Witsand II: Dwellings

In following up the previous Witsand post (Witsand I: Breede River and Coastline), I was looking for information about the stone used to build the early houses in Witsand. Piet*, a friend of Willie’s whose family has had property in Witsand for generations, not only answered my question, but gave me some material to read about the early dwellings in the area. The “material” being a South African magazine called “Lantern – A Journal of Knowledge and Culture” dated July – September 1961! Lantern has the same meaning in both Afrikaans and English, and the magazine has both Afrikaans and English articles.

Cover: Lantern Magazine July - September 1961 - Kapsteil houses at Puntjie near Witsand

The article is called “Homes of the Trekboers – The Vernacular Architecture of South Africa” by James Walton. The term “trekboers” refers to the “wandering farmers” who left the area now known as Cape Town and moved northwards and eastwards to find new grazing lands. It’s a look at the progression of building structures from the earliest simple dwellings to the sheep farmer/fishermen’s cottages and through to the more complex “Cape Dutch architecture“. Why it’s of specific interest when looking at the houses in Witsand, is that there are examples of the earliest types of dwellings along this coastline.

You can look at a map of the area here.

Quoted pieces (in italics) are text from the Lantern article. Bear in mind that references to the present day in these pieces refers to 1961!

These Trekboers, or wandering farmers, were the progenitors of the people who eventually opened up the whole of Southern Africa. Theirs was a simple life of adventure, unfettered by any regulations other than the necessity of paying an annual tax of R1o, for which the stock-farmer had the grazing rights to 3,000 morgen of pasture. In their search for new grazing grounds they moved farther and farther afield and, like their Voortrekker descendants of a century later, lived in their tented wagons or built primitive shelters whenever they halted for any length of time.

We have no authentic written or pictorial records of the temporary dwellings of the Trekboers, such as those handed down by the Voortrekkers, but here and there throughout the country over which they wandered are survivals of simple shelters, now serving more menial functions but almost certainly representing the homes of these early pastoralists.

One of the most common is the kapsteilhuis [a “kapstyl” is a roof-truss], a type of building still frequently employed in the vicinity of Heidelberg as a cart-shed, tobacco-drying shed, or farm store-shed. The finest examples occur in the beautiful village of Vermaaklikheid, so reminiscent of Donegal, with its tiny, whitewashed cottages surrounded by masses of flowers, where all stages in the subsequent development of the kapsteilhuis are represented. Nearby, at the mouth of the Duiwehoks River, is the tiny holiday settlement of Puntjie, consisting of a group of kapsteilhuise erected by farmers from the surrounding district. This had its origin in the local farmers going down the Duiwehoks River to the delightful headland where they gathered at holiday times. Eventually they began to build for themselves seaside dwellings where they could stay for longer periods, and the type of dwelling they chose was the kapsteilhuis which their forefathers had used in days gone by. This, they assured me, was the traditional home of the early settlers in that part of the country.

The kapsteilhuis, as its name suggests, consists solely of a thatched roof, carried on a series of about eight couples and reaching right down to the ground. In its simplest form it has no walls and is in fact nothing more than the roof of a Cape house built at ground level. Eight or more pairs of poles, meeting at the top, kapbalke, are spaced at regular intervals to cover a floor space measuring about 25 feet by 16 feet. Each pair is joined together by a tie-beam, hanebalk, all pegged together with wooden pegs, and across these couples are secured the battens, to which the bundles of reeds and thatch are sewn with riempies, twine, or grass rope. The ends are rounded, and at one end is a recessed entrance, closed by halved doors. Illumination is provided by two small window openings, one in the end opposite the entrance and one in the side, which can be closed with wooden shutters. Inside, the kapsteilhuis is divided by a simple partition into a bedroom and a living-room, to make a very comfortable habitation. Cooking is done outside, either in the open air behind a reed screen or in a smaller cooking hut, as it was in the days of the Trekboers.

[Click on images to enlarge them]

Early design of Kapsteil house (Image source: Lantern**)

In the neighbouring village of Vermaaklikheid kapsteilhuise are still being built as farm sheds and they are used for a similar purpose, and for tobacco drying, in and around Heidelberg, where the couples are sometimes strengthened by a row of short, forked struts along each side. Occasional examples have survived in the eastern Free State, especially in the vicinity of Ladybrand.

Modified Kapsteil house (Image source: Lantern magazine**)

At Groenland, near Kranskop in Natal, kapsteilhuise continued to serve as dwellings until 1875. They were similar in construction to those at Puntjie but they had an additional strengthening member, the windlat, at each side, stretching diagonally from front to back to give added stability. Instead of the rows of struts, the Groenland dwellings had low, sod walls, smeared with a mixture of sand and cow-dung, running along each side. These not only provided added support to the couples but protected the occupants from draughts and rain and were the forerunners of low side-walls.

At one end was the doorway, closed by halved doors, and at the other a tiny window opening provided a certain amount of illumination. The kapsteilhuis was quite comfortable and roomy, measuring 20 to 30 feet in length by 10 to 12 feet in width, with a height of 8 to 9 feet, and it was sufficiently large to be curtained off into three sections. The floor was of ant-heap, smeared and made to shine by continued applications of linseed oil or ox blood polished with a smooth stone. The ridge was smeared with a mixture of cow-dung and sand which, in later days, was coated with tar to render it more watertight.

There is evidence that these simple dwellings were also used by herdsman all over Western Europe, and dating back in Bavaria to as early as A.D. 500.

Roof-huts of whatever type have a considerable amount of waste space where the roof reaches the ground, and to avoid this the more settled farmers placed their roof couples on low, rubble side-walls, not more than 3 feet in height. The ends were also enclosed by rubble walls, but the entrance was still kept at one end, with the window opening at the other. The doorway was moved to one side to allow for the massive chimney-stack of the open hearth which adjoined the entrance.

Early stone cottage with low walls (Image source: Lantern magazine**)

From here we get the development of simple dwellings with higher walls – the early sheep-farmer and fisherman cottages. Note that the doorway has now been moved to one side of the house to allow for a bigger chimney stack. This style of building persisted into the 1900s.

Early sheep farmer's dwelling (Image source: Lantern magazine**)

Fishermen's cottages (Image source: Lantern magazine**)

An old  house near the Barry Church. Everywhere in Witsand is evidence of it’s main function as a fishing and farming town, with boats in the yards, and sometimes a couple of sheep too.

Old house near the church (©2011 WMB)

Many little coastal towns have a mixture of building styles. Houses are often holiday homes and vary from small and very basic, to very big modern houses. In the older part of Witsand, one still sees some of the original stone cottages in between the newer buildings.

According to Piet, the first 23 plots in Witsand were registered in 1909. His family’s house was built in the 1920s. The first houses were all-stone buildings with the stone being sourced from nearby limestone ridges and a stone quarry. The stone was of a poor quality (one of the reasons that older houses are now being painted?). Newer houses were constructed of better quality stone sourced further inland.

Old stone cottage in town with cement filling in the gaps between the stones (©2011 WMB)

Stone cottage painted white (©2011 WMB)

Rocky ground near Witsand (©2011 WMB)

Although there are not a lot of all-stone cottages being constructed these days, stone is being used to accent some of the more modern houses.

Modern house with stone detail (©2011 WMB)

Occasionally one sees a newly built stone cottage like this cute little cottage below, which must have one of the best locations in Witsand!

Little stone cottage (©2011 WMB)

It's all about location! (©2011 WMB)

*Thank you to Piet van Zyl for the information about Witsand.

**Scanned images are from Lantern magazine (July – September 1961)

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Categories: Lifestyle/Travel, Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)


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6 Comments on “Witsand II: Dwellings”

  1. March 14, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Interesting development

    • March 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

      I had no idea when I started this post and asked Willie’s friend for information, that this is what I would end up writing about!

  2. jacquelincangro
    March 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    So interesting! I learned a lot!
    The image of the sheep farmer’s dwelling seems similar to the types of countryside homes one might find in Ireland.

    • March 14, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

      I learned a lot too doing writing the post! The author of that old article mentions Donegal in comparing building styles. I assumed he was talking about the Irish Donegal. So you’re not alone in thinking that.

  3. Sarita Botha
    March 15, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    It’s been a while since I’ve heard about the Lantern. Brought back some memories.

    • March 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

      I know, I real “blast from the past”! It was so weird looking at the other articles in the magazine and seeing what was going on in South Africa at the time. Even the ads were interesting to look at. Some of the same companies that are around today.

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