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Understanding Your Village & Environment







Amongst our greatest pleasures are the pleasures of discovery: the recognition of some associations between things or events which explain the ways things are or appear to be, the adding together of facts and relationships that sparks understanding.


I love villages and towns and cities: I love the intrigue and mystery of the unknowable histories of the way things are, of the way people inhabit space, the way in which they occupy and move about that place, the way in which they dwell. lt is a mysterious thing, the way we live in a place: and it is made richer and our dwelling is the deeper for the insight we have of the place we inhabit; and it is the richer for its depth, for the number of over-writings of the palimpsest that is your/my home town.


So, how can we come to grips with the place and space we move about in? Part of the answer is that it's best done alone: the pleasures of discovery are the sweeter for the solitude of the search.


Often we seek an explanation of a place or space, of its configuration, of the way it's used and dwelled in, of its character: sometimes out of innocent curiosity, sometimes driven by a pragmatic goal.


Usually it is best to start with the biggest thing: the village, the suburb (which often was once its own self, its own town), the town or the city:


We must start with studies already published. 1 This is often, initially, exciting but it quickly palls. Reading other people's research, other people's findings, is interesting but soon we must take notes to sustain attention; we graduate to scanning, looking for references to the parts or aspects of the place we are interested in, references to the activities related to our interest, for clues to understanding the built form. Published works by academic or professional or local amateur historians are easily found in public and specialist libraries and, today, much is available on the internet: these studies must be carefully read to develop a framework within which to fit the new more interesting information you are going to find. 2 But, perhaps more interesting, they often include old photographs, maps of earlier dates, sometimes diagrams and graphs giving an idea about populations, about labour, about the process of growth and, most importantly, about the processes of change. lt is these visual or diagrammatic records of earlier moments in the history of the place that are the most revealing because we intuitively recognise the connections and relationships between the old drawings we are scrutinising and the environs as they are now. And, most exciting, if the study is properly referenced,  it will tell you where that drawing is and, you must presume, where others like it can be found.


But, before you rush off to the archive or library where that record is, there are a couple of things to check first: look at Google Earth (there is much to learn just from looking carefully, zooming in and out, coming to grips with the geometries of street patterns and trying to figure out how they came to be, whether they are responses to topographic features like streams or hills or to earlier paths or roads); and then look in the local municipal council's website for its zoning scheme (the zoning scheme map will give an idea of the uses and activities, actual and permitted, on each property).


Now you can set off for the archives or library in search of the old panoramas, photographs 3 and early maps 4 you have seen in published studies. The archives and libraries are intended and designed to give access; municipalities and other government departments are often not so accommodating although they always have a great wealth of records on a very wide range of subjects (more about this later). 5 And, if you think that aerial photographs will confirm something, the government surveys and mapping department 6 has aerial surveys conducted since 1926 for Cape Town and since the late 1930s 7 for most parts of South Africa.


Some local museums 8 do also have very rich records of aspects of their history. Indeed, most local museums have invaluable collections of photographs 9 and various documents recording a variety of events in the past of the town. The Simons Town museum, for example, has an interesting collection of maps which are part of the survey conducted in the 1950s and 60s which record the races of the occupants of each house and were used by the apartheid government in its planning of the so-called "group areas".


I have been talking somewhat artificially only about the town or suburb you are interested in; but, now that we have some ideas about how the environs were established, let us change focus a little and think about investigating the history of the individual building, the house or church or site you are interested in:


The first step in this more detailed investigation is to understand the history of this piece of ground; and so we must find out when  it was created as an identifiable property, plot, lot or erf. When and through what process was it subdivided? Who was the first owner and how frequently has it been bought and sold, by whom, and who occupied it? And when was the first building on the property built and who are the people who occupied it? And what has been built since?


This is information relatively easily obtained: the history of subdivision 10 is uncovered by looking at the records of the Surveyor General and the deeds office; and the history of ownership can be read from the transfer registers 11 which detail each transfer, most importantly when, from whom and to whom. It is more tedious if the transfer registers are incomplete or not available as you must go backwards in time from transfer to transfer; although, sometimes, the most recent deed of transfer will tell a great deal about earlier transfers.


Once you have established this history, you can now try two more sources: 


First, by looking through the old Cape almanacs and street directories 12 you can search for the names of the owners to check whether they actually lived at these properties or elsewhere (and you can guess whether they were developers, speculators or landlords). The street directories, in particular, are invaluable because they give all or most of the names of the occupants in a street and sometimes their occupations, and you can speculate about the origins, race and class of the neighbourhood.


Second, with the property address, the history of subdivision and the names of the previous owners, you can now try to find out what records of the municipality's various departments are available and useful in your search. 


The building plan approval department should have all of the old approved plans pertaining to every property going back to the time that building plans were first approved, though there are few local authorities that do.13 The building plans are obviously crucial documents in your search to understand the making of and changes to the building in question and many very interesting things can be read or deduced from them; not least the architects’ names,14 the growth of the building, and the use of the property over time.


The property rates branch should also have valuable information contained in its records which, typically, give the history of the buildings and the changes in properly value. 15 Other municipal branches (or functions) which inevitably have information useful in interpreting and understanding the environment include the town planning, the architectural and the subdivision branches. 16


There are a very wide range of bodies that have historical records and,  in many cases, have even employed professional historians to write their histories including commercial companies and institutions like churches. 17 If the building you are interested in belonged to a big commercial company or to a church/synagogue/mosque, you should try to find out whether any histories written with that institution in mind includes any reference to the building you are interested in.


Now, with all this information we need to think about exploring an archive we often take for granted because we fail to consciously recognise that we are and have been reading it all our lives: the building itself and, more generally, the built environment itself. With all the information we have gleaned from the sources I have described kept in mind, we now must explore the building and its various parts, its garden, the street boundary, the street, its pavings. And we should now see things not previously or only subliminally noticed: joints or differences in material, 18 subtle changes in surface, dimensions previously not understood or thought odd, relics of previous configurations and perhaps of important events.


A second source we often do not consider adequately is the memory of both past and present occupants. Indeed, this is surprising because it is our memories which establish our identities and what and how we feel about our places in the environment, about how we dwelled in the past and how we feel and dwell today. This living archive is an ephemeral one and I shall not labour it here but oral histories are, in many circumstances, invaluable in interpreting and understanding the place we live in; and, particularly the places affected by traumatic events like the forced removals experienced by many South Africans throughout the 20th century and earlier. 19 But this living record is often supported by family photographs, sometimes of the family members and often with the environs in the background.


Now let us change focus again: and, having first explored the wider context of the suburb or town, then the individual building, we need now to look at the scale in between: the street or neighbourhood. To do this we need to look at more than one building in the same kind of detail as I have just described.


This sounds like hard work, doing all that work on one house and now having to do it for all the houses in the street. But that is just because I have described the process in this way: when you investigated the subdivision history of the house as I described a moment ago, you needed to write down the details of all the other pieces of land created at the same time; and when you explored the street directories for the names and details of the occupants of the one house, you really needed to do that for the whole street; and when you went to the town council and sought the details of the one property, you needed to do the same for all.


And, of course, the built environment is an extraordinarily rich archive: and so you must look carefully at all the buildings in the street, all of the architectural characters; and when you have done this several times, each time with detailed information you are absolutely certain of, you will become more confident in judging the stylistic characteristics and periods of the buildings you are looking at.


By now you have got more information than you can realistically juggle in your head, you have scores of pages with dates and names, facts about the events in the life of the place you have been researching, you have a number of photographs of different buildings, taken at different times for different purposes, and you have a number of maps which all can be used to explain the making of this place. This is the raw data for the writing of history.


You also have a list of books and articles by a wide range of people who have written about related matters, perhaps even about the same neighbourhood but with different intentions in mind: other histories, each written with an ‘agenda', each written from a particular point of view. You now need to decide what your agenda is: what is the argument you want to make, have you uncovered something not known, who is the audience you want to reach and what is the best vehicle for that communication?


I suspect that you have had a lot of fun doing this research and that you have uncovered things not known or recognised before. The next step of describing what you have discovered and, perhaps more importantly, of explaining where that information came from is rather more difficult but is as rewarding. But remember, the single most important part of any account you write will be to describe/cite the sources of your information, the archives and records you have found and explored, how you have assembled your discoveries.


7 June 2013

Stephen Townsend


 This information and footnotes can be downloaded as a pdf document here


1    Published histories are very wide-ranging in type, in how you can use them, from town to town, from suburb to suburb. 


2     If you are interested in Cape Town, you must look at the two excellent illustrated social histories, CapeTown:The  Making of aCity (1998) and Cape Town in the Twentieth Century (1999), by the academic historians, Nigel Worden, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Vivian Bickford-Smith; and Hans Fransen's Old Towns and Villages of the Western Cape (2006) and The Old Buildings of the Cape (2004) of course cover much more than Cape Town. There are innumerable recent and older studies of small towns and suburbs like Marischal Murray's study on Sea Point and Green Point, Under Lion’s Head (1964), and Helen Robinson's Beyond the City Limits (1998) on Wynberg. There are interesting histories of commercial companies, often done by professional historians, and self-published works by amateurs like the series on the history and architecture of the False Bay suburbs by Michael Walker. 

Sadly, the usefulness  of many very interesting studies, particularly those by enthusiastic local historians, is significantly reduced by inadequate (or entirely absent) citing of sources.


3     The Cape Archives, the SA Library and Iziko Museum all have photographic collections, some of them well-indexed. The Cape Town City Council and many local authorities also have collections of old photographs. And many smaller museums like the District Six Museum and the Simon's Town Museum have comprehensive collections of photographs of the areas and subjects of their interest (these two museums have a particular interest in the way in which apartheid affected their environs and the people in them and are especially valuable in these respects). 


4     Early maps, made for a wide variety of reasons including military, the planning of engineering services like water-borne sewage, electricity supply or the surfacing of pavements and roads, inevitably give a wealth of information and insight into the making of the settlement. There are also records like the Goad Insurance Company maps (in several big South African towns) dating from the 1890s which give considerable detail about uses and the nature of the built-form (however, these maps only detail areas with a preponderance of commercial buildings). 


5    The Cape Town City Council's environment and heritage department, however, has a section which is devoted to historical record keeping (including old maps and surveys of various kinds). These records are comprehensive; and the members of staff are knowledgeable and helpful. 


6    The Cape Town office of this government department is in Rhodes Drive in Rosebank; and its members of staff are unusually accommodating and helpful.  


7     And these aerial surveys were usually repeated every five or ten years so the gradual process of change can be understood. 


8    Small local museums are sometimes  joking called "one-tannie" museums by historians and government departments but they are often the best source of local histories including oral history.


9    Photographs of people and events often include all sorts of unrelated but very interesting evidence in their backgrounds.


10    The surveyor's diagram for each property tells you when the erf/lot was created and what larger piece it was created from (or how it was added to), often as part of a "township" which may have been a farm or much grander property  previously. For example, the very large property known as Bishopscourt and owned by the Anglican Church was subdivided into a large number of properties in several steps  from 1940 when the Surveyor General's "general plan" was approved. 


11    This is much easier than the laborious process of going backwards step-by-step from title deed to title deed though, if the history is very complicated, you may need to do that for the complicated periods. 


12    The Cape Almanacs (ordered by name rather than address) date from the early to late 19th century and the street directories date from about 1900; and the most complete sets of both almanacs and street directories and most easily accessed are at the SA Library. The street directories do, however, reflect our long history of racism and often the entries simply say "Coloured" or similar or "Imam" or, sometimes, give the trade of the occupant, like “Carpenter".


13    Cape Town, however, has a very large percentage of the plans approved since the mid-1890s; although many of the older plans are kept in different locations, are not well indexed and very few officials know where the plans of the earlier periods are archived. These difficulties have been exacerbated by the local government reorganisations from the late 1990s. Most local authorities have a routine answer to enquires about plans before a certain date: They were burned in the fire in xxxx, (usually about 1960 or so). They were not burned; just thrown away or stored where no one knows or remembers. 


14     The architect's name of any building work is very useful because you can easily, via the website,, find out a great deal of information about a very large number of architects practising between 1880 and about 1950. Their names, histories and architectural practices can tell you a great deal or, at least, give clues about the architecture  of the building and perhaps even about the owner of the building in question. ls In Cape Town the old estates/property  management branch kept what were called "the yellow pages" which gave considerable detail from about 1925. These records are currently being digitised which will make them more easily accessible. 


16     Of course, not all municipalities have separate branches or departments for all of these different functions but they should all have records that reflect these municipal responsibilities. I should add that, perhaps, the greatest discovery pleasure is that experienced when you discover a new archive, a new previously unrecognised source of information! 


17     For example, many Anglican churches have been researched by Langham-Carter and sometimes the church records will include his sheets with tiny hand-written notes on the church and its furnishings, stained-glass windows, etc. And HC Hopkins researched a number of churches for the NG Church (self-published by the Church). These researches inevitably include a great deal of information about the churches' congregations and their environs.


18      My own house,  first phase  built a year or two before 1884, has floors of eight different materials (six different kinds of timber, each placed at a different time)!


19    There are several very experienced oral historians in Cape Town who have spent decades talking to people about their pasts, pasts that would not otherwise be recorded. Some of these histories are published but some are kept by the communities in question.