The life and legacy of Harry Goemans

The Bergvliet branch at 151 Main Road.

For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Harry Goemans is a nursery on Kommetjie Road in Sunnydale, but for his grandchildren, a kind, friendly, and hard-working man who made them peanut butter sandwiches, springs to mind.

His grandson, Henry Fenn, shared his grandfather’s life story in a recent talk, “My grandpa, Harry Goemans: His life and legacy”, hosted by the Fish Hoek Valley Historical Association.

Henricus Joseph Maria Goemans was born in a small town, Hillegom, in the Netherlands on April 26, 1917. He was the eighth child of 16 children and the fifth son, to be born to Adriaan and Aleida Goemans.

The Goemans family had been bulb growers and merchants since the 1850s. Harry’s grandfather, Petrus Goemans formed NVP Goemans & Sons in 1860 and his father, Adriaan, inherited the business in 1902.

Shortly thereafter, he married Harry’s mother Aleida Dernison in 1905 and they built their house, Nooit Gedacht, on the property that same year.

Harry’s early life revolved around being a choirboy at the Catholic Church and he was always a bit embarrassed to admit that he was a boy soprano in the choir.

He played soccer and kept racing pigeons and later followed his brothers to a Catholic boarding school.

However, boarding school was not for him and he was miserable and rebellious and was eventually sent home at age 11 to work as a labourer on the family farm.

While the family was wealthy, their fortunes took a downturn after the Great Depression.

The three eldest brothers, Piet, Jan, and Gerard, left the Netherlands to settle in France and the UK.

Harry’s father, Adriaan, was in Spalding Lincolnshire, in the UK on one of his frequent business trips when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. He was unable to go back home and was forced to remain in England until after the war.

He managed to set up a successful bulb import-export business in Spalding which was run by Harry’s brother, Jan, or “John” as he was called in England.

He later became known as the father of alstroemerias worldwide because he was the first to start breeding new varieties in 1959 to mid-1960s, specifically intended for glasshouse growing.

Adriaan entrusted the business in the Netherlands to his eldest remaining sons, Dick and Harry.

Then came the war and the years 1944 to1945 were particularly hard for the family. The family resorted to eating tulip bulbs and Harry had to kill and eat his racing pigeons.

“My grandpa suffered from night terrors for the rest of his life after he was rounded up and forced onto a train destined for the Reich factories to work as a slave labourer. He and a fellow prisoner decided to jump off the train which was guarded at each end of the carriage. They jumped off and he was shot at and remembers wandering around lost,” Mr Fenn said

For the rest of the war, he stayed in hiding in the basement of his family home playing bridge, whenever there was news of an upcoming raid.

When the war ended, Harry travelled to Spalding with his brother, Joseph (Jos). His visa expired after a year but in the meantime, Jos had fallen in love with a South African woman and when Harry couldn’t renew his visa, the two brothers decided to go to Cape Town.

In Cape Town, they used their meagre savings, and what skills and talents they had to open the original Alphen Farm Stall which was situated across the road from where it is now in Constantia Village.

They sold fruit and vegetables, and Harry grew bulbs all around the building and supplied flowers to flower sellers.

“My grandfather had a very difficult but very famous customer, Irma Stern. When the staff saw her coming, they would disappear leaving it up to my grandfather to have to deal with her. Knowing my grandfather, with his blunt, straight-talking manner, she must have got as good as she gave. In time he was the only one she wanted to serve her,” Mr Fenn said.

At the age of 36, Harry met 28-year-old Dora Davies, a South African and they married in 1951 in St Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town and rented a house on a farm in Philippi where Harry grew his bulbs.

The couple had four children in quick succession, Patricia, Peter, Gloria, and Deborah.

However, Dora was very lonely on the farm and they moved to Bergvliet in the late 1950s where they established the first nursery on the corner of Bergvliet and Main Roads.

A regular visitor, Mr Fenn said, was the late Robert Stodel who would come to Harry for advice.

Today, since both their deaths, there is a Stodels Garden Centre on the same property where Harry had his first nursery.

When Harry was given notice for the Bergvliet property, he started from scratch at 151 Brancaster, Main Road, Bergvliet in 1963. He later bought the property.

In 1975, Harry’s son, Peter, joined the business after matriculating from Bergvliet High School. He went on to study horticulture at Cape Technikon. At the time, Harry had a license to dig up wild flowering bulbs and plants from the mountains around Cape Town.

“This was one of his great pleasures in life in the early days.”

Harry and Peter ran the business together until 1987 when Harry retired at the age of 70. He retained an interest in the business till his death on July 18, 2002.

He was the second last of the 16 siblings to die. Dora died in 2004.

On December 1, 1994, the Sunnydale branch of Harry Goemans Garden Centre was opened. The land had been acquired in March 1990 to be used as a propagation nursery to supply the Bergvliet branch that closed in 2007.

Harry’s daughter, Pat, and her husband, Henry Fenn, were part owners of the nursery along with Peter until they purchased his share in 2000.

Harry’s son-in-law, Henry, built the building blocks for the nursery building himself using a block-making machine.

In 1994, the nursery stretched over a 1200m² and today covers +- 4000m².

After Harry died, Pat inherited money from him and invested it in setting up a concrete works behind the nursery that makes paving slabs, pots, and garden furniture, in-house.

Henry and Pat sold the business to their eldest son, Jeremy, in March 2018 but retain ownership of the property.

Harry and Dora had 12 grandchildren and currently have 8 great-grandchildren.

“He always wanted his name to continue in the nursery business through his son and grandson, but it is his daughter, son-in-law, and eldest grandson who carry on the business in his name five generations later,” Mr Fenn said.

Harry Goemans in a field of Dutch irises.
The Sunnydale branch in the early 1990s.
The Sunnydale branch in the early 1990s. Harry Goemans’s son-in-law, Henry Fenn, made the building blocks for the nursery building himself using a block-making machine.