Speaker: Philip Caveney

This is a short account of the woodcutter settlements in the southern Cape and the e.orts made by the Cape authorities to improve the living standards of the woodcutters by settling them at selected locations on clearings abutting the indigenous forests. The now extinct Knysna woodcutter as a population group had existed for over 250 years. Driven into the indigenous forests of the southern Cape in search of timber, they steadily became an isolated, poorly educated and anti-social community, a component of the Poor White community that caused much anguish for the administrators in the Cape Forests of the mid. 19th and early 20th century.


When one reads in modern literature about the dire situation of the Knysna woodcutters as told in the popular books by the late author Dalene Matthee, one is left with a feeling that these people were neglected by the authorities and left to live a life of poverty in the forests of George, Knysna and the Zitzikamma. That they were poor and uneducated is beyond doubt, but they were not always neglected.

The reason for their pitiful situation is readily attributed to the unfair treatment of the woodcutters by their masters, viz. the timber merchants and saw millers, who o.ered low prices for the timber that the woodcutters cut from the forest. To further aggravate the situation the woodcutters were seldom paid in cash, which presented a challenge when they needed to purchase a timber licence to fell the next tree. As a result of this they would be forced to borrow cash from the merchant or saw miller, thereby becoming beholden to them, who could then chose to pay the woodcutter for his timber whatever they chose. But to every argument there are at least two sides; the other side of this argument lay with the woodcutters themselves. Early observers stated that the woodcutters were the most indolent and improvident of men and that they were certainly amongst the poorest and most degraded. However, the woodcutters were of invaluable service to the foresters as the primary purpose of the Forestry Department of that time was to manage the extraction of indigenous timber from the Crown Forests in a sustainable and profitable manner. Revenue from the forest produce was needed to cover the operational costs of the Forestry Department and without these woodcutters no revenue would occur.


The class of people known as woodcutters were initially attracted into the forests by the lure of ‘easy money’ to be made from the harvesting of suitable timber required for a wide range of construction applications. The lack of suitable family farmland available for distribution between the male descendants of the early European settlers, exacerbated by the large settler families, made the choice to seek employment elsewhere inevitable. Added to the many challenges of the Cape forester was the control of the random timber felling activity of the woodcutters, which was di.cult to manage as the woodcutters were widely scattered throughout the forests where conditions were both hard and primitive. The children of these woodcutter families lacked any formal education and few social graces. Infant deaths and respiratory illnesses were commonplace. Employed in timber felling from a young age, the male woodcutter was understandably lean and very strong, living on a basic diet of sweet potato and co.ee, occasionally forest game.


The living standard of the woodcutters in the forests was indeed deplorable. Even in the very early times, European travellers had described their dire situation.

In 1866 Henry B Darnell, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Queenstown, a resident at Knysna and owner of the Westford Farm, and who had also become an owner of indigenous forest because of this, wrote: The woodcutters, as a class, are worse o. than ever, and the deplorable state of destitution in which they are now to be found should long ago have attracted public attention with a view to their relief.

In December 1866 Henry Bryan Darnell made a detailed and passionate presentation to the Cape Parliament regarding the proper management of the Crown Forests. Resulting from this the Governor of the Cape agreed to appoint a formal Commission of Enquiry.


During the 1866 investigation by the Commission questions were presented to numerous informed residents about the need to improve the control of the woodcutters. The suggestion to relocate them into ‘villages’ was discussed with interested and a.ected parties and supportive comments were received from many of those interviewed. The Commissioners reported back in 1868 on their findings which included a recommendation for the selection of suitable sites for the creation of forest villages for use by the woodcutters. These woodcutter villages were to be located on the margins of the main indigenous forests and each village would consist of a number of farm allotments, which would be granted on a quitrent basis to bonâ fide woodcutters. The selected sites for settlements in the Knysna area were De Poort (which lies midway between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay), Krantz Bosch and at Yzer Nek. A site near the Hoogekraal River was selected in the George area and another site near the Sanddrift River in the Zitzikamma area.

Here each woodcutter family would be allocated a piece of land with additional commonage as pasturage on which not only could the woodcutter built a better home for himself and his family but also undertake productive farming during the closed periods of the forest. But the wheels of authority turned very slowly and little came of the recommendations made by the Commissioners Christopher Harison & Thomas Bain until much later when the Cape Parliament gained more autonomy over its own a.airs.


Finally in 1878 the instruction was given to go ahead with the woodcutter settlement scheme. But by then now well-established woodcutters who had been squatting in the interim on [waste] Crown Land with the blessing of the local authorities were not prepared to relocate. In July 1880 the Civil Commissioner for Knysna, Maximilian Jackson, clearly concerned about the defiance being expressed by certain Bernardo and Kapp families spreading amongst the other woodcutters squatting on Crown Land then set aside for British immigrants, wrote to the Commissioner of Crown Lands in Cape Town for guidance.

By 1881 a total of 196 immigrant ‘souls’ had arrived in the Southern Cape, many of whom had been successfully settled. Jackson and the Immigrant Supervisor advocated the formation of a Commission, consisting of representatives of both the Forestry and Immigration Departments, to undertake a survey of the available waste Crown Land, with the aim of satisfying the needs of both Departments whilst accommodating the various land claims being made by the woodcutters squatting on Crown Land. Only when the Commission had reached acceptance upon its findings and recommendations, could a detailed and thorough survey of woodcutter allotments be undertaken.


In January 1881 the Commissioner of Crown Lands authorised the establishment of a commission to investigate the condition of the woodcutters and squatters, the Crown Forests and Crown lands generally in the George and Knysna area, with a view to the location of immigrants and woodcutters on such land as my be suitable for the purpose. The commission was also instructed to create a register of all bonâ fide woodcutters in the area, to identify possible sites for woodcutter settlements, learning from the findings of the earlier commission. The Commission began its work in April 1881. The Commissioners, having left George heading eastwards, besides reporting on a few immigrant and farm boundary issues in the area, did not find much suitable Crown [waste] Land abutting the Crown Forests for the establishment of woodcutter allotments.

The first feasible area for woodcutter settlement was found at a place known as Keur Rug, west of the Homtini River. The Commission recorded the names of the bonâ fide woodcutters and their families, between the Hoogekraal River and the Homtini River and then proceeded towards the Knysna River.

At a place called Witte Els Hoek the commissioners were pleased to find that many of the woodcutters in this locality had already settled there, under the earlier instructions of the Conservator of Forests, at this place abutting the Sour Flats Forest on waste land which the Commissioners believed at the time was Crown Land. The woodcutters had erected huts and small houses in this area, which was later referred to later as the Sour Flats location, after the name of the forest, which was situated east of the Homtini River. The Commission recorded all of the names of the bonâ fide woodcutters and their family members, between the Homtini River and the Knysna River.

The Commission continued eastwards from Witte Els Hoek, most likely following an existing bridle path, which led through the Millwood Forest to the Knysna River at the old drift , then followed an established path to the place we know today as Bu.els Nek, and in so doing would have viewed possible woodcutter allotment sites at Square Bush, Ronde Bosch, Dwars River and Bu.els Nek, in that sequence, before reaching Yzer Nek. Indeed, all of these sites were later selected for woodcutter settlement later. Proceeding further eastwards the Commission arrived at the site of the future Krantz Bosch woodcutter settlement, immediately west of the forest by that name. As before, they recorded the names of the woodcutters and their families settled there.

The Commissioners then travelled southwards to the Pheasant Hoek Forest. Here they found enough suitable land on Crown Lands Lot AB and Lot AD for 10 families with more than adequate commonage.

The commission then moved on from Krantz Bosch to the Blaauw Krantz River. Here they identified a possible woodcutter settlement location at the western entry to the future Blaauw Krantz Pass. Returning along the coastal route to Knysna the Commissioners evaluated the possibility of woodcutter allotments in the Harkerville area. The survey by the Commission was completed during April 1881.

In the Report of the 1881 Commission were certain valuable observations, recommendations and conclusions: A total of 165 families of woodcutters and 6 squatter families, giving respectively 884 souls and 27 souls, had been registered. All persons registered as woodcutters were actively involved in woodcutting. Two thirds of these were of European extraction, mostly Dutch. In order to stimulate improvement they should be brought together in villages or locations in order to facilitate education and civilisation amongst the woodcutters.

The Committee recommended the grant of 4-acre [2 hectare] allotments of arable land for each woodcutter family, with commonage where possible. The allotments should be granted on a fixed quitrent basis. The grant was to be made on condition that the land granted should not, at any time, be mortgaged or sold, or otherwise disposed of, to any person other than a bonâ fide practical woodcutter. No person should be the holder of more than one allotment, either in his own name or that of any other person, be it his wife, minor child, or not. A lot or two should be reserved at each settlement for a school and schoolmaster.


In July 1882 the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works, the Honourable John X Merriman, authorised the establishment of a Commission appointed to arrange for the settlement of the Claims to Land by Wood-cutters and Squatters in the Division of the Knysna. The duty of the Commission was to call for applications from persons desirous of possessing land, either as woodcutters, or on the grounds of having been dispossessed of land on which they had settled earlier action and to evaluate and decide upon the merits of these applications. The actual allocation of ground would require a proper survey and the Commissioners were to make clear to each applicant the boundaries of the land assigned to them.

The Commissioners included in their report details about the selection of bonâ fide woodcutters and the surveying of allotments at most of the previously identified settlement sites. They took guidance from the woodcutter lists of the 1881 Commission on Knysna and George Lands and Forests and genuine woodcutters were now formally allocated lots of farmland at nine locations:

• Keur Rug & Kraai Bosch (Referred to as Barrington A & B)

•Yzer Nek

•Dwars River Valley

•Ronde Bosch

•Buffels Nek

•Square Bush

•De Poort (Harkerville)

•Pheasant Hoek (Fisanthoek) and


The assigning of allotments to the woodcutters at two other settlements below was delayed. These were:

• Sour Flats
The laying out of this settlement, often referred to by its smaller components Witte Els Hoek and Braame Kraal, also known later as

Balmoral and today known as Bibbey’s Hoek, was only accomplished in 1890 due to a boundary dispute with the Barnard family, owners of the Leeuwenbosch Farm, and

• Krantz Bosch
This location was only surveyed and marked out in 1890 due to the need to cancel an onerous lease agreement entered into by 8 families of woodcutters settled earlier on Krantz Bosch Crown Land.

Of the 144 lots surveyed and marked out, 20 lots remained unassigned to woodcutters. But, as pleased as the woodcutters may have been to receive this free grant of quitrent farm property from the Cape Government, many of these woodcutter allotments were soon abandoned; some allotments were never ever occupied.

These early Deeds of Grant were strangely silent on re-sale restrictions which was contrary to the recommendations of the Commission on Knysna and George Lands and Forests of 1881.


The Sour Flats Settlement

By 1890 the Witte Els Hoek land boundary dispute between the Cape Government and the owners of the Leeuwenbosch farm had been resolved in favour of the Barnard owners. Also, the onerous lease agreement at Krantz Bosch had been cancelled and approval given to incorporate additional Crown [waste] Land into the scope of the proposed woodcutter location, but the survey of the woodcutter allotments and their allocation had not yet been finalised.
In May 1890 a new Parliamentary Commission, known as the 1890 Land Claims Commission, was instructed to continue the work of the 1882 Land Claims Commission and to complete the allocation of farm lots to the woodcutters at the Sour Flats and Krantz Bosch Locations.
The Commissioners then performed a rough survey at Sour Flats of a total of 29 lots, made up of 26 lots of two morgen each, together with a one morgen lot for a school, a small one morgen lot on the eastern limit as a bu.er between John Barrington’s Lawnwood farm, and a plot of land set aside as a common burial ground. The boundaries of the woodcutter allocations were then confirmed and beacons placed.


The Commission explained to the allottees that the tenure of land would be subject to decision of Government, subject to additional terms and conditions to those imposed earlier, as mentioned below:
No allottee shall sell his allotment to any person who is not a practical woodcutter and without written certification giving the approval of the Conservator of Forests, and should dispossession occur by the excussion or insolvency of an allottee, a creditor shall only have the right to sell the property to a practical woodcutter, with written approval of the Conservator of Forests.


Later in the year the Commission met with the woodcutters at Krantz Bosch. The Commissioners compared the applicants that had assembled here with original list of woodcutter applicants as recorded in the register of 1881 and identified that the original 16 woodcutters and their families were still keen to receive allotments. Two morgen allotments were marked out, where possible, to accommodate the existing woodcutter houses using the same approach that had been adopted at Sour Flats. The conditions of grant for this location were based on those adopted at Sour Flats, specifically also including limiting resale of the 16 lots surveyed to practical woodcutters only.


The schedule below summarises the result of both the 1882 and 1890 woodcutter allotment exercises, with the lots provisionally allocated shown. Note that some discrepancies exist in the schedule because not all of the allotments laid out were made available to the woodcutter applicants

e.g. some lots were made available for schools, burial grounds and other forestry purposes.
The task was complete and the Commissioners of 1890 would have felt justly proud that they had finally completed what the early Commissioners had set out to achieve.
During the Lands Claim investigation the Commissioners had prepared lists of all of the initial woodcutters o.ered allotments at the eleven locations; these lists were submitted to the Commissioner of Crown Lands with their reports of 1882 and 1890. Whilst the initial work was now complete, only the future would tell how successful the scheme would be.
Location No. lots size Lots No. of

Name laid out (morgan) assigned woodcutters
Buffel’s Nek Oct. 1882 1 19 1 1
Covie Nov. 1882 27 2 27 27
Dwars River Oct. 1882 4 10 4 4
Harkerville Nov. 1882 18 2-3 15 14
(de Poort)
Keur Rug Sep. 1882 9 10 2 2
Kraai Bosch Sep. 1882 24 10 23 23
Pheasant Hoek Nov. 1882 31 2 31 31
Ronde Bosch Oct. 1882 1 200 1 4
Square Bush Oct. 1882 11 11-24 2 2
Yzer Nek Nov. 1882 18 2 18 18
Totals: (1882) 144 124 123
Sour Flats 11 29 27 27
Krantz Bosch 12 16 13 13
Totals (1890) 45 40 40