Kensington Chronicles #5: The Foster Gang (and left behind at Darras Centre)

The Foster Gag South Africa Johannesburg mug shot

Back in the 90s, I lived in the coolest town in Johannesburg—Kensington. I worshiped every stone and sand particle of it…because it’s where childhood resides. You know all those 80s movies where kids with mullets, caps and Dungeons & Dragons T-shirts cruise the neighbourhood on bikes wielding walkie talkies, with synth swooning in the background? Well, the Kensington Chronicles is my version—only with Monopoly, techno, the smell of African rain steaming off the hot tar and my own bare feet to get me around.

We’d popped past Darras Centre on the way home from school; my two younger brothers trundled restlessly after my mom, dragging their heels like reticent zombies en route to get bread and milk instead of a more exciting meal of man flesh (or sweets, in the boys’ case). Being older and way wiser than the heel-dragging zombies, my best friend Ashleigh (who was coning to play at my house) and I went off on our own to forage for chewing gum. The plan was to rendezvous back at the car in twenty minutes…but we couldn’t decide on the best flavour Beechies—Musk, Violet, Spearmint, Mint? Tough choice. After some serious debate, we made our purchase and upon arriving (late) at the designated spot, discovered that the car was gone. Had we gone to the wrong parking bay? No. I know my mom. No patience plus we’d ignored her instruction. She’d gone without us. Once, she’d left my brother at home (with Winicia, our mama maid) because he’d taken so long to get ready for school (he didn’t love this as much as you might expect).

There was nothing we could do but walk back to my house. Ashleigh was slightly panicked but I assured her that I knew the way and we’d be fine. No problem. Easy breezy. It’d be an adventure.

Rather than walk down Kitchener Avenue and into King Edward Street, across Roberts Avenue and into Somerset Road, I chose the steep hill on Juno Street (which would also take us across Roberts Avenue and then into Good Hope and Somerset—my house) because...the Foster Gang cave.

Tingles up my spine. I’ve always loved a bit of a drama…

The cave on Juno Ridge (part of a private residence on the hill) was the site of a shoot-out between a gang of four led by William Foster (also known as Ward R. Jackson and W. E Smith) in the early 1900s. Foster’s right-hand man was John M. Maxim (alias Maxwell); an American, ex-cowboy, ex-mechanic, described as a deadly shot. The third member of the gang was Charles Mezar, alias George Smit and nicknamed “Dutch”—after courage or nationality, who knows? Perhaps both. And then there was Peggy Foster, wife and mother. After some time in prison, Foster hatched a successful escape plan and once outside the walls rallied his gang, which carried out a spate of thefts and attacks, including robbing the Roodepoort and Bellevue Post Offices, and killing a civilian during a robbery in Boksburg.  

The crime spree came to a head in September 1914 when police Sergeant Mansfield (unarmed—as police used to be) questioned a suspicious character outside a bottle store and ended up dead. Shot. Photographs of the gang were circulated and everyone was on the lookout for Foster, Maxi and Mezar. Foster was identified and in a shootout with the police, killed another sergeant but managed to escape in a car albeit wounded. The police were now pissed and out in full force. The gang evaded road blocks but ended up driving the car into a deep rut near Kensington. With no vehicle and Foster wounded, the gang spent Tuesday night roaming the Kensington koppies (maybe even the one next to my house!), eventually hiding in the cave on Juno Street. The police found them and trapped them inside by rolling boulders across the entrance.  

Inspector Leitch negotiated with Foster, trying to persuade the gang to surrender. Foster agreed on condition that he speak to his wife and parents. A photograph in The Star shows Mrs Foster climbing out of a car clutching her baby. Mrs Foster, her baby and Foster’s parents entered the cave. After some time, Foster’s parents emerged (with the baby). Then… 

Boom.boom.boom.boom. Four shots were heard and the authorities stormed into the cave. The intrusive light of the police-wielded torch beams struck Foster and his wife who lay dead a la Bonny & Clyde, with Maxim and Mezar found closer to the cave’s entrance, also dead. A.J. Hoffman, one of the detectives on the case, in his book Op die Spoor van die Misdadiger, describes two German Mausers, automatic rapid-fire pistols, that lay near to the corpses indicating that the shooting was done by Maxim. It was also clear that Mezar was afraid to die and had tried to flee but Maxim shot him, then he shot two more shots, one of which killed Mrs Foster and her husband (not quite sure how one shot nabbed two people at once, but we’ll go with it), who breathed their last lying in each other’s arms. The last shot was when Maxim took his own life. 

The tragedy and drama of the story was enough to send my imagination spiralling. It was like a movie playing out in front of my eyes and any drive to Darras Centre involved me craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the cave, which remained as a physical omen hewed into the landscape foretelling the violence yet to carve its initials into the suburb. Time and childhood’s naivety conspired the gift of desensitisation, mitigating the true horror of what happened in that cave and prior, as well as what was to come. (The gift?) As I walked up Juno street with my friend assuring her that I could get us home, I pondered peripherally the plight of the poor Foster baby and marvelled at a tale straight out of the Wild West. It took 15 minutes to walk back to my house. Our arrival was a non-event—“hurry up next time” (mom quote). 

Ashleigh told her mom. My mom got a mouthful; probably something about leaving two young girls to walk the streets of Kensington alone.  

Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

Bibliography: Heritage Portal, Joburg East Express 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top