W. Ellerton Fry, photographer and gold mining pioneer, came to the Cape Colony from England early in 1872. After a short period as a diamond digger, farmer and trader, he started the Ellerton Gold Mine in the Transvaal Lowveld (Mpumalanga), which proved to be rich but inconsistent. According to Bensusan (1966) he joined the staff of the Royal Observatory in Cape Town late in 1872 as secretary and human computer, later took photographs under the guidance of David Gill*, and resigned in 1890. However, he is not included in Gill's (1913) list of staff members of the observatory, though his connection with the institution is mentioned also by Mendelssohn (1910). In 1878 he succeeded W. Greathead* as paid secretary of the Cape of Good Hope Meteorological Commission, with the responsibility of processing the meteorological data and inspecting the rapidly expanding network of meteorological stations. While holding this position he had his headquarters at the Royal Observatory (General directory and guide-book to the Cape of Good Hope..., 1886, p. 185). He undertook his first tour of inspection in 1880 and repeated it annually, checking the instruments and providing guidance to the observers. He appears to have been an able and energetic worker and his zeal led to a marked improvement in the quality of the observations.
In 1891 Fry was succeeded as secretary of the Meteorological Commission by D. May*. However, he must have left his position earlier, as he accompanied the Pioneer Column in June 1890 on its march from Mafikeng into Mashonaland. With the rank of lieutenant in the British South Africa Company's Expeditionary Force his role was that of photographer and assistant to their guide, F.C. Selous*. They arrived at the place where Harare now stands in September 1890. Fry made an outstanding photographic record of the journey and 155 of his photos were published as Occupation of Mashonaland: views by W. Ellerton Fry (London, 1891, now exceptionally rare). He also wrote "The march of the British into Mashonaland", which was published in a book by R.W. Murray, South Africa from Arab domination to British rule (1891). He took some early photos of the Victoria Falls and in 1893 donated two insects from there to the South African Museum.
In 1901, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Fry was in Bloemfontein and applied for an appointment in the British administration of the newly established Orange River Colony. Presumably his application was unsuccessful, for he spent the next decade prospecting for coal. For example, he reported on a coal deposit near Ladybrand in 1902, requested permission to exploit an outcrop of coal in the Sabie Game Reserve, Transvaal, in 1903, and was still investigating coal deposits in the Cape Province in 1911. A manuscript written by him, titled "Incidents in the life of a rolling stone, 1892-1924", with an album of clippings about the Pioneer Column and Mashonaland expedition, forms part of the W. Ellerton Fry collection, University of Cape Town libraries.