Cape Town

There is an American saying, “You can’t fight City Hall and win!” There is also an ancient legend of a pipe-smoking pirate named Jan Van Hunks who challenged a sinister stranger to a pipe smoking competition on the slopes of Table Mountain. They smoked for days until the stranger gave in and Van Hunks was still puffing. At this point Van Hunks saw the cloven hooves and realised that his competitor was none other than the Devil himself. The angry devil incinerated Van Hunks and they both disappeared but left their smoke.

Exploitable manganese deposits in the Cape Peninsular were known from around the late 1670s, and indeed many of our hikes pass on or close by manganese deposits of one kind or another.

Hike Kasteelpoort or Skeleton Gorge and you will walk over the stuff. At Mont Rochelle the link trail from Uitkyk  to the summit of Dutoitskop is known as The Manganese Trail.

The Simon van der Stel Foundation recently expressed concern that Heritage Western Cape (HWC), the local successor to the National Monuments Council, is allowing the history of old Bantry Bay to be destroyed by permitting the demolition of structures of heritage importance. This concern was raised when permission was granted by the HWC to demolish four early 20th century buildings situated on Saunders and Bantry Roads.

I thought this would be a gentle essay featuring a well-loved Cape Town heritage landmark. But between my first site visit and an interview with ‘Friends of the Mill,’ John Hammer, Devils Peak blazed, roared and leapt with a great fire. A UCT library/reading room filled with treasures, burned, structures and woodlands were consumed in spectacular fashion and the Mill and adjacent houses became forlorn, smoking ruins in the process. Now the task of Friends of the Mill is not so much about mollycoddling and preservation, as about resurrection and restoration.

It is unusual for a middle-class British couple to be celebrated for their respective achievements over half a century. The female partner in this relationship, Dame Agatha Christie, Britain’s bestselling author since Shakespeare requires little introduction. Her husband, the late Sir Max Mallowan, an eminent archaeologist who excavated several important sites in the Middle East, may be somewhat less familiar.

In 2020 Arderne Gardens turned 175. This wonderful, 4.5 hectare arboretum in Claremont, Cape Town, is filled with trees of great girth and height, together with plants from all over the world, some over 100 years old. For many decades wedding parties have posed for photographs under the great Moreton Bay Fig with its enormous surface root system spreading in all directions like a nest of huge Boa Constrictors. This mighty tree is known throughout Cape Town as The Wedding Tree. The Gardens are a picnickers’ paradise.

102 years ago, when the so-called “Spanish Flu” arrived in South Africa, there was no national health department, and no official guidance on what to do. By mid-October the death rate was so high that town councils decided to close cinemas and schools. Some schools, such as Benoni Central School, Vogelfontein school in Boksburg, and the Springs government school were converted into emergency hospitals to treat the overflow of patients who could not be accommodated in official hospitals.

I had the privilege of attending a memorial gathering for Gawie Fagan at his world-famous house DIE ES, designed by Gawie and built by the family. When the Drakenstein Heritage Foundation visited their house last year we were treated to a humorous and eloquent account of the circumstances and details of the building of Die Es by his daughter Helena. There Tom Robertson, a junior architect in Gawie’s practice in the 70’s, paid moving tribute to this great Architect on our behalf.

 

On my visits to Cape Town, I often find myself drawn to this attractive little stone church and attendant graveyard situated on the little knoll above Main Street, Rondebosch. It is hard to explain my interest. It is not because of devoutness, since I am not very religious. It may well be due to the association of this church with two of the Cape Colony’s important official appointments: the first Surveyor General and the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town.

Although Cape Town has had a port for hundreds of years, it has never been a port city like, for example, Istanbul. It was started as a result of human necessity by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th Century as a half-way house and watering hole on the long voyage to India. However, by the fifties, the richer, mostly white population had moved away from the exfoliating atmosphere of tar and sea- winds of the docklands and made for the more salubrious suburbs with their welter of lush green lawns and stench of privilege.

This photograph has been in my wife’s Goles family since it was taken by Ravenscroft in about 1919 (click here to read more about Ravenscroft). Standing in the doorway of the Olympia Café is my wife’s Greek grandfather Athos (Arthur) Goles – who owned and ran it from the day it opened. To the right is the Olympia Picture Palace the then new bioscope that, as can be seen, is advertising the film The Vigilantes released in the USA in 1918.

Does anyone remember Pyott Biscuits? They were the makers of Salticrax, Romany Creams, Iced Zoo and many other SA favourites. Today they’re all branded under the Bakers label and the Pyott name has largely been forgotten.

A public meeting held at the Castle of Good Hope on Saturday 16 March, which, attended by residents and members of SAHRA to discuss the heritage declaration of the Bo-Kaap, was stimulating and productive.

 

Cape Town in the early 1950s was a place where we grew up, and spent weekends rambling and scrambling over Table Mountain. My brother Adrian, a friend and I soon got to learn of the existence of quite a few caves in the Wynberg area, and decided to explore. The first time we entered Wynberg cave was a bit scary, mainly because we had no torches, and we were not properly equipped at all. Later that afternoon round the campfire, we discussed the possibilities of continuing with this – the answer was a definite YES.

It is fortunate for posterity that Group Captain Rupert Taylor, a Johannesburg businessman in 1964 became interested in the old Simon’s Town Seaforth Cemetery or the ‘Old Burying Ground’, as it is called. Like his war-time contemporary ‘Sailor’ Malan he began his service career in the Navy before switching to the Airforce during the Second World War. While in the Navy he used to occasionally sit under a plaque to Midshipman Hammill in this cemetery admiring the sea view.

Sometimes an interesting question is asked. ‘Which Cemetery is the most venerable in South Africa?’ Not so easy to answer as one may think. There are some strong contenders but the Tana Baru in the Bo-Kaap, the oldest Muslim Cemetery in Cape Town, can certainly stake a very credible claim. This is the only historical cemetery in South Africa of which an informative book has been written, The History of the Tana Baru, by Achmat Davids.

I first met Lady Anne Barnard (1750- 1825) when she was in her mid forties. It was a brief encounter, in fact only a passage in the text of “The Table Mountain Book” by Jose Burman, that master storyteller of early South African travel. Lady Anne was reported to be the first European woman to climb to the top of Table Mountain (in July 1797) and I was resolved to find out more about her life and why a high born lady was living in Cape Town (Kaapsche Stad) at the end of the eighteenth century, during what became the first British Occupation (1795-1802).

Markhams Building, located on the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets in Johannesburg, is a landmark of the city. It is striking because it has survived. Built in 1897, it is nearly as old as the city itself.

 

Heritage encompasses all that we experience in everyday life. It is far more fluid in how it is experienced by society than what we perceive it to be. It is where ideas of individual identity and the role of nation states connect. It is who we are as individuals and how we relate to one another in society.

In the article below, Frank R Bradlow looks at the architectural and historical significance of the Old Synagogue in Cape Town. The piece first appeared in the 1980 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). Thank you to the University of Pretoria for giving us permission to publish.

In the short article below, an unknown author explores a few blue plaques in Cape Town including one commemorating Herbert Baker's last building in South Africa. The piece appeared in the 1978 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation. today the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA). Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

Over the years I have photographed hundreds of plaques in South Africa and beyond. Most are easy to find as they are well documented and placed within easy view. Some, on the other hand, are a bit more tricky. Below is my list of five sneaky blue plaques...

1) Charles and Isabelle Lipp

In the article below, Norah Henshilwood traces the early history of Claremont and reveals some of her memories of the suburb. The piece first appeared in the 1976 edition of Restorica, the old journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, today the Heritage Association of South Africa. Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

In researching this article, it became evident that hardly any photographer active during the Anglo-Zulu War (AZW) period has been written about. In the majority of sources consulted, photographers also generally have not been acknowledged where their work was used – be that as photographers out in the field or studio based photographers. This may be a simple matter of us not being aware of who the photographers were in the majority of instances.

I was recently given four photographs of early 20th century Cape Town. They are all in sepia brown shades. The dimensions are 8.5 x 11.30 inches. The edges of the photos are in poor condition but the main scenes are clearly visible. I would love to date these photographs.

They are clearly from the photographic studio of TP Ravenscroft and the one of Sea Point has a stamp on the reverse TD Ravenscroft. 

 

Few visitors driving through Hout Bay on the way to Chapman’s Peak Drive will have failed to notice in the sea below the road a curious concrete and steel jetty - usually the resting place of a number of cormorants drying themselves in the sun! This marks the most immediately visible remnant of one of the Cape’s most remarkable early mining ventures, the Hout Bay manganese mine.

 

Strubenheim is a majestic historic mansion in Rosebank, Cape Town. It belonged to Harry Struben who, along with his brother Fred, played a crucial part in the story of the discovery of the largest goldfield on earth. Although they cannot claim to have discovered the Witwatersrand's main reef, it was their pioneering efforts on the Confidence Reef nearby that drew others to Langlaagte where the big discovery was made (click here for further details).

In 1996 Michael Scurr penned the following article on the restoration of the Old Cape Archives (today the Centre for the Book). It was published in Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation. Thank you to the University of Pretoria and the Heritage Association of South Africa for giving us permission to publish.

In 1983 J. G. Brand, City Engineer of Cape Town, penned this brief article about Government Avenue, the oldest pedestrian thoroughfare in South Africa. The piece appeared in the 1983 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.  

The following article on the history and restoration of the landmark Martello tower in Simon's Town appeared in the September 1973 edition of Bulletin. Thank you to David Erickson from the Simon's Town Historical Society for providing many of the museum photographs. See comments section for more recent details on the Tower.

[Originally published in 2014] In the following powerful opinion piece Richard Bryant, Chairman of the Kommetjie Heritage Society, takes a critical look at some of the City of Cape Town's development policies and how they are impacting the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas (World Heritage Site). He argues that not only is the Word Heritage Site at risk but people's lives and properties as well.

Dr Bruno Werz from the African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE) is leading a team to try and find the wreck of the Haerlam (or Haarlam) - click here for details. The wrecking of the Haerlam is recognised by many as the catalyst that led to the establishment of a refreshment station which later developed into the City of Cape Town. In 1975 Mervyn Emms used various archival sources to estimate the location of the wreck.

While paging through an old copy of Bulletin, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa), we came across this short but fascinating article on the origins the Chavonnes Battery. It was written by Mervyn Emms and was published in June 1975.

The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is one of the great South African adaptive reuse case studies. Below is an in depth article on the work conducted during the first phase of this landmark project (completed 1990/1). The piece appeared in the 1992 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

Lion Battery is a richly layered historical, social, architectural, aesthetic, scientific and technological landscape. The battery and its historical layering was influenced by significant international events. It is today the site from where Cape Town’s famous noon gun is fired from. Construction started in 1888 and was completed in 1890. By June 1890 both No. 1 and No. 2 emplacements were ready for the mounting of 9 inch RML Guns. All work was done by pick and shovel.

 

[Originally published in 2014] This is the last installment on the Robben Island Garrison Church. Just to recap. In January 2011 Robben Island Museum (RIM) had cash in and wanted to facelift the obvious visible parts of the main street before the proposed visit by World Heritage in February. As this series is about poor research this part really highlights the absolute value of good research. Good research and good observation on site is critical. The two should go hand in hand in a reiterative process.

[Originally published in 2014] The restoration had proceeded reasonably to a conclusion in November 2004 ready for handover from the contractor to the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Robben Island Museum (RIM). In July the tower and particularly the NE buttress had been partially stripped to the brick, re-plastered and painted. Six months later in early January 2005 the then Heritage Manager for Robben Island reported to SAHRA that the paint had started to blister in places on the tower. By February 2005 the paint had started peeling.

[Originally published in 2014] I ask some very simple questions when doing research and writing subsequent reports for restoration, renovation, repair or, maintenance on a heritage site. What, Where, When, Who, Why and How [the golden six]. I often find that the Why and How is missing or very brief when reports are written before and afterwards. This complicates things of course so reading between the lines becomes an art.

[Originally published in 2014] What happens when poor or no research is done when decisions are made for restoration, repair or maintenance to a heritage site is ably demonstrated by the history of the Garrison Church on Robben Island. For more than 150 years the church was and still is a landmark in the Village Precinct on the Island. In this series of articles I will track the restoration attempts over this period.

We always get excited when we find detailed information on the story behind a blue plaque. The following article about Joachim Nikolaus Von Dessin, whose book collection became the foundation of the first public library in South Africa, was published in a December 1974 edition of The Argus. We stumbled across it in the archives of the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA).

In 1979 Elizabeth Lankenhall, Public Relations Officer for Gordon Verhoef and Krause, penned an article for Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). The piece looked at aspects of the history of the landmark Old Town House in Greenmarket Square Cape Town. Thank you to the University of Pretoria (Restorica copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

[Originally published in 2014] Andrew Carnegie, an American philanthropist, wrote an article proclaiming “The Gospel of Wealth” and urged the wealthy to improve society. When he made the offer of a Library, Muizenberg, like many other villages, took advantage of his generosity. In 1910, The Carnegie Library replaced the first library in the Municipal offices.

We are honoured to publish this fascinating piece compiled by Chris Taylor of the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society. It tells the remarkable story of the 2014 discovery of a cannonball that was fired during the Battle of Muizenberg (1795). Thank you to Colin Johnstone for sending it through. [Originally published in May 2014]

The article below, compiled by then City Engineer J.G. Brand, appeared in a 1983 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). It provides a fascinating look at the origins and development of the Company's Garden in Cape Town. Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

 

We found the following article by B.I. Spaanderman in the 1991 edition of the old Johannesburg Historical Foundation's journal Between the Chains. It looks at a number of South African mills with a particular focus on Millbank, the closest to Johannesburg.

The fascinating article below appeared in the first ever edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). It looks at the building of the Roeland Street Prison and its transformation from 'palace' to rat infested institution. The prison was demolished a few decades ago to make way for what is known today as the Western Cape Archives and Records Service. Part of the outer wall and the old main entrance to the prison have been preserved.

We are very excited to publish this piece on what appears to be South Africa's oldest surviving windmill. The article was written by Ivor Dekenah (note the surname) and appeared in the 1981 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, known today as the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA). Thank you to the Restorica copyright holders, the University of Pretoria, for giving us permission to publish.

[Originally published January 2014 - Click here to view updates  For almost four years there has been controversy relating to a proposed addition to the 18th century warehouse in the Lutheran Church block in Strand Street. The structure has been altered radically over the years and, today, it is prized for its landmark importance; its context in the close association it has with the historical Lutheran Church and the culturally significant structures in Strand Stre

In the first installment of the series on the history of Southern African railways, Peter Ball described some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of a number of lines into the interior. In this article he looks at the fascinating politics and economics of the 'Race for the Rand'.

Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of articles, compiled by Peter Ball, on the history of Southern African railways. The first installment looks at some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of various lines into the interior (driven by the great mineral discoveries of the second half of the nineteenth century).

This is an important moment in which we celebrate the recovery of an element of Cape Town’s lost transportation heritage: milestones. And it coincides with the bi-centenary of their installation along Main Road: milestones exactly like the one pictured below (located opposite the well known Olympia Cafe Main Road Kalk Bay) were first placed along Main Road in 1814 – 1815 during the governorship of Lord Charles Somerset.

 

[Originally published 23 March 2015] The Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA) has noted with great interest the public debate on the matter of colonial-era public memorials and place names – in this particular case those associated with Cecil John Rhodes – for some a great British statesman and industrialist, and for others an imperialist whose colonial and mining labour policies and practices doomed entire generations of black communities – all across the ‘pink’ map of colonial Africa.

We are very excited to publish this wonderful article from the Restorica archives (November 1976). M. A. P. Diemont Jr delves into the fascinating history of the design and construction of the old South African Reserve Bank Building in Cape Town. Today the building forms part of the Taj Hotel Complex. Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish. Restorica is the old journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, today the Heritage Association of South Africa.

Take a journey back in time before the car, the plane and luxurious train and you will find some epic railway journey stories. The article below tells the tale of a trip from Cape Town to Bloemfontein in 1889. It reveals the adventure, risks and tragedy of the ten day journey. The piece appeared in a 1907 edition the South African Railway Magazine. Thank you to the Heritage Office at Transnet for giving us access to their archives.

In the article below Lesley T Townsend takes a brief look at the history and architectural style of the Bo-Kaap as well as the major restoration project that took place in the early 1970s. The article appeared in the 1975 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, today the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA). Thank you to the University of Pretoria for giving us permission to publish.

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