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Posted on: Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Joubert House – a day in the life of what it was to live in the 1850s

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Joubert House

Joubert House

Annette Cilliers is a national treasure. Her enthusiasm and knowledge of Joubert House, a house museum and national monument that is like a flashback to what a home must have looked like on any given day in Montagu in the 1850s, is palpable. She speaks about the people involved in that period as if they are personal friends of hers, and knows, right down to the floors, how the house was built and why.

There is more of a reason than her interest, of course. There happened a nasty flood in 1981, the same day exactly as the flood of Laingsburg, on the 25th January, during which the house was so damaged that the municipality wanted to pull it down. Pictures of the devastation grace the walls in the room that functions as her office, but which must have been the front parlour of the house – small enough to keep warm during winter and just inside the front door of the home where one could listen out for visitors (the 19th century version of television).

And there’s a long history that began in 1853, Annette begins to narrate as she stands next to her desk, hands clasped at her waist, when a young 22-year old Pieter Gideon Joubert built this house for his parents from sunbaked bricks and clay. It’s astounding to think that someone that young could simply put up a house, and a house built so well that it remained standing until freak waters washed it away over a century later – they obviously all knew something about building in those days; perhaps it was a ‘life skill’ like texting is to our teenagers today?

I am brought up to speed as to why wagon makers from Wellington descended on the valley in the first place, in an attempt to break away from the British. Their need must have been great as to enter the valley took great courage and a certain dogged determination. And once in, they were cut off from the rest of the world. This was probably their intent. Except that, as far as trade was concerned, getting their produce back to Cape Town, in order to sell it to ships and the growing population that caught on early that the Mother City was going to be a hit, was decidedly difficult.

Joubert House, MontaguPhotographs – Left: Joubert Hoyse / Centre: Joubert House plaque / Right: Joubert House front hall

Which is why they began drying their fruit (there is a large dried fruit factory in Montagu that is one of the biggest employers of the town). Agter (behind) Cogman’s Kloof, as Montagu was known in those days, only became Montagu when John Montagu, who was a bigwig in parliament and responsible for putting up roads, headed out here, an area that was predominantly farmland, with Thomas Bain (he of the various impossible mountain passes that daunt road builders even today) and Montagu no longer found itself behind closed doors, so to speak.

And then, of course, began the expansion of the little town, which originated when the Boers, now fed up with navigating the river eight times on a Sunday to get to church in Swellendam, built the NG church at the end of Church Street on a portion of the farm Uitvlugt (more reference to fleeing). Town houses for farmers followed and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that the flood of 1981 almost threatened to bring down the oldest reference to this period. If it were not for the trustees of the local museum who bought the house, and a man by the name of Ken Birch, after whom the lounge is named, who helped fund the resurrection, the house would be no more.

Joubert House in Montagu

Photographs – Left: Joubert House jail / Right: Joubert House back stoep and garden

Ken Birch set certain conditions for his funding. There was to be no modern architecture or building methods used and everything was to be as close as possible to the original, hence even the wallpaper had to be made in the Netherlands, as no-one else could come close to what used to hang there, in order to meet these specifications.

Which brings us to the floors, which continue to fascinate visitors. The kitchen and scullery are peach pip floors, a traditional method in that time period, one that is making a resurgence and pretty easy to do with local material as peach pips are in abundance in town.

If you manage to visit the little house, make sure you look out for the series of tiny leather period shoes lined up in the bedroom, and the toy room, filled with a collection of toys including a few handmade porcelain dolls that would be the envy of any collector.

But it is the medicinal garden out back that steals the show. Dirkie Joubert, the daughter of the young chap who built the house, wrote a book entitled Crab Soup and other stories (for sale at Joubert House), in which she relates how she began gardening with herbs, helped by a local Khoi shepherd who brought these herbs from the surrounding Montagu mountains for her to use. Yet only 10 per cent of what one can find on the mountains grows in this garden today, even though it makes for a prolific garden.

Joubert House MuseumPhotographs – Left: Joubert House lounge / Joubert House shoes

Since then the museum has researched and recorded the rich oral history of traditional remedies found in Montagu district and, together with a botanist from UCT (University of Cape Town), preserved this heritage by formulating various herb teas, made with secret combinations of herbs, for sale at the museum. Find remedies for anaemia, arthritis, blood circulation, chest complaints, menopause, stress, ulcers and more.

Look out for the town’s first jail, also in the garden, right next door to the original privy. It turns out that Pieter Gideon Joubert senior was also the town’s first Justice of the Peace and anyone found disturbing said peace found himself outside in disgrace. But today it serves a harmless function as the tool shed, and the gardens are there to wander at will.

Find Joubert House on Long Street in Montagu or contact Annette Cilliers on 023 614 1774.

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Wanda Coustas


Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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