The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2017. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.
The Railway Company required a permanent Bridge watchman and toll-master, duties which included guarding against accidental fire on the Bridge caused by falling coals from passing trains. Jack Soper was their appointed man, duly arriving at the Falls from the south in December 1905.
John Walter Soper, popularly known as Jack, was a Londoner born in October 1876. He came to the Zambezi via the south and settled in Victoria Falls in 1905. He died on 26 November 1953 and is buried in the cemetery at Victoria Falls.
A small toll-house was built close to the southern approach, from which tickets for foot-passengers, at one shilling each, were issued.
“A certain Mr Jack Soper was the guard for a number of years, circa 1906, and he had perfected a ‘tube’ to hold the printed ‘toll’ tickets supplied by the railway’s chief accountant. It worked surprisingly well, but the fun started when Mr Soper went on leave.
“Mr Breach, who was station master at the time, persuaded an unattached local resident to cover Mr Soper’s duties. All went well until a trainload of excursionists arrived and naturally wished to walk over the bridge. They achieved their objective, but it was what went on behind the scenes that led to all the fuss.
“When Mr Breach saw the relief guard that evening to find out how the trippers fared, the latter explained that all had gone well, but that he had had great difficulty in issuing so many tickets as he could not get them out of the tube except by using a pin. He said he thought the whole idea of the ‘tube’ was stupid.
“To Mr Breach’s horror he found that the tickets had been issued out of sequence, from the top of the tube (with a pin) instead of being drawn out at the bottom in the usual way. And, of course, they were somewhat mutilated. The relief guard had simply not thought of anything so simple. The whole affair meant a special letter of explanation to the chief accountant and ‘much binding’ ensued.” (Croxton, 1982)
‘Jack’ Soper’s role ensured he met almost every visitor in those early days as nearly all crossed the Bridge to view the Falls from both banks.
“Mr Soper had his living quarters close to the Toll House and one of the attractions for visitors was young cheetah which was kept in a cage. Thousands of photographs must have been taken of this animal as a souvenir of ‘Darkest Africa’ at the time. More than one of them found their way into popular overseas magazines.” (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, Aug 1967)
The toll levied on pedestrians crossing the Bridge was cancelled in March 1914 (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, Sept 1957).
Soper had an adventurous spirit and enjoyed exploring the Falls, descending by ropes down the face of the Falls, with camera equipment, and so gaining a unique view of the Falls which he sold, with other images, on tourism postcards.
"Mr. Soper, with another man long resident at the Falls, descended to the bottom of the Chasm down the cliff-side of the eastern face of Livingstone Island. Mr. Soper described the first part of the descent, made with the aid of ropes, as precipitous, but the lower part as moderately easy climbing. They also took a small light canoe, and worked their way along the bottom to a small island in the middle, but it was not altogether a pleasure trip, and they had no desire to repeat the attempt." (Varian, 1953)
In 1911 Jack Soper established Soper’s Curios next to Percy Clark’s Huts, and set about giving Clark some healthy competition in the growing souvenir trade.
Soper, together with another resident, is recorded as being the first to descend the face of the Falls down into the gorge, Soper described the first part of the descent, from Livingstone Island and made with the aid of ropes, as precipitous, but the lower part as moderately easy climbing. But it was not altogether a pleasure trip, and they had no desire to repeat the attempt (Varian, 1953).
Soper was an expert crocodile hunter and came to be known locally as the ‘Crocodile King.’
“His recreation was killing crocodiles, due to one of them taking his dog, and his favourite point of vantage was above the Silent Pool from which point he shot many hundreds of them... [He also] made crocodile traps which he placed in the Maramba River, again catching and killing many hundreds of these reptiles. There was, however, no demand for crocodile skins at that time so Mr Soper sometimes exported them live. His workshop, where he manufactured curios from local products, was something out of the Ark. Low-roofed, with no electricity, he had natives lying on their backs on tables pedalling cycle wheels to apply power for the lathes!” (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, July 1958)
Realising the curious attraction of the tourist to this ancient predator, Soper established a small pool beside his shop were he kept one captive:
“At one of the curio shops at the Victoria Falls, for a very small sum you will be able to see quite a large crocodile. When caught in the Zambezi in 1932, ‘Sam’ as he is called was 5 feet 6 inches [1.6 m] long. After 25 years in captivity he measured nearly 11 feet [3.3 m] and like all reptiles he will never cease to grow until the day of his death.” (Woods, 1960)
Soper’s Curios has traded for over 100 years, having changed hands after Soper’s death in 1953 and relocating from its original site in 1975 to a new location behind the Post Office. This shop closed its doors in May 2016 before being relocated to its current location within the adjoining Elephant’s Walk Shopping and Artists Village complex.
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Croxton, A (1982) Railways of Zimbabwe [Originally published in 1973 as Railways of Rhodesia]
Rhodesia Railways Magazine (July 1958) Some Reminiscences of The Early Days at the Falls. Vol.7, No.3, p.15.
Rhodesia Railways Magazine (Aug 1967) The bridge - Some reminiscences, Vol.16, No.4, p.19.
Varian, H F (1953) Some African Milestones Wheatley : George Ronald. [Reprinted, 1973. Books of Rhodesia.]
Woods, J. (1960) Guide book to the Victoria Falls, S. Manning.
Roberts P (2016) Sun, Steel and Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge. Zambezi Book Company.
Roberts P (2017) Footsteps Through Time - A history of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls. Zambezi Book Company.