Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Sun, Steel & Spray

A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The following extended feature is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.

The ‘Flying Fox’

One name makes a very brief, but incident packed, appearance in the history of the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge. It is that of Mr Charles Beresford Fox, an Englishman and assistant engineer on the project, who travelled out to Africa in late 1903 full of enthusiasm and adventure, and returned early in 1904 with a bruised ego and broken bones. In that brief time, however, he can claim to be the first man to cross the gorge; the first man to descend into the gorge from the southern bank – and, subsequently, the first man to be rescued from the gorge; all of this making him an early pioneer of adventure activities at the Falls! This is his story.

The main task that Charles Beresford Fox was involved with on his arrival at the Victoria Falls was to establish a temporary cable system across the gorge in order to transport men and light materials in preparation for the building of the bridge. A heavier system would in time follow, allowing for the transport of the bridge and rail materials. But for now, a quick method of traversing the gorge was needed in order to avoid a lengthy diversion upstream and around the Falls.

The first connection across the gorge was made in October 1903 by firing a rocket across the gorge carrying with it a long string line. Before this, attempts had been made to fly the string across the gap by means of a kite, but this ingenious effort was foiled by the eddies and currents of air from the Falls which took the kite in every direction but the right one.

On the third attempt the rocket dropped in position and by means of the line a rope was pulled across, and then a steel cable. This was passed over a pulley firmly bedded in the rock on the very edge of the cliff. The tactics were then reversed, and when the free end of the pulley rope was dragged back to the south bank, it was pulled tight and taken twice round the barrel of a windlass and securely attached.

Victoria Falls Bridge Construction - Bosun's Chair   Victoria Falls Bridge Construction - The Blondin

Passengers were taken over one at a time on a ‘bosun’s chair’ suspended from small pulleys running on the cable which was worked by a hand winch. More for reassurance than safety a canvas bag was attached into which the passenger climbed and which was strapped round the legs and across the chest. Mr Charles Beresford Fox was responsible for setting up the cable system and made the first passage across the chasm, and can so claim to be the first person to cross the gorge by cable, and so becoming the original ‘flying fox’! In a letter to his father Sir Francis Fox in 1903 he wrote:

"As they tied me into the bosun’s chair I must admit to feeling a bit strange in relying absolutely on my own calculations for my safety. The chair is a piece of wood suspended by four ropes, with a canvas back and a sack and board as a foot-rest. Of course one is so tied in that were you to lose consciousness you could not fall out; this precaution, for some people is advisable."

The position of this was a few yards downstream from the bridge site, and this simple cable system successfully transported small loads, tools and even people throughout the building of the bridge.

The Fall and Rise of Mr Beresford-Fox

Together with his claim as being the first to cross the gorge by cable, Mr Beresford-Fox was soon to have another tale to add to his African adventures - one from which he was lucky to escape with his life and resulted in his premature return home. There are several different accounts of this story, each with its own errors and variations. Mr Beresford-Fox appears to have been quite an adventure seeker, Mackintosh recording that when they met he was planning to lower a canoe and men down into the gorge in order to ride the rapids (Mackintosh, 1922).

Percy Clark and Beresford-Fox shared a passion for photography (as well as fishing), and together the two men decided on an adventure into the gorge.

“I got into the way of stopping with Fox at his camp, and in his spare time we wandered about a good deal together, exploring and taking photographs. One day we determined to descend to the bottom of the gorge. It was a descent that had not been done from the southern side by anyone previously... We started from the point where the work on the foundations had begun, using the ladders that went down to the base of the working.

“From here we clambered along the face of the gorge wall, looking for some place that might afford a relatively easy descent the rest of the way. The way, however, that we finally did choose was not to be easy. It was, indeed, perilous going, with thick and thorny undergrowth, but eventually we got down to within twenty feet or so of the bottom. Thereafter came a sheer drop, which we successfully negotiated by tying the rope we had with us to a tree and sliding down. So far, so good. We were actually the first to get to the bottom of this wonderful gorge from the southern bank.”

This, however, was only the beginning of their adventures. Proceeding up around into the Boiling Pot they reached a point with only the narrowest of ledges to walk along. Beresford-Fox went ahead alone and Clark slowly retraced their steps, expecting his companion to catch up with him on his return.

“I did not think it wise to remain in the gorge after sun-down, and after a while I thought it time to return. Now, the men working on the opposite side of the gorge had a habit of doing all their blasting at the end of their day’s operations. It was plain that they had not seen me on the gorge bottom, for as I clambered back to where we had left the rope a whole lot of charges went off with a terrific uproar, throwing tremendous rocks in all directions about the gorge. One huge piece that looked to me to be as big as a hut came sailing over as if to land on my head. I threw up my arm to ward it off. It landed, however, about fifty yards from me with a terrific crash. My relief was immense, for I had thought my last day was come. There was no sign of Fox. I shinned up the rope and began to climb to the top. Half-way up I sat down for a rest, when it occurred to me that Fox could not have returned or I should have seen him; it was clear that I must go back and look for him. So once again I descended.”

Returning to the bottom of the gorge Clark records ‘a workman on the other side of the gorge making urgent signals to me’ and directing him back to where the two adventurers had separated. This time Clark proceeded further ahead, negotiating the dangerous ledge, but only to find his way blocked again by a 50 metre wall of rock which he could not climb.

“It was becoming dusk, and I though there was nothing for it bit to go back by the way I had come and get help from the workmen’s camp. I again safely negotiated the ledge and reached the hanging rope. There was no great length of rope to climb, but I failed in several attempts to get over the top of the rock. I was too exhausted. Willy-nilly I must spend the night in the gorge. I tied myself on to a ledge and settled down. My bed was a wet one, for water condensed from the spray fell on me in rivulets.

“As I lay there I kept wishing that I had some whisky to go with the spray. Dawn broke at last, and once again I essayed to climb the rope. This time I managed it, and clambered to the top of the gorge. There I found Flossie [his loyal dog] waiting for me. My little pal had not moved from the spot where I had left her the previous afternoon.” (Clark, 1936)

As Clark was clambering out of the gorge the following morning he was still unaware of the fate of Beresford-Fox. Clark places his story in early 1904, and Hobson (1907) supports this stating it occurred in April 1904.

Mr John F Sharp was part of a small crowd of men at the Old Drift to who word soon reached in the early evening that Beresford-Fox had been seen falling whilst climbing in gorge, and part of the rescue team sent to the scene.

“Sergeant Major Sykes of the police took charge and we started to rig a derrick to swing out over the gorge to lower someone down to Sir Beresford who had been caught on a ledge over 100 feet down. At the first attempt it was found that the wire rope was too short. A little Cornish blacksmith, Jack Whitten [Whitton according to Davison] by name, who had volunteered to go down in a bosun’s chair had to come back and we had to splice another fifty feet on to the rope so that Whitten could reach the body. I helped with the splicing, which was done in the early hours of the morning of the 8th.”

The delay had done nothing for Whitten’s nerves, eventually only agreeing to go down a second time after a ‘good drink of whiskey.’ Suitably emboldened Whitten was again lowered into the gorge and this time successfully reached Beresford-Fox. At about 3.30 in the morning, after a rescue operation of over six hours, Mr Beresford-Fox was pulled out of the gorge “very much broken but still alive.”

“As far as I remember his right thigh and arm and one of his collar bones were broken and he had a lot of head injuries. It was thought most of them were caused by his fighting to get out of the cactus he had lodged in when he fell.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1954)

Sharpe details the date of the accident as 7th October, and the rescue the 8th. Meanwhile Percy Clark was still missing, having also spent the night in the gorge.

“I staggered the half mile or so to the men’s camp and found them at breakfast. ‘Where’s Fox?’ I asked. “We’ve got him,” they said. ‘where’s the whiskey?’ was my next question, and they gave me a stiff tot. I will say that I needed it... I asked what had happened. Fox had got to the top of the mound which I failed to climb, but had been unable to get down again. Nor could he climb up from it. His shouts had been heard by the workmen before they knocked off work for the day, and they had gone along and lowered a rope to him. Instead of tying himself to it and letting them haul him up, he had started to climb it hand over hand. Towards the top the rope was slippery with mud from the spray and damp earth; his hands slipped and he fell about a hundred feet, but had a miraculous escape from death. Fortunately he landed on the branch of a tree, and toppled from that on to a ledge of rock. No bones were broken, but he had an awful shock, from which I believe he never fully recovered... In the meantime I had been reported dead and missing, and somebody had already departed south to Bulawayo with the news.” (Clark, 1936)

Mr Beresford-Fox certainly sustained severe injuries and no doubt some fractures and was eventually invalided back to England. He later described a lighter side to his six hour ordeal in a letter to his father:

“I had often wished to experience a long swing - suggested by the movement of candelabra suspended from the roof of a cathedral: and I attained my desire - a pendulum 110 ft (33 m) long with an oscillation of 40 ft (12 m) from side to side, with a period of about 10 seconds; moreover I enjoyed it.” (Fox, 1904)

Sir Francis Fox, father of the adventurous Beresford-Fox, recalled in his memoirs:

“Beresford was seriously injured in arms, legs, and back, but his life was saved, and in a letter to me he said he attributed his escape to the direct intervention of God, as nothing else could have saved him.”

Some sixteen years later, Sir Francis managed to track down Mr Whitten to thank him personally for saving his son’s life.

“At last I was enabled to write to Mr. Whitten, and thank him for saving my son’s life; to which he replied, April 4, 1920: ‘As to what I did at the Falls for your son, it is, or was, only what any Englishman would have done under the circumstances, and I thank you for your kind reminder.’ (Fox, 1924)

Mr Whitten received an inscribed gold travel clock for his bravery, which he treasured until his death in 1947. Arthur Davison, one of the Cleveland Bridge company engineers, was also present at the rescue and recalls:

“We took it for granted that he had been killed and Jack Whitton, the blacksmith, volunteered to go down on a rope with a sack to bring up the bits. But [Beresford-Fox] had been caught on a tree part way down and had nothing worse than a broken ankle and a great fright. So Jack Whitton was hauled up and he went down again with more ropes to bring up Fox. Jack was presented with a beautifully engraved gold travelling clock, and when he died in the Old Men’s Home at Ndola... this clock was the only possession he had. He died in 1947, a pauper, like so many grand old men of the Territory, but he never tried to raise money on the clock which is now with his sister in the United Kingdom.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1952)

Beresford-Fox’s replacement, Mr H F Varian, reported for duty in August 1904. Charles Beresford-Fox died in Toronto, Canada in 1912 following complications after an operation, aged 37.

Victoria Falls Bridge Construction   Victoria Falls Bridge Construction

- Read more on the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge in our feature Focus on the Blondin - an extended text and photographic piece looking at the mechanical transporter used in the construction of the Bridge.

- Go back to the Bridge feature section index.

A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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