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John Orr

Birthplace: Benburb, Tyrone, Ireland
Death: June 30, 1932 (74)
Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, Ireland (while on holiday)
Place of Burial: Northern Cape, South Africa
Immediate Family:

Son of Dickson Orr and Letitia Dickson
Husband of Mary Ellen Orr
Father of Gladys Eileen Cooper; Alfred Norman Orr; Robert Harold Orr; John Wilford Orr and Constance Maureen Williams
Brother of William James Orr; Dixon Alexander Orr; Sarah Jane Orr; Ruth Morrison; Mary Elizabeth Rainey and 3 others

Managed by: Charlene Newport
Last Updated:

About John Orr

John Orr, department store pioneer, was second of the nine children of Dickson and Letitia Orr. His father was a farmer.

After working for several leading drapers in Ulster, John emigrated to South Africa in 1883, obtaining employment in Cape Town with the retail store founded by John Garlick. After that, for two years (1885-86) John ran his own shop at Stellenbosch, before moving to Kimberley (October 1886) where he opened a small store in Jones Street.

In 1891 John was joined by his brother Joseph (1872-1953), both brothers doing guard duty in Kimberley during the siege (14.10.1899-28.2.1900). Soon after the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) they set up new branches in Durban (West Street, 1903) and Johannesburg (Pritchard Street, 1906), although John remained in Kimberley to develop the fast-expanding business. There he started (1908) a 'spot cash' drapery in Dutoitspan Road to cater for the lower income wage earners; and further branches were opened in Benoni (1908), Pretoria (1918), and Lourenço Marques (1919). In 1920 the firm became a public company enabling John to consolidate what had by then evolved into a major retail enterprise, with its head office in Kimberley. During the twenties the Johannesburg and Durban premises were greatly enlarged, and new shops were opened in Springs (1923) and Pietermaritzburg (1930). In 1930 the Kimberley store was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt by John.

He took a keen interest in the civic affairs of Kimberley, and was elected to the city council in 1905, retaining his seat until 1931; he served as mayor during 1910-11, presiding over the local celebrations inaugurating Union, and again during 1916-18. In addition he held office for several terms as president of the Kimberley Chamber of Commerce. He was also a keen gardener and founder of the Griqualand West Horticultural Society.

In 1893 John married Mary Ellen Harper, of Staffordshire, England; they had five children - three sons and two daughters. The second son, Robert Harold, joined the management of the firm's Durban branch in 1924.


Source: Dictionary of South African Biography Volume IV

A number of Irishmen, mostly from the north of Ireland, made good in business. The most notable were the brothers John and Joseph Orr from Benburb in County Tyrone. John Orr came to South Africa in 1883. He was eventually joined by his brother in 1891. Together they built up a famous retail chain of stores which remained a household name in South Africa right through to the late 1980s. Having opened a shop in Cape Town, John Orr moved to the bustling town of Kimberley and, in October 1886, opened the doors of John Orr & Co. The empire steadily expanded. In 1951, it became a public company, by which time it was employing 2,500 people and conducting some 20,000 transactions a day. John Orr became mayor of Kimberley in 1910 and was again mayor between 1916 and 1919. John Orr died in 1932 and Joseph in 1953.


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John Orr's Timeline

January 7, 1858
Tyrone, Ireland
September 22, 1894
Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa
June 15, 1896
Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa
Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa
Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa
May 5, 1907
Kimberley, Diamandveld, Northern Cape, South Africa
June 30, 1932
Age 74
Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, Ireland (while on holiday)
Northern Cape, South Africa