This page houses three articles documenting the history of the C. P. Nel Museum. Since all three pre-date the democratic government of South Africa, they could be difficult to find for people who don’t have access to a university library. The first of these articles was originally published in Afrikaans, so I have attempted to render it in English as well as I can. Librarians at Stellenbosch University Library made the original available to me. I am grateful to the librarians at the Gitlin Library for retrieving the second. The last of these articles is available to the public as part of the University of Pretoria’s archive of the journal Restorica.
C.P. Nel Museum— 50 Years: 1937-1987
On 1 December 1987, the C.P. Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn turned 50 years old. What initially started as the hobby of an enthusiastic young English boy has grown over the years into a museum that was at one point described as the best of its kind in the country. With exhibitions from the Ostrich Feather Flowering Period of 1897-1914, it has even been described as “the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of its kind in the world.” 
Charles Paul Leonard Nel was born on 3 Oct 1878 in Bruintjies-hoogte in the Somerset East district. With three more brothers and two sisters, his family moved to Oudtshoorn in 1884 where his father, Louis, practiced as a law agent. After the death of his mother Annie (née Leonard) shortly thereafter, his father remarried. Little is known about Charlie’s school career, except that from 1888-90 he was a pupil at the Boys’ School, housed in what is now the museum building (fig. 1).
Business as a career
At the age of 16, he began working at the post office as a postman; after his father’s death in 1894, he boarded for years with his brother Louis. When his application to the Municipality as Junior Clerk failed in 1896, he turned to business. In 1898 he bought a bicycle shop with his savings under the name C.P. Nel & Co. and called it “The Cycle Depot”  (fig. 2). Cycling was a popular sport in those years, and his business did well. He and his brother Horace participated in numerous cycling competitions and won medals. Over the years he also sold firearms, ammunition, musical instruments and sports equipment and therefore had to move to larger premises from time to time. From 1920 he started selling motorcycles and became an agent for the sale of Dodge and Chevrolet cars. Later he also sold Pontiac, Tourers and Sedans. Considering that there were 25 cars in Oudtshoorn and district in 1910, and by the end of 1927 already 560, it is almost self-evident that he later focused on the sale and repair of cars and motorcycles.
In 1930, in partnership with Messrs. G.W. Good and H. Whiting, he formed a Real Estate company. In 1933 he moved to Beaufort West to establish a branch there as well, and he remained there until his retirement in 1936. His partnership with Mr. Good dissolved in 1934, after which Mr. Good further expanded the Oudtshoorn business with branches in George, Victoria West, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Swellendam and Mossel Bay.
Since his youth, Charlie Nel also distinguished himself in the military field. In 1892, at the age of 14, he joined the Oudtshoorn Volunteer Rifles as a brass player. When it disbanded in 1912, he was transferred to the “5th Dismounted Rifles.” For outstanding service during the war years (including the Bechuanaland Campaign of 1897, the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War, and the 1914-18 wars), he was appointed in June 1919 as a member of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), for which he received a medal.  In 1913, together with Captain Rogers, he assisted in the reorganization and establishment of a training base for the Dept. of Defense in Oudtshoorn. In 1938 he was appointed honorary colonel of the Oudtshoorn Commando on the recommendation of Major BE Butler , and in 1946 he was chairman of the BESL (“British Empire Service League”). Through it all, he was an avid target shooting enthusiast and participated in numerous Bisley competitions for which he won a large number of medals and trophies (fig. 3).
He belonged to the Golf Club of Oudtshoorn, and was a joint honorary secretary of the “Oudtshoorn Amateur Athletic Club” which was founded in 1907.
It was undoubtedly Charlie Nel’s collection of medals and war regiment signs as a hobby through his military involvement since his youth, which eventually led to the establishment of a museum after his retirement. The addition of rifles, bicycles and old vehicles over the years was representative of his career and sports choices, with antiques of historical value as additional interest. As a bachelor, he traveled the country on holidays, and after his retirement he collected and bought antiques. He exhibited it in a room at his married brother Louis’ house in 123 Queen Street, where he lived for years. Later, he even exhibited antiques in his business’ showcase. He also donated a number of historical photos and trophies to the Oudtshoorn City Council before 1936 for safekeeping.
Early in 1936, by letter to the City Council, he presented several antiquities for exhibition and viewing, suggesting that they could form the core of a museum.  When the response was not as desired, he rented a double room from the Publicity Bureau in the Municipal Buildings in St. John Street, rented and furnished as a museum. On Wednesday, December 1, 1937, the doors were officially opened to the public for Wednesdays and Saturdays. His friend, Mr Charlie Honeyborne, was the first caretaker. Charlie Nel’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. Newspaper articles of his collections and historical research appeared regularly in the local newspaper (Oudtshoorn Courant), and donations poured in. In November 1938, the Historical Monuments Commission gave this collection official recognition as a museum.  At the suggestion of the then mayor, Mr H.H. Bridgman, the rooms were rented to him free of charge on request.
Beaufort Wes Museum
Meanwhile, in collaboration with the local general public of Beaufort Wes, he also helped establish a museum there in 1939. Two rooms with the necessary equipment were furnished in the Prichards building, to which he himself contributed generously. A provisional museum committee of several influential persons was formed, of which he himself was a member. 
Very soon his museum burst its seams. After several failed plans and requests to the city council, he bought at his own expense in February 1940 a building in 140 High Street, which was known as the “Van Vuurens Annex.” It was the first girls’ school in Oudtshoorn and later the private hospital of Dr Raubenheimer. With so much more space available, he particularly strove to set up part of it as an art gallery. From then on, the museum was able to open its doors every day for visits, as well as some evenings. 
His application the same year to the City Council for a monthly contribution to help pay the caretaker, taxes and lights, was granted at the urging of Mr Bridgman. Among other things, he said: “… it was a deserving object, and the museum was a great asset to the town.” 
As an avid historian, he also did research on the history of Oudtshoorn with the aim of including it in the 1947 centenary celebrations. It was unfortunately never published, and only a few manuscripts in his own handwriting are in the possession of the museum today.  An article by him in 1947 on the history of the Oudtshoorn Volunteer Corps was published in 1963 in a military magazine entitled: “Defunct Colonial Units in South Africa.” 
Establishment of a governing body: official museum
Because Charlie Nel had no heirs, the future of the museum after his death was a major source of concern for him. After many possibilities, he decided in consultation with the city council to, according to Museum Ordinance 6 of 1944, transfer the museum to a governing body.  It could then also claim an annual subsidy from the Provincial Administration. To reach the decision, he drafted some conditions, including that the property should be used exclusively for a museum and art gallery, and that it should be called the “C.P. Nel Museum”. The proposals were accepted, and on February 10, 1950, a governing body was officially established and proclaimed.  Two members were nominated by the Administrator, two by the City Council, and two by museum subscribers of which he was a member. Mr P.J. van der Westhuizen, Mayor of Oudtshoorn, was the first chairman, and for years thereafter. The necessary documents and Deed of Transfer were signed by Charlie Nel on 20 November 1950, just a day before his sudden death on 21 November. He was buried in Oudtshoorn.
In his will, it is clear that he had a big heart for charity. In addition to family and friends, he also left bequests to ex-soldiers, hospitals, child welfare organizations and the poor. 
Official Takeover By Board of Directors
After Charlie Nel’s death, the governing body had to finalize the property’s transfer costs. Application for its remission from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue was rejected because the museum was not considered an educational institution and because the governing body did not have any of its own funds.  A support fund had to be established, and street collections and donations were held and solicited. Finally, on June 26, 1952, the transfer documents could be finalized.  The Provincial Administration’s annual grant (£ 106/13/4) and Municipality’s annual donation (£ 50.55) contributed to the museum’s finances. To improve, enlarge, and supply the museum building over the years with electricity and a water sewer system, fundraisers had to take place regularly. However, the public was slow to respond because they were under the false impression that the museum was the responsibility of the Municipality. Several newspaper reports were needed to rectify the matter to get results. 
Where Mr C. Honeyborne was the first caretaker for 11 years (until 1948) and Miss Magdalena Swart for 5 years, the appointment of Mrs Frieda de Jager on 1 December 1953 as caretaker for the next 16 years, the museum was placed on a more professional basis. With her diligence and insight, she compiled, for the first time since the museum’s inception, a complete inventory of the museum contents (1955), and numbered, labeled and indexed all articles in a register book. She also applied for a part-time, and later full-time, cleaning post in 1957. Visitor numbers began to grow.
The role of N.A. Smit
In 1961, Mr Nicholas Albertus Smit as City Council representative succeeded Mr Van der Westhuizen as chairman of the museum governing body. As a former teacher, Divisional Councilor, Mayor and first Honorary Citizen of Oudtshoorn, he worked with great enthusiasm for the expansion of the museum, which was already bursting at its seams. After discussions with Dr Douglas Hey and Mr Steele from the Department of Nature Conservation, a special delegation and the Administrator beginning in 1964, the old High School for Boys was purchased on Mr Smit’s proposal for the purpose. The building was sold to the Oudtshoorn City Council by the Provincial Administration in May 1968 for R1, thus saving it from certain demolition. The beautiful old sandstone building with its high tower was designed in 1906 by Charles Bullock and built by the Rogers brothers. The school hall was designed in 1912 by J. Vixseboxse. It was used as a school until 1968 (fig. 4).
Approximately R40,000 would be needed over a period of five years to demolish the old residence, restore and furnish the school building as a museum, to create a garden, and to move from the old to the new building. The Municipality would restore the exterior of the building, the Rembrandt Arts Foundation the hall, and the Museum Management Board and Administration the interior of the building. So, under the leadership of Mr Smit, a large-scale fundraising campaign was launched to establish, as he propagated, a cultural center for Oudtshoorn. The newspaper reported: “It will not merely house antiques but, as a cultural center, it will be used to display works of art and will become one of the places in the Republic where regular exhibitions of all types of art will take place.” 
Mr. Smit also recommended that a full-time curator with an academic background and four additional staff members be appointed. Before his ideals could be realized, he died on 4 October 1968. He was succeeded by Dr M.A.S. Grundlingh from 12 November 1968, who is still chairman today. So great was his interest in the museum that he bequeathed R96,000 to it which would come into force after the death of his wife.
First Official Curator
On June 1, 1969, the museum’s status was enhanced by the appointment of Mr Andre de Wet as curator. He was a retired principal, writer and Organizing Secretary of the 1965 Republic Festival in the Cape. Mrs F. de Jager was promoted to Guide Chief Caretaker, and appointed a part-time caretaker for weekends. Under Mr De Wet’s able guidance and diligence, the museum outgrew its infancy and gained a solid footing. Loans in 1969 and 1970 had to be taken out with the City Council (R14,000 and R4,500) to start demolition and restoration work.
Meanwhile, Mr De Wet undertook a study trip to several museums at his own expense to equip himself for his task. He also regularly used the local newspaper to keep the public informed about museum affairs, to arouse interest, and to gather information about old buildings, street names, and the history of the people and surroundings. In 1970 he was able to request a trial technical assistant and temporary general aid, which was made more permanent in 1971. Upon special request, the staff expanded in May 1972 by four more, viz. additional Museum Assistant, additional cleaning assistant, part-time secretarial assistant and one relief museum assistant.
Inauguration of the New Museum (third museum building)
On 13 June 1972, a section of the new museum was provisionally opened for two days a week after the old one was closed for five months during the “great trek.” On March 16, 1973, the new museum could finally be officially opened and christened as the “C.P. Nel Museum.” Mr C.P. Nel Jnr, nephew of the founder, observed the christening ceremony, and Dr D. Hey, Director of Preservation, delivered the opening speech. Three days later, the museum also had the honor of hosting the 37th annual meeting of the South African Museum Association in Oudtshoorn. The ostrich was the main theme, with exhibits from the ostrich feather flowering period; the exhibit contributed to the acquisition of a class B for the museum in 1975. The investigation team of the Provincial Administration reported in their report that:”… specialized themes for the Administration are of great benefit and therefore worthy of imitation.”
Visitor numbers more than doubled, from December 1972’s 11,414 to 24,960 in 1973. In December 1975, the number was 30,896, an unprecedented record for a rural museum that would not be matched again in its 50-year existence. Much publicity through the press and radio since its opening has contributed to this success. With the addition of a full, equipped Jewish synagogue in the museum building in 1976, the museum was once again in the news as the only one in the world in which certain ceremonies are still held (fig. 5).
First Museum Scholars
In 1975, at the pinnacle of success, Mr De Wet laid down the harness and was succeeded for one year by Mr C.J. Schoeman. In April 1977, Mrs E.M. Neethling (formerly of Port Elizabeth) was appointed first curator with professional museum experience. Also in 1977 in November, Mr. I.J. Ferreira was appointed as the first Scholarly Officer with professional museum qualifications.
With most exhibitions completed, attention could be paid to research, document indexing, educational lectures, the installation of burglar and fire alarm systems, and the security of the building and its contents. As a result, in January 1982, the museum made history by becoming the first museum in the country to receive an accreditation award. Also in 1980 and 1982, it was the first museum to obtain safety ratings from the National Occupational Safety Association. Scholarly publications by the curator and scholar appeared for the first time in 1979.
With the purchase of an old mansion from the ostrich feather flowering period in High Street in 1979, the museum expanded even further (fig. 6). For this, the Provincial Administration granted a R30,000 loan. On 22 February 1980, the Dorphuis and the C.P. Nel Museum were declared National Monuments.
Despite advances in the professional field, the Provincial Administration, after an Organization and Work Study investigation in April 1982, downgraded the museum’s status to a Class C. In a time of financial prosperity in the country, the museum could not hold a candle to the much larger expansions of the three other Class B museums, viz. those of Franschoek, Stellenbosch and Swellendam. Visitor numbers also fell sharply, from almost 31,000 in 1975 to 21,446 in 1982. In the same year, Mrs Neethling was promoted and transferred to the Court Office in Cape Town. Mr Ferreira was appointed as the new curator on December 1, 1982. Under his leadership, a street project already planned in 1980 was started, and it concluded in 1985. It consists of the representation of an old-fashioned pharmacy, copper, silver and crockery shops, clothing and retailers and a replica of the Standard Bank building. After the temporary post had been temporarily filled for a number of months by Mrs E.D. Fourie, I was permanently appointed on 1 March 1984 under the new name of Museum Humanities Scientist.
Research and Educational Center
In 1984, the curator established a research library for the museum, for which books are systematically purchased. A large number of schoolchildren and students have been using it since 1985, and research by the museum itself is facilitated. In 1984, the museum was selected as a model for providing information to gifted students at the Port Elizabeth Collegiate Junior School and in 1987 to architecture students from Port Elizabeth. Slide readings became a regular institution, and with its own archive of documents, architectural plans, photographs, works of art and a complete set of Oudtshoorn newspapers, the museum was able to prove itself as an educational center and research source.
With the death of Mrs Smit in 1984, the N.A. Smit bequest came into effect with the repayment of the Village House loan from 1985. After 31 years of uninterrupted service, the museum’s stalwart, Mrs De Jager, retired on 1 December 1984. With the purchase of a bakkie in August 1985 at the insistence of Mr Ferreira, museum activities and research work could only really get under way. From 1 August 1986, the museum staff of 14 members also became full civil servants.
The museum still receives a large number of donations annually, and visitor numbers began to rise again in 1983 and 1987. The 1987 inventory showed that the museum collection stood at 51,391, and two more scholarly publications appeared.
After an investigation by the Provincial Administration in 1987, it was determined that the Village House would in the future most likely be operated under “Own Affairs” as a separate museum. As a result, the existing museum will begin to shrink.
If Charlie Nel could have a look at the current museum today, he would surely be very proud of the quality of the exhibits, the positive criticism daily from visitors, and the advances in research and education. But he would surely also be worried about the future of the museum hanging in the balance and possibly be disappointed about the art center that did not want to become a reality– not in the first 50 years …
- Die Burger, 19 March 1973
- Oudtshoorn Courant (Almanac appendix), 15 Dec. 1898
- CP Nel-Museum léer Nel 3/1
- CP Nel-Museum léer Nel 1 / 1-4
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 18 Feb. 1936 p.3
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 25 Nov. 1938 p.6
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 25 March 1939 p.4
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 20 Feb. 1940 p.4
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 12 Jul. 1940 p.5
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 14 March. 1941 p.5; 21 Aug. 1946
- CP Nel-Museum léer 0/0 7/6
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 5 March 1949 p.1
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 18 Feb. 1950 p.1; Oudtshoorn News, 9 Feb. 1951
- CP Nel-Museum léer NEL 1/4
- Oudtshoorn News, 9 Feb. 1951
- CP Nel-Museum Minute Book 1953
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 25 Nov. 1953 p.1; 5 Sept. 1953 p.1, 6
- Oudtshoorn Courant, 24 Aug. 1968 p.6
- Figure 1. Charlie Nel and his brother Louis. 1888
- Figure 2. Charlie Nel (right) and Teddy Scheepers at the door of his first business in 1903.
- Figure 3. Colonel C.P. Nel with a number of medals and trophies he obtained during his military operations.
- Figure 4. The old High School for Boys which was purchased in 1968 to house the current C.P. Nel Museum.
- Figure 5. The ark of the Jewish synagogue built in 1976 in the C.P. Nel Museum.
- Figure 6. The C.P. Nel Dorpshuis that was purchased and restored in 1979.
- Figure 7. Charles Paul Nel
- Figure 8. The first museum building in 140 High Street, where the museum was housed for 32 years
A gallery in honour of the Jewish pioneers of Oudtshoorn
By Clara Friedman-Spits
Curatrix of the Jewish Museum, Cape Town
From Jewish Affairs, ISSN 0021-6313
July, 1973. pp. 19-21.
On the 16th March, 1973, the official opening of the C. P. Nel Museum took place in Oudtshoorn. This museum derives its name from the late Mr. C. P. Nel, who donated the first building in which it was originally housed in High Street and the nucleus of its collection. It was re-housed in the former Boys’ High School.
The Boys’ High School, a substantial stone building in Oudtshoorn’s midtown area, is one of the best examples of the sandstone architecture which became popular in the so-called ostrich period. The building, which was threatened with demolition, was saved and restored to its former glory. The funds for this scheme were brought together by individuals, institutions and organisations, amongst them the B’nai B’rith Lodge in Oudtshoorn.
As the C. P. Nel Museum has as its centre theme the ostrich industry and its history, the museum’s curator and its trustees thought it fitting that this museum should have a special gallery set aside to honour the Jewish pioneers of Oudtshoorn and the district, who played such an important role in the development of this industry from its outset to the present day. When the committee of the Jewish Museum in Cape Town heard of these plans they offered their assistance to the B’nai B’rith Lodge in Oudtshoorn, help which was warmly welcomed.
The outcome of this co-operation was The Jewish Gallery, now to be seen in the C. P. Nel Museum. The opening of this gallery made history, not only in the field of South African Museums, but for South African Jewry as well.
There are two Jewish museums in South Africa: the one in Cape Town, housed in the Old Synagogue, the first shul erected in the country in 1862, and a small museum housed in a room in the offices of the S.A. Jewish Board of Deputies, in Kruis Street, Johannesburg.
The C. P. Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn is the first provincial museum which has made room available to show something of the work and achievement of Jewish pioneers in South Africa, as well as their religions, culture, and background.
The room in which the gallery is housed is the first one on the right when one enters the museum. At its entrance a notice board displays the words: The Jewish Gallery– Die Joodse Galery, and underneath in smaller print: Sponsored by the B’nai B’rith Lodge Oudtshoorn. When entering the gallery, handsomely carpeted in shades of brown and green, this first thing one notices on one of the walls is an old parokheth, from the defunct synagogue in Uniondale, showing a large Magen David in gold on a faded red background. Flanking this parokheth are two beautiful Victorian oil lamps on stands, each stand supporting three lights with beautiful pink glass shades. These lamps used to stand on either side of the Holy Ark in the Queen Street synagogue in Oudtshoorn.
In front of the parokheth from Uniondale hangs the Perpetual Light from the synagogue in Queen Street, a magnificent brass lamp with cut-glass container. Underneath the paroketh stands a case in which can be seen the silver trowel used for the laying of the foundation stone of the Queen Street synagogue in 1888, a photograph of the Rev. A. F. Ornstein, who layed the foundation stone– and what a journey it must have been in those days from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn and back– and a charming picture of the Rev. Joel Rabinowitz and his daughter Rose, taken in circa 1860.
The Rev. Rabinowitz was the sole Jewish minister in South Africa until 1872 and as such saw to the needs of the Oudtshoorn Jewish pioneers in the early days before they had a minister of their own.
A portrait of Oudtshoorn’s first minister, the Rev. Myer Wolfsohn, who arrived in 1888, and a group photograph of the first committee of the Queen Street congregation are to be seen in the same case.
In the centre of the gallery are cases showing ceremonial silver still in use in Outdshoorn. Some of these objects are truly magnificent and reflect the affluence of the community during the ostrich boom period. Another case in the centre displays two centre pieces of parakhoths used in Oudtshoorn. The one, dating from the 19th century, shows the Tablets of the Law flanked by two lions, hand-embroidered in gold on red velvet. This beautiful piece of work was made in Europe. The second centre piece is most interesting. Oudtshoorn, as those familiar with South African Jewish History know, was sometimes called ‘little Jerusalem’. People say this was because Oudtshoorn had at one time what was most probably the largest country community in South Africa. It had two congregations, a Jewish Day School, state-supported and opened in 1904, and an active Jewish life. Personally I feel that it might also have something to do with its buildings. Buildings in Jerusalem are made of lime-stone which has a golden tint. Many buildings in Oudtshoorn, among them the Boys’ High School, the two synagogues, many churches, public buildings and houses are made of sand-stone which has also a golden-yellowish tint.
The centre of the parokheth on display in the Jewish gallery shows the skyline of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, embroidered in gold thread on purple velvet, and verses from the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Psalms. ‘For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ and ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May they prosper who love you’.
There is a book display showing Hebrew books brought to Oudtshoorn by Jewish pioneers, some showing the names of the owners and the places where they farmed. A most striking find in the Queen Street synagogue was a specialty bound tractate of the Talmud dealing with the laws concerning eggs, printed in Eastern Europe in 1850. It is displayed together with an old basket from the same period holding ostrich egg shells.
Also to be seen in the gallery are photographs of Jewish pioneers, an early group photograph of pupils and teachers of the Jewish Day School established in 1904 and a school report of one of the pupils, a magnificent silver plated candelabra once used in the Queen Street synagogue and donated by its first President in 1910, a model made for the building of the Holy Ark in the St. John Street synagogue, the small suitcase used by Mr. Weinstein, the Shul’s Shammas, Schochet and Mohel for nearly fifty years, and some of its contents.
A glass cabinet opposite the entrance to the Jewish Gallery houses Chanukah Lamps from both synagogues, an olive wood Bessamim (spice) box, a Shofar, an olive wood Ethrog container, hand-embroidered Tallit bags, a beautifully bound Hebrew books, All in all the display is worth a trip to Oudtshoorn.
List of figures
- The Queen Street Synagogue in Oudtshoorn, erected in 1888. (Copyright photograph: The Jewish Museum, Cape Town.)
- The St. John Street Synagogue in Oudtshoorn, erected in 1896. (Copyright photograph: The Jewish Museum, Cape Town.)
C.P. Nel Museum-Townhouse, Oudtshoorn
The Board of Trustees of the C.P. Nel Museum was very fortunate that permission was granted by the Executive Committee to acquire the dwelling of the late Mrs. Rose Van Niekerk.
The property consists of two buildings. The ground had been granted in April 1879 to Mr. O’Finn who established a little shop. This whole area was soon developed into little stone cottages with shutters, as townhouses surrounding the new Dutch Reformed Church which was inaugurated in 1879. The Museum’s little cottage went through various stages of uses and development. The last owner divided this little dwelling into a smithy and Mr. Polson’s family lived in the rest of the house. From Mr. Polson, a rich cattle breeder, Mr. J.H.J. le Roux from Bakenskraal purchased the property. Mr. le Roux commissioned the well-known architect, Charles Bullock, to design a luxurious house in the fashion of the time. This fashion was Art Nouveau, à la Oudtshoorn. It was 1907 and eclecticism was the vogue of the time. The term “Jugendstil” originating from the title of the magazine “Jugend” (Youth) published in München commencing 1896, was used in Germany and Austria, for the style which was called in France, England and other countries “L’art nouveau”, or New Art, 1900 style. It was romantic, naturalistic resurgence, essentially decorative and, in consequence, seen best in interior decoration, industrial art and fashion. The influence from Europe on the architecture of Oudtshoorn is irrefutable. With the extremely profitable ostrich feather market there was a close communication with Europe through commerce.
The feather barons’ mansions and public buildings (banks, schools, churches) gave to Oudtshoorn its particular atmosphere. But some of the finest ostrich mansions were on the farms.
The 1900 style from Europe was adapted to the availability of building materials and the hot climate of Oudtshoorn. Corrugated iron was one of the materials differing from that of Europe. For the roofing in South Africa in climates that ranged to extremes, this material was ideal, and so started the British Colonial style, ranging from India right to South Africa. Stoeps and verandahs, also a distinguishing colonial feature on buildings, are very suitable to hot climatic circumstances, and give a difference of appearance to their European counterparts.
These characteristics and hewn sandstone from Oudtshoorn are apparent in our “Townhouse” which was in a sad state of repair because it stood empty for two years after a long illness of the last owner of the dwelling.
The funds of the Museum were at a low ebb and so the staff very courageously offered to do the work themselves. If one speaks of the “staff” of the C.P. Nel Museum, they were twelve at that time in 1979. The Curatrix took it upon herself to do the planning and supervision. Mr. S.P. Saayman, a very handy assistant offered to do the work with the help of Mr. Jansen, the handyman. The members of the Board offered their help wherever needed. As I write this I still shiver in what I have let myself into. It reminds me of the saying “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Fortunately our small team was far too eager on the project to think of proverbs.
On June 18th, 1979 work commenced. As Mr. Saayman was designated to the Townhouse the rest of the assistants had to take his terms. Fortunately he still did his weekend duty at the C.P. Nel Museum. Mrs. van Niekerk, a daughter of Mr. le Roux, was a keen collector of antiques. After her heirs removed all the furniture and decorations we realised the state of repair of the house. At the back of the house is a very large verandah which Mrs van Niekerk had further enlarged and enclosed in order to create an outkitchen, a flower arranging room and her private dressing room. All of it had to be removed. In the middle of the property a servants room had been erected out of at some stage two lavatories. Various walls of corrugated iron divided the property into various little courtyards of no description.
Our chairman, Dr. M.A.S. Grundlingh, and myself were very disenchanted two people after a thorough investigation. But light always shines again. The Municipal officials took pity on us and helped to demolish all these additions. A third toilet was installed into one of the storerooms of the O’Finn cottage. The boundary was walled in and white-washed. The grounds had to be soaked for some time in order to level it. Terraces have been built, in keeping with the style of the house and its time.
The enclosed verandahs were white-washed by the last owner. The question arose whether to sandblast or not. Eventually I had to decide not, on account of the softness of the cut sandstone. So our versatile Mr. Saayman mixed an earth colour paint with cement which came nearest to the original colour of the stone. The inside became a nightmare to both Mr. Saayman and myself. Old wallpaper had been painted. A five-litre tin was filled with nails removed from the walls which once held ornaments. This meant holes in the walls which had to be repaired. While the house stood empty, rats nested in there. The Municipal pest control official settled that problem. But harm had been done on the cornices and the mouldings of the entrance hall, the lounge and the dining room. Mr. Saayman painstakingly repaired the damage with plaster of paris, making new moulds as he went on. As far as we could afford to, we papered the rooms in keeping with the architecture of the house. Fortunately wallpaper is very much in favour today and the range wide, so there at least we suffered no difficulties. The entire house from ceiling downwards was either painted or papered. The size of the house is 305,25 square metres and the endless stoeps 140,45 square metres. The red paint and polish of the stoep had to be chipped off and repainted. We were scared to polish the stoep which would have become slippery for our visitors and a great risk to the Board of Trustees. The roof was painted with many a little drama.
If one considers that experienced people tackled the job and had so many hazards, I shiver to think of jobs done by people in ignorance.
One piece of restoration proved to be a fallacy. The dado in the dining room had to be painted as it was white, which is not in keeping with the style. We have chosen the green colour of the tiles in the fireplace. With today’s oil paint being very shiny, we could have ended up with a “green” elephant. Fortunately someone with experience gave us the right advice, and this green dado will eventually become matt. Just give us time. Considering the size of restoration, this small error can be well afforded and absorbed in the costs.
Talking about costs, no labour included, it came to R5000. So far we have only discussed the work, but what about its style, appearance, its looks, its interior and furnishing? When the Board bought the property I made a great decision and promised that I would not rob the existing Museum, but regard the domestic Museum as a new entity of our complex. Another decision was taken between our Technician, Mr P. Westraad, and myself. No piece of furniture would go into this house unless it had been fully restored. Many a great word said in jest. The Board was very grateful to the Department of Nature and Environmental Conservation for making funds available in order to purchase some furniture on a 50% subsidy basis. But let me tell you what the house really looks like. The iron and fretwork used, came to South Africa as ballast in the days of half-steam, half-sailing ships. This material has been put to use in Oudsthoorn in exuberance. Verandah poles, spandrels and railings grace our house as well as many others. Fire grates and tiles, as well as black kitchen ranges, were all imported, mostly from the foundry of MacFarlane as advertised in his popular catalogue.
The ceilings and cornices in our Townhouse are not pressed steel as in most parts of the country, but embossed papier-mache. These plaster ceilings are inclined to give trouble after seventy years. Harsh climatic conditions of extremes have exacted their toll. Highly glazed tiles in fireplaces and coloured glass in brass frames characterise our Townhouse. The patterns are in the fashion of Art Nouveau. A dado in the hall, drawing room and dining room was a “must”, often also in the endless passages of the building. They were highly decorative in pattern and painted in rather dull dark colours.
In our case we left the dado of the entrance hall white, as the last owner had converted it. For no other reason, except to keep the entrance as light and friendly as possible. A counter in yellow wood has been constructed by Mr. Westraad and an old very ornamental mirror has been restored and installed above the counter. A photograph of the Le Roux family, the first occupants of this dwelling, is also in the hall. Off the hall is the drawing room, with its original fireplace lamp fittings and wall to wall Wilton carpeting dating back to 1909. The furniture was purchased and the porcelain ornaments and bric-a-brac came from the Museum’s collection. The curtains are cotton lace, which proved quite a problem to acquire. The sash windows also have sash shutters with a compartment in the wall underneath.
The original blinds with inset lace are still hanging since 1909. Here another team effort occurred when the ladies assistants decided the lace had to be washed and restored. What a painstaking job this was. Eventually done, a local upholsterer stitched the inset back into place. One has to remember all the time museum work at the C.P. Nel Museum had to continue and the Board of Trustees were very outspoken in their gratitude to the staffs enthusiasm and hard work. In between of course, leaves had to be taken and some of the staff members fell ill.
But everybody contributed in her or his way towards the end result. When a fireplace had to be restored, Mr. Andre de Wet, member of the Board managed to acquire some copperplate. His wife, a native from these parts, suggested painting the kitchen’s dado dark brown and the top lighter brown, the way she remembered the well-to-do homes of the period. The result is a beautiful kitchen which still lacks a range.
The other side of the hall is the main bedroom also papered as is the dining room and possesses a brass bed, fitted with lace bedspread and lace pillows. A mahogany bedroom suite has already caused the remark whether the visitors could not book in for bed and breakfast, and this is exactly what we envisaged– the lived-in look. Our Custodian, Mrs. F. de Jager, takes great pride to fill the vases in each room with fresh cut flowers.
From the hall lead two doors with highly glazed coloured glass into the dining room and another passage. The dining room is furnished but still lacks oak dining chairs. But we are sure eventually this addition will also come. Old silver is on display here.
The pantry proves very picturesque in its old-time beauty. The original built-in cupboards are adorned with oilcloth cut-runners– all from 1909. It used to be the housewife’s place of work. The original bathroom has an ornamental tub with painted art nouveau patterns. The washbasin is iron fretwork and very ornamental with glazed tiles. The smallest bedroom has been converted into an office. As bedrooms in domestic museums are rather boring to the public, except if a celebrity of great fame has slept in such a room, we try to stick to two bedrooms of different character. The second bedroom has the original wallpaper of 1909 and a beautiful black iron and brass ornamented double bed. The furniture is yellowwood but the style dates back to 1906.
Mrs. van Niekerk’s original bedroom has been converted into a very male-looking study, with information on the house and its original occupants for the visitor to read. Smoking utensils are displayed in a museum display cabinet, all locked. The extra large easy-chairs, decanters and nice ashtrays create a very cosy room. As the carpet is also original like the one in the drawing room, we have put felt underneath in order to help to carry the traffic. This room has curtains over twenty years in use and they stood a wash comfortably. It goes to show if good quality material is used, it pays in the long run. Special care has been taken to eliminate ultraviolet light from the interior in order to safeguard the collection.
The entire undertaking of restoration has taken nine months, which can be regarded as a record. This includes the laying out of the garden. On March 31st 1980, during the Annual General Meeting of the C.P. Nel Museum, our outgoing Director of Nature and Environmental Conservation, Dr. Douglas Hey, in company of his successor, Mr. W.O. Morsbach, opened the house to the public. It was a great day when the first visitors viewed the house. Some thought it was given to us with all the contents of Mrs. van Niekerk. Well, they have been disappointed.
Through the kind cooperation of the Administration, the Municipality and the Board of Trustees of the C.P. Nel Museum, this property was purchased for R30000 and as already mentioned, the restoration and purchase of furniture added another R5000.
Dr Picton-Seymour describes this house as follows: “Quite the most lavishly decorated town residence is the Le Roux House in High Street. Standing on a corner site, the small front garden is guarded by a stone wall set with Art Nouveau iron railings. The corner of the house consists of a circular tower, topped by deep ironwork above the fish-scale tiles of the conical curved roof. The base of the cone rests on a collar of ironwork with a motif of classical honeysuckle. Then below the corrugated iron roof the circular verandah fans out, and is supported upon cast-iron with railings; this verandah continues around much of the house and forms a delicate portico over the front steps. The walls are of the ochre stone of Oudtshoorn and the steep but interestingly-shaped roof is of corrugated iron. Like small dormer windows, circular cast-iron ventilators look out from the lofts, and the roof is crested and spiked with iron lacework. The roof shape denotes the interesting shapes of the rooms beneath, especially that with the section below the circular tower; the ornate ceilings follow these odd contours in a delightful manner.”
The house was designed by Charles Bullock in 1909 for J.H.J. le Roux, a cattle breeder of Bakenskraal, as “tuishuis” as it is situated near the Dutch Reformed Church. His daughter, Mrs. Rose van Niekerk, acquired the house after her husband’s death and moved from the farm to settle in town. Mrs. van Niekerk was a great collector of antiques for which this house provided an ideal backdrop.
Another heritage of South Africa has been saved. On February 22nd 1980 our Townhouse was proclaimed a National Monument. Oudtshoorn is rightly proud of this achievement.
- Reginald G. Haggar: A dictionary of Art Terms. Oldbourne Press. London. 1962.
- D. Picton-Seymour: Victorian Buildings in South Africa. A.A. Balkema. 1977.
List of Figures
- Front elevation of the Townhouse, Oudtshoorn. This is a typical example of “Ostrich Boom Architecture,” 1900-1914.
- In the drawing room one is struck by this remarkable ceiling of papier-mache.
- The stained glass of the front door. The windows are set in brass.