Founder was a pillar of early Jo'burg society
It was in the political arena that William Hosken earned his place in history
THEBE Hosken has one of the most colourful founders in the often staid insurance industry.
Its early roots go back to William Hosken, who emigrated to South Africa from Cornwall, England, in 1874.
He first tried his hand at gold digging at Pilgrim's Rest but, after meeting with little success, he moved to Natal where he established a business.
Hosken was then lured to Johannesburg after the gold strike on the Witwatersrand in 1886, travelling most of the way by ox wagon.
But instead of mining, his future lay in supplying mines with equipment. Indeed, he earned the distinction of providing the first battery to the Jubilee Gold Mine.
Hosken's involvement in Johannesburg's early economic development was wide.
In association with Harvey & Company he branched out into the dynamite, arms and ammunition business in premises on the corner of Rissik and Fox streets.
This started his lifelong interest in the dynamite industry which led, much later, to him being appointed general manager of the Modderfontein factory, later to become AECI.
At one time Hosken was also the biggest shareholder in the Argus company, now Independent Newspapers Holdings.
He was president of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce from 1896 to 1901 and president of Assocom from 1904 to 1906. He is credited as one of the founders of a higher learning institution in the Transvaal, which later became the University of the Witwatersrand, and also helped start the Johannesburg Chamber of Mines.
A noted humanitarian and a pillar of the Methodist church, Hosken owned one of the first telephones in Johannesburg (No 108).
Yet it was in the political arena, more than any other, that Hosken was to earn his place in history.
A fierce supporter of the Uitlander cause, Hosken became, in 1892, an executive member of the SA National Union, a body dedicated to obtaining reforms.
When Jameson launched his famous, but ill-considered raid in 1895, Hosken and his committee backed him fully. Hosken even allowed his company's sheds to be used to store explosives which were to have been put at the disposal of the raiding force.
Hosken, however, was arrested and jailed, fined £2 000 and banned from further political activity for a short while. But these moves did little to quell his political passion.
Indeed, following the Jameson Raid, Hosken became more deeply caught up in public affairs than ever before and, in1899, was appointed chairman of the Uitlander Council.
A clash with the Kruger government became inevitable and the Transvaal state attorney - none other than General (to be) Jan Smuts - issued a warrant for his arrest on the charge of high treason.
Robert Vivian, professor of insurance at Wits University, says Hosken avoided being imprisoned by disguising himself and being smuggled across the frontier into Natal. War soon followed and Hosken set up his quarters at the coast. After hostilities ceased he returned to Johannesburg, but his political ambitions persisted.
In 1906 he was elected to the Transvaal legislative assembly, having got in on the Progressive Party ticket for the constituency of Von Brandis.
At the time he strongly supported the idea of salaries for members of parliament and for town and city councillors. He also advocated the use of copper currency to lower the cost of living.
At one stage Hosken was widely tipped to head the delegation to the national convention that led to union in 1910.
But, says Vivian: "It is unlikely that Hosken would have succeeded in national politics because he was an outspoken critic of racism and his views were not very popular at the time."
William Hosken & Company continued to prosper as its insurance interests grew from strength to strength. But the arms and ammunition business slowed and was closed down by the new management after Hosken retired in 1920 and his son, Hubert, took over.
When Hosken died in 1925 at the age of 74, a local newspaper reported that his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Johannesburg at the time.