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Development of the Victoria Falls



The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.



Death at the Drift

The risk of fever seams to have been an accepted fact of life for the band of European pioneers living on the banks of the Zambezi.

“Fever was so prevalent at the Old Drift that we took it almost as a matter of course. No particular attention was given to anyone down with it. As a rule, only one’s personal native servant would be in attendance if one was sick, though, of course, anyone who happened to be passing and had a few minutes to spare would drop in and do what he could for the patient.” (Clark, 1936)

Those who could would leave the settlement during the rains, heading south for several months. Clark recorded that the wet season of 1903/4 was particularly bad:

“During the rainy season, which continued from November to March, the place was a swamp; out of the thirty-one settlers there, no less than eleven died of blackwater fever or malaria that winter. Surely a high percentage, that. The Old Drift was, none the less, a real cheery camp and the settlers were good fellows.” (Clark, 1936)

Such was the shortage of coffins that whisky crates were pressed into service, locals drawing straws to act as undertaker.

“There was a funeral about once every week. When a settler died one of the others was elected as undertaker, and had to make a coffin out of old whisky cases. This when knocked together was finished off with a covering of black limbo, or calico. When the departed had been encased, the coffin was placed on a Scotch cart drawn by oxen and was hauled to the burial ground. Everybody in the settlement walked behind, clad in ordinary attire, slacks and shirts, no coats, and with shirt-sleeves rolled up to the elbow. When the grave was reached the coffin would be lowered into it. We had no Bibles or Prayer Books in the camp, so somebody would recite what he remembered of the Burial Service, and the others would prompt or carry on to the best of their ability.

“Once when a coffin was being lowered into the grave it stuck half-way down. The grave hadn’t been made wide enough. The ‘undertaker’, leaning forward to see what was the matter, overbalanced and fell in on top of the coffin. We hoisted him up, and the coffin after him, and then the grave had to be widened to get this particular parishioner decently planted. Usually after the grave was filled in we went off to have a drink, asking each other sadly, ‘Wonder who’ll be the next?’” (Clark, 1936)

Rangeley, concerned over the expense of the funeral coffins to the Administration, even went as far as designing a special re-usable coffin with detachable bottom - although the local carpenters refused to make his new design, preferring the regular work required for the traditional coffins.

“I got very worried over the cost of pauper funerals. The coffin cost government £25 and the two carpenters, a very genial partnership, looked on government coffins as a fairly regular source of a ‘bust’ at the bar. It seemed to me a horrid waste of money in an administration where the expenditure of every penny had to be considered, so I sat down and devised a noble coffin with a false bottom, so arranged that the shell of the coffin could be drawn out after the funeral... the bottom only remaining in the grave. I sent the sketch to the District Commissioner at the Falls and asked him to get the coffin made.

“The two carpenters were furious and got up a petition on the subject to the Administrator - nobody except the barkeeper signed it. But the carpenters refused to make my patented coffin, which was a far more effective protest.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965)

The Administration could not let the situation continue and by the end of 1903 it was decided that the whole settlement would have be relocated to a healthier site, the location of which was still causing much debate.

Once Again into the Grave

By late 1903 the Old Drift community was as thriving hub of activity, despite the prevalence of fever and question mark over its immediate future. With the railway advancing ever closer this growth continued into 1904, with settlers still investing in the development of their buildings and businesses, regardless of Company plans for a new town away from the river and on the route of the railway.

New arrivals included two chemists, Findlay and Guthrie. Both died and are buried at the Drift, Findlay in January 1904, his grave marked ‘Alexander W Findlay, aged 35 died 9th January 1904,’ Guthrie buried in an unmarked grave.

“Always needed at the Old Drift was a place where medicines could be obtained. The first chemists were Findlay and Guthrie, but they lasted only a short time, contracting black-water fever and dying.

The role of chemist appears to have been an extremely perilous profession.

“The next chemist was a Mr Southurst, representing a Bulawayo firm of Chemists, Gornath and Duncan. This man also developed a fever and in his delirium ran off into the bush.” (Watt, undated)

Clark again recalled the story.

“Our chemist disappeared one day. He had been delirious for some time. For over a week he was lost - then he was found dead in the bush two or three miles out from the settlement, his body in a dreadful state of putrefaction. The undertaker got very drunk before facing the job of bringing it in; none envied him the job; notwithstanding a plentiful supply of quick-lime. The chemist was buried at midnight by the light of torches, and when lowered into the grave the coffin also was covered with chloride of lime. This was the second occasion when I was present that the undertaker fell into the grave; this time it was because he was tight. Joe was so tight, in fact, that in spite of the chloride of lime he refused to shift from the top of the coffin, and had to be hauled out by main force. There was some excuse, of course, for Joe’s getting drunk.” (Clark, 1936)

An administrative census taken during 1904 recorded that the population had grown to 68 Europeans, including 17 women and six children. Percy Wilde joined the long list of unlucky settlers, dying at the Drift on 16th July, 1904, aged 42.

The Long Arm, and Short Sleeves, of the Law

In mid-1904 Sergeant Johnson left the Falls (posted elsewhere before returning a few years later), being replaced in June by Constable William Galway Foley. A big Irishman Foley became popularly known among the community as ‘Goaler Galway.’ Sergeant H A Burdett arrived at the Falls in September 1904.

“Sgt Johnson had left the Falls by July 1904. His duties were assumed in June 1904 by Constable W T B G Foley who was appointed Gaoler, Magistrate’s Clerk and Sanitary Superintendent in October. Sergeant H A Burdett had arrived from the Southern Rhodesia Constabulary in September and was made responsible, under Foley, for the policework at the Falls and process serving throughout the Territory. Unlike Johnson these two were not members of the Barotse Native Police but came under the Law Department as the North-Western Rhodesia Constabulary.” (Wright, 2001)

Rangeley recorded Foley “had no uniform and I do not think he possessed a jacket. I never saw him except in shirt-sleeves. He kept order by exercise of tact and humour” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965). Percy Clark recalled the mistaken belief among the Drift community that he was an English Baronet:

“The village policeman whom the Government ultimately allotted to us was also a bit of a hard case. He took his duties very lightly, worrying nobody and nobody worrying at all about him. He took part in all the fun that was going. He possessed only two shirts, and when he felt that he was getting tight he used to change out of his newer shirt into the older one. He realized how much he enjoyed a scrap when half-cut, and he didn’t want the better shirt to get damaged. Water was cooled in a big canvas bag that somewhat resembled a punch-ball. This was suspended from the bar ceiling close to the wall. One night our policeman took it into his head that exercise with the pumping ball was just what he needed. Steadying himself to get a good punch in for a start, he let drive with a beauty. But he must have been seeing two punch-balls and have hit the wrong one, for the punch landed on the panel of the door. He left us to go on leave, but he had been home only two days when he died of blackwater fever. Then we heard that our policeman was a Baronet.” (Clark, 1936)

Foley’s gravestone, now flooded under the waters of Lake Kariba, recorded his full name - William Thompson Barron Galway Foley - and the likely source of the story of his titled heritage (Phillipson, 1990).

Mr Moore Makes his Mark

Leopold Frank (later Sir) Moore and his wife arrived on the banks of the Zambezi in 1904, where he would become a central figure in the early development of the European community until his death in 1947. A Chemist by profession, Moore came to the Zambezi with the railway, having arrived in Mafeking in 1894 and then moving on to Bulawayo in 1896, where he had established a pharmacy. Moore soon found himself in a dispute with the Administration over plans to import cheap Chinese labour, which he opposed, with the result that his business was supposedly boycott by the Company and soon went into bankruptcy.

“[H]e became embroiled in a bitter controversy with the British South Africa Company’s Administration of Southern Rhodesia over the proposal to import Chinese indentured labour... It was probably largely as a result of this heated argument that Moore and his wife left Bulawayo and established their chemist’s shop at the Old Drift.” (Phillipson, 1990)

Arriving on the north bank Moore took over the vacant role of chemist - the forth to set up business in as many years.

“In 1904 the man who was to prove very rapidly an able leader and was to influence the future of the township of Livingstone arrived. Leopold Frank Moore came north and settled at the Old Drift with his wife. Moore left Southern Rhodesia under a cloud of malevolence on the part of the British South Africa Company. He had opposed the Administration on certain counts, especially the matter concerning the introduction of Chinese labour. Moore became the chemist, the others having passed away. His building was made of wood and iron and Mrs Moore wrote in a short article entitled ‘Pioneering by a Woman:’

“‘He had put up a wood and iron store; I can always laugh when I think of him building it and the shape he got it into - it was square and you could see three sides at once. Then it fell down, while he was on top.’” (Watt, undated)

Leopold Moore recorded that despite the hardships, the Old Drift was ‘a lively spot at times.’

“There were three bars and at night one which became the rendezvous drained the others and their staffs. I have seen roulette, fare, poker, bridge and dice plated at different parts of the same bar room... [T]here were days when the whole settlement succumbed to malaria and others when business was dead. During the rains the settlement became a swamp and snakes were common. One night one fell from the thatched rood and coiled itself under our bed; my wife and I were too listless with fever to care... A few mornings later lion eat our sleeping milk-boy.” (Arrington-Sirois, 2017)

Moore would go on to make his mark in the growing community, becoming publisher and editor of the Livingstone Mail in 1906.


Leopold Moore and the Livingstone Mail

Leopold F Moore, an early resident of the Old Drift, founded the Livingstone Mail in 1906.

Moore was to be a major player in settler politics in North Western/Northern Rhodesia until his death almost forty years later. He came from England and worked his way as a pharmacist through Mafeking and Bulawayo to the Old Drift – the malarial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi that preceded Livingstone as the commercial centre of North Western Rhodesia. Moore was a rumbustious character who had made pre-siege Mafeking too hot for himself, and had gone bankrupt in Bulawayo in 1903 before moving north with his young wife. A populist politician, and a stern critic of Chartered Company rule, he was member of the Advisory Council set up under the Chartered Company in 1918 and of the Legislative Council from 1924. He had opposed the move from the Old Drift to Livingstone, and used his paper to campaign against Belgian rule in the Congo, the influence of missionaries, the imposition of municipal rates and income taxes, the Colonial Office doctrine of ‘Native Paramountcy’ for territories north of the Zambezi, and, at least until the late 1930s, the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia. He would have a good claim to be Northern Rhodesia/Zambia’s first nationalist. He was a white supremacist, but his paper was relatively free of colonial racism. He was knighted in 1937 and died in 1945. (Macmillan, 2005)

The Livingstone Mail, Xmas 1910
The Livingstone Mail, Xmas 1910.

Next page: End of the Drift

Recommended Reading

Arrington-Sirois, A. L. (2017) Victoria Falls and Colonial Imagination in British Southern Africa: Turning Water into Gold. Palgrave Macmillan.

Clark, P. M. (1936) Autobiography of an Old Drifter. Harrap, London.

Macmillan H (2005) An African Trading Empire - The Story of Susman Borthers and Wulfsohn, 1901-2005. I B Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

Northern Rhodesia Journal (January 1965) Memoirs of Henry Rangeley. Vol.6, No.1, p.35-52.

Phillipson, D. W (1975 & 1990) Mosi-oa-Tunya : A Handbook to the Victoria Falls Region Longman, Salisbury/Harare, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

Roberts, P (2018) 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905.' Zambezi Book Company

Watt, A. (undated) History of Livingstone (unpublished document held by Livingstone Museum, c1960s).

Wright, T. (2001) History of the North Rhodesian Police. BECM Press.


Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

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