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Urban fabric: District Six’s forgotten homesteads

The Zonnebloem homestead and surrounding school buildings narrowly escaped fire damage during the recent April mountain fire. Picture: Jim Hislop

The Zonnebloem homestead and surrounding school buildings narrowly escaped fire damage during the recent April mountain fire. Picture: Jim Hislop

Published Jan 21, 2022

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Story and pictures by Jim Hislop

District Six is fondly remembered as a bustling, densely populated, racially integrated Cape Town neighbourhood, but its early colonial origins date back to the 18th and early 19th centuries when "market garden" estates occupied the area below Devil’s Peak to the east of Buitenkant Street loosely referred to as ‘Behind the Castle’ in old street directories.

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These were small farms that supplied the growing settlement of Kaapse Vlek (early Cape Town) as well as passing ships on route to the Dutch colonies, with fresh fruit, meat, grain and wine.

These early estates included Zonnebloem, Bloemhof and Werkerslust, each with homesteads, vineyards, orchards and grazing land, accessed by dirt roads that were later formalised into District Six thoroughfares, such as Hanover Street.

Slave labour was used to do the farmwork and household chores, such as cooking and fetching water and firewood.

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From the early to mid-19th century, these old estates were subdivided into smaller properties, and later homesteads were built on former farmland. Following the British occupation of the Cape, Regency and Georgian architecture became more fashionable as the Cape Dutch style fell out of favour.

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Houses built in the area during this period included Granite Lodge in Harrington Street, the Moravian Hill homestead (next to the Moravian Chapel), and Buckingham Lodge (later incorporated into the Peninsula Maternity Hospital, where many District Six babies were born).

A view of the Zonnebloem homestead seen from the arches of the Zonnebloem chapel. Picture: Jim Hislop

From the early to mid-19th century, these old estates were subdivided into smaller properties, and later homesteads were built on former farmland.

Story continues below Advertisement

Following the British occupation of the Cape, Regency and Georgian architecture became more fashionable as the Cape Dutch style fell out of favour.

Houses built in the area during this period included Granite Lodge in Harrington Street, the Moravian Hill homestead (next to the Moravian Chapel), and Buckingham Lodge (later incorporated into the Peninsula Maternity Hospital, where many District Six babies were born).

The 18th-century Zonnebloem homestead has always been a landmark on Devil's Peak. Picture: Jim Hislop

It may be surprising to many Capetonians to learn that these three homesteads are still standing, having narrowly escaped demolition during the 20th century. Other important houses of the period, such as Hanover House (after which Hanover Street was named) weren’t as "fortunate" and fell victim to the bulldozers.

Granite Lodge, an elegant stone-faced homestead now occupied by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), was built in the 1830s for Cape Attorney-General Sir Anthony Oliphant and later occupied by German-born artist and snuff dealer Otto Landsberg. By the mid-19th century, the area was becoming overcrowded and less attractive to wealthier residents who began to relocate to the leafier Southern Suburbs.

In 1861 Granite Lodge was converted into an orphanage, and in the 20th century, it housed the Nicro Night Shelter. Now a Heritage Site, it was later restored and adapted for its current use as SAHRA offices.

The Moravian Hill homestead (built c.1850) adjoins the beautiful Moravian Chapel, a landmark of District Six, which was completed in 1886.

A view of the Gothic-style chapel at Zonnebloem designed by female Victorian architect Sophy Gray - the wife of Bishop Gray who founded Zonnebloem College. Picture: Jim Hislop

The house was adapted to become the church’s parsonage and a delicate timber trellised veranda (now rare) was added later.

As a result of the forced removals of the District Six congregation by 1979, the parsonage gradually fell derelict and was threatened with demolition; luckily it was saved and proclaimed a National Monument in 1991. Somewhat battered, the old veranda survives.

Buckingham Lodge, off Caledon Street, was probably built by Thomas Ramsden before 1846.

The late-Georgian Moravian Hill homestead - adjacent to the Moravian Chapel - facing a cobbled remnant of old Ashley Street. Picture: Jim Hislop

Another Georgian homestead, its finest feature is its elegant panelled twin front doors below a spoke fanlight.

It has served various functions over the years, and after being used by the Eastern Telegraph Company in the early 20th century, it was occupied by the Peninsula Maternity Hospital in 1921.

More recently, the 1930s hospital buildings have been replaced by a more modern healthcare facility, but Buckingham Lodge remains standing rather forlornly behind the new complex, one of District Six’s hidden gems.

Buckingham Lodge's fine Georgian front doors and spoke fanlight. Picture: Jim Hislop

And what of Zonnebloem and Werkerslust? Despite being altered during its long lifespan, Zonnebloem (the east city’s earliest homestead, which gave its name to the area after District Six was demolished) is still standing on its elevated position overlooking Table Bay.

These exposed old stone walls are a remnant of the once extensive Werkerslust homestead complex in De Villiers Street. Picture: Jim Hislop

It has witnessed much of Cape Town history, from the establishment of the Zonnebloem College on the property in the 1860s (initially for educating the sons of Xhosa chiefs) to the founding of various schools on the site.

Fortunately, its thatched roof has long since been replaced by corrugated iron, which probably saved it from being destroyed in the recent April fire, which came within metres of the complex after destroying numerous other historic buildings.

Picture: Jim Hislop

One much-altered wing of Werkerslust survives in De Villiers Street. Now part of The Shack Bar and Nightclub (itself a landmark of the area), it's thick, exposed interior stone walls reveal its great age, something its modernised exterior effectively conceals.

These early architectural remnants of District Six deserve to be remembered for their connection to a complicated past and preserved for future generations to enjoy.

BIO

Jim Hislop is a property historian who is the founder of the Facebook group, The Cape’s Threatened Buildings, and author of Behind the Castle, which tells the story of the early buildings, streets and people of District Six, and is dedicated to the 60 000 residents who lost their homes. Facebook: @behindthecastlebook

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