Sir Percy Fitzpatrick

A literary legacy

James Percy Fitzpatrick was born in the Eastern Cape town of King William’s Town in 1862. His parents were both originally Irish and his father was a judge of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony. Fitzpatrick is best remembered for the account of his life as an ox-wagon transport-rider in the Eastern Transvaal goldfields in the early 1880s. More than 90 editions of Jock of the Bushveld have been run off since 1907, when Fitzpatrick was persuaded to publish the children’s classic by his friend, Rudyard Kipling.

An author, politician and mining financier, Fitzpatrick developed his storytelling around the fireplace of the gracious Hohenheim, a stately home on Johannesburg’s Parktown Ridge. Sadly, Hohenheim was demolished in the 1970s to make way for Johannesburg General Hospital and all that remains of it is a plaque at the house’s original location.

Fitzpatrick was a political man. He was one of the leaders of the Reform Committee that, in 1895, plotted to overthrow Paul Kruger’s Boer government by provoking a revolt in Johannesburg. The Reform Committee had not reached consensus on the status of the Transvaal after the proposed coup – whether it would become a British colony or remain independent – and Fitzpatrick acted as a mediator between the Committee and Cecil John Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson in Cape Town. Jameson became impatient though and his regiment of 600 men found no support on the goldfields when they arrived to mount an attack on December 29, 1895. For his part in the Jameson Raid conspiracy, Fitzpatrick received a two-year prison sentence and a £2 000 fine.

Although he did not actively serve in the 1899 to 1902 Anglo-Boer War due to ill health, Fitzpatrick established the Imperial Light Horse Regiment and was the official adviser on South African affairs to the British government. He was knighted in 1902.

Fitzpatrick served as a representative of the Transvaal in the 1908/09 convention that consolidated the four British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State into the Union of South Africa. He went on to serve as a Member of Parliament of the Union.

The vision of establishing Johannesburg’s zoological garden can be attributed to Fitzpatrick. In 1903 a collection of core animals was already located on the grounds that are occupied by the Johannesburg Zoo today. Some of these included wild animals captured on Fitzpatrick’s hunting trips; these formed some of the zoo’s first stock.

Fitzpatrick died in 1931 at the age of 68. His memory lives on in the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, which was begun in 1959 by his daughter, Cecily Niven, and the Percy Fitzpatrick Award for the best South African children’s book in English, initiated in 1970.