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Creswell, Frederic Hugh Pagelocked

  • Christopher Saunders

Creswell, Frederic Hugh Page (1866–1948), politician in South Africa and mining engineer, was born on 13 November 1866 in Gibraltar, the youngest of the thirteen children of Edmund Creswell (d. 1877), then deputy postmaster-general of Gibraltar, and his wife, Mary Fraser of Belrain, Inverness. At the age of nine he was sent to Bruce Castle, England, then to Derby School for his education, before training as a mining engineer at the Royal School of Mines. After working briefly in Venezuela as an engineer in 1888–9 he became assistant manager of a mine in Turkish Syria, but was enticed to south Africa by news of the spectacular development of the goldmines on the Witwatersrand. When he arrived in Cape Town in 1893 he joined an expedition to Rhodesia, where he surveyed a new railway line before in 1894 settling on the Witwatersrand; there he became manager of the Durban Deep mine. Before the South African War he was active in the Uitlander Reform Committee, and when war broke out he joined the Imperial light horse and served as a lieutenant, fighting in the battle of Elandslaagte, at Ladysmith, and in Transvaal. In November 1900, with Transvaal under British rule, he became general manager of the Village Main Reef mine.

Creswell's first significant involvement in politics occurred on the Chinese labour issue. Given white unemployment, he rejected the plan to import Chinese labourers, and instead advocated employing only whites, skilled and unskilled, in the goldmines. When he attempted to implement this at the Main Reef mine, he was at first allowed to experiment, but when the experiment was rejected by both miners and the company headquarters he resigned in 1903. His white labour policy, which he set out in a pamphlet, The Chinese Labour Question from within, published in London in 1905, was not practical, given that most white miners wanted to be members of a labour aristocracy and that the mine owners wanted to employ as many low-paid African labourers as possible. When in England early in 1906 he campaigned strongly for the Liberals against Chinese labour, and urged the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to grant self-rule to Transvaal.

Back on the Rand, Creswell spoke for the white mine workers against the capitalists and what he claimed was their kept press. Though twice defeated in elections for the new Transvaal parliament, standing for a pro-Botha British party, he was returned for Jeppe in September 1910 in the first Union parliament. He had joined the South African Labour Party that June, and had probably been promised that he would become leader of the parliamentary party if elected. As leader he worked closely with his friend Thomas Boydell, whose political career paralleled his own in many respects.

When the mine workers struck in 1913–14 Creswell was arrested and imprisoned for distributing pamphlets, and was released only so that he might attend the opening of parliament. His attack on Smuts for deporting nine leading strikers to Britain was published in Cape Town as The Attempt to Crush Labour: a Reply to General Smuts (1914). When war broke out he served with the Rand rifles in the German South-West Africa campaign, and then in 1916 in German East Africa, where he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the 8th South African infantry regiment and made a DSO. Despite his support for Britain he became increasingly friendly with General J. B. M. Hertzog, leader of the National Party. Both men claimed in speeches to favour total territorial separation between black and white.

Defeated in Jeppe in 1915 because of his support for the war, Creswell was elected for Troyeville in 1916. Five years later he lost that seat, but was returned for Stamford Hill, Durban, in 1922 and 1924. In July 1922 he held talks, as leader of the Labour Party, with Hertzog, which led to an agreement to form a united opposition against Smuts. This produced the formal pact between the National and Labour parties in April the following year. In 1924 the pact won the general election on a platform built around 'Civilised Labour'. Creswell was given the key portfolio of labour, as well as defence, in Hertzog's cabinet. He began to build up the new department of labour, and introduced segregationist measures, most notably the Colour Bar Act of 1926. Creswell was given strong support in his later political career by his wife, Margaret Philippa Bingham Groenewald, née Boys, whom he married on 1 December 1920. The widow of Albert Groenewald, a medical man, she was twenty years younger than Creswell but they were admirably suited to each other.

By 1928 the Labour Party had split, with a majority section believing that the party's national council should be able to dictate to Labour members of parliament. Creswell rejected this and lost the leadership of the party, but kept Hertzog's support, and was retained in the cabinet after the 1929 general election. His career as a minister ended early in 1933 when Hertzog joined Smuts, who would not have Creswell in his cabinet. Creswell was returned as member of parliament for Bellville in 1933 and remained in parliament until 1938. In 1933 he was elected vice-president of the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva, and in 1935 became its chairman.

Though not a ‘man of the people’, Creswell tried to hold the Labour Party together, but with the rise of Afrikaner nationalism there was no long-term future for a party of white labour. His key ideas—all-white labour in the mines and total territorial segregation—were impractical, and his main political significance lies in the way he helped bring the National Party to power in 1924, enabling it to implement more segregationist legislation. He was a competent minister and a man of integrity and culture, who had a wide circle of friends among English-speaking and Afrikaner whites, though he did not suffer fools gladly. Inclined to be autocratic, he was derided by critics, one of whom called him 'the pregnant sardine' (Nicholls). Creswell retired to Kuilsriver, outside Cape Town, and died there of a stroke on 25 August 1948. He was cremated at Epping, Cape Town. His widow wrote a memoir of her husband which was published in 1956.


  • M. Creswell, An epoch of the political history of South Africa in the life of Frederic Hugh Page Creswell (Cape Town, 1956)
  • F. Creswell, The Chinese labour question from within: facts, criticism and suggestions; impeachment of a disastrous policy (1905)
  • L. E. Neame, Some politicians (Cape Town, 1929)
  • W. K. Hancock, Smuts, 2: The fields of force, 1919–1950 (1968)
  • C. F. Nieuwoudt, ‘Creswell, Frederic Hugh Page’, DSAB
  • D. Ticktin, ‘The origins of the South African labour party’, PhD diss., University of Cape Town, 1973
  • D. Ticktin, ‘The war issue and the collapse of the South African labour party, 1914–15’, South African Historical Journal, 1 (Nov 1969)
  • B. J. Liebenberg and S. B. Spies, eds., South Africa in the twentieth century (Pretoria, 1993)
  • G. H. Nicholls, South Africa in my time (1961)


  • National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, Transvaal archives depot, MSS
  • CUL, Smuts MSS
  • National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, Hertzog MSS
  • National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, Union archives


  • National Film Archive, South Africa


  • two photographs, 1931–6, repro. in Creswell, An epoch
  • Quip, caricature, repro. in Neame, Some politicians, 25