Established in 1959 and is the largest and oldest non-governmental (NGO) organisation involved in heritage conservation.
As one of the oldest established towns in South Africa, it important to look not just at the history of Swellendam itself, but how it came to be. *As published in Treasures of Swellendam, 2018 Version.
San (Bushman) hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoen livestock herders inhabited the Western Cape for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in southern Africa. The Khoekhoen had acquired cattle from Bantu-speaking people in the interior of southern Africa about 2 000 years before. They also had unique ridgebacked dogs. The Khoekhoen around Swellendam were part of the Hessequa chiefdom.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 solely to supply fresh food to its ships on the Eastern trade route. However, the Company’s vegetable garden failed repeatedly and trade with the Khoekhoen for cattle and sheep became increasingly difficult. Within five years it released some of its servants to farm independently – albeit with the VOC as sole purchaser.
By 1700, ‘free burghers’ were farming the areas around Stellenbosch (established in 1679), Franschhoek and Tulbagh. Armed battles pushed the protesting Khoekhoen out of their traditional grazing lands, and a smallpox epidemic in 1713 decimated their population. European stock farmers (trekboers) had already pushed beyond the settled area into the Overberg – beyond the mountains.
In 1743, therefore, the VOC decided to introduce a collegie of landdrost and heemraden for the frontier district, which was named Swellendam after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel and his wife Helena ten Damme. The point where the old wagon road to the frontier crossed the Koornlands River was chosen as the site of the Drostdy building, which was erected in 1746/7. Houses for other VOC officials were later built across the road (now the Old Gaol complex) and on the other side of the river along what is now Van Oudtshoorn Street.
The Drostdy was the administrative centre of a huge district. It also became an important stopping point on the road to the frontier, which provided opportunities for wagonmakers, blacksmiths, traders and food suppliers. A small, unplanned settlement gradually developed along the wagon road on the other side of the river. By 1798 there were about 20 scattered houses, but still no church.
The VOC so notoriously neglected the interests of Swellendam’s inhabitants that they declared a short-lived Rebel National Assembly in 1795, and it was only after the VOC’s bankruptcy and the takeover of the Cape by the British that the village began to develop. A church was eventually built in 1802 during the first British Occupation (1795–1803).
The first half of the 19th century was a period of growth and prosperity. Carts and wagons made by Swellendam’s craftsmen were in great demand. Agricultural production – particularly wool from Merino sheep – flourished in the surrounding district. The family firm Barry & Nephews introduced maritime transport from Port Beaufort and Malagas on the Breede River, which provided easy access to markets and goods, and revolutionised the economy. While the operations of Barry & Nephews remained centred in Swellendam (see Nos. 26, 27, 29), their trading and mercantile empire expanded across the entire Overberg.
From the 1830s to the 1860s, Swellendam was the capital of a booming district economy, invigorating social, religious, educational and cultural activity. Most of the finest old buildings in the town, with their interesting architectural layering, date from this period.
Traditional Cape Dutch elements such as thatched roofs, gables and decorative plasterwork abound – much of these the work of slaves (prior to their emancipation in 1834–38) and of a community of skilled Muslim artisans who lived in Lemmetjiesdorp near The Glen (see Nos. 60, 109). These elements were often combined with features introduced by the English, such as large-paned Georgian sash windows, double doors with delicate fanlights, the entrance passage replacing the voorkamer (front room), hipped roofs and dormer gables.
In the 1860s a severe drought caused a slump in agricultural production and put farmers under financial strain; the resultant economic depression badly affected businesses and industries in Swellendam.
Barry & Nephews was already struggling and when its trading steamer, the Kadie, ran aground in the mouth of the Breede River at Cape Infanta (see Nos. 114, 115) in November 1865, it was a fatal blow. The firm was declared bankrupt in 1866.
The final disaster was the Great Fire which broke out in May 1865, completely destroying a large portion of the town centre: many houses and businesses, a hotel, the Wesleyan Chapel, the bank and the printing press (which had published the local newspaper) burnt down.
Despite relief efforts, Swellendam never recovered its former status and prosperity. The economy stagnated and the population declined. Mossel Bay took over from Port Beaufort as the main port of the Overberg. The vast district previously serviced by the Drostdy was subdivided, and the services that Swellendam had previously provided became available in towns such as Caledon, Riversdale, Heidelberg and Bredasdorp.
For the next hundred years, Swellendam developed slowly, by subdivision of existing properties and modest town extensions. Buitekant Street, above the main road, was as its name (outer edge) suggests, the upper limit of the town. Along it many fine examples may be found of Victorian- and Edwardian-styled houses that were built in country districts until the 1930s.
In the mid-19th century, the ‘Nuwedorp’ (New Town) extension – Berg Street and Faure Street – was laid out to the north of the Drostdy. It remained largely rural until the last few decades, and several late 19th to early 20th century vernacular cottages may still be seen in this area, albeit modernised. Swellendam became a typically quiet, slow and peaceful rural town.
A century after the disasters of the 1860s, Swellendam suffered further blows. In 1965 Voortrek Street – which was then still part of the main road to the Southern Cape and beyond – was widened and upgraded to modern provincial engineering standards.
Nearly all the old trees that had previously shaded the road were felled; several notable old buildings were demolished entirely and others – including the Town Hall – lost portions of their frontages and new levels left buildings on the river side of the road sitting in a gulley several steps below the street. Ironically, not long thereafter, the N2 was built to carry through-traffic past Swellendam. But the damage had been done.
Swellengrebel Street and the Drostdy complex were saved from such destruction by the indomitable efforts of historian Dr Mary Cooke, the director of the Drostdy Museum at the time. She managed to have the oaks lining the street declared a national monument (now a provincial heritage resource) in 1955, effectively preventing road-widening.
The infamous Group Areas Act of the Apartheid government was equally destructive on a social level. In the 1970s all ‘non-White’ inhabitants of Swellendam were forcibly removed across the N2 to Railton, where a tiny vernacular settlement already existed. The golf course, regarded as “White” was moved in the opposite direction and reconstructed in its present position. As elsewhere, the town is still struggling to overcome the effects of spatial segregation.
All over the world, as modernist development destroyed old buildings and neighbourhoods, heritage conservation became increasingly popular. In early 1980 a group of concerned Swellendam residents met to form the Swellendam Trust, the forerunner of the present Swellendam Heritage Association. It is one of the oldest local conservation organisations in South Africa, and its tireless efforts over many decades have contributed to the survival of many of the buildings listed here
We aim to encourage the public to preserve our cultural and natural heritage; to stimulate pride and personal interest in conservation by encouraging group projects and voluntary efforts to conserve and improve the environment; to set the work of the SHA on a sound economic basis by raising funds and using such funds for conservation projects and the stimulation of others to conserve and preserve our cultural and natural heritage; to co-operate with all relevant authorities and organisations in pursuit of the aims and objectives of the SHA.Join Now
SHA AGM - docs and agenda available on request
30 members gathered at the Drostdy car park to begin a tour of the origins and purpose of the irrigation system when the Drostdy was built in 1746/7
Dr Dan Sleigh is a long time friend of Swellendam and will talk about local history
The new conservation management plan for the Drostdy museum complex
Schooled at Grey College in Bloemfontein.
Studied agriculture post matric at Grootfontein Agricultural College.
Has lived and worked in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, De Aar, East London, Durban. Retired to Pumula on the South Coast of Natal in 2004.
Semigrated from KwaZulu-Natal to the Western Cape to Swellendam in 2013.
Member of the service organisation Lions International’s club in Swellendam
Member of the Swellendam Heritage Association. 2014.
Chairman of the association 2016 to present.
Hobbies are DIY and Reading South African history.
Born 1952 in York , UK.
Sudbury Boys Grammar School.
UMIST (Manchester) 1974 BSc (Hons) Chemistry
Business Management programmes at UCT (Cape Town),
Harvard & Kellogg’s Business Schools in the USA.
1974-77 Research Chemist at Courtaulds, Coventry,UK
1977-90 Saiccor (KZN) Later Sappi Saiccor. Various roles ,
1990-94 Mill GM of the Sappi Usutu pulp mill in Swaziland
1994-2012 Sappi Saiccor as head of the Technical Dept
2012-13 Consultant for Sappi Saiccor
Fully retired end of 2013 moved to Swellendam, 2020.
Born in 1948, and have been retired for the past 6 years, and settled in Swellendam 2 years ago from Napier.
Has an active interest in Heritage and History and joined the Swellendam Heritage Association during April 2018 and currently assist on the committee.
Has an Engineering and Project Management background in the Telecommunications industry and have worked for companies such as Denel, Vodacom and Alcatel through the years.
Spent substantial time in France, Germany and Israel studying and have obtained a business degree from the University of Tel Aviv.
Born 1946, North London.School – Sacred Heart convent, Whetstone.
Southampton University: Art. Literature & Education
Variously taught in schools, environmental centres, museums & brought up our children in:
Kitwe- Zambia, Bedford- UK, Cornwall-UK, Johannesburg-SA & Chicago-USA.
Moved to Swellendam in 1998.
Part of the team who created & administered ‘Swellendam Alive’ 2000-2004
Council member & Trustee of Heritage Association of South Africa (formally Simon van der Stel Foundation). 2009 -
Swellendam Trust / Swellendam Heritage Association 2000 –
Secretary, editor – newsletter, chairman & vice-chairman.
Born 1947.Matriculated ; Paul Ross Gymnasium (1965) Army Gymnasium (1966)
UP: BSc Agriculture, MSc Agriculture.
Farmed: Kliphoogte & Voorhuis 1974-2015.
Boards of Directors: Soill – 1996-2011
Retired : researching history of Swellendam over a broad spectrum.
Born 1951.Schooled at Port Natal High school, Durban 1970. Military training & border duty 1971.
PTA Tech – H Dip Horticulture & Landscape planning 1987 Continued to work at Tech 1990
Relocated to Cape Town –
Retired: 2016 committee Swellendam Heritage Association & Aesthetics SDM.
•Born of 1820 settler ancestry
•Schooled in Rhodesia
•1971 Graduated BSc UED
•1971-1977 Taught Epworth High School
• 1980 Created Co-ordinated Interiors Hillcrest/ Kloof
•2017 Moved to Swellendam
• Community involvement:
Swellendam Winter School
Friends of the Drostdy Museum.
Swellendam Garden Club.
Born 1993, Swellendam, Swellendam High.
Lived in Johannesburg for 3 years after school and then moved abroad for work. Travelled and worked in multiple countries and has recently moved back to South Africa.
Interest in History stems from a familial connection to the history of Swellendam and joined the committee to strengthen that connection.
Enjoy a telling of the history of Rotterdam; one of the most spectacular Cape Dutch homesteads.Check it out