On the drive from Cape Town to the Witzenberg Valley you will pass several of these historic block houses, sadly few have been maintained, fortunately the Block Houses of Wolseley can easily be visited.
From the beginning of the Boer War, Cape Town was the main port of entry for the war effort. Troops arrived, equipment was off loaded, the injured were sent to hospitals and the concentration camps were established at Green Point and Simon’s Town.
The railway line from Cape Town to the north, the Boer Republics, was therefore of great importance to the British Army and they were totally dependant on it. In 1900 as the British Army marched to Pretoria, leaving its southern lines of communication open, General Christiaan De Wet mounted a concerted attack on the railway lines and bridges forcing the British to act. A fine example of these old railway bridges are visible in Wolseley as is the railway line which is still the main line to the north today.
The British Army’s chief engineer, Major General Wood, was asked by Lord Roberts, the then Governor of the Cape to design the blockhouses and the first were built in March 1900.(other source 1901) The stone was quarried from the local area while all other materials were imported from Britain and the Colonies. The wood from Canada, the bullet proof steel doors and rifle slits and corrugated iron roof from England.
The standard stone Blockhouse design was a 3 storied building with the ground floor used for supplies and water tanks, the first floor served as a “living” area and was accessed by a retractable ladder and the top floor was the lookout post. These Blockhouses could house up to 20 men, had gutters to channel the rain water down into the water tanks and had their food, ammunition and mail delivered by passing trains. They were connected by barbed wire with tin cans and bells acting as “alarms” on the wire.
The Blockhouse system required an enormous amount of troops to maintain. Well over 50 000 British troops were involved in blockhouse duty, as well as 16000 Africans which were used as armed guards and to patrol the lines at night. This is comparable to the 30 000 Boers in the field during this time.
Only 441 of the stone type blockhouses, such as these, were built. There are very few of them left in such a good condition as those in Wolseley due to neglect and vandalism. They were found to be too expensive (£800 - £1000) and time consuming (3 months). Major Rice, under the command of Lord Kitchener, then designed a cheaper (£44 - £16), easier to construct (6 hours) circular corrugated iron blockhouse. By the end of the Boer War there were over 8000 blockhouses.
Not many of the Blockhouses experienced any action, merely boredom, which indicates the effectiveness of these structures! Not one bridge where the blockhouses were sited and manned was ever blown.
After the war the blockhouses fell into disuse and many were stripped for basic building materials. The stone blockhouses of Wolseley have survived mainly due to being on private property and they are a wonderful piece of history to come and experience. The Blockhouse next to the R43 in Wolseley now has a stable set of stairs for entry and is accessible for tours.
Please contact Natasha Dicey on 082 7807516 for any further information or tours of the Blockhouse.
John & Jo
We are the owners of horseAbout Trails & Adventures in the Western Cape.
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