History of Robertson
Founded in 1853
Originally called Hooprivier the town of Robertson was founded in 1853 by two good friends, the Dutch Reformed Church minister at Swellendam, Rev. Dr. William Robertson and the Honorable Joseph Barry, who was the auctioneer when the farmland on which the town stood was cut up into erven. In 1847 Barry & Nephews had already established the Hoops River Trading Store (which later became Barry Brothers) and would have known that it was a risk worth taking. It was said that these friends were, “the providers of all things earthly and spiritual”.
The new town was named Robertson in honour of the evangelistic Scottish minister who served the Overberg for 39 years and who had held communion church services (nagmaal) when visiting every three months in the home of Johannes W van Zijl who owned the farm Over het Roode Zandt aan Hoopsrivier in the 1840s. A street was named Barry in recognition of the mainstay and trade opportunities that Barry & Nephews had opened up for the Overberg farmers.
In September 1852 Van Zijl and school teacher Mauritz Polack wrote to Dr. Robertson requesting that a new congregation be started at Hooprivier. A mere month later Dr Robertson authorised a portion of the farm Over het Roode Zandt to be purchased for the princely sum of 4 200 Pounds by school teacher Mr. Mauritz Polack (who was also to act as preacher for the Dutch Reformed Church) on behalf of the Church Council, which had yet to be elected! On the 19th January 1853, Robertson was officially founded as a ‘dorpsgebeid’ township with 26 gentlemen who were present as guarantors – 10 of these men were elected as ‘directors’. It was surveyed by H van Reenen and a total of 199 plots were auctioned off by Joseph Barry for about 40 Pounds each. An annual tax of 10 shillings on each plot was used for the building and maintenance of the first Dutch Reformed Church which was consecrated in October 1856 – this tax only ended in 1951. At the auction on 4th & 5th May 1853 an erf was promised to the first male child born in the new town of Robertson, provided the names of both founders were given to him. On the 1st of December in the same year the lucky child was born. He was duly baptised Robertson Barry Masuriek by Dr Robertson, with Joseph Barry being one of his seven sponsors.
The Transfer deed went through on the 28 July 1853. However, it was October 1853 before the surrounding DRC Church Circles at Worcester, Caledon and Tulbagh had all given their approval. Approval from the Colonial Government for the town of Robertson only came mid December 1853.
Left: Mauritz Polack, school teacher and Secretary of the Robertson Management Board. Later he became a ship owner. (Tromp 1953:98)
Middle: The auction notice placed in the Cape Government Gazette advertising 300 plots available in Robertson.
Fragments of a forgotten past can sometimes be found in the empty mountain caves surrounding Robertson and near streams where nomadic Khoisan hunters would have refreshed themselves.
By 1710 cattle and sheep farmers ‘freeburgers’ arrived in the area and it was to one Pieter Joubert that a grazing licence for the piece of land “over the Breede River, between the two cross rivers” was granted. In the 1790’s the farm Orange Grove in Noree, was leased to a Messrs J.H Cloete and P.J du Plessis. The oldest manor house in the area was built in 1812 on Orange Grove and the flour mill at the Old Mill house was turned by the passing mountain stream and supplied wheat flour to the nearby farmers and transport riders. In 1813 Sir John Craddock made it possible to purchase land outright from the Government.
Today the names of these original farms are still much in evidence as the surrounding districts of De Hoop, Roodezant, Willem Nels River, Noree, Goree, Vink Rivier, Klaasvoogds, Goudmyn, Le Chasseur, Retreat, and Vrolijkheid.
The village itself grew up around the Dutch Reformed Church and the Barry’s store and wine cellars which became a meeting and trading place for the farmers in the district. Later Liebermann and Buirski, a well-known Cape Town firm, opened a branch and other traders on a smaller scale followed.
Left: Completed by 1856 the original Dutch Reformed Church gave away to the current larger ‘mother’ church in 1904 (Tromp 1953:28) with Dr. Andrew McGregor being called out of retirement for the consecration of the new church on the 19th October 1905.
Middle: The Hoop River Trading Store built by Barry & Nephews in 1847.
All things Spiritual
As there were no English churches in the Overberg at the beginning of the 19th century, services were held in both languages in the Dutch Reformed Churches. Dr. Robertson took them both with the afternoon service being in English. In 1859, Dr. Carel Henrich de Schmidt was called to shepherd the growing Robertson congregation. A big revival conference held in Worcester in April 1860 saw the church grow in number. Dr. de Schmidt passed away at the young age of 26 in January 1861 after contracting enteric fever while selflessly seeing to his congregation during an epidemic outbreak of the illness. His grave is one of the few graves within the Church grounds.
Looking to recruit ministers for the Dutch Reformed Church Dr Robertson had returned to his native Scotland in 1860. One of these recruits was Dr. Andrew McGregor who arrived in 1862 and faithfully ministered to the Robertson flock for 40 years. He became Dr. Robertson’s son-in-law when he wed his eldest daughter Elizabeth Augusta. Dr Andrew McGregor also actively ministered to the neighbouring village of Lady Grey. He retired in 1902 and in 1905 this village was renamed in his honour as McGregor to avoid confusion with Lady Grey near Aliwal North.
Ds (later Dr.) H.P. van der Merwe served from 1903 to 1925. It was during his tenure that the original church was replaced in 1905 with an imposing church complete with a neo Gothic tower and steeple that could be seen from miles away. Services had always been attended by all racial groups but in 1907 a separate mission church was built for ‘non-Europeans’ and the missionary Eerw. P.W.J. van Zyl was appointed.
The Dutch Reformed Church bell that hangs from the Loubser designed bell tower that was built in 1972 is the original bell donated by Barry & Nephews to the original 1856 church. Click on the adjacent link to the Robertson Geskiedenis Gilde’s website to read the amusing history.
A complete history written in Afrikaans of the Dutch Reformed Church in Robertson can be viewed on their website: https://www.gemeentegeskiedenis.co.za/ng-gemeente-robertson/
By 1851 the Wesleyan missionaries had already started ministering in the area and assisting freed slaves to adapt. In 1859, built on the corner of Le Roux and Hopley Streets, the first Wesleyan Church was completed with Rev. Henry Tindall as its first minister. The Wesleyan Church in Paul Kruger Street, formerly called the ‘pink’ church by residents due to its paint colour, was built a scant few years later in 1867. Today this church serves as a community hall for the Roelou Barry Retirement ‘Oord’ Haven and Robertson has a street named Tindall in the Reverends honour.
The Methodist Church also built a chapel at McGregor (previously called Lady Grey) in 1863 and an outreach mission station at Montagu.
For further details see the Robertson SA Geskiedenis Gilde website; https://www.saggrobertson.co.za/robertson-brokkies/
The building of St. Mary’s, the small Anglican Church, started in 1862 and delayed by drought and economic hardship was only completed in 1867. Bishop Robert Gray was the first English Bishop appointed to the Colony in 1848 and he consecrated the church in 1869. His wife Sophy Gray designed several churches in South Africa and the plans for the Robertson Anglican Church were drawn up by her and built on land donated by Barry & Nephews. It is one of the few remaining Sophie Gray churches that haven’t been altered. Originally in the Parish of Swellendam it became a Parish in its own right in 1881.
Rev. W.J.R. Morris was the first minister and one of several clergy from England that had been recruited by Bishop Gray. The town grew and several private schools were started. One such being a preparatory school run by Rev. Matson at the beginning of the 1900s in a big room at the rectory where he lived opposite Hamilton Barry’s Caldwell House on the corner of White and Barry streets. Several decades after Rev. Matson this room was used as a garage by Rev. Ted Torrance who was a great comfort to Marjorie Marnock and her child evacuees during WWII.
In the 1950s Norbert Pinto was the first person in South Africa to start growing coriander, which previously needed to be imported. He freely distributed seeds to other farmers and encouraged them to plant coriander which he then sold to the Robertson Spice Company.
Please click on the link below for an amusing story about the coriander as recounted by Ralf Pinto in his Afrikaans collection of short story’s entitled Vlugtelinge en Ander Verhale.
By 1881 the Robertson Jews could occasionally come together as a minyan (ten men). The Robertson Hebrew Congregation was established in 1895 and the community built the Knesset Israel Synagogue with a Hebrew School (Talmud Torah) a year later. The Hebrew School later moved to a building the congregation built at 54 Victoria Street as a mikveh (Ritual Bath). Today evidence of the mikveh at this property can be seen by a different, higher roof at the back of the building, which is supported by much thicker walls than the rest of it, which was added in the 1960s.
The Jewish community played an integral role in building the local economy, whether as ostrich feather buyers and farmers, as wagon makers, as bookkeepers, as tinsmiths, tailors, butchers, teachers and traders, as hoteliers and doctors or bioscope proprietors and even a violin maker Mr Brian Lisus in the 1980s. The first Jewish wedding in Robertson was solemnised by Rev. Rabinowitz of Cape Town in 1895.
In 1912 the Robertson congregation sent a delegate to the historic conference in Bloemfontein at which the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was established. In the 1920s Philip Buirski and Lewis Rosenzweig served on the Robertson Municipal Council, and the rabbi’s son Abraham Josefowitz became deputy mayor in 1972. Out of town members stayed at the Commercial Hotel to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as it was within walking distance of the Synagogue and owned by the Blumberg family. The Revd & Mrs Josefowitz lived in a house adjacent to the Synagogue until Mrs Josefowitz’s passing in 1954. For the next 10 years the Revd lived there with his son and in 1964 moved into the Commercial Hotel as by then it was owned by his wife’s family, the Epstein’s. The Weiss family bought the hotel a few years before it become a Christian School in 2001.
The Jewish population peaked in 1904 with 140 Jewish people but by 1967 their numbers had dwindled so they could no longer gather a minyan. The late Becky Saacks founded, developed and ran the Robertson Museum and its collections from 1972. She was also instrumental in Druid’s Lodge being purchased by the Municipality in 1976 to turn into a museum. When the synagogue was sold in 2009 the esteemed Mrs Saacks organised that part of the proceeds be donated to the Robertson Museum with the bulk going to the Trust Fund administered by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. This fund partly facilitates the restoration and maintenance of the Robertson Jewish Cemetery for the few remaining Jewish people in the area. Rabbi Stuart Serwator, the Cape Country Communities Rabbi: South African Jewish Board of Deputies, is currently involved in restoring Robertson’s Jewish cemetery and in trying to secure all Robertson’s cemeteries from vandals. Rabbi Stuart is no stranger to our area, having served from 1996 to 1999 as the last teacher at the Robertson Hebrew School.
Robertson Distillery produces best spirits of wine in 1865
Farms beyond the Cogmanskloof were granted to colonists from 1725 onwards. Farmers with all their supplies and produce had to battle through the riverbed. With the building of the old Cogmanskloof pass in 1860 (Thomas Bain was commissioned to build the ‘new’ pass in 1877) Robertson and its wine farmers were linked to Montagu and the Barry & Nephews distillery which produced according to a chemist that assisted the judges at an 1862 agricultural show in Cape Town, “best and strongest spirits I have seen here, made of wine, but not entirely free from fusal oil and sulphurous acid which are found in such abundance in our common Cape Spirits or Brandy. To these two impurities our Cape Brandy owes its disagreeable taste and offensive smell. Messrs Barry’s Spirits being nearly free from both could be used for medicinal and certainly for technical purposes, and for fortifying wines for exportation”. To cope with the increasing wine trade in the Robertson district Barry & Nephews soon opened up a distillery in Robertson as well. In 1865 they sent a sample to the Paarl Agricultural Show. Competing against the best distilleries in the country the Robertson Distillery took the prize for the best spirits of wine.
1860s Drought & epidemic, a disastrous period for Robertson and the Overberg
As Robertson grew the need for water became a priority as the mainly winter rainfall in the area is very low and periodic droughts far too frequent for comfort. The 1860s was a disastrous period for Robertson and the Overberg. A prolonged drought saw the crops failing, fruit trees suffering and thousands of sheep and cattle dying due to lack of grazing. Robertson’s first doctor, Dr. F A Hanf, had an irrigation furrow dug from the Breede River to irrigate the farm Klipdrift during the 1860s.
To compound the problem a swarm of brown locusts swept through any remaining plant life in 1863 and Britain’s Gladstone announced a new scale of duty on imported alcoholic beverages depriving the Colonists of a market for their wine. Joseph Barry died in March 1865 and the contract that Barry & Nephews had drawn up in 1834 stipulated that on the death of one of the partners, his family would be paid out. The generous credit extended to pay off debt to the firm that could always wait till the next harvest had to be called in by the lawyers. Coupled with the drought it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Overberg community. To add to these woes the Kadie ran aground on the sandbank at the mouth of the Breede River in November 1865 cutting off a vital trade route for the Overberg farmers. By 1866 the open port of Port Beaufort, which in 1859 had exported a million pounds of wool directly to London, was closed.
An outbreak of measles in Robertson followed by gastric fever from 1860 to 1861 was responsible for the death of the 89 people. Dr. Hanf put the epidemic down to lack of isolation of the sick and the water that became polluted in the open water furrow system. Another epidemic due to unhygienic water broke out from 1896 to 1897 prompting water pipes to be laid to the Langeberg Mountains under the Robertson Water Supply Act of 1898 to provide the town with a supply of fresh clean water.
Oldest irrigation scheme
Greater Brandvlei dam
All things earthly
Sheep and mixed farming were originally practised in the Robertson district but by the mid 1880s the wine trade became an important industry. On the 14th January 1884 Ernst Marais of Wonderfontein was granted an agricultural brandy distillers license. K.W.V. built their premises in 1941 alongside the railway station where Robertson Wineries bottling plant stands today. Ostriches and racehorse breeding were also introduced but with the collapse of the ostrich feather market at the outbreak of WW1, many farmers were ruined or changed to fruit, grain and dairy farming. The later becoming so big that by the mid 20th century Robertson at that time had a Nestle condensed milk factory. By the 1980s the dairy herds and grains had largely been replaced with vines. Currently with the poor return on wine more fruit trees are being planted in the valley.
In 1857 William Gregan became the Robertson Town Clerk to the Board of Municipal Commissioners (forerunner to the Municipality that was established in 1902) earning a salary of £17 per annum. Robertson was declared a magisterial district in 1858 and by the following year had its own Divisional Council.
When Robertson was founded a large number of villagers were engaged in wagon making and selling them to the Free State and beyond until the Boer War which marked the decline of wagon making and goods being transported by rail instead. Approximately three to four times per year professional transport riders ‘togryers’ would take wagons laden with locally crafted furniture, dried fruit and brandy to sell up North along with the wagons. Robertson’s fame spread far and wide and even President Kruger’s wagon as can be seen displayed in the President Paul Kruger House in Pretoria bears the following inscription on its wheel; Philip Fouche maker Robertson. Many of the highly skilled artisans were ‘Cape Malay’ or ‘Coloured’ and sadly much of this history is lost.
Mr F Staal was the tin and coppersmith in the town from 1880 to 1920.
Today Mr Frikkie Schippers (founder of Schippers Velskoene) still makes handcrafted shoes. In his 80s he is ably assisted by his sons. He started making seats for horse wagons at the tender age of 13 when he sadly had to leave school to assist his parents. His factory was originally located in Ceres. After he lost everything in the 1969 earthquake he relocated to Robertson.
As parliamentary representative Joseph Barry was elected to the select committee to enquire into the expediency of building a railway from Cape Town to Wellington in 1857. He saw the railway as the only eventual way to bring prosperity to the Overberg and strongly expressed his support.
The Cape Central Railway, a privately owned line that ran between Worcester and Mossel Bay with Robertson its Head Office largely took over the transport of goods and post was delivered daily instead of bi-weekly.
A British Garrison under the command of Lieutenant Cooper was stationed in Robertson during the South African (Anglo Boer) War of 1898 – 1902. The 1899 British fort in Gogmanskloof, on the way to Montagu, providing an early defense.
The beginning of the First World War in 1914 saw a disproportionately high number, for the size of the town, young men leave their peaceful rural surroundings for the horrors of war at the Front Line in France. Hamilton Barry’s youngest brother Duncan van Reenen took leave from the Barry Bros Board and farming in the Koue Bokkeveld to join the South African Army artillery and was sent to France.
In August 1920 Barry Bros changed it name again to the Robertson Trading Association which was licensed to sell wholesale or retail, import or export 24 different categories of merchandise which included liquor, property, building materials, hardware, clothing, groceries and so forth. The firm also owned the dried fruit company and several farms.
It was during Hamilton Barry’s tenure as Robertson’s longest serving mayor that the Town Council couldn’t decide on a motto for the town. After much indecision, Hamilton Barry eventually declared that as his family motto, Boutez en avant, was good enough for the Barry’s it would be good enough for Robertson. The Council unanimously agreed and so the Barry motto and battle cry meaning to ‘Push forward’ hailing back to Tournai in what was then France (now in Belgium) in 1020 was adopted by Robertson.
Mrs Hamilton Barry inaugurated Robertson’s Electric Lighting System in 1923 and the Dental Clinic in 1928.
Robertson’s coat of arms
The shield with wolves (not sheep) and vines and the Breede as life-blood supported by horse and ostrich breeding
underscored by the optimistic Barry motto ‘Boutez en avant’ – to push forward.
Barry Brothers Robertson
Robertson Trading Association
Barry Handelshuis Beperk
Barry Trading Company Board; George Joseph Barry, Roelof Louis "Roelou" Barry, Richard van Reenen "Reenen” Barry & Edward George Hamilton "Ted" Barry
Culturally Robertson blossomed and by 1872 boasted a well stocked Public Library. In 1883 the very Victorian sounding Robertson Mutual Improvement Society was established. Now called the Robertson Literary Society it is the oldest society of its kind in South Africa and hosts monthly talks on a variety of interesting topics. It still organises an annual Stakesby Lewis academic lecture in honour of one of the founders of the society. Another founder of the Society was Mr. William Dutton English, the Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate in Robertson from 1881 to 1890. He purchased what is now the Robertson museum (that collapsed during renovations) and named it Druids Lodge in 1883. Other founders included Rev. McGregor of the DR Church, Rev. W.J.R. Morris the Anglican Priest, and John Lewis the brother of Stakesby. By 1890 Robertson could also boasted of a Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and a Brass Band. The Robertson Bowling Club was established in 1938.
In the 1880s a cannon was found washed up on the beach at Struisbaai and brought to Robertson and placed on Muiskraalskop. It became the custom to annually fire the cannon on Queen Victoria’s birthday and even after her death it was fired up until the 1930s. In 1953 Major C R Wolhuter accompanied by his son George retrieved the cannon and mounted it onto an iron base that they had made for the purpose. Today it stands in the Robertson Museum garden.
Despite the collapse of the 1860 Druid’s Lodge during renovations in August 2014 the Robertson Museum gardens, Annex and Barry Room are still open to the public in the mornings from 9am to 12pm except on Sundays.
Interesting enough Ralph Pinto in his book Vlugtelinge en Ander Verhale thought that Muiskraalskop was named after Moishe ‘Muis’ Lipschitz a butcher who owned a sheep pen (kraal) against the side of the butte (koppie) in the 1900s. It later belonged to Ralph’s father, Norbert Pinto.
On the 28 December 1904 a new library was officially opened in the Edwardian building designed by the firm Tully and Waters of Cape Town behind the Dutch Reformed Church on the corner of the Hamilton Barry memorial park.
The building commemorates King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. Today the library is located opposite the Post Office in Van Reenen street.
The first schools were private and Mr. Polack continued to teach in addition to being the Secretary of the town management board. The first public school was built in 1893 under Dr. Cluver. In those days they learnt English in the morning and Afrikaans in the afternoon. “Rob Roy” the home of Rev. McGregor and his wife became a hostel for students from far afield and continued operating even after his retirement. In 1913 the Girls High School was opened by the Superintendent of Education, Dr Muir.
A century after Robertson was founded it boasted a Primary School for Boys, a Primary School for Girls and the High School with a boarding house. The photo on the right is the Robertson School Board of 1953. Towards the mountain Dagbreek and Vergesig Primary Schools were built as was Langeberg High School. Nqkubela is served by Masakheke Combined School.
The first pre-primary school was started by Philippa Barry at the Robertson airfield in the early 1970s. Her assistant Veronica Van Der Merwe took over as head of the pre-primary which eventually moved to what is today called the Grade R class at the Robertson Voorbereiding School.
Robertson Girls’ High School opened in 1913. Photo in the Robertson Brochure issued jointly by the Robertson Municipality and the Publicity and Travel Department of the South African Railways, 1953.
In South Africa, where at its peak Spanish flu killed 600 people each day, it is estimated that almost half a million people died. About 900 000 children were orphaned.
The Spanish Flu epidemic decimated the Cape and especially the Overberg in 1918 and left many orphans in it’s wake. The Dutch Reformed Church established The Herberg (Refuge) in Robertson to look after the orphans. Originally an ordinary home served the pressing need. Later a double storey children’s home was built that is now the Old Herberg apartments. The current premises were first occupied in 1980 and now serve as a country refuge for 122 children that tragically have had to be removed from their parental home by court order.
Today the home is a joint charitable non–profit programme of BADISA with the government only supplying 48% of the monthly expenses to meet each child’s needs and to develop their potential and skills. Land was made available to the children´s home in 1956. In collaboration with Robertson wine estates, fertiliser, spray and irrigation suppliers and the community the unproductive apricot orchard on this land was replaced with vineyards in 2003. In 2010 the first wine made in aid of The Herberg was sold under the Thunderchild label. The touching part of the story is that this community project was launched without any cost to the Children’s home.
Church Street centered on the magnificent DR Church’s tower housed the Magistrate’s court and in 1880 a Standard Bank of South Africa branch opened. Shortly thereafter a Barclay’s Bank and a pharmacy followed.
By 1891 the district was prospering once again and Standard Bank reported that the income for the area was between 30 000 to 40 000 pounds per year.
The 1865 census indicated that Robertson had a population of 715. In 1875 this number had risen to 1 104, and by 1891 the population had nearly doubled to 2 121. By 1904 it stood at 3 244, of whom 1 875 were literate. In 2011 the population was 21,929 with 3.7% of adults not having attended school.
Robertson Boys’ Primary School. Photo in the Robertson Brochure issued jointly by the Robertson Municipality and the Publicity and Travel Department of the South African Railways, 1953.
In 1997 the independent Robertson Logos Christian School was established as a values based English curriculum school with humble beginnings at the Robertson Show Grounds with Anna Marie Redelinghuys as Principal. When new premises were needed for the expanding school in 2001, Dr Fonnie Bruwer and Duncan Barry (Joseph Barry’s great, great grandson) signed surety to buy the Commercial Hotel and adjacent double storey house in Hope Street to convert into a school to serve the community with a quality education from Nursery school to Grade 12. To finance the bond on the school the top floor was rented out. In 2005 one of the tenants caused a fire that destroyed the top floor. The Robertson Primary School (by this time a combined school with a separate preparatory school) very kindly allowed Logos to continue in mobile classrooms on its premises.
The entire building was renovated to house the growing school under the watchful eye of Principal Mr. Martin Booysen who is now an A.C.E. school inspector. Today Mrs Talita Lloyd serves as Principal and Administrator and ensures that all the Matrics who follow the Impaq curriculum pass their National Senior Certificate exams. The Robertson Logos Primary School follows the School for Tomorrow’s quality curriculum.
The ancient technique of fermenting uncrushed berries with native yeast from the grapes gives this wine its unique superior quality. Thunderchild is available from most of the wine estates in Robertson. It is also available at Woolworths and can be ordered at high-end restaurants. Thunderchild has garnered so much attention that international Michelin chefs like Gordon Ramsay have added it their wine lists!
First South African killed in WW II from Robertson
Morris Alexander, the founder and chairman of the Cape Council in 1904, visited Robertson in 1935 during a time of increased Antisemitism and Grey Shirt activity, this resulted in the affiliation of the Robertson Hebrew Congregation to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The outbreak of the Second World War once again saw many young Robertson men signing up to fight for freedom. Sadly it was also Robertson that provided the first South African and the first Jew to be killed in action in the war against Hitler. This was Sydney Lazarus, who was shot down by the Italians near El Wak and is buried in Nairobi. His parents, Lewis and Ethel Lazarus, used to farm in Robertson.
Before returning home after WW II Alfred Hamilton Barry (‘Ham’ a great grandson of Joseph Barry) from Robertson took part in the South African 6th Armoured Division Rugby side that toured England, Germany and France, raising morale in post war Europe. On his return he completed his B.Sc. Engineering degree at UCT and resumed playing Rugby for WP.
Robertson home to child evacuees during WWII
Robertson also opened its hearts to Miss Marjorie Marnoch and the up to 16 sixteen at a time child evacuees from England and Scotland in her care that stayed in a house she called Bairnshaven, the present day doctors rooms at 34 Paul Kruger Street. Her story written to one of her charges recounting their journey that started in August 1941 and their years in Robertson before finally being able to return home in December 1951 gives a fascinating insight into South African village life at that time.
Robertson Winery 1941-2020 celebrating 79 years
The progressive Robertson Winery made history in 2010 when transfer took place in a groundbreaking Land Reform and Black Economic Empowerment Project that involves no less than 183 women farm workers from member farms acquiring the majority share in Constitution Road Wine Growers, which owns the farm Klipdrift – a member farm of Robertson Winery.
WineIn 1941 farmers Giepie Rossouw and Alwyn Bruwer persuaded a number of Robertson Valley growers to form the Robertson Winery, named after Rev. William Robertson, in which all the families owned a share. They purchased an abandoned missionary church built in the late 1880s to house their new winery. Pon van Zyl served as Robertson Winery’s first winemaker and took Robertson from its humble beginnings to being the third largest winery in South Africa. In 1984, van Zyl handed the reins over to Bowen Botha, under whose guidance Robertson Winery has become a global brand, recognized for the quality and value of its wines. Wines from Robertson Winery were also of the first wines in South Africa to be accredited with an ethical seal that audited that fair labour practices, in line with international standards, were practiced in the production of the wine.
Roodezandt Winery was founded on the 18th of September 1953 when they officially took over the building, grounds and machinery from Robertson Distillery. The winery was established by members that previously delivered their grapes to the old “Sonskyn Winery” which had in turn hired the building from Robertson Distillery.
On the 14 April 1964 wine farmers surrounding the the Rooiberg Mountain founded Rooiberg Winery. Originally started with a meeting in the Robertson Town Hall with 11 members and five directors under the chairmanship of Manie Conradie and winemaker Arrie van der Merwe, who was succeeded by the legends Manie Rossouw and Dassie Smith. In 1980 they ventured into own bottle wine marketing and have continued to grow.
From its early beginnings as an area producing largely quality bulk wines, today Robertson has some of the top wine estates and cellars in South Africa and can now boast of producing some of the best wines in the world with all the international accolades that it consistently garners. Stephan De Wet introduced drip irrigation to the valley. De Wetshof made history in producing South Africa’s first Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and Zandvliet produced the valley’s first serious Shiraz. Nelson Mandela toasted his inauguration with Graham Beck MCC in 1984, and Barack Obama, after tasting a couple of glasses in a Chicago restaurant with his wife Michelle, decided to order it for a toast on the eve of his presidential nomination. In 2013 it was on the menu of the wedding celebration dinner of Swedish royal Princess Madeleine and her husband Chris O’Neill. Springfield Winery does indeed bring life from stone and caters to the discerning wine connoisseur as does Bon Courage who consistently garners international awards and Excelsior to name but a few. Today Robertson and its surrounding villages are home to over 50 wineries. Visitors to the valley can now also enjoy a picnic and wine aboard Viljoensdrift’s river cruise of the Breede. Complimentary olive farms like Olyfberg and Marbin have also made a name for themselves and Robertson can now also boast of a lavender farm in Owl’s Rest.
A thoroughbred racehorse tradition
The Breede River Valley is the premier horse-breeding area in South Africa. It is the only wine producing area in South Africa that doesn’t need to add lime to its soil. It is this same property that produces high quality wine that produces the superior bone quality in the high-class equine athletes that are consistently bred in Robertson and its surrounding districts.
This area’s breeders once called the B.A.R. Valley Breeders (Bonnievale, Ashton, Robertson) produced Grade 1 stakes-winning South African champions that became household names like Gondolier, The Eliminator, and Over The Air. More recently Pocket Power and Mother Russia, and currently Eyes Wide Open, Vardy and One World roll off the tip of the tongue. In recent years equine athletes like Victory Moon, JJ The Jet Plane and Vercingetorix have successfully taken on the best on the international stage.
The earliest records indicate that Joseph Barry’s sixth son, John Henry (1839 – 1890) stood an imported stallion “Warrior” at his farm, Stockwell, near Ashton. The late Paul de Wet’s Zandvliet Stud enjoyed early success after they began the syndication of stallions and imported high-class broodmares in the mid-1930s. Zandvliet stood Noble Chieftain by Nearco – a three times leading sire and bred Peter Beware and Wild West who won the Met. Danie Le Roux’s Angora Stud bred Excise who won the 1958 Durban July Handicap. By the 1960s breeders and owners realised the potential for breeding top thoroughbreds in the area. The highly successful BAR Valley Breeders (Bonnievale, Ashton & Robertson) was founded and breeders discussed which stallions to import and support. Highlands Stud stood six-time leading sire Persian Wonder (by Persian Gulf) and five-time leading sire Jungle Cove (by Bold Ruler) which further improved the bloodlines in the area and Granville Gorton’s Noreen Stud stood Drum Beat by Fair Trial and bred Jamaican Music. Riverton Stud stood Jamaico and Champion first season sire, Russian Fox. In Full Flight was bred by Godfrey Gird at Maine Chance. Normandy Stud, is renowned for breeding exceptional racehorses, like Aquanaut, Enforce and Horse Of The Year in 2005, Winter Solstice to name but a few.
The late leading industrialist and prominent racehorse owner Graham Beck bought Highlands Stud farm from John Stubbs, Maine Chance and Noreen Studs. Shortly thereafter the BAR Valley amalgamated with other regions to become the Cape Breeders Association in the late 1990s. However, its soil, genetic excellence and dry climate ensure that the region remains one of the most prolific breeders of champions. Paul de Wet’s son Dan bred the multiple graded stakes winning superstar Pocket Power before Zandvliet Stud was sold. In 2015 the Riverton Stud bred Captain of All was the top merit rated horse in South Africa and the joint second top sprinter in the world according to the international Longines rankings. His late champion sire, the multiple award winning Captain Al, dominated South African racing for many years. Today Captain of All also stands as a stallion at local Klawervlei Stud, consistently one of the top breeding studs in South Africa. His first crop of runners saw him win the Champion Freshman Sire award. Today, Maine Chance Stud owned by German industrialist Andreas Jacobs since the early 2000s, has been one of the top 10 studs in South Africa for over 20 years and stands multiple champion sire Silvano.
In keeping with overseas trends many of the Robertson stud farms (Maine Chance, Ridgemont Highlands and Black Swan Stud) are now owned by captains of industry with one of the biggest studs in South Africa, Klawervlei Stud being situated near Bonnievale. The best are getting better with the tradition of genetic excellence continuing in the champion stallions that they stand to the benefit of the region and in the depth of genetic pooling provided by broodmare daughters of champions returning to stud.
With over 50 wine cellars and of the best thoroughbred racehorse breeding studs in the country it is no wonder that the area lives up to its reputation as the
Valley of Wine, Horses and Roses
1883 to 1953
Robertson celebrated its centenary from the 3rd to the 11th October 1953 with a full programme of events:
A Thanksgiving service and organ recital at the Dutch Reformed Church, a Polo match and a gymkana, a flower show, rugby match and braaivleis (BBQ). The highlight of the celebrations was a dramatisation of Robertson’s history in which 300 people from Robertson and its surrounding districts took part. The production was called the Robertson Saga. It was written by Mrs Chris De Wet and directed by herself and John Warner, a local photographer.
Robertson has always had concerned Counicilors and citizens who saw to the planting of trees. Today it is one of the prettiest town’s in the Western Province.
The founding of Robertson coincided with the Cape Colony receiving representative government from the British and electing the first Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope without regard to race in 1853. The Honorable Joseph Barry was elected as the Swellendam representative and moved to Cape Town. The voting system known as the Cape Qualified Franchise came into existence. It was enshrined in the Cape Constitution of 1853 and a non-racial voters roll was established. Any Cape male owning property (any type of property including traditional African land tenure) of £25 was qualified to vote irrespective of race. (Only white women were enfranchise in 1930) Nevertheless, the extremely low property qualification and inclusiveness was internationally revolutionary for its time. Whilst the main motivator was to bring peace to the Cape Colony especially amongst the Xhosa along the eastern front, it must be born in mind that the population growth at the Cape was significantly increased by mixed marriage. Senior Merchant Jan Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape in 1652 to establish a refreshment station with some 91 Germans and 7 Scottish and English employees of the Dutch East Indian Company and only 25 woman and children. Later the Dutch, Danes, Swedes and other Europeans that worked for the Dutch East Indian Company and the local Khoikhoi, freed slaves from the East and black slaves from West Africa and Madagascar also intermarried. Kroata (Eva) the niece of Chief Autshumao (Harry the Strandloper, who ran the postal service for 5 countries at the Cape) and Van Riebeeck’s translator, being proficient in 6 languages, married Danish surgeon Pieter Van Meerhof (Peter Havgaard) in 1664 and Wagenaar, the Govenor at the time, gave them a wedding reception at the Fort. Simon van der Stel the governor at the Cape from 1679 that developed the wine industry and requested safe passage from the Dutch East Indian Company for the French Huguenot wine farmers to the Cape was also of mixed race origin. Thus unlike the other provinces by 1838 it was already law in the Cape under British occupation that no discrimination on the basis of race or colour was allowed. In subsequent years the Cape Constitution was severely limited and systematically eroded by pressure from the Eastern frontier. In 1936 the Hertzog goverment removed blacks from the general voters roll and placed them on a separate ‘native voters’ roll. The apartheid government eventually loaded the senate in 1948 to gain a majority to change the law and exactly 100 years later the last ‘Coloureds’ participated in a general election until 1994 saw an open and free election for all South Africans.
A special thank you to the late Becky Saacks whose enthusiam for the history of our town and the roll the Barry’s played in developing the Overberg and Robertson sparked my interested in the early 1990s. Her formidable knowledge and endless patience in answering my numerous questions ensured that our first fledgling website in 1998 also had a history page.
Thank you to the Barry family for preserving their history and leaving behind a mine of research material to delve into. Further information on Joseph Barry and the firm Barry & Nephews can be viewed on our Heritage page: https://rivertonstud.co.za/heritage/
Thank you to the Aunts for amusing anecdotes bringing to life the legends of the past and who between them could resolve any conflicting information; the late Helen Hubertha Aletta Jameson nee Barry and Noëlle Mary Johanna Botha-Reid nee Barry who grew up in Robertson and the late ‘Margity’ Aletta Margaret Rose Sands nee Munnik from Swellendam.
Thank you to Rabbi Stuart Serwater for additional information on the former Robertson Jewish congregation.
Buirski, AP., 1952, The Barrys and the Overberg, a thesis submitted for the M.A. degree in the University of Stellenbosch
Crampton, H., 2014, The Side of the Sun at Noon, Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
Darren, 2010, History of Robertson, viewed 2017 http://cjc.org.za/?p=1084
DeWetshof Estate, Danie de Wet, viewed 2017 http://www.dewetshof.com/Page.aspx?PAGEID=1176&Type=about&CLIENTID=1072&Title=
Du Plessis, C., 2010 Constitution road – Firmly on the BEE way viewed 2017 http://www.wineland.co.za/constitution-road-firmly-on-the-bee-way/
Erskine, P., 1985, The Legend of Joseph Barry, Antiques in South Africa
Fraser, A., 2013, A Long Walk To Universal Franchise In South Africa, Helen Suzman Foundation viewed 2017 http://hsf.org.za/resource-centre/hsf-briefs/a-long-walk-to-universal-franchise-in-south-africa-1
Frescura, F., 2012, Robertson, viewed 2017 http://www.sahistory.org.za/places/robertson
Giliomee, H.B., 2003, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers
Hanley, M. H., 2001, The Barry Family, reprinted 2016 by Sun Media Stellenbosh
Herringer, P., 2004, Thoroughbred Horse Racing and Breeding in South Africa, viewed 2017 http://www.tbheritage.com/Breeders/SABreeding/SABreeders.html
Jewish Digital Archive Project, A project by the South African Jewish Museum viewed 2017 http://jdap.co.za/roots-2/dorps-towns/dorps-towns/robertson-western-cape/
Johnson, C., 2019, The Two Tangled Trees, TJ van S publisher
Langeberg Municipality, n.d., Our History, viewed 2017 http://www.langeberg.gov.za/langeberg-history
Leroy, M., 2003, The Families of Hamilton Barry and Duncan Barry, reprinted 2016 by Sun Media Stellenbosh
Lotter, Craig, n.d., An Exploring South African, viewed 2017 http://www.craiglotter.co.za/2015/07/28/things-to-see-in-south-africa-old-english-fort-and-the-cogmanskloof-tunnel-to-montagu/
McGregor, T., 2009, The McGregors in South Africa, viewed 2017 https://murraymcgregor.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/the-mcgregors-in-south-africa/
Molteno, P. A., 1900, The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. Smith, Elder & Co. London
Orange Grove Farm n,d., Our history, viewed 2017 http://orangegrovefarm.co.za/about/our-history
Parish of Robertson (ACSA), 2019, Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary Service booklet
Pinto, R., 2002, Vlugtelinge en Ander Verhale, self-published
Van Vuuren, L., 2012 Robertson – valley of fruit and wine, The Water Wheel
Robertson Brochure jointly issued by the Robertson Municipality and the Publicity and Travel Department of the South African Railways, 1953
Robertson Museum information booklet
Robertson Winery, 2017 Our story, viewed 2017 https://www.robertsonwinery.co.za/#our-story
Robertson Wine Valley, 2016, Robertson Winery viewed 2017 http://www.robertsonwinevalley.com/robertson-wineries-accommodation/wineries/robertson-winery
Robertson Wine Valley, n.n., 2016, Wonderfontein Estate, viewed 2017 http://www.robertsonwinevalley.com/robertson-wineries-accommodation/wineries/wonderfontein
Roodezandt Winery, 2017, Our History, http://www.roodezandt.co.za/about.php
Rooiberg Winery, 2016, About, https://www.rooiberg.co.za/
Saacks, B, n.d., The History of Robertson
SA-Geskiedenis Gilde, Robertson, Weskaap, 2020, viewed 2019 and 2020 https://www.saggrobertson.co.za/
South African History Online, 2014, History of elections in South Africa http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/south-african-general-elections-1948
South African History Online, 2011 Simon van der Stel, commander and governor of the Cape, is born, viewed 2017 http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/simon-van-der-stel-commander-and-governor-cape-born
The Form Organisation, 1984, B.A.R. Valley Yearlings 1984, Mills Litho
The Form Organisation, 1985, B.A.R. Valley ’85 Yearlings, Mills Litho
The Herberg, n.d., About, viewed 2017 https://www.herberg.co.za/about
The Herberg, n.d., Thunderchild, viewed 2017 https://www.herberg.co.za/thunderchild
UCT Digital Libraries Collections, Islandora Repository, Plan of a portion of the Breede River Basin shewing irrigation schemes between the Hex River and Cogman’s Kloof along the Breede River, viewed 2018 http://www.digitalcollections.lib.uct.ac.za/collection/islandora-29790
Wikimedia Commons, Cannon By A3alb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] Wikimedia Commons, Old Library By A3alb – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35787258
Wikipedia 2016, Cape Qualified Franchise viewed 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Qualified_Franchise
Wikipedia 2016, Coloured vote constitutional crisis viewed 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coloured_vote_constitutional_crisis
Wikipedia 2017, Women’s suffrage viewed 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage#South_Africa