The Courage & Colourful Spirit Of Rhodesia’s Pioneer Women!

Editor: Sadly, the website Memories of Rhodesia is no longer online. Fortunately some wonderful people have archived a few pages on the Wayback Machine and, when we find these pages, we’ll re-present them here. As I read these wonderful anecdotes I couldn’t help but compare these women to the so-called feminists of today. The real feminists (in my feminine opinion) were these women who were instrumental in building civilization, not dismantling it in ridiculous and vulgar pink-pussy hat demonstrations! Forget the hysteria of Hollywood actresses and read on, because these women are the real deal!

Sorrow And Sublime Courage

THE story of Rhodesia’s pioneer women is one of sorrow and sublime courage; when families made homes in a wilderness and fought against sickness, scarcity, wars and rebellion. They were determined to establish new lives in what is today, only 80 years after, a well organized prosperous country.

In the early days of the new territory women were debarred by the British South Africa Company. But this ruling did not stop such daring characters as “Pioneer” Mary Watson, who bluffed her way in by declaring she was the Administrator’s housekeeper, or Fanny Pearson, later the Countess “Billy” de la Panouse, who disguised herself as a boy.

Countess “Billy”, and English serving girl who married Count de la Panouse.

It takes all sorts and conditions of people to make a country – like the indomitable Mrs. McAuliffe, jogging along in her ox-wagon to Fort Salisbury, ready to open her store while her husband remained at his store somewhere below Fort Tuli, 600 kilometers away. Then, again, there was Mrs. Foy who, with her husband, walked to Salisbury from Johannesburg. She provided meals in Pioneer Street, Salisbury, and was not above assaulting any customer who failed to pay his bill.

By 1892 the new territory had begun to attract settlers and some, with as many as ten children, faced untold hardship and deprivation in order to trek to Rhodesia.

Kingsley Fairbridge (extreme left) and his family lived for several months in their wagons until their homes were built.

One of the most serious difficulties experienced was the lack of doctors and maternity nurses – in some areas the nearest medical help was over 160 km away.

A veteran settler, Mrs. Prescott of Mangwe, who was trained by her mother, had some hair – raising experiences while hurrying, usually on horseback, many miles to urgent maternity cases. Once a messenger arrived with a powerful, and almost unrideable, stallion on which Mrs. Prescott was expected to make the journey. The river was in full flood and the stallion refused to enter the water. Mrs. Prescott dismounted, forced him into the water and, by holding his mane, swam him across.

Salisbury, at this stage, had no buildings to speak of. Material was scarce and the half a dozen women of the settlement lived in pole and dagga (mud) huts. There was little society as such, as entertaining was difficult without tables and chairs. Housekeeping was hazardous. The most simple household items, such as flour and sugar, were regarded as luxuries, and were practically unobtainable.

Those were the days of whisky box and soap-box furniture, when women made their dresses from limbo (native cloth) and complimented each other on their 25 pence Mashonaland creations.

In Umtali, Mrs. Lionel Cripps, wife of the man who was to become the first Speaker” of the First Parliament of Southern Rhodesia, was finding life a little trying too. She described conditions there as a “sort of Robinson Crusoe life, with no furniture, or planks to make any with, as all the packing cases are left at Beira.” Mrs. Cripps also recounts the arrival of supplies from Beira, when the women would rush out to see what had been brought – condensed milk, tinned butter, or tinned fish. “Alas it was more often whisky. Whatever else was left at the coast, whisky never remained behind !”

During the next few years life in Rhodesia achieved a certain amount of stability. In Fort Victoria, Mrs. James Mitchell finally wore the Charter Company down and obtained the first liquor license and paid £100 for the privilege of selling her home-brewed hop beer.

In Gwelo, Mrs. William Hurrell and her husband started the Horseshoe Hotel – a collection of pole and dagga huts which needed constant repairs during the rainy season. They eventually sold the hotel to Thomas Meikle who built the Midlands in its place.

The terrible rebellion’ of 1896 nullified much of the progress which Rhodesia had painfully achieved – but out of the tragedy came stories of amazing courage. At the first outbreak of the rebellion round Enkeldoorn, a Mr. van der Merwe was badly wounded. With great presence of mind, his wife seized his rifle and opened fire on the attackers. Under cover of darkness she walked almost a kilometer, rounded up the oxen, in spanned them, and took her husband and four small children to safety.

Mrs. Molliy Colenbrander who refused to let her husband attend the Great Indaba which ended the Matabele Rebellion without her.  Her contempt for personal danger once earned her Lobengula’s admiration and respect.
Shona King Lobengula

In the Headlands area, Mrs. Tom Pretorius led three women and six children, one of whom was a baby of three months, 130 kilometers through attacking tribes to Umtali. When she arrived it was said her hair had turned grey.

Alice Mine and Mazoe at the time of the Mashona Rebellion.  All three women in the front row eventually made it to Salisbury safely, but were never the same again.

There are many unsung heroines of those early days, such as the women of the besieged Alice Mine, the nurses whose hospitals were nothing more than wagon sails, the wives and mothers whose determination and support helped to carve a nation.

A nurse treating a leprosy victum in 1908. Leprosy was common in the black population until the Rhodesian pioneers brought their courage and wagons!

The Rhodesia Pioneers’ and Early Settlers’ Society was founded in September 1904, but it was not until 1934 that the Society decided to include women as members. After the decision the then secretary, Colonel Dan Judson, said:

“In giving women pioneers this recognition I am not only referring to the living but also the dead, because possibly the majority of those who can be classed as pioneers are dead and gone.”

Ethel Towse Jollie who became the first women elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1923.
Look who benefited! A remarkable progress from white pioneer women setting up makeshift hospitals and schools at the turn of the century to a young girl in a secondary school science lab in 1946 with a trained black teacher in the background.

The Very, Very Colourful French Marie!

by Penny May Philip, Magaliesburg, South Africa.

My Great Grandmother was Marie Victoire Lemestre, better known as French Marie. She has to have been one of the most colorful Rhodesian pioneers ever! I’m sending you this information on her because I do believe that she should be in this article but also because I’m hoping that some of your readers may have some stories about her for me. A lot of what we know about her is anecdotal & as such I’d be happy to have any information/ stories at all.

French Marie was, we think, born in Paris & ran away from home at 16 years old because she was pregnant. In her running away she boarded a ship headed for the USA & arrived in the port of San Francisco on or around 21 August 1886, where she promptly gave birth to her first daughter (my Grandmother). From here she made her way to Chicago & then out to South Africa. We don’t have any details on this part of her life but have employed a professional researcher to try & trace her movements in the USA.

She arrived in Southern Rhodesia in about 1895. We do know that she married Jack Baines in Umtali in 1896, with whom she had another daughter. She was among the group of settlers who walked, carrying her baby, to Fort Salisbury from Umtali at the outbreak of the 1896 rebellion. She later divorced her husband & remarried Cyril Green, whom she also divorced. Her last husband was a Frenchman known as Mr. Clements.

French Marie was barely 5ft tall, was an excellent horsewoman, a great shot & very handy with both a bull whip & a sjambok. She cared little for polite convention & wore men’s jodhpurs, & was the only woman allowed to drink in bars with the men. She owned & ran brothels in Salisbury & Gwelo – both of which she ran with an iron fist & would sjambok any patron who tried to step out of line. She was also known to have settled a few fist fights by joining in with her own fists! As her daughters got older she sold the brothels & bought mining claims in the Gwelo area. Her eldest daughter, Marie Louise (Mimmy) married an Irishman by the name of Paddy May, with whom she had four children. French Marie was known on many occasions to arrive at CJR School in Gwelo in her Bedford truck, where she would load up her grandsons & drive through to the Congo – for the sheer joy of being able to speak French again! In later life she lived near Fort Victoria with her Grand Daughter, Eileen May, who’s husband was in the BSAP in the area. Here she proceeded to organize both smuggling & cattle rustling runs through Crookes Corner. It became her Grand Daughter’s husband’s life’s ambition to catch her at this but he never did succeed.

French Marie bred an number of horses in the Gwelo area & there is a story that Thomas Meikle had been on at her for months about selling him a white stallion she owned. Eventually, on one of her visits into Gwelo, she finally agreed to sell the horse to him for 100 pounds. He gave her the cash right there & then & sent one of staff out to her home to fetch the horse. They arrived at her home to discover that the horse had died the day before! She never did refund Thomas Meikle his money saying that he didn’t specify that he wanted a live horse. One of her favorite horses kicked & killed her only son, Cecil. She promptly shot the horse.

I do love the fact that I have such a colorful forbearer & am certainly very proud of the way she made her way through life in a very wild part of the world, at a time when life was not easy for woman!

In less than half a century a black middle class was created and began growing at a rate that the entire continent (and impoverished Europeans in the USSR) envied. Is that why Rhodesia was deemed a threat to world peace?
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