Biography of James Bevan

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Typewritten biography of Bevan, written by his grandson, Gerald Halden, c1995.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Bevan (1828-1917) began his working life as an apprentice doctor in his native Lancashire. However, after a his father's disastrous involvement in a failed railway venture, 1845, he was forced to find work, with a wholesaler, then with Romney & Company, manufacturing chemists, before leaving for America. In America he started as manager of a chemical factory in Texas, then prospected for gold at Cripple Creek, Colorado. This enabled him to return to England with moderate capital.

In 1849 he sailed for Australia, inviting commissions to organise the transport and sale of goods for the Australian market and financing his own cargo. With the resulting capital he set up a sheep farming station, though a serious drought forced him to abandon it. Gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, and he set up a provision store and general store in the [mining] area, later establishing a local market and auctioneer's business and opening a theatre. He later sold his business concerns in Victoria and sailed for Perth, during which time he lent money to a fellow passenger, David Osterman, for a wine marketing venture. When the venture failed, Bevan was left with 300,000 worth of losses to recoup.

Hearing unconfirmed reports of a timber shortage in South Africa, he transported a shipload of mahogany logs to Cape Town. On his arrival, he failed to find a market for the timber and so bought an existing joinery business and converted the mahogany to household furniture. Meanwhile, Osterman arrived in South Africa to pay off the loan, and together they set up a business importing Lancashire textiles and other British goods.

In 1855, as the venture prospered, Bevan left Osterman in charge and organised a trading expedition into the interior, arriving at Bulawayo, the kraal of the Ndebele King, Mzilikazi, whom he cured of a bowel complaint and thus earned not only his favour but also his lasting friendship. On 21st November 1855 he met Livingstone's caravan; Livingstone in fact beat him to the honour of being the first white man to look upon the Victoria Falls by only 2 or 3 days. Bevan and Mzilikazi's son, Lobengula, also became blood brothers. Bevan advised the King against allowing further European penetration, and so secured for himself a virtual monopoly of trade not only among the Ndebele but also in other tribal areas between Cape Colony and Bulawayo, until the discovery of gold in the future Rhodesia in 1867. He remained Lobengula's confidante and advisor when the latter assumed power in 1870, undertook an east-west crossing of the Kalahari Desert, became involved in mining [for copper?], and established a station [location unknown] with a prominent trader named Duncan as a collecting station and warehouse for his trading business, enabling the business to grow further. However, for various mainly personal reasons, he decided to leave southern Africa at the age of 54, and so returned to England.

He had already acquired a hat factory in Denton, and this soon became known as James Bevan & Co.. Bevan and his family settled at Denton Lodge, though a 1903 fire which destroyed the factory forced them to move from their new home, as the buildings and plant had not been insured. Nevertheless, the business survived, and Bevan maintained his health until he was 85, when an accident involving an out-of-control milk float resulted in paralysis in both his legs.

He was married twice, in [c1846-1852] to Boadicea Roland (d. 1868), with whom he had 3 sons and 2 daughters, and in 1885 to Ann Daniel.

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Note

Collection level description created by Paul Davidson, Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House.

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