Suitable approaches to preservation of the Old Timber Shed

9 September 2012

Speaker:   Len Raymond

Commissioned in 1788, Plett's Timbershed is an important symbol of the economic development of our sub-continent as envisaged and thereafter made good in the late-18th Century.  For it came to be built and commissioned here at Plettenberg Bay – on instructions of the Dutch East India Company through its representatives at the Cape – to address pressing economic needs, stemming largely from what was then the enormous significance of timber in the colonial economy and also worldwide. 

Between the time of Jan van Riebeek's arrival in 1652, and Governor van Plettenberg's 1778 visit to what would, largely due to his initiative, be the Timbershed's site, there had been, quite literally, a considerable change in the colonial landscape: from Cape Town all the way to the future George, much of the Colony's timber had already been axed for a multitude of essential purposes including transportation (carts and wagons), buildings, bridges and harbour installations.  Also for export, especially to other parts of the far-flung DEIC 'empire'.  

Wagon-loads of hewn timber were at that time a common sight on the primitive coastal roads linking Cape Town to the colony's eastern reaches. 

However comparatively little timber had up to then come from points east of George between the sea and the rugged mountain range. This had been largely because of transportation problems, not least the natural barrier presented by the approaches to Kaaimans River, as well as by the river crossing itself–for bridges of any significance were to come much later on. 

Thus it was that Governor van Plettenberg, when he paid his visit to this Bay in 1778 with Gordon, was favourably impressed by the local forests then scarcely axed and, at the same time, by the possibilities of using sea transport in the chain of exploiting this natural resource for a multitude of desirable purposes, domestic and export.                                                                      

Fast-forwarding to the present day, the Timbershed is, therefore, worth preserving for all it represents in terms of past achievements in meeting the then colony's steadily growing economic needs. 

But how?  And with primarily just what in mind? 

Is the Timbershed regarded as a relic or a ruin? Should it be preserved or restored? The National Monuments Council declared it a national monument in 1937, describing it as a ruin. Heritage Western Cape, in line with world-wide thinking on these matters, now engages professionals to investigate, assess and decide. 

The original structure had timber beams, most probably yellowwood, spanning over six metros and supporting a boarded flat roof covered with brak klei (taken from dry pans where nothing grows) and sealed with whale fat. Under the weight of rain water the roof would have sagged, preventing complete run-off. Sagging would have caused cracks for leaks to slowly rot the timber below until the beams collapsed. The Timbershed's stone walls would have been rendered-and-lime-washed, with timber lintels over the ten window openings on the long walls. As the timber lintels decayed the stone-work above collapsed and many of the stones have disappeared. 

Considering restoration: could the cost be justified of providing yellowwood beams (one could certainly not use tannalith-treated gumpoles) and stonework (to be hidden by rendering and limewash), if the structure was doomed to similar decay and collapse? Alternatively, should restoration follow the Mossel Bay example? 

Not far from Plett, at Mossel Bay, there was an 18th Century South African relic, the Grain Store,  of almost identical size and construction. [That has been rebuilt after a fashion in the 20th century–Recent photograph displayed.] “How many of you,” Len Raymond asked, “have seen and visited the shed while in Mossel Bay and looked inside?” …"It seems nobody at all!" (Stunned silence.) 

The original Grain Store would, like the Timbershed, have had rendered and lime-washed stone walls. It would also have had timber beams spanning over six metres supporting a boarded flat roof covered with brak klei and sealed with whale fat. In preparation for the Dias Fifth Centenary in 1986, the existing modern factory on the site was gradually demolished in the hope of finding substantial evidence of the original shed. As it turned out, only stone foundation walls remained. 

The decision was made to build a structure of the same dimensions and form, with ten windows on either side and a flat roof – only the walls would be plastered brick and gum-poles be used for the roof. It looks, certainly on the outside, very much like a 20th Century packing-shed and houses activities associated with tourism. Is this an example to be followed at Plett? 

  • Further away from Plett, at Melkbosstrand, there is an older and smaller 18th Century shed.  At a time when it was considered safer to come ashore at Melkbosstrand in preference to Table Bay, a stone-walled and thatch-roofed shed was erected to store arriving goods or goods readied for export. It has remained – as a store of sorts – in substantially the same form up until the present. Here you can see restoration work in progress. Stonework has been repaired as has the roof structure, which is now being thatched.  [Photo available] 
  • In Mandalay, Burma, there  is another old building of the period, but one that looks as though it may have been rebuilt, repaired and/or preserved very much in its original style. 
  • In Malaysia, Malacca as a whole was named a World Heritage site in 2007.  What remains of  an 18th Century building has been stabilized;  the floor that has been laid includes Dutch gravestones; and it has been opened to tourists 
  • In Norway what remains of Hamar Cathedral, an 18th Century building alongside Lake Mjosa, is today enclosed under a huge steep-pitched clear-glazed canopy supported by an open steel lattice framework. The ruin is thus protected from further decay by the elements or plundering, and is given significance as being worthy of preservation. The canopy creates a precinct that speaks volumes for local civic pride and, at the same time, for its pull as a tourist attraction. 

Of the examples discussed, the glass canopy may have been much the most expensive, but the result may also be judged the most impressive; and surely also the best in terms of protecting old if not original structures, in safely housing other relics of an increasingly distant past; and – not least – in attracting local and visitors' attention.  

The Fagan proposal, which I have only recently seen and which – incidentally - has never been presented to HWC, leaves about a third of the Timbershed unroofed with two-thirds roofed in a manner similar to the original. It would be used as a restaurant and for small open-air production productions.

Plett might do well to consider the Timbershed as part of an historical precinct with the Timbershed opened to the sea, with the Diaz beacon on one side, and the to-be-restored Rectory on the other. As such it could provide a worthy tourist attraction. We have a duty to future generations to preserve things, so the cost should not be assessed in terms of financial viability but rather in terms of these enduring cultural values.

Some suggestions:

  • Get the VPHS registered with Heritage Western Cape as an 'Interested and Affected Party'. This is provided for in the legislation; and would ensure the opportunity to have a say – and before that, to have sight of all proposals for alterations and/or usage of the Timbershed requiring official approval.
  • Form, or participate in the formation of, a Trust to take over or have an ownership share in the Timbershed in place of present sole-ownership by the Municipality; or merely to achieve recognition as 'an interested and affected party’.
  • Register the Trust with HWC as an 'interested and affected party' in respect of any applications or decision-making affecting the Timbershed that it may be considering from time-to-time.
  • Persuade Bitou Municipality to permit the Trust to deal directly with Heritage Western Cape.
  • Lotto funding should be a real possibility.

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