The city is situated halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth on the Garden Route It is situated on a 10 kilometre plateau between the Outeniqua Mountains to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The township of Pacaltsdorp lies to the south.
18th and 19th century
The town of George was established as a result of the growing demand for timber and the wood used in building, transport and furniture. In 1776 the Dutch East India Company established an outpost for the provision of timber; its location is thought to be near the western end of York Street. The Timber Post had its own Poshouer (manager), some 12 woodcutters, a blacksmith, wagon maker and 200 oxen plus families. After 1795 and the British occupation of the Cape, a caretaker of the forests in the area was appointed. After the second British occupation in 1806, it was decided that the Swellendam magistracy was too large and needed to be sub-divided. George was chosen because of the availability of good water. In 1811 George was declared a separate district and Adriaan Geysbertus van Kervel was appointed the first Landrost (magistrate) and the town was proclaimed by the Earl of Caledon, governor of the Cape Colony on St George's Day, 23 April 1811, and named after the reigning British monarch, King George III. One of Van Kervel's first acts as Landrost (Mayor), was to dig a furrow to supply the first thirty six plots in George with water. An 1819 map shows the original furrows and storage dam where they remain to this day in the Garden Route Botanical Gardens. The first Furrow originated from the Rooirivier (Red river) and later a diversionary weir was built at the Camphersdrift River. George gained municipal status in 1837.
From 1772 there was a gradual influx of settlers intent on making a living from the forests. These were mostly descendants of the Dutch settlers. In early days the lives and livelihood of the people revolved around the timber industry and the rich forests in the vicinity and it remained a quiet outpost. It was the dramatic improvement of communications – the roads, rail and air links eclipsing the ox-wagons and coastal steamers of the 19th century - that exposed other charms and resources of the region and resulted in unprecedented growth for the town.
After the ostrich feather slump and a severe drought in the Karoo during the early part of the 18th century, many "bywoners" found themselves without work. Rather than stay in an arid region they crossed the mountains to find a livelihood in the forests.
Forest settlements, such as Karatara and Bergplaas (1922) were started and many of the "dangerous" working-class people from the Gauteng were moved to these settlements. They were, however, a minority group, as most of the woodcutters lived outside these settlements. A small number were descendants of British immigrants who could find no other means of livelihood. There were also a small number of Italian immigrants who had been brought to the area from Turin in 1879, as part of a scheme to start a silk industry in the Knysna area. It turned out to be a complete failure due to the lack of mulberry leaves. Finding themselves without work some of these Italians drifted into the forests and joined the woodcutting community.
Sons were considered to be an economic asset as, at the age of around 14 or 15, after very little schooling, they could assist their fathers in the forest. The majority of these sons eventually became woodcutters themselves.
The Forest Act of 1913 required all woodcutters to be registered. In 1939 all remaining woodcutters were removed from the forests and given a government pension.
From the beginning of European colonisation in South Africa in 1652, timber and the provision of various woods was of paramount importance for the survival of the settlers. Once forest areas near the present Cape Town were exhausted, the search for more timber continued along the coast.
The great forests of the Southern Cape were discovered as early as 1711, but because of their inaccessibility it was only in 1776 that the Dutch East India Company established a timber post where George is today.
Early woodcutters and their families lived in forest clearings where they evolved into a closely knit community where intermarriage was common. The men were thin and wiry, but they were also tough and strong with an incredible skill in felling, sawing and handling timber.
The utilization of the forest trees led to such industries as furniture and wagon making. By 1910 several large sawmills had been established in the district. Timber for export was transported to coastal ports by ox wagon.
Today you will find sawmills with the ultimate in modern wood technology and innovative furniture factories in the Southern Cape. Unique to this area is the age-old technique and skill of manufacturing wood furniture by hand.
Historic background of the George Museum
What the visitor sees in the George museum today has grown from the private collections of one man, Charles Sayers. He was the owner and long-time editor of the George & Knysna Herald, a newspaper established by his parents in 1881. Sayers collected and preserved all aspects of his hometown's history, with a specialist interest in old mechanical musical instruments and typewriters which today form the nucleus of the museum's important collections.
In 1967 he opened his "Mini Museum" to the public, housed in a single room adjoining a café in Courtenay Street. The people loved it and much encouraged by local authorities he moved to the original George Town House – the administrative building next to the market square which dated back to 1847. By now the Sayers Museum had attracted the attention of officialdom and barely six months after the move it attained provincial museum status as a fully-fledged cultural history museum for the region, with indigenous timber and its allied industries as its main theme. The growing popularity led to another move, this time to the building, which had been the original drostdy (magistrate’s residence and office) in the young town. The original "Mini Museum" has been re-created within the present George Museum.
In 1668 the first European explorer, Hieronymous Cruse, penetrated Outeniqualand with its dense indigenous forest. The highest peak in the Outeniquas is Cradock Peak (1578 m) and the prominent George Peak is 1337 metres high.
The name Outeniqua is derived from the Khoi word meaning "man laden with honey". The slopes of the emerald-green mountains were covered with heather and swarming with bees, according to the reports left by early travellers. "Nature has made an enchanting abode of this beautiful place", wrote the 18th century traveller Le Vaillant, when he entered the foothills of the Outeniqua range in the Southern Cape. A great deal of that enchantment and delicate beauty still captivates the modern traveller. For instance, there is the rare George lily (Cyrtanthus elatus), found near water in the deep ravines of the mountain, and a variety of ericas and proteas thrive on the fern-clothed slopes. Carpets of pink watsonias are a common sight during summer.
The historic Montagu Pass between George and Oudtshoorn was declared a National Monument in 1972. It is open to traffic and is a good gravel road, some 10 km in length. With many serpentine curves, this pass gradually winds its way through the fynbos-covered Cradock's Kloof until it reaches the summit.
The world traveller Anthony Trollope visited George in about 1878 and his comment on the Montagu Pass was: "...equal to some of the mountain roads through the Pyrenees". Emma Murray was so enthralled by the Montagu Pass that she wrote in a letter to a relative in 1852: "One forgets everything in the beauty and grandeur of the scene. It was to me exquisite enjoyment".
A traveller will notice that some parts of the stone wall along one side of the road are slightly protruding. The purpose of this was to prevent the axles of the wagons from scraping against the walls and thus becoming damaged.
The building of the Montagu Pass
The Civil Commissioner of George, Egbertus Bergh (1837–1843), campaigned tirelessly for a new road through the formidable Outeniqua Mountains to replace the notorious Cradock's Pass. Then came John Montagu, the new dynamic Colonial Secretary, who cleared the public debt, recognised the importance of good roads and set the wheels rolling.
Work on the pass commenced in 1844 and H.O. Farrel was appointed superintendent of the project, but the task was beyond his ability. Henry Fancourt White, a qualified surveyor, newly appointed as Road Inspector by the Central Road Board, replaced him in 1845.
On average, 250 convicts were employed at any given time on the construction of the pass. They were housed in two camps; South Station, presumably on the same site where the tollhouse was later built, and North Station near the summit of the pass. The headquarters for the construction was sited where Blanco is situated today.
The total expenses for the construction of the Montagu Pass amounted to £35,799 of which £1,753 was spent on gunpowder. Five and a half miles of the pass had to be blasted out of solid rock.
Railway over the mountains
The building of the railway line over the Outeniqua Mountains, between George and Oudtshoorn began in December 1908 from the George side and in 1911 from the Oudtshoorn side. The track was blasted out of the rock, and seven tunnels were excavated. At one stage some 2 500 workers were employed. During April 1913 this most scenic railway line was completed. Sir David de Villiers Graaff performed the official opening on 6 August 1913. The line was built at the enormous cost of £465 000.
During the construction of the Montagu Pass, in about 1847, a stone toll house, with a thatched roof, was erected on the George side of the mountain. According to a proclamation in the Government Gazette of 24 February 1848, a toll gate was set up, and a tariff of tolls publicised. Upon payment of the prescribed fee the toll keeper would raise the bar across the road to enable the vehicle or animal to pass.
The first toll-keeper was John Kirk Smith, born in Nottingham, England in 1818. During 1849 he collected the amount of £400.13.8p in toll fees. His son William Kirk Smith was appointed toll-keeper in 1880. William and his son made "veldt schoens" (simple leather shoes) at the toll-house for sale to travellers and transport riders. Soon they had a thriving business and J.K. Smith, grandson of the first toll-keeper, expanded this concern to Market Street in George. From this humble beginning grew the large and flourishing shoe industry J.K. Smith and Company, which was the forerunner of Modern Shoes Ltd.
Other early toll-keepers were James Scott (1852) and Charles Searle (1858). The toll-house caught fire on 23 July 1855 and the entire roof was destroyed, later being replaced with corrugated iron.
In the Government Gazette dated 16 July 1867, the toll-tariffs were: Each wheel of a vehicle – two pence; Animal drawing a vehicle – one penny; Animal not drawing a vehicle – two pence; Sheep, goat or pig – one halfpenny.
All tolls were abolished on 31 December 1918, but thanks to the fact that it was declared a National Monument in 1970, this interesting relic of the last century has been saved for posterity.
Henry Fancourt White, enchanted by Outeniqualand, bought a portion of the farm Modder River in 1848. He sold a portion to Frances Cook, who named his farm Oaklands, and subdivided the rest into erven. The little village was called "Whitesville" in honour of Henry Fancourt White, but at his suggestion the name was changed to Blanco, the Spanish term for white.
In 1859 Henry White built a beautiful double storey thatched mansion, which he named Blanco House. In 1903 his son Ernest Montagu White renamed the house Fancourt – in honour of his father. Today Fancourt is a National Monument and a well-known hotel.
The main route from Mossel Bay to the Langkloof passed through Blanco, where a settlement of merchants was soon established. The village was also the main postal centre. This caused dissatisfaction among the businessmen of George, and so a direct link from George to the toll-house was built in about 1882. This road was called Bain's Trace and was probably built by Thomas Bain, who surveyed the new route.
The Lake System
The lakes originated about 20 000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene at the end of the last era of ice ages which was largely centred in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, these lakes can be regarded as geologically relatively young. During that last glacial period, the sea-level dropped to about 130 m lower than at present as a result of the accumulation of ice in the northern hemisphere. Rivers then extended into the newly exposed coastal areas, cutting deep valleys into them. At the end of the last glacial period the sea-level rose again, drowning these newly formed valleys, until, after a last slight rise and fall of sea-level, a level of about one to three metres above the present level was reached some 6 000 years ago. The sea level then slowly receded to reach the present level about 4 000 years ago. The partial draining of these valleys exposed part of the coastal area, thereby forming all the present Wilderness Lakes except for Langvlei and Rondevlei. Martin (1962) postulates the Langvlei could have been formed by wave erosion preceding the last rise in sea level while Rondevlei, during the same time, probably originated as a wind-deflating basin. Ruigtevlei, to the east of Swartvlei, was a lake that disappeared; leaving a large area that is only inundated after floods (Martin, 1960a). During this last change (drop) in sea level, the mouth of Swartvlei Estuary moved 2 km eastward to the present position at Sedgefield, and Groenvlei lost its connection to the sea through the Swartvlei Estuary, and sand dunes now effectively covering any traces of a previous connection to the sea.