Bainskloof Pass opened 14 September 1853


It was quite by chance that I recently stumbled on a few articles commemorating the opening of Bainskloof Pass. The articles were published in a 1953 supplement of the Paarl Post and included verbatim transcripts of speeches as well as eyewitness accounts of the events. Today, 162 years later, it is easy to forget just how significant the completion of the pass was for residents of the Cape. Continue reading

The “bovine” side effects of a cowpox vaccine

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients against smallpox.  Coloured etching by James Gillray (1802). (Wikimedia Commons)

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients against smallpox (1802). Etching by James Gillray. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Cow Pock – or – the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! by the Anti-Vaccine Society”. The above cartoon shows Edward Jenner inoculating members of the public with cowpox. The fear then was that once inoculated, people would develop “bovine” characteristics or anatomical features. In the foreground a boy carries a pot with the label: “VACCINE POCK hot from yer COW” and in his pocket are papers with the headlines “Benefits of the Vaccine”. On the desk there is a pot called “OPENING MIXTURE” with a bottle carrying the label “VOMIT”. The painting against the wall depicts the biblical scene of people worshiping the Golden Calf.

Smallpox epidemics at the Cape

A portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote [Wikimedia Commons]

A portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote [Wikimedia Commons]

The Cape experienced its first smallpox epidemic in 1713. Fatalities soared between May and July and contemporaries wrote that people died in such numbers that many bodies had to be buried without coffins and in shallow graves that attracted scavenging hyenas, jackals and feral dogs. In the open country bodies decomposed along wagon tracks and foot paths. There was another outbreak in 1748 and in 1755 a homeward bound ship from Ceylon caused an outbreak that killed more than 2,000 settlers and slaves.

Drakenstein during the 1713 epidemic

Curious as to how smallpox may have affected the people living in the Drakenstein area, I looked through a few MOOC documents relating to deaths in 1713. Continue reading

The day it snowed in Paarl

Dr Frans Petrus Bester (1875-1956), Paarl's district surgeon, standing next to his Swift motorcar (Gribble Collection, Drakenstein Heemkring, Paarl).

Dr Frans Petrus Bester (1875-1956), Paarl’s district surgeon,  next to his Swift motorcar during the snowfall (Gribble Collection, Drakenstein Heemkring, Paarl).

Today, 100 years ago – on Monday, 24 August 1914 – it snowed in Paarl’s streets. It was then, and still is, a very rare phenomenon. In fact, there is no other record in the town’s history of snow every falling in its streets. According to contemporary records, it started to snow at about 10:30 in the morning and continued for an hour and a half. The following eyewitness report appeared in the Paarl Post four days later, on 29 August, 1914. Continue reading

Famous Fillis Circus visits Paarl, 1888


Backstage at the circus 1891, painting by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898) –            (Wikimedia Commons)

In April 1888 the famous Fillis Circus visited Paarl and produced three shows on Market Square. Frank Fillis (1857-1921) was a circus impresario. He produced his first show in South Africa in 1883, and became known for his elaborate and lavish productions in Johannesburg, Kimberley and Cape Town. His company had more than 100 performers and also toured the British Empire. His wife Vincenda was said to be the first “human cannon ball”. The Boswell brothers also worked for the Fillis Circus. The Boswell family later went on to establish their own circus. Continue reading

Flu epidemic of 1918

The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 was said to have been the largest pandemic the world has ever known, and conservatively speaking infected between 20 and 40 million people. Today that particular influenza strain is known as H1N1.

The first infections were reported towards the end of WWI (1914-1918) in Germany and Austria, and from there spread to Spain. In Spain more than 8 million civilians were infected in May 1918 alone. This exceptionally high infection rate led to the epidemic being called the Spanish Flu. From Spain it spread throughout the world along shipping routes by troop carrying ships. This also explains why men between the ages of 20 and 40 years accounted for more than half of the casualties. Continue reading

Darwin’s visit to Paarl in 1836


Charles Darwin, photograph taken in 1879 (Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Darwin, the world famous English naturalist and geologist, was born on 12 February 1809 and died 19 April 1882. He will be best remembered for his contributions to the theory of evolution, and his book “On the Origin of Species” published in 1859. What many people do not necessarily know is that he also visited the Cape as a young man.

Darwin was a 22 year old Cambridge graduate when he boarded The HMS Beagle – by invitation – not as a scientist, but to keep the ship’s captain, Robert Fritzroy, company while they surveyed the coast of South America. By the time The Beagle docked in Simonstown on 31 May 1836, Darwin had been travelling for almost five years. Continue reading

Daljosaphat train disaster 1939


Train derailment near Daljosaphat station.

Five people were killed on 13 February 1939 when the Union Limited mail coach from Port Elizabeth derailed near Daljosaphat Station between Paarl and Wellington. Acording to newspaper reports three carriages were reduced to a twisted heap of wood and metal. The accident happened near what was then the Premier Canning Factory. The train-driver Cornelius Badenhorst was badly burnt by boiling water and escaping steam. His assistant Engineer W Bensch’s badly scalded body was found buried beneath the wreckage, and it took rescuers two hours to extricate fellow crew members, Willie Pering and Henry Heyns. Four passengers died – three men and a young woman.

Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the rescue operation that went on through the afternoon and into the evening. Cars were parked “all over the veld” wrote a newspaper reporter. Many more spectators arrived by bicycle, while others walked the two or three kilometres from Paarl. People also travelled from neighbouring towns, and the reporter described a “continuous stream of traffic coming from Paarl to Daljosaphat”, that included reporters and photographers from the Cape Town newspapers. He also noted two planes flying low down over the wrecked carriages.

Source: Disaster on the 13th, Paarl Post, 14 February 1939