We are indebted to Gordon Everson for supplying the following article, "The Man Who Fed Mafeking":
As Allied troops stormed the Normandy beaches on 'D' Day 6.10.1944, a 94 year old Jewish businessman breathed his last at a house in St. John's Wood. He had never been a regular soldier but to Benjamin Burtie Weil the crash of shot and shell had once been everyday sounds and he held proudly the Queen's South Africa Medal. Attached to it was the clasp 'Defence of Mafeking' for Ben Weil played a major part in the most celebrated siege in British history and came to fame as "The Man Who Fed Mafeking".
Application for the Medal and clasp was made under the returns of the Mafeking Town Guard, where 'B.B. Weil' is listed as a Private, but his name was only added to the roll many months after submission of the original return. Although Weil may well have shouldered a gun towards the end of the siege, when the town was in danger of being over run, I doubt that he had time for any of the usual Town Guards' duties but, officially impressed, the Medal was issued on 17.5.1902. That his name was only added to the roll as a Town Guard in 1902 suggests that it was an adroit way to obtain for him a well deserved Medal in recognition of his all important services during the siege. Ben Weil's foresight and planning played a crucial part in the defence of the bleak little frontier town. Without him the famous cry of 'Mafeking Has Been Relieved' would never have echoed around the world.
Given only the first name of Benjamin at birth, Weil later adopted the middle name "Burtie". Why he used it and from whence it came has escaped me, perhaps it was simply a nickname, for at one time he was content to spell it "Bertie", as on his marriage certificate. In later years he favoured 'u' over the 'e' and it is spelt that way in directories and in his Will. He was born on 24.5.1850 at No. 6 Raven Row, Stepney, the first child of Louis and Esther (nee Woolf) Weil. Louis made his living in the clothing trade selling fancy trimmings and although life was hard in London's East End his business thrived and by 1852, when he was 30 years old, he had risen sufficiently in the trade to be listed in the Commercial Guide as a 'Fancy Trimming Maker'. The work was carried out in Raven Row but within three years he needed larger premises and moved nearer the City, to No. 27 Little Alie Street, Goodman's Fields, just off Leman Street. The removal demanded a new dignity and instead of a 'Maker' he was designated 'Manufacturer'.
By now Ben had a baby brother, Myer, and there were further additions to the family during the next few years. Julius was born in 1859 and Samuel in 1862. As they grew up Louis absorbed his sons into his business and his acumen was passed on to them. In the early 1870s Ben and Myer set up on their own as boot makers at No. 100 Whitechapel High Street. Somehow it was dove-tailed with the business of their father who was then describing himself additionally as 'Export boot and shoe manufacturer and leather merchant'.
That exporting had become increasingly important to the Weils was down to Julius who had responded to those persuasive voices exhorting ambitious young men to make their fortunes in South Africa. Financed by his father he arrived in Cape Town in 1876 and had scarcely unpacked his luggage than news began to come in from King William's Town of trouble in the Eastern Cape. Before long the Xhosa broke out in rebellion and the Eastern Cape was immersed in the Ninth Frontier War. Julius learned quickly that good business can come from the misfortune of others but in 1877 and 1878 he was not yet positioned to make the most of his opportunities. However, his reports to the family were full of enthusiasm, and such confidence had Louis and his family in Julius that Ben and Myer promptly sold their business. As Louis' manufactory disappears from the Commercial Guides at the same time it is evident that the family put all their resources together in the venture. Louis was no fool and his confidence in the energetic Julius must mean that the returns from the business were most satisfactory.
With the Xhosa barely subdued, reports of threatened confrontation between British troops and the Zulu Army of Cetshwayo focused attention on Zululand. Julius was prepared. When war broke out in 1879 he loaded some wagons with goods he calculated would be of necessity, some with tempting items of luxury made for Natal. Exactly where he travelled and whether he made more than one journey we do not know but his labours in Natal must have been very profitable and enough to place Julius Weil & Co. on a firm foundation. With the correspondent Melton Prior as a fellow traveller on the same vessel, Julius returned to England in 1880. After much deliberation and discussion Julius persuaded his father and brothers that Julius Weil & Co. should be a family enterprise. It was decided that Ben should handle the English end of the business with support from Myer, and as soon as Julius had managed to set up a business Head Quarters in Cape Town, Samuel would follow him to the Cape.
In 1882 Samuel went out to join his enterprising brother. While Julius masterminded the business from Cape Town, Samuel travelled widely, not only to acquire business but to survey new areas into which they might expand. He was every bit as bold and enterprising as Julius. By joining the armed expedition into Bechuanaland under Sir Charles Warren in March 1885, Samuel established an important foothold in Mafeking when that place was laid out and the surrounding territory declared a Crown Colony. From this forward base the area and volume of business operations grew apace and in 1890 small but prestigious offices were opened in the City of London. 'Julius Weil & Co., Merchant Shippers' conducted affairs on the first floor of Gresham Buildings, Basinghall Street, and Louis and Esther Weil must have been proud parents. They had left the East End in 1868 to live in Douglas Road, Islington, later moving to 78 Portsdown Road, but Louis' health was poor and in the summer of 1891 he died.
From Mafeking Julius Weil & Co. was perfectly situated to take advantage of the opening up of Rhodesia and Samuel organised the transport for the Matabele Campaign of 1893, for which he earned the British South Africa Company's Medal. Government contracts were obtained and very soon more than a dozen Weil offices and stores were established from Cape Town to Salisbury and Bulawayo.
At home larger offices were taken over on the ground floor of Gresham Buildings, but Ben's attentions were not wholly centred on business. All the brothers were bachelors and Ben was still living with his widowed mother in Portsdown Road when he married Ethel Florence Samuel at the Bayswater Synagogue on 12.1.1897. She was 22 years old and a niece of Sir Marcus Samuel. He was nearly 47 but she may not have been aware of it for their marriage certificate says he was 41 years old.
Whether Ben had previously been to South Africa we do not know but it made good sense to introduce his wife to his expatriate brothers, show her the country and improve his experience all at the same time. It is difficult to say exactly when Ben and Ethel sailed for the Cape. A son was born to them sometime in 1898, probably in South Africa, and he was named Louis. As events unfolded Ben had need of every bit of experience in the field. Although it had been an important time to go it was sad too for Ben never saw his mother again, and when she died in 1899, only Myer of her four sons was by her bedside.
With Weil & Co.'s lines of communication so close to the Transvaal, the deteriorating relations between Boer and Briton held particular dangers for the firm and the brothers must have given considerable thought to the implications. Being good entrepreneurs any advantages to be taken would not have been overlooked and Ben took charge of the main forwarding depot at Mafeking. A straggling town of iron corrugated roofed buildings only eight miles from the Transvaal border, Mafeking had been linked by rail with Cape Town since 1894 and the line had just been pushed through to Bulawayo. Used as the supply centre for Dr. Jameson's abortive venture to bring about the overthrow of President Kruger, its white population of some 2000 was understandably nervous as to how the Boers might treat them and their property in the event of an outbreak of hostilities.
In anticipation of war, Lieutenant-Colonel R.S. Baden-Powell travelled along the railroad in July 1899 to examine the possibilities of protecting Mafeking and Bulawayo. Two Colonial Regiments of Mounted Infantry were raised to patrol the railway and although the Cape authorities were unwilling to station any part of the force in Mafeking, pressure from the inhabitants persuaded Baden-Powell to unobtrusively enlist a Town Guard. But the little Colonel did not really need persuading to defend Mafeking - he was set upon it. His Chief of Staff, Major Lord Edward Cecil, went to Ben Weil to discuss the matter of supplies and reserve stocks held in town. To pay for them Cecil obtained promises of considerable financial backing from private sources and Weil took the chance that the money would be forthcoming. He also risked losing everything to the Boers but Ben Weil was a man well known to love a gamble. Adjacent to the railway station in the middle of town the warehouses of Weil & Co. were extensive and Ben packed them to the rafters. Not only with food but medicines, clothing and blankets, tools, rifles, shotguns, powder and ammunition, necessities and luxuries, anything and everything he could lay his hands upon was crammed into store.
At the end of September Baden-Powell finally obtained permission to concentrate forces at Mafeking and put the town into a state of defence. He had little enough time for on 11 October the Boer ultimatum ran out and a state of war existed. The last train out of the town carried women and children south to safety; among them was Ethel Weil, with little Louis, and now expecting her second child. Two days later the line was cut, the Boers closed in and investment was completed.
Some 50 Officers and nearly 1200 men, including around 500 Town Guards, had to defend a perimeter of nearly six miles. When fighting occurred during the long weary months ahead it was often sharp and bitter, but both sides tried to conduct a civilised war, if there can be such a thing. With one or two notable exceptions, no one fought on a Sunday, both Boer and Briton attending religious services. Each prayed for the success of their arms, and then the defenders played football and cricket, held equestrian events, raced on foot, held dances and staged concerts. The Boers looked on from long range apparently enjoying the entertainment but at midnight civilians retired to their hopefully bomb proof shelters, the fighting men took their places in the trenches and both sides lobbed shells at each other. Shelling caused civilian casualties but was largely ineffectual during this extraordinarily casual siege which had world wide attention.
Communication with the outside world was maintained through native couriers who Ben Weil organised to carry both official despatches and private mail through Boer lines. Among the first messages to be published was one from Ben to his brother Samuel who had been given the rank of Major and was concentrating the resources of Weil & Co. to supply the Imperial Forces. Ben also found interpreters for B-P's Staff and his own look-out also warned Head Quarters to sound the alarm that Boer Gunners were getting the range.
Virtually the town's Commissary, he was in a powerful position and there were those he upset, in particular two British war correspondents who turned to him for money. Upon being refused, one was offensive about Ben Weil being a Jew but he eventually apologised with bad grace. However, many had cause to look kindly upon Weil. He was always providing titbits for the children and at Christmas gave them a huge party complete with decorated tree. In April he presented a blanket to each of the garrison and provided little luxuries to all. After the siege had been lifted the Mother Superior of the Mafeking Sisters of Mercy wrote from her shell damaged convent and thanked Weil for his 'unceasing kindness to the community'.
The Relief Column under Colonel Mahon left Barkly West, near Kimberley on 4.5.1900. With it was Major Samuel Weil in charge of transport, but before help reached Mafeking the town almost fell. On the 12 May the Boer force infiltrated through the native village in the perimeter. In spite of the defenders surprise and confusion there was no panic and people seemed to welcome the excitement. Ben Weil broke open crates of guns and ammunition hastily dragged from his storerooms and handed them to anyone willing to handle a firearm. Failure to reinforce their lodgement in the town resulted in the enemy being driven out or forced to surrender and on 17 May Mahon's troops marched into Mafeking.
The Defence of Mafeking was merely a side-show in the Anglo-Boer War but after bloody reverses on other battlefields its value to British morale was immense and symbolised for Victorians all that was best in the Empire. Throughout the siege Ben had the anxiety of the health of his expectant wife. Then on 29 May No. 150 of the Mafeking Mail carried news that on the 20 April Mrs. Ethel Weil had given birth to a son at Carisbroke, Sea Point, Cape Town. At the earliest opportunity Ben arranged for a wagon to carry him to Vryburg from where he took a train to Cape Town. Reunited, Ben and Ethel must then have discussed the question of naming their son. That they decided on Frederick Baden Powell Weil should not surprise us.
By 1901 the family was back in England, living at 45 Grosvenor Place and Ben resumed control of the London office. Business was good and interests were taken in South African and Rhodesian mining. Julius and Samuel became directors in a number of companies operating in South Africa. A prominent figure in the cold storage industry, Sam was also a J.P. In 1910 head office moved to 3/4 Lothbury, near the Bank of England, but at the outbreak of war the threat of bombing prompted Ben to move his family out of London, a family now increased by two daughters - Eileen Beryl and Sybil Bertha Esther. By the close of the Great War Julius Weil & Co. were re-established in Gresham Buildings. Ethel had inherited the Samuel family home at 30 Abercorn Place, St. John's Wood and when peace came she and Ben went to live there. It was in this house that many anniversary Mafeking dinners were held.
Ben Weil was very happy in England and Samuel perfectly content to live in South Africa, with just the occasional trip home when he resided at Lancaster Gate Terrace. Julius loved South Africa but although he only went home every ten years or so his holidays in England grew steadily longer. From 1903 to 1905 he stayed at Carlton House Terrace. In 1913 he took a house in Upper Brook Street and was in England when war broke out in August 1914. With German forces in South-West Africa and submarines in the Atlantic, shipping was vulnerable on the long voyage to the Cape, but Julius felt he could not leave Samuel all alone to protect Weil & Co., so he braved the U-Boat menace. He was to see no more of his oldest nephew. Louis Myer Benjamin Weil entered the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and trained as a Pilot. In March 1917, with the rank of Flight Sub. Lieutenant, he was posted to France and on 6 April was 'killed in aerial combat' over the Western Front.
Julius came back home again from 1927 to 1930 and took a place at Ormonde Gate, Chelsea. During this time the firm's offices were transferred to 530 Salisbury House, London Wall. All the principals were now past normal retiring age, but there seems to have been little change in their business activities until Julius came home to retire just before the Second World War.
In 1941 Ben and Ethel tried to escape the London Blitz by moving to "Ashcroft", Outwood Common, Redhill, Surrey. Having defied ill-health and his 83 years to make an arduous journey of more than 6,000 miles to die in the country of his birth, Julius was not to be driven from London by the Nazis and he kept to his rooms at Stratford Court, Oxford Street. He survived the bombing but his health deteriorated and he died on 4.7.1942 in nearby Bentinck Street. His death caused Ben to redraw his own Will and leave everything to his wife. It was to no purpose for on 15.1.1943 Ethel died at their Redhill home.
Ben now returned to London and re-occupied the house at Abercorn Place. Here he lived until his 95th year and 'D' Day. He was buried beside his wife on 8.6.1944 at Willesden Jewish Cemetery. The simple plot is contained by a narrow cement perimeter but otherwise unmarked. Between the graves is a headstone 'In Proud and Loving Memory' to their son Louis, R.N.A.S. The announcement that Ben had died caused General Sir Alexander Godley, a fellow "Mafekinger", to write to The Times:
'... Had it not been for the ability, forethought and administrative capacity which he showed in the provision of stores we should have starved.'
For Samuel, now 82, and living in South Africa at Loveday, the deaths of Julius, Ethel and Ben all in less than two years must have been bitter blows and he died on 9.10.1944. The fate of Myer Weil I have not discovered though it has been suggested he may have been in South Africa during the Boer War. Ben's son Frederick did not carry on the firm. He was a financier and had a farm near Twyford, Berkshire but was not blessed with the family longevity and died at Devonshire Place, St. Mary-le-Bone in November 1957. Ben's daughter Sybil married a Felix Eyles but her sister Eileen remained single. After the death of Frederick they had their father's Mafeking papers beautifully bound in eight volumes and presented them to the British Library.
References: The Family History Centre, Islington; The Times, June 1944; United Synagogue, Upper Woburn Place; Court/Commercial Guides 1852-1944; The Black and White Illustrated; Dictionary of S.A. Biography, 1981; South African Who's Who, 1911; British Library, Weil Papers, Ms. 46848-46855; Illustrated London News, 6.6.1896; Mafeking A Victorian Legend, Gardner, 1966; The South African War, Warwick; Diary of the Siege of Mafeking, Ross, 1980; and War Office Records 100/283.