This house museum is furnished as a home for a well-to-do Cape family during the late 18th century. It houses some of the best pieces of Cape furniture and silver in the country, in addition to a priceless collection of ceramics. A household such as this would only have been able to function with its share of servants and slaves, and recent research has brought to light the names and professions of some who lived in the house at the time, as well as the kinds of activities they would have pursued.
The house opened its doors as a museum in 1914, after the deaths of its last private owners, Marie Koopmans-de Wet and her sister Margaretha. It is the oldest house museum in the country. Marie Koopmans-de Wet, after whom the Museum is named, was well known during the South African War for her help to the orphans and widows of the Boer republics.
Why is this house important?
Koopmans-de Wet House was the first period house museum established in South Africa. It is one of only a few remaining late 18th century town-houses in Cape Town.
The fist grantee, Reynier Smedinga, started building a dwelling in 1699, and over the next century the house changed and grew according to the needs of the various owners.
The house was purchased for South Africa in 1913 in memory of Marie Koopmans-de Wet who, with her sister Margaretha, were the last private occupants of the house. Marie Koopmans-de Wet was active in Cape Town cultural affairs at the time and campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Boer women and children incarcerated in concentration camps during the South African War of 1899–1902.
Some of the furniture and furnishings belonged to the De Wet family, but many other pieces have been specially purchased or donated by benefactors of the Museum.
The house is a Provincial Heritage Site
Just a handful of isolated structures whose survival is often due to an individual’s efforts, such as Marie Koopmans-de Wet. Conservation and development managers, and local and provincial heritage practitioners, refer to the house and its present setting with dismay, as an example of past achievements overwhelmed by insensitive new developments.
Remnant of scale of old town
The house is now crowded by other buildings and traffic, but marks the scale of old Cape Town, when the tallest building was three floors high, and from everywhere there were views across mountain and sea.
The house is a wealthy family’s town house of the late 18th and early 19th century, built by Cape artisans using local materials within a Cape architectural tradition, but designed according to prevailing European fashions. The carpentry and wall finishes are very well preserved. This is of enormous interest to architects, artisans, heritage groups and designers.
Collection of furniture and fittings and objects
The furniture, fittings, objects and fabrics have been retained or collected so that the things you see either did belong, or could have belonged to the house. An antique collector’s dream, and a furniture historian’s treasure trove of information.
Sense of place
The house has atmosphere, visitors are drawn inside, through to the backyard and upstairs to the rooms above, recognising familiar rooms and objects, and yet wondering about the different way of life in the past.
Materiality and authenticity
Educators, writers and artists seek and find inspiration for their imaginations in a three-dimensional setting, and here it is authentic – not contrived or pastiche.
Convenient walking distance from everywhere in town
Tourists may seek it out, but it is the local people who live and work in Cape Town – passing the house regularly – who have roots linking them to the story of this house, whether descendants of the families who owned it, or those who built and cared for it and its contents.
Tour Koopmans De – Wet House
Surviving records indicate that 18th century townhouses, especially those of the more prosperous burghers, were well furnished with paintings, mirrors, carpets, curtains, gold and silver objects. Porcelain from China and Japan was much in evidence, as well as Dutch Delftware. Pewter was used extensively, particularly in the early part of the century, but very little has survived. Copper and brass kitchenware and other domestic articles were the rule. Furniture was made out of indigenous woods, especially stinkwood, as well as imported woods. With Batavia in Java being the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and the Cape being the important halfway house, it was natural that eastern woods, furniture and goods would be brought to the Cape. It is also possible that other colonial furniture such as Portuguese and French could have reached the Cape.
Most of the interior woodwork, the doors and shutters, are made of Deal. The jambs and posts of the doors as well as the floors and beams are made of teak.
This is where a formal visitor to the De Wet family would enter the house during the early 19th century. Most other people, such as delivery men or servants and slaves, would go straight to the courtyard or kitchen area, entered through an alleyway from Long Street.
A tablet commemorating Dr W F Purcell’s contribution to the restoration of the house and its establishment as a museum is seen to the right as one enters the building.
Originally there was a screen dividing the entrance from the inner hall. The hinges are still to be seen. The console table in the Neoclassical style and the hanging lamp are part of the original Koopmans-de Wet collection.
During the late 18th / early 19th Century, the rooms to the left and right of the entrance hall were probably formal and restricted to family and visitors and their personal slaves. It would be here that business was done, social and political gossip exchanged and the family’s achievements put on display.
Today the drawing room reflects many aspects of this Dutch colonial life. Amongst the furniture is a gabled bureau-bookcase, which was considered indispensable around 1800. This one has been adapted as a display cabinet. The sofa, dated to c.1770, came from the Cape Orphan Chamber and is mentioned in the Chamber’s inventory. Two small portraits on the wall depict Rev François Le Sueur, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town from about 1729 to 1744, and his wife, Johanna Catharina le Sueur, née Swellengrebel (1711–1740). Johanna Catharina was the sister of Hendrik Swellengrebel, Governor of the Cape from 1739 to 1751.
Various Cape personalities are depicted in the miniatures above the fireplace: Petrus Borchardus Borcherds, born in Cape Town in 1786; Susanna van der Poel, née Smuts, born in 1743; an unidentified gentleman and an unidentified lady from the late 18th century; and a miniature of Anna Geertruida Wykerd from c1830. The fireplace itself is a very rare feature of the period, probably owing to climatic conditions, lack of firewood or danger of fires. Instead, foot warmers were used in which a container with hot coals was inserted. There is another, probably 19th century, fireplace in the music room of the house.
With the Cape being the halfway station between Europe and the East, many Eastern ceramics found their way here, such as the blue and white porcelain tulip vase, the famille rose dinner and tea services from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the Japanese imari covered jar from the same period.
The stinkwood gabled display cabinet built into the wall, dated c.1750, originates from the farm Leeuwenjacht, Paarl. It was installed by Dr WF Purcell. Its contents comprise a variety of famille rose porcelain made for Rudolph Cloete of Constantia, 1790–1800. A duplicate of this cupboard can be seen in the morning room. They were used as display cabinets for glass or porcelain.
This room probably functioned as a combined bedroom and gathering place in the early 18th century. But as the century progressed rooms became more specialised, and by the late 18th century it would have become a gathering place for visitors or for doing business, or it could have been a dining room as it is now.
Food would have been cooked in the kitchen, perhaps by Kito, the slave cook, and his helpers, and carried through to the dining room on porcelain and earthenware dishes from China, Japan or Britain. Blue and white Chinese export porcelain (Nanking or Canton) was particularly well-liked at the Cape, and is used in this room to lay the table. It continued to be made in diminishing quantity during the 19th Century.
Notice the Cape buffet from 1780–1800, with its zinc basin, fold-out leaves and folding shelves. It depicts the early development of the sideboard, and was used for washing up glasses and porcelain in the dining room, as well as to contain bottles and a warming plate. The display cabinet on stand dates from 1775–1800 and houses a selection of late 18th and early 19th century silver tableware. Much of this was reputedly bought in 1834 by the Van Breda family of Oranjezicht, with money given as compensation for freeing their slaves.
The Cape at this time was known for its hospitality and the availability of vast quantities of food. The types of food that were eaten must be seen against the background of the various cultures that settled at the Cape – a combination of French, Dutch, German, Eastern and Malay flavours. Porcelain, silver and glassware were much used as can be seen on the dining table.
This room, known as the gaandery, functioned as the centre of the house, and was the point from which the mistress of the house, Margaretha Jacoba Smuts, could organize the daily life of the household. Sitting close to the window overlooking the courtyard, she would be able to see the comings and goings of her slaves, mother her children, check who entered at the front door, and perform any other tasks that were required.
When the mistress of the house needed to go out, she would be taken in the sedan chair, which would be carried on poles by two slaves: one in the front and one at the back. The sedan chair in this room belonged to Maria Margaretha Horak, and dates from the early 19th century.
Rooms at this time were lit mainly by candles placed in sconces fixed to the walls, in silver candlesticks on candle stands, or in brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling bears the name Martinus Lourens Smith and dates from c.1780. It is one of a set made for the Lutheran Church in Strand Street, built by Martin Melck (who was Marie Koopmans-de Wet’s great-grandfather).
To the left of the lower hall is an area currently used as a staff room, but which Mrs Koopmans used as a summer bedroom.
Small sitting room
Items of interest in the small room on the left, on the way to the music room, include a Cape 18th century day-bed and a box of amboina and ebony. It is said that the box was a shroud box, in which Mrs MM Horak (Marie Koopmans-de Wet’s maternal grandmother) kept her burial clothes. This is the same Mrs Horak to whom the sedan chair in the lower hall belonged. There is also a display cabinet with small personal accessories, such as shoe buckles, perfume bottles and snuffboxes, from the late 18th and early 19th Century.
The engravings on the wall depict views of Amsterdam and the Cape of Good Hope. One of these views of the Cape shows the mountains in reverse, and was possibly intended for use with a light placed behind it.
The music room with its square piano from c 1830 is characterised by the beautiful spiral friezes and medallion painted above the fireplace. In one corner stands a Cape gabled corner cupboard with a Japanese Imari porcelain garniture set on top of the cornice. Such garniture sets were made specifically to decorate gabled cupboards, and there is a similar set in the dining room.
Important ceramics in this room include a covered baluster jar which dates from the 17th century, which is one of the earliest pieces in the house. Armorial porcelain can be viewed in the display cabinet. An interesting example is a plate from the first half of the 18th century (middle shelf), adorned at the centre with the arms of John White, an Englishman who came to the Cape in 1700. He married into a Dutch family and identified himself so closely with his new country that he chose to be known as Jan de Wit. He became a prominent Cape resident and held official positions on several occasions during the 1730’s and 1740’s. The plate formed part of a dinner service ordered from China between 1740 and 1750. De Wit died in 1755. This item of armorial porcelain is possibly the earliest in South Africa.
The settee was once used in the Wale Street office of the civil commissioner of the Cape, prior to which it was used in the office of the Council of Policy at the Castle.
Morning room and kitchen
The present morning room, cooler than the kitchen with its open hearth, was a spot where heat-sensitive food might be prepared on a marble-topped table, or where the final touches would have been added to dishes on their way to the dining room. There is a 19th century Frisian tail clock, a common sight in the kitchen area of many a Cape home.
In the kitchen itself, one can visualise the displayed equipment display in use. A slave, the “houseboy” July, might prepare a fire in the hearth early every morning, and hang a kettle of water over it, poured out of the water-vat in the corner. Later he might pour the hot water into a washing basin to bring to his mistress upstairs for her ablutions, keeping some aside to make himself a warm drink. He might sit for a while on one of the simple spindle chairs kept for the less grand areas of the home while he had the time.
The fire needed to be kept going all day long in order to prepare food for the various meals. Meals were large, considering that there were five children in the family, and at least seven slaves in addition to this.
The cook, Kito of Mosambique, might prepare and boil a ham in one of the pots hanging over the fire, or he might be preparing a stock, simmering on a trivet close by. At the same time loaves of bread could be baking in the oven to one side of the hearth.
Preserving food was an important ongoing activity, changing with the seasons. During late summer Kito might look out for extra local fruits to preserve for winter; or he might buy an extra-large quantity of fish going at a bargain price, in order to pickle or dry it for the leaner months. Such food would be stored upstairs in the pantry, in earthenware jars such as the martavaans or wooden vats on display. And in addition to all this, young July would probably still need constant supervision as he performed one of any number of tasks: washing dishes in one of the wooden tubs; polishing the silver; churning the butter; mincing the meat; skimming the fat off the stock; or adding some more wood to the fire.
Other activities might spill over into the courtyard. If his craft wasn’t being rented by someone else, the slave Jonas van de Kaap, a cooper, might be making vats in order to augment the income of the family, with one of his little children looking on. And Lafleur and Lendor, the slave woodcutters, might just be returning home with loads of wood that they had gone to fetch, bringing with them some of the local gossip they picked up on the way. If it was Sunday, Lafleur and Lendor would perhaps take the mistress to Church in her sedan chair, with Jonas trailing behind, carrying her special church chair. The church chair on display has the names ‘D W Willem Marais’ and ‘P H du Toit’ carved into it.
The staircase is not the house’s original one, but was replaced in 1913 by a staircase from another old Cape Town building.
Along the walls there are some historical views of Cape Town and Table Bay.
Outer buildings in the courtyard
The ground floor of the outer buildings in the courtyard was probably used as a coach house and stables.
The question arises where the slaves might have slept. Perhaps Jonas, Citie and their children (Hector and Jacob) slept in one of the two upstairs rooms, and the others in the other one. It is likely, too, that some of the personal slaves slept in the house close to their mistress, so that they could be at hand immediately if their help was needed in the night.
There is a small original wall painting of a mid-19th Century ship in the top right-hand room.
Today this room contains amongst others a late 18th century Cape linen-press. Imagine Citie or Theresia pressing and ironing the linen, or placing it between the two boards of the linen-press and then applying pressure by turning the spiral screw. From here the linen would be folded and placed in the drawers of one of the armoires in the bedrooms.
The pantry is connected via a trapdoor to the kitchen below, but the stairs / ladder that once led down to the kitchen was removed by Dr WF Purcell during the restoration of the house. Imagine this room around 1800, packed with cream-coloured Staffordshire tableware, as well as blue and white porcelain from the East. In addition, perhaps, martavaans filled with pickles, preserves and the like, wooden bins containing grains and flour, and strings of onions hanging from the roof.
During the 18th century the upper hall would probably have been used for general chores of a more intimate nature. Picture here a wet-nurse nursing a young unweaned child, or Kado the tailor working on clothes for the family.
Notice the portraits of Admiral Christiaan Blom and his wife Helena Louisa, which show costume typical of the 2nd half of the 18th century. The identity of the woman depicted behind Admiral Blom remains a mystery. The staircase in the corner leads up to the flat roof, from which incoming and outgoing ships could be seen.
While beds during the early part of the 18th century were often downstairs to show off their valuable drapes, sleeping became a more private affair during the late 18th century. Bedrooms moved upstairs and these rooms were refurbished with bedroom furniture. Four-poster beds remained common at this time.
The two linen armoires in the main bedroom (on the left) are from the Koopmans-de Wet collection. One of them boasts Cape silver mounts made by DH Schmidt. Silver furniture mounts were popular at the Cape, where the art of the silversmith was intensively practised. It is noteworthy that the first owner of this property (in 1699) was Reijnier Smedinga, a silver assayer from Friesland.
Only by the early 19th century did attention to personal hygiene warrant the presence of washing facilities such as bidets and basins in a bedroom. There is an example of an 18th century bidet in the second bedroom.
Of note in this room too is the cheval mirror in the French Empire style. It was reputedly part of the cargo intended for Napoleon Bonaparte’s friend, the Countess de Bertrand, who chose to stay with him when he was banished to the island of St. Helena. Being of French origin, the islanders prevented the cargo from being off-loaded and sent it on to the Cape. The cargo was put up for auction on the quay and the mirror was bought by Mrs Koopmans-de Wet’s maternal grandfather, JA Horak. It remained in the family from then on.
It is not known what the original purpose of this room, situated between the two bedrooms, was. A study of the plasterwork reveals that there was once a doorway through to the main bedroom, and it is believed to have been a dressing room.
Today this room is hung with banners discussing the life and times of Marie Koopmans-de Wet, and creates an awareness of the less famous, but nevertheless present, people who made it possible for Marie to maintain her upper-class lifestyle.
In Pieter Malet’s time this must have been another bedroom to accommodate some of his 16 children. Today this room is a library, as it was during the ownership of Advocate Johannes de Wet, the father of Marie Koopmans-de Wet, and some of the shelves and books in the bookcase date from this time.
Note the early 19th century watercolour of the Table Valley indicating some of the settlements and names of the owners.
A door leads from the upper hall into a short passage with friezes painted on the wall. These rooms were possibly used as pantry and store rooms. According to Dr Purcell all walls, windows, ceiling beams, and flooring are part of the old structure of the house. The rooms have now been adapted to allow disabled access to the upper floors of the house.
Until recently this part of the house was occupied by the resident curator but is now used for educational activities amongst others and is not generally open to the public.
Architectural history of the house
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. 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, which is presently in the temporary exhibition room in the museum and shows the front of the house as it was in 1907.
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.
The facade provided an extra pair of well-proportioned, high-ceilinged, front rooms. The design included a second storey across the front of the whole building, and so conformed perfectly to symmetrical Neoclassical dimensions. The centre of an elaborate frieze of circles and triglyphs above the door formed the focus for the ‘concentric circle’ design principle.
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. 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.
Between 1699 and 1748, ownership of the property was transferred several times.
In 1748 it was bought by a wealthy man, Johann Böttiger. Böttiger had once been a local house carpenter, then he became a Burgher Councillor, and later Captain of the Burgher Infantry. He enlarged the property and probably altered the house in the 1750s and 1760s.
In 1771, Pieter Malet, from Amsterdam, bought the Strand Street house from Böttiger. By the 1780s, almost all the old houses in the area had disappeared. Larger Strand Street dwellings were being rebuilt in the town style of symmetrical, double-storey, flat-roofed houses.
By the 1790s, the old house had no doubt become too small for the Malet household, which included 16 children (of whom seven survived), and numerous slaves and servants. Malet decided to renovate the house in the newly popular style. He also bought up portions of the neighbouring properties to allow a carriage house to be built with its own entrance from Long Street.
The original house consisted of a row of rooms set back from the street, with a low thatched roof, small windows and little symmetry in its design. Although the house had been altered over the years by its various owners, the old walls of the original house still remained strong and functional. Therefore, the Malet family kept the old walls, and built a completely new façade on the street side – the visible part of the house – for visitors to admire.
Inside the new rooms, internal shutters in the French style and Neoclassical wall paintings reflected the external formality and order. And yet the house was welcoming, warmed by local woodwork and tiles on the floors and ceilings, and much simpler wall decorations in the more private rooms. The family now had plenty of space indoors, and enjoyed superb sea and mountain views from the flat roof. Perhaps one drawback was that the steps to the high stoep jutted out into the street.
In 1796, Hendrik Vos bought the house from Malet’s widow, Catarina Kruins. The Vos family lived here until 1806, when it was bought by a young, rich, recently widowed woman, Margaretha Jacoba de Wet (née Smuts), who was in search of a suitable house in which to raise her family. Margaretha de Wet-Smuts had previously lived in a large, fashionable house in the smartest street in town, the Heerengracht (present Adderley Street). She was probably looking for a house in the style of the modern town houses, in which she could entertain friends and family.
The formal front rooms built by Malet were perfectly suited to these purposes. The fact that Margaretha’s parents lived close by, further up Strand Street, may also have influenced her choice to purchase the house. Although Margaretha de Wet-Smuts was widowed when she was only 34 years old, she did not remarry, and acted as the head of the household for many years. By the time Margaretha de Wet-Smuts died in 1840, leaving the house to her sons, the tastes of Britain’s Queen Victoria and the products of British factories were spreading throughout the Empire.
In 1867, Margaretha’s granddaughter, Marie moved back into the house. Although the Neoclassical exterior of the building remained, the contents had changed dramatically to reflect the designs and materials of the times. The amount of goods available for purchase had alarmingly increased. Shops, advertisements, mail order catalogues, slick salesmanship and regular steam-driven transport systems had ushered in modern consumer society.
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.
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 most likely 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.
The changing architectural appearance and layout of the Koopmans-de Wet house and outbuildings reflect a complex web of relationships and activities over time. The architectural history of the house is well preserved for visitors to admire today.
Establishment as a museum
Koopmans-de Wet House is, as far as is known, is 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 of South Africa.
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.
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. 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.
Regarding 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.
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.
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, re-plastering 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.
Occupants of the house
Johan Koopmans, Marie’s husband, was Mace-bearer for the House of Assembly. He arrived at the Cape as a member of the British German Legion.
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 Böttiger, 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. Böttiger, 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, objects 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.
Slaves at Koopmans de-Wet House
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.
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, where after 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
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.
Marie Koopmans-de Wet’s grandfather owned approximately 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. For more information on slavery visit the slavery.iziko.org.za minisite