Knysna – not just a natural paradise, but Utopia for history buffs.

So you’ve hiked through and had a picnic in our mysterious forests, you’ve lazed on our beautiful beaches and you’ve enjoyed all the activities on offer on and alongside our estuary. You’ve shopped at our fascinating markets and enjoyed the gourmet treats at our fantastic restaurants.

Have you explored our history?

Knysna boasts a rich history of sailing, timber – and even gold! And while you can explore this rich history at either the Millwood House Museum or the Old Gaol Museum, you can also embark on a self-guided walk through Knysna. The Knysna Historical Society has created an informative brochure with a map showing many of the main historic buildings in town. The map is easy to read and the brochure is available from Knysna Tourism.

And as we’ve just celebrated National Heritage Day on 24 September, we thought that we’d close off National Heritage Month by briefly looking at the events that led to the establishment of the town of Knysna.

While the first people along this section of the coast were the Khoi and the isiXhosa, Stephanus Jesaias Ter Blans (Terblanche) was the first European colonist to settle in the Knysna area when he established the farm Melkhoutkraal on the eastern bank of the Knysna River in 1770.

A few years of colonisation passed and a Scottish ex-mariner, James Callander, who had surveyed the Knysna estuary and forests, had informed a certain George Rex of the attractions of Knysna in terms of timber, farming and the possibility of establishing a harbour for exporting goods.

George Rex, practising as a lawyer in Cape Town at the time, was reputed to be the illegitimate son of King George III and settled in Knysna in 1804 after buying Melkhoutkraal. He extended his property to include the farm Eastford (situated east of the Salt River to today’s Long Street) and, eventually, all the property encircling the estuary – and beyond. In 1825 the British Royal Navy laid out the naval township of Melville on 80 acres of Eastford, which George Rex had ceded to the Cape Colonial Government.

Captain Thomas Henry Duthie married Caroline Rex and bought a portion of the farm Uitzicht from George Rex, his father-in-law, which he named Belvidere (still located on the western side of the estuary). Here he built the stone farmhouse which is today’s Belvidere Manor Hotel, and the Holy Trinity Church, a sandstone building consecrated in 1855.

The view of Belvidere across the estuary.
The view of Belvidere across the estuary.

In 1842, three years after George Rex’s death, Henry Barrington arrived in the Cape and came to Knysna. He bought the Portland farm and built a stone farmhouse which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1869. Barrington rebuilt the home – which still stands as Portland Manor.

After George’s death, the Rex family resolved to keep the southern portion of Melkhoutkraal (today’s Hunter’s Home and Woodbourne, purchasing this section from Rex’s estate. Lt.Col. John Sutherland bought the northern section of Melkhoutkraal and his son (also John) established the village of Newhaven on this section in 1845.

John Sutherland Jr also built a timber school in 1847, which was closely followed by the construction of the stone Anglican St George’s Church (1848 – 1851). This church was consecrated in 1855, but the Dutch Reformed Church had already been built in 1851.

The Dutch Reformed Church.
The Dutch Reformed Church.
St George's.
St George’s.

At this time Knysna was a Field-Cornetcy of the District of Plettenberg Bay in the Magisterial Division of George, but in 1858 Knysna was declared a separate Magisterial Division bounded in the west by the Swart River, the east by the boundaries of the Division of Humansdorp, north by the Outeniqua Mountains and south by the Indian Ocean. The old stone Gaol building in Main Street was built to house the convicts working on the roads in Knysna under Thomas Bain and later the Prince Alfred’s Pass through the Outeniqua Mountains. James Fichat, the first Resident Magistrate and Civil Commissioner, was appointed to administer justice, a District Surgeon was sent to Knysna and the first bank was established.

Knysna now became the new commercial centre for this area and merchants set up trading enterprises and more hotels and boarding houses were established. Magistrate Fichat also started a Public Reading Room, the forerunner of the 1893 stone-built library.

The Thesen family arrived in Knysna from Norway in early 1870, bringing much neede sailing, commercial and practical skills. The family started extracting timber from the forests and exporting this timber to the Cape aboard their ship, the Albatros. The Thesens established their own sawmill at Brackenhill, where they also manufactured small boats. Both the sawmill and boat building factory were relocated to Paarden Island (today’s Thesen’s Island) in 1923.

South Africa’s first goldfield was proclaimed in 1887 after Jack Hooper found  gold nugget in the Karatara River near Ruigtevlei in 1878. The gold rush was short lived and many of the miners settled in Knysna – bringing their wood and iron homes into town.

Millwood goldfields saw South Africa's first official gold rush.
Millwood goldfields saw South Africa’s first official gold rush.

In 1882 the two villages of Newhaven and Melville, plus “the wedge” – the remaining portion of the farm Eastford – had been amalgamated to form a municipality known as The Knysna, taking its name from the Knysna River. A Municipal Committee was formed, mainly of the leading Knysna businessmen at the time, resulting in the formal management of future development.

George Parkes arrived in Knysna in 1890 from England and saw the opportunity to use the hardwoods of the Knysna forest. After acquiring large tracts of indigenous forest and a steam sawmill in Knysna, he formed the Knysna Forest Company, later re-named Geo. Parkes & Sons Ltd., which still trades under this name today.

Next time you visit Knysna, why not visit our museums and embark on the Knysna Historical walk. We’ve all heard the expression “if these walls could talk” – the Knysna Historical Society has given the walls in Knysna a voice. All you have to do is listen…

With many thanks to Philip Caveney and Margaret Parkes of the Knysna Historical Society for the information provided, and to Melanie Groenewald, curator of the Knysna museums, for the photographs used.

One thought on “Knysna – not just a natural paradise, but Utopia for history buffs.

  1. Goodmorning,
    I would like more information on Parkes Manor. I live in George.
    Lorraine Kolarich

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