A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
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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.

Life at the Drift

The social heart of the small community centred on the bars of Clarke and Pieters, both who had liquor licences, with round-the-clock drinking and gambling giving the town a ‘wild west’ feel.

“Life in this predominantly male settlement centred on the bars. On any given evening it often happened that virtually the whole population congregated in one bar, so the others closed. Gambling was the central attraction at Clarke’s bar, notably a roulette wheel with two zeros run by a loud-voiced American. The bar-owners had their staff sieve the sandy floors each morning for coins dropped by the previous night’s revellers.” (Phillipson, 1990)

The Bechuanaland Trading Company opened a store and bar in 1902, with Tom King as manager and Percy Wilde as the book-keeper/accountant.

“By 1902, therefore, there were three stores each having a liquor licence and there was one hotel which served as a doss down for passing strangers. The hotels were continually filled with missionaries, Government officials, traders and hunters.” (Watt, undated)

Trading licences are recorded as costing £10 per annum, with licences required to deal in tobacco, liquor and even water. Clarke also paid a £10 annual licence to operate the drift crossing (Shepherd, 2008).

The Old Drift
The Old Drift (from a postcard by E Peters).

Mr D Tulloch, together with his wife and daughter Giovanna, arrived on the north bank in July 1902, taking a lease of land near the Maramba River with the aim of establishing a small garden farm. Over the first year of farming they planted over 300 fruit trees, of which only a small percentage survived, but within a few years were successfully advertising their speciality ‘Maramba Jam.’

“The Tullochs lived on what was known as the Tulloch’s Lease on the Maramba, a river which flows into the Zambesi a few miles from the Old Drift. On this lease the Tullochs grew fruit which they preserved and supplied to the residents. Later in the first newspaper, the Livingstone Pioneer and Advertiser 13th January 1906, (after the town had been shifted) Mr D Tulloch advertised his wares; Maramba Jam being his speciality.” (Watt, undated)

Mr Fred W Mills and his wife also arrived in 1902 and established the Victoria Restaurant to cater for locals and travellers.

“In the same year as Mrs Tulloch’s arrival, Mrs Freddie Mills and her husband settled in the Old Drift; Mrs Mills started a pole and dagga eating house, which was very popular and well attended. Mrs Mills became the favourite of the camp: she was always friendly and helpful. Rangley records that Mrs Mills cooked and Mr Mills served the food.” (Watt, undated)

Another trader, Mr A Wacks, is recorded as working with Mills although an early postcard image shows him proudly standing outside some trading huts underneath a sign showing a large boot and the caption ‘A Wacks,’ and, less distinctly perhaps the words ‘Boots, Saddles & More,’ suggesting he was a tanner and leather-crafter.

Other new arrivals during 1902 included Dr E T Clayton, who arrived as the Company Medical Officer and his wife and three children (Sampson, 1956).

Prospectors were still passing through the Drift on their way to exploring the territory in the hope of discovering the elusive mineral reserves which would make their fortunes. In 1902 an Australian prospector, T G Davey, discovered lead and zinc deposits in an area he named Broken Hill (now Kabwe, some 600 kilometres north of the Zambezi), after a mining town in New South Wales, Australia (Wright, 2001).

“Undoubtedly 1902 was a vital year in the economic history of Northern Rhodesia. Early in January... T G Davey... stumbled across outcrops of lead, zinc and vanadium on a kopje or rocky hillock which he named ‘Broken Hill’ on account of its resemblance to a similar formation of that name in Australia. This fortunate occurrence was the result of Davey becoming lost in the ‘bush.’” (Coleman, 1971)

The Old Drift river crossing
The Old Drift river crossing (from a postcard published by the Bulawayo Pictorial Postcard Depot)

Law and Order

Henry Rangeley, the first Magistrate for North-Western Rhodesia, also arrived in mid-1902, travelling up to the Falls by horse and cart with the District Commissioner for Barotseland, Mr Aitkens. Rangeley recalled that shortly before leaving Bulawayo he was offered a deal he could not refuse:

“I was offered a lot of surplus officers’ ration rum left over from the Boer War at some ridiculous figure - I think 1s. 10d. a gallon, provided I could find receptacles in which to carry it. I raised some stone bottles and, as it would have been fatal to leave the stuff to the tender mercies of a transport rider, I jettisoned quite a lot of my other personal luggage to find room for the bottles on the Scotch cart. The D.C. had the gumption to buy a case of lemons before we left Bulawayo and we were able to keep out the cold at night with rum punch. But I had to leave, to be brought on by the wagon, nearly all my clothes and as a friend put it ‘Rangeley arrived at the falls with no possessions other than rum, blue dungarees, law books and rifle-cartridges’”

Rangeley was based at the Administrative capital in Kalomo, but once a month travelled down to the Old Drift to hear cases.

“In those days the District Commissioner of what was known as the ‘Falls District’ [Mr Sykes] had his house and offices where Livingstone now is, as he considered very rightly, that the Old Drift was not a very healthy site. But the distance between the Drift Township and the District Commissioners office (and the Post Office) was six miles [9.6 km], over a track which was ankle deep in sand in most parts. So when, later on, I established a periodical Court, it was at the Old Drift that it was held, for the convenience of the public.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965)

Rangeley’s office and ‘Court House’ at the Drift was a wood and iron building some five metres square, Rangeley later recording:

“It had been put up under a ‘German-sausage tree,’ [Kigelia africana] with pendant fruits weighing probably up to ten pounds each. It was shattering to the nerves when one of these fruits fell on the iron roof, perhaps when I was in the middle of the case, and I’m afraid I invariably swore, case or no case. The goal was an even smaller building of similar construction. Prisoners invariably sat outside. It was no use trying to prevent them doing this, for it was really too hot inside and a prisoner could always get out by unscrewing the hinges of the door - as one prisoner showed us when we told him to stay inside.

“Only one white prisoner escaped, however - there was nowhere to go to - and across the Zambesi to the Caprivi Zipfel, that strip of German South West Africa which touched the Zambesi. There we heard of him tying a native up in front of a fire and burning him validly, as a punishment for some offence. We were well rid of him in any case, as he dare not come back to our side of the river. Had he finished his term of imprisonment, we could not have turned him out of the country and he was obviously an undesirable citizen.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965)

Rangeley recalled that whilst at the Drift he used “to sleep under the tarpaulin I carried on the cart and fed at the little poll-and-mud place attached to the bar of one of the stores” and he gives a detailed description of life at the little settlement:

“It was quite and orderly little place, but the pub kept open all night if there was custom, and an American gambler ran a roulette table in the bar, with very monotonous ‘Round and round the little ball goes and where she’ll stop there’s nobody knows. Now gentlemen make you stakes, if you don’t speculate, you can’t accumulate...’ There was a pole and mud eating house connected with the bar, run by a man and his wife [Mr and Mrs Mills]. She did the cooking and he the waiting. I do not think there were any bedrooms, although there may have been one or two mud huts.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965)

Life at the Drift was undoubtedly hard, and at least one early settler, identified only as Veal, was expelled from the territory for causing conflict with Chief Sekuti and his people - probably saving him from an early grave.

“By 1899 traders had arrived at the Old Drift and were trading with the local population. One trader, Veal, established his store near Sekuti’s Village but his drunkenness caused much trouble amongst the tribes... Major Frank V Worthington went to the village to see Sekuti, with Rev. Coisson, to look into the matter. Veal was asked to leave the territory and told not to make any further trouble north of the Zambesi.” (Watt, undated)

Consumption of alcohol appears to have been a prerequisite for settlers, many perhaps choosing to believe that a high blood-alcohol level detered biting insects.

“A favourite tipple was a ‘Fine Olde Highland Liqueur Whiskey’ called ‘Forest Glen’ which was specially supplied at the time to various BSAC stations including Victoria Falls and Kalomo.” (Shepherd, 2008)

Controllers Camp
The Controller's Camp (from a postcard by E Peters).

Malaria and Mosquitoes

The choice of site for the small European settlement was not ideal from a health perspective. Close to the high water level, it became a flooded marshy quagmire in the wet season and proved extremely unhealthy. The major problem encountered at Old Drift was malaria, with fatal complications known as ‘blackwater fever’ particularly prevalent, and the resulting death rate among the early pioneers of the small settlement was extraordinarily high.

“The most common illness was blackwater fever, a dangerous complication of malaria which often proved fatal. It happened when red blood cells ruptured, releasing blood pigment (haemoglobin) into the bloodstream. This turned the urine of the sufferer black - hence the name.” (Shepherd, 2008)

It had long been known that quinine was an effective preventative, and Livingstone had been one of the first to administer it in a dose that is now considered effective. He even suggested the link between mosquitoes and malaria: “Myriads of mosquitoes showed, as probably they always do, the presence of malaria” (Livingstone and Livingstone, 1865). But it was not until 20th August 1897 that Ronald Ross, a British officer in the Indian Medical Service, discovered the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes, although word appears to have been slow to spread to the residents of the Drift.

Indeed it appears that many settlers believed champagne to be an essential medicine in the treatment of blackwater fever. In August 1902 Coryndon wrote to a cattle trader suffering from the disease with, among other suggested treatments, the following advice:

“If patient is weak and you have champagne he should take a little every three hours.” (Macmillan, 2005)

In October 1902 Dr John N Wilson, together with Nurse Chapman arrived and set up a private clinic - only three months later the Doctor had died of fever.

“Mrs Coisson found another good friend in Mrs Chapman, a nurse, who came up to the Old Drift in October of that year, 1902. With her was the unfortunate Doctor Wilson. These two people set up the first medical station at the Old Drift. They opened a private clinic that was situated some fifty yards [46 m] from the river and consisted of four huts built with pole and dagga. Two of these were set aside for their use and the other two served the needs of the patients. Also, there was dining room, a kitchen, pantry and toilet. Dr Wilson and Nurse Chapman were extremely busy coping with fever and other tropical disease. In January 1903 the doctor died of black-water fever and was buried in the Old Drift cemetery. (Mrs Chapman went back to Bulawayo in January 1905.)”

Dr Wilson is buried in the Old Drift cemetery, his grave marked ‘John Neil Wilson died 11 Jan 1903 aged 45.’ In late 1902 Coisson listed a roll-call of the ill, writing on 18th December 1902:

“I have conducted a funeral service eight days ago, and almost everybody is sick around us. Here at the station we are enjoying better health than the others, at least as regards proportion and average. Let us take an example last week. Here at the mission we are six, and we are all well (this included four children). At the doctor’s the nurse has been ill three days. At our neighbours: Clarke and Thompson, Mr Clarke has been in bed five days with black-water fever. He feels a little better today.

“Further on, at the Store and Chemist Shop, where there are three Europeans, one has had measles, and another has had a bilious fever for five days. At Mr Norton’s, he is alone and has kept in bed for three days. At Mr Sykes’ there are three people and one has had an attack every two days. At Mr Tulloch’s both are sick. She has a fever which has brought on ‘peronitis,’ and he has had a sickness which may be caused by the heat and which causes one to thirst and drink too much whisky.” (Watt, undated)

The details in this letter record that the core population of the Old Drift at the end of 1902 comprised fourteen adults and five children.

The Old Drift
The Old Dirft township, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard by Percy Clark).

Mules and Mail

A Post Office was opened at the riverside Controller’s Camp and in operation during 1901, with the postmark ‘Victoria Falls, S Africa’ known between April and December 1901. Mail was transported from Bulawayo by coach, drawn by teams of ten mules or oxen, which were changed at regular coaching stations at 10 to 15 mile (16-24 km) intervals, allowing the coaches to travel continuously without delays. In 1901 the Zeederberg Coach Company introduced a regular weekly mail coach service from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, with journeys taking 10 to 12 days.

By the end of 1901 the decision was made by the Company to relocate the Post Office away from the river to Constitution Hill. The site would soon become known after the relocated Post Office - the earliest example of the postmark ‘Livingstone, North Western Rhodesia’ dating from 28th January 1902.

Mr Clark Stakes His Claim

In May 1903 Percy Missen Clark, an English settler originally from Cambridge, arrived at the Victoria Falls from Bulawayo, travelling by train to the railhead at Hwange, and then by foot to the Falls, having determined to visit the upper regions of the Zambezi and Barotse heartlands.

“The trip of just over hundred miles [161 km] from Wankie to Victoria Falls took us just over a week... Much of our travelling was done by moonlight, and we got along quicker and easier in the coolness of the night than we might in the heat of the day. It was exceedingly rough going between Wankie and Matetsi, but we put in about twenty miles [32 km] per day on the trek of eight days...

“The [last] sixteen-mile [25.7 km] march... was notably strenuous. It was eleven at night before we made camp under a great baobab (the cream of tartar tree) about a mile from the Victoria Falls. The night was brilliant with moonlight, and it was the time of full flood on the river. Tired though I was I could not let the need of rest come between me and my first sight of the mighty cataract... I recorded my arrival at the Falls the following morning by carving my name on the baobab tree, and the date - May 8, 1903. After this feat - not very like myself, but perhaps excusable in the circumstances - we set out for the ‘Old Drift,’ five miles [8 km] above the Falls.”

The travel writer Fuller, having interviewed Giese’s widow many years later, records Clark stayed at Giese’s camp at the Big Tree, a detail Clark himself omits - in fact he avoids all mention of the German trader, who he appears to have displaced at the Falls, allowing Clark sole claim to being the first European settler on the south bank. Clark records crossing the river to the Old Drift by native canoe, stating that larger craft were still yet to arrive.

“At the Old Drift, however, we had to get to the other side of the river. For two hours we sat on the southern bank of the Zambesi popping off a rifle at intervals to attract attention. At long last we saw a native dug-out set out from the opposite shore. It was paddled such a distance directly up-river that we began to wonder if it was coming for us at all. The reason for the manoeuvre, of course, lay in the strength of the current, as we presently saw. It wanted a very long slant indeed from the other bank to bring the dug-out precisely to the post where we were waiting for it. Several such voyages were needed to bring our goods after us to the northern bank. At this time there were no other sorts of craft on the river save such dug-outs, the native boats made by the hollowing-out of tree trunks. Canadian canoes, tubs, and launches began to appear at a later date...

“The Old Drift of this time was a very small settlement of about a dozen white men round two or three stores right on the river bank... After crossing the drift, one of the local stores, which was also an hotel, had to be visited. Our stocks had to be replenished and carriers engaged for our trip up-river. The owner of this store [‘Mopane’ Clarke] was the original white settler. He was of the same name as myself, except that his had the aristocratic ‘e’ hitched to it. This might have been point of contact enough for us, but we hadn’t been chatting together many minutes before I found that he came from Chatteris in Cambridgeshire. It seemed that I couldn’t get away from the old country.”

Clark travelled upstream into the heart of Barotseland, visiting Lealui and meeting Lewanika, the Lozi Litunga, who was amazed to meet a European who did not want something from him. Clark returned downstream to the Old Drift several months later (towards the end of 1903), taking many photographs along the way.

“I arrived at the Old Drift just after lunch was over at Mopani’s hotel, and all I could get to eat was a hunk of bread and a tin of Vienna sausages. But I was far from particular, and just then anything eatable would have been a feast. After the meal a hut was provided for me, and I needed no rocking into the long, long sleep that ensued. I was completely done up.”
Percy Clark
Percy Clark

Clark settled on the banks of the Zambezi with the intention of starting a photography business.

“I made my headquarters at the Old Drift for the time being, but my intention was to settle at Victoria Falls as soon as the railway was completed, for I believed that there would be great opportunities for those who got in early at the railhead. At the end of the year I engaged a man to build a hut for me near the spot where the railway station would be pitched, and where the hotel would be built, but I had no mind to cross the river until the railway did come up.”
Percy Clark outside hut
Percy Clark

A chemist by profession, Clark successfully established himself on the south bank as a photographer, selling many postcards and a popular portfolio of photographs of the Falls entitled a ‘Souvenir of the Victoria Falls,’ of which there were several variations produced over the years. He also developed his own guidebook to the Falls and traded in a variety of African curios and souvenirs.

“While I lived at the Old Drift I spent a lot of my time at the Victoria Falls taking photographs, and I got together quite a good collection. I would camp out for a couple of days at a time in the hut... When that was completed I lived in it, but for most of the time I was over on the other side at the Old Drift. I liked the older haunts, and the old crowd.” (Clark, 1936)

Clark's base on the south bank soon became known to tourists simply as 'The Huts.'

At The Huts, our residence at the Falls, we often had nightly visitors. Some of them were not very welcome. At this time the bush about the settlement had not been cleared to any extent, and jackals would come and sit, giving tongue to their weird and very exasperating yowling. I would get up, go out, and fire in the direction of the howling, which, for the moment, would cease. But I would be no sooner settled down again than the chorus would rise up as exasperating as ever.

We had a couple of cows that we kraaled just outside our fence. The scent of them often brought lions round in the dark hours. We also had fowls, and leopards came after those - with more success than the lions. At the back of our place, about three hundred yards off, was the police camp, with donkeys and horses used for patrol work. The smell of them was an additional attraction for the lions.

Three young bloods decided one lovely moonlit night to sit up and get the lions that came on the prowl about the police camp practically every night. They climbed - the young bloods, not the lions - to the roof of the stables with a full equipment. This included a bottle of whisky, and the hunters must have fortified themselves well, for they were fast asleep when the lions turned up. Oh yes! The lions turned up all right, because their spoor was to be seen all around the stables in the morning. Which goes to prove a quite elderly axiom that one cannot mix whiskey with lion-hunting.

The Huts

Clark was made Fellow of the Royal Geological Society in 1910 for helping anthropologist Henry Balfour find stone-age axe heads close to the Victoria Falls on the visit of the British Association in 1905. He exhibited his photographs of the Falls in London and was elected Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in 1925. Clark published ‘The Autobiography of an Old Drifter: The Life Story of Percy M Clark of Victoria Falls’ in 1936, and lived on the south bank of the Falls until his death the following year - but is buried, however, in Livingstone Cemetery. Clark’s son, Victor, himself a skilled photographer, took over the family business and continued operations for many years.

Next page: To The Victoria Falls

Recommended Reading

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

Livingstone, David & Livingstone, Charles (1865), Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries and of the discovery of the lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1858-1864 London.

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

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

Shepherd, G. (2008) Old Livingstone and Victoria Falls, Stenlake Publishing.

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

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.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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