By Anne Skinner
Mufulira, Northern Rhodesia, 1937
Cecil Turton didn’t normally go in for loitering outside the mine manager’s office. In later years, he could never quite remember what he had been doing there in the hot Northern Rhodesian sunshine on that day in 1937. But he never forgot the words he heard his boss say through the open window. Even when the former British colony was renamed Zambia at its independence nearly 30 years later, Cecil was still telling the story of the luckiest day of his life.
“Buy those ABC Mine shares,” he heard the manager urge an anonymous other in the room. “Buy up big. They’re going to double overnight and keep on going up, I’m telling you.”
Cecil strode home, his gut churning and his brain racing. Should he withdraw his slender life savings from the bank and sink them into those shares? Of course, he’d first have to get it past Evelyn, his frugal wife, who was bound to object. Hang on, what if he didn’t tell her? She’d have to know sometime, but one of Cecil’s lifelong personal rules was to do the deed and apologise later, if caught.
Blast it! He earned the wages and he’d jolly well buy as many of those shares as he could! The mine manager was a canny Scotsman, after all. His advice – even though not directed at himself – was bound to be right.
Cecil was due a bit of good luck. He’d turned to underground mining after stints as a farmer and a driller. Both careers had ended more or less in tears. The promising citrus farm in South Africa had gone broke after their bumper crop of oranges rotted on the London docks during a snap wharfie strike. He’d loathed the British ever since, even though he’d married an English girl looking for a new life on the Dark Continent after losing her first husband to the 1914-18 war.
Then he got a job with South African Railways, drilling for water in the God-forsaken desert of northern Bechuanaland. By that time, the Great Depression had the entire globe in its grip. To make things worse, water was scarce, the lions were many and they had to live in a tent. Even worse for Evelyn, she was often alone for long nights in a row when Cecil drilled remote sites.
One morning, after yet another solitary, nervous night, Evelyn found lion spoor in the sand around their camp. She was not a happy camper and let Cecil know it on his return. Shortly afterwards, her faithful fox terrier growlingly refused to let her pass a particular clump of trees during their afternoon walk along a bush track. A lion was later spotted lurking there.
It was all too much. “I might not survive a third lion,” she warned Cecil.
So they moved further north, up to the rich copper belt in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Cecil’s first job was at the Chambishi Mine. Their tent was exchanged for a mud brick house and life was looking up – until the night the summer monsoon rains washed away an entire wall of their small son’s bedroom. Naturally, in line with Cecil’s decade of bad luck, the mine closed shortly afterwards and he was once more out of work.
So they moved on again, this time to the big copper mine at nearby Mufulira. The mine had a reputation for disastrous cave-ins, but it provided a better job, a much better house and a school for young Tony. For the first time in a long time, Evelyn began to enjoy Africa again.
That is, until the afternoon Cecil came home to announce that he’d spent every penny they had on a parcel of mining shares. It was a wonder the ensuing argument didn’t blow off the roof of their house!
But the stars were aligned and, at long last, Lady Luck smiled down on Cecil. The ABC Mine shares did indeed double overnight and continued to rise steadily over the next couple of months, until he sold the lot for ten times their original value.
To appease his wife, Cecil returned his original stake plus a chunk extra to the safety of the bank. Then he booked three months leave from the mine and took Evelyn and seven-year-old Tony on a wonderful holiday to England – his way of showing gratitude to his wife for refraining from divorcing him (or murdering him) the day he confessed to his sudden investment.
A wiser man might have put it all into the bank, but Cecil was a true son of the Africa of his generation. He hadn’t picked oranges to rot, drilled for water in a desert or survived the notorious Mufulira Mine rock falls – and especially the Great Depression – to take the sensible route, just when he could afford not to.
Wisdom was the path of the timid. Now was the time to be bold. To celebrate!
Even if it had to be in cold, damp, union-ridden England.
Just in case the chance never came again.
Right up until the day he left the mine eight years later, Cecil made a point of walking home from his shift via the manager’s office, slowing down to admire the scenery and stretch his ears as he drew abreast of that windfall window.
But the daily pilgrimage was in vain. He never again heard another hot tip to set his pulses racing – or drop a second bonanza into his pocket.
Source: Tony Turton’s reminiscences.
This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Queensland. Anne is forever fascinated by the amazing stories and often unbelievable characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org