Small village with a kaleidoscopic past

The quiet, almost genteel air of remote little Richmond with its 19th century buildings masks a past when for a few fleeting moments it was part of world history in the making. A boy born here went on to become the acknowledged father of modern orthopaedic surgery. And then, years later, fierce fighting gained it a niche in the history of the last of the gentlemen's wars.

There is even a strong link with the devastating potato crop failure in Ireland in 1859, when people fled the famine. One of these thousands was an exceedingly able school teacher who created the sound basis for schooling in Richmond. International links extend also to horse-breeding circles in Kentucky in the United States. The local museum is one of only two in the world to honour the saddle horse breed. Also, the town was named in honour of an English duke.


Richmond was established on one of the highest and coldest parts of the Cape's inland plateau in 1843. In common with most Karoo towns, it was founded to meet the religious needs of a growing farming community, but to a large extent that is where the similarity ends. Unlike most others, it was built astride a river, the reason for the irregular street grid. Also, the church was not built as the village focal point. The centrepiece is the village square.

People who moved northwards to settle in the Karoo relied on daily Bible readings or travelling preachers for religious needs. Churches were vast distances away, and most farmers could not leave their farms unprotected. Daily hardships also often thrust religious instruction aside. The need to establish a village became pressing. So, when official permission was granted, community leaders met and Driefontein, the farm of P J van der Merwe, was chosen as a suitable site. It lay on the banks of the Ongers River with its reliable source of fresh water from the three fountains from which the farm took its name. To this day, water still bubbles from these fountains in the Wilgersloot (Willow Stream) area. Driefontein was acquired towards the end of 1843. In those years, the area was rich in game and lions roamed the banks of the Ongers River to prey on buck coming to drink.


Early in the new year, the towns folk approached the new Governor of the Cape, Sir Peregrine Maitland, who took office in 1844, for permission to name their village in his honour. He declined, and suggested that it rather be named after his father-in-law, the Duke of Richmond. And so, it was officially named Richmond in October, 1845, much to the delight of Sir Peregrine's wife and her father.

The first plots were officially sold by auction after the "nagmaal" (holy communion) service on April 19, 1845. All plots were sold on condition that no strong liquor be brewed or sold on the premises. The town become a magisterial district in 1848 and a municipality in 1854.


After the disastrous failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1859, Helena Broadbrook and her brother decided to emigrate. They were welcomed to South Africa by Arthur Gilstain, whom she later married on January 18, 1860. They moved to Richmond where Helena became governess to the children of the two doctors. One of these children was Emil Hoffa, destined to become world famous.

Helena, born in 1837 in Mullengar, west of Dublin, started a school in Paul Street. She was a qualified teacher, could speak English, French and German, and had travelled widely in Europe as a companion to the wife of Sir William de Salis, a Royal Navy admiral. Helena spent a year with this noble lady in Switzerland helping her recover from the loss of twin sons. As a pastime she translated German fairy tales into English. When diamonds were discovered, Arthur Gilstain, once accused of stealing a kiss from the lovely Juana, Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, left for Kimberley to try his luck at the diggings. On the eve of returning to Richmond a wealthy man, he was robbed and murdered.


Richmond is the birthplace of medical pioneer Dr Emil Hoffa, once a pupil of Helena Gilstain. Hoffa is hailed as the founder of modern orthopaedics. He was born in Richmond on March 31, 1859, son of a local doctor. He studied medicine in Germany, and in 1886 became a lecturer at the University of Wuerzburg. He later became Professor and moved to Berlin. Dr Hoffa died in December, 1907. Many of his textbooks and techniques are still in use.

In keeping with this Karoo tradition of producing great medical people, heart transplant pioneer Professor Chris Barnard spends a great deal of time at his Richmond farm, Ratelfontein.


By 1866, Richmond had grown so rapidly that the first bank was established, this despite the Karoo being in the grips of drought and a failing economy. By 1867, the entire Cape Colony was virtually bankrupt. The causes were severe droughts and the Basuto Wars. Several towns in the Cape and northern Karoo had helped Free Staters in these conflicts.


Early in 1867, Governor Philip Wodehouse tried to improve the economy of the Colony by promoting overseas trade. A committee then secured exhibits for the huge Paris International Exhibition of 1867.

A Richmond farmer set the example in the Karoo by submitting examples of wheat, barley, sheep and ox tallow, sheep tail fat, oil, beeswax, ganna ash (invaluable in soap making) and one bar of boer soap. These were among items from the interior first shown in Cape Town before being shipped to Paris. Both local and international exhibitions were successful, and the products were highly acclaimed. But Cape people were enraged when they heard that the Paris exhibition judges had drunk 60 bottles of Cape wine and eaten all the Karoo preserves.


With progress came the launching in 1870 of a local newspaper, now long gone. With the bold title of The Era, it reported on happenings in the town and district, and enjoyed wide popularity. On July 20, 1876, The Era carried a story recording the opening of a new public school. It was then that Helena Gilstain took her talents to a farm school. Years later, The Era also extensively covered the Boer War. Among the stories was one telling of a badly wounded Boer leader, Commandant Smit, being sped away by horse and cart to a doctor at Murraysburg.


In 1886, The Era covered the last public execution in Richmond. The story describes the public as "having conducted themselves with great propriety" during the hanging of one Snel Bartmen at the prison at eight on the morning of the last Thursday of May, 1886. It also mentions in passing that the moment of Bartman's death was signalled to all by the unfurling of a black flag outside the jail.


During the Anglo-Boer War the town was twice attacked by the Boers. Several graves in the old Dutch Reformed Cemetery, as well as in the tiny, overgrown Anglican cemetery, serve as reminders. As with most South African towns of the time, Richmond had both British and Boer supporters, but it was difficult for Boer sympathisers to openly display feelings as martial law had been imposed throughout the Cape Colony from December, 1900.


It was soon after the imposition of martial law that a Richmond beau, one Hendrik Booysen, was actually fined all of three pounds sterling for having married the love of his life, a certain Maria. In his bliss, Hendrik had neglected to obtain the necessary permission from the military hierarchy. In the ensuing verbal storm, no less personage than the Attorney-General, Sir James Rose-Innes, protested mightily. But Major-General A S Wynne, to whom the plea for clemency had been made, was insistent. The fine had to be paid. The Major-General did not consider a wedding to be a religious ceremony, and as such to be exempt.


The Saddle Horse Museum is one of only two in the world that honours the breed. The other is in Kentucky in the USA. Many award-winning saddle horses are still bred in the Karoo where breeders feel it is the extreme winter cold that gives the animals stamina.

During Boer War action at one of the forts on the outskirts of town, a local, Daan de Kock, lost a lower arm. So a wooden arm was made for him. But Daan did not care one bit for the device, and flatly refused to wear it. Today it is something of a novelty in the museum.

At one time Richmond also had a mineral water factory. Some of its equipment, including the bottling machine, is on display in the museum, which was once the highly-respected public school.


It's only a lonely little railway siding on the plains of the Great Karoo, but what makes Deelfontein eerily different are its buildings and the neat rows of graves nearby. The dilapidated buildings hint at a Victorian elegance, but they came a little late to share in that chapter of history. The Yeomanry Hotel was built to accommodate the grieving relatives of those who died at this once huge military hospital. In its time it was the largest surgical and convalescent hospital in the Colony. It also had an X-ray installation, probably among the first to be used in a military hospital. There are two cemeteries at Deelfontein, a small one with five graves and the larger with 134. Almost all soldiers buried here died of typhoid.


The first impression of Richmond and its buildings is that of a restful, historical and quaint country town, a charming example of mid-19th century Karoo architecture. Many of the houses were built before 1890, but their age is often difficult to judge because verandas and pillars were subsequently added. Most of these additions date back to the 1920s. While the congregation dates back to 1843, the church was only inaugurated in 1847. This imposing building was later enlarged and a tower was added in 1909. The pulpit, said to be the tallest in the country, was carved by L F Anhuyse in 1854. He did similar work for the Groote Kerk in Cape Town.


There are several interesting farms in the district. On Klipplaat there are 60 claw-like fossilised footprints. These are believed to have been made by an Aulacephalodon., a slow-moving, plant-eating reptile that roamed these plains about 250-million years ago. And on Ouplaas there is an old horse-driven flour mill which is still in working order. The axle, once a ship's mast, reaches from the floor to the yellow wood attic. The nameplate on the hopper states this mill was built by Charles Bridger, a well-known millwright of his day. Bird watching , game viewing and springbok hunting is popular.