The Adventures of Bill Tooley

‘The Adventures of Bill Tooley’ is perhaps best described as picaresque or baroque in tone. Hilton-Barber’s fertile historical imagination has crafted a fascinating exploration of the relations between history and biographical fiction, story-telling, and fact. The sub-title, A Novel Way of Looking at History is likely to arouse a reader’s curiosity. Who is Bill Tooley? What’s a ‘novel’ way of looking at history? It doesn’t sound like an historical novel, so what is it? There’s nothing quite like this in local historico-literary works, with the possible exception of the late Shaun Johnson’s Native Commissioner.

Tooley’s adventures and his times are captured as a succession of varying snapshots, a series of short article-length snapshots. The author is an accomplished writer who demonstrates his skill at producing prose, which is consistently clear and fluent, making this manuscript an engaging read.

Bill Nasson

Emeritus Professor in History, Stellenbosch University.



I believe my claim – a novel way of looking at history – has been realised – but this is for my readers to judge. This is not a new approach and has been achieved with considerable success by authors whose works I could never aspire to emulate, such as The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson, a compelling fictional account of the last gasp of the colonial era and the birth of apartheid, based on his father’s papers.

Bill Tooley was my father-in-law and the account of his ancestry and historical background is indeed correct. He did emigrate to South Africa in 1898 and served as a scout for the British forces during the Matabele Rebellion. It is also true that he was recruited into Milner’s South African Constabulary and was posted to what was then the Northern Transvaal. He bought his discharge from the police force and purchased the farms mentioned in the narrative. His success in farming, his marriage to Muriel Hesketh-Jones, and the family they raised is true to life, as is his second marriage. Tana, the only daughter from this union, was my wife for 56 years.

However, his experience as a member of the Pioneer Column to Mashonaland as a land surveyor in the Transvaal is fictional. I have drawn much of this from the writings of Ingvar Schroder-Nielsen, Among the Boers in Peace and War, edited by Ione Rudner and Bill Nasson, Africana Publishers 1912. He was

a Norwegian land surveyor who worked in the Transvaal prior to the Anglo-Boer War and subsequently joined the Boers forces.

The latter days of Bill Tooley’s life are also fictional but based on actuality.

I have interspersed chapters from my own historical research to give context to the narrative. To help the reader distinguish between the two, the historical material is in bold type and the source of this material is provided.