Old Swellendam Main Street with Church.

The home of Swellendam Heritage Conservation

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

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

The History of Swellendam

As one of the oldest established towns in South Africa, it important to look not just at the history of Swellendam itself, but how it came to be. *As published in Treasures of Swellendam, 2018 Version.

Year 1500.Swellendam San and Khoekhoen.

San & Khoekhoen

San (Bushman) hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoen livestock herders inhabited the Western Cape for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in southern Africa. The Khoekhoen had acquired cattle from Bantu-speaking people in the interior of southern Africa about 2 000 years before. They also had unique ridgebacked dogs. The Khoekhoen around Swellendam were part of the Hessequa chiefdom.

Year 1652.Swellendam Dutch East India Company - VOC.

The Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 solely to supply fresh food to its ships on the Eastern trade route. However, the Company’s vegetable garden failed repeatedly and trade with the Khoekhoen for cattle and sheep became increasingly difficult. Within five years it released some of its servants to farm independently – albeit with the VOC as sole purchaser.

Year 1700.

Free Burghers

By 1700, ‘free burghers’ were farming the areas around Stellenbosch (established in 1679), Franschhoek and Tulbagh. Armed battles pushed the protesting Khoekhoen out of their traditional grazing lands, and a smallpox epidemic in 1713 decimated their population. European stock farmers (trekboers) had already pushed beyond the settled area into the Overberg – beyond the mountains.

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

Frontier district

In 1743, therefore, the VOC decided to introduce a collegie of landdrost and heemraden for the frontier district, which was named Swellendam after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel and his wife Helena ten Damme. The point where the old wagon road to the frontier crossed the Koornlands River was chosen as the site of the Drostdy building, which was erected in 1746/7. Houses for other VOC officials were later built across the road (now the Old Gaol complex) and on the other side of the river along what is now Van Oudtshoorn Street.

Swellendam Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel.
Year 1798.

Stopping point

The Drostdy was the administrative centre of a huge district. It also became an important stopping point on the road to the frontier, which provided opportunities for wagonmakers, blacksmiths, traders and food suppliers. A small, unplanned settlement gradually developed along the wagon road on the other side of the river. By 1798 there were about 20 scattered houses, but still no church.

Swellendam Ox Waggon.

First church

The VOC so notoriously neglected the interests of Swellendam’s inhabitants that they declared a short-lived Rebel National Assembly in 1795, and it was only after the VOC’s bankruptcy and the takeover of the Cape by the British that the village began to develop. A church was eventually built in 1802 during the first British Occupation (1795–1803).

Republic of Swellendam Burgers.
Year 1800.

trading and mercantile

The first half of the 19th century was a period of growth and prosperity. Carts and wagons made by Swellendam’s craftsmen were in great demand. Agricultural production – particularly wool from Merino sheep – flourished in the surrounding district. The family firm Barry & Nephews introduced maritime transport from Port Beaufort and Malagas on the Breede River, which provided easy access to markets and goods, and revolutionised the economy. While the operations of Barry & Nephews remained centred in Swellendam (see Nos. 26, 27, 29), their trading and mercantile empire expanded across the entire Overberg.

Old wellendam traders and farmers.
Year 1830.

THE CAPITAL

From the 1830s to the 1860s, Swellendam was the capital of a booming district economy, invigorating social, religious, educational and cultural activity. Most of the finest old buildings in the town, with their interesting architectural layering, date from this period.

Old Swellendam district capitol.

THE Architecture

Traditional Cape Dutch elements such as thatched roofs, gables and decorative plasterwork abound – much of these the work of slaves (prior to their emancipation in 1834–38) and of a community of skilled Muslim artisans who lived in Lemmetjiesdorp near The Glen (see Nos. 60, 109). These elements were often combined with features introduced by the English, such as large-paned Georgian sash windows, double doors with delicate fanlights, the entrance passage replacing the voorkamer (front room), hipped roofs and dormer gables.

Swellendam Architecture and Muslim artisans,
Year 1860.

Decline - 1860 drought

In the 1860s a severe drought caused a slump in agricultural production and put farmers under financial strain; the resultant economic depression badly affected businesses and industries in Swellendam.

Old Swellendam Farmers in field.

Run dry

Barry & Nephews was already struggling and when its trading steamer, the Kadie, ran aground in the mouth of the Breede River at Cape Infanta (see Nos. 114, 115) in November 1865, it was a fatal blow. The firm was declared bankrupt in 1866.

Swellendam Barry and Nephews trading company.
Year 1865.

Great Fire

The final disaster was the Great Fire which broke out in May 1865, completely destroying a large portion of the town centre: many houses and businesses, a hotel, the Wesleyan Chapel, the bank and the printing press (which had published the local newspaper) burnt down.

Swellendam Great Fire May 1865.

great consequences

Despite relief efforts, Swellendam never recovered its former status and prosperity. The economy stagnated and the population declined. Mossel Bay took over from Port Beaufort as the main port of the Overberg. The vast district previously serviced by the Drostdy was subdivided, and the services that Swellendam had previously provided became available in towns such as Caledon, Riversdale, Heidelberg and Bredasdorp.

Swellendam and Buffeljags Sugar Bridge.
Year 1930.

Small town

For the next hundred years, Swellendam developed slowly, by subdivision of existing properties and modest town extensions. Buitekant Street, above the main road, was as its name (outer edge) suggests, the upper limit of the town. Along it many fine examples may be found of Victorian- and Edwardian-styled houses that were built in country districts until the 1930s.

Swellendam from above 1930.

‘Nuwedorp’

In the mid-19th century, the ‘Nuwedorp’ (New Town) extension – Berg Street and Faure Street – was laid out to the north of the Drostdy. It remained largely rural until the last few decades, and several late 19th to early 20th century vernacular cottages may still be seen in this area, albeit modernised. Swellendam became a typically quiet, slow and peaceful rural town.

Swellendam Nuwedorp.
Year 1960.

Modernism

A century after the disasters of the 1860s, Swellendam suffered further blows. In 1965 Voortrek Street – which was then still part of the main road to the Southern Cape and beyond – was widened and upgraded to modern provincial engineering standards.

Swellendam Modernisation and demolitions of old buildings.

demolitions

Nearly all the old trees that had previously shaded the road were felled; several notable old buildings were demolished entirely and others – including the Town Hall – lost portions of their frontages and new levels left buildings on the river side of the road sitting in a gulley several steps below the street. Ironically, not long thereafter, the N2 was built to carry through-traffic past Swellendam. But the damage had been done.

Swellendam Building Demolition,

...and conservation

Swellengrebel Street and the Drostdy complex were saved from such destruction by the indomitable efforts of historian Dr Mary Cooke, the director of the Drostdy Museum at the time. She managed to have the oaks lining the street declared a national monument (now a provincial heritage resource) in 1955, effectively preventing road-widening.

Swellendam Drostdy Complex Conservation.

Racial segregation

The infamous Group Areas Act of the Apartheid government was equally destructive on a social level. In the 1970s all ‘non-White’ inhabitants of Swellendam were forcibly removed across the N2 to Railton, where a tiny vernacular settlement already existed. The golf course, regarded as “White” was moved in the opposite direction and reconstructed in its present position. As elsewhere, the town is still struggling to overcome the effects of spatial segregation.

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

Swellendam Trust, to SHA

All over the world, as modernist development destroyed old buildings and neighbourhoods, heritage conservation became increasingly popular. In early 1980 a group of concerned Swellendam residents met to form the Swellendam Trust, the forerunner of the present Swellendam Heritage Association. It is one of the oldest local conservation organisations in South Africa, and its tireless efforts over many decades have contributed to the survival of many of the buildings listed here

Swellendam Trust.
Swellendam Drostdy. Complex.
Swellendam HASA Seal.
14 - 17 October 2021 | Swellendam

HASA Symposium 2021

Once a year, the Heritage Association of South Africa hosts its annual symposium in a city, town or village. The gathering is HASA’s most prestigious annual event. Over three to four days, heritage activists and professionals from around the country network, share the latest knowledge, discuss pertinent issues facing the sector and highlight conservation challenges in particular communities.

Learn more

What's Happening

Feb 6, 2019
-
Feb 6, 2019

Invitation to visit the Bloukrans Cave 2019

Your committee is very pleased to be able to invite you on an outing to visit the Bloukrans Cave on the 6th of February. This is a very rare opportunity as special permission has been obtained.

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Our Publications

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Your committee

Meet your committee members! Click to expand more information.
Alf Hunter

Alf Hunter

Chairman, Treasurer
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Born in 1948, and have been retired for the past 6 years, and settled in Swellendam 2 years ago from Napier.

Has an active interest in Heritage and History and joined the Swellendam Heritage Association during April 2018 and currently assist on the committee.

Has an Engineering and Project Management background in the Telecommunications industry and have worked for companies such as Denel, Vodacom and Alcatel through the years.

Spent substantial time in France, Germany and Israel studying and have obtained a business degree from the University of Tel Aviv.

Philip Bromley

Philip Bromley

Secretary
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Schooled at Grey College in Bloemfontein.

Studied agriculture post matric at Grootfontein Agricultural College.

Has lived and worked in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, De Aar, East London, Durban. Retired to Pumula on the South Coast of Natal in 2004.

Semigrated from KwaZulu-Natal to the Western Cape to Swellendam in 2013.

Member of the service organisation Lions International’s club in Swellendam

Member of the Swellendam Heritage Association. 2014.

Chairman of the association 2016 to present.

Hobbies are DIY and Reading South African history.

Carol Podd

Carol Podd

Vice Chair – Communications
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Born 1946, North London.School – Sacred Heart convent, Whetstone.

Southampton University: Art. Literature  & Education

Variously taught in schools, environmental centres, museums  & brought up our children in:

Kitwe- Zambia, Bedford- UK, Cornwall-UK, Johannesburg-SA & Chicago-USA.

Moved to Swellendam in 1998.

Part of the team who created & administered ‘Swellendam Alive’ 2000-2004

Council member & Trustee of   Heritage Association of South Africa (formally Simon van der Stel Foundation). 2009 -

Swellendam Trust / Swellendam Heritage Association 2000 –

Secretary, editor – newsletter, chairman  & vice-chairman.

Hennie Steyn

Hennie Steyn

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Born 1947.Matriculated ; Paul Ross Gymnasium (1965) Army Gymnasium (1966)

UP: BSc Agriculture, MSc Agriculture.

Farmed: Kliphoogte & Voorhuis 1974-2015.

Boards of Directors: Soill – 1996-2011

SSK- 1984-2012

Committees:

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

Retired : researching history of Swellendam over a broad spectrum.

Johan Kriek

Johan Kriek

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Born 1951.Schooled at Port Natal High school, Durban 1970. Military training & border duty 1971.  

PTA Tech – H Dip Horticulture & Landscape planning 1987 Continued to work at Tech 1990

Relocated to Cape Town –

Worked at:

  1. Kenilworth Race Course 1995.
  2. Laqunya Finishing school – Biology & Agricultural science  1999.
  3. Montagu – SPCA manager Dip of Herbal Medicine: 2004.
  4. Curator Joubert House Museum & Herb Garden & Aesthetics Committee .
  5. Manager Caledon Museum   & Aesthetics Committee Caledon 2007.
  6. Manager Swellendam Museum  & Aesthetics Swellendam 2009.

Retired: 2016 committee Swellendam Heritage Association & Aesthetics SDM.

Etienne Zeeman

Etienne Zeeman

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Born 1993, Swellendam, Swellendam High.

Lived in Johannesburg for 3 years after school and then moved abroad for work. Travelled and worked in multiple countries and has recently moved back to South Africa.

Interest in History stems from a familial connection to the history of Swellendam and joined the committee to strengthen that connection.

Wynand Olivier

Wynand Olivier

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Old Swellendam Main Street and Atlantic Petrol Station.