Bertram House, situated at the top of Government Avenue in the centre of Cape Town, is currently closed to the public, as it is undergoing maintenance and restoration. This house is the only remaining example of the English Georgian-style red-brick houses that were once common in Cape Town. The house is said to have been built in around 1839 by English immigrant and notary John Barker, who named it in memory of his late wife, Ann Bertram Findlay, who had died in 1838.
Subsequent owners and tenants of the property reflect the society of 19th century Cape Town. They include Captain Robert Granger, a merchant and owner of 5 ships after whom Granger Bay is named, as well as Tiberias Benjamin Kisch, the first Jewish professional photographer at the Cape.
In 1903 the South African College took ownership of the house for use as office space, after which it was transferred to the government of the Union of South Africa in 1930. It was eventually transferred to the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM) in 1976, to be furnished as a house museum.
This was made possible by the efforts and generosity of Mrs Winifred Ann Lidderdale, who bequeathed a substantial collection of mainly porcelain and furniture to the SACHM in order to depict Bertram House as the home of a prosperous English family of the first part of the 19th century. After extensive restoration the house was officially opened as a museum on 12 May 1984 by Mrs Elize Botha, wife of the Prime Minister at the time, Mr PW Botha. Today Bertram House forms part of Iziko Museums and is the curatorial responsibility of the Social History Collections department.
Tour Bertram House
The entrance hall is reached through a covered projecting portico with a black and white marble floor. The ceiling, cornice and woodwork were painted white during the restoration and the walls were painted a deep green, which is used throughout the house. The rooms are symmetrically arranged on either side of the passage leading from the entrance hall. The central positioning of the elegantly designed spiral staircase is emphasized by the entrance vista through the passage arches.
Double drawing room
To the west of the hall is the double drawing room. In England during the 18th century it was a richly decorated room, arranged in a formal manner and used for entertaining.
By the 1750s festoon curtains were popular, comprised of one piece of fabric drawn vertically in swags. Later in the 1780s French curtains were introduced, consisting of a pair of curtains drawn horizontally on two rods, sometimes having a pelmet or curtain cornice using brass or wooden rings.
Lighting was provided by cut-glass chandeliers fitted with candles. Beeswax or tallow candles were very expensive and the wicks required constant trimming. Candle stubs were a servant’s “perks”. Wall sconces were often fixed in front of mirrors in order to reflect more light about the room. Silver candelabra and candlesticks became important status symbols and Sheffield Plate was used after its introduction in the 1760s.
At Bertram House it was decided that the principal rooms on the ground floor; the double drawing room and dining room, should be hung with wallpaper in order to enhance the decoration of the rooms and impress the visitors as would have been the original intention created by owners of that era.
The square piano made by Clementi and Co. dates from around 1906. It was restored in 1993 and is regularly used for chamber music events throughout the summer months.
To the east of the hall is the dining room. During the early 19th century dinner at the Cape would have been served between six and seven in the evening. The table has been laid for dessert and the white damask tablecloth removed. The extra leaves of this table made it suitable for small family dining or adjustable for larger groups of guests.
The Kangxi dessert plates form part of a set which belonged to Mrs Lidderdale’s mother-in-law, née Mary Wadsworth Busk, who spent her early childhood in St. Petersburg. The English silver and wine glasses which complete the period setting all form part of the Lidderdale bequest.
It was customary for the hostess and ladies to retire to the adjoining drawing room at the end of the meal leaving the men to their own discussions and to drink and smoke. Later in the evening the men would join the ladies in the drawing room for conversation and card games and tea would be dispensed. Mrs Sarah Norman Eaton described the local customs of the Cape in her journal dated 1818 and records that tea was served “in the same style as in England, though in Dutch families it is usual to introduce preserved fruits which my brother does when he has Dutch visitors”.
The second room on the east of the entrance hall is the study. This room would have been used mainly by the gentlemen of the house and their male visitors. The card table set in readiness for a game acts as a reminder of the importance attached to card playing, while the clay pipes indicate the use of the study as a smoking room.
The fall front secretaire with walnut marquetry is the oldest piece of furniture in the museum. It dates from the William and Mary period (1689 – 1702) and forms part of the Lidderdale bequest.
The room known at Bertram House as the morning room would most likely have been referred to as the parlour in England. This room was more informal and intimate than the drawing room and would have been furnished with a central table and chairs grouped around it so that members of the family could read, practice needlework and take tea.
There is a predominance of early walnut pieces from the Lidderdale bequest in the morning room including a bureau bookcase and side chair dating from the Queen Anne period (1702 – 1714).
The location of the original kitchen is not known; however, it is mostly that the kitchen would have been situated at the rear of the house. Equipment used in a kitchen during the late 18th century would have included iron kettles, copper pots, pans and jelly moulds and pewter plates, as well as wooden and earthen vessels. The insides of copper pots were kept well tinned to prevent the formation of Verdigris. Sugar was purchased by the loaf and pieces were broken off and pounded in a mortar and pestle.
There is no formal attempt at recreating a late 18th or early 19th century kitchen at Bertram House, instead a kitchen dresser and table are displayed together with a few basic utensils and items of Sheffield plate.
Special exhibition space
Two rooms have been set aside in order to exhibit special collections, on the first floor.
A small room off the landing, halfway up the stairs, is used as an exhibition area to display the equipment used in various pastimes practised by ladies of the house, such as the art of letter writing and needlework.
The first exhibition room on the west of the landing is used to display items of jewellery and personal accessories dating mainly from the 19th Century. A fine collection of English silver used to serve food and drink during the 18th and 19th Centuries is exhibited in the second room on the west of the landing.
Bedrooms and dressing room
The first room on the east is a lady’s bedroom. It has a field bed with white muslin bed hangings and matching curtains. By the late 18th century curtains generally matched other fabrics of the room.
A larger room second on the east is furnished as another bedroom with an adjoining dressing room. The four-poster bed hangings and curtains are made of fabric reproduced in England based on an original 18th century design. Both bedrooms have framed examples of needlework on display. The samplers made by young children demonstrate the importance of acquiring the skill of fine embroidery early in life.
The decoration of the bedrooms and treatment of the walls is restrained when compared with that of the principal rooms on the ground floor. It must be remembered that bedrooms were usually unseen by visitors and were not created to impress.
Owners of Bertram House
Records of owners of the property known as Bertram House, situated in Government Avenue, date back to 1794 when Andreas Momsen was granted the site by the Dutch East India Company. Details regarding dates of the construction of the present Georgian town house and the identity of the author remain a mystery. Nor is there conclusive proof that John Barker, owner from 1839 until 1854, was the builder, although it is generally agreed that the house was named in memory of his wife Ann Bertram Findlay, who died in 1838.
In 1841 Barker, an attorney and notary public, requested permission to place a door in the Government wall around the gardens to have easier access to the public gardens. He left an estate consisting of a “dwelling house, coach house, garden and vineyard” as well as “a cottage and a piece of ground”.
During the century that followed, Bertram House was used for various purposes ranging from that of family home to boarding house. Later it became part of the South African College before being transferred to the Union Health Department and declared a National Monument in 1962.
In 1794 Andreas Momsen, dairyman of the Dutch East India Company received (in his private capacity) a piece of land next to the dairy, in extent 1 407,98 m2. He is assumed to have resided in a house on roughly the site of the present-day Iziko South African Museum and used the private land he was granted for agricultural purposes. He sold his garden in 1799 and died in 1812. Today this land forms the complex known as the University of Cape Town Orange Street Campus.
Hermanus ter Hoeven owned the property from 1799 until 1810 when he was declared insolvent. Records show that by 1810 there was an incomplete building on the site, which was sold to a relative, with the same name; Hermanus ter Hoeven. During his four years of ownership it is observed that a house was completed as it was described as “a piece of land with the buildings thereon” in the transfer deed when it was passed to a widow by the name Smuts in 1815.
John Barker bought the property in 1839 for £1 381.17.6. No diagram was filed with any transfer deed before 1854 but on the available evidence, through the research of Margaret Cairns, it is presumed that Barker was responsible for the construction of Bertram House. It is generally agreed that because his wife Ann Bertram Findlay died in November 1838, he named the house after her.
An attorney and notary public from Yorkshire, Barker arrived at the Cape in 1823. He appears to have been an enthusiastic builder as revealed in a letter dated 1836, “I am much engaged with bricks and mortar, being my own architect/builder… with my new slate of, the front of English brick…”. Barker remarried in 1845. His second wife was Maria Johanna Silberbauer, but there were no children. He died in 1854 aged 57 leaving an “estate known as Bertram Place” to be sold after division into five lots described as follows:
- the dwelling house, coach-house and garden
(2) and (3) the vineyard,
(4) and (5) the cottage and a piece of ground.
The resulting sale divided the property into two main lots comprising lots 1,2,3 and lots 4 & 5. This account will concentrate on the subsequent ownership of what remained as Bertram Place, namely lots 1 – 3.
Augustus Frederick Carrew, a master mariner and ship owner owned the property from the end of 1854 until his death in 1857. His widow married Abraham Jozua de Villiers. Although the assessment rolls for 1860 to 1865 record de Villiers as owner, it is not known whether the property was owner occupied.
There were three occupiers recorded in the Almanacs during the years 1865 – 1867; John Frederick Bourne, Colonial Railway Engineer and the Widow Elizabeth Tyers (possibly neé Parkes) and G.W. Tyers.
Captain Robert Granger bought the property in 1867, but it is uncertain whether he lived in Bertram Place as he had a house in Mouille Point. He died at Southampton in 1870 and Bertram Place was sold from his deceased estate in 1871 to Esau Harrington, a draper and haberdasher. During the four years of Harrington’s ownership the property was run as a boarding and lodging house.
Robert Granger is remembered at Granger Bay following his heroic rescue of nine men from a schooner which capsized in heavy seas in February 1857.
In 1875 Bertram Place was sold to James Wiley, an ironmonger, who established a prosperous family business and was a wealthy property owner. He lived at Bertram Place between 1875 and 1884 before moving to a house in New Kloof Street. Wiley retired to England and died in 1898. He let Bertram Place to T. Hill, then to Captain Francis Rennie and finally to Tiberias Benjamin Kisch, (1840 – 1913) the first Jewish professional photographer in the Cape.
In 1885 James Wiley sold a section of the property of Bertram Place measuring 663,17m2 to his son Robert, who built a house known as Bertram Cottage.
In 1891 Robert’s wife Sarah bought the lots originally known as lots 4 and 5 from the estate of Isaac Lewis. The couple owned the Victorian house called Bertram Cottage and a smaller dwelling facing Rheede Street known either as Perivale or Oakdale Cottage. In 1893 they bought James Wiley’s property Bertram Place, comprising 512,45m2 thereby amalgamating the separate lots. From then onwards the property formerly known as Bertram Place was called Bertram House in the municipal records.
In 1903 part of the Wiley property was sold to the South African College and in 1929 the remainder was acquired by the University of Cape Town, successors to the South African College. The land on which Bertram House stands was transferred to the Union Government in 1930 and used by the Department of Health. The building was declared a National Monument in 1962 and transferred to the SA Cultural History Museum in 1976 for use as a museum commemorating the English contribution to life at the Cape. It was unofficially opened to the public as a museum shortly afterwards. Major restoration of the house was carried out by Revel Fox and Partners, Architects, during 1983 – 1984, funded by the Department of Community Development. Bertram House was officially opened as a late Georgian house museum on May 12 1984.
Early Restoration of the House
The design of Bertram House, methods of construction and the use of materials are typical of the Georgian style of a town house introduced at the Cape following the First British Occupation in 1795. During the restoration of the house, all the pitched roofing was replaced with Welsh slate 7 in order to conform to the practice adopted by wealthy English residents in 1816.
This roofing material proved to be a successful innovation as it was imported ready-cut into five-millimetre-thick tiles and was light enough to be used on pitched roofs, local slate from Robben Island being unsuitable because of it being too heavy. Welsh slate had the additional advantage of obviating dampness problems often experienced by flat-roofed houses built at the Cape. These roofs were treated with whale oil to make them waterproof.
The distinctive appearance of the symmetrical façade of Bertram House was achieved by importing more expensive but durable face-brick. Locally made bricks were found to be of poor quality, required plastering and had to be lime-washed annually.
The rooms are light and spacious as a result of the sash windows characterised by thin glazing bars. These elements are further enhanced by the arrangements of the double drawing room where the Georgian penchant for combining informality with elegance is particularly evident, while the placing of a fireplace in each room is indicative of the Georgian concern for the comfort of the residents.
Although none of the original fireplaces remain at Bertram House, the museum was fortunate in acquiring seven fireplaces from a contemporary house in Wynberg that had been demolished. A major aspect of the restoration was the woodwork, all the sash windows and French doors were fitted with internal shutters and external louvered shutters were replaced in keeping with the practice in Cape Town around 1837.
The original decoration of the walls had not survived but was based on paint scrapings taken throughout each room. A colour scheme was carefully selected and limited to a range of dark greens and ochres.
Attention was given to the treatment of ceilings formed of lath and plaster, often embellished with decorative plaster ceiling roses and cornices. The ceiling rose in the hallway is original, copies were used in the other rooms on the ground floor. Undoubtedly the finest surviving original feature is the graceful spiral staircase which leads to the first floor with its glazed hexagonal lantern.
The English influence on local architecture during the early years of the 19th century is noted in the accounts of various visitors to the Cape of Good Hope. In September 1800, Robert Semple comments favourably on this factor saying “The English … are every day improving and beautifying the town”. The following description he gives of the interior of a Dutch house illustrates some of the differences between the English style he was accustomed to and that practised by the Dutch inhabitants “… rooms are lofty and not plastered in the ceiling, which particularly strikes the eye of a stranger; the floors are not carpeted, and a few are provided with chimneys”. The gradual change of appearance of the town is evident when this account is compared with that made by Andrew Dixon in October 1825. “It is certainly a comfortably laid out place, the houses chiefly composed of brick, limewash’d or otherwise colour’d; are very large and commodious…
Major restoration (carried out by Revel Fox and Partners) was funded by the Department of Community Development in the 1980s.
Winifred Ann Lidderdale
Winifred Ann Lidderdale, nee Neumann Thomas was born in Cape Town in 1882. Her father Charles was Black Rod in Parliament and organist at St. George’s Cathedral. After her marriage to Henry Maxwell Lidderdale, she lived in England and the USA. In 1951 the childless couple returned to Cape Town for their retirement.
Mrs Lidderdale is widely remembered for her outstanding ability as a public speaker until her death at the age of 95 in 1977. She also boasted various civic achievements of which she is remembered for.
It was through her initiative that the Springbok Library was assembled in 1944 and housed in South Africa House, London, for the use of SA Volunteers in the UK. She subsequently arranged for the Springbok Library to be transferred to the South African Library in Cape Town in 1946. Mrs Lidderdale’s concern for the elderly was demonstrated by the establishment of a fund known as Senior Security administered by the Rotary Club of Cape Town. Finally, her ardent desire to turn a dream of establishing a house museum to commemorate the British contribution to life at the Cape was made possible by her bequest to the nation.
Mrs Lidderdale’s family ties with the Cape can be traced back to a romance between her great grandfather, a young officer in the Scotch Brigade named Hamilton Ross, and a local girl, Catharina Elizabeth van den Berg, during the First British Occupation in 1798.
A portrait of this young man is to be seen on the 18th century bureau bookcase in the morning room at Bertram House. Imagine his state of mind on learning that not only was his suit rejected by Catharina’s father, but that she was intended as bride for the son of her hated new stepmother.
Subsequent events were dramatic. Early in September 1798 Ross sailed for Madras on HMS Sceptre and was followed about a fortnight later by Catharina. The elopement was noted by Lady Anne Barnard in one of her letters to Henry Dundas, Secretary of War, dated 24 September 1798 in which Ross is described as “a young man of very good character”. The couple married at Fort St. George, Madras, in the following year and returned to the Cape in 1803 where Ross became a successful merchant and prominent citizen in his adopted country.
Hamilton Ross made a valuable contribution to the economic, political and cultural life of the Colony through his activities as Sponsor of the Cape of Good Hope Bank and membership of the Legislative Council. He lived at his country estate, Sans Souci, in Newlands, and in January 1843 bought the Mount Nelson estate for his daughter Maria Johanna and her family.
There is a charming water-colour of the Mount Nelson house and front garden painted by Maria, who received lessons from Thomas Bowler, in the entrance hall of Bertram House. Maria’s first husband, Joseph Hodgson, died leaving her with four young children.
She then married her cousin, John Ross. Their eighth child, Ellen Hamilton, born on the Mount Nelson estate was Mrs Lidderdale’s mother. A small water-colour of Maria wearing a dark blue dress painted during her honeymoon can be seen on the amboyna bureau in the drawing room of Bertram House.
The Mount Nelson estate, registered in Maria’s name, provided ample accommodation for the Ross family; beautiful grounds, including a deer park, were vividly recalled by Mrs Lidderdale who spent many happy hours playing there as a child.
In 1975 the Minister of National Education, Senator van der Spuy, announced that Mrs Lidderdale’s bequest together with those of other benefactors would be permanently exhibited at Bertram House. Shortly afterwards, the house was opened to the public as a museum. Extensive restoration of the building took place during 1983 and it was formally reopened as a Georgian town house in May 1984.
Sadly, Mrs Lidderdale did not live to see the successful completion of this project. Active to the last, she died as a result of a fall whilst working on a catalogue of her collection in the house during her ninety-fifth year. Not only does her bequest form the nucleus of the collection in this museum, but the Lidderdale Trust Fund makes provision for the purchase of pieces, to augment the original holdings.
Lidderdale Trust Fund
The Lidderdale Trust Fund has enabled the Museum to obtain several important pieces of furniture and enlarge the silver collection. Purchases made include a mahogany dining table and set of six side and two elbow chairs which provide the focal point of the arrangement of the dining room. A four-poster bed and a baby’s cradle acquired for one of the bedrooms. Several examples of silver have been obtained such as the two silver tea caddies made by Pierre-Gillois, London, 1768 on display in the exhibition devoted to silver tea ware.
The generous bequest made by Mrs Lidderdale helped inspire others to give donations to the museum and contribute towards preserving and sharing out heritage. May the opportunity afforded visitors to see a facet of Cape history in the context of the recreated interior of a wealthy English residence be an enjoyable and interesting experience.
WA Lidderdale Bequest
Mrs Lidderdale’s bequest comprises ten major collections of which the largest is porcelain, numbering 364 items. Although the collection consists mainly of English porcelain, it includes fine examples of Chinese export porcelain such as the bowl designed in famille verte enamels and pair of Quinlong jars (1736 – 1795) exhibited on the chimney-piece in the drawing room. English porcelain is represented by Spode, Rockingham and Worcester tea-sets, together with a number of Minton, Wedgwood and Derby dinner and dessert services. A wide selection of English porcelain has been carefully incorporated in the period settings created at Bertram House and bears witness to Mrs Lidderdale’s taste as a collector.
The superb collection of English furniture forming part of her bequest comprises a total of 58 Georgian pieces. English furniture of an earlier date is represented by the Queen Anne (1702 – 1714) bureau bookcase placed in the morning room and the William and Mary (1679 – 1702) fall front secretaire with walnut marquetry displayed in the library.
The twelve oriental carpets in the textile collection provide part of the floor covering in the eight formal period rooms at Bertram House. Most of the collection of books concerned with English history and literature line the shelves in the library; the rest can be seen in the drawing and morning rooms. An elegant pair of candlesticks from the brassware collection enhance the chimney-piece in the morning room and a set of Georgian wine glasses can be admired in the dining room.
Three rooms on the first floor of Bertram House are used for informal displays, each room being devoted to a particular collection illustrating aspects of 18th and 19th century life. One room has a selection of English silver on exhibition. A silver cream jug made by Augustin le Sage, London, 1781, together with a tea set made by John Round and Son, Sheffield, 1886, augment a display on the serving of tea.
The second exhibition room has personal accessories and jewellery of the 19th century as its theme. Objects range from a dainty silver vinaigrette made in London in 1790 to a silver christening mug made in the same city in 1876. Over 30 items of Victorian jewellery comprising brooches, bracelets, pendants and ring inherited, given and worn by Mrs Lidderdale, can be seen. A locket of blue enamel, set with garnet and diamonds containing a photograph of Mrs Lidderdale’s father, Charles Neuman Thomas, on the reverse side, and her own gold wedding ring have a particularly personal appeal.
Pastimes practised by ladies of the house during the Georgian period is the subject of the third room where examples of the equipment connected with the feminine arts of needlework and letter writing record the accomplishments admired in that era.