Thos Begbie’s history begins with its entrepreneurial founder and master engineer, Thomas Begbie, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 19 March 1845.
Thomas Begbie received his early training in Glasgow, where his strong inclinations in the engineering field led to his apprenticeship with Messrs Denny Bros, engineers and shipbuilders of Dumbarton. On completion of his apprenticeship, he toured most of England and Scotland.
He became a mariner and, as a ship’s engineer, served a number of steamship companies and visiting most parts of the world.
After securing his engineer’s ticket, he decided to make his home in South Africa, settling in Cape Town in 1877. All reports during these early years refer to his ‘honourable bearing and exceptional ability’.
Having relinquished the sea and with strong desires to find more scope for his energy and profession, he turned his mind to marine and general shipbuilding work and later to agricultural machinery in the district of Riebeeck West. But, being filled with the desire to see more of the country, he moved first to Port Elizabeth and then to Port Alfred in 1881 where he was engaged in harbour work.
Among his recorded work was the refloating of the SS Welcombe off the rocks, about 29 km from Port Alfred, where he directed the salvage operation and also did a considerable amount of the diving work. The vessel was ultimately repaired and refloated only to be dashed further on the rocks through the non-arrival of the tug which was to tow her out to sea.
In 1884, he was appointed as locomotive superintendent to the Grahamstown and Port Alfred Railway Company. After completion of the railway and start-up of traffic, in 1887, he left for the Witwatersrand goldfields. His ambition increased with the ever-developing construction of the mines, which only the pioneers of those early days could fully appreciate.
About three years of contracting was followed by the establishment of a general engineering workshop and foundry, so needful in those days. The new undertaking was established in Commissioner street, Johannesburg, and named Begbie and Holleman-Vulcan Foundry and Engineering Works, the start of Thos Begbie. At this time, the Witwatersrand was one of the main gold producing areas in the world and to quote from Pictorial Johannesburg published in 1892, by H Longland: