Monday, October 26, 2009


Franco Frescura

When, in 1978, a small group of researchers including Michael Nethersole, David Morrison, my wife Lesley and I first began our reconstruction of the postal records for the Cape Colony, none of us believed that this task would ever prove easy, and we quickly came to realize that the final product could never be complete. A lot of our work consisted of the cross-correlation of information originating from a number of diverse sources, and the potential for contradiction and error was, therefore, potentially high. In reality most records proved to be remarkably consistent and normally made good sense. Not so with a small minority of post offices where not only did archival history and common sense rapidly part company, but the Post Office’s own Archives often could not agree for longer than one or two years, thus creating contradictions, confusion and unbelievable chaos in our minds. As a result the travails of postal establishments such as Assegai Bush, Buffels Klip, Calitzdorp, Knysna, Kowie East and Kowie West, and Port Alfred, to name but a few, became the subject of many a late night debate. Even after we had all gone our separate ways, Michael and I still managed to keep up a vigorous postal debate on issues which, in some instances, have never been fully resolved. One such area is the relationship between the neighbouring villages of Wynberg and Plumstead, whose story is retold in this article, in the hope that some postal historian will be able to take a fresh look at some of the issues involved.

Wynberg and the neighbouring village of Plumstead were situated some 13km south of Cape Town. It would appear that, during the early years of the nineteenth, the history of their post offices was interlinked and, indeed, there is good reason to believe that, for a time, they shared in the same postmaster and, perhaps, even in the same location.

The village of Wynberg was laid out on the estate of Klein Oude Wynberg, part of the farm Oude Wynberg whose establishment dated back to the early days of Dutch settlement. Its name was derived from the vineyard laid out in 1658 by Governor Van Riebeeck on the farm Bosheuvel, since renamed Bishop's Court, located on the slopes of Wynberg Hill. In 1809 the Colonial government acquired the land from Andrew Tennant for the purpose of erecting a military camp. By 1826 this consisted only of a military hospital, a set of tumbledown huts serving as barracks, and a ruined store. In 1831 parts of the military camp were laid out into residential plots and sold to the general public, while one stand each was granted to the Dutch Reformed Church and the Anglican Church respectively. The sale gave impetus to the growth of the village and before long prosperous Capetonians were using it as a location for their country villas. In the 1830s it was officially designated as a “village”, by which stage it had about 70 residents and had became a popular holiday resort for British officials on leave. By 1840 over 100 visitors from India were living both in Wynberg and in neighbouring Kenilworth. At that time its streets were lined with rustic cottages interspersed with handsome houses. Plumstead, on the other hand, was developed on the site of an old VOC military camp and, by 1823, was already a growing village (SESA 1972). It would probably be true to surmise that, of the two, Wynberg became the more popular residential area, and consequently developed a more affluent economic infrastructure.

By the 1850s this influx of Indian visitors had dried up and both villages had entered a period of decay. In 1862 Mrs Ross, an English visitor to the Cape, resided in Wynberg for some time and reported it to be:

"... a very pretty place, but shamefully neglected. Everything seems tainted with decay; and yet there are few villages in England to compare with it, for natural beauty of position and surroundings ... At present all the nice cottages are tumbling to pieces; the gardens are choked with weeds and brushwood; the roads and bridle-paths are worn down to their foundations" (Anonymous 1998: 61)

This down-turn in its fortunes did not last for very long. The village was commonly held to have one of the healthiest climes in the Cape, and its hills were particularly esteemed for their bracing atmosphere as well as the extensive views they offered, even as far as False Bay. Consequently, in 1861 the colonial authorities chose it as the site for a military sanatorium. In 1864 the Cape Town suburban railway line was extended to Wynberg, giving it the impetus for further residential development. By the 1880s it could boast of several good schools, a number of churches, and chapels of various denominations.

In 1886 the local economy received a further boost with the development of a military camp on a site adjacent to the village. A post and telegraph office was opened there in April 1888 to meet the immediate needs of the Military, although they still had to go into the village for transactions of a financial nature and the purchase of money orders. Wynberg Camp, as it became known, attracted to the neighbourhood a variety of small retailers seeking the custom of the military. They, in their turn, provided an infrastructure, which made Wynberg all the more attractive to prospective residents. Jonathan Hodgkin, an English visitor to the Cape commented on 31 March 1894 that “Wynberg itself is a very straggling suburb, indeed there seems nobody to the place at all, and it seems all composed of private houses.” (Hodgkin 1970). After the South African War the camp lost some of its prominence but, by this time, the local economy had begun to develop independently of the military.

The railway line from Salt River reached Wynberg on 19 December 1864. It was built and operated by the Wynberg Railway Co, and was leased to the Cape Government on 1 January 1873. On 1 January 1876 the transfer was made permanent. In 1882 the post office at Wynberg was transferred to a new premises at the railway station, and was fitted with an open counter. In 1886 Wynberg was raised to the status of a Head Office in the Western Administrative District and, as a result, the post offices at Diep River, Kenilworth, Muizenberg, Plumstead and Retreat were brought under its control. In 1891 it was refitted and transferred to new premises, also at the local railway station (PMG 1882, 1891). Unfortunately the buildings provided by the Railway Department at Wynberg, as well as other offices along the Muizenburg line, proved to be less than ideal. In 1901 the Postmaster General identified this post office as one of the establishments in urgent need of improved accommodation. He pointed out that "The condition of (this office) imperatively demands that some special effort be made to facilitate the acquirement of more suitable premises or the adaptation of existing buildings to the requirements of the time".

In 1903 he complained to Parliament that "The premises at present occupied are so limited and overcrowded as to render it an impossibility to obtain that degree of efficiency which is so highly desirable at such an important centre". The pressure, he stated, had been created by the fact that the establishment of private estates in the district had placed upon the market an innumerable number of commercial and residential plots. The attendant influx of population, encouraged by the availability of a rapid rail transit system, had created a demand for postal services which his Department could not meet within the already limited office space provided by the railway stations. These claims were borne out by census figures over the previous 28 years. In 1875 Wynberg had a population of 2,504; in 1891 this number had nearly doubled to 4,952; and by 1904 it stood at 18,477, of whom 10,337 were literate. The Railway Department, for its part, owned itself to be "so heavily handicapped for space for its own requirements that it (could) not agree to any extension for the present Post Office".

In 1902 proposals were put forward for the acquisition of a site located at the foot of Lower Church Street, almost opposite the existing post office. This was finalized in 1904, and early in 1907 architectural sketch plans for the project were completed. The new building was designed as a brick structure standing on a stone foundation and plinth, with the roof covered over with English pattern tiles. Although the internal plan was irregular in form, the various branches were accommodated in open-plan offices separated by glazed timber partitions. The building was reported to be virtually the same as the post office at Mowbray, but slightly larger in size.

Further action in 1907 was suspended through a lack of funds, although later that year the Postmaster General singled out Wynberg as one of three towns in the Cape where a new post office was most urgently required. Public tenders for the new building were only invited in 1909, but not before it became necessary to make interim extensions to the buildings it occupied at Wynberg Station (PMG 1901-9; PWD 1907, 1909).

During the course of 1895 the Post Office began the experimental use of bicycles for the delivery of mails in smaller towns and villages. This was found to be highly effective and in 1896 the experiment was extended to include Wynberg (PMG 1896).

In common with Wynberg, as well as many other villages on the Cape Town-Muizenberg line, in about September 1884 the postal establishment at Plumstead was relocated to the local railway station, and until August 1893 was known as Plumstead Station. Unfortunately the premises provided by the Railway Department also proved to be less than ideal, and in 1903 the Postmaster General announced that the post office had been transferred to new quarters in the village. During the course of 1905 the premises were broken into on two separate occasions, but both times the burglars failed to open its safe and nothing of value was taken (PMG 1903, 1905).

In addition to their local post office, during the 1890s the residents of Wynberg could also purchase stamps from the following licensed stamp vendors: Bennett & Baker, EH Clarke (Main Road), G Dunkling (corner Wolfe and Riebeek Streets), M Fig (Ottery Road), Mrs Genan (corner Alphen Hill and Bower Road), Mr Heesen (Durban Road), C Hurlin (Main Road), TG Kelly (Ottery Road), Mr McCrindle, HF Miller (Durban Road), S Rogoff (Gabriel Road), G Schwabel (Ottery Road), Shiffman (Ottery Road), C Vosper (Durban Road). In Plumstead the following shopkeepers offered a similar service: RG Darroll & Co, AM Matz (Main Road), and Wilson (Market Building, Plumstead).

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