Digging Through the Past: The Williamson Diamond Mine
by William Horner
Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but these precious stones are not part of Arizona’s mining heritage. However, I have a personal connection with this pure carbon crystal through my wife’s family, who lived and worked for many years in East Africa at the famous Williamson Diamond Mine. Celebrated gem discoveries there include the “Williamson Pink,” a 54.5-carat diamond cut and gifted to Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, shortly before her wedding in 1947.
The story of how Laura Horner's grandfather, Jimmy Preacher, ventured from his blue-collar roots in Scotland to the exotic African landscape of Tanganyika is an intriguing tale. The narrative begins with steam locomotives and takes a detour through India before he and his family arrived in their adopted home. The Williamson Diamond Mine's community would prove to shine as brightly as the coveted gems until political change ended this almost fairytale-like existence.
Jimmy started his childhood in a Scottish industrial town called Coatbridge, located near Glasgow. His father passed away when Jimmy was young, influencing him to leave school when he was 14-years-old to work as an apprentice on steam locomotives during World War II. His first day of work proved humorous as Jimmy didn’t own a pair of pants and showed up wearing shorts. Jimmy’s coworkers teased him goodheartedly, and he returned the next day in new attire purchased by his family.
After the war, he joined the Royal Air Force and, for two years, was stationed at RAF Mauripur, located near Karachi, Pakistan. “My father was never over 120 pounds in his life. On the flight home from Mauripur to Scotland, he was asked to sit in a canoe being transported on the plane,” Lilian Feldhauser, his daughter and Laura’s mother, chuckled. Back home, Jimmy married his wife, Jenny, in 1951. During the mid-1950s, there were many industrial jobs in Scotland, and he became a maintenance fitter with Calder Iron Works, working on industrial equipment and he excelled in his craft.
Jimmy’s experience in the industrial trades soon landed him a job far from Scotland, at the Williamson Diamond Mine in Mwadui, Tanganyika, in 1956. The country was then a colonial territory of the United Kingdom, which occupied what was formerly known as German East Africa during World War I. Dr. John Williamson, a Canadian geologist, visited the area in 1938 to improve diamond mining operations. He prospected there and two years later discovered the Mwadui kimberlite pipe, which proved to be rich in diamonds. During the mid-1950s, the extensive mine employed approximately 2,600 African workers, 110 Europeans, and 60 Asians.
When the Preachers moved there, they found a community of about 200 European families and African workers, who were fenced in from the surrounding bush country. The compound had many fringe benefits, including a post office, several pools, tennis courts, a clubhouse, and a 9-hole golf course. “The mine was located in the savannah near the equator, a heavenly place that had nearly perfect weather with a rainy season,” recalls Lilian, who was born there. “There were a few baobab trees, including one where Williamson discovered his first diamond.”
“Dr. Williamson wanted to create jobs for the locals on his mine,” says Lilian. “All employees had free housing, utilities, and healthcare. He also paid for all the children’s schooling and boarding of their choice after the age of 11. My mum, Jenny, worked at the duka, the mine’s general store. At one point, she worked as a lifeguard at one of the pools, yet all the kids could swim better than she could."
Lilian recalls that there were always a lot of activities to enjoy. "My parents loved to dance, and my father was a terrific dancer. The families would get together and have fancy dress parties. Our boarding school was in Kenya, so we flew in the Williamson plane every six weeks in a DC-3 from Mwadui to Nairobi.”
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Nov/Dec 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 6.