Aliwal North 1849-1879

The arrival of Primitive Methodism

Aliwal North was the first town established on the banks of the Orange River in 1849.  ‘Aliwal’ is a place in India where a battle was fought in 1846, as part of the Indian Uprising. Sir Harry Smith was the ‘hero of Aliwal’, and the following year he became Governor of the Cape. The town was named in memory of his famous ‘victory’.

How did the Primitive Methodists get to Aliwal North?

In 1867, J D Lindsay, a Wesleyan from Ireland, who had lived in South Africa for 27 years, moved to Aliwal.  He was a local preacher, and finding that the Wesleyan missionaries could not meet what he saw as the ‘pressing needs of the people’, he wrote a letter on 29 September 1869 to the President of the PM Conference. He asked for a young minister to be sent out to Aliwal, and promised to give him free board and lodging for three years.

The first minister

Rev Henry Buckenham volunteered to go, and left England on 5 October 1870, in the ‘Marsdin’, bound for Algoa Bay. The journey took him 9 weeks, reaching Aliwal on 16 December. In the meantime Mr Lindsay had moved to Aas-Vogel-Kop, a trading station in the district of Smithfield, Orange Free State. He wanted Buckenham to live with him for 12 months to learn the Dutch and Sesuto languages, and preach alternately at Smithfield, Rouxville and Aliwal. It was eventually decided that the young minister should stay in Aliwal, and a committee was formed to provide board and lodgings for him, and rent a room to hold services.

In Buckenham’s first year plans were made to build a church, and a school started. As things were going well, he wrote and asked for ‘another good brother’ to be sent out ‘quickly’. Instead a ‘good sister’ was sent, and clearly proved a help, as the two were married on 15 December 1872 in the Wesleyan church at Port Elizabeth.

The preaching and teaching among the local African people then seemed to falter, but plans went ahead for a church (which seems to have been for the English congregation). Buckenham ‘pursued his work with untiring industry and a sincerity that could not be doubted, whatever views were held relative to his aptitude for the work or the wisdom of his methods for accomplishing it.’

It proved a disaster. Dispensing with the plans and deciding to oversee the project himself, he ran up a bill of £4,000 instead of the estimated £800, and was called back to England before he could do any more damage.

John Smith

The PM Missionary Committee decided to send John Smith, then a PM minister at Great Yarmouth, to replace Buckenham in Aliwal.  He had been in the ministry for 15 years, all of them in the Norwich District. John Smith and his wife embarked at Southampton on 27 April 1874, and landed at Algoa Bay on 24 May, having a remarkably speedy voyage.  He began work immediately, preaching at the Wesleyan church an hour after landing!

John Smith expected to find a completed church and manse ready for him, but instead he found the church without a roof, and the manse only one storey high. The church was opened on 9 May 1875, and Buckenham returned to England.

John Smith then set about learning Dutch and researching the best way to reach the local African people. He hired the largest vacant room in the town and started a school for 12 African children.  Numbers rapidly grew to 70, too many for one person to teach. It was decided to introduce needlework for the girls, under the instruction of Mrs Smith, until Miss Lottie Wright was engaged as assistant teacher.

The first service for local people was held on 9 May 1876, and a Sunday School was  opened for adults and children.

An extract from John Smith’s journal at that time

‘Sunday. – Opened the English school at 9 am, and the native at 9.30. Returned and closed Engish school at 10.30, and preached at 11. Opened English school at 2.30 pm and preached to natives at 3. Took the English service at 7.

Monday. – Kept school from 9 to 2. Wrote letters for English mail. Held English class from 7 to 8. Decided texts for the following Sunday and examined their principal terms.

Tuesday. – At school from 9 to 2. Dutch lessons from 3 to 5. Night school from 6.45 to 8. Attended Greek and Latin class, conducted by Mr Postma, from 8 to 10.

Wednesday. – In school from 9 to 2. Dutch lessons from 3 to 5. English service from 7 to 8. Reading, selecting and examining text for next Wednesday night.

Thursday. – Day school from 9 to 2. Visiting from 3 to 5. Night school from 6.45 to 8. Greek class from 8 to 10.

Friday. – School from 9 to 2. Dutch lesson from 3 to 5. Night school from 6.45 to 8. Received English mail and read the papers till midnight.

Saturday. – Started at 9 am on horseback to Jamestown for service tomorrow and arrived a little before sundown (36 miles).

A new building

Another difficulty now arose as the congregation and the schools had outgrown the original premises. Smith’s requests for funds were refused on the grounds of the large debt that had been run up on the English church and manse.  (It seems from John Smith’s account that there were separate services and schools for English and African congregations.)

Smith decided to go ahead without the support of the Missionary Committee back in London, and a new building was opened for worship on 29 July 1877, and the school opened two days later.  The cause continued to grow, so that when he decided to return to England on 26 April 1879, it was with the satisfaction of leaving a day school with 70 scholars, and a Sunday school of about the same, with an African church of 126 members, and a congregation of 200-300 people.

The work of running the school as well as the rest of his duties was too exhausting for one man to cope with. Before he left, Smith appointed John Msikinya and his wife Sana, who had trained at the Lovedale Institute for African teachers, as teachers for the school, starting on 1 January 1879.

John Smith’s successor was Rev John Watson.


John Smith, ‘Our South African Mission. First Paper’, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, 1882, pp 92-102

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