William Robert Clem Foster
was born in 1886 and grew up in East Griqualand. He came from a
respectable middle-class family. His father was Irish and his mother
was a South African, who came from Grahamstown. He went to a good
school, showed above-average intelligence, and was popular with
his schoolmates and good at sport. After leaving school, he studied
mine surveying for a time, and then decided to make his living as
a photographer. As an adult, Foster proved himself to be a loving
husband, a faithful friend and a devoted father.
So, how was it that, as leader
of the Foster Gang, he became involved in the murder of five people
- including three policemen - caused the death of five more, crippled
one innocent bystander and, for three months from July to September
1914, had the dubious distinction of being Public Enemy Number 1?
Despite his apparently balanced
background, Foster was a complicated man who was volatile and headstrong
and, later on, bitterly resentful of authority. Even so, his descent
into violent crime seems to have occurred slowly and by degrees.
Foster's first brush with the
law occurred in Durban in March 1908, where, at the age of twenty-two,
he got drunk and ended up in a brawl. When the police eventually
arrived to quell the disturbance, Foster chose to resist arrest
rather than go quietly. He was overpowered, locked up for the night
in the local jail, and fined £3 at the magistrates' court
the following day.
Some months later, he was caught
travelling by train without a ticket. Again he resisted arrest,
and then compounded the offence by attempting to run away. He was
apprehended and charged. This time, the magistrate took a dim view
of his behaviour. He was fined £10 and sent to prison for
a month for ‘escaping from justice’.
After serving his sentence,
William Foster went to South West Africa (now Namibia), but before
the year was out he was in trouble again. This time he was prosecuted
for stealing donkeys. In his defence he said that he had planned
to sell them in order to obtain enough money to return to British
soil – South Africa. On 12 October 1908, he was sentenced
at De Aar to six months in prison.
In 1909, Foster returned to
Johannesburg, where he seemed to settle down for a time. He took
up surveying and photography once more, and became a keen cyclist.
However, given his now entrenched resentment of authority and his
bitter grudge against the police, it was probably inevitable that
he would run into more trouble before long.
In 1912, Foster made a trip
to England. When he returned to South Africa early in 1913, he struck
up a friendship with a colourful character named John Maxim, alias
Maxwell, a man who was to have a great influence on his life. Maxim
was an ex-rodeo star and sharpshooter. He had come to South Africa
from America with a travelling show and had decided to stay on.
The two men determined to move up in the world together.
Foster and Maxim travelled
to Cape Town, took lodgings in the city, and planned the armed robbery
of The American Swiss Watch Company, which was situated in Longmarket
Street. They were soon joined by Foster's brother, Jimmy, and a
fourth man named Jack Johnson.
At first, the gang stayed at
Claridges Hotel (since demolished) in the suburb of Gardens, but
later moved to a boarding establishment, Ebenezer House, in Hope
Street, where they believed they would be less conspicuous.
By Wednesday, 19 March 1913,
everything had been prepared. At 6.45 p.m., they set out for the
American Swiss Watch Company wearing false beards and moustaches.
The two owners of the jewellery shop, Mr. I Hirschsohn and Mr Abraham
Grusd were still at work in the shop. They had pulled down the window
blinds but had not locked the heavy security gates.
Hirschsohn and Grusd looked
up in surprise when Foster and his three accomplices walked into
the room where they were working. Foster waved a powerful handgun
at them. “Don't move or we'll shoot,” he warned.
Hirschsohn was bound, gagged
and hooded, while Grusd was forced at gunpoint to open all the safes.
Within minutes, the robbers had taken almost £5 000 worth
of watches, rings and jewellery.
“We have a watchman outside,”
Foster said as the four men were leaving. “He'll shoot anyone
who comes out of this shop in the next fifteen minutes.” Hirscholm
eventually managed to free himself. He removed the hood from his
partner's head, and then hobbled outside, still in the ankle chains
the robbers had used to fetter him, and raised the alarm. Within
minutes, the police arrived.
Detectives from the CID conducted
an intensive investigation of the area, but the thieves had left
few clues behind them.
Immediately after the robbery,
Foster packed the stolen goods in one holdall, his burglar's outfit
in another, and put both bags in a large leather trunk. Then he
called a taxi to take him to the left-luggage office at the station.
In 1913, the cost of leaving
an item in left-luggage was two pence. Foster wanted to leave the
trunk, a typewriter case, a portmanteau and an overcoat, at a total
cost of 8d. However, it wasn't until he got to the station that
he realised that he had only a gold sovereign on him. Ernest Sephton,
the left-luggage attendant, couldn't change such a large amount,
and suggested that Foster obtain change at the booking-office. Foster
became unreasonable, refusing to leave his articles at the office
without a receipt of some sort. Eventually, Sephton agreed to give
him the four tickets without payment.
“You go and get change
and then come back and pay me,” he said. Foster agreed. Minutes
later, he returned with the money he owed and complimented Sephton
on showing such trust.
This incident was Foster's
first serious mistake - he had committed the professional criminal's
cardinal sin: that of drawing attention to himself.
Lodging at Ebenezer House at
the same time as Foster and his companions was a man named Harry
Bloom. In his time, Harry had been an actor and singer, and he knew
Cape Town's relatively small entertainment community well so when
the four strangers claimed to be music-hall artists appearing at
the Tivoli or Opera House, he knew they were lying. When the group
suddenly departed on the morning after the robbery, Bloom’s
worst suspicions were confirmed, and he contacted the police. On
searching Foster's room, the police found a number of clues that
linked the men to the robbery at the American Swiss Watch Company.
They interviewed John Gailias,
the taxi-driver who had taken Foster to the station, and before
long they were talking to Ernest Sephton. When the police eventually
opened Foster's luggage, they had all the evidence they needed.
Meanwhile, the owners of the
American Swiss Watch Company offered the substantial reward of £500
for information leading to the arrest of the robbers.
The offer of reward appeared
in the Cape Times on the morning of Friday 21 March 1913.
Three days after the robbery,
on the morning of Saturday 22 March, Foster strolled up to the left-luggage
counter, handed over his tickets and was immediately arrested. He
was carrying in his pocket a set of keys that belonged to the American
Swiss Watch Company and a loaded Mauser pistol. He also had two
firearm licences in his possession, one in the name of Robert Ward
Jackson and the other in his own name. After being interviewed by
detectives from the CID, he was locked up in Roeland Street Jail.
The hunt for his accomplices continued. Not long after, Foster's
brother, Jimmy, and one of their accomplices, Jack Johnson, were
arrested in Johannesburg. Maxim escaped arrest.
While in Roeland Street Jail
awaiting trial, Foster married a dark-eyed beauty named Peggy, whom
he had known for about two years. The service was conducted in the
prison chapel under special licence. A local minister performed
the ceremony, and the chief warder and another prison official acted
The first hearing concerning
the robbery took place on 23 March, 1913. On this occasion, Foster
was alone in the dock, but at the next hearing, held on 13 April,
he was joined by his brother and Johnson. All three men were committed
The trial began on 22 May 1913,
presided over by Sir John Kotze. Robert Foster expected Jimmy to
get away with a light sentence, but he was unaware that the robbery
was not his younger brother's first offence. In fact, Jimmy had
served a three-month prison sentence just the previous year. Each
of the three men was sentenced to 12 years hard labour. Peggy Foster,
who had been at the trial every day, was barely able to gasp, “I'll
wait for you, Chummy,” before she collapsed and had to be
helped from the court.
Foster's reaction to the sentence
was one of fury. He considered it a travesty of justice that despite
the fact that he had organized and led the robbery, Jimmy was being
equally punished. From that day on, it seems, he was determined
to get back at the system that had imposed, what he perceived to
be a harsh and unfair punishment.
It is also interesting to note
that this trial led to a precedent being set under South African
low, in terms of the granting of reward money (see Who Gets the
Reward? at end).
Robert Foster, Jimmy Foster
and Jack Johnson were duly incarcerated in Pretoria Prison. Nine
months later, in February 1914, Foster escaped while working in
a prison gang. Shortly after this, he teamed up with John Maxim
and Carl Mezar, alias George Smit, a twenty-two-year-old with a
long criminal record. For the three months from July to September
1914, the Foster Gang, as the trio became known, went on an orgy
of robbery and violence the likes of which South Africa had never
On 17 July, the Foster Gang
began their campaign of terror by attempting to rob the Boksburg
North branch of the National Bank. They were in the process of breaking
into the bank when they were surprised by a clerk who slept on the
premises. Carl Mezar immediately attacked the man and a fierce struggle
ensued. The clerk managed to get away, and rushed towards the Boksburg
North Hotel on the street corner opposite, shouting for help. The
commotion drew a barman named Alex Charlson to the scene. When Charlson
tried to intervene, he was shot in the chest. He died an hour later.
In fact, the entire robbery had been a catalogue of disasters. The
robbers’ plan was to get into the bank by breaking through
the wall of the building next door, but, just as they were about
to enter the bank, the man who had hired the room they were using,
returned. Also, out on the street, an onlooker who attempted to
prevent the robbers from escaping was shot in the leg and crippled
for life. The Foster Gang escaped on a motorcycle.
A few weeks later, the gang
successfully robbed Roodepoort Post Office. This was followed by
a second post office robbery, this time at Vredendorp. Then, in
the early hours of Sunday13 September, at the Big Bottle Store on
the corner of Vilioen and Kimberley Roads in Doornfontein, there
began a sequence of events which ultimately was to lead to nine
deaths and the most intensive manhunt the South African Police had
When the robbers attempted
to rob the Big Bottle Store they triggered an electronic alarm that
alerted a night watchman who was sleeping inside the building. The
man tried to scare the burglars away by rapping on the windowpane
with a key. Then he saw a beat policeman approaching and tapped
more vigorously to attract his attention. The constable heard him,
approached to investigate. He was attacked by the three robbers
and knocked unconscious. Foster and the others then ran off, and
the night watchman rushed to the local police station.
At 4:15 the next morning in
another part of town, Sergeant Neil McCloud, who was on patrol with
Constable Swanepoel, spotted Maxim sitting on a bench opposite the
Imperial Bottle Store. On being questioned, Maxim claimed to be
waiting for a tram to go to work. The policeman searched him anyway
and, finding a loaded revolver and housebreaking tools in his pockets,
arrested him. However, just as the three men were passing the Imperial
Bottle Store, Maxim suddenly began shouting for help. A moment later
Foster emerged from the side of the building, brandishing a revolver.
“Hands up! Release that man!” he demanded.
Instead of doing what he was
told, Sergeant Mcloud ordered Constable Swanepoel to draw the gun
they had taken from Maxim. Shots rang out. Foster was hurt, but
McCloud fell to the ground mortally injured. As Swanepoel ran off
to seek assistance, the three robbers escaped by motorcycle. Minutes
later police reinforcements were on the scene. Then, in nearby Eleanor
street, the body of Sergeant Robert Mansfield was discovered. Like
McCloud, Mansfield had been shot dead. The evidence indicated that
he had been investigating a noise inside the building where the
three robbers were at work at when he was shot, probably by Mezar:
a trail of blood extended from a spot near a blown safe to where
Mansfield's body had been found in the street.
A massive manhunt was set in
motion for the three men whom The Star Newspaper dubbed 'The Motorcycle
Bandits'. It was not long before a woman living in Regents Park
contacted the police to say that she knew where the men were staying.
They had taken a small cottage on the corner of Bob Street and South
Road, she said. She had first become suspicious when she noticed
that the men avoided neighbours and seemed to come and go at odd
hours of the day and night. Then she had recognised them as the
wanted men from their pictures in the newspaper.
Three plain-clothes officers
were sent to investigate. Detective Mynott, who was in charge of
the contingent, warily approached the backyard. Sure enough over
the fence he spotted the criminals working on a motorcar. Instead
of waiting for assistance to arrive, Mynott decided to arrest the
Foster Gang himself.
Mynott dispatched Detective
Layde to the front of the house and Constable Murphy to the rear
then went and knocked on the front door. Receiving no reply, he
opened the door, walked through the house and out into the yard
at the back.
“Put your hands up!”
he ordered. Instead of being thrown into a state of panic, Foster,
Maxin and Mezar remained cool, calm and collected. Without turning
around, Foster began to try bluster his way out of the situation.
At the same time, Maxim quietly handed him a gun.
Detective Layde shouted a warning
to Mynott just as Foster turned around and fired - but too late.
As Mynott fell to the ground, fatally wounded, his pistol fired,
the bullet hitting the car. Within a matter of seconds, Foster had
grabbed his wife and child and started the car. As the vehicle roared
down the driveway, Maxim and Mezar threw themselves aboard.
Within hours of Mynott's death
every policeman in Johannesburg was looking for the Foster Gang.
Road blocks were set on every route in and out of the city, themselves
causing a couple of bizarre deaths (See Incidental Victims at end)
Eventually the car in which the gang had escaped from Regent's Park
was found abandoned on the old road that ran behind the Primrose
Cemetery, near Bezuidenhout Valley, with a bullet in the gearbox.
The police brought in tracker dogs and the search was intensified.
Meanwhile Foster (who was wounded),
Mezar and Maxim had taken refuge in a cave in Kensington hills that
Foster had known as a boy. Foster's wife and child had gone to a
safe house in Germiston.
On the afternoon of 16 September,
1914 a search party led by Sergeant Thomas Granger and Lance- Corporal
Sergeant discovered the gang's hiding place. Without reinforcements,
however they couldn't flush the men out, so they rolled rocks in
front of the cave mouth, effectively sealing it, then sent for their
superiors and mounted a guard.
Within hours a heavy cordon
of police, and hundreds of sightseers surrounded the cave. The police
first attempted to drive the robbers out into the open by lowering
tear gas canisters on ropes to the entrance of the cave, but the
wind blew the gas towards the onlookers, forcing police to give
up the venture. As night fell, floodlights were brought in. The
next morning the police were in the process of removing some of
the boulders from the cave entrance when a shot rang out: Mezar
had committed suicide.
About an hour after this, Foster
came to the cave entrance. “I want to see Peggy,” he
said. “Where is she?” asked Detective Martin, the man
in charge of the operation. Foster gave them the address in Germiston
where his wife was in hiding. At about two o'clock in the afternoon,
she was brought to the cave entrance. (See picture at head of this
“I only want to have a
chat with her,” Foster said. “After that we'll send
our guns out and surrender.” For a while the police debated
the wisdom of allowing Mrs Foster to join her husband. It was obvious
that none of the robbers could escape and it seemed a small concession
to make, particularly if it meant that the deadlock could be resolved
without further bloodshed.
Half an hour after Peggy Foster
had entered the cave, Foster spoke to the police once more. He wanted
to say farewell to his mother and father and two sisters, who were
also waiting nearby.
In the gloom of the cave entrance
Foster, who, according to his father, was ‘garnered up’,
introduced Maxim to his family. “This is the man who has stuck
to me right through,” he told them. “Judge Kotze is
to blame for all of this,” he said. “And 1 didn't want
to kill Mynott either. He fired at me first and I had to defend
myself. What could we do?” he asked. “It was them or
us.” He then announced that Maxim and he had decided to commit
suicide in order to avoid being hanged.
“I'm going to stay with
you, Chummy,” Peggy Foster said. Foster didn't argue. He bounced
his five-month-old baby daughter on his knee for a few moments then,
handing her over to his sister, said, “The rest of you had
better be going now.” A suicide pact had been formed.
A few minutes after Foster's
family had left the cave, three shots rang out. Maxim had acted
as executioner, shooting first his two companions and then himself.
In the cave, the police discovered a box of stamps linking the gang
to post office robberies at Roodepoort and Bellevue.
The saga of the Foster Gang
had finally ended - or so it seemed. Yet, there is one last twist
to this unusual tale.
The police inspector who had
permitted Peggy Foster to join her husband in the cave subsequently
became so overwrought at what he perceived to have been a serious
error of judgement on his part that he too committed suicide. He
was the Foster Gang's eleventh victim.
AN INTRIGUING POSTSCRIPT
In June 1937, a man named
Andries du Plessis was arrested at Strubenvale by Detective Michiel
Ackermann and charged with murder, He was accompanied by a woman
who would later claim to be the daughter of Robert and Peggy Foster.
At his trial, Du Plessis
maintained that the woman was innocent of any involvement, and
she was allowed to go free, When, after Du Plessis's conviction,
the woman went to Defective Ackermann to collect some of her lover's
belongings, she made a number of startling revelations.
She maintained that she
had been married to a policeman and had lived in the Eastern Cape
- until she had met a miner with whom she had moved to Durban.
She had subsequently left this man to go to the Rand, where she
had met and fallen for Du Plessis. She had been attracted by his
impulsive, reckless nature, she said. After Du Plessis had left
his wife for her, she claimed, they carried out a number of robberies
together. At first, the woman said, she simply acted as lookout,
but later she become more involved. Du Plessis had murdered seven
people (not five as the police suspected) she had merely searched
their pockets and belongings.
However, she confessed
that she had shot and killed the eighth victim herself.
Defective Ackermann could
find no evidence to link the woman to the killings, and had to
release her. She disappeared and was never heard of again. From
the information the woman had supplied, he was certain of one
thing, though, and that was that she was the daughter of Robert
and Peggy Foster.
If she was, we can only
theorize as to what caused her to follow in the footsteps of her
notorious father, Robert Foster. But only she really knows if
she is still alive...
Who Gets the Reward?
Following the successful prosecution
of the three robbers, Henry Bloom, John Gallias and Ernest Sephton
came forward and claimed £500 reward that The American Swiss
Watch Company had offered. Harry Bloom, who had summoned the police
to the Ebenezer House straight after the robbery, had the strongest
claim. However it transpired that he had contacted the police before
the reward had been offered. (Bloom contacted the police the morning
after the robbery that is Thursday, 20 March.)
The offer of reward only appeared
in the Cape Times on the following morning, Friday 21, March. In
1915, the Supreme Court advised the company that they were under
no obligation to pay the reward to anyone, thereby establishing
the principle that no one can claim a reward from another unless
a definite contract exists between them.
The publication in a newspaper
or the announcement on TV of a reward offer, which is common practice
these days constitutes such a contract. However it remains true
that anyone who aids the authorities in bringing a criminal to justice
is not eligible for a reward if the information is provided prior
to an offer of a reward being made.
On the East Rand, a Dr Gerald
Grace, who was rushing to answer an urgent call failed to stop at
a roadblock and the police, thinking he was a member of the Foster
Gang, fired into the car killing him outright and wounding his wife.
On the other side of The Reef, General Jacobus Hercules de la Rey,
who, it would later emerge was on his way to Potchefstroom to start
a rebellion amongst the troops there, was shot dead when he ordered
his chauffeur to drive through a roadblock. He was also mistaken
for a member of the Foster Gang.