Colonial Rivalry: W.A. Caldecott and the Royal Society of South Africa

Colonial Rivalry: W.A. Caldecott and the Founding of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1902-1908

Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

W.A. Caldecott 1904

The Royal Society of South Africa is often considered to be a Cape-focussed organisation and, of course, in many ways this is so. The Society’s head office is housed at the University of Cape Town, the majority of events is held in Cape Town, and the origins of the society arose from the specific history of the Cape Colony. However, scientists in the Transvaal played a critical role in the establishment of the Royal Society of South Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century and, also, in shaping its current form. In this development, Witwatersrand mining engineer, chemist, and metallurgist, Dr William Arthur Caldecott had an important part.

            After the South African (Anglo-Boer) War ended in 1902, what is now South Africa comprised four British colonies – the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange River Colony. With all of South Africa then under British control, some kind of political unification within the British Empire was finally in sight, driven by the wealth of the newly acquired Transvaal goldfields. There was considerable tension between the imperial government and the colonies, added to which there was a rivalry for local dominance in any new political dispensation, particularly between the Transvaal, where economic power and the financial future lay, and the Cape Colony, with its greater age and cultural primacy.

            It was at this juncture that the British Association for the Advancement of Science decided to visit the region and scientists in southern Africa decided, in response, to form their own South African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3) and thus host the event. At the same time, the South African Philosophical Society, founded in 1877 in Cape Town, took formal steps in 1903, with the approval of its members and of the Cape government, to apply for a Royal Charter and become the Royal Society of South Africa. Anticipated to be a quick transformation, this was eventually to take five years to achieve and involve a great deal of correspondence.

Transvaal University College: the foundation stone was laid in 1907.

            At the time, Cape Town was a sophisticated city with a long history and well-established institutions – an art gallery, museum, parliament buildings, gardens, a university and the like. While the Cape regarded itself as the intellectual hub of the sub-continent, the Transvaal, with its great wealth, was fast catching up and its growing middle and urban class in both Johannesburg and Pretoria had established a number of institutions both before and after the South African War of 1899-1902. These included a university-type college, art gallery, museums, and numerous specialist organisations such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Association of Engineers and Architects (1892), the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa (1894), the Geological Society of South Africa (1895), the South African Society of Electrical Engineers, and the Transvaal Medical Society (1897). In these circumstances, in order to have stature and be truly representative of ‘South Africa’, any institution that claimed the title ‘Royal Society of South Africa’ could not be limited to the Cape but had to have the support of all four colonies.

            The petition for the Royal Charter went to Alfred Lyttelton, Secretary of State for the Colonies. His response came as a surprise to the Philosophical Society, because he cautioned that the views of the other colonies first needed to be obtained, and that he had handed the matter over to High Commissioner Alfred, Lord Milner, to do so. Milner asked the Philosophical Society for clarification and from the reply it was clear that their idea was a simple conversion and change of name and status. Membership numbers were provided in this document and of the 215 listed members, 13 were in Natal, 20 in the Transvaal, and 2 in the Orange River Colony, by far the majority were in the Cape.

            Milner went along with the plan, but his support of the petition was premature. There were objections from a number of powerful societies in the Transvaal who hurriedly sent a cablegram in November 1904 directly to the Privy Council – the body tasked to consider the matter before giving it to the King for his approval. The complainants were the Chemical Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa with 1130 members (of which W.A. Caldecott was President), the South African Association of Engineers with 210, the Mechanical Engineers’ Association of the Witwatersrand with 327, the Institute of Land Surveyors of the Transvaal with 118, and the Institute of Mine Surveyors with 112. Their protest was not to be taken lightly as all of them were significant men on the Witwatersrand and their institutions were far larger and more economically influential than the Philosophical Society.

            On behalf of their organisations, the leaders on the Rand asked the King to refuse the request and put forward their many objections why he should do so. Among them were that the Philosophical Society was ‘not sufficiently representative in its sphere of action’ (too few disciplines) and also ‘in its membership’ (overwhelmingly Cape-based). Moreover, they added, ‘the majority of its present members cannot be said to have won scientific fame even in South Africa’ and that when the Transactions were scrutinised carefully it was clear that the Society ‘has not displayed the activity which might be justly expected from a Society claiming the high title and premier position for which it prays’. It was certainly true that some on the Rand were better qualified in their professions than many members of the Philosophical Society who had certainly gained prominence, but who were amateurs in terms of formal qualifications.

            However, this was not language designed to appease the Cape people and they countered, perhaps rather arrogantly and not entirely factually, that ‘the protesting Societies are … strictly speaking … not pure Scientific Societies – they are in every case more correctly described as technical societies – composed of men who apply the result of Scientific research by others to technical processes.’ Not to be swayed, it seems that Milner had considerable sympathy with the Transvaal groups and his secretary noted in the file that His Excellency agreed with the Transvaal petitioners that any Royal Society of South Africa should include members of bodies such as the Transvaal Chemical and Mining Engineers ‘probably the foremost in the world in its own line’.  

            Eventually the matter was resolved, and the ramifications of the episode are given in detail in an article published in the 2008 Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. Presumably to placate the applied scientists who might not be elected to Fellowship and to allay fears that all members of the South African Philosophical Society would not automatically become Fellows of the Royal Society of South Africa (which had been proposed), there would be dual membership – elected Fellows and voluntary Members, as remains the case today. The Council of the South African Philosophical Society was disbanded and the three Fellows of the Royal Society of London resident in South Africa at that time became the initial Council leadership. They were the two astronomers, Sir David Gill and Sydney Hough, and Henry Hele-Shaw, former Professor of Engineering at Bristol and Liverpool universities and who, in 1904, had come to the Transvaal tasked to establish engineering as an academic discipline in that colony. In the longer term one can appreciate that the intervention of the Transvaal mining scientists and their contribution to shaping the Society at the outset ensured both the strength and acceptance of the young institution at a time of political transformation and its adherence to the highest standards of scholarship.

            The name of William A. Caldecott has been mentioned above and as his biography is not well known, this is an appropriate place for a brief overview. It will also provide an idea of the calibre of many of the Rand scientists around the time of Union who saw themselves as equals, or betters, of the botanists, anthropologists, astronomers, and others in the Cape Colony. 

            William A. Caldecott (1869-1926) was the great-grandson of the Reverend Charles Caldecott (1780-1820), a cantankerous 1820 Settler in Pringle’s party who died on arrival at Algoa Bay, and whose many children spawned multiple descendants. William’s father was William Shaw Wright Caldecott, a Wesleyan minister. William junior went to school in Grahamstown, studied at the South African College in Cape Town, graduating with a B.A. with honours in mathematics and natural science from the University of the Cape of Good Hope (1889). In 1909 he received his D.Sc. degree from that University for his thesis ‘Chemistry of banket ore treatment’, and contributed this topic to an important textbook, Rand Metallurgical Practice, published in 1912.

A gold mine in early Johannesburg

            Like many others of the time, after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree, Caldecott was attracted by the opportunities afforded by the mineral revolution in South Africa and in 1889 he began work in Johannesburg at the Rietfontein Gold Mill as an unpaid gold plant learner. A year later, he moved to the Cassel Gold Extraction Company into which he introduced the recently invented (1887) MacArthur-Forrest cyanidation process of gold recovery. In this specialised process, first used on the Rand in 1890, of separating gold from crushed ore in a cyanide solution, Caldecott made his mark. He took the technology to the African Gold Recovery Syndicate, and he used what was only the second commercial cyanide plant built in South Africa to recover substantial amounts of gold from tailings. Over the next few years, Caldecott gained experience at Pilgrim’s Rest, then in Zimbabwe, and subsequently at the Rand Central Ore Reduction Company. In 1901 he was appointed consulting metallurgist to the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa in Johannesburg, and he remained in this position for 20 years.

            In his biography of Caldecott for the S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science, Plug records Caldecott’s many accomplishments. He was a foundation member of the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa (1894), its president from 1904-1905, a council member for 24 years (1897-1921) and the recipient of the Society’s gold medal in 1921 for metallurgical research. He published many of his research papers in the Proceedings of this society, the majority of which concerned the cyanide process for dissolving gold and the recovery of gold from slimes. In addition to research, his practical contributions to the treatment of gold were also important. In 1898, when he was just 29, he was granted a patent for his improved method of extracting gold from cyanide solutions and, in 1907, after he had become interested in the physical aspects of ore treatment, he was granted another for his improvements in the process of treating crushed ore. In 1912 he registered a further patent for his ‘Caldecott cone classifier’ – a conical tank that settled and discharged the relatively coarse sand as an underflow from an overflowing stream of mineral pulp. He also invented the Caldecott filter table, a horizonal vacuum filter for dewatering the sand fraction.

            In 1903, at its foundation, Caldecott joined the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was a council member in 1904-1905. He was also a Fellow of the (British) Chemical Society, an associate of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and an associate and then member (from 1906) of the (British) Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, contributing several papers to its Transactions and he was awarded the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa gold medal for his contributions to metallurgy. Caldecott also belonged to the Geological Society of South Africa for a time, the South African Geographical Society, and in 1917 the South African Biological Society at its foundation. In 1906 he joined the South African Philosophical Society and was one of the early Fellows of the Royal Society of South Africa. He was a Royal Society council member in 1917-1918 and also in 1924.

            Caldecott’s contribution to South African science also included his involvement in national affairs. During the First World War he concerned himself with economic problems and in developing South African industries. He served on the Scientific and Technical Committee on Industrial Research, and from 1923 he was a director in the Union’s Department of Mines and Industries, in this capacity reporting to the government on ‘Irrigation policy of the Union’. He died at Selborne, near Mthatha, in November 1926.

            According to Levin, Caldecott’s guiding principle was that ‘knowledge is the one thing we can afford to give without being rendered poorer’. The Royal Society of South Africa has, since its inception, allied itself with those aims, in particular facilitating the exchange and development of scientific ideas and knowledge within an interdisciplinary framework, fostering science education, holding meetings, lectures and symposia, and publishing valuable work.


Caldecott, W.A., ‘The treatment of stamp battery slimes from gold ores’, letter, Nature 57, 1897, p.129, doi 10.1038/057129a0

Carruthers, J., ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.1-30.

Carruthers, J., ‘Henry Selby Hele-Shaw LL.D., D.Sc., D. Eng., F.R.S., Wh. Sch., (1854-1941): Engineer, inventor and educationist’, South African Journal of Science 106 (1/2), 2010, pp. 34-39.

Dubow, S., A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Dubow, S., ed., Science and Society in Southern Africa. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 2000.

Levin, J., ‘Caldecott, William Arthur’, Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. 5. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 1987, p.110.

Plug, C., ‘Caldecott, Dr William Arthur (metallurgy, chemistry)’. S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science. 1905 (Accessed 19 May 2018)