Stoepstorie 5: Jan Els

Life was not always moonshine and roses that we all know.

We all get motivated to do something that made the community  jaw drop. This was the case of Jan Els when he punched the town clerk.

Leon Strachan we can only send a huge thank you for sharing the wonderful legends with us and putting a smile on our faces. You will find this story in Blafboom 1999 Also thanks to  Cate Lotter for her contribution in the translation of the story of Jan Els.

Jan Els

“I punched the town clerk,” said Jan Els, bursting into Mayor Nic Duursema’s  VC Cafe.

VC cafe and garage

In the sixties Annie Bland was the owner of the Central Service Station, Oom At Truscott ran the workshop which was situated between the VC Cafe and the Flamingo Restaurant. Spent many happy times in amongst the grease and old tyres. Loved the smell of new tyres. Barbara Swanepoel Tarr.

Jan Els and Caveman Spies were not the only men who punched Harrismith into the newspapers. There were quite a few, from the earliest years. These were often members of the legal profession.

***

When the Free State became independent in 1854, the new government found that there were insufficient funds to run the administration that the English had left behind. They would have to scale down, and Joseph Orpen, a surveyor who was the magistrate of Winburg, was instructed by President Hoffman to close the magistrate’s office in Harrismith. Orpen sent a black man on foot, as was the custom at that time, to Harrismith with a letter to that effect. However, bad weather resulted in Orpen arriving in Harrismith before his letter.

Paul Bester, founder and the first magistrate of Harrismith, was told that he was to be transferred to Bloemfontein.  This did not suit him at all as he owned a lot of land in the district and near Ladysmith where he lived.

The other officials were summarily dismissed, with the exception of  Cauvin, who remained as a special peace officer.   They were now without income, and most unhappy. The townspeople were also very displeased as their nearest magistrate’s office would now be in Winburg.

While Orpen was making an inventory of the books and furniture in office, Bester and the others arrived. A crowd of dissatisfied townspeople had formed outside. Bester hit down hard with his walking stick on a table, and Field-Cornet van Aardt threatened Orpen.    Georg Schmidt, the magistrate’s clerk and the  first postmaster, was also there.

Orpen simply went on with his work, but when he started to carry books outside, Van Aardt blocked his way. He pushed Van Aardt aside, but when he reached the door Schmidt hit him hard against the head. Orpen, a rather small Englishman, regained his balance and hit back. Schmidt punched him so hard on the chin that he fell to the ground.  Schmidt was summarily locked up in the prison behind the office. The crowd outside was getting  riotous, and Orpen took his rifle from the wagon. “If you can shoot, we can shoot too,” shouted one of the townspeople. “Yes”, said Orpen, “that’s true, but keep in mind that I am shooting in the name of the law, while you will be hanged!” He was’t called Do-or-Die Orpen for nothing!

In the calm that followed, Schmidt was summarily put on trial and  sentenced to three days in prison. Orpen however, with his rifle balanced upright against his table, fiddled with the dates on the summons and Schmidt was released immediately.

***

In 1875 a town council was elected for the first time. With the first session of the Council a large number of residents arrived, intending to attend the meeting.  Magistrate Boshoff (previous president of the Free State) would not allow them to enter. This resulted in a clash of words between him and Niel McKechnie, one of the new council members. McKechnie thrust a fist under Boshoff’s nose and shouted: “I defy you!” Strong words, but McKechnie  was chosen as mayor at the same meeting, the first of Harrismith.  It seems clear the South Africa was never at any stage a country for cowards!

***

In 1938, more than half a century later, Council Member Corkhill remarked at a city council meeting: “Farmers, like lawyers, never agree.  But there is one difference.  Lawyers get paid for disagreeing.”

This was not always true. In fact, it sometimes cost them money, and once, even a person’s life.

***

Brand Wepener was another member of the legal profession who was often in the news. On one occasion Brand and Phil Wright, also a lawyer, got into a fight in Stuart Street, right in front of Wright’s office. They rolled around in the dusty street with their neat dark suits until  they were seperated by …….. This while Wepener was on the Council with Corkhill.

Wepener was  not the easiest of men to get along with, but he was a most interesting chap. He came from a line of Free State heroes, being a grandson of Louw Wepener, and named after President Brand.   His father, Louw, was the head of police of Harrismith during the Boer War.

Although Brand had qualified as an advocate, he was eccentric, very eccentric. He was a well-known face in town, strolling along with his walking stick, dressed in his neat dark suit, black hat and dark glasses. He was never without his glasses as he had only one eye. Clients would often approach him on the street.

When a new voter’s role had to be compiled for a municipal election, the typist made a terrible mistake. After the surname and christian name of each resident, the next item was the name of the street where the person lived, followed by the person’s occupation. Alas, in Brand’s case she typed the street name in the wrong block, resulting in the following entry:

Wepener    | Jan Henricus Brand         |   40   Murray                  | Street Advocate

Brand was furious. He accosted Tom Searle, ordering him to  have the municipality summoned for defamation.     “But Brand, isn’t it true?”  asked Tom, with a twinkle in his eye. Brand was the only person who did not find it funny.

He played a role in the burgher monument saga, and on another occasion saved the beautiful trees in Murray Street.  But he was always full of plans, took shortcuts and was constantly in conflict with municipal officials.    At that time Harrismith had a constant shortage of water, which had a very negative effect on the development of the town, until the weir was built in the Wilge River. Water restrictions were nearly always in effect, which Remington, the water-baillif, had to enforce.

Brand had a lovely patch of maize on the big stand on the corner of  Murray and Biddulph streets, which apparently never suffered from a lack of water. Remington was aware of this and went out of his way to catch him out. When the ground became dry Brand would  lead his horses into the mealie land, and leisurely wash them down with a hosepipe until the whole mealie land was thoroughly wet, or until it rained once more.

And then one day Brand Wepener punched another colleague, Henry Helman.

At that time the old court building was situated where the post office stands today.  Wepener and Helman were opposing each other in a civil case. Wepener started to argue with the magistrate over the merits of the case, and Helman responded with sarcastic commentary. This led to a clash of words between the two. Wepener told Helman to keep his mouth shut, and the magistrate told him to calm down. Wepener stormed out of the courtroom shouting: “I’ll get you!” He waited for Helman in the passage, and when he showed, punched him on the nose. The court ordely had to separate them. Helman consequently had Wepener summoned for assault.

Frank Reitz had to deliver medical evidence at the hearing.  He told the court that the complainant’s nose was badly swollen, and also remarked that different faces would swell in different proportions. Helman was of Jewish descent and Wepener immediately countered: “It is logical, Your Honour, that the bigger a person’s nose, the bigger the swelling will be.” After the laughter in court had died down, Reitz had to agree. Brand was found guilty and fined. However, both men were warned to stay out of trouble.

***

Nearly half a century later a tragedy took place at the country club. It was early autumn in 1978. Two acquaintances, the lawyer Charles Shadford  and Garth Romeo, a well-known rugby player, were socialising and gambling at the club on that ill-fated evening. An argument ensued over a throw of the dice, and tempers flared, ending in Romeo knocking Shadford off his bar stool. The latter was helped up and sat down again for a while. The argument flared up and when Romeo hit him again, he fell head first to the floor, partly on the footrest of the bar counter. He was out cold and a doctor was called in, who rushed him to Johannesburg. Shadford never regained consciousness and died tragically two weeks later at the age of 48.

Romeo was found guilty of manslaughter and fined. Extenuating circumstances were found to be the fact that Shadford’s skull was thinner than normal – he had a so-called eggshell skull.   His injuries would probably have been less serious if he had had a normal skull.

***

Caveman Spies was in court for assualt one day, as he had apparently slapped his garden boy. During cross-examination Spies differed from the interrogator about the nature of the slap. When the interrogator asked him how he had slapped the complainant, Caveman calmly walked over to the complainant’s bench, and before the stupified court orderly could intervene, gave the poor man a mighty slap. “Like that, Your Honour” he said, “like that did I slap him.”

 

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