Old Swellendam Main Street with Church.

The home of Swellendam Heritage Conservation

Established in 1959 and is the largest and oldest non-governmental (NGO) organisation involved in heritage conservation.

View of old Swellendam from above.Works in field in old Swellendam.Illustration of wild fynbos flowers.
Old map of South Africa showing Swellendam.

The History of Swellendam

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.

Year 1500.Swellendam San and Khoekhoen.

San & Khoekhoen

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.

Year 1652.Swellendam Dutch East India Company - VOC.

The Dutch East India Company

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.

Year 1700.

Free Burghers

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.

Swellendam Free Burgers and trekboere. Sheep on the Swellendam Pont.
Year 1743.

Frontier district

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.

Swellendam Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel.
Year 1798.

Stopping point

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.

Swellendam Ox Waggon.

First 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).

Republic of Swellendam Burgers.
Year 1800.

trading and mercantile

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.

Old wellendam traders and farmers.
Year 1830.


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.

Old Swellendam district capitol.

THE Architecture

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.

Swellendam Architecture and Muslim artisans,
Year 1860.

Decline - 1860 drought

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.

Old Swellendam Farmers in field.

Run dry

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.

Swellendam Barry and Nephews trading company.
Year 1865.

Great Fire

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.

Swellendam Great Fire May 1865.

great consequences

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.

Swellendam and Buffeljags Sugar Bridge.
Year 1930.

Small town

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.

Swellendam from above 1930.


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.

Swellendam Nuwedorp.
Year 1960.


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.

Swellendam Modernisation and demolitions of old buildings.


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.

Swellendam Building Demolition,

...and conservation

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.

Swellendam Drostdy Complex Conservation.

Racial segregation

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.

Swellendam Segregation. Whites only bench. Apartheid.
Year 1980.

Swellendam Trust, to SHA

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

Swellendam Trust.
Swellendam Drostdy. Complex.
R160 per person

Become a member

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.

What's Happening

Jul 19, 2024

SHA visit to the recreated farm of the last century, Soetmelksvlei, at Babylonstoring.

SHA have organised a visit to the recreated farm of the last century, Soetmelksvlei, at Babylonstoring. The entrance fee has been waived.

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Jun 20, 2024
Jun 20, 2024

Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom”

Your committee are proud to announce they have convinced Professor Johan Fourie of Stellenbosch University to come and address us on Thursday evening at 18h00 for 18h30 in the Drostdy Schuur.

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May 21, 2024

Swellendam Heritage Association AGM 21st May

On 12 May SHA will be holding its AGM at 18.00 in the Drostdy Schuur there will be the customary agenda, a book launch, awards, and soup and wine

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May 20, 2024

SHAs restoration of the "old dipgat" at the entrance to swellendam

SHA restored the old dipgat with the help of many generous donors, who gave their time and expertise & made donations. This board acknowledges their generosity

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Our Publications

Available through Bokmakiri Boeke, limited stock.

Your committee

Meet your committee members! Click to expand more information.
Philip Bromley

Philip Bromley

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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.

Hennie Steyn

Hennie Steyn

History, Research & Publications
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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

SSK- 1984-2012


  1. Swellendam Trust (8 years).]
  2. Swellendam Agricultural Society (Chairman 13 years).
  3. Valuator for Agricultural Bank  {13 years).
  4. Dutch Reformed Church.
  5. Swellendam Heritage Association (2012-2019).

Retired : researching history of Swellendam over a broad spectrum.

Carol Podd

Carol Podd

Vice Chairman, Communications, Social Media & Website
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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.

Derek Weightman

Derek Weightman

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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.

 Work Experience

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.



Margie Walker

Margie Walker

Treasurer, Journal s
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•Born of 1820 settler ancestry
•Schooled in Rhodesia
•1971 Graduated BSc UED
KZN University
•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.

Tanja Kruger

Tanja Kruger

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Born: 1974 Benoni

 Matriculated: Hoërskool Brandwag

University of Pretoria: BArch (1993-1997)

 Professional Architect: Tanja Kruger Argitekte

 Member of SACAP: 6522

Member of Pretoria Institute for Architecture: KR1042 

Moved to Swellendam 2017 

Short courses: University Museum,Stellenbosch University

2019: Heritage Conservation

2021: Architectural Styles


Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk Sustersvereniging Swellendam:Secretary 2019 – present

 Board of Trustees Drostdy Museum: Premier’s representative onthe governing body of the Drostdy Museum 2020 – present

 Swellendam Heritage Association Committee Member 2024

 Hobbies: Art, Architecture, The history of Swellendam and the overberg region.


From the archives

The Bonnievale Irrigation Canal by Theuns Coetzee

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The Bonnievale Irrigation Canal by Theuns Coetzee

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Old Swellendam Main Street and Atlantic Petrol Station.