Lord Milner’s government agreed at the end of the Anglo-Boer War to create an irrigation farming scheme for unemployed British soldiers returning from the war. It was the forerunner of a small farmer’s township, but it did not succeed. Milner directed the Transvaal Land Department to survey the valley in 1904.
A hundred plots of land were offered for sale in order to build a weir across the river and a canal. In what would become known as White River, a group of British ex-servicemen from the Boer War started growing citrus. Because of its milky colour – caused by high levels of kaolin in the water – the White River was known as Mhloppemanzi in Siswati and Wit Rivier in Afrikaans.
They, like the Lowveld settlers before them – seasonal San and Trekboer tourists – were quickly acclimatized to the region’s harsh conditions. The new farmers were defeated by disease, drought, and insects, and despite his best efforts, Estates Manager Thomas Holman Lawrence was unable to avoid them. Mr McDonald was the last remaining farmer in the production by 1911.
To collect the requisite capital and bid for the failed settlement, Henry Glynn, Clem Merriman, Colonel William Barnard, Reverend Ponsonby, and Exley Millar founded a syndicate. White River Estates was established after their bid of £10000 for 10,000 acres was accepted. White River Estates became a private company in 1916, with a capital of £30000, but the 1914–18 war halted growth, which was only resumed in 1919.
Wattle-and-daub houses were constructed, and citrus trees were planted. The Magistrates residence and court, an outspan on the site of the Dutch Reformed Church today, the White River Hotel, a police station and stables were all linked by the single main street that is now known as Chief Migyeni Khumalo as the village of White River grew. There were no vehicles back then, so people had to rely on mule wagons, donkey carts, or horseback to get around. The horses were infected with a disease.
Since citrus farming was the main industry, the White River Fruit growers’ Co-operative Company was established in 1924, and the first citrus crop was packed a year later. By 1926, the railway line from Nelspruit had reached White River.
White River Remembered, by Claire Nevill, is an amusing and well-researched source of knowledge on White River’s pioneer days and can be purchased at the Hans van der Merwe showroom at Casterbridge Centre.