Celebrating the life of Sonny Wade

One of South Africa’s oldest foundrymen passed away peacefully one week before his 99th birthday.

Samuel Hubbard James Wade was born on 23rd April 1916 in Bloemfontein, Free State Province and passed away on 16th April 2015, exactly one week before he turned 99.

Sonny, as he was affectionately known as to all of us who knew him in the foundry industry, was the second oldest of three children. Longevity is certainly a good gene in the Wade family as his eldest sister Eileen is still alive at the age of 101 and lives in George in the Eastern Cape. His younger half-brother Len Ginsberg, aged 92, lives on a farm in Ladysmith in the Karoo.

It is thanks to Sonny’ daughter Gail Tonkin, who lives in Cape Town and his son, Graham, who lives in California in the US, that we are able to share some of Sonny’s life experiences.


Sonny’s initial schooling was at President Brand School in Bloemfontein. Sadly Sonny lost his father at an early age. Edwin, who was a government engineer in Bloemfontein, died at the age of 35 in 1918 when he succumbed to flu. His mother Julia then remarried Lionel Ginsberg and Sonny’s half-brother, Len, was born before the family decided to move to Cape Town when Sonny was nine years old.

Sonny attended Sea Point School from Std 2 until Std 8 (grade 10). Times were tough in South Africa and the world at large at the time as The Depression was on, and Sonny had to look for work to help support the family.

The day Sonny finished school his mom took him to see Mr Gearing, who was the General Manager of a large engineering works called Gearings Marine & General Engineering. He offered Sonny an apprenticeship as a pattern maker and he started work on the 1st January 1933. Sonny’s apprenticeship took five years, followed by an 18 month improvership course. The working hours were 46 hours a week with no tea breaks.

Gearings Marine & General Engineering is a subsequent name of one of the earliest commercial foundries recorded in the Cape Town area in 1876, when an engineering business known as Cunningham and Gearing was established. The company had premises in Ebenezer Road, which runs off Somerset Road near the V&A Waterfront complex. The company operated as general engineers and iron founders. Remains of the foundry can be seen in the building housing the Beluga restaurant, which aptly forms part of The Foundry office, hotel and retail complex.

Sonny’s apprenticeship involved him attending technikon one afternoon a week in the firm’s time, and two classes a week in the evenings, on his own time. The pay was 12 shillings and 6 pence a week.

A diligent and hard worker, Sonny excelled in his new career and after completing the first year of technikon he won the prize for achieving the highest marks in his subjects. Sonny was very proud that Mr Gearing himself presented the prize to him.

Sonny completed his apprenticeship 18 months before the Second World War broke out in 1939. All personnel employed in companies that involved ship work engineering, Gearings Marine & General Engineering being one of those companies, were conscripted as all the ships that were passing the Cape with troops and armaments on route to the Middle East, would need repair and maintenance work. This rule was implemented by the Government’s manpower department and if any individual did not join up, they would be regarded as deserters.

The going was tough as the working hours were increased to 62 hours a week, six days a week until at least 8 o’clock every evening and if the work was warranted, you often had to work right through the night.

During this wartime period one of the big repair jobs that Sonny was involved in was when two ships, the iron ore carrying Testbank and the liner Ceramic collided practically head-on at a combined speed of about 25 knots some hundreds of miles west of Walvis Bay at two o’clock one August morning in 1940. Only a miracle, according to many of those on board, prevented a ghastly tragedy and enabled the damaged ships to reach port safely without a single casualty. Over 600 lives were imperiled. The Testbank was bound from Cape Town to England with 9,000 tons of ore, and the Ceramic was bound in the opposite direction with over 300 passengers and nearly as many crew. In accordance with wartime regulations, neither ship was showing lights. Both were travelling at full speed. The cargo carrier was shortened by 20 feet, according to records, and the liner had a hole roughly 40 feet square, large enough to take a small house. Sonny and his colleagues worked tirelessly, with some of the repair work being carried out while at sea, to get both back to being seaworthy.

Another big job that Sonny was involved in was the conversion of the Carnarvon Castle into an armed merchant ship, as well as fitting the whaling ships with guns so that they could carry out coast guard work.

After the war Sonny resigned from Gearings and joined a foundry named Atlantic Foundry, a jobbing foundry, producing ferrous and non- ferrous castings. Sonny was the only patternmaker there for two years, and between himself and the one partner they ran the foundry. The other partner, Gerry Ferry, was the mayor of Cape Town and was fully occupied with civic affairs.

Sonny then decided to get a more permanent job that provided a medical aid and pension as part of the package as he wanted to get married. He applied for a position as a patternmaker on the railways and after passing a trade test, was accepted and started in 1947 at the Salt River Railway Workshops.

By this time Sonny had met his future wife Edna and after dating for five years they were married on the 26th March 1951. After a few years he was transferred to the patternshop in Pretoria. The couple’s first son Edwin was born during this period in the Gauteng province and shortly thereafter their second son, Graham was born.

Sonny was then transferred back to Cape Town as foreman of the pattern shop. In 11 years Sonny had progressed from an artisan to a foreman, quite an achievement. Their third child, a daughter, Gail, was born in Cape Town.

After 17 years as a foreman, Sonny retired in 1976. During this period Sonny had the opportunity of travelling overseas with the first ever team of foundrymen from the South African branch of the Institute of British Foundrymen (IBF), to visit the GIFA foundry exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany. The trip involved Sonny being away for two months and, besides visiting the exhibition, he also visited foundries in Germany, France and England which he felt was an invaluable learning experience.

One of the many exciting projects that Sonny was involved in during his career as a foundryman was the manufacture of the first heart valve for Professor Christian Barnard, in the pattern shop at the Salt River Railway Workshop. The valve was part of an experimental study that was being carried out by Professor Barnard, and was designed to investigate thrombus formation after total mitral valve replacement in a canine heart.

Daughter Gail is very proud of this achievement by her father and has fond memories of the occurrence. On the same day she was born, the 10th July 1959, an article was published on the front page of The Cape Argus newspaper about the heart valve made by the Railway Workshop in Cape Town.

Sonny was recognised by his peers in the foundry industry when he was presented the award for the best paper presented by a member of the Institute. The IBF award, presented to Sonny in Johannesburg, was for his paper entitled “Making a ships propeller”.

Other notable achievements made by Sonny included being involved in the manufacture of castings for the National Monuments Commission as well as for the Navy. Sonny also presented a paper on “How to cast a double helical gear wheel”, as well as a paper on “Down memory lane” to the Western Cape Institute of Foundrymen, and he would later attain life membership of the Institute. He was also secretary of the foremen’s division of S.A.L.S staff for three years, and was chairman for the last congress before he retired, for which he received life membership.

Sonny was always a regular at the WCIF annual dinner and awards evening.

Sonny and Edna were happily married for 61 years before Edna passed away two years ago. Sonny then moved to a retirement home and made many friends. He was still very active in advanced years, taking part in exercise classes, carpet bowls and still enjoyed the occasional dance.

Last August, Sonny’s son Graham organized an overseas holiday for Sonny that saw the two of them go on a cruise to Alaska. Graham recalls how his Dad never lost his love of engineering and asked to see the engine room where he asked many questions. A tour of the ship’s bridge was also a must.

The trip involved a flight over the glaciers in a two-seater seaplane, and they went on a two hour train trip up into the Yukon valley. From Seattle, where they disembarked, they flew to Vancouver, Canada and took a cable car to the top of a mountain where Sonny walked along a rope bridge. As Graham and Gail say “He was always keen to try anything and was still able to do so at 98 years of age.”

After the holiday Sonny settled down to life in California, where he loved being with his son Graham, and was happy and at peace, without pain or suffering, when passed away.

Graham and Gail unitedly said “Dad was an amazing human being and he was loved and respected by all that had the pleasure of knowing him. He will be sadly missed by all, but will live on in our hearts forever.”