Information and history

ID #1593

History of Montagu, Karoo, Western Cape.

Montagu was founded in 1851 on the farm Uitvlucht, which belonged to Pieter Swanepoel from 1841. It is generally accepted that Joubert House, built in 1853 in Long Street, is the oldest house.  It was restored to its former glory in 1983 and is now part of the Montagu Museum. 

Montagu lies between the Keisie and Kingna Rivers that join west of the town.  In the 19th century, the only western exit was through Cogman’s Kloof. Passage required that the river be forded eight times!  Strong teams of horses or oxen were required for the trip as carts or wagons were often stranded in the Kloof.

In the early days, trekkers often followed the course of rivers. The wheels of one trekker’s wagon became stuck in the rocks of the riverbed.  In his efforts to free the wheel, the trekker’s hand was so badly injured that his party was obliged to pitch camp near the present day Montagu.  They drank the clear, strangely-flavoured water and found it to be wonderfully refreshing.  They traced its course through the kloof, where they discovered the hot springs.  The injured hand, bathed frequently in the warm water, healed miraculously. News of the healing waters soon spread and sick visited the springs from everywhere. A mail coach transported the post between Ashton and Montagu and its arrival was always a special event.  The old coach house is today a home.  After the tunnel, built in 1877 by Thomas Bain, was completed, a decent road was built through Cogman’s Kloof and other roads soon followed. Building of the now popular Montagu Baths started in 1857.  Disaster struck in 1981 when a flood swept away the entire Baths Complex.  The hotel has since been rebuilt.

The British Secretary of the Cape, John Montagu, began his public career as an army officer and was present at the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was finally defeated.  He was an able and conscientious young man whose talents were recognised by the Colonial Office when he entered civilian life.  He was posted to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia) as Civil, Military and Private Secretary to the Governor. After some time he came out under a cloud and was recalled. Subsequently vindicated, he was then appointed Colonial Secretary of the Cape of Good Hope in 1843, specifically charged with reducing its debt, which he did skilfully. 

He had the intelligence and imagination to envisage the potential of the Cape, but realised that it could not develop without efficient transport and communications, and their provision became the focus of his attention. The sandy barrier of the Cape Flats was the main obstacle. He built a road across it that was protected by screens, Port Jackson willow and hakea, which he had seen in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand). The latter have since become a serious environmental problem, spreading like wildfire eastwards along the coastal plain as far as the Port Alfred. So the apparently innocent act of planting trees to protect a road has led to a serious environmental problem. Chaos Theory at its finest! 

Aided by pioneering road engineers Henry Fancourt White and Andrew Geddes Bain, he punched passes through the mountain barriers with the aid of convict labour and expert stonemasons.  Through his efforts, the country developed.  Farmers and businessmen rejoiced and the amiable but overworked Montagu became a popular figure.  As a tribute to his services, a nascent dorp previously known as “Agter Cogman’s Kloof” in the Langeberge was renamed Montagu. 

By 1851, he was facing collapse due to the inconclusiveness of a local war and his reluctance to draft a constitution for representative government for the Cape, which he considered premature.  He bravely made the journey to the infant dorp named after him and was feted at a ceremonial luncheon given by its few inhabitants and property-owners.  His health finally failed and he left for England on May 2 1852.  Crushed mentally and physically by his exertions, he never recovered and died at Brighton on November 4 1853.  His close friend, Robert Gray, first bishop of Cape Town then visiting England, officiated at his funeral. His portraits may be seen in the Montagu Museum, #41 Long Street, and in the Public Library in the Municipal Building in Piet Retief Street.

Montagu is on the R62 northeast of Ashton, which is on the N15 east of Robertson, which is on the N15 northwest of Swellendam, which is at the intersection of the N2 with the N15. BGHistory

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Last update: 2014-02-28 15:49
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.2

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