Gwendoline E. Fagan on Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert

The doctoral dissertation of Gwen Fagan is awe-inspiring in its breadth; in more than 1,100 typed pages, she set out the development of the “man-made landscape” across the Cape Colony between the 17th and 19th centuries. Given her prior record of publication even before her dissertation, perhaps it is unsurprising that she had so much to say! Her depiction of Oudtshoorn gives a glimpse of the area before it was transformed by ostrich farming in the late 19th century.

13. Oudshoorn

pp. 913-917

Before an official congregation had been formed, an area now covered by the districts of Oudshoorn, Calitzdorp, De Rust and De Hoop were all known as the Achterberg. Oudshoorn had originally been a part of the George congregation but erected their own little church and a minister from George administered holy communion, attended to marriages , christenings and confirmations on his infrequent visits to this church. And he was usually accompanied by an apothecary who was able to replenish the medicine chests of the housewives. Because these people were regarded to be very simple farm folk , the village around the church at the time was called Veldschoendorp. [Ons Kerk Album. p90]

In 1852 a separate congregation was formalised when a permanent Dutch minister, Dr. Tobias Van der Riet, was appointed. With the help of an energetic and enthusiastic Church Council, the foundation for a new stone church was laid and its construction continued over a period of 19 years due to a lack of funds.

When town erven were pegged out in 1847 by the surveyor J Ford, the minister managed to obtain a donation of a number of dry and water erven from the original loan farm owners, C J Schoeman and G J Scheepers. These became increasingly valuable and were eventually sold with a profit which helped greatly to cover building costs for the completion of the church. [Ons Kerk Album. p90]

Over four hundred water erven were measured out and these were supplied by two main furrows, one on the east and one on the west bank of the river. The water was obtained from the Grobbelaars River north of the town, but the original owners of the loan farm, which had been granted for the town, retained certain rights for themselves. The river ran perennialy and there was very seldom a lack of water, but the amount of water alotted to an erf was dependent upon its size and when subdivision of erven later took place, the water was divided accordingly but no new water erven were created.

The town was laid out in a grid along the both banks of the river, the plan making an angle at the centrally placed market. The Dutch Reformed Church lay in Baron Van Reede Street, the longest street in the town, with a parsonage on the opposite side of the street, but it had no prominence other than its height.

By 1872 a photograph of the original church (obviously an adapted older farm-house), shows many tents and covered ox-wagons pulled up around it, but the town itself had hardly any buildings. The villagers farmed with vegetables, fruit , cattle , sheep and ostriches, especially during the boom period, and continued to do so till quite recently. [Information obtained from the retired town engineer, Mr. D Conradie] At the time of the photograph , the town was therefore more of an agricultural village.

But it is difficult to say how much of their produce villagers were able to market other than to local shops for exchange of items for personal use that could not be produced on their own erven. Tea, coffee, sugar, rice, clothing, paraffin and hardware were items that they needed to obtain from traders in exchange for their own produce, and if these were not immediately needed, a system of credit notes gave them a choice of obtaining these items later. [Even in the 1930s it was the general practice in small towns with any surplus produce on village erven, so that even an old lady with a few hens could obtain her necessaries by exchanging her eggs at the local shop.]

Poplars were obviously planted in the earliest village streets, as shown by an examination of the photographic collection in the C P Nel Museum where a photograph taken in 1865, for instance, shows a hotel in the foreground and poplars in the street, and again garden walls built of mud. Such walls appear also on other early photographs, so it seems to have been the common building material for Oudtshoorn garden walls.

A panorama of Oudtshoorn in 1872 hanging in the Oudtshoorn Museum, shows the many fruit trees in the gardens, figs being especially popular. Here again one sees the stone and mud garden walls. By then street trees were general, especially Lombardy poplars, and bluegums, but a few oaks are present and four cypresses in front of the Oudtshoorn Hotel.

In July 1888 the Courant reported that the Town Council had in that year planted 1800 Lombardy poplars: “These trees take kindly to our clayey, brackish soils. Oudshoorn bids fair within the near future to be named “Poplar Grove”. [Oudshoorn Courant 31.7.1888]

By the end of the century the smaller erven east and to the north of the market square all had buildings on them, but the long erven on either side of the river were still largely undivided and under cultivation. Photographs of the time show beautiful double storey commercial buildings built of stone in the centre of the town. Water furrows are neatly channeled and stone bridges lead to the elevated, verandahed stoeps of the shops. Again poplars provide shade to all the streets.

The Oudtshoorn Courant gives information on the Botanical Garden which was established in Oudtshoorn and of the agricultural show which was held there in spring, 1879 under the auspices of the Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society, when the largest tent could hardly accommodate all the exhibits and visitors. [Oudshoorn Courant. 29.10.1879]

Again it is evident that the garden is not only a botanical institution but a place of public entertainment. The local 91st Regiment, we are told, “discoursed sweet music (vocal and instrumental) and materially rendered the surroundings more enjoyable”.

The Courant also in May 1894 reported on the first sale of bluegum trees “on the morning market” by the largest tree nursery “run by H J Raubenheimer on his farm Schoonberg in the Langkloof. Gums were sold for .5 shilling per hundred and the advantages of planting large plantations of these trees was emphasized”. The Courant was of the opinion that “Boomplantenkoorts” (treeplanting fever) was escalating because seed and plants were quickly sold out. The value of this wood was displayed and buyers encouraged to plant large plantations not only for firewood, but for use as furniture. On the market was a buggy and various articles of furniture made of bluegum!

Figure Captions

  • p.914 Ford’s plan for Oudshoorn in 1847 allowed for over 400 water erven – mostly long narrow erven running from street to street.
  • p.914 The farmers camped around the church during the “nachtmaal” (communion), 1875 SAL
  • p.916 Two streetscapes of Oudshoorn in 1899 showing elegant double storey stone buildings, water-furrows and pear trees which, like those in Beaufort-West made a wonderful show of blossoms in spring

15. Prince Albert

pp. 919-922

In 1841 the farmers of the Zwartberg requested the presbytery of Graaff Reinet that they be allowed to form their own congregation and a commission was appointed to lay down boundaries for such a division. They bought the farm Kweekvallei where a new village was laid out and the erven sold to pay for the farm and for a new church building and parsonage. In the following year a church council was appointed and in 1844 the first minister, Pieter Albertyn. [Ons Kerk Album, p70]

The name Prince Albert was given by notice in the Gazette of 31 July, 1845.

The earliest plan which was found was dated 1878 and another of 1903 shows exactly the same layout, indicating that the town had changed very little in the last 30 years of the 19th century.

Following the pattern of most towns, this one is situated in the valley below a prominent hill (Spitskop) on the banks of a river, this time the Kweek Vlei River. Long parallel erven, of different shapes and sizes, are set out between the river and the village water-course and the few streets are set out at right angles to each other, with the church, surrounded by a square, forming the end vista of the main street in a slightly elevated position on the hill slope. Thus it dominated the whole town as beholds [befits] a “church town”. On the church square a number of small erven in a block were probably intended for the “tuishuisies”.

Although most of the erven were irrigated from a communal furrow, a number of erven were so-called “dry erven” and land along the road to Beaufort is described as “good land if water is brought here” while between the road to Meiringspoort and the furrow a large tract of land is shown as “cultivated lands with water”.

Gordon made a drawing of this area when it was still a farm belonging to the widow of Zacharias de Beer. The T-shaped thatched house faced the valley and had a row of trees planted before it. The mountain stream ran in a straight line along cultivated fields to a circular dam on the side of the house and from there a second stream ran before the row of trees to turn a mill before running further down the valley to irrigate rectangular blocks of orchards and gardens. These gardens were laid out formally on either side of a wide walkway with a central avenue of trees. Further outbuildings were arranged on either side of the house and a number of parallel walled kraals were situated near the dam. Interesting to see is the accommodation for the coloured workers consisting of kapstyl straw and traditional round [Khoikhoi] huts.

How this farm was adapted to fit the needs of a new town can be surmised by comparing Gordon’s plan with the town plan of 1878, both drawn from the same position. It seems that the wet erven were laid out in the garden and werf area of the farm between the old water furrow and river, and the dry erven in the areas of the old kraals and beyond the garden lower down the river. The so-called “cultivated land under water” matches the cultivated area which Gordon shows along the run of the stream between mountain and house. It seems that the surveyor drew up a town plan without changing the run of the stream providing the maximum number of erven with water. As a result, the village gardens were situated in the most fertile areas.

Photographs of the late 19th century show the rich plant growth of the erven below the church and the bare werfs of the properties on the hill side of the town. Houses as usual are built on the streets boundaries with their gardens behind them and the streets themselves are lined with trees, conifers being planted in the drier areas, and pear trees in the rest of the town. The author remembers the wonderful picture of these trees in blossom in the 1930s, much enhanced by the open water furrows along the street.

A photograph of the parsonage garden in the early 1900s gives an idea of the wealth of plant growth, and· shows once again how parsonage gardens were of the best in small towns and how the building itself was dressed in the most fashionable Victorian garb.

Figure Captions

  • p.920 (top) Kweekvallei where the village of Prince Albert was established in 1845 (Schumacher The Cape in 1776-1777)
  • p.920 (bottom) Map of 1878 shows the long water erven and church in the centre of the town
  • p.920 Map of 1903 showing the water furrows and town unchanged
  • p.922 (top) Prince Albert with the dry erven in the foreground on either side of the church (C/A, R337)
  • p.922 (below) The church forms the end vista of the tree-lined street (C/A, R331)
  • p.922 The parsonage dating from the beginning of the century, has wooden stoep rails and a veranda with fretwork. It is surrounded by a rose-garden (C/A, AG Collection)