Who planted the beacon on Beacon Island?

Who planted the beacon on Beacon Island?

Speaker:   Andrew Duminy                          

The local legend: According to Pat Storrar, the beacon was erected on the Island in 1772 (the Van Plettenberg website says 1771), inscribed with the latitude and longitude of Plettenberg Bay. The caption on the photograph of the beacon in her book Portrait of Plettenberg Bay states that it was ‘replaced twice’, but she does not provide details of when this took place (according to the Website, it was replaced by Harbour-Master John F Sewell by a stone beacon in 1881).

This is more or less repeated by Clare Storrar in his 1999 edited version of the Sewell diaries: “The navigational beacon was used by mariners to set their chronometers to Greenwich Mean Time for longitudinal and astronomical calculations.

The original beacon was a baulk of stinkwood erected in 1772. It has been replaced/moved several times since then. It was last moved when the second Beacon Island Hotel was built in 1971. Inscribed on this stone beacon is: (Latitude) 34° 3′ 38˝S, (Longitude) 23° 22′ 55˝E. Magnetic declination 7′ 29˝ W.1864.” (Its actual position is 34° 3′ 45″S, 23° 22′ 32″E.)The story of the erection of the beacon has become part of Plettenberg Bay folklore. We are unfortunately not able to ask the Storrars about the source of their information. They were both meticulous researchers. I intend to show, however, that there was no beacon in 1772 and that it must have been placed there much later.

How were latitude and longitude established?

Latitude can be established with a reasonable degree of accuracy by means of erecting a vertical pole on a flat surface. If the length of the shadow is measured at midday – when the shadow is at its shortest – the angle formed by the end of the shadow from the top of the pole can be calculated by trigonometry. This angle is the degree of latitude, once allowance has been made for the northerly and southerly movement of the sun between the solstices.  At sea, this measurement was made with a simple instrument known as a cross-staff and, by the 1750s, the invention of the sextant had made these measurements much more accurate. (A sextant makes it possible to view objects simultaneously through paired mirrors, one of which is fixed to a moving plate. When the two objects are lined up, the angle formed can be read off on a scale on the bottom of the instrument by means of an indicator on the moving plate.)

Establishing longitude is much more difficult. Degrees of longitude are measured from a zero meridian. The Dutch usually used Amsterdam or Tenerife. The French used Paris or the Ile de Fer in the Azores. The British used Greenwich and the Greenwich meridian was internationally adopted in 1884 – many years later. Degrees of longitude east or west of this position are calculated by a difference in time. Because the world is a sphere, there are 360 degrees of longitude in a daily rotation; and, as there are 24 hours in a day, each hour translates into 15˚ of longitude.

During the 18th Century, there were three ways of establishing longitude. The first was developed by the famous French astronomer Cassini, who established the French Observatory in Paris in 1669. He discovered, using a powerful telescope, that the moons of the planet Venus have a regular orbit; and was able to time these movements, using two pendulum clocks, the one beating every second and the other every half-second. This made it possible to establish the longitude of other positions on the earth’s surface by means of making these observations from there and comparing them with those recorded in Paris. All that was necessary was the transportation of a powerful telescope and an accurate clock to the other positions.  The French Academy of Sciences sent expeditions to a number of places on the earth’s surface to do this, so making it possible to draw more accurate maps of the world and to discover the size and shape of the earth (was it round or was it pear-shaped?).

In 1685 such an expedition called at Cape Town when the Jesuit priest Guy Tachard was the first to attempt to calculate its longitude. This was followed by another French project in 1752, when the astronomer Nicolas Louis Lacaille was sent to the Cape. Using a more powerful telescope and armed with Cassini’s tables, he situated his laboratory in Strand Street and, after making numerous observations, concluded that its position was 16˚8″ east of Paris (or 18°20’22” east of Greenwich; its actual position is 18°27’E). Lacaille was also instructed, once he had established this longitude, to measure a section of the Cape Town meridian in order to assist in the calculation of the size and shape of the earth. He did so by first measuring out a baseline somewhere near Darling and then surveying a chain of triangles between there and Cape Town. His measurement created something of a stir in scientific circles because they did not tally with measurements that had been made in the northern hemisphere – with significant implications for the size and shape of the earth.

The second means of establishing longitude was by means of what were called ‘lunar distances’. This method came about as the result of the refinement of the sextant and after numerous observations and calculations had been made by astronomers in Europe regarding the movement of the moon relative to the stars and planets. In order to establish longitude, three observations had to be made and repeated as often as possible. The first was the height of the moon above the horizon. The second was the altitude of the chosen star and the third was the distance between the star and the moon. These readings then had to be ‘corrected’ for refraction and parallax and were then compared with records that had been compiled at observatories in Europe, published in what soon became known as ‘nautical almanacs’.

The third method was by means of a chronometer, a spring-driven clock which keeps time accurately over long distances and is not affected by changes in heat, gravity, barometric pressure, or movement (most importantly the movement of a ship at sea).  A trial version of the H3 took 19 years to develop and was first tried in 1761. It thereafter took many years to perfect, so that it was not until the early 19th century that it came into general usage. The chronometer made the calculation of longitude much simpler because it showed the time at the zero meridian. The establishment of longitude therefore became greatly simplified, because all that was necessary was that the time of day at the other position had to be determined.

Who could have placed the beacon in 1772 (or 1771)?

In 1772 Plettenberg Bay was an extremely remote corner of the world. As Pat Storrar herself goes on the explain, six years later (in 1778) the Dutch ship Katwyk aan Rhyn visited the Bay and the captain recorded that the bay itself was not marked on his charts, let alone the beacon. Strange as it may seem, the Dutch avoided this coastline on the journey to and from the East, keeping well to the south to avoid the treacherous rocks as well as the Agulhas Bank. The most accurate and detailed survey of the coastline had been carried out by the French mariner d’Apres de Mannevillette in 1752. This was a running survey and he established longitudes by means of measuring ‘lunar distances’ with a sextant, a technique he had helped to perfect.  He did not land at Plettenberg Bay, so could not have erected the beacon on the island.

There are only four persons who set foot in Plettenberg Bay at this time who might have been interested in establishing its co-ordinates and who may have possessed the expertise to do so. They were:

Carl Peter Thunberg. After studying Medicine and Natural Philosophy, he arrived in Cape Town in April 1772 to collect specimens for Carl Linneaus, the Swedish botanist.  During the next few years, he travelled extensively and visited Plettenberg Bay late in 1772, having come on horseback (some of the way on oxback) over the difficult terrain east of what is now George. With two unnamed companions, he was the first to travel from Plett, through what is now Prince Alfred’s Pass to the Langkloof, where he rejoined his baggage van. In March 1775 he proceeded to Java and Japan.  As he had passed through Plett only briefly and was on horseback, he would not have been able to transport a bulky and delicate telescope. He also makes no mention of any astronomical observations in his recollections.

Robert Jacob Gordon, who traveled around the Cape Peninsula with Thunberg and Masson in May 1773. According to Gordon’s biographer (Patrick Cullinan, pages 21-2), he then undertook a long journey and it is speculated that he may have been one of the two unnamed companions who accompanied Thunberg on his brief visit to Plettenberg Bay. He was certainly interested in mapping, but, if he did in fact visit Plett with Thunberg during 1773, would not have been here long enough to make accurate observations. It must also be said that he paid a second visit to Plett 14 years later, travelling down what is now the Prince Alfred’s Pass from the Langkloof on horseback. On this occasion, he spent four days exploring and produced the large panoramic painting of the Keurbooms River mouth from the top of the hill. His biographer Patrick Cullinan says Gordon took ‘various bearings of the area’ while staying at Wittedrift (page 57) but there is no mention of his having established longitude. Before his suicide in 1795, he was busy drawing a huge and detailed map of the Cape, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The southern parts of the Cape are blank. This seems to indicate he did not have this information and consequently could not have been responsible for the beacon on the Island. 

Van Plettenberg.  On his expedition, which visited Plettenberg Bay in November 1778, the Governor was accompanied by the surveyor Leiste, who subsequently drew a map showing the route that had been followed. While here, van Plettenberg erected the VOC beacon proclaiming Dutch ownership. Leiste’s map contains very little accurate information and places Plettenberg Bay (and Beacon Island) at latitude 4.5˚ east of Cape Town (22˚32′ east of Greenwich, an inaccuracy of nearly a minute). These positions were probably obtained from Mannevillette’s 1752 chart or from a later chart produced by the Dutch East India Company.

Le Vaillant spent about 6 months in this area in 1782, collecting birds and shooting anything that moved, including nearly 30 red hartebeest and an elephant. Although he compiled a map after his return to France, that contains many inaccuracies, indicating that he was not interested in recording latitudes accurately, let along longitudes.

None of these individuals had the skill or the necessary equipment to calculate longitude.

One other possibility is Francois Renier Duminy, a French mariner who had learnt the latest techniques of navigation during his service in the French East India Company (possibly from Mannevillette himself). He carried out a new survey of the southern Cape coast between 1781 and 1787. This had become necessary because Mannevillette, for reasons best known to himself, had produced a revised and completely inaccurate version of his 1752 chart in 1775. During this survey, Duminy did a detailed survey of Plettenberg Bay in 1786. It shows the Robberg, Beacon island, the Lookout rocks, and the coast stretching as far as the Storms River mouth. Using a sextant, he calculated the latitude of Plettenberg Bay as 30° 50’S and the longitude as 5°15′ east of Cape Town (23°42’east of Greenwich).

As Duminy was the first to make these calculations of latitude and longitude, he was the only one of the early visitors who would have been able to inscribe these details on a beacon. There are two reasons, however, why I do not think he did so. The first is that he did not show a beacon on his detailed chart of the bay. The second is that his co-ordinates do not coincide with those that were inscribed on the beacon. The latitude on the beacon is given as 34°3’38″S and longitude is given as 23°22’55”, the most significant discrepancy between these and Duminy’s being a difference about 3 degrees of latitude.

My conclusion therefore is that there was nobody during the years 1752 and about 1790 who could have erected the beacon on the Island.

Beacon not shown on early maps

In further support of my argument, it can be shown that a beacon does not appear on any early map of Plettenberg Bay drawn after it was supposed to have been erected. If it was there and, if it was of such importance that navigators used it to ‘set their chronometers to Greenwich Mean Time and to make longitudinal and astronomical calculations’, it surely would have been shown.

I have already mentioned that it does not appear on Leiste’s map, on Mannevillette’s chart or on Duminy’s charts. The first reliable map of the area was drawn in about 1789 after a survey of the region by Johan Friderici and Josephus Jones. This was not a geodetic survey, based upon the establishment of the latitude and longitude, but was carried out using a ‘plane table’. At that time, map-drawing began with the shape of the coastline, obtained from a running survey such as those of Mannevillette in 1752 and Duminy between 1781 and 1787. Inland details were filled in after different landmarks had been observed from various points of observation. Positions were calculated by means of estimating the distance and the direction that had been traveled. Longitude, were therefore entirely a matter of guesswork.  These early surveyors would therefore have been very interested indeed in a beacon which showed the longitude of Plettenberg Bay and they would surely have indicated this on their map if it was there. Friderici’s map, however, shows Beacon Island as a bare outcrop with nothing on it but stones and coastal scrub.

The next map to be drawn of the coast was by Lieutenant McPherson Rice in 1795. He had completed a new running survey that year after the British occupation.  Like Duminy, he produced a detailed chart of Plettenberg Bay. He would also have had the opportunity to set foot on Beacon Island to erect a beacon there. I think it unlikely however, for the same reason as I have rejected the possibility that Duminy did so. This is that McPherson Rice did not show a beacon on his chart. His estimates of latitude and longitude also do not tally with those inscribed on the beacon: he estimated the latitude to be 34° 6’ 36” S (a variance of 2 minutes from that marked on the beacon) and longitude 23° 48’ E (a difference of 26 minutes) His magnetic variance was 27’ 12” (a difference of nearly 20 minutes).

The most accurate survey of the Cape coast was that of Captain William Owen in 1822, as part of the Great African survey undertaken by the British Admiralty. The main purpose was to survey the virtually unknown coastline of Africa from the Keiskamma River to Cape Guardarfui (the headland of the Horn of Africa in Somalia) but Owen surveyed the southern Cape as well. This was one of the most ambitious survey projects yet undertaken and Owen used no less than nine chronometers to provide him with accurate Greenwich Mean Time. He did not, however, land anywhere along the coast and so would not have been able to place the beacon on the island or to read the inscription on a beacon, if it was already there. His chart shows the longitude of Plettenberg Bay at about 23˚E.

The absence of any record of a beacon on any of these early maps and charts supports my contention that the beacon did not exist and was not ‘used by ships at sea to set their chronometers for longitudinal or astronomical calculations’.


As there is today a beacon on the island and as it could not have been placed there before 1772, we must assume  that the beacon was placed there at a later date. The first reference I can find to a beacon is in Sewell’s diaries. (He was Harbour-Master of Plettenberg Bay between 1874 and 1897.) On May 12 1893 he refers to a notice calling for tenders to enclose ‘the beacons on the island and van Plettenberg’s. (I don’t think he was referring to more than one beacon on the island, but was using the plural ungrammatically). On 10 January 1894, he then refers to the fact that a wall had been built around it (Storrar, pages 185, 193). The beacon was therefore definitely there in 1893 and it must have been there for some time if Sewell was worried about its deteriorating condition.

The first surveys. Before we go on to discuss further the question as to who placed the beacon there, I have to digress and tell you about another chapter in the history of mapping in South Africa. This is land-surveying. The drawing of accurate maps depends upon the establishment of the geodetic co-ordinates of as many positions as possible by means of a chain of triangles. It begins with the measurement of a baseline, measured from a position the co-ordinates of which have been established by means of astronomical observations (this is known as the ‘datum’). Once this has been done, the position of other landmarks can be established by means of triangulation (trigonometry).  The instrument used to measure these angles was called a theodolite. Those used in the first great surveys undertaken in the nineteenth century were huge and heavy (that used in the great survey of  India led by Sir George Everest, for example, weighed over 500 kilograms). They had to be transported from one position to another, up and down hills, across rivers and to the mountain summits. Survey work was therefore extremely laborious and time-consuming. The Great India survey, led by Sir George Everest, took 64 years to complete.

The first survey undertaken in South Africa was that of Lacaille. The next survey was that of Charles Michell, who became Cape Surveyor-General in 1828. He started his survey in 1834 in the Tsitsikamma region. When I read this, I for a moment imagined that our problem had been solved, but his biographer (Gordon Richings) informs us that Michell commenced his survey in the Langkloof and visited Plettenberg Bay only briefly on 16 November on his way from Great Brak to Avontuur (page 76). Michell abandoned his survey shortly after he had begun this work because he had to proceed to the Eastern frontier, where war broke out at the end of the year. He visited Plett again in 1836, when his records show that he ‘took bearings’ of Driefontein, Tsitsikamma, the mouth of Witte Els River, Plettenberg Bay Point (the Robberg) and Formosa Peak (page 100). There is no mention of Beacon Island.

Because of the discrepancies between Lacaille’s measurements and those obtained in surveys in other parts of the world, the Cape Astronomer Sir Thomas Maclear was instructed in 1839 to repeat Lacaille’s survey of the arc of the Cape Town meridian. As no trace of Lacaille’s positions could be found, he measured a new baseline and, between 1841 and 1846, surveyed 31 triangles, extending as far south as Cape Agulhas. This, for the first time, established a number of positions to which other surveys could be linked. (Maclear marked his positions with stone cairns 14 feet high so that they would not disappear as Lacaille’s had done.)

Captain William Bailey. That brings me to the last possibility and to the conclusion of my talk. Between 1859 and 1862 a major survey of the southern Cape was carried out by Captain William Bailey on behalf of the British Admiralty. The reason for this was that in 1852 the tragic loss of the Birkenhead had occurred at Danger Point, near Hermanus. The reason for this loss was the complete unreliability of the existing charts. The aim of the survey was therefore to establish the precise geodetic positions of recognisable landmarks along the coastline.

Between 1859 and 1862 Bailey surveyed a chain of triangles stretching from Cape Agulhas to Port Elizabeth, erecting beacons (some of stone and some just a wooden stake in the ground, like that on the Beacon Island). Most of his data, together with his two large theodolites, were lost when the ship that was taking them back to Cape Town was wrecked near Cape Agulhas. Fortunately, Bailey had kept his notes and many of his readings and, from them was able to produce a report which showed his triangles, extending eastwards as far as a position near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Fifty years later, the beacons he had erected could not be found when Henry Fourcade did his surveys of the mountains. That is another story.

My conclusion is that the beacon on the island was placed there by Bailey during this survey. If this is so, it was one of the few remnants of this ill-fated episode in the history of South African mapping. His equipment and his records were lost in the wreck of the Waldenstein, but the beacon survived where it had been placed, thanks largely it seems to Captain Sewell’s interest. It is a great pity that the original, like so many other historical relics of Plettenberg Bay, has been lost. I hope, however, that I have succeeded in uncovering the truth surrounding its history.

30 years ago : Defining moments

30 years ago : Defining moments

Speaker:  Peter Duminy

This Talk has been substantially motivated by recollections, especially remembrance of straws in the wind that preceded – and help to account for – the formation of our Society  30 years ago. I have called them ‘Defining Moments’.

Why? Because, the more one thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that founding of the Plett Historical Society in November 1980 was attributable to several happenings, and to a number of rather special people combining to make it bound to happen – if not necessarily in 1980, then certainly later, or perhaps even sooner.

I expect we can, most of us, remember more or less when we, individually, first became interested in Plett’s absorbing history, not least the lives and local achievements of some of its famous personalities.

For me (and possibly for many others) Winifred Tapson’s TIMBER AND TIDES the story of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, first published in 1961, illuminated much not previously known about Plett and Knysna.   I also learned from it that my great-great-great-grandfather had been in command of the ship De Meermin, on to which Plett’s first hewn timber was loaded and carried away in August 1788.

Certainly Tapson’s book was NOT the first time that Plett, its historical and other attractions had been described in print.  But for me, certainly, Tapson’s printed words – and more particularly the interest in past events that these words began to stir – were undoubtedly among this Society’s ‘Defining Moments’. And this claim is tabled for your consideration, even though it would then to be another 20 years –or very nearly– before the Van Plettenberg Historical Society would be founded.

Meanwhile, perhaps entirely unrelated to Tapson, there were other events and people combining to make our Society a virtual inevitability.

For one thing, the 1960s also brought serious Archaeological enquiry (and indeed activity) to Robberg, for the first time.  This is, of course, a reference to what we now prize as the Nelson Bay Cave, the remarkable site that provides compelling evidence of communal living going back many thousands of years.

In sum it was by the late 1960s becoming perfectly clear that Plett, apart from its other attractions, in one way or another also offered much that was of compelling historical interest.

Unrelated and in its own way no less a Defining Moment (or Straw in the Wind), was the Storrar phenomenon – more correctly the ‘Storrarphenomena’, because there were two of them, Pat and Clare, widow and widower, both remarkable people, who had been wed in Johannesburg in 1959 and had come to Plett as permanent residents in 1971.

There were now nine years to go before the Historical Society would be founded; and almost as long as that, if memory serves, before it would come to be widely discussed.   

Let’s tick off, in chronological order, some of the things that proceeded to happen in those nine years:
Both Storrars were amazingly industrious and productive until very late in their long lives. Halfway through the Seventies Pat Storrar had already researched the life and antecedents of George Rex. Indeed, she had already published the results (in 1974). I’m sure we all of us remember George Rex of Knysna as the book, more than any other, that gave Pat Storrar an international reputation.

After that tour de force Pat Storrar was soon hard at work again  – on unrelated, but nonetheless always local subjects.

And at this point let’s dip briefly into the Duminy family archive. The script is undated, but we have a letter, dated 29 November 1976, which JP (Dad) received from a cousin – one thanking him for supplying a copy of ‘the talk which he [Dad] had recently “…. given at Plettenberg Bay.”

That informal talk had in fact been about the life and especially the 18th Century Plettenberg Bay connections of Francois Renier Duminy. It had been given at the invitation of Pat Storrar.

In the present context, the full significance of this date – 1976 – anticipating the coming of the Historical Society by fully four years, could conceivably have lain in a number of factors.  The talk was certainly a means of garnering information for a particular purpose – another book in the making.  Perhaps, and with the benefit of hindsight, it could also have been a sure sign that thoughts of establishing the Historical Society were taking shape in certain Plettenberg Bay minds.

Yes indeed, Portrait of Plettenberg Bay was on the way. As we know, this, the next Storrar book, was a remarkable, well researched and, in sum, an amazingly detailed account of our local history.  Another Storrar masterpiece, it was to see the light of day in 1978.

Quite soon after that, and out of the blue, came the uncovering of the Sao Gonzales relics in the shape of fragments of Ming and other porcelain. These remarkable finds on Johan Jerling’s building site in the hoek of Robberg came in November 1979 (though they would not be made public until June 1980).  The widespread excitement about that announcement, locally and much further a-field, has been well chronicled.

Whichever way we look at these developments, there can be no mistaking the quality of ‘defining moments’. In retrospect and taken together, they surely suggest to us that there were elements of growing inevitability about what was to follow in November 1980: formation of the Plett Historical Society.

Johan and Ingrid Jerling would be among our foundation members, and that is one reason why it is good to see them here today.  Another reason is that, as I’m sure many of us know, Johan’s great-great-great-grandfather (the Jerling stamvader) was directly involved in the building of the Timbershed some 225 years ago.  His was in fact the successful tender.
We may take it that he and my great-great-great-grandfather were rather more than mere nodding acquaintances.

To give you a little serious history: In January 1786 the Politieke Raad (the powers-that-be) in Cape Town instructed Landdros Woeke of Graaff-Reinet to follow up previous favourable impressions about the availability (and transportability) of Plett area timber  – those gained by Governor van Plettenberg (in 1778) and Francois Le Vaillant in 1782.

 Now there was to be speedy action:  Woeke went to Plett without delay. So too, my great-great-great grandfather, in his case with a mandate to report on shipping requirements, including vessels and seasons best suited for timber shipments. The perceived need was great, so much so that the Politieke Raad issued further instructions on 4 August 1786, among these that a magasyn  (storage shed) was to be built without delay, the tender for this to be awarded to the most competitive bidder. That would be Jacob Jerling.

If I may now jump forward by some 225 years, Johan Jerling has for some time been making every effort torestore the Timbershed – something that is now much needed, having last been done (with his support and that of a good many of our then members) in the 1980s hence during the first five years of our Society’s existence.

Johan Jerling has in recent days passed on some promising news: an ad-hoc committee chaired by architect Paul Scheepers (who was intimately involved in the last restoration) has recently had constructive meetings with the Municipality’s heritage committee – so useful, in fact, that promising recommendations will go before our Town Council next week.  Then, if all goes well, the plans will be forwarded to the National Heritage Council for approval, to be followed by action.  So do please ‘watch this space’, as they say.

But that is jumping ahead.  Let’s havesome reminders of precisely what the founders had in mind for us in 1980.  This is all laid out in seven succinct clauses of our Constitution.  All are worth mentioning, providing, as they do, permanent guidelines (or call them ‘yardsticks’) against which to assess three decades of past performance – excellent, good in spots, or what you will.

Among the Society’s stated objectives (I won’t repeat them all) were and are:

  • To collect and collate information about Plett and the district;
  • To collect and preserve documents [of all kinds] ;
  • Preservation and eventual exhibition of
  • objects in any way related to Plett and district …
  • Preservation of buildings of historical interest.
  • Dissemination of results through the medium of a Bulletin or by other means
  • To place descriptive plaques on places of interest.
  • To encourage the establishment of a local museum.

Measured against these and perhaps other objectives,  we surely have not done badly; and owe a great deal firstly to our founders for their vision and for the dedication that successfully carried us through the early years.  Likewise to their successors in continuity, combined with equally conscientious service on the part of those following in the founders’ footsteps. It is sometimes invidious to name names.  But some do tend to leap out at us today.

Consider this: at the end of the first year (when our membership list had already topped 200), we find surnames that have been continuously associated with the management and direction of our activities, up to this very day.

Three surnames in particular pop out – McNally, McCarthy, Vickerman: those of one President and two past Chairmen.   We celebrate the fact that John and Molly McNally are still with us.  And that the two past-Chairmen were succeeded in other active and ongoing capacities by their surviving spouses –  Sheila and Lovell.

All six of these stalwarts were Foundation Members. About  25 of our First Year supporters are still on the membership list.

Foundation members who are with us today–  and we don’t claim to have captured all the names  – include Clive and Colleen Noble, Margaret Parkes, some Duminys ……  And we all know that, but for the vagaries of time, this list would be much longer.

The Storrar name will always feature on our informal Honours List.

I don’t have to mention that Pat wrote more books: covering the San Gonzales disaster and all that followed 350 years ago; about Thomas Bain the road builder extraordinaire; and the story of Belvidere (to name but three).

Clare Storrar was a single-minded researcher, too; and a competent writer: to him we owe the published Sewell diaries and an important book about the ‘Tzitsikamma genius’ Henry Georges Fourcade…

What our founders certainly could NOT have imagined way back in 1980 was that the Internet would someday make it so much easier to meet some of our objectives.   We may nonetheless be forgiven for thinking they were truly inspired; and that the Society’s Constitution has all along cried out for both the Internet and a Website!

And now – with this huge social and technological benefit within our grasp – that pletthistory.org will constantly challenge our capacity to achieve substantial inclusion of the historical nuggets that we have, in the course of 30 years, accumulated in print and will continue to amass.

Making that wealth of information more readily available  – not only to Members but also far and wide, across Planet Earth – is exactly what we are now addressing with the setting up of our Website.    We would, of course  still be a long way from maximising the opportunities (by all means call them our responsibilities)  in this respect.

Having access to the titles of 175  Talks and those who have given them, as will initially be available, is far from equating with access to the Talks themselves. That is a longer-term objective, to be achieved in response to demand. But I am confident that we are going to make steady progress in the matter of making all our valuable information, including photographic material, widely accessible on the website we have named pletthistory.org and which we, the van Plettenberg Historical Society, will soon be commissioning .           

The English Settlers in the Crags until 1900

Speaker:     Clive Noble

The Read Family

James Read came to South Africa in 1808. He was a shipwright. He lived and worked in Cape Town. He went to George in 1823 where he married Anna Terblanche. They had 3 children. The 2 sons, Ignatius and James, in 1862 bought the farm Matjesfontein on the east side of the Keurbooms river from the Jerling family. They later owned the whole of the Keurbooms area.
Later they extended their property interests to the Crags. Lourens Read owned what is now called Loredo. 

The farm house which is on Woodlands farm, now called Kurland was built by the Read’s in 1886. 

William Newdigate

He was the third son of Francis Newdigate and was keen to become a farmer. He set sail for South Africa in 1845 at the age of 21. He was given a capital of 3000 pounds and income of 100 pounds a year. He persuaded a number of English farmers and skilled artisans to help him.

The English Settlers 1850

John Cowley

William Derbyshire

George Shaw

Giles Shaw

William Smith

Charles Smith

William Page

James Thompson

Richard Willard

John Hulme

Elijah Cope

George Tyrrell

William Hewitt

Joseph Taylor

Thomas Preston

The English Settlers 1850’s

William Starbuck

Thomas Noble

John Noble

William Hills

Robert Cowley

Aaron Toplis

Henry Wyatt

Richard Bashford

Thomas Brown

Richard Geist

Richard Conway

 Lindsay Best

William Derbyshire

He and his wife Mary and 3 children George, Joseph and Selina disembarked in Mossel Bay. They then travelled by ox wagon to Plettenberg Bay with an enforced stop in George. He  built his own house at Ladywood overlooking the Piesang River Valley. He also bought land at Gansvlei which he subdivided for his 3 eldest children George, Joseph and Selina. Mary Anne and William were born when the family lived at Ladywood. Emma, the youngest daughter and her husband Frank Allahn, were set up with a store in The Crags. He earned  76 pound and 8 shillings a year. He was a farmer and millwright. He was the most senior of William Newdigate’s men


Redford Farm was a  grant to William Derbyshire in the early 1850’s.  It was 895 morgen in size. It was granted also to W.Smith, W.Hewitt, T.Preston and G. Shaw. On it William built a house and a watermill. The house later burnt down in the 1950’s. The watermill stopped working at about the same time. It became home for the Derbyshire’s for many generations. Apparently the original house and our house were similar in architecture. There was also an old barn on the farm. It is uncertain when it was built but it is still there.

Redford House

It was built about 120 years ago. It was built for William and Mary’s granddaughter Amy Bern who married Samuel Cornelius van Rooyen. Her parents were Mary Anne Derbyshire and James Bern. A quarter of the whole farm was inherited by Mary Anne Derbyshire in 1894. Her husband James Bern also bought a quarter in 1891 and in 1904 another quarter in 1912

Amy Bern was left 19/48 of Redford. This most likely was the portion on which we are now. This was in 1926.

Billy Bern, her brother, inherited 19/48 as well. This portion was transferred to Samuel van Rooyen in 1937.

It was sold to Ena Behr in 1940 after which it was subdivided and sold off to others. Our portion was sold to Baren Dina McDonald in 1966.

In 1973 it was sold to Jan Willem Lotz.

Amy Bern lived on Redford all her life. She lived in our house until she was too old to climb the steep stairs.

The local coloureds called it the ‘upstairs house’. She built a single story house next door where she died. This house now belongs to Dr. Goedhals. He is a cattle farmer.

It was owned by the Behr’s for 26 years. They rented it out to tenants, many of whom worked for the Behr’s.

One of these tenants ran a shop from the Barn. We called it the barn because when we first saw it, it was the home to Portia the cow!

In 1976 Redford house was sold to John Ives. We bought it in 1980 in a sorry state.

The Noble family had never lived in The Crags. They left the Newdigates and went to Knysna.  

Forest Hall

William Newdigate came to the conclusion that there was no future in farming in the Piesang river valley. He had bought land at the Crags in 1859.

This was 2390 hectares and cost 895 pounds. He had inherited money from his father’s estate on which to build his manor house ‘Forest Hall’. He was asked why he was going so far from civilisation to which he replied ‘I am taking civilisation with me’ 

Georgina Lister

Daughter of Thomas Bain. A difficult journey to Forest Hall, only 12 miles  – ox wagon along the coast                                                        

 – At Keurbooms river the wagon was floated to an island and then to the other side on empty casks. The horses had to swim.

-Up Slate hill was difficult.

 -took the whole day

At Forest Hall

-Formal Dress for Dinner.          

-Procession into the dining room, arm in arm.

-Silver candelabras

– China crockery

William Newdigate

He married Caroline Duthie from Knysna in 1851.

They had 9 children, 6 of them were born

at Redbourne and 3 girls at Forest Hall

Frank 1852  Surveyor  married Kate Barrington

Caroline 1853 Naturalist Unmarried

Constance 1856 Henry Home Capetown

Annie 1859 married Thomas Hopwood Beacon Island

William 1860 Surveyor Jean Grimmer Kimberley

Arthur 1863 Not a mental giant  Longridge

Mabel 1865

Eleanor 1866 Stayed At Forest Hall   Longridge

Frances 1867 Typiste In Knysna

The Newdigate Girls

They saved money from the sale of the Silver Spotted Ghost Moth [Leto Venus] to museums in England. With this money they built a school-chapel on the site of the present  stone church ‘St. Michael’s and All Angels’ next to the Kurland township which was built in 1905. 

The Parkes Lease .

When William Newdigate died in 1884 to raise money to pay out the non-resident family, they raised a bond for 5500 pounds. Parkes had the right to take the timber and pay a % to the Newdigates. No time limit was set, so when all the money was paid back they continued to harvest the timber, despite expensive court cases.

     It was left with caretakers but gradually deteriorated. It was leased by a Dr. Sym in 1946 who agreed to repair the place. Again another legal rangle and more money was lost. The house was abandoned. When we first saw it in 1964 there were cows in the house.

     Then along came Hillary Peter, a knight in shining amour, who set about the restoration. It was later used as a guest house and subsequently sold to Marius van Biljon, who died in a tractor accident. It was then sold to Michael Johnson who did further restoration. It was finally sold to an Italian Trust who are doing a good job in preservation.

Thomas Bain

Born in Graaf Reinet in1830

He never lived in The Crags but visited Forest Hall.

His great-granddaughter Lucinda Edwards

lives in The Crags

The Nobles

The Nobles worked for William Newdigate for about 10 years.

They then left and went to Knysna.

John Noble’s wife Anne died within a few years of arriving in Plettenberg Bay. She is buried in the grounds of St. Andrews Church.

My side of the Noble family lived in Knysna until the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley. From there my grandfather went to fight in the Boer War and later in the 1st World War. He died in Sabie chasing gold. 

My father and I returned to Plett. [The Crags] in the 1980’s. He lived at Loredo and we at Redford.

New ideas about old caves

New ideas about old caves

Speaker:         Prof Judith Sealy

The many caves and open-air archaeological sites on the Robberg Peninsula have long been known to contain a wealth of archaeological material, some of it many hundreds of thousands of years old. Plett and surrounding areas were desirable places to live in those days, just as they are today, and for many of the same reasons – including mild weather year-round and good fishing!  The best-known cave is Nelson Bay Cave, excavated by archaeological teams in the 1960s and 1970s. It contains perhaps the most complete record of any site in South Africa of occupation over the past 22000 or so years, as well as older remains dating to before 60000 years ago.

 Nelson Bay Cave provides an excellent picture of life in the past, but questions remain. One important question is “Are the patterns seen at Nelson Bay Cave typical of other sites in the area, or are some of them idiosyncratic features of this particular cave?”

This can only be answered by investigating more caves. We do, of course, have a good deal of evidence from Matjes River Rock Shelter, at Keurboomstrand, but the excavations there were not well documented and we lack detailed information about what was found, and where. We also know, from the bone chemistry of human skeletons found at Matjes River and on the Robberg Peninsula, that between 4500 and 2000 years ago, different groups of people with different ways of life lived on either side of the Keurbooms/Bitou estuary. They were all hunter-gatherers, but the folk who lived at Robberg and Plettenberg Bay were specialized marine-oriented hunter-gatherers for whom fish, seals and seabirds were major food items. People who lived at Matjes River, on the other hand, ate much more mixed diets in which plant foods and the meat of terrestrial animals were more important. This is a relatively recent finding, published in the academic journal Current Anthropology in 2006.

In order to explore these issues further, a team from UCT undertook excavations in June/July 2007 and 2008 in the very large cave on the western side of Robberg, just beyond The Gap. Many locals know this cave as East Guanogat. Archaeologists often call it Hoffman’s Cave, after Hoffman, a former Director of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, who dug a trench there in (we think) 1958. Hoffman himself called it “Robberg Cave”, but as there are many caves on Robberg, this isn’t a very helpful name. It is, as everyone who has walked around Robberg knows, an enormous cave with a very large shell midden spilling out of the mouth. The path around the peninsula bypasses the cave immediately below the mouth. The surface inside the cave is very soft, so our first problem was how to move about in the cave without causing damage. With a great deal of help from the staff of CapeNature, we filled sandbags with beach sand and laid these down, together with coir mats, to make pathways across the site. We decided to work back from the western side of the trench left by Hoffman, cleaning the surface, identifying the different depositional layers, then removing them one by one using small mason’s trowels. All excavated material was sieved and the sand used to fill more sandbags, while shells, bones, stone artefacts and anything else we found were placed in bags for further study at the university.

We found a lot! The midden is packed full of shells, fish bone, estuarine grass (Zostera sp.) brought into the site for use as mattresses and cushions, as well as rarer finds such as mammal bone, stone artefacts, bone and ostrich egg-shell beads and other items. Some, but not all of the finds have now been studied. Shellfish were a major food for the inhabitants of the cave, and Katharine Kyriacou has identified the discarded shells for her masters thesis. She found that brown mussels were the most common shell species, with pear-shaped limpets second. This is interesting, since both these species are found today on the steep rocky slopes immediately beneath the cave. Siffies and alikreukel were also collected and eaten regularly. Karen van Niekerk has studied the fish bones for her doctoral thesis. She found that the inhabitants of the cave caught 29 different kinds of fish, of which the most common were yellowtail, galjoen, blacktail, harders and strepies. Species such as yellowtail and galjoen were almost certainly line-caught, while harders were probably taken with nets.

We also found stone artefacts, and items fashioned from bone, shell and even ivory. Stone artefacts of this period consist mostly of crude flakes used as rough cutting tools. A great deal of work was, however, devoted to manufacturing finely crafted objects in other materials. We found perfectly symmetrical bone points that were probably used as arrow-tips, and bone beads made by ringing and snapping bird-bones, then grinding the snapped edges smooth. We also found parts of one or more bowls made from the shells of fresh-water turtles. The upper parts of the shells were kept intact, and the undersides removed and the edges smoothed to produce beautiful and useful bowls. As in other coastal sites of this period, we found surprisingly little evidence of fishing equipment. We did recover fragments of twine that may have been parts of nets, and small stones with a groove all the way round them that were probably used as line sinkers. These are known also from Nelson Bay Cave and other south coast sites. We do not, however, know what these ancient fishermen used as hooks: nothing resembling a hook has been found at this site or any other dating from this time. Presumably they were made of some perishable material that has not survived.

It is remarkable that the entire 1.7-metre depth of midden that we excavated accumulated in only 1000 years, between about 4500 and 3500 years ago. Such a thick deposit is unusual, and offers a wonderful opportunity to get a detailed picture of changes through time. This period is also well represented at other sites in the southern Cape, from which we can infer that populations were large and population densities high at this time. We do not yet know why this was, but I suspect that the way that people were dividing up the landscape, as shown by the separation between groups on either side of the Keurbooms/Bitou estuary, was a response to population pressure and presumably pressure on food and other resources. The changes that this brought about within hunter-gatherer society, and the ways that they coped with the challenges of rapid population growth are of considerable interest, and resonate with some of the problems we face in our own society today.

Why did we not find anything older than 4500 years? At the base of our excavations, we encountered a sand-dune composed of very fine, wind-blown sand. Zenobia Jacobs, of the University of Wollongong in Australia, has dated this for us to about 7000 years ago. At that time the sea level was a little higher than today, and the shape of the shoreline was therefore slightly different. I think that the dune we see in the cave is the same one that occurs today on the side of Robberg between the cave and the ‘island’, but that it was displaced slightly towards the mainland during the time of higher sea level. It is quite possible that there is older archaeological material underneath the sand-dune, but it would be very difficult to reach it. The sand is very fine, so as soon as it is exposed it dries out and then starts to ‘run’. We do not know how deep the dune is, but it is certainly more than a metre thick – possibly several metres – so any serious attempt to dig through it would require substantial boards or plates securely fixed in place to prevent the sides of the trench falling in.

It is also interesting that the site lacks deposits more recent than 3500 years ago. Perhaps there was once more recent material on top, but this has been eroded away. Alternatively, by 3500 BC the cave may already have been so full of other people’s rubbish that it was no longer an attractive place to live, and other camp-sites were chosen instead. Nelson Bay Cave has a number of layers dating between 3500 and 2000 years ago, so people were living on Robberg at that time. After 2000 years ago, there is much less evidence of occupation. In fact, all along the southern and western coastlines of South Africa, people harvested marine foods much less intensively after 2000 years ago. This was just part of the disruption of old ways of life as the first domesticated sheep and cattle were brought into South Africa, and people turned from hunting and gathering to sheep- and later cattle-herding. Robberg is clearly not an ideal environment for these activities, and early herders would have gravitated towards grassier environments. 

Evidence from this site is making an important contribution to understanding the long-term history of South Africa. The hunter-gatherer communities who have lived in South Africa for many thousands of years have a dynamic history that is of considerable interest, although it is not yet well known. It is especially important for archaeology to document the variation in hunter-gatherer lifestyles, because it is becoming increasingly clear that there are many ways to be a hunter-gatherer. What determines which path a particular community follows? Is it to do with climatic and environmental conditions? The demands of increasing or decreasing population size? Cultural choices? As we go further back in time, archaeological remains tend to be less well-preserved and therefore more difficult to interpret. Along the south coast, we have some sites such as Pinnacle Point, Blombos, Klasies River and others that contain evidence of early modern humans who were, of course, also hunter-gatherers. Reliable interpretations of sites like these depend crucially on understanding the range of options for how to make a living as a hunter-gatherer in this environment.   

Changing times at Matjes River rock shelter

Changing times at Matjes River rock shelter

Speaker:         Dr Janette Deacon

Location and history

Matjes River Rock Shelter is on private property above the western bank of the mouth of the Matjes River, a small stream a few hundred metres east of the beach at Keurboomstrand.  It was declared a national monument in 1960 because it is one of the largest shell middens in a rock shelter in the world.  Since the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) replaced the National Monuments Act, all former national monuments have become Provincial Heritage Sites and in the Western Cape are managed by Heritage Western Cape in the provincial Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport in Cape Town.

 A ‘midden’ is simply a pile of discarded food remains such as ash, shell, vegetable matter and bone. This one, which is about 30 m long, 15 m wide and 10 m deep, tells the story of the people who lived there between 10,800 and 1,000 years ago against a backdrop of the climatic changes that took place worldwide during that time. Mussels and limpets were a major food source and have added to the bulk of the midden. Over 100 people were buried in the shelter, most of them children.

In 1928/29 the first archaeological excavations of the midden were undertaken by Prof T.F. Dreyer, a Zoologist at the University of the Orange Free State.  After World War II, further excavations were done in 1952-57 by Dr A.C. Hoffman of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, and Dr A.J.D. Meiring of the State Museum, Windhoek. They were interested mainly in the burials in order to identify the hunter-gatherer people who lived there.  In the belief that most of the graves would be against the back wall of the shelter, they dug away all the midden in that area, and put a trench at right angles to it in the middle of the midden, thereby isolating two piles of deposit that are no longer supported by the rock wall. They concluded that the inhabitants were the ancestors of the San (Bushmen) who were joined within the last 2000 years by ancestors of Khoe herders.

Some 40 years later, Prof H.J. Deacon, head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Stellenbosch, conducted further excavations in 1993-94 and the results were reported in a MA thesis by Willemien Dockel. The purpose of this excavation was to test whether the earlier work had reached the base of the midden (it had), and to obtain radiocarbon dates on the shells to correlate changes in sea level, and therefore climate, over the past 10,000 years. Unfortunately, erosion of the top of the midden caused by wind erosion and people trampling on it, had already removed the most recent 4000 years of the deposit in Layer A.

The results of all three excavation seasons confirmed that the rock shelter was occupied by Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers who made stone and bone tools and shell ornaments, collected shellfish, fished, hunted small game animals and seals and collected plant foods such as bulbs, herbs and fruits from the coastal forest.  They lived on the midden, made fires there, prepared skins for leather clothing and made hunting, fishing and gathering equipment. Graves were sometimes covered with powdered red ochre, and sometimes with large stones – one of which had an enigmatic painting on it – and a few were accompanied by shell and ostrich eggshell ornaments.

Changes through time

Over the time that people have lived in Matjes River Rock Shelter many changes have taken place.


   •          Layer A (4000 to less than 2000 years ago): a few potsherds at the very top, a few stone tools, a stone sinker, beads of shell, ostrich eggshell and tortoiseshell, small antelope bones

   •          Layer B (4700 to 6700 years ago): stone and polished bone tools for working leather, seal and fish bones

   •          Layer C (6700-7900 years ago): well made small stone tools and ornaments, burials covered with red ochre

   •          Layer D (9600-10,800 years ago):  large stone tools, bone ‘fish gorges’

Economy and lifestyle

A major change in economy took place when, between 1000 and 2000 years ago, Khoe herders came into the area and left behind some sherds of the pottery they made to store milk products from their sheep and cattle. They also hunted and collected shellfish.

Their lifestyle contrasted with that of the earlier San hunter-gatherers.


Changes in shellfish species reflect changing climate over the past 10,000 years. During the Last Glacial Maximum which peaked at 18,000 years ago, there was so much water locked up in the ice caps at the north and south poles that sea levels worldwide were 130 m below their present level. At that time you would not have seen the sea from Matjes River rock shelter. Global temperatures began to rise and the ice caps began to melt from about 14,000 years ago.

Layer D has mostly white sand mussels and black mussels indicating a sandy beach, lower sea level, and colder sea temperature. At this time (between 11,000 and 9000 years ago), the ice caps at the north and south pole were continuing to melt but the sea level was not yet as high as it is now.

In Layer C there are more limpets indicating a rocky shore as the sea level continued to rise.

In Layer B, the predominance of brown mussels indicates warmer sea temperatures. At this time (5-6000 years ago) it was slightly warmer worldwide and the sea level was about 2 m higher than at present.

The earlier excavators reported brown mussel shells in Layer A but as this layer was absent in the 1990s, the numbers of shellfish species could not be confirmed.

Conservation challenges

For some years after the rock shelter was declared a national monument, a caretaker was employed to be present at the site during school holidays and at weekends. After the caretaker died, no one was appointed to replace him. Visitors walked on top of the midden and climbed the steep slopes, and the fence and notice board were broken. When the excavations were completed in 1993, a wooden boardwalk was constructed with the help of the National Monuments Council, CapeNature and local donors to keep visitors away from the top and sides of the midden. Sandbags were wrapped in geotextile to protect the slopes and two information boards were installed. A peel of the sections was made for display purposes. About ten years later, after damage to the geotextile and bags by people or baboons, the Keurboomstrand Property Owners Association coordinated repairs and put up a ladder for easier access to the forest path, and SANParks with a Working for Water team made the path safer.

Because there is no sand available in the vicinity of the rock shelter to fill more sandbags, wind continues to erode the slope of the midden that has not been supported by sandbags and geotextile. The next step is to persuade some young and energetic people to fill bags with dry sand from the sides of the river mouth and carry them up the hill to the rock shelter. When we have enough, they can be wrapped in geotextile and stacked in place.

Any volunteers?