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Victorian Architecture Of Pietermaritzburg South Africa History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Pietermaritzburg, it is not a name that automatically springs to mind as one of the well-known cities of the world. The city is still very young, much like many of the Victorian colonies that sprung up around Southern Africa and the far reaches of the United Kingdom colonies of the late eighteen hundreds. What Pietermaritzburg boasts is one of the most complete and specific Victorian architectures of its time, the richest in Victorian architecture in the world. With the discovery of gold in the eighteenth hundreds in South Africa and emigration of many of Europeans, the interest in Natal by the British meant massive investment in claiming PMB as the centre stage for Victorian life in Africa, having more buildings of Victorian influence than anywhere else in the United Kingdom herself. [1] 

It is for this reason that Pietermaritzburg must be documented in its entirety for no other town has such a rich collection of Victorian buildings. In recent years, with the mismanagement by municipalities and funds not readily available, many of the buildings have gone to ruin, demolished and have often been destroyed by fire. It is for this reason that PMB is a worthy historical study, in order to document many of the old buildings before they are lost to neglect and mismanagement.

Pietermaritzburg was founded by the Boers as a stronghold against the British. PMB was built on a layout of Voortrekker town plans, but with the British in power in 1843 only five years after the establishment of PMB by the Boers, Victorian and Georgian architecture began to appear. The thesis delves into the interaction between the Voortrekker city planning and the influence of on the design of the Victorian building styles. From the 1870’s until early 1900 saw PMB grow at an exasperating rate. Three quarters of the world’s gold comes from South Africa, and it is the result of this richness from the gold and Diamond industry in South Africa that gave the local architecture its grandeur, and flamboyancy.

William Holden who wrote the book ‘History of the colony of Natal’, which was published in 1855, earmarks Natal as promising:

” to become one of the most important of the colonial possessions of Great Britain”. [2] 

This statement was made during the period of ‘Europe’s Diaspora, the accelerated movement of people from Great Britain, leaving for its colonies. The Eighteenth hundreds proved to become one of the periods of great bloodshed, intrigue, unrest and mystery for Natal. With the rapid growth of Natal, it is understandable that many at this time believed that growth of commercial, political and social institutions would lead to one of the great colonies of the United Kingdom.

The documentation of this period of Pietermaritzburg’s history is essential as it is the foundations of contemporary architectural meaning. Preservation of these monuments is also essential as it gives PMB its original character. It was in the last two decades of the century that Pietermaritzburg had astounding growth, from the first rail way line in Africa, which later spanned to Johannesburg to 50 years of rich Victorian architecture. This thesis provides an outline of the events and history that gave rise to the noteworthy Architecture of Pietermaritzburg.

History of Natal

Materials and Climate of Pietermaritzburg

PMB is 2218 feet above sea level. The average yearly temperature is about 18°c. On the rare occasion the summer temperatures could reach 36°c, and as low as – 2°c in the winter, but these are rare occurrences.

The Voortrekker were cattle farmers, they needed a site where cattle-sickness would not pose a problem. The sandy coast and insect plagues was too much for the Voortrekker and all that sand! These were all very substantial reasons for their calculated choice of site.

Climate was a deciding factor to the building forms. As many found the hot climate, corrugated iron was unyielding and effective building material. The creation of the stoep [3] became the symbol of Southern African life. This material would never have been used in a serious building in Europe, but gave a distinct appearance to the Victorian Vernacular of South Africa.

Another material not mentioned much, was prefabricated metalwork ceiling, the benefits of the metal ceiling was that when the roof leaked, the ceiling would not spoil the ceiling like the plaster or woodwork. It saved huge costs in repainting and repairing the other plaster ceilings.

Timber was not abundant in Natal, and where there were, it was readily used, and soon exhausted. Termite attack was very troubling and was one of the more difficult issues to overcome for the use of timber. Thatch was used by the early settlers. It was a local material and readily available. It made a very suitable roof for the warm climate. Thatching was done by the local Zulu’s who have been using this form of roof making for many years.

It was thanks to the extensive use of red bricks that gives PMB its unique character. There were several foundries in Natal. It was until the 1860’s that many of the materials to the colony were duty free. The government imported brick making machines, and thus felt it quite necessary for the establishment of its own brickyards. The first bricks to be made in PMB, were a red face brick. This was not well liked, but deposits of yellow clay found in the region, soon gave rise to a new more welcome salmon orange brick. The Natal fire Assurance and trust company listed buildings that were not made of brick or stone to be dangerous. The insurance costs of non-brick houses were three times that of its brick counterpart. This lead to a renewed impetus in the use of brick for the built environment. The bricks were supplied by the brickyard owned by Mr Pistorius. [4] 

Steel industries such as the paragon works, owned by H.A Chadwick was an engineer and Ironworker by trade. His ironmongery won several awards throughout the country. He also cased the two huge iron gates for the PMB town hall. The salmon bricks, although unpopular with the locals at the time can be said to be anti-monumental as they en-capture a more intimate, human quality. It is this quality that gives PMB its quaintness.

Water was lead from the kleine bosjeman’s river

Green was the chosen colour for roofs, shutters and any other woodwork. Although the paint was relatively expensive to manufacture, it was still chosen as the colour for use in painting doors and window frames. It had nothing to do with economy. One explanation could possibly be the use from the Moorish heritage in Spain and Portugal. There might a possible link between former Spanish empire , Austria, Bavaria and Holland. And might have spread in its persistent form to South Africa as a colour of coolness. [5] 

Pre- Colonial Times

Kwa-Zulu Natal or then termed Natalia was founded by Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama on his way to India landing on the East coast of Southern Africa and proclaiming the land, Natalia, in honour of its Nativity. [6] 

Dating back, Natal, was home to pre-Bushman [7] people. Many artefacts of these people have been found at Archaeological sites, with many of their rock paintings still found in the higher reaches of the Drakensberg and uplands in Natal. The African tribe Abakwamamcibise lived in the borough of which was to become Pietermaritzburg. King Chaka Zulu, the infamous Zulu King laid waste to many tribes in the Natalia area, swept through the region where the Abakwamamcibise tribe lived. Most were exterminated and those who survived scattered to other areas of Natal.

Natal was fraught with large warring tribes. Winning tribes would include the losing tribes into their own tribe. Whole communities would be displaced by the warfare of these tribes. In the early Eighteen hundreds, Shaka Zulu, the king of the Zulu tribe attacked many smaller tribes in Natal until the area was practically depopulated. In 1828, hungry for power, his two half-brothers Dingane and Mahlangane murdered him, whereupon Dingane took place as the new Zulu leader.

The assertiveness of King Chaka, and land hunger that he claimed broke and dispersed the smaller tribes of the region. The natives were broken, divided because of the conquering Zulu’s , many were forced into recluse. Recourse was taken to cannibalism. Witch craft was strong. With the arrival of colonists, many of the now divided tribe’s seeked protection from the still strong forces of the Zulu tribe. Treaties made by the British and the Zulus have kept the natives safe and often led to many missionaries starting churches for the local inhabitants. It was with the reign of King Cetawayo that many mission stations were built.

Trek to Natal

Both the Cape and Natal was an essential transport route for ships of the VOC [8] en route to India, as many vessels would stop on the African coasts for fresh supplies and treatment of scurvy. When war broke out between Britain and Napoleon, the British sent additional troops to secure the route. The first British occupation began on 14 September 1795. The French and Dutch joined forces supporting the American colonists. This lead to a French garrison in the Cape. With the war in Europe, the Policy of whitewall [9] stated that self – governing colonies had to fend for themselves, as Britain’s entire resources were devoted to conquering Napoleon.

Huguenots or otherwise referred to as Afrikaners [10] , where a God-Fearing, strong willed and industrious people. They had a strong desire to live of their own means, with their own religion and beliefs. Their desire for their own land has always been a struggle in South Africa, as they always faced adversity from British rule, local inhabitants or climatic hardships. They were hard working, useful and practical in their ways, but their separation as trekkers led too much of their hardships. Religion was the keystone to the Afrikaners, although the people were not dreary or over serious.

Owing to the life and manner of many of the Trekkers, it became a way of life and being so removed from their European ancestors; the ‘Trekking’ life was quite congenial, placing them in the forefront as pioneers in Southern Africa. The trekking lifestyle had many drawbacks. As they were always travelling, children often grew up with little or no education and being separated from people, they had many social inflictions. The trekkers were pastoral people, often owning land between 6000 and 20,000 acres. Their livestock was their chief care. The cattle were the main concern for the trekkers, and so any improvement of landscape or permanent buildings were often neglected as migration was their main priority for their cattle.

It wasn’t until 1837, that the first Dutch Voortrekkers, [11] decedents of the Huguenot settlers climbed down the mountain passes of the Drakensberg and reached the uplands of Natal. Discontent with the British occupation in the Cape Colony, the Voortrekkers moved north to find land of their own.

The two leaders, Piet Retief and Gert Maritz lead the trek through the Drakensberg to Port Natal; they were hoping that Britain will give them de facto if they were to remain a community who will live in accordance to the British law, but on their own land. Piet Retief rode ahead to Port Natal to make contact with the English Settlers at the Port. The Voortrekkers created Pietermaritzburg as a palisaded laager [12] . The natives called PMB, Umgungunhlovu, because of the ancient seat of Government of the Zulu’s on the White Umfolosi River. It was only two years later that permanent settlement began – for fear of attack from the Zulu’s. Many small towns around PMB developed around the forts that were established to protect PMB.

It was previously accepted that Pietermaritzburg, the name was a marriage between the names of the original founding fathers of the town, Piet Retief and Gert Maritz, leading to the town name, Pieter-Maritz-berg, berg meaning ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’. But, recent research by Robert Haswell of the University of Natal indicates that this might not be the case. New evidence shows that the two leaders were not on friendly terms. Also on early Volksraad minutes, the town is written as ‘Pietermauritzburg’. Fitting, that Piet Retief second name was Mauritz!

PMB was located approx. 90 km from the Port Natal, embraced by two small rivers, the Umsindusi and Dorp Spruit.. Britain at the time had strong naval ships, where the Boers had none. The central location of PMB and natural advantages of PMB soon became the seat of Natal – the principal town of the republic of Natalia. PMB was an ideal site for the trekkers, as it offered them a town that was inaccessible by the British sea power. Britain at the time had a major Sea presence, which the Dutch was non-existent. The Dutch often used guerrilla warfare, which was immensely useful against the British gentleman’s warfare. The site, just inland from the coast, humidity was lower and the farming was suitable to the farming which Piet Retief and his followers were accustomed to.

The insecure and unsettled conditions of the country and the fear of attack by the Zulu’s lead to the development of PMB as a town rather than farmlands. Many preferred safety of the town rather than having to protect themselves on their own farmlands. The continual fear of murderous attacks on women and children made many of the new emigrants not wanting to leave the Laager in fear of their lives. Fort Napier was created west of the town, overlooking the area for the safety of the town.

“On 3 February 1838, Dingane’s tribesmen killed Piet Retief, together with 67 of his followers, during an ambush. Retief had an agreement with Dingane that if he succeeded in returning Dingane’s cattle that had been stolen by Sikonyela; the Voortrekkers would be allowed to buy land from him and his people. 

When the Voortrekkers returned with the stolen cattle, they were killed. The Voortrekkers swore vengeance and Dingane’s army was defeated at Blood River on 16 December 1838 by Andries Pretorius. Dingane’s death brought with it an end to the extermination wars waged by him and his armies. However, in other parts of the country, the Mfecane continued under leaders such as Msilikazi, Soshangane and Sikonyela. “

The Red Coats come

The Boers succumbed to British rule after establishing PMB for about 5 years. In 1843 [13] the Volksraad submitted to the British Authority. The Boers had to vacate their land for new British Military. They left their carefully laid plans and foundations for the British to build upon, the renowned Edwardian and Victorian Architecture which later made Pietermaritzburg famous. The British gained possession of Natal. The Afrikaners left PMB, with many erven still undeveloped, the streets were still dirt tracks. It was a temporary home for the Afrikaners, after five years of disillusionment, at the realisation that they once again could not shake off the British rule, the Trekkers packed their wagons to join the great trek North over the mountains. Sites that were claimed by the Boers in Natal include, Maritzburg, Durban, and Weenen. The exodus of the Boers out of the Cape Colony happened through the years of 1846-47. And many moved north to the Berg and Orange River. Many Voortrekkers from the Cape Colony settled again in Pietermaritzburg. Many Voortrekkers headed north, and some as far as Mozambique. The great trek ended for many as Malaria was fraught in the area and the majority of trekkers died. As the people were dying of Malaria, most of the cattle died from infections from the tsetse flies. 

Natal’s political and constitutional development crystallized in the 1840’s with the formal annexation of the colony by Henry cloete’. From here onwards all developments were to evolve under the British crown. In 1877, Sir Theo Shepstone, acting as Imperial Official, annexed the South African Republic to the British Crown. The rule of England was welcomed by the Dutch in the days of their helpless poverty, but infused by British capital, the depression passed away, only to leave the Dutch with the discontent of the comfort and wealth that the British now had.

The Zulu war of 1879, where many of the Zulu warriors were eradicated by the British. This led to a more peaceful period for the city. The towns quietness was twice interrupted, first by the First Anglo Boer war (1880 – 1881), and then later in 1885 by severe economic depression.

The control of Africa as a race against many other colonial powers of Europe. In this period, The Portuguese had already controlled West and East Africa (Mozambique, and Angola), the Germans controlled Namibia, the Belgium’s in DRC and Congo and the French in West and Equatorial Africa as well as Madagascar. With colonial threats around South Africa, the newly discovered Diamond mines in Kimberly and Gold Mines in Johannesburg meant Britain’s eager expansion in the country. With the laws of supply and demand, Britain’ ‘hungry forties’ led to the disposal of many of her people and the demand of Natal for more population. This period is met with much propaganda and falsified accounts to draw the attention of the people of England to it colonies.

Methley expresses :

“There can be no hesitation in characterising it as the healthiest region under the dominion of Great Britain; it is especially adapted to persons of consumptive tendencies or who have pulmonary affections” [14] 

For many of these towns throughout the Dutch and British colonies, many of them were fountainheads of community life. The settlers created centres for religion, jurisdiction and trade. In 1857 [15] , Natal was the first Railway company to have tracks on African Soil, the first line was from Point to Durban.

“And among all the British colonies none had a finer architecture than Natal” [16] 

Ghandi Photo [17] 

It was quite obvious that the Boer and the British did not mix well in the town. Thomas Phipson writes on his travels to PMB, that the first thing he noticed riding into town was the burial grounds. This reflected the separation in PMB, as he states: ” The Boer graves were to the left of the road and the British to the right!”.

Urban Development of Pietermaritzburg

1843 – 1900

The grid

Most of the Voortrekker and British town planning was bluntly put, straight forward, and lacking in skill and design. The most common town planning was pattern of a grid. With the dimensions fixed to an ideal size, chosen for the most appropriate erven sizes. Often, the main focus of the planning, would be a centralised open square in the centre of the town, which would face all the major buildings. The erection of a town square is a continuation of the traditions of the medieval schemes and was commonly used in the Cape. Although unimaginative and direct, the boldness and small amount of time needed for surveying appealed greatly to both the Boer and British military and administrators. Some of the first examples of these grid pattern layouts where, Waterval, and graaf reinet. The layout was often left to grow organically.

In the centre of the PMB, the Dutch built a market hall, which was soon to replaced by a larger Market hall, as the importance of the premises grew rapidly. The original gaol was replaced by a police station.

The site for the town was almost flat. The street orientation is set out on a North to East to South West. The erven sizes were 45 x 15 m in size, large enough to have an orchard and garden in the back. The streets were eighty feet wide, and the town divided by nine parallel streets and by five other.

Many of the street names are reminiscent of Cape Town and Holland, names such as, Burger, Loop, Kerk Straat (Church Street).

Republic of Natal 1845 -1870

The active intervention of the British in Natal in 1842 meant that by 1845 only 60 trekker families were left in PMB. The removal of the Boers during the exodus meant two things for PMB, the predominant white population became even more urban, hence there was less exploitive activities on the environment occurring. The British population was growing, and settlers from the Cape moved to Natal. In 1849, PMB had a white population of about 3000, 1500 being Boers. [18] 

The British made new policy’s where reserves were made aside for the Native people to stay, enough arable land for the natives to become independent peasantry. The natives where an essential part of the taxes for PMB. The natives were very important to the economic powers of the colony. As the 120 000 natives contributed more to taxes than the fellow Europeans. The politics of land ownership were therefore dealt in the favour of the majority and kept land-hungry whites at bay.

The two main features that can be found in the town layout is the complete dominance of the surrounding environment and the close relationship between agriculture and the town.

The continuation of the planning by British rule seemed to be in agreement with the one man, one site ideal. The eighteenth hundred collective bourgeoisie trends were not favoured by the Boers as they preferred owning private property. This carried on through to their architecture, where the regular geometry of the street scene was formed. It was the urban landscaping that proved to be the aesthetic of harmony where neighbourly friendliness was born.

Many of the houses became free standing objects within the erven, creating independent characters. The independence of the land owners seemed to have impacted the development of the town; most houses would be single storey, catering for only one family. The initial Volksraad regulations indicated that the front of the building should be built right on the street. Other peculiar regulations were the Dorp Spruit water sluis [19] . Advantage was taken of the gently sloping ridge between the Dorp Spruit and Umsindusi rivers; water was led easily to the town to supply the houses with water and to irrigate the gardens. Many of the avenues and bordering ‘sluits’ were common in Trekker planning, the continuation of Dutch characters.

With improper measuring tools, it often became difficult to supervise or prevent the encroachment onto other streets or properties. The individual erven and free standing verandah houses, the city struggles to find architectural unity. Through the planted avenues of plain trees, Jacaranda’s, hedges and garden walls help restore the unity of the town. Both PMB and Durban (Port Natal) were laid out to handle future growth. Many buildings were scattered and separated, with large areas with wild bush and gardens growing on the erven for many years. In the early days it was often noted how people will stumble upon hyena’s on the way back from a dance, or how elephants had the habit of rubbing against the poles of the verandah and causing the verandah to collapse!

With the new development of railway line between the Port and PMB, workers could stay further away from home (1880). The growth of the Town was very chaotic, The initial layout were simple solutions for the initial town planning, but as the city grew, the landscape became more uneven, the pattern of land usage changed and required more skill at developing in the country side.

Character of PMB

One of the most common aspects of British colony development in towns was the attitude towards convenience and comfort. In this case, the verandah house was a very popular device in the Victorian period. The Verandah’s unified the horizontal elements of the streets, and was by far the most essential industrial prosduct used in many parts of South Africa for its excellent properties for rain protection. Corrugated sheets might not have suited the colder European climate, but the building material was excellent for hot climates. It cooled off quickly in the evenings, and proved an excellent alternative to thatch. [20] With the use of Verandah’s as sun protection, the use for shutters became void, hence the removal of them as functional and aesthetical element.

With the act of rebuilding London in 1667, it became legislation that buildings required balconies on the first floor to prevent falling timber falling directly to the streets. It is believed that this was a driving factor for the origins and characteristics of the balconies found in the Gregorian and Victorian style.

PMB could owe its beauty to the sluits, as they help line the streets with Seringa and weeping willows, with all the gardens neat trimmed hedges and meridian of roses. Australian gum tree (Eucalyptus), were often used as both shade, and lighting conductors.

The most interesting feature about the town planning of PMB is that the streets, however long and non-abiding to the hills it runs over, maintains a special characteristic. The streets are lined with Victorian buildings, from the sub-burb to the city centre, in a single linear street, the variation of grand city buildings to verandah-festooned balconies with creepers. Willows can be found on either sides of the city, all distinctly different, thanks to the independently standing erven. This gives a rich atmosphere of the English. The City has retained much of its past character, of restfulness and homeliness. The whole Victorian period from residential to commercial can be captured continuing through the streets of pmb.

Victorian Period

By the ascensions of the young Queen Victoria, in 1837, the Georgian period Ended and Victorian was born. The forty year period (before 1900) was so radical in the changes in architectural styles that it could have constituted a revolution. The economic wellbeing of the state and growth of PMB was phenomenal for the town, and has not seen such growth before. The unsettled atmosphere was reflected in the architecture. This was period of social and cultural disintegration. Many Boers left the colony of the cape to find financial and political independence. To escape the British rule in the Cape, the Boers headed North, and some heading for PMB. The creation of Boer republics led to a new chapter in the political development of South Africa. The red markings on maps of where the British Empire was stretched were scattered across the world, but occasionally there would be inlays where the Boer Republics were dividing these powers. Natal belonged to the British, but some Afrikaners decided to stay and live within in the laws of the British colony.

In the mid eighteen hundreds, it was common for young men to leave England and head for the distant colonies of their kingdom. Many exports of the British colony were young architects who worked in the fashionable offices of architects in Great Britain. So with the emigration to other colonies, the pattern books, prefabricated materials and the men themselves were taken along. It has been documented that many British left for health reasons or for seeking fortune elsewhere. This export led to a time lag for the architectural styles. These fashions of Europe often only reached its colonies a decade later. With this lag, the Cape Dutch tradition lingered on during the early days of Britain’s Victorian era. PMB was initially a settlement with white washed gables, then Georgian architecture was imported. The phase of styles and changes in characteristics gave this the Victorian architecture its distinct look and feel, it is quite easy to see the difference in styles to that of the Cape Dutch baroque and rococo styles.

Many new immigrants fell into the trap from reading flowery descriptions of Natal:

” You look around over your own broad acres and see your corn bending to the breeze and your herds grazing over what was a short time ago a wilderness . . . each new undertaking is to you prospective wealth

. . . Each day, as it glides away, leaves its blessing . . . you do as you like, go

Where you like and when you like; you cannot trespass.’ He waxed eloquent

In description: ‘the appearance of a noblemen’s park . . . covered with

Fountains and streams . . . no preliminary labour needed in clearing the land

. . .’ and more to the same tune.” [21] 

Many of the people who have fallen into this trap had to be rescued by the more experienced trekker families. But soon PMB was bursting at it seems with immigrants with specialized skills, tradesmen, artisans craftsmen etc.

The Immigrants were very proud and boastful:

“Pietermaritzburg shopkeepers and tradesmen nevertheless were said to have “grander houses, ride better horses, their wives are smarter and they are, in a sense, finer gentleman than in any other colony” [22] 

What is most interesting is the debate of this guy:

“Although Georgian styles faltered in its own fashionable metaphors. It has been debated that the colonies of the world has created more notable nineteenth centuryty architecture that what was created in the kingdom during the same period. When Europe was searching for meaning in the past by the creation of social expression to empty symbolism. This was met by some of the best colonial work the marriage the industrial revolution with the centuries old revolution. This created an attractive style based on the empirical use of the materials that help solve functional problems that came from living in difficult climates.” 


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