Great Granary to Stately Home

One of the many highlights of our time in Cape Town was our private tour of Groote Schuur, home of Cecil John Rhodes which he bequeathed to the nation as the official residence for the country’s leaders.

What is odd is that it is not really on the list of sights to see in the city and odder still that most of the locals we spoke to were only vaguely aware of its existence and that it was possible to visit, especially as the confirmation email said:

This is a rare and singular privilege to visit and view this Residence. A visit must be seen in context:- It in fact equates to visiting the White House, Blair House or Trowbridge House in Washington or at No 10 Downing Street or Chequers the residences of the British Prime Minister or indeed the Élysée Palace or Hôtel de Marigny, the official residence and official guests house of the French President in Paris or the Italian Presidential residence, Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome.

A touch of hyperbole you might think, but it isn’t far off the mark. The house has been home to successive presidents and prime ministers and it is one of the most beautiful houses I have had the pleasure to visit.

This post is by way of a short history of the house illustrated with some of the photos I took that day. Tomorrow I plan to write about Cecil Rhodes and Groote Schuur, a complex character as you’ll see.

The history of Groote Schuur goes back to 1652 and the arrival of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape. Jan van Riebeeck had been briefed by his employer to establish fields of fresh vegetables to supply the ships en route from Holland to their colonies in the East Indies.

Riebeeck is often portrayed as a pioneering hero, although it now seems that he had fallen foul of the courts in Holland and given the choice between prison and the Cape, he chose the latter.

His attempts to grow crops to the north of Table Mountain failed miserably because of the relentless southeasterly winds and he turned his attention to the east of the mountain and the area known then as Da Ronde Doorn Bosjen, or Round Thorn Tree, the modern day Rondebosch.

This horticultural project was a great success and the East India Company ordered the building of a granary to store the crops and so Groote Schuur, or Great Barn, was born.

As the influence of the company began to wane, the barn transferred to private ownership and, of course, the Cape itself was occupied by the British in the early 19th century.

Groote Schuur had become a residence as well as a barn at some point and it eventually fell into the hands of the widow Hester Anna van der Byl, a woman of considerable character and eccentricity, a reminder of which is the front door she installed at Groote Schuur, the one she took with her wherever she lived!

She went on a prolonged visit to England in 1891 and took on a tenant at her home — Cecil Rhodes, the recently elected prime minister of the Cape Colony.

Rhodes had lived a nomadic life and wanted somewhere to settle. Groote Schuur fitted the bill perfectly and he entered a telegraphed negotiation with Mrs van der Byl to buy the property.

When asked how much she wanted for Groote Schuur, she replied “Ten thousand pounds.” Rhodes’ reply was short and to the point: “Fancy price.” Mrs van der Byl’s response was equally brief: “Fancy house!” and, of course, Rhodes bought it in September 1893.

Not only did he buy the house, but also 1,500 acres of the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and the transformation of Groote Schuur from granary to great estate was complete.

Rhodes was much taken with the ‘beautiful simplicity’ of the houses built by the Dutch and Hugenot settlers a century before and that is the style he wanted for Groote Schuur. This task he gave to the young architect, Herbert Baker, who created Groote Schuur much as it is today, not once, but twice.

In December 1896, a fire broke out in the thatched roof and swept through the house. The servants struggled to rescue furniture, amazingly including the billiard table.

Rhodes was away in Umtali and a messenger was sent to inform him. Worried how Rhodes might react to the news, he eventually blurted out the details of the disaster. Rhodes responded by saying: “Is that all? I thought it must be Jameson.”

Baker proposed rebuilding Groote Schuur higher up the mountain, where the Rhodes Memorial now stands, but Rhodes insisted that it should remain where it had always been.

I could write more about Groote Schuur, the dubious methods that Rhodes’ agents used to fill it with priceless Dutch furniture, its later history and other background, but this post is long enough, other than to say that it was Rhodes’ bequest to the nation when he died in 1902.

I recommend Groote Schuur: Great Granary to Stately Home by Phillida Brooke Simons and Alain Proost which is due to be reprinted in 2011 if you want to know more. Or you can see my efforts on my photoblog.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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