Chapter 4 - The Coming of the Railway
Much to the general disappointment, the Milnerton railway line during the post-war depression, notwithstanding completion of the track, still lay unused. Hence in February 1903 a Mr C. H. Wolfe asked permission to run a. train, only to be informed that "owing to the want of facilities, the Company will be unable to entertain his request". How exactly Mr Wolfe intended to do this was left unexplained, but he evidently helped to speed up Government action, for shortly afterwards the first experimental trains were run. The fact that only 45 pounds rails were used indicated the lightness of construction. Soon however the decision to replace them with others of 60 pounds, allowed the use of heavier rolling stock. .
In October 1903, Carl Jeppe, now returned from his overseas trip, resumed his duties as chairman and accompanied by the Secretary Mr Langerman, called on Sir Charles Elliott, General Manager of the C.G.R., "on the question of engaging pleasure trains".
"I am glad to tell you," Jeppe told his colleagues, "that the Railway Department will be prepared to give us a train consisting of an engine and about six carriages in three weeks' time, to run to Jan Biesjes Kraal and back at £7. 10s. It is intended to make a charge of 1/- per head return, with which this Company wants to be credited by the Railway Department." The homely nature of the arrangements was again emphasised when the engineer reported that, on his own initiative, he had "engaged a special train for construction purposes". He was thereupon authorised to pay the guard a couple of shillings over and above his railway tariff each week, "in order to obtain special facilities and thus prevent any delay".
For the attraction of visitors the Milnerton Estate Company now also decided to spend £290 on a "Tea Pagoda" and a line of bathing houses along the river.
The first effort to provide staff housing was the erection of four "Clerk's Cottages" near the sea. In the light of present prices, it is interesting to note that each of them, with four rooms and bathroom, cost £600 and that they were followed by others costing £500 apiece. Telephone communication was also planned, the Postmaster-General being asked in November 1903 what it would cost to run a line out to the new township for a single instrument.
The true start to actual operation of the Milnerton Railway was Boxing Day 1903 when despite the virtual absence of any residents, the Cape Government Railways provided pleasure trips on the new line. In order to further stimulate traffic the Company purchased three boats, "complete and suitable for river working" at the total cost of £28.
Public response was indicated by the returns for tickets sold. No fewer than 540 bookings took place at Cape Town Station on December 26, 1903, plus 542 at Woodstock. This dropped to an unimpressive 59 and 86 respectively the day after, though we learn, "a fair sum was collected from passengers travelling without tickets".
In the newspapers we also read: "The Milnerton Estates Limited tender their extreme regrets to the several thousand people who visited the estate on Boxing Day, for lack of sufficient train accommodation. It was not anticipated that the advantages of Milnerton would be realised in so speedy and satisfactory a manner, and the one train placed at the disposal of the public was believed to be ample. As it is now evidence that the attractions of the estate have already received the attention of the public, the train services for the 1st and 2nd January have been considerably augmented. The floating house and landing stage have now been completed and the boat moved to the mouth of Diep River, where there is deeper water for bathing and boating even during the present neap tides. Plans are now being prepared for the construction of retaining walls and a weir across the Diep River, with the object of maintaining the river at an average depth of about five feet."
Besides this, the engineer received instructions "to fix up the old coach-house so as to make it suitable for a caterer to use as a bar, to devise some means whereby the mouth of the river and the backwater can be closed, in order to conserve water after high tide", and lastly, "to build a temporary bridge over the backwater for foot passengers, at the cost of about £20".
The flow of people desiring houses was stimulated by an arrangement with a Mr Nettelblatt, local representative for prefabricated "Norwegian" timber villas. Whether any of these were ever built seems doubtful, although Mr Nettelblatt, by special request, sent in his catalogue. No less unusual was the plan in 1904 to appoint an official mole-catcher for the Milnerton Estates. Why this should have become necessary remains unexplained, nor is there any record that a suitable man was found.
Another quaint transaction took place as the result of a shipwreck, when a deputation of Milnerton Estate directors "interviewed the owner of a stranded vessel at Paarden Island, with a view to purchasing it for the purpose of constructing a pier". The price however was so exorbitant as to preclude all idea of buying. "It would be a wise policy," added Carl Jeppe, "to purchase if we could buy the steamer for £50 or £100."
Encouraged by the success of the first auction, Charles Marais was instructed to layout further plots, on which occasion it was disclosed that his remuneration was two guineas each, portion of which being made over to him in the form of shares.
Advertising was also resumed, but only in the "smalls".
"For Residential Sites Apply Milnerton Estates", while publicity was likewise given to the fact that the company's shares were now traded on the Johannesburg and Cape Town Stock Exchanges.
All this, along with negotiations for the purchase from England of an extra locomotive and of passenger coaches (£60 each), was preliminary to a new sales campaign, heralded by the commencement of discussions with the Western Province Rugby Union, "to purchase a football ground on the estate", and by a visit from representatives of the Swimming Association to Diep River on Saturday, to see "whether it would be possible for them to hold their sports there".
Tenders were called in March 1904 for the erection of the first place of business, an "Estate Shop", to be hired out, while a few days later a contract was placed for a Concert Hall at a figure of £2 071 12s 6d. For the first time, too, there was reference to security, a complaint being lodged about the dilatory behaviour of the constables at the Maitland Police Station.
Practical encouragement to the opening up of the township was furnished by the action of J. W. S. (Willie) Langerman not only in buying a block of substantial size but in erecting on it his own large home, called "Arnhem", complete with stables. In this fine house all his five children were born, among them Dr "Dickie" Langerman, the now retired Chief M.O.H. for the City of Cape Town. There too he ended his days, after a life largely devoted to the well-being of Milnerton. Even today a block of flats on the same site bears the name of "Arnhem".
Something which today would be called a press release appeared in the "South African Review" on April 8, 1904:
"LAND FOR SALE BY PRIVATE TREATY.
MILNERTON ESTATES LIMITED.
RESIDENTIAL AND FACTORY SITES.
"Before selling by Public Auction, the Directors are desirous of beautifying and improving their Estate by actively pushing on their schemes of development, such as Road-Making, Dredging and Deepening of the Diep River, Tree-Planting and completion of arrangements for a regular Train Service.
"These will be well advanced in the Spring, when steps will be taken for holding an Auction Sale.
"To meet the continual present demand for Residential Sites, the Directors are prepared to entertain applications for land by private treaty. Such applicants will receive exceptionally easy terms and facilities in respect of both purchase price and advances for Building.
"For further particulars apply to:
J. W. LANGERMAN,
6, Savings Bank Buildings,
In spite of this, however, considerable time was to pass before the actual auction, mainly on account of the slump setting in after the departure of the British troops at the end of the Anglo- Boer War and the reaction to the spending spree to which South Africa had been subjected during the previous three years. Indeed there was increasing hesitation as to whether the whole sale should not be indefinitely postponed, as property prices dropped more and more and the number of insolvencies increased disturbingly. A rare glimpse of daylight was an application for permission to build an hotel, both Ohlsson's Cape Breweries and the South African Breweries asking for a monopoly. The Milnerton directors hesitated but were won over by the personality of Mr. Anders Ohlsson, who further agreed to take a block of 20 stands at £60 each. Good news also came from the Cape Swimming Association who had satisfied themselves as to the depth of water in the Diep River.
Revenue for the year 1904, modest though it was, for the first time included £24 l0s 7d in respect of "Boat and Bathing Receipts".
With the "Clerks Cottages" finished and rented at from £2 l0s to £5 a month, they became a source of revenue. A new road 15 feet wide was laid out to serve them, and a pathway cut to the beach. Pending the laying of a pipeline for water from Cape Town, boreholes were sunk.
With some surprise one discovers that the Milnerton Railway had hitherto only been operating on Sundays and Public holidays. Not until the middle of 1904 were the Cape Government Railways persuaded to undertake a daily service, bookings on a typical Sabbath being given as 140. With the prospect of trains running right through the week, in accordance with a timetable, oddly enough drawn up, not by the C.G.R. but by the Secretary of the Company, the directors rightly felt: "It will go a long way towards the more rapid development of the property, by facilitating building operations to a very great extent."
"We have four miles of sea frontage," announced the Chairman proudly. "We will shortly have five-and-a-half miles of railway running through the centre of the estate. We also have three miles of main road frontage and about three miles of river frontage."
Trains, it was also made known, would run at "20 miles an hour", two carriages being held sufficient for the time being to cope with the weekday flow of traffic.
September 22, 1904, having been fixed as the date for opening the improved service, a quotation was obtained from Messrs. Humphrey & Martin for a luncheon, to be served in the open air near the terminus to about 100 guests, arriving by special train. So high was the standard set, that the then formidable price of 12/- a head was accepted, inclusive of foreign wines, "the champagne to be charged for on the basis of what is actually consumed".
The inaugural notice read:
"CAPE GOVERNMENT RAILWAYS
23rd September, 1904.
Until Further Notice."
The advertisement showed, besides Cape Town and Woodstock, three stations - Paarden Island 3.20 miles from Cape Town, Yzerplaats 4.14 miles and Milnerton Terminus at 5.40 miles. The journey itself took 20 minutes each way.
Four trains ran on weekdays, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, leaving Cape Town at 6 a.m. and 7.35 a.m. and at 5.08 p.m. and 6.20 p.m. These returned from Milnerton at 6.35 a.m. and 8.10 a.m. and again at 5.35 p.m. and 6.15 p.m. On Saturdays the 5.08 p.m. was scrapped but there were two extra ones in the afternoon, at 1.20 p.m. and at 3.05 p.m. from Cape Town, while on Sundays traffic was restricted to a mere two trains, leaving at 10.05 a.m. and 3.05 p.m., with corresponding return Journeys.
How reasonable do the Passenger fares seem to us. The full trip either way cost 1/1d (13 cents) First Class, 9d (71f2 cents) Second Class and 5d (4 cents) Third Class, while the return trips were respectively l/1Od (18 cents), 1/3d (12 cents), and eightpence (8 cents). Children over three and under 12 travelled at half rates. In addition to this there were Monthly, Half-Monthly and Weekly Season Tickets, the most expensive being 18/(R1,80) First Class, 14/6d (R1,45) Second Class and 10/- (RI) Third Class. "No concessions are granted over the Milnerton Railway," said the notice. "Season Tickets will be issued at Cape Town and Woodstock." Besides all this there was also a notice, under the hand of T. S. McEwen, General Manager of the C.G.R., of Saturday and Sunday excursion tickets.
That year the engagement of a Military Band added lustre to the gaiety of Wiener's Day, as did the advent of a Shooting Gallery belonging to a Mr. Lemensich, who paid 10/- (RI) a day for the privilege. Another healthy sign was the purchase by the Dutch Reformed Church of a site for the erection of a place of worship. Thereupon the Anglicans and Roman Catholics also submitted requests, though with the accepted proviso that there should be no delay in the commencement of building operations. Judicious publicity in the daily papers drew attention to the fact that investors wishing to purchase plots were at liberty to ask for them, and that, following the acquisition of an acetylene plant, arrangements had been made for the running of "Night Trains".
Though now taken for granted, there was one innovation connected with the laying out of the new "Football Ground"*, in the instructions to the engineer "to lose no time in the preparation of the surface and to get all possible information as to the best means of fertilising the soil for the purpose of growing grass, and generally to leave no stone unturned" - a delightful expression - "to make the field a success". Such was the advent in South Africa - at a cost of £340 - of Rugby played on turf.
Cocksfoot grass, mixed with Kweek grass, was the formula strongly recommended by Mr. Ayres, the nurseryman. This and further vigorous action greatly pleased the Rugby authorities, with the result that, early in February, the formal agreement was finally ratified at the General Meeting of the Western Province Union. There followed a slight embarrassment when the Honourable W. P. Schreiner, not in his capacity as Prime Minister, but as a senior office-bearer of the Rugby Union, demanded a "guarantee from the Company that the Railway fares for football purposes would never be increased beyond 1/- return". Since there was always the possibility that the Government might take over the line, the matter had to be referred to the authorities, but an amicable arrangement was reached.
To the amenities was now added a Skittle Alley (estimated to cost £390), besides "six ordinary swings, with poles and ropes in suitable spots". So encouraging too was the attendance on the Diep River that two more boats were acquired.
The King's Birthday in 1904 was celebrated even more joyously than in the previous year, the Company earmarking no less than £50 towards hanging up Chinese lanterns in the grounds of the hotel and arranging a Fireworks Display and a Promenade Concert.
After lying low for a considerable time, the Maitland Municipality suddenly revived its scheme for taking over Milnerton, much to the alarm of the directors, who, by exercising their maximum political influence, managed to frustrate the project. Another curious cause of trouble was a series of complaints received about thefts of sand from the Company's beaches, by whom legal action was taken.