Church records are the oldest records in South Africa. Churches keep records of baptisms and burials performed from the church or on church property. Church Minute books also have a great deal of interesting information, depending on how efficient the minister was Beaufort West’s Anglican Rev Guy Gething kept detailed notes, particularly on burials. Until 1778 the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk or NGK) was the only official church in South Africa. This church’s records date from 1665. The next oldest church is the Lutheran Church with records dating back to 1778. Anglican Church records date from 1806; Methodist Church from 1816, Presbyterians from 1824, Church of England from 1870 and the Catholic Church from 1837. The Nederduitse Hervormde Kerk has records from 1842 and the Gereformeerde Kerk (Dopper) from 1859. Not all churches have a central repository. Many records are still are kept at parish level. In early days, most baptisms took place in the NGK as there was no English church. The NGK in Middelburg (Cape), for instance, has records of English settlers such as Biggs, Gilfillan, Green, Bennie and Cawood, while in Grahamstown many Afrikaans baptisms are found in the records of the Anglican Church.


In the 1850s Graaff-Reinet produced excellent brandy. A report in the Graaff-Reinet Herald of July 20, 1853, confirmed this. It stated: “Last season 3,337 aums of wine and 891 half aums of brandy were made from the fruit grown in the town. Much of the wine remains on hand, but brandy is very scarce. It is not expected that much wine will be made this year, despite the fact that the vintage is uncommonly fine, however, it is expected that a considerable quantity of brandy, which is of excellent quality, will be produced.


Taffy (Hilary Anne) Shearing, an icon of the Karoo, expert on the history and ecology of the region, died in her sleep on Friday, July 7, just two days before her 80th birthday. Greatly respected for her knowledge as an authority on the Anglo-Boer, Taffy wrote a several book, entitled the Commando Series, on people, events and happenings throughout the Karoo during this period of turmoil in South Africa. These books became immensely popular and highly sought after in South Africa and also by overseas enthusiasts. Taffy’s interest in the war was piqued when it became necessary for a road to be re-directed on the route from Beaufort West to Murraysburg and his necessitated some graves of a Boer soldier and a British trooper being moved. The interest did not wane and in time resulted in her obtaining a Ph D in History in 2004, for her dissertation on The Cape Rebels. This thesis, which over the years has proved invaluable to researchers and military historians contains the names of 15,433 Cape colonists who joined the Transvaal and Orange Free State forces as Cape Rebels towards the end of the war. Taffy was always ready to share information, always willing to go the extra mile to assist any writer or researcher who called on her help. She and her husband David were great friends to many Boer War enthusiasts in this country and abroad. She will be greatly missed.


John Parkin, of Graaff-Reinet was a bit of an inventor. The Cape Frontier Times of January 1, 1850, reported that he had contrived an apparatus for making bricks by pressure and that after this process had been completed, they did not require to be burned or “subjected to the tedious, laborious process of sun-drying.” These bricks, reported the newspaper, were much larger than the usual bricks. They were similar in size to the smaller freestone or granite blocks, used in home building. “The introduction of such bricks will be of great public benefit as they will enable people to build more rapidly and with greater economy.” This news was greeted with great enthusiasm throughout the Karoo and many people, particularly farmers wrote to the newspaper requesting more details and the cost of the apparatus.


Wheatlands is one of the best-known farms in the Graaff -Reinet district is an almost magical place. This historic farm, which has a link to Argentina, has been in the Parkes family for almost 170 years. The tale stretches back across eight generations to the mid-1820s when Thomas, an engineer, born in Dublin in 1803, to Samuel Parkes and Susannah (nee Pettifore), left the Emrald Isle bound for a new job in Argentina. There he met James Bevans, a Quaker, who was to become his father-in-law. James had been involved in engineering undertakings in Argentina since 1822. He and James became friends, and this led to Thomas meeting James’ lovely young daughter, Emma. At the time Emma was not a happy lass. Her mother had died, and she greatly disliked her stepmother. It seems the feeling was mutual because some say she married Thomas in St John’s Anglican Church, Buenos Aires, in 1829, as a way of leaving home. The wedding service was conducted by Reverend John Armstrong and the marriage was witnessed in the Woodbine Parish by Ann Connor and John Ferguson, two friends of the young couple. In normal circumstances Thomas would not have been Emma’s first choice as a husband because he was a rather wild young man.


Nevertheless, Thomas and Emma made “a go of it”. The marriage produced four sons and a daughter. Their story is told by Joan Southey in her book Footprints In The Karoo: A Story Of Farming Life. However, by 1843 political turmoil and general unrest in Argentina drove the family out of the country. Their home seemed to be constantly under attacked by lawless brigands and bandits, so they decided to leave and sailed on the first ship leaving Montevideo. It was bound for South Africa. The family disembarked in Algoa Bay and from there set off to Uitenhage where they opened a hotel. Emma did not take easily to this life because of her strict Quaker background. Running the bar,in particular, stressed her, but she had to do it because Thomas wanted to farm and so spent a great deal of his time away from home searching for a suitable place.


Emma’s heart leapt when Thomas returned one day to tell her he had bought Wheatlands, a 2580 hectares estate, 50 km south of Graaff-Reinet, from John Thornhill’s estate, on April 17, 1849 for £1500. He told her the place, lay alongside the Melk River, that it took its name from superb wheatfields and had an excellent permanent water supply from a fountain. There were thriving orchards and vineyards (which, in time led to Wheatlands becoming one of the Karoo’s most famous brandy producers). Quince hedges surrounded the vineyards and orchards, while a pomegranate hedge protected the homestead and gardens. (When lucerne came to South Africa from South America in 1861 it too was cultivated on Wheatlands.) The farm sounded like heaven to Emma. The family moved, settled and set down roots which led to the development of a dynasty in the Karoo. Thomas, however, did not give up his Uitenhage hotel and at times left Emma alone on Wheatlands when he went to attend to his duties as a publican. She periodically visited him but preferred the farm, which in time the farm turned into a small village. Today it is a guest farm. Those who stay at Wheatlands Country House never cease to admire the “Big House”, an extremely elegant feather-palace-type home, built in 1912 by Arthur Tucker Parkes for his beloved wife, Lili.

Note: Lucerne was first grown in the Worcester district. From there it spread to the Klein Karoo and Karoo and was grown mainly as grazing for ostriches.


Some time ago a study was done by the Agricultural Research Council to find out exactly what makes Karoo lamb so special. Researchers found that the flavour came from indigenous semi-desert herbs and shrubs such as anchor karoo, kapok bush, silver karoo, river ganna and perdebos. The judges evaluated mutton from various parts of the Karoo and to ensure that they got the flavour right were each served a hot tea brewed from each of these plants. Interestingly the panel found no difference between Dorper and Merino meat.


In January 1853, George Southey, of Bloemhof farm in the Graaff-Reinet district advertised for teachers. In the Graaff Reinet Herald of January 12 he stated that he wished to engage the services of a respectable married couple to keep school on the farm and to educate seven children as day scholars in good English, Music and Drawing. The parties would be allowed to take five more children more if they could get them. For this he offered £50 per annum and a good house consisting of seven rooms and garden land for free.


When the Gordon Highlanders, marched with Roberts from Kabul to Kandahar in August 1880, they came across a ferocious Russian mastiff puppy. It had been left behind by the retreating Ghazis, so they named him Ghazi. He immediately “adopted” the regiment and snarled at any tribesman who came too close. For many years the dog was the regimental pet and when the Highlanders stopped in South Africa en route home from India, Ghazi marched at its head. The Black and White Budget of November 17, 1900, reported that Ghazi also displayed his ferocious attitude towards the Boers, He was wounded by a bullet at Majuba Hill during the First Boer War and the Boers took his collar with its Afghan medal, star and clasps. Ghazi, however, survived. He waited for his moment and managed to limp off the battlefield, rejoin the regiment and return with it to England. When the Highlanders returned to South Africa to take part in the Anglo-Boer War, regiment “was attended by another ferocious animal.” The Budget reporter stated: “He too is jealous of the honour of the regiment and it is said he thinks it is his special duty is to catch De Wet.”


The Catholic Pallottine priests arrived in South Africa after being expelled from Cameroon by French colonial authorities in the mid-1920s. They settled in Queenstown at the invitation of Archbishop Bernard Gijlswijk. There they hoped to continue their mission work, but a bitter argument broke out because Irish Bishop McSherry, who resided in Port Elizabeth, had no intention “of giving away part of his territory.” After much stress, suffering, humiliation, perseverance, sacrifice, prayer and diplomatic skills they were given their own mission territory which included Queenstown, Cathcart, Stutterheim Tarkastad, Hofmeyr, Glen Grey, Stockenström, Maraisburg and a part of St. Mark’s. Father Vogel became an apostolic protonotary with the title “Monsignor”. Building the mission was no easy task and the completely overworked and overstressed Monsignor Vogel, died from a stroke on May 11, 1935. The Pallottines had to take out a loan to bury him.


These priests went on to do great work setting up schools and missions across the hinterland. For instance, under their guidance, Glen Grey Hospital became one of the best health care centers in the Eastern Cape. Father Otto Gebhard Anderes served the Beaufort West community from 1932 to 1946. He was succeeded by Father Theodor Dudler (from 1959 to 1967), says Marcel Dreier, who works for a small development organization in Switzerland, which has a partnership supporting a farmworker project in the Central Karoo. A zealous and hardworking man with a great sense of humour, he cared greatly for the poor and under privileged. At his death he was the only Swiss Pallotine serving in South Africa was states Adolphe Linder in The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope,

Note: The Pallotine order was founded in Rome in 1835, Its object was to revive faith and charity throughout the world through prayer labour and other contributions


South Africa’s postal service dates back to 1500, when the captain of the Petro D’Ataide, placed a letter in a tree at Mossel Bay. In it he reported the sinking of three ships in his fleet, including that of Bartholomeu Dias, during a heavy storm over the Atlantic Ocean. Portuguese ships regularly stopped at Mossel Bay to take on fresh water, so the letter was found three months later and delivered to Portugal. Many years later, on March 2, 1792, the acting governor of the Cape, Johan Isaac Rhenius, opened a post office in a room next to the pantry at the Castle. This was the start of the South Africa Post Office (SAPO). By 1805 a regular inland mail service between Algoa Bay and False Bay was handled by farmers on horseback. Also, a mail wagon ran twice a week between Cape Town and the town of Stellenbosch. In 1806, Sir David Baird ruled that enslaved indigenous people would be used to convey letters and small packages. A mail boat service was introduced between England and the Cape in 1815 and in 1848 postmen were appointed to carry official mail in the then Transvaal. Prior to this mail was sent by special messenger, or some available transport. Post coaches were used in the hinterland and these uncomfortable vehicles also transported passengers. In some places, camels were used, but ox carts replaced this service. The first mail train was introduced in 1883. In 1905, the largest diamond in the world, the Cullinan, was sent to London as a normal recorded postal item. Mail was delivered for the first time by car in 1911 and the first airmail delivery happened in December that year. In some places, camels were used, but ox carts replaced this service in 1914. The first overseas air-mail service was introduced in 1932.


Alexander Logie du Toit was one of a South Africa’s most prominent geologists. Among his most famous projects was his study of the Karoo and its dolerite intrusions. As an early and ardent supporter of German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, (the originator of the theory of continental drift in 1912) Du Toit was the first to propose that the enormous landmass Pangea, which was surrounded by a global ocean called Panthalassa, broke into the two supercontinents of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, separated by an ocean. However, his championship of this idea at the time was quite unpopular, yet it led to the publication of two books and several papers. Born on March 14, 1878, he was the eldest child of Alexander du Toit and his wife Anna Logie. After matriculating at the Diocesan College, he went to the University of the Cape of Good Hope. His grandfather encouraged him to study mining, so after graduating in Cape Town, he decided to further his studies at Glasgow Technical School in Scotland and at the Royal College in London. While in Glasgow he married Adelaide Walker, with whom he had one son. He spent some time lecturing in Glasgow but returned to South Africa in 1903 to join the Geological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope – the first geological survey in southern Africa. There he continued the detailed geological mapping of the Cape Colony that had been started in 1895.


Du Toit’s threw himself into field work with great enthusiasm and energy. His ability to make rapid, detailed and accurate observations stood him in good stead. He worked at a furious rate but was known for his painstaking meticulousness. Using a donkey-drawn tent-wagon as his temporary home he, often accompanied by his wife and son, trekked deep into the Karoo and covered large areas of roadless terrain on foot or on a bicycle, to surveyed well over 100 000 square kilometers of terrain. He also had a keen interest in water, so travelled widely to locate boreholes and dam sites. He gathered much detailed geological information from drill cores. As a result of his extensive geological mapping Du Toit became the recognised authority on the sediments of the Karoo. In 1922, Professor R.A. Daly of Harvard University, who had spent some time with him in the field, pronounced him “the world’s greatest field geologist”. Nobel Prize winner, Sidney Brenner, also spent time with him in the field and was amazed to find that Du Toit, passionately believed in water divination. – the practice of using dowsing rods or sticks to locate water, oil, or precious metals. Brenner found it extremely odd for a scientist of Du Toit’s caliber because divination has no scientific merit whatsoever. Du Toit then demonstrated his ability by finding a spring in the middle of the Kalahari Desert using nothing but a tree branch as a dowsing rod.


In 1923, Du Toit received a grant from the Carnegie Institute in Washington and used this to go to South America to study the geology of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. He also studied groundwater geology in Australia . During WWI he served as a hydrogeologist for the South African Force. After his wife died in 1923, he married Evelyn Harvey and, at this time became a proficient musician, his favorite instrument was the oboe. He also did some motorcycle racing. During his lifetime Du Toit received many honors, awards and five honorary degrees. He was twice president of the Geological Society of South Africa, a corresponding member of the Geological Society of America, and the first South African to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of London. A year after his death the Geological Society instituted biennial memorial lectures to commemorate his work. A crater on Mars was also named in his honour. He died on February 25, 1948.


Sad tidings of the death of William Currie of Somerset reached Graaff-Reinet on Sunday, January 23, 1853. The Graaff Reinet Herald of January 26, 1853 reported that William, a Lieutenant in the Somerset Border Police, had died on Thursday, January 20 after being severely wounded by a charge of loopers in the thigh. This had happened during a skirmish at Slagtkamer in the Zuurberg, when a “murderous gang of rebels under the notorious Hans Brander raided the area”. Another brave frontiersman, Mr J Bouwer, who was also wounded in this incident, but died soon after being shot. “Our Frontier has thus been deprived of two brave and valuable men. The best that any country perhaps could produce,” concluded the report.

We take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.Cynthia Ozick