The history of Fish Hoek is safe in Joy Cobern’s hands.
From her home in the area, which has held so much of her life, Joy paints a picture of the Fish Hoek her husband, Malcolm, was born and raised in.
It was a time of a freedom unknown to the current generation, she says, when children were safe to roam far from home, spend their childhood days swimming in the sea, exploring the mountains; their parents part of a close-knit community.
It was a time of personal contact, when neighbours knew neighbours and communication was face to face. Time was slower, there were dances, socials, gatherings where everyone met and put the hardships to one side, to enjoy the time at hand.
There were bonfires on the beach and the MOTH hall was the area’s original recreation club – a constant hub of activity.
If there was a birthday, a party or a celebration of any kind, that was where the community gathered. It was years before the railway line threw a lifeline to any area beyond Muizenberg; in essence the area was an extraordinary expanse of farmland, with a far distant shore.
After the war, it was that sea shore that saw a clock built: exasperated mothers clubbed together to put the clock up so that their children could see when it was time to head home from the beach.
“Homework was not a priority, among the children living here,” Joy chuckles.
Mr Cobern senior, Malcolm’s father, was one of the original families who settled in the area.
Mr Cobern senior bought a number of plots when the original farmland was cut up and sold off – one plot cost him 25 pounds, another, 10 pounds. His investments stood him in good stead – he was able to sell the plots and retire at the age of 45.
He led a happy life, Joy says, always taking the role of Father Christmas at the gatherings and organising Guy Fawkes on the beach.
His family was the first to convert their weekend holiday shack into a wooden bungalow, on stilts, in 1920, and settle permanently; filled with courage and hope in the wilderness beyond Muizenberg.
Malcolm Cobern was born in that ethos, and that first wooden bungalow in 1921.
They were there years before electricity, years before any form of sewerage system was installed, pioneers of sorts, in a community of peers and the only governance they had was the Village Management Committee. The area’s first council was only established in 1940.
Joy says the area in the early 1920s initially looked no different to a squatter camp; the use of the word shack was literal: people wanted a place simply to store their clothes and sleep for the night.
“The difference between the people who populated Muizenberg and those who made Fish Hoek their home was money,” Joy says. “Muizenberg was developed by rich Jewish families who came down from the then Transvaal and established businesses and built mansions.”
The Fish Hoek families were mostly younger folk with small children who wanted a place by the sea.
“This entire area was undeveloped to begin with, anything beyond Muizenberg was considered too far out, too wild to inhabit.” Joy’s
love affair with the land and its people began when she married Malcolm, whom she met on a Castle Union ship, and she returned to South Africa to marry her sweetheart.
It was her husband, she jokes, who conned her into becoming chairwoman of the historical association in the early 1990s.
The association traces its beginnings to 1978 when the then Fish Hoek Town Council elected a committee and formed a historical association because they wanted to create a museum.
However, it was only in the 90s that it was generally accepted that the museum need not be in a purpose-built building after all, and the 16-member strong historical association began in earnest creating one in a house donated by the town council.
Joy became the founding curator for the museum. Ever since 1978, all items of a historical nature had been dropped off at the library, where they were duly put into plastic bags with no documentation, details or paperwork attached.
Joy recalls moving into the empty house, obtained to house the museum, with R3 000 in the bank account and piles of bags to sift through, for her first exhibits. And to her horror, rock remnants from Peer’s Cave were brazenly left in the library foyer near the public telephones: with ash trays placed on them.
Visitors to the museum today would have no idea of the scant beginnings, because Joy and her team have done a sterling job since.
And in the process, history has become a passion for Joy.
“I initially arrived here from England and was not impressed by people here saying they lived in old homes. Where I came from, people were living in homes built in the 1500s – so the 1800s didn’t impress me,” she laughs.
But then her curiosity was piqued, and she began noticing how the versions of history changed depending on who told the story.
“I was raised on the gallant effort by brave Brits in their fight against the Boers,” she laughs.
Once she arrived in her new home, she heard another version. That wasn’t the last version she has heard either, and she encourages people to ask questions and be aware of the bias in the stories which are told.
For those who are new residents or have never thought back to the humble and courageous origins of their coastal village, Joy wrote her own book, Fish Hoek Looking Back, to celebrate this, the area’s centenary year.
The area was founded by young families, she says, and the only reason families moved up the line again in their middle years was to offer
their children schooling opportunities.
The reason Fish Hoek is seen as an extended old age home now, she says, is because the founding families have all returned to retire and live out their days in the area they built. Those early stories all appeared in the first editions of The Echo.
She remembers first-hand seeing Cedryl Greenland walking about with her early copies of The Echo.
“Ceddie went to every meeting, event and wedding, herself.
“Every bride was beautiful, according to Ceddie – and she single -handedly covered all the news central to Fish Hoek. If somebody had visitors from overseas, Ceddie would be sure to be there to share their news.”
Joy says The Echo was the area’s first true community newspaper, and the emphasis -reflected in the newspaper – was on community.
“This is what stood out in the early formation of this area.”