Book follows history of far south farms

MICHELLE SAFFER

It could be safely said that born and bred St James resident Mike Walker has kept himself out of his wife’s hair since his retirement, having just published his 23rd book on local history, The Families and Farms of the South Peninsula and Cape Point.

“I retired and sold my business in 1995,” said Mr Walker. “I came home with a big smile on my face. My wife said, ‘I hope you’re not going to make a damn nuisance of yourself!’,”said Mr Walker laughingly.

Luckily, Mr Walker had a great love: history. Even when he studied his BCom at UCT in the 1950s he managed to choose history as one of his subjects.

“So after I was greeted in this rather abrupt manner, I said I would be going to the libraries to research history. My wife said, ‘Oh, that’s quite a good idea! They don’t serve beer or gin and tonic in libraries!’”

Mr Walker decided to concentrate on local history. He was appointed the chairperson of the Kalk Bay Historical Association, now chaired by another St James resident, Barrie Gasson, and researched the history of Muizenberg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town. The Kalk Bay Historical Society produces a bulletin annually, containing the four historical talks given each year and has published 18 bulletins, and celebrates its 21st anniversary this year.

Shipwrecks of the Far South was Mr Walker’s first book, perhaps not surprising as he had joined the merchant navy after graduating – and his ship sank. Nothing to do with Mr Walker though, he was on leave at the time. Two other books focusing on shipwrecks and their stories followed.

Since then his historical research and publishing has covered areas as diverse as postcards, architecture, railway journeys and coastal memories.

“I finally decided to research the history of Cape Point Nature Reserve. Nothing, nothing had been written about the 12 farms that made up Cape Point.”

As his research progressed, he decided he might as well look into the other original farms of the area – Simon’s Town, Glencairn, Noordhoek and the Fish Hoek valley.

“It took me a year to do the research,” he said. Luckily he has a friend in the Deeds Office who was most helpful, but for the most part his research was done at the archives, the National Library of South Africa and the Simon’s Town Museum.

“The people there are fantastic,” he enthused. “They have got to know me worrying them over the past 20 years.”

The Families and Farms of the South Peninsula and Cape Point is a fascinating read for anyone interested in history, and history of this area. It goes right to the start of the issuing of land by the Dutch East India Company in the 1700s, where farms were rented from the company and were circular in shape, measured from a central point, usually a spring of water. The radius of the circle was measured by someone riding a horse at a walking pace in one direction for 30 minutes. So some of the Cape Point farms had their outer edge in the ocean, and there were tracts of land between the circles which were Crown land.

The farms were vital sources of food production for the ships that called in at Simon’s Town as well as for the military, the hospital and the local produce markets, and until 1900 a mere 200 acres, mainly from the fertile valleys of Noordhoek and Glencairn.

The big challenge for farmers was to get their produce to the markets. Ox wagons had to struggle along sandy tracks, with the one from Kalk Bay to Simon’s Town abandoned in favour of using the mountains. It was estimated that in the 143 years between 1652 and 1795, more than 7 000 oxen died through strain or overwork trying to transport produce.

An interesting feature of the age was widows inheriting the farms and becoming successful farmers or business people, such as Christina Diemer who was granted four loan farms.

Christina initially inherited a farm, Zwaanswyk, from her late husband from which she had been supplying the ships with produce at Table Bay. When she heard that Simon’s Bay (Simon’s Town) was to be the official winter anchorage of the Dutch East India Company, she realised there was a need for supplies for their ships.

In 1743, aged 46, she had gone straight to the Castle in Cape Town to speak to Baron Gustaaf Willem von Imhoff who was Governer General of the Netherlands East Indies and asked for two loan farm grants, Die Goede Hoop in Noordhoek (now a housing estate behind Noordhoek Farm Village) and open land at Slangkop (called Imhoff’s Gift, now the site of Ocean View, Imhoff’s Gift, Noordhoek Farm Village and some Kommetjie land).

Baron Von Imhoff had heard of her deliveries of produce to the ships at Table Bay and granted her wish on the understanding that she was to supply vegetables and other produce at an agreed cost. This she did until her death 20 years later.

At about the same time Christina was also granted Goede Gif in Simon’s Town and Diemer’s Kraal in Cape Point, a farm she found unfavourable for her stock, what with the poor grazing, the predators and the brakwater, (brackish water) so she asked to be released from her loan farm agreement after a few years.

This book allows the reader to follow the fate of each farm from its inception to the present day, with many a familiar name’s origins interestingly revealed, and traces families some of whom whose roots go back to those long-ago days.

You can see how, as Mr Walker jokingly says, perhaps thinking of his wife, “It’s kept me out of trouble!”

* The book is available at the Simon’s Town Museum, Kalk Bay Trading Post and Wordsworth, Longbeach Mall.