30 years ago : Defining moments

14 November 2011

Speaker:  Peter Duminy

This Talk has been substantially motivated by recollections, especially remembrance of straws in the wind that preceded – and help to account for – the formation of our Society  30 years ago. I have called them ‘Defining Moments’.

Why? Because, the more one thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that founding of the Plett Historical Society in November 1980 was attributable to several happenings, and to a number of rather special people combining to make it bound to happen – if not necessarily in 1980, then certainly later, or perhaps even sooner.

I expect we can, most of us, remember more or less when we, individually, first became interested in Plett’s absorbing history, not least the lives and local achievements of some of its famous personalities.

For me (and possibly for many others) Winifred Tapson’s TIMBER AND TIDES the story of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, first published in 1961, illuminated much not previously known about Plett and Knysna.   I also learned from it that my great-great-great-grandfather had been in command of the ship De Meermin, on to which Plett’s first hewn timber was loaded and carried away in August 1788.

   Certainly Tapson’s book was NOT the first time that Plett, its historical and other attractions had been described in print.  But for me, certainly, Tapson’s printed words – and more particularly the interest in past events that these words began to stir – were undoubtedly among this Society’s ‘Defining Moments’. And this claim is tabled for your consideration, even though it would then to be another 20 years –or very nearly– before the Van Plettenberg Historical Society would be founded.

   Meanwhile, perhaps entirely unrelated to Tapson, there were other events and people combining to make our Society a virtual inevitability.

   For one thing, the 1960s also brought serious Archaeological enquiry (and indeed activity) to Robberg, for the first time.  This is, of course, a reference to what we now prize as the Nelson Bay Cave, the remarkable site that provides compelling evidence of communal living going back many thousands of years.
   In sum it was by the late 1960s becoming perfectly clear that Plett, apart from its other attractions, in one way or another also offered much that was of compelling historical interest.
   Unrelated and in its own way no less a Defining Moment (or Straw in the Wind), was the Storrar phenomenon – more correctly the ‘Storrarphenomena’, because there were two of them, Pat and Clare, widow and widower, both remarkable people, who had been wed in Johannesburg in 1959 and had come to Plett as permanent residents in 1971.

   There were now nine years to go before the Historical Society would be founded; and almost as long as that, if memory serves, before it would come to be widely discussed.   

     Let’s tick off, in chronological order, some of the things that proceeded to happen in those nine years:
Both Storrars were amazingly industrious and productive until very late in their long lives. Halfway through the Seventies Pat Storrar had already researched the life and antecedents of George Rex. Indeed, she had already published the results (in 1974). I’m sure we all of us remember George Rex of Knysna as the book, more than any other, that gave Pat Storrar an international reputation.

     After that tour de force Pat Storrar was soon hard at work again  – on unrelated, but nonetheless always local subjects.

   And at this point let’s dip briefly into the Duminy family archive. The script is undated, but we have a letter, dated 29 November 1976, which JP (Dad) received from a cousin – one thanking him for supplying a copy of ‘the talk which he [Dad] had recently “…. given at Plettenberg Bay.”

     That informal talk had in fact been about the life and especially the 18th Century Plettenberg Bay connections of Francois Renier Duminy. It had been given at the invitation of Pat Storrar.

   In the present context, the full significance of this date – 1976 – anticipating the coming of the Historical Society by fully four years, could conceivably have lain in a number of factors.  The talk was certainly a means of garnering information for a particular purpose – another book in the making.  Perhaps, and with the benefit of hindsight, it could also have been a sure sign that thoughts of establishing the Historical Society were taking shape in certain Plettenberg Bay minds.

   Yes indeed, Portrait of Plettenberg Bay was on the way. As we know, this, the next Storrar book, was a remarkable, well researched and, in sum, an amazingly detailed account of our local history.  Another Storrar masterpiece, it was to see the light of day in 1978.
   Quite soon after that, and out of the blue, came the uncovering of the Sao Gonzales relics in the shape of fragments of Ming and other porcelain. These remarkable finds on Johan Jerling’s building site in the hoek of Robberg came in November 1979 (though they would not be made public until June 1980).  The widespread excitement about that announcement, locally and much further a-field, has been well chronicled.

    Whichever way we look at these developments, there can be no mistaking the quality of ‘defining moments’. In retrospect and taken together, they surely suggest to us that there were elements of growing inevitability about what was to follow in November 1980: formation of the Plett Historical Society.

   Johan and Ingrid Jerling would be among our foundation members, and that is one reason why it is good to see them here today.  Another reason is that, as I’m sure many of us know, Johan’s great-great-great-grandfather (the Jerling stamvader) was directly involved in the building of the Timbershed some 225 years ago.  His was in fact the successful tender.
We may take it that he and my great-great-great-grandfather were rather more than mere nodding acquaintances.

   To give you a little serious history: In January 1786 the Politieke Raad (the powers-that-be) in Cape Town instructed Landdros Woeke of Graaff-Reinet to follow up previous favourable impressions about the availability (and transportability) of Plett area timber  - those gained by Governor van Plettenberg (in 1778) and Francois Le Vaillant in 1782.

     Now there was to be speedy action:  Woeke went to Plett without delay. So too, my great-great-great grandfather, in his case with a mandate to report on shipping requirements, including vessels and seasons best suited for timber shipments. The perceived need was great, so much so that the Politieke Raad issued further instructions on 4 August 1786, among these that a magasyn  (storage shed) was to be built without delay, the tender for this to be awarded to the most competitive bidder. That would be Jacob Jerling.
   If I may now jump forward by some 225 years, Johan Jerling has for some time been making every effort torestore the Timbershed – something that is now much needed, having last been done (with his support and that of a good many of our then members) in the 1980s hence during the first five years of our Society’s existence.

   Johan Jerling has in recent days passed on some promising news: an ad-hoc committee chaired by architect Paul Scheepers (who was intimately involved in the last restoration) has recently had constructive meetings with the Municipality’s heritage committee - so useful, in fact, that promising recommendations will go before our Town Council next week.  Then, if all goes well, the plans will be forwarded to the National Heritage Council for approval, to be followed by action.  So do please ‘watch this space’, as they say.

   But that is jumping ahead.  Let’s havesome reminders of precisely what the founders had in mind for us in 1980.  This is all laid out in seven succinct clauses of our Constitution.  All are worth mentioning, providing, as they do, permanent guidelines (or call them ‘yardsticks’) against which to assess three decades of past performance – excellent, good in spots, or what you will.

Among the Society’s stated objectives

(I won’t repeat them all) were and are:

To collect and collate information about Plett

and the district;

To collect and preserve documents

[of all kinds] ;

Preservation and eventual exhibition of

objects in any way related to Plett and district …

Preservation of buildings of historical interest.
Dissemination of results through the medium of a Bulletin or by other means

To place descriptive plaques on places of interest..

To encourage the establishment of a local museum.


   Measured against these and perhaps other objectives,  we surely have not done badly; and owe a great deal firstly to our founders for their vision and for the dedication that successfully carried us through the early years.  Likewise to their successors in continuity, combined with equally conscientious service on the part of those following in the founders’ footsteps.
   It is sometimes invidious to name names.  But some do tend to leap out at us today.

Consider this: at the end of the first year (when our membership list had already topped 200), we find surnames that have been continuously associated with the management and direction of our activities, up to this very day.

   Three surnames in particular pop out –
McNally, McCarthy, Vickerman: those of one President and two past Chairmen.   We celebrate the fact that John and Molly McNally are still with us.  And that the two past-Chairmen were succeeded in other active and ongoing capacities by their surviving spouses –  Sheila and Lovell.

All six of these stalwarts were Foundation Members.
   About  25 of our First Year supporters are still on the membership list.

Foundation members who are with us today–  and we don’t claim to have captured all the names  – include Clive and Colleen Noble, Margaret Parkes, some Duminys ……  And we all know that, but for the vagaries of time, this list would be much longer.

   The Storrar name will always feature on our informal Honours List.

I don’t have to mention that Pat wrote more books: covering the San Gonzales disaster and all that followed 350 years ago; about Thomas Bain the road builder extraordinaire; and the story of Belvidere (to name but three).

Clare Storrar was a single-minded researcher, too; and a competent writer: to him we owe the published Sewell diaries and an important book about the ‘Tzitsikamma genius’ Henry Georges Fourcade...
   What our founders certainly could NOT have imagined way back in 1980 was that the Internet would someday make it so much easier to meet some of our objectives.   We may nonetheless be forgiven for thinking they were truly inspired; and that the Society’s Constitution has all along cried out for both the Internet and  a Website!

 And now – with this huge social and technological benefit within our grasp – that pletthistory.org will constantly challenge our capacity to achieve substantial inclusion of  the historical nuggets that we have, in the course of 30 years, accumulated in print and  will continue to amass.

   Making that wealth of information more readily available  – not only to Members but also far and wide, across Planet Earth – is exactly what we are now addressing with the setting up of our Website.    We would, of course  still be a long way from maximising
the opportunities (by all means call them our responsibilities)  in this respect.

   Having access to the titles of 175  Talks and those who have given them,, as will initially be available, is far from equating with access to the Talks themselves. That is a longer-term objective, to be achieved in response to demand. But I am confident that we are going to make steady progress in the matter of making  all our valuable information, including photographic material, widely accessible on the website we have named pletthistory.org and which we, the van Plettenberg Historical Society, will soon be commissioning .            

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