Weston began the construction of his own aeroplane in 1907 at Brandfort in the Free State. This was the first South African-built aeroplane. He lacked an engine with enough power so he dismantled the aircraft and shipped it to France. In France he fitted a Gnome rotary engine (50hp) and flew it successfully in 1910. On 16 June 1911 John made the first flight in Kimberley establishing a South African non-stop flight record of eight-and-a-half minutes in his Weston-Farman biplane.
At the outbreak of World War I Weston was appointed ground officer in charge of landing strips in South West Africa. He prepared an airfield with hangars and workshops at Walvis Bay.
For services rendered to the Greek Ministry of Marine he was made an Honorary Vice-Admiral in the Royal Hellenic Navy. Thus he was often glorified by the title of Admiral. Isn’t that delicious? The land-locked Free State had an Admiral! He appeared to relish the joke and later named his farm “Admiralty Estate”!
In 1918, John Weston took his family on an amazing adventure in this motorhome, a converted Commer truck. From about 1920 for twelve years, he and his family traveled the world.
The ‘Weston Caravan’, as it was called, was an extraordinary example of his tenacity and ingenuity. It doesn’t look like much from the outside and if the truth be told, the interior is enough to give anyone claustrophobia, yet this neat and compact arrangement of luggage and folding bed served them well. It could be removed from the chassis proper in a mere 10 minutes.
Remarkably, this ingenious ‘seven-by-fourteen-foot mansion’ ferried the pioneering Weston family on the kinds of far-flung adventures many of us can only dream about.
The purpose of Weston’s project was not simply to satisfy his lust for travel but was also an expression of his idealism. “To travel from land to land, to mix with the people of all nations…, to speak to them and hear their views, to study their institutions and their customs, that is his aim”. It was also a bold experiment in the education of his children: he wanted them to see the world, to be freed from the narrowness and prejudices of those who grow up among never-changing surroundings, who know nothing of life beyond the pale of their dorp or city, the beauties and the grandeur of the earth, or of the nations and races who people it, and adorn (or mar) it with their works. He is preparing them to be citizens of Planet Earth”
Their journeys included a fifteen month Trans-African trip from Cape Town to London, an odyssey fraught with challenges and tribulations. They had run-ins with elephants, occasionally had to float their vehicle across rivers on logs, and on occasions ‘entire villages of more than a hundred natives’ had to dig them out of mud and thick sand and pull them up river banks. Weston said “It can be stated without reservation that the indigenous people encountered on the African continent were all friendly and helpful“. There were no fuel stations dotted along the route and no easy access to fuel, water or spares shops. Even the girls became handy mechanics. In the Southern Sudan they suffered misfortune when the rains broke later than usual. Weston broke a bone in his foot and the two daughters were also laid up with injuries.
On their trips Weston used to fly the South African blue ensign from a long bamboo pole on “Suid-Afrika” as he called the truck. On the side was painted a disc with the inscription ROUND THE WORLD circling the following inscription:
Our mansion: seven by fourteen feet
Our field: the whole world
Our family: mankind
Today it can be found in the museum of the picturesque little town of Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal.
On his return to South Africa in 1933, Weston bought a farm near the present Sterkfontein dam in the Harrismith district and called it “Admiralty Estate”. One Friday night 21 July 1950 Weston and his wife were in the dining-room when they were attacked by three masked men. Mrs Weston regained conscious three days later in the Harrismith hospital, but John went on his last mission at the age of 78 on 24 July. It was his wish that his funeral should be quiet and simple. His body was cremated and no last word spoken. Lily recovered from the attack although certain permanent injuries persisted. She passed away on 14th April 1967 at the age of 91.
Read a fuller story of this amazing man’s astonishing life here.