Chapter 1 - Township in the Wilderness
In the same year that saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, on October 26, 1897, a meeting took place of the now-vanished Town Council of Woodstock, in due course to be merged into that of Greater Cape Town. Before it, awaiting attention, lay a communication from a company, Milnerton Estates Limited, "notifying the purchase of the properties known as Paarden Island and Jan Biesjes Kraal respectively". The letter also informed them that it was intended "to layout the estate as a township, to be known as Milnerton and also to open up railway communications from Cape Town to the centre of the property. . ."
Dominating the news of the day was the arrival in Cape Colony of the new High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner (afterwards Lord Milner), for which reason, the promoters of the new venture decided to embody his name in that of their new enterprise.
The founding of Milnerton Estates Limited, on August 30, 1897, under the Cape Company Act (adopted only five years previously), reflected a temporary wave of optimism and an urge towards development, which had been sweeping the whole country as the trauma of the Jameson Raid receded into the background. Among the 25 shareholders were several personalities, prominent not merely in local affairs but in those of the sub-continent, among them the chairman, Sir James Sivewright, a close associate of Cecil John Rhodes. Born in Scotland in 1848, Sivewright had come to the Cape as an engineer in its Telegraph Service, and had risen to be its General Manager in 1877. Two years later he won distinction as a soldier in the Zulu War, had entered Parliament, and became Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works. In that capacity he had been responsible for completing the first railway line from Cape Town to the newly-established Witwatersrand Goldfields. Already a man of great wealth, Sivewright, during the post-Jameson Raid upheaval, had left the Government, and had developed a magnificent farming enterprise near Somerset West at Lourensford.
Also on the Milnerton Estates board was the celebrated Sammy Marks, mining magnate, personal friend of President Kruger, pioneer industrialist and founder of the town of Vereeniging, of the Union Steel Corporation and of many other enterprises. No less prominent in the community were Anders Ohlsson of Cape Town, of Ohlsson's Breweries fame, and James D. Logan, "Laird of Matjesfontein", who had made his money in the liquor and catering trades, from his refreshment contracts with the Cape Government Railways. Still remembered as the godfather of the Johannesburg suburb of Jeppestown was Julius (afterwards Sir Julius) Jeppe, already a household word in early Johannesburg, to say nothing of his cousin Carl, a successful merchant in Cape Town and Consul for Denmark.
Of the subscribers for shares no fewer than three bore the name of Langerman, notably F. J. B. (Frikkie) of Cape Town, the largest single investor, with 9505 (out of 42010), followed by J. W. Stuckeris, with 2 500, and James with 2000. Prominent in horse-breeding circles was F. H. F. Mellish, who had taken 5005 shares, five more than Sammy Marks' 5 000! All the way from London came the investment of John Hays Hammond - Ceci1 John Rhodes' senior mining engineer in his Consolidated Goldfields until a conviction for trying to organise the Jameson Raid caused him to leave South Africa. Mention must also be made of W. Hare, the brick manufacturer, and head of a family still prominent in Cape Town, as well as of Major Frank Johnson, who had commanded the famous Rhodesian Pioneer Column in 1890, and T. N. de Villiers of Pretoria. Rather surprising too, in that era of unchallenged male supremacy, was the participation of two women, Mrs J. Johnson of Cape Town (500 shares) and Mrs Ella Scholtz of Pretoria (2000).
Even in 1897 both properties acquired by the Milnerton Estates had a long history. Paarden Island, at any rate as a geographica1 feature, had received this name in honour, according to some authorities, of the "wild horses" or zebras which flourished there in the days of Van Riebeeck; and, according to others, of the more familiar mokes pastured by the settlers! As for Jan Biesjes Kraa1, this commemorates an early headman of the district. A "Chart of Table Bay" in 1786 already shows it, while, significantly enough, in the earliest South African newspaper, the "Kaapsche Courant" for Apri1 14, 1804, issued in the days of the Batavian Republic, appeared an advertisement adorned with a picture of a horse, and reading:
Op Saterdag den 28, April, aanstaande,
JAN BIESJES KRAAL
Een groote quantitiet bastaart,
Vaderlandsche Trek-Ossen, ditto Koeyen,
Wagens, Bouwgereedschappen, Jongens,
waaronder een beste Veewagter,
Huisraad etc. etc.
Alsmede, ter zelver tyd en plaatse, vier
Spaansche Paarden . . ."
Another farm, destined to be associated in after years with Milnerton, figures in an advertisement in the Cape Government Gazette of June 16, 1834:
Of a TANNERY, DWELLING HOUSE AND PREMISES NEAR THE SALT RIVER, in the Cape District.. ." Then followed a description: "All that desirable freehold Property, now called 'LA BELLE ALLIANCE', being the chief part of the place RUSTVLIET, situate at the Salt River, in the Cape District, together with a piece of perpetual quitrent Land adjoining thereto. . ."
On this ground, which extended over about 6 morgen, and was known as Welgelegen, were located the earliest buildings in this part of the World: "A DWELLING HOUSE, containing four Rooms, two Halls, a Kitchen and Spacious Loft; with two stables, a cottage containing three Rooms, a Hall and Kitchen, two cottages, each containing two Rooms, a Pantry and Kitchen, with a small Garden in front. A TANNERY, comprising a spacious Range of Buildings, about 190 feet in length, containing numerous Tan Pits and other Conveniences. . . This property to be sold in the Insolvent Estate of John Brown".
The next occasion which brought the area into the news was of a less pleasant kind. . . figuring in Baron von Buchenroder's "Account of the Earthquakes which occurred in the Cape of Good Hope in the month of December 1809 . . .". Here we read:
"Much interest was excited by what was said to have been observed at Jan Biesjes Kraal, and at Blaauweberg's Valley. It was stated, 'that the earth had opened, that volcanic eruptions had taken place, that craters had been formed, and that lava had issued!' Numbers of persons flocked to these spots, and I went also on the 9th to examine them, but what I found fell considerably short of what I expected from the wonderful accounts I had heard. Yet was nevertheless remarkable and interesting. Near the Kraal I found rents and fissures in the ground, one of which I followed for about the extent of a mile. In some places they were more than an inch wide, and in others much less. In many places I was able to push into them, in a perpendicular direction, a switch to its full length, of three or four feet. By the people residing in the vicinity, I was informed, that they had observed these fissures on the morning of the 5th December, in some instances three and four inches wide, and that one person had been able to push the whole length of an iron rod, used to fix curtains upon into them, and that others had been able to do the same with whip-handles - even ten feet in length.
"The house at the Kraal in question (the residence of a Mr Bantjes), I found to have suffered so much, that it was not habitable, and consequently had been evacuated. In the walls were numerous clefts; by which they were rent completely asunder, so that I could put a stick from one side to the other in many places. The clefts extended from the top to the bottom, and corresponded with fissures in the ground.
"At Blaauweberg's Valley, I found the sandy surface studded with innumerable holes, resembling in shape, but in nothing else, craters in miniature. These holes were from six inches, to a foot and a half, and some even three feet in diameter, and from four inches to a foot and a half deep of a circular form, and the sides sloping to the centre. They were lined with a crust of bluish clay, of about a quarter of an inch in thickness, which had been baked by the sun, and according to its nature had cracked and curled up in fragments, which however adhered still to the sloping sides of the holes. I reckoned seven of these holes, of different dimensions, in an area, contained within a circle, which I drew around me with a walking stick, and which might have been somewhat more than ten feet in diameter.
"The appearance of the bluish baked clay, which had given rise to the story of lava was easily accounted for, from the rain (a great quantity of which had fallen in the preceding season) having been prevented by the substrata from penetrating and sinking deep into the ground, so that under the sandy surface, a considerable quantity of water had collected, in which a: portion of the substratum of clay had become dissolved, and which had been forced up through the loose sand, by the concussions which took place.
"The people at Blaauweberg's Valley, stated that 'they saw jets of coloured water spout from these holes, to the height of six feet, in the night of the 4th of December, at the time that the shocks were felt'."
After changing hands repeatedly the farms had come into the possession of F. J. B. Langerman, from whom they passed into the hands of his wife, who shared them with E. H. F. Mellish, the "Landing, Shipping and Commission Agent", and incidentally also a well-known horse breeder. The family link was further maintained by the appointment of F. J. B. Langerman's sons, James W. and J. W. S. (Willie), partners in Langerman Brothers & Lawrie, as secretaries of the Company.
On October 1, 1897, Jan Biesjes Kraal was transferred and before the month ended the "Cape Argus", of October 25, carried an historic item in its advertising columns:
"MILNERTON ESTATE COMPANY LIMITED
Notify that they have bought Paarden Eiland
and Jan Biesje's Kraal
for a Township
and intend connecting it with a Railway."
Charles Marais, Land Surveyor, had already been instructed to layout plots, while R. Esdon, Civil Engineer, also of Cape Town, had been engaged to define the route of the proposed line. On the very same evening that saw the appearance of the above notice, the Town Council of Woodstock, presided over by its Mayor George Conrad Behr, were even informed of details: "This junction will be near the present Gas Works. The survey is being proceeded with and the Secretaries ask whether any objection will be made to the railway passing through unoccupied land vested in the Municipality? Councillor Searle cautiously proposed a meeting with the promoters to find out what was going on. The immediate reaction was cool, William Hare reporting in December that "the Council would on no account allow the railway to go that way, though they would have no objection to its skirting the Municipal ground". And so it was arranged.
Even if the survey had not been completed, specifications of the railway had been worked out. It was to have an initial length of four miles, and would cost £11 299 3s, the only actual building involved being a "pointmen's cabin", costing £50! The next step was an approach by Milnerton Estates to the Government, which insisted on the passing of a special Act of Parliament.
Still surviving is a copy of the original diagram prepared by Charles Marais, showing a startlingly ambitious project, extending from the North bank of the Salt River, along the sea front, to the banks of the Riet Vlei and occupying almost as much ground as central Cape Town itself! (Most of this afterwards became part of present-day Paarden Island and was separated from Milnerton.) As for the lay-out, no fewer than 12 different plans were produced by Marais for the directorate to choose from.
May 1898 saw the submission, through their attorneys, Messrs Van Zyl & Buissinne, on behalf of the Milnerton Estates Limited, of a petition to the Cape Parliament, requesting leave to build the line to a terminus on Jan Biesjes Kraal, as well as to "construct, maintain and work lines of telegraph and telephone. . .", also "to effect certain improvements by blocking up and closing a certain channel for water existing upon the boundary of the Company's said property by means of dams or walls. . . and also for the purpose of erecting a certain weir across a stream or river, known as the Diep River, flowing through the said property. . ."
At this point opposition appeared from several quarters - the Cape Town and District Gas, Light & Coke Company Limited, jealous of interference with their premises at Woodstock, the Cape Government Railways and the other neighbouring Municipality of Maitland. Woodstock itself complained of interference with its proposed drainage scheme and in the House of Assembly a Select Committee ploughed through endless supporting evidence.
Craig's Crossing having been defined as the junction for the Milnerton Railway, some illuminating information was furnished by Charles Marais: "The area of the new estate," he said, "will be 940 morgen, or nearly 2000 acres." Mr Buissinne went back to a basic question: "What was the object of the Milnerton Estates Company in proposing to construct this railway?"
"The object," came the surveyor's answer, "is to cut up all this land into a township, and to build a railway in order to give the people who will reside there facilities for getting to town."
Valuable evidence was furnished by the Company's consulting engineer, George Lacey Good, who had formerly worked for the designer of Table Bay Docks, Sir John Coode. "Will you," enquired Mr Buissinne, "tell us whether you consider that these weirs and dams that the Company propose to construct will be an improvement to the Harbour as well as to the Foreshore and its surroundings?"
"Oh, yes. I can give you that information. I can safely say that, instead of being detrimental to the shipping, these works will be a distinct advantage, because at present the detritus brought down through the Salt River is deposited over the anchorage, and as the general trend of the current is Northward, if these works are constructed, all this matter will be carried directly out to sea. . ."
"And will the construction of a railway embankment and the building of a weir tend to open the mouth of the river?"
"Yes. That is the only way you can hope to keep it open and to carry this matter out to sea. . ."
Unlike modern township developers, the fathers of Milnerton began their sales campaign in a manner that could almost be described as casual. In the weekly journal of Cape Town gossip and politics, the "Owl", on February 17, 1899, there appeared on the back page a modest advertisement for "46 Plots of Land, near Milnerton Estates and the Beach", mentioning "Milnerton Estates Company's land which will soon be connected with the Government Suburban Line". Two months later, tenders were called for the construction of the Milnerton Railway.
By this time negotiations with the General Manager of the Cape Government Railways, Sir Charles Bletterman Elliott, had been brought to a successful conclusion, not only in regard to the link up with the
existing network, but to the proposed method of operation. Likewise, of the 12 alternative schemes that had followed Marais' rough plan of the "Township on Paarden Island and Jan Biesjes Kraal", submitted for the first time on February 4, 1898, one had been accepted.
Unfortunately preliminary roadmaking and general opening up were hampered by a factor which had already occurred in June 1898, and was destined to manifest itself many times in the years that followed, namely the flooding of the Diep River. Along with this went occasional storms, like that of September 1898, which caused the Secretary to report: "The roof of the stables (of a farm) at Paarden Island has been blown off."
Unable to provide rolling-stock or any other facilities, the Directors of the Company were only too eager to grant running powers free of charge to the Cape Government Railways.
No fewer than 14 different tenders were received for the first contract for the Milnerton line, prices varying from £4 350 to £9 400, the final choice being left to the engineers of the C.G.R. As the man on the job, Mr Eden, who was to work under their supervision, received the quite considerable salary of £60 a month, besides £4 a month to pay for the cost of an office. For all this additional expenses a loan had to be raised by the Milnerton Estates.
While the first visible signs of construction were the earthworks started between Craig's Crossing and the Salt River, across which a bridge was to be constructed, publicity for the new township was launched through the production, by lithography and at the cost of £38, of a plan, "reduced to a scale of 600 feet to an inch, such plan to show Woodstock and portions of Cape Town, including the Docks and Cape Town Railway Station".
So far not a single plot had been sold, but on April 7, 1899, appeared a reference to the provision of another essential amenity, when Langerman was requested to arrange an interview with J. A. Watson, Mayor of Rondebosch, "in regard to obtaining water from the Steenbras River".
International events were now to affect the affairs of the Milnerton Estates. On October 11, 1899, tension, which had been steadily building up between the authorities of Britain and the Boer Republics, culminated in the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War.
Only a few days before, on September 29, the earliest recorded photographs of Milnerton are mentioned, an amount of six guineas being paid to A. J. Fuller for taking them. Notwithstanding their unique historical value they do not seem to have survived.
Meanwhile, eager to escape from the oncoming catastrophe, thousands of refugees were streaming down to the coast from the Goldfields of the Transvaal and elsewhere, aggravating the overcrowding already created by the demands of the Military.
Yet the Milnerton Estates carried on amidst the turmoil. Not only was the building of the Diep River Bridge, based on plans by Mr Esdon, "approved by Mr John Brown, C.G.R. Engineer-in-Chief' (as usual, there were squabbles about the fees), but on November 3, Esdon was "authorised to engage a competent bridge-builder at a salary not exceeding £4 per week, to watch and check the work of pile-driving" .
Even if the Anglo-Boer War was to slow down the project and to hamper sales of plots, work was anything but at a standstill.
In his Official Report for the year 1899 the General Manager of the Cape Government Railways, Sir Charles Elliot, wrote: "The short line of Railway from Craig's Crossing to Milnerton is very nearly finished. A draft of the agreement for working the Railway was prepared in 1899, but has not yet been signed, and the Milnerton Railway Company has asked for reconsideration of some of the clauses. I fear that, while the Military requirements are so great, it will be impossible to provide rolling-stock for the purpose of working even this short line of railway.
"The viaduct which has been constructed across the mouth of the Salt River is a new class of structure for South Africa, namely Jarrah, which has been used for the piles." The last remark refers to the growing popularity of this hardwood from West Australia which was to rival that of Karri wood from the same country.
As far as can be discovered this structure, erected by the Fortress Company of the Royal Engineers, has vanished but a similar one, also "temporary", put up by the same unit to carry the road to the "island" on the sea side of the lagoon is still in excellent condition after nearly 80 years and still known as "The Wooden Bridge".
Not only did the Cape Government Railways remain prosperous during the War, they even offered to supply - and the offer was gladly accepted - the required four miles of rails from second-hand stock (priced at £2838 2s 4d), and to build a viaduct across the "Salt River Swamp".
Among those who applied for employment was H. H. Johnson, brother of one of the directors, who wished to be "Inspector of the Pile Driving Operations". Although the engineer in charge informed him that he had "already engaged a gentleman for this position", the Board found it "better in the interests Of the Company that an Inspector, with whom they are personally acquainted, should be appointed. . . and that. . . the present holder be requested to relinquish his duties at the end of the week" .
Rights-of-way across Paarden Island next created trouble, mainly because of the activities there of lime-burners, who were only allowed to continue, in return for their voluntarily maintaining the existing track.
For a sum of £819 the contract for the building of the Diep River Bridge went to a firm named McAllister & Ross, using timber supplied by the Company, in return for which they remained liable for maintenance.
On the outskirts of Cape Town developments of various kinds were meanwhile taking place, though complicated by the fact that the city was still made up of numerous rival administrative units, each independent in its arrangements. Thus Milnerton Estates had to allow for the fact that Woodstock Municipality was engaged on its own drainage scheme, while Cape Town proper and Maitland had equivalent projects. Other decisions were under way, of far-reaching importance to us today. On March 2, 1900, it was learnt that "the suggested Kaffir Location is to be placed on a piece of land named Ysterplaats" .
Reference to the close contact kept by the Milnerton Company directors with what was going on is made in the arrangements for a personal trip to the estate by cart, the party to leave Salt River Station at 11 in the morning of March 8, 1900. At intervals changes occurred in the composition of the Board, starting on July 25, 1899, when Major Frank Johnson, having submitted the name of a Mr Scholtz as his alternate, was embarrassed by the arrival of a letter from the latter declining the appointment, whereupon his place was taken by E. H. F. Mellish. Trouble also attended the membership of J. D. Logan who, despite his prosperity as "Laird of Matjesfontein", not only refused to pay up the price of his qualifying shares, but even became involved in litigation with Milnerton Estates.
Two major decisions
were taken during 1900 - firstly the agreement with the Cape Government
Railways authorising the Company to operate the line as soon as it was
finished; and secondly the consent by Sir Charles Elliott, to modify
conditions so that the line might eventually be taken over by the C.G.R.
However, the Company was already talking of extending "to the
boundary of the Company's property on the Koeberg side". Here,
in days to come, the Milnerton Racecourse was to be laid out.