John Henry, Lord de Villiers, first Baron de Villiers of Wynberg born in Paarl on 15 June 1842, died in Pretoria, 2 September 1914, judge and Cape politician, was the second son and fourth child of the nine children of Carel Christiaan de Villiers (1811-1854), a government land surveyor, and his wife, Dorothea Elisabeth Retief (died 1857).
De Villiers belonged to the fifth generation descended from Pierre de Villiers, one of the three Huguenot brothers who, coming to the Cape in 1689, established the South African branch of the De Villiers family. Born at Rosenfontein, his father’s house and small estate in Paarl, De Villiers was, in his own words, ‘in race French and not Dutch’. He was, in fact, of predominantly Huguenot descent, but there was a strong stream of Dutch blood, while a dash of German blood was added by his paternal grandmother, Susanna Maria Bernhardi.
The four De Villiers sons all chose the legal profession: the eldest was Jacob Nicolaas Pieter de Villiers (1837-1922), a magistrate at Victoria West and afterwards M.L.C. for the North-Western Province in the Cape parliament (1903-1910); the third brother was Charles Christiaan (Charlie ‘Avignon’; 1847-1937) an attorney at Cape Town, and M.L.A. for Malmesbury in 1888; while the youngest was the Orange Free State chief justice and professor of law, Melius de Villiers.
De Villiers proved able at school (from the start he was taught in the English medium) and in 1853 he went on a scholarship to the South African college, then ascending from its nadir. Thence, in 1861, he went on a scholarship to the University of Utrecht to study for the ministry, in accordance with the last wishes of his father. But, despite a strict religious upbringing, staunch membership of the N.G. Kerk and success at his examinations, he found after eighteen months that he had no true call. Proceeding to the University of Berlin, he matriculated in the faculty of law; but, six months later, he decided to continue his legal studies in Britain. It was then too late for him to enter one of the ancient universities, a deprivation he was always to regret. To qualify as quickly as possible, he read law and ate his dinners at the Inner Temple, being called to the English bar (17 November 1865) and then to the Cape bar (18 January 1866), becoming the fifth advocate practising there.
His academic legal training was meagre, but he had travelled and read widely. He mastered Dutch and German; Latin he read with ease; and he knew French and Greek. The Cape, then, was promising for anyone with his background, connections and abilities. The peerless William Porter, the attorney-general, became his mentor at the bar; and on his twenty-fifth birthday a political career opened up with his election to the legislative assembly as one of the members for Worcester.
In parliament De Villiers supported J. C. Molteno’s movement for responsible government; with Porter he drafted the bill that, as the Constitution Ordinance Amendment act, 1872, was to secure it. Then fortune smiled on him. On Porter’s refusal he assumed, at the age of thirty, the high office of attorney-general in Molteno’s cabinet. It was no sinecure. With only two clerks on his staff, he personally conducted all supreme court prosecutions, prepared the indictments for the western circuit, acted as government legal adviser, and as parliamentary draftsman framed the bills, several of which he piloted through parliament: this apart from a private practice (then permitted) of large size. His health, never robust, was beginning to suffer under the strain, when suddenly the chief justice, Sir Sidney Bell, resigned to go on pension.
To Molteno no incumbent of the bench appeared suitable as his successor. He approached De Villiers, who urged him to make the offer to Porter. But for various reasons, ill-health and others, Porter declined, whereupon Molteno, promising a salary of £2,000 instead of the established £1,500, insisted that De Villiers should take office.
De Villiers was fortified by Simeon Jacobs, then attorney-general in the eastern districts, who stated in a letter that he should exercise what, rightly or wrongly, was then regarded as the Cape attorney-general’s right of reversion to the chief justiceship. Regretful at quitting political life, but proud at gaining at the age of thirty-one the most glittering prize open to an advocate, De Villiers agreed, and became, on 9 December 1873, the first colonial-born holder of the highest judicial office since the charter of justice of 1827.
Public reaction was a mixture of approval and criticism based on his youth, alleged jobbery and alleged early milking by responsible government of its political talent. The aggrieved senior puisne judge, P. J. Denyssen (1811-1883), the story goes, refused to administer the oath of office to De Villiers, who, inwardly shaking but outwardly calm, swore himself in.
Forty years of distinguished judicial service were to follow, yet the taste of political life had been and was to remain sweet. In his twelve months’ tenure of office as attorney-general De Villiers had shown administrative talent, financial caution, and a progressive spirit in political, social and legal matters. The ‘seven circles’ reform in the method of election of the legislative council in 1874 was largely his work. These admirable qualities, however, could not make up for his lack of sparkle as a parliamentarian. Dearly though he would have loved it, prolonged political success would probably have been denied this reserved and sensitive man, with his lack of outward charm.
De Villiers was in full agreement with the abortive recommendation of the judicial commission (1874-1875), over which he presided, that the chief justice should cease to be president of the legislative council as provided for by the constitution: a judge should not participate in political argument or the legislative process. Nevertheless, and despite, at times, the trying duty of saving cabinets he did not care for, by using his vote, De Villiers enjoyed his role, which he played well.
The private life of De Villiers was tranquil. In 1871 he married a woman of beauty, ability and great character, Aletta Johanna Jordaan (died 1922), a daughter of Johannes Petrus Jordaan, a wine farmer of Worcester. She, both their sons and one of their two daughters survived him. His elder son, Charles Percy de Villiers (1871-1934), succeeded him as the second baron; and a grand-son, Arthur Percy de Villiers born 17th December 1911, who left South Africa to live in New Zealand, succeeded to the title as the third baron.
De Villiers’ intellectual interests ranged widely, as, he thought, befitted a lawyer: from history to politics, to natural history, to travel. Though not of a strong constitution, he liked the open air and physical exercise. Farming was always an interest, and, with it, the purchase of land. At his death his main holdings, in the Paarl district, amounted to 35,000 acres. From 1875 he lived in Wynberg, first in a large house, Oude Wynberg, and from 1882 in Wynberg House.
A knighthood conferred on him in 1877 was followed by the K.C.M.G. in 1882 for his work on the Transvaal royal commission. His appointment as a P.C. came in 1897 and, on his appointment as chief justice of South Africa in 1910, the first and only peerage in the country, with the title of Baron de Villiers of Wynberg. On two occasions (July to November 1912 and July to September 1914) he acted as governor-general of the Union of South Africa. The University of the Cape of Good Hope conferred on him its degree of LL.D. honoris causa in 1902. He was a member of the council of the South African college (1874-1878 and 1885-1901), resigning because of ill-health. An enthusiastic Freemason from 1866, he attained the highest dignity in the craft.
De Villiers after contracting pneumonia, died in Pretoria while acting as governor-general of the Union. His body lay in state for two days in Parliament house, Cape Town, and he was buried in the Maitland cemetery, Woltemade, on 7 September after a service in the Groote Kerk and a state funeral.
Source: An extract from the Dictionary of South African Biography (click here to view)
Images (from top to bottom):
Johan Hendrik de Villiers (taken from “Men of our Times”)
Sons of Carl Christiaan de Villiers and Dorothea Elizabeth Retief: Left John Henry, Melius, Carel Christiaan and Jacob Nicolaas Pieter. (de Villiers Family – Volume I – Malherbe/Malan)
Johannes Hendrik (John Henry) de Villiers – First Baron de Villiers of Wynberg (de Villiers Family – Volume I – Malherbe/Malan)
Aletta Maria Jordaan (Lady De Villiers) born 14/09/1849, wife of John Henry De Villiers (de Villiers Family – Volume I – Malherbe/Malan)
The De Villiers Coat of Arms (De Villiers Family Book Vol 1 + 2)
The de Villiers family coat of arms dates from the Middle Ages, possibly from the late 12th century. It is believed that a knight of the de Villiers family was awarded a coat of arms for exceptional services rendered to the French royal family during the Crusades, which took place between the 11th century and late 13th century.
The nobility of Europe emblazoned their shields with their own colourful identification marks as early as the 9th century. These marks, which varied according to the customs of the different regions, were initially confined to shields, but later it was common to decorate also the helmets with coloured identification crests of feathers, especially for jousting tournaments. (insert image)
De Villiers Coat of Arms
It would seem that by the middle of the 12th century it had become customary to combine the emblazoned shields and the feathered crests, resulting in coats of arms as we know them to-day. The use of coats of arms was no longer limited to the nobility, but gradually spread to the knights and the emerging middle classes in the flourishing cities of Western Europe. A number of countries, including France, began keeping heraldic records during the second half of the 12th century. Up to that time, it had been acceptable for a family to alter the design of its coat of arms from time to time, according to changed circumstances. When record-keeping was introduced, details of coats of arms remained unaltered unless there were compelling reasons for change.
The complete coat of arms is called an Achievement. The Achievement consists of five parts. The first is the crest on top of the helmet, which consisted of items that characterised a particular family, in this case a short sword (seax), held in a mailed fist.
The second is the coronet or wreath which holds the crest and helmet together. The third is the mantling, representing the folds of the cloak of a knight. In the de Villiers family coat of arms the fourth part, the helmet, is an “esquire helmet”, indicating knighthood. The helmet is silver in colour and closed.
The charges of the fifth part, the shield, are: (i) A red band on a silver background (upper part) and (ii) Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, sometimes referred to as the Paschal lamb, on a blue background (lower part). The lamb bears a standard. In France the shape of the heraldic shield was, from the 12th century onwards, always as depicted here.
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