Long-ago home of women's rights pioneer

Those who hanker for things past will find the tiny Karoo village of Hanover something of a rarity, an almost perfectly preserved piece of the 19th century. After the coming of rail travel took away its lucrative traffic, life just went on at a sedate pace with unchanging dignity. Hanover is also a geographic oddity and claims to be the country's most central place. It is equidistant from Cape Town and Johannesburg, centrally positioned between Cape Town and Durban as well as Port Elizabeth and Upington and it is the hub of an arc formed by Richmond, Middelburg and Colesberg. Long ago, historic figures were at the centre of life here, people like Olive Schreiner, author and women's rights champion, and the tempestuous Rev Thomas Francois Burgers. Among its residents were the wealthy and eccentric. The town's chief constable was the grandson of Lord Charles Somerset, the magistrate's clerk a son of Dean Vaughan of Llandaff, well-known churchman and devotional writer of his day, and the local doctor was the son of a former Solicitor-General of Jamaica.


The village even had a race course, but that fell into disuse in 1889. The country's first observatory once stood at the top of Trappieskop, but it has been moved and is now part of the observatory at Sutherland. Today the busy Karoo N 1 route cuts through the veld between the town and its cemetery. But during the last century all roads converged in Hanover and all travellers passed through the town. It was on an important stop for stage coaches carrying passengers to the Diamond Fields, and the Free State mail was carried through by post cart. Daily life bubbled with people ever on the move. But then in 1884, the advent of the railway deprived the town of much of its through traffic and its character slowly changed.


South African author and women's rights pioneer, Olive Schreiner, and husband Cron lived in Hanover from 1900 to 1907 in a typical small iron-roofed Karoo cottage with a "stoep". Schreiner House, on the corner of Grace and New streets, is one of the village's national monuments. Olive was extremely happy in Hanover where the Karoo air relieved her asthma. She wrote to friends saying, "this is the prettiest village I have ever seen'.


In the cemetery on the outskirts of town a pyramid of stone marks the grave of three young men executed during the Anglo-Boer War. The people of Hanover were deeply touched by this event. A train had been derailed and plundered at Taaibosch, 20km from town. Shortly afterwards several young men sleeping in the outside rooms of a nearby farm were taken into custody. They were charged with "maliciously assisting Boer forces," robbery and the deaths of passengers. Tried on somewhat dubious authority by a military court at De Aar, three, Sarel Nienaber, J P Nienaber and J A Nieuwoudt, were shot. They protested their innocence to the end.


In H J C Pieterse's book on General Wynand Malan's Boer War experiences, the general states that his commando was responsible for the derailment. The general says the young men were not involved at all. The British, in fact, had sent them to the farm to collect fodder for horses. After the war General Malan joined Olive and Cron Schreiner in a lengthy campaign to have the names of the three cleared. The pyramid of stone over their grave bears this chilling inscription: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.


After studying theology at the University of Utrecht in Holland, Thomas Francois Burgers became Hanover's first parson in 1859. A charmingly eloquent, but fiercely individualistic man, he had been influenced by Professor C W Opzoomer in Holland and embraced his rationalist, liberalistic ideas. Back home Rev Burgers became involved in a stormy controversy with the Dutch Reformed Synod over his alleged liberalism and disbelief in the literal truth of the Bible. He was critical of traditional culture and laid great emphasis on pure knowledge. In 1862, his unorthodox doctrine brought on him an accusation of heresy, and in 1864 he was found guilty by the synod and suspended. The Supreme Court overturned the decision, and in 1865, he was readmitted to the ministry. Despite all this the burghers of the old Transvaal Republic urged Rev Burgers to stand for the presidency of their country. He was elected by the considerable majority of 2 964 to 388.


Farmers moved gradually northwards and settled in this area in the 18th century. One of the early farms was Petrusvallei which in time became Hanover. The farm was originally granted to W L Pretorius in November, 1841, but things did not go all that well with him and by February the following year he sold to Jan J Smook. Frederick von Malditz later acquired the property and later still Petrus J Botha, who sold it to Gert Johannes Wilhelm Gous, the grandson of Sterren Gauche, a German who had come to Africa in search of his fortune. Petrusvallei was part of an outlying district of Graaff-Reinet and simply known as Bo-Zeekoeirivier (Upper Hippopotamus River). Farmers had to undertake long and arduous journeys to Graaff-Reinet for church, communion or "nagmaal" services, marriages and baptisms. But in time they felt the need for a religious, administrative and educational centre of their own, so they petitioned the Government for a town.


On July 17, 1854, a six-man committee bought the farm for the unusual sum of 33 333 Rixdollars. Their intention was to start a settlement and church farm. Gous was retained as manager and J J Swart was in charge of finances. Survey work started almost immediately, and early in 1856 forty plots were sold. Soon a town mushroomed at the foot of a cluster of hills near a strong natural spring called The Eye. It delivered over 200 000 litres of fresh water a day, and still does. By October 13, 1856, the affairs of this fledgling town was placed in the hands of a church council. At Gous's request it was agreed to name the village Hanover as his grandfather had come from that city in Germany.


A municipality was established and Mr P Watermeyer elected mayor. He also served the town as Member of Parliament until 1888. District boundaries were firmly established by January, 1859, the same year the first church, a typical tiny cruciform thatched-roofed building, was completed. This was also the year Rev Burgers and his Scottish wife, Mary Bryson, moved into town. He met and married her in 1858 while at university where she was studying music.

Burgers was no stranger to the Karoo. He was, in fact, the youngest child of Barend and Elizabeth Burger of the farm Langefontein in the Camdeboo district of Graaff-Reinet. For some reason the reverend wrote his surname with an ‘s" at the end.

An idealist with great flair, Burgers had considerable intellectual ability. This unusual man had a parsonage built that in its day was a dominant feature of the town. In his book on Olive Schreiner, Karel Schoeman describes it as a "somewhat bizarre double storeyed parsonage... disproportionately big for a small Karoo village and slightly ostentatious with octagonal turrets and battlements." Sadly it was demolished in 1944.


After a tumultuous time in the Transvaal, Burgers returned to the Karoo and Hanover in 1877, an embittered and impoverished man. He farmed with ostriches on De Dammen outside Hanover and later moved to Schanskraal. He died in straitened circumstances in 1881, and was first buried at Richmond. Later, he was moved to Zoetvlei and on November 26, 1885, he was reinterred in Pretoria's old cemetery.


When the first erven were sold, prospective residents were instructed to build directly on and parallel to the edge of the road with gardens at the back. In later years when verandahs came into fashion, these structures were allowed to encroach on the pavement. For this privilege home-owners paid a special tax of one shilling a year. They still pay for the privilege, but in 1994 the fee was raised to R10.The irrigation furrows, or "leivoortjies", were built from The Eye to take water to village vegetable gardens. The system started working in 1870, and has never changed, water flowing in the furrows day and night. All the original plots still get two irrigation turns a week, strictly according to the distribution chart drawn up in 1870.


Hanover was declared a magisterial district on November 13, 1876, and Charles Richard Beere was appointed magistrate. A man of foresight, Beere insisted residents plant trees so their descendants would have shade. With the help of prisoners he built an easy-to-climb, stepped foot path to the summit of the hill now called Trappieskop. Beere wanted visitors to share the superb views from its summit. He loved the Karoo and could often be found on the summit of Trappieskop watching the sun rise or set. When he died in 1881, a stone pyramid was erected on its summit to his memory and to honour his contribution to the development of the town.


Hanover grew rapidly. By 1881 a jail was built, but a courthouse only came in 1897. The town had a post and telegraph office, a bank, several general dealers, a hotel and a school. Its list of tradesmen included a mason, a farrier and groom, painter, miller, dam builder, brick maker, scab inspector, carpenter, wagon maker, butcher, a post rider and carriers to the railway station 18km away. The original farmstead is today a national monument. It houses a small cultural history museum, and on display are old bottles, clothes, glassware, kitchen utensils and implements. There is also an intriguing model of the Dutch Reformed Church.


Reverend Burgers, who had first been taught by a Scottish teacher in Graaff-Reinet, believed in the value of good education thought of as "reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic" by platteland people. Soon after settling in Hanover he opened a private school and appointed N J R Swart as teacher. However, interest waned and it closed. The next minister, Rev J I Marais, started a state-supported school, but in time this also closed. Undaunted, Rev Hofmeyer opened a church school in 1878, and by 1884 it had developed into a popular public school with 284 pupils. Its hostel accommodated 30 children.

Sources: "Only an Anguish to Live There" by Karel Schoeman, Die Oorlogsavonture van Generaal Wynand Malan" by H J C Pieterse, Hanover Municipality and local residents

Written for Hanover Municipality and Information Bureau by Wally Kriek and Rosalie Willis



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