The Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp was the indirect result, more than a century later, of a split in the local Church in 1864. Thirty years ago the building was in disuse and in need of preservation, and the community wisely decided to establish a museum focussing on the central role shipwrecks along the Southern Overberg coast had played. The Museum is widely acclaimed and draws visitors from around the world.
By Maré Mouton
The coastline that stretches either side of Cape Agulhas has struck fear into the hearts of mariners from the time of the first Portuguese navigators in the 15th century. The shore sometimes rocky with hidden reefs, sometimes sandy shallows has become known as The Graveyard of Ships. More than 130 shipwrecks have been recorded between Danger Point near Gansbaai in the northwest and Witsand at the mouth of the Breede River to the east.
Reminders of the shipwrecks are scattered all over the Strandveld. The unlucky ships were virtually the only source of timber for buildings and also supplied much of the furniture. Pieces of porcelain, glassware and other ornaments and household items found their way into many homes. Survivors of the wrecks often settled in the area, bringing skills such as carpentry and masonry to the community.
History permeates this far-flung corner of the continent, but it was preserved mainly as myths and legends. Thirty years ago very little research had been done, and there was no central depository for pieces of historical interest.
The idea of a museum for Bredasdorp and the surrounding area was born in 1967 when the delapidated former Independent Church and its Rectory came up for sale.
This Church was founded in 1864 by members who broke away from the Dutch Reformed Church, apparently because of the liberal views of the Rev Carl Marais. Intervention by DR authorities including the respected Dr Andrew Murray failed to repair the rift. In 1865 the church bought a property near the DR church which already had a house on it, built by the first owner, P J du Toit, shortly after the town of Bredasdorp had been laid out in 1840. In the meantime his erf had been subdivided and had changed hands six times. The house became the Rectory of Rev J R Keet, later followed by two of his brothers (with the result that the Independent Church was also called the Keet Church).
The new church building next to the Rectory was inaugurated on 15 March 1868. It is plain in concept, with little adornment, but its high Gothic windows lend it a dignified charm. The Independent Church disbanded in 1875 and in 1884 the property was donated to the Anglican Church. The latter already had a church building, but used the Old Rectory again as such. The Independent church became in succession a church hall, school for Coloureds (who at the time lived in the upper part of the town), cinema, skating rink and bazaar. The building was long known as the Eveready Hall, after the Eveready Bazaar housed in it.
The building deteriorated, and by 1967 it was up for sale and for demolition. Local resident Suzanne van Rensburg and her architect husband Jack started campaigning for the preservation of the building for the establishment of a museum. The community rallied about them, amongst them Marie Faffa du Toit, Thelma Pratt, Mary Swart and Abraham Roux, with a sympathetic ear on the part of the Municipality and Divisional Council lent by Ben Neethling, Johan Coetzee, Jurie Matthee and others.
On 23 March 1967 the Independent Church was declared a National Monument, and on 4 December 1968 the Bredasdorp Museum officially became a provincially supported museum. The property was finally transferred to the Bredasdorp Museum on 19 May 1970.
In the same year that the museum was founded, a local teacher, Mr Coenraad Potgieter, completed his book on Shipwrecks along our Coast. It was therefore logical that shipwrecks and the Strandveld be chosen as the theme for the museum. The farming activities of the area, notably Merino sheep farming, would be a secondary theme to be addressed in due course.
Work started on restoration and the erection of two outbuildings under supervision of the first Curator, Valerie Luyt, and a steering committee. The museum was officially opened in April 1975.
The community accepted the project as their own, and contributed to its growth, collecting articles for display and helping to raise funds. It still has the ongoing support of the Friends of the Museum. We learned that the more we generated ourselves, the more we could expect from Government sources, recalls Hercules Wessels, who served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for more than 20 years. It was also important that the museum was made the focus of all festivals and events for the town and the farming community. With the growth in tourism in the 1980s the museum became the pivot. Also with the launch of the Wool Route at the time, and the Church and town festivals in 1988. The wagons and other carriages used for festivals, journeys and films were all donated to the museum.
In 1979 another challenge arose for the conservation-minded people in Bredasdorp when it became known that the Minister of Transport had recommended that the historic Cape Agulhas lighthouse be demolished. The building, constructed of local limestone in 1848, was badly eroded and no longer in use (a steel tower on the hill served as a beacon).
The local Member of Parliament, Mr Oubaas Malan, recommended that the lighthouse be transferred to the Bredasdorp Museum, and the Government was glad to be rid of it. Then the work started the museum had to raise the funds for the restoration. With Hercules Wessels and Sura Pieterse at the helm, 40 percent of the required amount had been collected by 1983 and work could commence. Financial support from the Province increased and the process was speeded up. In 1988, thanks to the cooperation between the local community, the Province and Portnet, the lighthouse was put into operation again. The museum became the Shipwreck and Lighthouse Museum, until the lighthouse passed to SANParks in 2000.
The museum was involved in many other projects. In 1986 a monument was erected at the geographical southernmost tip of the continent. In 1993 the old Bredasdorp gaol, built in 1860, was declared a protected heritage site and transferred to the museum (it is at present closed to the public because of a lack of funds), and in 1994 the giant Milkwood tree on the farm Rhenosterfontein was declared a National Monument.
The Shipwreck Museum remains very popular. Its displays on shipwrecks, old means of transport and Victorian domestic life offer a fascinating entry into the colourful past of a colourful region.