Impressions of a colony – Pietermaritzburg circa 1900

Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Picture taken in 1988 by Janek Szymanowski/Wikimedia.

A taste of how PMB and the Midlands were seen at the dawn of the previous century

Today we know Pietermaritzburg as the bustling, chaotic capital of KwaZulu-Natal, a centre for business and trade, the provincial legislature, manufacturing, warehousing and education. It’s urban, but still has evidence of its more country roots and connections to the Midlands just up the road.

For locals who enjoy a bit of history, it’s interesting to take a step back in time now and then and read what authors back in the day were writing about the province, specifically Maritzburg and the Midlands region.

In one particular work, titled Natal, The Land and its Story, we get a taste of what things might have been like here in the early 1900s. Written by Robert Russel – a former superintendent of education in what was then Natal, the copy I got my hands on was a 12th edition, printed in 1911 (Maritzburg, P Davis and Sons, Longmarket Street). It was first printed in 1897.

In a section titled “Counties and Towns”, Russel describes Pietermaritzburg County as containing more than 5000 square miles. The area lay between the Umzimkhulu and the watershed of the Umgeni. Other than trade and commerce it is clear that agriculture and related activities were the heart and soul of the county.

He writes: “Stock farms are common through the county, and maize, oats, corn, potatoes and wattle bark are the staple productions. Timber for wagon-making and other purposes is cut from the natural bush, and building stone is quarried to a small extent. The most populous towns are: – Pietermaritzburg, Richmond, Byrne, Stuartstown, Howick, Lidgetton, York, Camperdown, New Hanover, Kirchdorf, Edendale, Nottingham (Road) and Bulwer.”

Timber was important for building and as a source of revenue for settlers. Andrik Langfield/Unsplash

Byrne settlers

Another title picked up at the local library (found at Bessie Head in PMB and Nottingham Road libraries), The British Settlement of Natal – A Study of Imperial Migration, by Alan F Hattersley (Cambridge at University Press, 1950) goes into great detail about how many of the settlers came to be in the then-Natal in the first place.

Hattersley researches the settlers brought out by the controversial Joseph Byrne (assisted by his agent John Moreland), who are well known for their development of Byrne and Richmond, in particular. He describes the vessels and the conditions in which the new arrivals travelled, the land they were allocated and the financial deals which saw Byrne and his partners set to make a pretty profit. But that is perhaps the subject another story, which we will pick up in another post.

Back to Russel. He writes that Pietermaritzburg, at 2218 feet above sea level, “has about 35 miles of streets, the principal being lighted by electricity. Electric tram cars run through the city and suburbs. Its dark brown soil, tile covered houses, its rose hedges, its trees and gardens give it the appearance of a large English village”.

Up-country trade

He notes that it was then the seat of the Provincial Council, the chief station of imperial (British) troops and “an entrepot for up-country trade”.

Horse drawn carts and ox wagons were still an important means of transport.
Esperanza Algaba/Unsplash

Important buildings then were of the government type: town hall, post office, the vacated Government House, provincial parliament chambers, court house, St Peter’s Cathedral, where Bishop Colenso is buried, the college and mounted police barracks. There were also the numerous monuments, among them those commemorating the Langalibalele rebellion, the Zulu War, the Boer War and a statue of Queen Victoria, while the author also mentions Alexandra Park and Botanic Gardens.

The population at the time of his writing, including the garrison of troops, stood at about 33 000, about half of whom were Europeans, “the remainder Natives, Indians and other coloured races”.

Hilton Road, about 11 miles out of town, is described as a “favourite suburb with extensive wattle plantations”.

Book review: ‘Eavesdropping on Early Natal”

The towns

Some snippets about the other towns, in Russel’s words, include:

Richmond: “Richmond, 2,890 feet high, and Byrne, are villages on the Illovo, in the heart of a good agricultural and pastoral district.”

Howick: 3,439 feet high, Howick is a health resort on the Umgeni, and is noted for its falls.

Lidgetton: “Lidgetton, 3,952 feet high, is a settlement in the north-west of the country, yet undeveloped, although 40 years ago it promised to rival in prosperity the other villages peopled by Byrne’s immigrants.”

New Hanover: “New Hanover and Kirchdorf are two German settlements – respectively 5 and 9 miles east of York – each with its church, schools and post-office.”

Edendale: “Edendale, a native village 6 miles west of Maritzburg is the seat of a large training school. The Edendale natives rendered loyal assistance during the Zulu War.”

Fort Nottingham: “Fort Nottingham, a thriving pastoral district, owes its name to its having been in former times a station of the 45th or Nottingham Regiment, posted for the protection of the settlers against the raids of those ‘children of the mist’ – the freebooting Bushmen from the caves of the Berg.”

Howick Falls. Picture: Touring in South Africa, published by Struik

Neighbouring Umvoti County (today’s Greytown, Wartburg, etc) is described as a “sheep farming county of the Dutch”, which has a soil and climate well adapted for tree cultivation. “Large wattle plantations adorn the face of the country. Gold is found in small quantities in the broken country near the Tugela.”

He notes that hot springs, more or less sulphurous, are found in the northern part of the county. One in the Tugela valley reportedly had a temperature of 128 degrees (Fahrenheit, about 53C).

Greytown is described as a town with a population of 1,400, “the only village of importance” in Umvoti County. The seat of a magistracy, it had a municipality and was the “terminus of the branch line from Maritzburg, and forms a rallying point for the farmers of the district”. It was also the HQ for the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, whose service during the Boer War prevented an incursion of the enemy through the county.

An interesting snippet from Hattersley’s book mentioned earlier (The British Settlement of Natal), concerning the quality of land around Maritzburg: “It was certainly true that land on the Little Bushman (Umsindusi), bought by (John) Moreland for some of the ‘Washington’ settlers, fetched more than the upset price of 4s. But this was an exceptional case, due to the fact that the land was suburban and only four miles from the centre of Pietermaritzburg. Even this land was not suitable for sub-division; and though Byrne described its recipients as ‘contented’, there was much in what George Holgate, an earthenware dealer, said when he complained that his 100 acres were without a vestige of wood, and of a most disadvantageous form, being in the shape of an enormously long wedge, almost literally pointed at the best end.

“Only 30 acres were fit to plough, and to keep off grazing animals, he must erect a fence, which he could not afford to do.”

Richmond was described as clearly Moreland’s most successful settlement.

Art’s Heart in the KZN Midlands – Tatham Art Gallery

The roads

While today people charge up the N3 at 120km/h in private cars (some much quicker, sadly), the roads then were a completely different matter.

On the traffic and roads in the province, Russel writes: “In Natal traffic is carried by railways and by roads. Carriage by water is the easiest and cheapest mode of conveyance, but Natal has no arms of the seas, no lakes, navigable rivers, and no canals. At first the roads were only tracks made through the veld and over the hills by the wagons of the settler and trader, but now a length of 4,600 miles of highways is kept in repair by the government road-parties and 764 miles of railway connect the chief trade centres with the port.”

The Main Road Inland was one of the three chief roads leaving from Durban. It crossed the Berea, climbed up through Westville and Cowie’s Hill, crossing Pinetown plain before ascending Field’s Hill and reaching Botha’s Hill.

Fort Durnford in Estcourt. Picture: Touring in South Africa, published by Struik

“About nine miles from Maritzburg the road runs through Thornville, a district studded with mimosa trees and a favourite haunt of elephants when the Dutch laid out the streets of Maritzburg in 1839. After crossing a small stream and climbing the long cutting on its northern bank, a plateau is reached overlooking the city, four miles distant. The Victoria Bridge, which spans the Umsunduzi, gives entrance to the city.”

On leaving Pietermaritzburg, this main road climbed Town Hill, part of the Karkloof Range and the Mooi Heights, and passed through Howick and its falls. Then it was on to “Curry’s Post with its wooded slopes, and Weston with its undeveloped township and a bridge over the Mooi River. From Estcourt in the bridged valley of the Bushman River two roads branch off.”

One of these went to Weenen and “The Thorns”, the other crossed the Blaauwkrans River, the Little Tugela, Sterk Spruit and the Tugela, wrote Russel. At the Tugela it again branched into two, both leading over the Berg into the Orange Free State.

Russel reports that the Greytown road ran in a north-easterly direction for 42 miles to Greytown, by the way of Maldon, Albert, Sterkspruit and Sevenoaks. “A branch road leads from the hill above Maldon in a general easterly direction through Kirchdorf and over the Noodsberg to several points on the North Coast Road. At Greytown, two roads branch off, one to the east to Stanger and the other to the west through Riet Vlei to Weston.

“The former passes Hermannsburg, runs through numerous sheep farms, traverses the rugged Mapumulo, and reaches Stanger by way of the tea-growing district of Kearsney.”

Now read: The Byrne settlers and Natal Part 1


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