The year was 1808 and in the Cape Colony of South Africa a building was raised. Hildagonda (Hilda) Duckitt, author of the famous “Hilda’s ‘Where Is It?’ of Recipes” and “Hilda’s Diary of Cape Housekeeping”, called it a “dear old home”. It was the only genuine ‘shooting box’ of Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape from 1814 to 1828.
Some 64 kilometers north of Cape Town, close to the hill known as Kapokberg, the land spreads a lush green carpet all the way to the shores of Saldanha Lagoon. In 1808 this was Groene Kloof (now known as Mamre) where many of the vegetables required to supply the fleets of the Dutch East India Company were grown. Here, too, grazing was necessary to support the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep owned by the Honourable Company.
In those far off days the Hottentots were adept at slipping into the area unobserved and making off with a few choice head of cattle. The cattle raids became more and more frequent until it was decided to establish a system of guards at ‘posts’ where the animals were most frequently driven for grazing. The biggest and most important of these guard stations was known as ‘Groote Post’.
On the 21st February 1803, the Cape was transferred to the Batavian Republic and Commissioner General Abraham de Mist determined to continue farming using the scientific methods which the British had introduced. He established a Board of Commission for Agriculture and granted the members an area of 40 000 morgen around Groote Post. William Duckitt, of Esher in England, who elected to stay on when the British left, was appointed as Agricultural Superintendent.
A small flock of Merino sheep was sent to Groote Post when it arrived from Holland and was later joined by a stud bull, cows imported from England and some horses. With all this development, the committee agreed to build a good, substantial house and outbuildings valued at 61 555 rix dollars. And so the home Groote Post was born.
By this time the British had reoccupied the Cape but they made no changes to the Board of Agriculture and on January 27 and 28, 1815, an agricultural meeting was held at Groote Post where the public was invited to inspect the stock and the agricultural implements.
It had been hoped that this would be the first of many occasions but when Lord Charles Somerset arrived as Governor and accepted the position as Patron of the Board, he promptly made changes which were resented. In his usual forthright manner, Somerset simply dissolved the Board and took direct charge of Groote Post and the surrounding farms.
Lord Charles left the Cape in 1827 never to return. Shortly after his departure, Groote Post was divided into seven farms, the leases of which – all for 17 years – were auctioned.
On January 20, 1836, Phillip Johannes Rens purchased the farm at a public auction for £1 062.10s.0d. and owned it for two years before selling it to a Mrs. J M Hill who resold it the same day to Frederick Duckitt, the second son of the William Duckitt who had come to the Cape in 1800 as Superintendent of Agriculture. Frederick married Hillegonda Johanna Versveld of Classenbosch in the Cape. They had ten children, the sixth of whom was the renowned South African author Hildagonda Duckitt.
In her ‘Diary’ she writes with great warmth of the ‘old home’ and of her feeling towards it. She describes how, on a whim, the carpets would be rolled back and, with music supplied by member of the staff or a talented guest, everyone would enjoy an impromptu dance.
To hold a dance with family, friends and guests in one room of a house that Reverend Latrobe described as “not large” may seem uncomfortably cramped until one realises that the worthy gentleman’s idea of “not large” included a master bedroom measuring nearly six meters by five! Some of the rooms may only measure about five meters by three but these are the smallest of the rooms. The kitchen has an oven, half of which can accommodate thirty loaves of bread at one baking. Another kitchen backs onto the first for the
preparation of the meals and many times the house was filled with the rich, warm aroma of seventy loaves baking. The dining room and the living room are wonderfully spacious by any standards.
There are three entrance halls, although only one main entrance is in use today, and the house can boast over 400 panes of window glass.
Yellow-wood floors and ceilings are everywhere in superb condition and the many fireplaces – relatively rare in Cape Dutch homesteads – are thought to have been installed to cater for the creature comforts of the demanding Lord Charles Somerset. All the buildings, without exception, are in excellent repair. Groote Post can also lay claim to international horticultural associations through Nemesia Strumosa the seeds of which were sent by Hildagonda Duckitt to an English nursery. This rather straggly flower which grew in profusion in the Groote Post area, developed into one of today’s most popular bedding varieties.
Undeniably, Groote Post is a national treasure but it is – first and foremost – what it was created to be – a warm and welcoming home. In it, the past lives side by side with the present and one can relax in the company of many of South Africa’s most famous names who knew Groote Post when it (and the country) were still young.
Throughout its long history Groote Post has been associated with the improvement of livestock breeding in South Africa and now it is owned by Peter and Nick Pentz.
Adjoining Groote Post is another farm rich in the history of early South Africa – Klawer Valley. According to the diarist Lichtenstein, who accompanied Commissioner General de Mist on a visit to the farm in 1803, it was “a place made not many years before by Mr. Sebastian van Reenen”.
On the 25th January 1815 the farm was transferred to William Duckitt who had been sent to the Cape in 1800 by King George III to take up the position of Superintendent of Agriculture and who had such a close association with the adjoining farm, Groote Post.
Duckitt played a major part in the improvement of the agriculture of his time – his greatest contribution being – perhaps – the invention of a new type of plough which broke the earth better than any other plough. Duckitt’s revolutionary plough became in great demand and was forged in quantity at Groote Post.
William Duckitt died at Klawer Valley in 1825 and he and his wife are buried there. His descendants owned the farm until 1957 – and today it is owned by Peter and Nick Pentz, who are continuing the traditions established so many years ago.