday night 21 July 1950 Weston and his wife (70) were in the dining-room of the family house of “Admiralty Estate” when they were attacked by three masked men. Mrs Weston regained unconscious three days late in the Harrismith hospital. John at the age of 78 on  24 July 1950 went on his last mission. It was his wish that his funeral should be quiet and simple. His body was cremated and no last word spoken.              Lily recovered from the attack although certain permanent injuries persisted until she passed away on 14th April 1967 at the age of  91.

Till next time

Hennie & Sandra

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