Saturday, November 1, 2008

Moedverloor treasure


We went up to Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia last weekend. We went over Pakhuispas then you have three options for getting to Nieuwoudtville. The usual, and better, road is over Botterkloof pass then either continue on the R364 to the Nieuwoudtville to Calvinia road or turn left directly after the pass on a lesser road going directly to Nieuwoudtville. The third option is to turn off the R364 before the pass. This road leads through the delightfully named settlement of Moedverloor (Despair). I am always lured by attractive names but I particularly wanted to go there because Antonia knows that there are some exceedingly interesting buildings there.

To explain why I regard that little building as a treasure I need to introduce you to the late James Walton.

Antonia (my wife) is an archaeologist whose particular interest is historical archaeology (archaeology where there is also a written record). This led her to excavate and research old buildings. That resulted in her to joining the Vernacular Architecture Society (the VERNACS) and the trip to Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia was a VERNACS trip. The founder of the VERNACS was James Walton. He was a Yorkshireman who came to Lesotho to be the Deputy Director of Education. He had previously founded the Vernacular Architecture Group in Britain and had written numerous papers, pamphlets and books about vernacular architecture in Britain. Naturally he was interested in the vernacular architecture in Leshoto and also the neighbouring Orange Free State. One of his books is Vroee Plase en Nedersettings in die Oranje-Vrystaat but that must have been a translation as he spoke no Afrikaans. On his retirement he moved to the Cape where he continued his interest in vernacular buildings. At a UCT Summer School in 1964 he spoke about South African vernacular architecture which inspired a group of participants to form the local VERNACS with him as President. The VERNACS have a website where some of their early Journals are available in pdf format and all are listed with their contents and can be ordered on line. In the first pdf starting on page 22 is ‘Volksboukunde in Konteks” by Thys Hatting. Volksboukunde = vernacular architecture. It is an article in appreciation of James Walton (as is the whole of that edition of the Journal).

This is a copy of the flyleaf of the book showing all the places described by James Walton. I draw your attention to Oudekraalfontein (the Coloured township of Hopefield), Elandsbaai and Bonteheuvel. The book was published in 1995 – only 500 copies were printed. Walton describes the Hartbeeshuise.

This is a photo from the book. He writes “several such cottages were still being built and occupied by Coloured farm workers until about twenty years ago in the Sandveldt and in the Piquetberg.”. He then goes on to write:

The hartbeeshuis was the home of the first white settlers north of the Orange who began to settle in the vicinity of Rouxville and Zastron as early as 1819. One of the trekboers, Ian Johannes Botes, stated that 'in the year 1830 I came for the first time with my trek out of the Nieuwveld to the place Zevenfontein, now called Beersheba. About fourteen or fifteen families were then with me, who had all migrated together from Nieuwveld. When my brother and Hans Rensburg sowed on the place, they likewise made hartbees huts 4. The Griquas and Coloured peoples who later settled at Beersheba also built hartbeeshuise, possibly adopting them from Jan Johannes Botes and his followers, for Backhouse observed that the houses of the coloured people were progressively improving; the round or oven-shaped huts, those composed of mats, and those which were circular were giving way to what were called in this country, hartebeest houses.

These are drawings of hartbeeshuise from the book

This shows the framework of a hartbeeshuis. Notice that poles are bent over and tied with riempies to a ridge pole and also to tie-beams (hanebalke).

The next sort Walton describes are ‘Cottages of the West Coast Fisherman’ which he calls ‘reed-walled cottages’

This is a picture Walton took in 1965. Notice that this is different to a hartbeeshuis because it has walls and a roof which overhangs the walls; it has eaves. Elandsbaai.

Another picture, simpler buildings but several to form a settlement. 1965 again. Verlorenvlei. He writes:

Along the west coast of the Sandveld, south of Namaqualand, the fishermen and farm workers used reeds for a type of dwelling which was quite different to the maoieshuis of Namaqualand. It was a rectangular, framed, thatched building with reed walls, which was a regional adaptation of the rectangular house introduced by the white settlers, but used materials easily obtained locally. Twenty years ago there were several reed-walled homesteads on the sands at the mouth of the Verloren Vlei, near Elandsbaai. Each homestead consisted of a long reed-walled living room and a much smaller kitchen or cooking place. Each building had a slightly hipped roof at the end and the thatch was swept in an eyebrow over the entrance (Fig.18). A similar settlement formerly existed on the farm Bonteheuvel, a few kilometres along the Verloren Vlei from Elandsbaai (Fig. 19). Such reed-walled dwellings were built by the farm labourers throughout the Sandveld and the Piquetberg but the most interesting reed-walled dwellings were those on Oudekraal Fontein, which lies to the west of Hopefield.

I began to record the houses at Oudekraal Fontein in 1961 when I expressed the hope that some at least of those interesting examples of our vernacular architecture would be preserved. I made a further appeal for their preservation in 1979 but it became apparent that they would be demolished to make way for a playing field and the need for at least a pictorial record became evident. Most of the houses were razed to the ground but three of the most interesting survived a little longer.

It would have been very worthwhile if one of the houses, such as No.55 or No.62 could have been preserved and continued to be occupied by a family, so providing a living memorial to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people who created the reed-walled houses of Oudekraal Fontein. It would have provided an excellent demonstration to future generations of what could be created from locally available materials by individual and cooperative effort. Only after the houses had been demolished did the local administration realize their cultural and historic value and then a simple reed-walled house was built next to the Oudekraal library in Hopefield to serve as a museum (Fig.31). Although it was correctly built it lacks the character and warmth of the original buildings, as it is just a lifeless shell.

I was unaware of the replica in Hopefield until I did the research for this post and I will go to see if it is still there. It was built in 1986; here are two references to it:

In those articles the building is referred to as a hartbeeshuis. Walton is clear in his distinction between a genuine hartbeeshuis which is made by bending the poles to form both the wall and roof as against the reed-walled houses of Oudekraalfontein which have separate timber for the walls and roof.

This is one of the original houses that was swept aside. Oudekraalfontein.

Here is another. Now this one is different because it has been plastered over the reed walls with white clay dug from a pit nearby. The right hand end wall has not been plastered. Many of the Oudekraalfontein buildings were plastered in part or whole.

Those buildings had all gone by 1986 but similar buildings still exist in Moedverloor today 20 years later. Walton would not have called them hartbeeshuise because they have (mostly) walls and roofs like at Oudekraalfontein.

The one on the left is different as the roof comes directly onto the ground. That style of building is called kapstylhuis and can be found at Puntjie and Vermaaklikheid

The one at the back has plastered walls. The building on the left represents the threat to these buildings; already they are being replaced by conventional buildings. I can’t quite see on my photo if the shed under the tree is reed walled or steel sheeting. We did not have much time here as we had to be in Nieuwoudtville to meet the VERNACS. I did not want to intrude into their personal space in a rude hurry looking like so many dismissive arrogant rich people who have no respect for the meek and poor.

The houses are more like the ones at Verlorenvlei than at Oudekraalfontein

The first couple we saw were unoccupied and I was able to get this photo of the inside over the top of the door. The gas (paraffin?) stove is interesting but so too is the internal construction details.

I urge any of you going there to respect the inhabitants and consider their pride. They can easily be made to feel that they are quaint freaks or degenerate by people barging in and photographing them and gaping at them. These are the custodians of part of our vanishing heritage. I would like you to consider who you tell about this. Yobs in 4x4s or DS bikes blasting past looking at the ‘barbarians’ in their ‘hovels’ would be a social and human violence against them. Interacting with them as equals would be correct and polite.

One of the houses is falling down. How long will these buildings survive?

This is the setting. The houses are alongside the road not clustered together. Notice the replacement building alongside.

Just past those houses they are building this. It has a gable but the front door is in an unusual place. The reed-walled buildings are very special.

A bit later this is the gate you go through (there are many gates to open and close on this road). It says something about the locals not wanting strangers in their area.

I believe there is also a single similar house on the Clanwilliam side of the Pakhuispas.

Here are two links to sites discussing hartbeeshuise


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