A Brief History of the Area
Glen Ormond, once called Mountain View, is a portion of the original Wellington Farm that once lay spread over a large part of the area. The current owners, Digby and Jennifer Ormond-Brown bought the property in 2013. The Scottish name pays homage to the important role that the Scots have played in the development of the Midlands over the centuries and also reflects Digby and Jennifer’s own heritage. Jennifer’s maiden name is Murray, the Murrays being a significant Scottish clan. Digby, a member of the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association, is also descended from Scottish blood and is proud to have been appointed as the standard bearer to His Grace, the Duke of Atholl. The Ormond-Brown’s and the Duke’s family, also Murrays, have a friendship that spans a few generations. Glen Ormond is a country house by appointment to His Grace, the Duke of Atholl.
Wellington Farm was a massive 90,000 hectare farm. The original farmhouse of Wellington Farm still exists and is just down the road from Glen Ormond. The old farmhouse has thick stone walls and is reputed to be haunted. Those that know, say that you can hear strange noises in the dead of night – and 160 years of history is probably a good enough reason to believe this. So too is the fact that the Wellington family, who arrived in Rosetta and built the homestead nearly two centuries ago, were convinced it was the right place to plant vines, and left disillusioned when frost destroyed their crops.
Whether the story is true or not doesn’t really matter because romance, myth and history intermingle in this part of KwaZulu-Natal. The Midlands, where dairy farming and trout fishing rule, has a rich history as is described in the fascinating tale that appears below. As you’ll see, the Murrays keep popping up in this part of the world.
The Original Inhabitants
South African aboriginals are the San and Khoikhoi people’s, and they were probably the first inhabitants of the Midlands, but their failure to develop written language means that that there is no written history of their presence. Bantu migrants from the Congo Basin reached southern Africa by the early centuries A.D., but again there is no written history. These were the ancestors of the Nguni people, from whom the Zulu descend. Scattered groupings spread across South Africa, including the Midlands. The Zulu clan was formed in around 1709 and occupied far northern KwaZulu Natal.
In the 1818, Shaka became king of the Zulus. He instituted widespread changes that replaced the traditional African clan system with kingdoms, and went to war against his neighbours. The resultant genocide (“Mfecane”) left 1-2 million Sotho speakers dead and much of the land in the Midlands area was cleared of inhabitants. Shaka and most of his family were murdered in 1828 by his half-brother, the fratricidal Dingane, who continued the bloodshed and mayhem and thousands fled to the hinterland. As a result, the area around Glen Ormond was sparsely populated at that time.
The grass really is greener in the Midlands and in about 1830 large numbers of Dutch speaking immigrants started to leave the Cape Colony in search of greener pastures, in what was called the “Groot Trek.” Dissatisfied with persecutory and discriminatory laws, and starving from years of drought, they headed to the Orange Free State and Natal. In November 1837, about 1000 Voortrekker wagons descended from the Drakensberg Mountains into KwaZulu-Natal. Earlier, Piet Retief, the Voortrekker leader, had signed a treaty with the treacherous Zulu King. Once the terms of the treaty had been met, Dingane lured Retief and his men to his kraal, situated about 70 km north-east of Glen Ormond. As a gesture of peace, Retief’s party had left to their weapons behind, but at Dingane’s order, the Zulus attacked the unarmed Boers, killing them all. They then went on the rampage to a nearby Voortrekker camp, where they killed around 250 adults and children.
The Zulus next attacked the Boers on 16 December 1838 in what became known as the Battle of Blood River. This happened at UmGungundlovu, 60 km south-east of Glen Ormond. Some 470 Boer commandos defeated Dingane’s Zulu massive army. The size of his army has been estimated as somewhere between 15,000 to 80,000 men.
Buoyed on by their successes at the Battle of Blood River, in 1839 the Voortrekkers established the Boer republic of Natalia with its capital at Pietermaritzburg, 70 km south of Glen Ormond. The Voortrekkers not only had to contend with the violent Zulus, but also with the violent British, who declared war on them in 1842. The short-lived Republic of Natalia was annexed by the British in 1844. In a decade, the property where Glen Ormond is situated, had gone from Zulu control, to Boer control, to British control.
The Boers moved north and their farms were sold to newly arriving British settlers. By the 1850s only a handful of the original Voortrekker families remained in the Midlands, their legacy still echoing in the many Dutch farm names in area.
In 1849, J.C. Byrne & Co. came up with a money making scheme that offered prospective emigrants discounted voyage fares to Natal and 20 acres of land when they arrived. Between 1849 and 1851, a total of 20 ships brought multitudes of emigrants who came to be known as Byrne Settlers. Byrne had never been to South Africa and had no idea of conditions and just how absurdly unrealistic his scheme was, and by 1850 he was bankrupt.
The first British settlers in Nottingham Road were Byrne Settlers and comprised the King and Ellis families. John King and his wife Janet, James, their 3-year old son, and Helen, their 3-month old infant, were accompanied by Janet’s siblings, James, Helen and Elizabeth Ellis, and all came from Scotland. They had been approved by Her Majesty’s Land and Emigration Commissioners, being younger than 45 years of age, and having approved occupations (farmer, blacksmith, wheelwright, wagon-maker, dairymaid, agricultural labourer, etc.).
The Beginnings of Gowrie
The Ellis and King families soon found it impossible to survive on their small 20 acre allotments of infertile land, as did other Byrne Settlers. They were fortunate to have the financial means to purchase other land better suited to farming, eventually selling off their Byrne allotments at a profit. The Ellis siblings (Janet King, James Ellis, Helen Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis) purchased Wilde Als Spruit, a farm with a good water supply near to what is now Balgowan from Petrus H. Potgieter. (Wilde Als is African Wormwood.)
While Wilde Als Spruit farm still exists, they renamed portions of the farm as Lynedoch and Balgowan, after estates in their homeland of Scotland. Thomas Graham, Lord Lynedoch of Balgowan, had died in 1843 and was something of a legend in Scotland. His estates were Balgowan, Lynedoch and Blairgowrie, and when John King eventually bought a farm in 1858, it was named Gowrie and was eventually to become the village of Nottingham Road.
Potgieter, the previous owner of Wilde Als Spruit was very kind and helpful to the Kings and Ellises, and understood just how hard life was to become for them. He assisted in transporting them and their belongings from Pietermaritzburg, making a few trips. By May 1850 they were installed on the farm but there were no buildings yet and at first they had to survive the cold Midlands winter living under a large tarpaulin. They constructed a wattle and daub home in which they lived into their stone family house was completed in 1856.
Life was very challenging for these early British settlers. To the west lay the Drakensberg mountains from which armed San raiding parties would regularly come down, plundering crops and stealing cattle, before disappearing into the impenetrable mountains again. To the east there were the Zulus, with whom conflict would frequently ignite.
By 1853 the farmers were desperate and wrote to the Governor of Natal, requesting protection. It was decided to create a ‘buffer zone’ by establishing a small military outpost in addition to a “pensioners’ village” west of the existing settlement, and 13,000 acres of commonage was allocated for the village of Fort Nottingham, which was proclaimed in 1856. Between 1856 and 1863 Thomas Fannin of the Dargle laid out the village with twenty-two acre plots and a Dr Sutherland surveyed the land and included road access to the village.
The military force which was supposed to protect the farmers and their property comprised a small detachment of troopers from the Cape Mounted Rifles, who set up a temporary tented camp. They soon got bored as they didn’t see a single San during their stay, and this led to a lack of discipline, leading to them being recalled and replaced by a small detachment from the Natal Mounted Rifles. They in turn were replaced by a permanent force from the 45th Foot, the Sherwood Foresters from Nottingham in England, who were instructed to set up a permanent fort. Their fort and some of the early buildings can still be seen today at the Fort Nottingham Museum. David Fox owned Fort Nottingham for many years and lived in one of the original buildings. This property remains in the Fox family to this day. Fox was raised in Zululand on the family farm close to the Nyezane and Gingindlovu Battlefields. He grew up knowing and respecting the Zulu people and learnt about the Anglo-Zulu War from a Zulu perspective. He methodically demolished several ‘new’ notions about the Anglo-Zulu War by writing authoritatively to counter them. His passion for KwaZulu-Natal history is reflected in several articles that he wrote for highly respected publications, such as the South African Military History Journal.
In 2005, David Fox organised a ceremony to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Fort and arranged for the British Defence Adviser, Brigadier David Keenan, to end the undeclared ‘war’ by shaking hands with the last surviving member of the mountain San community, Mr Kerrick Ntusi. David published “The History of Fort Nottingham, 1856 to 2005” to coincide with this event.
Sadly, David died on Christmas Eve in 2011 and with him a local story teller of note. He would often say at the end of a good story, “Nunc est Bibendum,” which means ‘let us drink’. We look to his beloved mountains behind Fort Nottingham, raise our glass at the end of a day and say, “Hamba Kahle, old friend, Hamba Kahle.”
Until 1875, Fort Nottingham was described in the deeds office as Nottingham after the Sherwood Foresters’ hometown, but its name was changed to Fort Nottingham to avoid confusion with the village of what is today Nottingham Road, which grew up around the railway line.
The area, once the first route to the Transvaal, was dominated by Rosetta Farm, granted by the Crown in 1861. The village possibly resulted from the colonial farm pioneering boom that took place at that time in Natal.
A quaint theory for the village’s naming is that the local Mooi River, when in flood, reminded pioneering farmers of the Rosetta branch of the Nile, where the mighty river divides north of Cairo.
In 1895, farmers from beyond Nottingham Road petitioned the colonial government for a station closer to their properties. By 1897 the station, built on the line between Nottingham Road and Mooi River, was erected near what was known as the “Meshlyn Road drift.” The station was initially called Springvale after the farm where it was situated, but later came to be called the Rosetta Station after the original Rosetta Farm, which lay a little way up the Kamberg Road. In the meantime, the crossing at the drift became unnecessary with the construction in 1896 of the Meshlyn Bridge which was opened by the Hon TK Murray CMG, Minister of Lands and Works, on 16th December, 1896, at a cost of £675. This bridge is still in daily use for access to the Kamberg and Connington.
Dig a little further into this history and you’ll find that the same gentleman three years later formed Murray’s Horse and the Colonial Scouts to thwart any attempt by the Boer army of crossing the Mooi River and invading Natal.
Murray was so passionate about his mission, “ready to die if necessary”, that Colonel Redvers Buller, in charge of the British forces, mentioned him in dispatches, thanking him for his assistance in the relief of Ladysmith and for patrolling and protecting a wide district around the Mooi River. His diligence and constant patrolling, wrote Buller, made the Boers believe the area was better protected than it was.
Murray, who put together a voluntary group of riders carrying rations for the British soldiers on route to relieve Ladysmith, was made a KCMG (The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George), an honour awarded to men and women who render extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country).
Mooi River has been known by three names in its time. The Zulus called it Mpofana or “place of the eland”, the Dutch called it Mooi or “pretty” because of its picturesque, riverside setting, while the first official name of the settlement in the 1800s was Lawrenceville, after Alexander Lawrence, owner of Grantleigh Farm where the Mooi River station was built in 1884. The commercial hub of the town grew up around the station and railway line, although the first settlement was further east, near what is today Weston Agricultural College, where the road to the interior crossed the Mooi River. An inn, Whipp’s Hotel, was built at the ford in 1853 for those whose journey was interrupted by flooding or who needed to rest. The hotel changed hands and became the Lake Hotel, a popular country retreat for the well-to-do, but it burned down a century later in 1959. The Helen Bridge was built at the crossing in 1866. It was named after Helen Bisset, daughter of General John Jarvis Bisset, who was Acting Governor of Natal at the time, and is still used to get to the Mooi River polo fields from the Weston-Greytown road.
Mooi River forms part of the Midlands Meander self-drive arts and crafts route. Prior arrangements can be made to visit one of the many prestigious racehorse studs and training establishments in the vicinity, or the Weston Agricultural College Museum which houses British military artefacts. The Rhodes House Museum in Mooi River presents a wide variety of local history exhibits depicting formative activities of the area such as polo and dairy farming.
A secret gem you might miss unless you ask around, is KZN’s first stationmaster’s house at Lion’s River, built more than a century-and-a-half ago by the British. Enter the front door and you’ll find yourself immersed in history, relics, and collectors’ items from an age gone by – everything from the first telephone in the area to a crimson station lamp, porcelain figurines and original cutlery and tea sets. The doors and windows are still original and work perfectly. There are ghosts there too, even the faint sound of a steam train, some say, can be heard in the middle of the night.
In the 1880s, the educational needs of Nottingham Road children were catered for with home schooling by their parents, but in 1895 the Reverend Cadman started holding classes for about twenty children of all ages in the Nottingham Road Hall. The hall was replaced by a formal school when the Nottingham Road School opened its doors in 1913, with a staff of two teachers and a headmaster, Mr Gordon Kirby. Since those times, a number of legendary schools have been established in the area, including Clifton Preparatory School, King’s, Hilton College (founded in 1872), Michaelhouse (founded in 1896) and Weston Agricultural College (founded in 1914).