Social History Centre

Welcome

After a three-year programme of renovation and extension the National Mutual Building on Church Square was handed back to Iziko during a media preview event held on International Museum Day, 18 May 2010.

The event also marked the renaming of the building as the Iziko Social History Centre. The renovated building boasts a range of special features and has been turned into a world-class museum facility for the housing of the reserve Social History collections and archives.

These include indigenous cultural material from southern Africa, artefacts from the colonial period of the Cape, including maritime and historical archaeology, as well as collections of world ceramics, furniture, coins and textiles, among others. The collections will be housed in a secure environment, with excellent temperature, humidity and fire prevention systems devised according to international best practice.

Iziko Social History Collections

The Iziko Social History Centre is home to the collections and staff of the Social History Collections department of Iziko Museums of South Africa.

The department encompasses major collections of southern African archaeological, indigenous and colonial material culture as well as international and contemporary collections. Highlights include the southern African pre-colonial archaeology (Middle and Late Stone Age periods), San rock art, Khoi-San clothing, indigenous beadwork, southern African basketry, indigenous ceramics, and the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of 19th Century San drawings. Also included are postal stones from Table Bay, the William Fehr Collection of paintings, drawings and prints of early Cape Town and South Africa, maritime ship models and photographs, South African numismatics and philately, photography, Cape silver and colonial furniture. International collections feature the Judge Davis Collection of Chinese ceramics, Asian export ceramics, ancient Greek vases and the Sir Flinders Petrie Collection of ancient Egyptian objects. 

The department is growing its contemporary South African collections, including ceramics, popular culture and oral history. It has opened the way for debate on its collections and its legacy of museum practice, including human remains in the Physical Anthropology collection. 

The Social History department is committed to researching exhibitions and programmes that generate new knowledge, caring for our tangible and intangible heritage, and making our collections increasingly accessible.

The department is responsible for some of the most significant historical sites in Cape Town, including the Dutch East India Company (VOC) Slave Lodge, amongst other historically significant buildings.

 

The building transformed

The Iziko Social History Centre on Church Square was previously known as the National Mutual Building.

The building, which had accommodated collections of the former South African Cultural History Museum, was in a very poor state when the Department of Arts and Culture funded renovation programme began in 2006. The renovations programme transformed the building into a state-of-the-art museum storage and research facility, while carefully conserving its historical features. 

In September 2010 it reopened under its new name, the Iziko Social History Centre.

The heritage significance of the centre is that it unites collections that were separated under apartheid. 

During the late 1950s to early 1960s, the colonial history collections in the South African Museum were transferred to a new museum known as the South African Cultural History Museum. Pre-colonial archaeological and African ethnographic collections remained at the South African Museum, amongst natural history collections. 

Today, these artificially divided collections are being integrated to enable us to tell new stories and begin new conversations. Pre-colonial archaeology collections, however, remain at the Iziko South African Museum due to space constraints, as further extensions to the Social History Centre would have contravened heritage guidelines. 

National Mutual Life Association of Australia (NMLA)

The NMLA was founded in Melbourne, Australia, by John Montgomery Templeton in 1869. The NMLA insurance business was then extended to New Zealand, South Africa, England, Sri Lanka, India and numerous other countries.

Cape Town operations began in 1897, with agencies established in cities and towns throughout the country. The NMLA's head office in Cape Town operated from various premises until a decision was taken to erect a purpose-built building. In 1903, transfer was taken of a property on Church Square owned by Dr Edward Barnard Fuller. 

In the 1800s this building served several purposes, between the years 1810 and 1819, it belonged to gingerbread baker Fredrik Gilowy and between the years 1856 and 1862 it was a lodging house operated by the widow of John Snook. In the same year this building also served as the residential address for photographer Arthur Green who toured the Eastern Cape in the mid-1850s. Lastly Conveyancer and general agent, Ryk le Sueur also lived and worked at this address during the mid-1860s until the late 1880s.

Plans for the new NMLA building on Church Square were prepared by architect, Francis Masey (1861-1912), who at the time was in partnership with the prominent architect, Sir Herbert Baker. Although Baker was to remain closely involved in the design, Masey was primarily responsible and supervised the construction. 

Completed in 1905, the first NMLA building had a grey stone facing of Paarl granite with two elongated front facing gables and a steep roof with a central tower. 

During 1929, the NMLA acquired two further properties, both to the right of the building completed in 1905. The first was the former Resident Magistrate's Offices, stretching from Church Square to Plein Street and the second was purchased from the estate of James Brittain, law and general agents.

The Brittain building had earlier served as a booking office for the post and passenger carts travelling to Caledon and Eerste River. 

Cape Town architects John Perry and William John Delbridge were engaged to design the significantly larger NMLA building. The Plein Street extension was provided with a granite facade showing an Art Deco inspiration.

On Church Square, a colonnade appears at ground level, with ornate entrance porticos and decorative bronze doors - the central archway providing natural light for the first floor boardroom. 

The top left-hand gable bears the date 1905, referring to the earlier Baker and Masey building, and the top right-hand gable, the date 1933. 

Church Square, its people and buildings

Church Square was created during the early 18th century when plots owned by residents were cut back to make way for a public square. The Square took its name from the Dutch Reformed Church or Groote Kerk.

The church's graveyard was situated between the church and the Slave Lodge, which is the reason why Parliament Street was originally called Graave or Grave Street.

Spin Street was named after the short-lived zilde spinnerij or silk spinning works on the corner of Spin and Plein Streets during the early 18th century. It is believed that slave children from the Lodge worked there during the afternoons.

Freed slaves lived on the Square and in its vicinity, such as Armosyn Claasz, matron of the Slave Lodge in the late 1690s and manumitted in 1704, lived behind the Lodge in Graave Street on a property granted to her in 1708. In 1811, Rachel van de Kaap was listed in the Cape Town Almanacs and Directories, (which are housed in the National Library of South Africa) as residing on Church Square. 

There is a story that in those times slaves were sold under a tree in Church Square and that because they were forbidden from entering the church, they also gathered under a tree there. The so-called 'old slave tree' stood in front of the Hilliard's building for many years and was cut down in 1916, its stump remained until 1951 when Hilliard's was demolished to widen Spin and Mostert Streets.

Today, a plaque on the traffic island in Spin Street serves as a reminder of the 'old slave tree'. During the 2nd half of the 19th century John Joemat was a familiar face in Church Square selling fruit and sweets under the slave tree, claiming that he had been bought and sold as a slave under the very tree.

Slaves formed part of the households and property of slave owners living on the Square. In 1800, barber surgeon, Carel Philip Zastron's widow, Anna Wilhelmina Woeke, owned five male slaves - July van Mosambiek who worked in the wine cellars, Michiel van Bengalen who was the cook, Samson van Mosambiek, Thomas van de Kaap and Damon van Mosambiek.  

The female slaves were Rachel van Mosambiek, Roosje van Mosambiek and Regina van Malabar. The Zastrons owned a double- storey house with a typical layout of front rooms or voorkamers to the left and the right of the entrance hall, an eating hall or gaandery at the back, and bedrooms upstairs. Much later, the property became part of the 1933 extension of the National Mutual Building. 

The Cape Town Almanacs and Directories mainly list the non-slave inhabitants of Cape Town, including people who lived on Church Square during the 19th century. Prominent people in Cape society, such as Francois de Lettre, a merchant and later French Consul, are listed as having lived on the Square. De Lettre was married to Elisabeth Susana Nothling, sister of the wife of Chevalier Francois Renier Duminy (1747-1811), a high-ranking Dutch East India Company official. Duminy and his wife, Johanna Margaretha Nothling, also lived on the Square, between 1778 and 1786. 

Missionary and humanitarian, Reverend Dr John Phillip (1777-1851), lived in the corner house on Church Square between 1822 and 1846. He was Superintendent of the London Missionary Society of South Africa. His house was linked to the Union Chapel, which was the first Congregational Church in South Africa. Philip campaigned for improved rights of the Khoi-San and Xhosa people. 

His residence served as a home for travelling missionaries, amongst them Robert Moffat and David Livingstone. Fighters for press freedom, such as John Fairbairn and Thomas Pringle, were frequent visitors. Later, the site of Philip's house and Union Chapel became the home of Civil Service Club. 

Phillip, impressed by the new English infant school system, founded the first such institution at the Cape. The school was attended by slave and free children. Later, an infant school under William Buchanan, was established on the corner of Church Square and Grave Street. 

For years, landmark buildings such as the Colonial Orphan Chamber and Trust Company, and the South African Association for the Administration of Estates were situated next to each other on the Spin Street side of Church Square. 

Church Square was paved and turned into an open urban space, after serving as a parking area for over 100 years. In 2008 a memorial created by Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge was installed and unveiled on the Square as a reminder of Cape Town's slave history. It comprises 11 granite blocks engraved with texts referring to rebellion and resistance, emancipation and freedom, and the contribution that slaves made to the development of Cape Town.

The area is taking on a more culturally diverse characteristic, reflecting, in turn, the changes in South Africa. Seating and greenery have been introduced, and on occasion, performance art enlivens the Square. 

Stories of the residents and business activities that occupied the Square over the years provide fascinating glimpses into the City and the developing and constantly changing South Africa. There still remain many more stories waiting to be unearthed around the microcosm of Church Square and the Iziko Social History Centre.