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John Dallas

Soldier, Prison Warder & Town Councillor

Keith Tankard
Updated: 24 October 2009
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DEATH NOTICE: see the Cape Archives, MOOC 6/9/254, No 495.
OBITUARY: see The East London Dispatch, 10.3.1888.

John Dallas was born in Dunfirmline, Scotland, in 1806. He became a military man, serving for 21 years in the Imperial Army. It was in that capacity that he was sent to the Cape Colony in 1841, presumably as part of the military force to maintain peace on the colonial frontier. He fought in the War of the Axe (1846-1847) and was then stationed in Natal.

One did not as a rule remain in the military forever. Because of the rugged nature of the work, the accepted retirement age was usually in the early 40s. Because of this, John Dallas took his retirement in 1849 — at 43 years of age — and thereupon joined the convict service, first as a storekeeper and postmaster, but rising to Superintendent of Convicts where he served for nearly thirty years in various parts of the Colony. When he retired in 1877, he settled at East London to live near his son, James.

At that time, the centre of East London was still on the West Bank. Indeed, only during the 1890s would the east bank village of Panmure outstrip its older sister because of situating the railway station at Panmure so as not to construct an expensive bridge over the Buffalo River to the West Bank.

The West Bank was nevertheless still a small village and drew its water supply from some springs about a mile further west, at a seepage point that was known as Baker's Wells. The water was of good quality, although the distance needed to transport it made many East Londoners choose rather to dig wells in their own back yards.

It was the question of the water supply, however, which galvanised John Dallas to become involved in the Town Council. The municipality had taken the dubious decision to move the town cemetery from its place above the shoreline near St Peter's Anglican Church to a new location right above the seepage area for Baker's Wells.

The fear, of course, was that the decaying bodies would seep their liquid into the drinking water and cause some dreadful catastrophe because the distance between the cemetery and the springs was thought to be not great enough to purify the water.

Because of this, John Dallas decided to become a member of the Municipal Council in April 1878 at the goodly age of 72, driven by a crusade to have the new cemetery closed, the bodies exhumed and a new site chosen. In this he failed but, when it was eventually resolved to create a new reservoir above the West Bank township to provide an alternative water supply, he saw his purpose in the Council as completed and he resigned his seat in June 1880.

His victory was actually not a lasting one, however, because the new reservoir was just not big enough to supply the town. During the protracted drought of the 1890s, therefore, the Town Council went back to the original water source and constructed a series of three reservoirs above the old Baker's Wells, situated so that the water could be piped into the town using the natural flow of gravity. Seven spring- loaded taps were placed in the streets.

Since the new reservoirs were again situated directly below the cemetery, Dallas's cause had ultimately been a lost one. By then, of course, it no longer mattered to him. He had died on 1 March 1888 at the age of 82 and was buried at East London.

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