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Designer and Engineer ~ Thomas Bain

Ailsa Tudhope


The engineer who designed the pass and supervised its construction was Thomas Charles John Bain, the second son of the great road engineer Andrew Geddes Bain and his wife Johanna. Born in 1830 in Graaff-Reinet, Thomas was apprenticed to his father at eighteen and passed the rigorous examinations to become an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers. 

We remember Thomas Bain as the builder of twenty-three mountain passes, all completed in the days before modern equipment. He is rightly credited with opening up South Africa for trade and travellers - but there was much more to this amazing man.

His drawings, plans and maps (mostly lodged at the University of Cape Town) show evidence of his artistic skills. When Prince Alfred came to the Cape Colony in 1867 and visited the Pass which was to bear his name, Thomas drew him a map of the Knysna forests, which the Prince took home to show his mother Queen Victoria. He also took her a wooden walking stick surmounted by a skilful carving of a Khoi head, made by Thomas. 

Thomas had an intense interest in and profound knowledge of geology and wrote reports on the goldfields discovered at Prince Albert and Knysna.  With his father's encouragement and through his friendship with Dr Atherstone of Grahamstown, he developed an interest in the fossil heritage of the Karoo. The pair of them accompanied the famous palaeontologist Professor Seeley of London on a trip through the Karoo and during the expedition they discovered the fossil of a great reptile now known as Bradysaurus bainii.

An enthusiastic botanist, Thomas made a study of indigenous flora and  discovered four new strapalia's (small succulents). He kept detailed records of his discoveries. He also painstakingly recorded the prehistoric rock art he discovered in nine of the passes on which he worked. 

For most of his working life Thomas was a road magistrate with virtually the same powers as a permanent magistrate and he was later appointed as a Justice of the Peace.  While he was described as a gentle, humble person he had the presence and strength of character to manage large numbers of men on massive engineering projects. Qualified as a Civil Engineer he also worked as an irrigation engineer and for a brief period, as a railway engineer.

Thomas was a family man, he and Johanna de Schmidt, whom he married in the Groote Kerk in Cape Town in 1854, had thirteen children and enjoyed a happy domestic life. Johanna and the children would accompany Thomas and live on-site whenever they could. Their years in the little village of De Vlugt, which Thomas established in the Prince Alfred Pass, were particularly contented, although they also suffered their greatest sadness there when one of their daughters, Alice, died after an accident. 

Johanna educated the children and ran their home. She taught all the children to ride. She and Thomas would regularly take the family on picnics and rambles where they encouraged the children to learn as much as they could about their surroundings and the wonders of nature. Thomas gave each child a nanny-goat and taught them how to milk them and they all learnt to play chess and draughts, to draw and paint and make music together, he enjoyed singing and played the violin.  

The family was Anglican and you can be sure that on visits to Prince Albert, while building the Swartberg Pass, Thomas went to the little Mission School Hall to attend Morning Prayer. We know that Magistrate Rainier took services there when the Rev William Collins was absent and the marriage register shows that weddings between policemen from the Zwartberg Convict Station and young ladies from the Prince Albert community were held there. The building still stands in the grounds of St John the Baptist Church in Bank Street.



Helena Marincowitz, Swartberg Pass – Masterpiece of a brilliant Road Engineer, 1998. Available from the Fransie Pienaar Museum, Prince Albert.

Patricia Storrar, A Colossus of Roads, 1984, pub. Murray and Roberts/Concor, Cape Town.