History of Koopmans-De Wet House

Lower Strand Street ca. 1830 Courtesy - Library of Parliament, Cape Town

On this page

  1. Introduction
  2. The building
  3. Establishment as a museum
  4. The first restorations: 1913-1919
  5. Murals
  6. Occupants of the house
  7. Slaves at Koopmans-De Wet House
  8. Furnishings of the house
  9. WF Purcell


The courses of the mountain streams and rivers have determined the lay out of Cape Town's first streets. The Heerengracht, now Adderley Street, linked the Castle, jetty and Company's Garden. Other streets appeared, unpaved and uneven such as Elephant Street, Garden Street, Mountain Street and Sea Street, later to become Strand Street. The most sizeable buildings were those built for the Dutch East India Company's purposes, such as a barn for storing grain, warehouses and mills for grinding corn, stables, a Garden House (later to become the Governor's Residence) and a hospital. At the end of the 17th century Cape Town had about 100 private dwellings. The first home built in 1664 on the corner of Sea Street was occupied by the Company's baker, Thomas Chr. Mulder. The Dutch Reformed Church was founded in 1700 and the building completed in 1704.

At the end of the 17th Century Cape Town numbered about 640 adults, 605 children and 891 slaves. A city grid plan had been established, reinforced by the walled canals or grachten.

Until 1702 Strand Street was known as Sea Street after which names such as Wide Beach Street (Breete Strand Straat) and Wide Ascending Street (Breete Opgaande Straat) occurred. Strand Street was always the widest of the old streets and would soon become one of the most fashionable streets in Cape Town. Sea Street, always being the closest to the Bay, officially became Strand Street in 1790. In that year the naming of streets officially started and name boards were hammered to the corner houses.

Strand Street would remain a favourite residential area for prosperous burghers until the mid-19th century. By that time the Heerengracht was fast becoming the commercial and business centre of Cape Town.

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The building

The house as it stands today presents Neoclassicism at its best.

There is no documentary evidence as to who designed the facade but some historians have attributed the work to the French architect Louis Thibault who worked at the Cape during the late 1780s and to the German sculptor Anton Anreith.

Features such as large sash windows, and large entrance doors are reminiscent of Dutch architecture in the 18th century. Owing to the climatic conditions and the outdoor life style of the Cape, certain features developed which are characteristic of the architecture of the region, amongst others large rooms with high ceilings, shuttered windows and a stoep.

The facade of the house possibly dates from 1790 and is characterised by its four fluted pilasters, some of which are made of wood, others of plaster. The pediment spans three windows instead of the usual one. An architrave crowns the entrance and a triglyph and metope frieze lies directly underneath. There is a lantern in the fanlight of the entrance door. A candle in the lantern was lit every evening as soon as it grew dark. Rectangular panels with plaster garlands fill the spaces between the windows of the ground floor and those of the first floor.

In front of the house, taking the full width of the building, is a raised platform or stoep made out of klinkers which are hard burnt bricks imported from Holland. The stoep ends on each side with a brick plastered seat. A stoep sometimes contained basement rooms or cellars but there is no evidence of this at the Koopmans-De Wet House.

Capetonians would often spend their late afternoon leisure time by sitting outside on the stoep and inviting guests to join them ...

The courtyard is paved with shale from Table Mountain and square slate tiles from Robben Island. Part of the courtyard was only paved in 1918!

The outer buildings at the back were probably used as a coach house and stables, while the first floor is said to have accommodated the slaves. There is, however, no definite evidence of this. The rooms are today used partly as sheds and partly as rest rooms for staff members.

It is interesting to note that the iron railings of the steep stairs leading up to the first floor of the outer buildings originally belonged to the so-called White House across the road from Koopmans-De Wet House. The White House was once the residence of Prof. Changuion, one of the pioneers of Afrikaans. The railings were installed in 1919.The ornate lantern seen in the courtyard once belonged in the Castle. The vine is reputedly one of the oldest in South Africa.

The roof of the house was originally constructed with teak beams carrying yellowwood boarding, supporting a layer of lime concrete on which bricks or tiles were laid. These heavy roofs kept rooms cool. This roof had to be replaced due to its condition and is now made of corrugated iron. Some of the old teak ceiling boards are part of the original construction. Occasionally there was a dakkamer or room on top of the roof from which ships entering Table Bay could be seen. There is no loft or attic, but a pencil drawing of the house dated 1889 shows a chimney which no longer exists.

A narrow passage separates the house from its neighbour serving as a drain for rainwater coming down from the roof and as an additional precaution in case of fire.

Finally, some interesting remarks on the colour of the facade can be made. There is pictorial evidence that 18th century townhouses were often painted in different shades whilst the exterior woodwork was green. There are no early contemporary depictions of the Koopmans-De Wet House in existence except for black and white photographs dating from the beginning of this century and one watercolour painting, recently acquired by the SACHM. It is presently in the temporary exhibition room in the museum and shows the front of the house as it was in 1907.

The artist, Leonard A Brimble, depicts the front with a reddish-brown shade and a yellow and orange shade for its neighbours respectively. Dr Purcell who conducted the first large-scale restoration of the house in 1913 noted then that the house was painted from the start. The original colour appears to have been a dark brown.

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Establishment as a museum

Koopmans-de Wet House is, as far as is known, the first private townhouse in South Africa to be opened to the public. The house was opened as a museum on 10 March 1914.

Although Mrs Marie Koopmans-de Wet had expressed her wish in a letter to Sir Gordon Sprigg, then Prime Minister of the Cape, to have some of the antiquities in the house preserved for future generations, she and her sister in their joint will (1902) did not make provision for this, nor for the preservation of the house itself.

Mrs Marie Koopmans-De Wet

Margaretha de Wet, Marie's sister, did, shortly before her death in 1911, state in a codicil to their joint will that certain items of the collection should go to the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Stellenbosch and that other items be given to the Old Town House in Greenmarket Square, Cape Town. These antiquities were to be put on display, in an area appropriately called Het De Wet's Museum. But there was no mention that the house should be used for that purpose. The codicil was rejected by the Supreme Court and the house and its contents were put on a public auction. Shortly after Margaretha's death, the South African News reported "…the National Society of South Africa is strongly of the opinion that the residence ought to be secured by the State…".

A committee was set up to help save and secure the house and its contents for the nation. The committee was established by, among others, Lady Lionel Phillips, Mr JR Finch, then town-clerk, and Dr WF Purcell, a scientist connected to the SA Museum and a personal friend of Mrs Koopmans-de Wet.

In April 1913 the house and some objects from the collection were acquired at a public auction and subsequently handed over to the Trustees of the South African Museum for preservation and maintenance. The house was bought for the sum of £2 800 with financial grants from the Cape Town City Council, the Union Government and from public subscriptions across South Africa.

The opening of the house as a national museum on 10 March 1914 was attended by numerous political and cultural personalities and received extensive attention in the local press. Visitors during its first year as a museum numbered nearly 17 000.

Rumours in the press that the City Council intended to alter the stoep of the house in order to facilitate traffic in the vicinity precipitated the proclamation of the house as a protected national monument in 1940. At the same time the issue of the correctness of the name of the museum was raised: should the house be proclaimed in the Government Gazette as the De Wet's house or retain the name, Koopmans-de Wet House, which was used spontaneously from the beginning? The debate raged on until it was decided to retain the old name. The house came under the auspices of the SA Cultural History Museum, Cape Town in 1964, and is now part of Iziko Museums.

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First restorations (1913-1919)

The first major restorations at Koopmans-de Wet House extended over a period of seven years. They were led by Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919), a zoologist who joined the SA Museum in 1896. As a young man he had the opportunity to meet and befriend Marie Koopmans-de Wet who would take great interest in his work. She later appointed him as one of the executors of the joint will.

Dr Purcell became a driving force behind the establishment of a committee which undertook to purchase the house for the nation. He voluntarily undertook the large scale renovations of the by then dilapidated house. This labour of love lasted from 1913 until his death in 1919. His aim was to restore the house to its original 18th century appearance and to subsequently furnish it as a house museum to be viewed by the public. During restorations Dr Purcell kept a complete record of all that was revealed in a scientific and methodological manner. He also personally supervised the works.

The renovations included the removal of the age-old plaster from the exterior walls, which revealed the construction of the brick walls beneath. Based upon careful examinations of these walls Dr Purcell concluded that the building was constructed in different stages. The original building was erected at the beginning of the 18th Century and consisted of a single-storey rectangular building with wing on the south side. During the mid-18th century extensive alterations were made, including the addition of the front of the house as it is today, the addition of the northwest wing, and the addition of the first floor [link to occupants of the house for more]. Purcell managed to keep most of the old teak ceilings except in the oldest part (lower hall) where some beams were replaced.

The roof was restored by replacing the flat roof of lime-concrete with boards and ruberoid. Some structural elements were taken away such as the staircase leading down from the trapdoor in the pantry into the kitchen below, the outer closet room adjacent to the music room, and the additional door below the smoking chamber in the kitchen. Certain wooden partitions which acted as room dividers were taken away or replaced by the original brick walls. Most of these elements were 19th century additions. The woodwork inside the house was stripped of thick coats of paint and varnish.

A memorial tablet, made of Table Mountain sandstone was unveiled at the Koopmans-de Wet House in honour of Dr Purcell a few years after his death. At a small and intimate ceremony he was described as "one of the best scientific minds of South Africa". The house museum as it stands today is a fitting monument to his memory.

With regard to the interior of the house, Dr Purcell's intention was to restore each room as closely as possible to its appearance during the 18th century. He had the wallpaper on the walls removed and discovered the older painted murals hidden beneath. Due to a lack of funds only a few rooms could be restored at the time, and the murals were left until they were rediscovered during the late 1970s, when Dr Purcell's copious notes on his findings proved to be invaluable to their reconstruction.

Dr Purcell also discovered that the front of the house had seen several layers of paint and that the first coat had been a dark colour. He additionally found evidence of the green colour for window frames, shutters and doors. These findings were subsequently used for the restoration 80 years later in 1994. From his working notes it is evident that Dr Purcell spent a great deal of time studying construction materials and methods. It appears that where possible he tried to adhere to these methods and had duplicates made according to the originals.

Dr Purcell died on 3 October 1919 at his home Bergvliet in Constantia.

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The interior decorative wall paintings as they appear in the house today probably originally date from the late 18th or early 19th century.

In 1979 two museology students from the University of Stellenbosch carrying out some practical work set off a chain of discoveries which finally revealed that the so called authentic 18th century murals on the walls of most of the rooms were incorrectly repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dr Purcell who had led the first major renovations of the house had already indicated in his personal notes that many more rooms had been decorated with murals but that owing to the lack of funds only some of the rooms could be restored. The only authentic visible murals were those in the dining room, entrance hall and lower hall which were revealed by Dr Purcell underneath layers of wallpaper.

Subsequent to the discoveries of the original 18th century murals it was decided not to strip the walls and retouch the authentic designs, because more than 50% of the originals had been destroyed over the years as a result of alterations, replastering and dampness. Instead it was decided to reconstruct the designs on the basis of the results of more test strips and using Dr Purcell's records. This project took more than a year to complete.

The styles of the murals range from Neoclassicism in the lower hall, reflecting the classical architecture of the front of the house, to the elaborate decoration with its interesting medallion above the fireplace in the music room, and from soft pastel colours in the drawing room to the arabesques in the dining room. These styles would have been influenced by the fashions of the time.

It is interesting to see how the artist created a three-dimensional illusion by adding shadows in the designs. The murals in general demonstrate a high standard of craftsmanship. There is no conclusive evidence on who painted the murals or how many artists worked on them. Traces of similar paintings have been found in other buildings of the same period such as Uitkijk, Boschendal, Grosvenor House in Stellenbosch, as well as Rust-en-Vreugd and the Sendinggestig Museum in Cape Town.

The murals at Koopmans-de Wet House are unique in their variety and use of skilful techniques. They are, however, presently in urgent need of attention as a result of damp problems and wear and tear.

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Occupants of the house

Johan Koopmans, Marie's husband, as Mace-bearer for the House of Assembly. He arrived at the Cape as a member of the British German Legion i

Fourteen different people owned Koopmans-de Wet House and the land it was built on until the de Wet family acquired the property in 1806. This family would own and occupy the house for just over a century and would be the last family to own the building privately before it became a museum.

The Dutch East India Company made grants of building plots in Cape Town in the early 18th century. Streets were laid out in a gridiron plan and were divided up in blocks. Block J was bordered by Strand Street, Long Street, Castle Street and Burg Street and was divided into 10 erven. Erven 7 and 8, on the Strand Street side were granted in full freehold by Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel to Reijnier Smedinga in 1699 and 1701 respectively. Reijnier Smedinga was originally from Friesland, Holland and was appointed as an official silver assayer at the Cape.

He probably built a single-storeyed rectangular building with a thatched roof as was common at that time. There was probably a wing at the back for a kitchen area resulting in a L-shaped house plan.

In 1722 the house and erf 8 were transferred to Anthonij Hoesemans, lessee of the Company's wine licence. A German, Johan FW Bottiger, acquired the property in 1748 as well as erf 10 in 1760 behind the house. Presumably he intended to build on it – possibly quarters for his household slaves. Bottiger, originally a carpenter, probably enlarged the southwest wing. He was prosperous and owned several other erven and properties in Cape Town.

Pieter Malet from Amsterdam became the next owner in 1771. He acquired the two remaining portions of erf 10 bordering on Long Street. This provided him with a wide entry from Long Street into the yard in order for a carriage to pass through. It is therefore possible that he built a coach house and stable which he later transformed into a warehouse. The frame of the blocked-up doorway is still visible in the wall on the western side of the yard.

Malet enlarged the house considerably in order to house his family of 16 children. This probably comprised the further lengthening of the east wing, the addition of the west wing, the heightening of the ceiling of the main part of the house, and a second storey with a flat roof.

Margaretha Jacoba Smuts was the widow of Hendrik J de Wet, President of the Burgher Council during the first British Occupation. She bought the house in 1806 and brought up her five children there. Shortly before her death in 1840 she transferred the property jointly to three of her sons, the fourth one having left the Cape. The eldest son, Johannes (1794-1875), read law at the University of Leiden in Holland. He would later practise as an advocate in Cape Town and involve himself in aspects of cultural, political and educational life of the colony. He was a founder member of the South African College and was a member of the Legislative Council for 15 years.

Johannes married Adriana D Horak whose maternal grandfather was Martin Melck, responsible for building the Lutheran Church in Strand Street. They had two daughters Marie (1834-1906) and Margaretha (1836-1911). Johannes bought his brothers' share of the property so that the property became entirely his own. He bequeathed everything jointly to his two daughters.

Marie and her sister Margaretha were given the best education available to young girls at that time: they were taught several languages, music and painting and travelled widely. It serves as no surprise that Marie followed in her father's footsteps to take her own place in the social and cultural life of Cape Town. She married Johan Koopmans in 1864, an officer in the German legion. He worked as a foreign correspondence clerk in the General Post Office until the post was abolished in 1867. Marie and her husband, who were living in Wale Street at that time, subsequently moved to Marie's parental home in Strand Street. In 1879 Johan Koopmans died and Marie wore black for the rest of her life. In memory of him, she referred to herself as Marie Koopmans-de Wet.

Events in her youth such as the anti-convict agitation in 1849, in which her father played a prominent part, had developed within her a strong sense of patriotism. She offered extensive service to the Republics during the South African War (1899-1902). She organised petitions, convened women's meetings and received 2 000 boxes of goods from the Netherlands which she personally sorted, packed and sent to women in the concentration camps. The house in Strand Street served as a depot for all this material. At one stage she was placed under house arrest.

Mrs Koopmans-de Wet became known as the hostess of the Salon of Strand Street as she received and entertained prominent personalities including presidents, governors, politicians, travellers, scientists and academics.

Marie continued to add to the fine collection of antiques, objets d'art and books which her father had collected. She furthered the advancement of the Dutch language and worked towards the establishment of a woman's movement. She played a valuable role in the preservation of elements of South Africa's heritage long before any conservation body was established. Thanks to her personal influence she saved the Castle from partial demolition to make way for the railway from Cape Town and she prevented unsympathetic alterations to the Groot Constantia Homestead. Marie also helped prevent the demolition of old trees in the Company's Garden as well as the closure of a Malay cemetery at the foot of Signal Hill.

During the 17th century slaves were imported into the Cape. They were either captured in their homeland or bartered before being auctioned on the slave market. The monetary value of a slave depended on age, gender and health. Most slaves originated from the east coast of Africa, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Madagascar.

In Cape Town, many white adults owned slaves, and wealth and status were often determined according to the number of slaves an individual owned. In town the slaves were allocated to do domestic work such as cleaning, fetching firewood and water, nursing, escorting the family to church, carrying ladies in sedan chairs to make social calls, etc., while in the country the farm labour was performed by the slaves. Some excellent craftsmen were included amongst them such as masons, carpenters, smiths, tailors, furniture makers, and musicians. The quality of living quarters occupied by slaves varied considerably from separate sleeping quarters to odd corners in the farmstead. Proper housing of slaves in Cape Town posed a problem from the very beginning. The Slave Lodge was originally built as sleeping quarters for those slaves from the Dutch East India Company who worked in the Gardens or were hired out for services.

Domestic slaves of Cape Town were generally well treated. Slave owners were responsible for their conditions and had to provide food, drink and medicine. However, stringent laws existed regulating the behaviour of slaves, and the law allowed the owner to punish his slave for so-called domestic offences. Desertion and theft were the most frequently committed crimes, and slaves were punished severely, even with death.

Marie Koopmans-de Wet's grandfather owned about 20 slaves. In the inventory of Hendrik de Wet's estate dated 1802 the slaves were carefully described because their value as asset or investment had risen.

Slavery at the Cape was abolished in 1834.

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Slaves at Koopmans-de Wet House

Additional information has recently been brought to light about some of the slaves that lived in the house early in the 19th century, when the widow Margaretha Jacoba Smuts occupied the house.

The widow Smuts had been married to Hendrick Justinus de Wet, President of the Burgher Council during the first British Occupation. His will stated that his wife should have the first choice of his 26 slaves, whereafter his adult children (from two previous marriages) could make their choices from the remaining 19. He stipulated that slave families in his possession should not be separated. (A slave and his 'wife' were not permitted to be married in a Christian Church, but may well have been married under Muslim law, or lived together without a marriage ceremony.)

The widow Smuts chose seven slaves, as follows:

  • Jonas van de Caab, a cooper
  • Citie, his "wife"
  • Hector and Jacob, their two children
  • Theresia
  • Kito van Mosambique, a cook
  • July, a houseboy

By 1816, ten slaves were registered to the widow Smuts. July is not listed, but the new slaves were:

  • Lafleur, a woodcutter
  • Lendor, a woodcutter, who in a later document is reported to have died on 31 December 1822
  • Kado (alias Bejoen), a tailor, aged about 30
  • Nancy, a little girl, aged about 4. She was listed in 1829 as having 3 girl babies, but the last born, Malatie, died a year later. No mention is made of the identity of the father.

Jonas and Kado could be rented out for their services at other venues, and this would bring in additional income for the widow Smuts and her family.

Furnishing of the house

Dr Purcell's aim was to furnish the house as a lived in house of the period of the late 18th/ beginning of the 19th century. Owing to lack of funds and personal ailing health only certain rooms were done, such as the dining and drawing rooms. He often referred to the unsatisfactory use of modern showcases for some of the precious items, which were not compatible with a house atmosphere. In decades following the opening of the house as a museum many people from all over South Africa contributed material for the house, not all, however, suitable to fit in a period house setting. So much so that in the beginning of the 1960's the house was reported to be overcrowded "like an auction sale room before a sale".

Owing to a dispute surrounding a codicil to the joint will of the de Wet sisters, the house and its contents were put on a public auction in 1913. The proceeds from the sale would have to pay for the legacies provided for in the joint will.

Dr Purcell was appointed by the Koopmans committee to retrieve some of the pieces at the auction for the purpose of furnishing the house. The auction of the smaller items took place in the Good Hope Hall in Cape Town and lasted for six days but the larger items such as the furniture and paintings were sold at the house over a period of two days. Of the more than 2 000 lots about 356 appearing to be "in the best of condition and of the best workmanship" were purchased by the committee. They comprised mainly furniture and porcelain, many collected by Marie's father, Johannes de Wet. Most of these items today form the nucleus of the displays in the museum.

Dr Purcell also donated to the house some of his own personally collected items such as part of a dinner service made in c. 1800 for the Cloete family who farmed on the Groot Constantia Estate (see drawing room), several display cabinets (see dining room and upper hall), and a canopy bed c. 1750 in the main bedroom.
During its first year as a museum 144 additional items were donated to the museum, 93 of them by the Misses Buyskes, while the extensive Daniel Krynauw collection was acquired in 1917.

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WF Purcell

Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919)

Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919) a zoologist who joined the South African Museum in 1896 who received his D.Phil in Berlin in 1895 was also an unsuccessful applicant for the Directorship of the South African Museum in 1895 but accepted an appointment as "First Assistant" in 1896.

His father was an Irishman who settled in South Africa and his mother belonged to the Hertzog family. Although he was born in England and partly educated in Germany, Purcell's background was completely South African, and he is rightly regarded as one of the earliest South African scientists. The subject of his doctoral thesis was the Arachnida, and most of his collecting and research dealt with this group in which he was a pioneer in South Africa.

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