A trip through the historic hub of Malmesbury reveals the town through the eyes of a 19th-century visitor. Interspersed among early Cape buildings dating from about 1830 are structures from later periods, reflecting the rich and varied architectural development of the town over time. An interesting aspect of Malmesbury is the retained streetscapes – a number of them have been featured.
The Swartland town of Malmesbury
The first expedition in the direction of present day Malmesbury was undertaken by Jan Wintervogel in 1655, by order of commander Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company, three years after the Dutch settled at the Cape.
Previously the area around Malmesbury was inhabited by the Khoi-khoi and San.The area was soon referred to as ‘het Zwarteland’ (the Black Land), because the veld, covered by renosterbos, appeared black at certain times of the year. Baron van Imhoff, the visiting commissioner in 1743, recommended two new churches be established at the Cape: Roodezand (Tulbagh) and Zwartland. The latter was established on the farm of widow Van der Westhuyzen, Welvergenoegd.
When het Zwartelandskerk (the Dutch Reformed church) was established in 1745, a mere 24 people were living in the vicinity of the mineral spring, still situated, though only as a small fountain, in the town’s centre. The congregation was known as het Zwartelandskerk until 1829, when it was proclaimed a town by governor Sir Lowry Cole and renamed Malmesbury in honour of his father-in-law, Sir James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury in England. On 8 June 1860 the village gained municipal status and was governed by a board of commissioners for nearly 36 years until 1896, when the town council was established.
The town developed rapidly and today is the biggest town in the area, generally known as the ‘Heart of the Swartland’.