Kroonstad a town on the Vals River in the Northern Free State, geo position: 27.662°S, 27.233°E and 1361m altitude. Founded in 1855, it was the first town established in the Free State north of Winburg. According to Wikipedia it had 111000 people living there in 1991.
The seeds for the establishment of a town are found in the Winburg congregation of the NG church (Dutch Reformed Church). The Winburg congregation
covered a huge area, all the way north to the Vaal. People living that far from their church could only attend Sunday services occasionally, that was
usually for 'nagmaal' (holy communion). Some farmers in the area had got together to conduct services in their homes. It was already in 1852 that the
people in the area decided that they should built a church. In 1854 the Volksraad (peoples council, parliament) instructed the magistrate of Winburg,
Joseph Orpen, to search for a suitable place. A town was proclaimed and the first stands went on sale on the 30 April 1855, that was the beginning of
Where does the name come from? Ref 1 and various webpages in the internet mention two possibilities, named after a horse owned by Sarel Cilliers or a person referred to as 'lang Adriaan' or it is named after Cronstadt in Russia. Ref 2 also mentions this, here is the translated passage about this subject: It is fairly certain that Kroonstad was named after Kroonspruit, the drift near the village where 'ou Kroon', the horse of Sarel Cilliers had an accident during the days of the trek. The faithful animal stepped into a crack and was so badly injured it had to be shot. That way Kroonspruit and later Kroonstad are a reminder of this horse. It is also possible that the earlier spelling was Cronstadt refers to the Russian naval fortress Cronstadt in the golf of Finland. It was making headlines at the time because of a naval battle between Russia and England. But as much as this explains the earlier spelling, I have no doubt that the naming of Kronstad was to commemorate the name of Sarel Cilliers horse. I checked on the topographic map, there is a Kroonspruit which leads into the Blomspruit and from there into the Vals River. There is also a farm called Kroonspruit and also a farm called Kroondrift just to the south of Kronstad.
The railway 'came to town' in 1892. That was the line driven at much haste from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg.
It should be a busy railway station, but it is not. The decline in rail traffic has had its affect on the station. The once proud station building is a burned out ruin. I am not sure the railway still offers passenger service here.
Kroonstad is at the cross roads, the north-south line connecting Cape Town and Johannesburg, there is line connection to the Natal coast through Bethlehem and the line through Viljoenskroon to Kleksdorp. This last one I know only goes up to Vierfontein, the bridge over the Vaal is not useable.
The large goods terminal, if still in action, looks totally underutilised. Access to it was through an open and unguarded gate.
p.s.: I may have to correct this last paragraph. Driving past there, Jan 2020, I noticed a fair amount of activity at the good terminal. Perhaps it has been revived somewhat.
One of the early official buildings that survived till today. Built in 1878, it not only served for the court but also the magistrate and the police. The police cells are behind, not used as such any-more. Part of the building is used today by an attorneys office, it is thus still to some degree used to serve the law.
The first church was built
in 1862, it was very basic, dung floor, thatched roof and no chairs or benches. It did serve a second purpose during the Basuto war (1865) when it was
fortified for the protection of the inhabitants of Kroonstad.
By 1877 the congregation was financially strong enough to erect a proper church. The design for it was by Carl Otto Hager, an architect from Dresden in Germany. He was well known around the Cape for his neo-gothic designs.
This second church was demolished and a new bigger church erected in its place, that is the church still in use today. The architect was WH Ford, who has been the designer of a number of churches and buildings in the Cape, Free State and the Transvaal. The church in Frankfort was also his design. There are similarities between these two buildings, the large dome is a central feature in both churches.
In the tower is the bell. What is interesting about this is the date it was cast, on the bell it states 1871. This means the bell did service already in the first church. It was made at Warner & Sons in London.
A few words about the organ. I mainly wanted to write about because I have a sound clip that I want to include in the website. Unfortunately I could not find any information on the instrument, I am still searching. The piece played on this organ is by Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude & Fugue in G major, played by Sylvia Keevey.
It is very difficult to take a picture of the church because of its location in the middle of a busy town. Thus I rather present a picture taken shortly
after the inauguration in 1904.
The congregation was founded in 1897, initially they had their services in the magistrates office and later in the town hall.
Saint Andrew's Presbyterian church was the 3rd of three churches designed by the Till brothers (JH and AE Till) for the English speaking congregations of Kroonstad.
The stained glass windows attracted attention. The one in the picture is on the head side of the church, consisting of three panels. The writing at the bottom: "In memory of Rev.WJ Warnock BD, who founded this congregation in 1897. Presented by the Sunday School."
Full name is St Georges Anglican Church.It was inaugurated in April 1904 by the Bishop of Bloemfontein. The design was done by the Till brothers who were also responsible for the design of the two other English churches, see Presbyterian and Methodist church. Not sure how much design they actually had to do in this case. A note found in the records states "St George's is an exact copy of the All Saints St. Margrite Church in London'. Also interesting to read that the plans for a new church were already made whilst the Anglo Boer war was still raging. A committee was chosen in August 1901 already to plan for a new building.
The present church had a forerunner, it was a small church constructed of timber and corrugated iron with brick lining around the outside and ceiling boards. It measured 34 by 18 feet and was erected in 1892 at a cost of £400.
The first Methodist minister was Rev Charles Harman, who came here in July 1874. He laid the foundation stone for the first chapel in 1875. With time the chapel became too small and the congregation moved to a hall donated by the municipality. The proceeds from the sale of the chapel (£500) were used to enlarge the hall in 1895.
A new church, the present one, was built and opened in November 1903. A Neo-Gothic design, the architects were JH and AE Till.
The style of the building looked familiar and it was confirmed when I got to the corner stone, the church was designed by Gerard Moerdyk.
As the town grew, so did the numbers in the NG congregation, making it essential to have another congregation. This new one was called Kroonstad Noord, they had split off from Kroonstad in 1928. Tenders for the building of a new church were requested in 1934, the building was to be of sandstone and the size such that it should have a seating capacity of 1150. A special request was that mostly white labour should be used, this was the time of the great depression. The eventual costs was £22000, which did cause some concern in that it was considered very much out of line of what a church should cost.
Something that pricked my interest was the organ, or at least its command centre. It has three keyboards, plenty of knobs (one calls them stops) and a fair number of pedals. To play this requires two hands and two feet. The instrument was designed and installed in 1936 by R.Müller of Cape Town.
That a new town-hall was to be built was decided already in 1903. But it was anything but straight forward, there was plenty of ups and downs, a number of architects, criticism of the design and money trouble. The design that won at the end was that of Till and Till. Those were the two two architect brothers who designed, amongst others, the Methodist, the Anglican and the Presbyterian churches. The town-hall was officially opened on the 7 July 1907.
To get over the Vals river there was a drift about where the Alexandra bridge is now. The bridge was built and completed in 1905, it was named after the wife of king George of Britain and it was the cause of some quarrels in town.
When the bridge was first conceived it was agreed that the costs would be split 50/50 between Public Works of the Free State and the town. To help the town pay its share Public Works would loan them the money of about £5000 for three years. There is a letter from 1907 where Public Works demands that it be paid. But the matter was allowed to drag on. In 1911 the council decided to sell stands on the south-side of the river to pay their debt. For that they had to get approval from the rate payers and they gave a clear 'no' and in fact passed a motion of no confidence. The whole council resigned and new elections had to be called.
A reason for the refusal to pay for the bridge was that many people still preferred to use the drift rather than the bridge. The bridge is very narrow and there have been incidents when animals crossing got into panic and in fact there is at least one report where an animal jumped over the railings falling to its death at the rocks below.
The new council proposed that the town borrows £5373 to pay Public Works and they had no problem getting this approved by the rate payers.
Just out of town to the east is a school building in an area called Jordania. This is the convent, built by the catholic church in 1908. It was and still is run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It was Bischop Gaughren who in the early years of 1900 invited the sisters to come to Kroonstad to set up and run a school for catholic children.
A bit of information about the Sisters, straight from Wikipedia 'The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are a Catholic institute of religious sisters, founded to provide education to the poor'. The institute had its beginnings in 1804 in Franse, looking after orphaned children then, it is now international with schools in many countries in the world. Check Wikipedia for more info.
The convent must have been in the planning stage some time before the first five sisters arrived in Kroonstad in 1907. The foundation stone was laid on the 17 Oct 1907 and the building was completed in 1908. But before it was officially opened it burned down, see picture on the right, which I borrowed from Ref 5. A problem was that the building at that point was not fully insured and, I think, that was the reason why when it was rebuilt did it loose one floor and also the wing. The burned building had four floors and the newer one only three. The renewed building was officially opened on the 16 December 1909. More structure was added with time, 1933 was the chapel and 1949 the west wing.
The Sisters not only ran the convent, but also a school in town, Brand street. That school was operational until 1950. They also opened a school in the black township, which is still in operation to this day.
The convent was closed in 1972. Talking to one of the sisters during our first visit we gathered that that was because the nuns felt their calling was to teach poor children from the township rather than the rich white kids. Reading in the references one can see that apartheid laws also had something to do with the decision. The building was sold to the provincial administration and for a few years became a high school. 1979 the army took over and made this into an officers school. That lasted until 1991 and after that the building was left to decay.
1999 the building was offered back to the Sisters, free of charge. The cost of refurbishing was considerable, which made the Sisters think twice before accepting the offer. A non-profit organisation (the Northern Free State Institute for Community Development, short NFSI) was set up to collect funds and to get the work started. The situation now (January 2020) is that the school is functioning again with a few classrooms and refurbishment work still in progress in the other parts of the building.
Also on the ground is a small cemetery for the staff associated with the school.
There are no roads leading to the cemetery, we had to get there by going cross country. To find it in the first place is also not too easy. On my first visit to Kroonstad I had no idea where to go, we had to ask a number of locals and only the fourth person could point us in the right direction. Is this heritage on route to be forgotten?
The concentration camp came into existence in the second half of 1900. It's purpose was to collect people who had been removed from the farms by the Millner policies of removing support from the fighting boers in the field, but also the families of joiners who were kicked off their farms by the boers. Condition in the camp was not very tolerable initially with many shortages, but improved with time as the ladies committee became involved. The death rate was hight as witnessed by the many graves of the cemetery.
All the names are inscribed on stone in the centre, I estimate about 1400 names there.
The original cemetery of Kroonstad, with some graves going back to the 1860th. It is unfortunately totally neglected, there is no fence around it. In the picture it still looks reasonable, but that was taken 10 years ago in 2010.
One grave stone that I took notice of is the one on the far right of the picture. It is that of Joseph Antonie, born 26 April 1868 in Beirut, Mount Lebanon, died 25 Oct 1933. There was a wave of immigration from Lebanon starting in 1896, more about this under Viljoenskroon.
The British marched into Kroonstad on 11 May 1900 and kept it occupied during the remainder of the war. Thus there is a rather large cemetery of British war graves at the old cemetery. This is of soldiers who died in action in and around Kroonstad, but also died of diseases, enteric fever being the most common cause.
Access to the grave yard is restricted by a locked gate and barbed wire, understandable since these iron crosses are the targets of scrap collectors.
One of the prominent graves, the high cross at the far side, is that of Louis Irving Seymour. He was born 1860 at Whitney State, New York in the USA and first came to South Africa 1889 when appointed as mechanical engineer to the De Beers Consolidated Mines in Kimberley. 1895 he again came to the country, in between he had worked at Fraser and Chalmers in London as managing director. In Johannesburg he was the chief mechanical engineer to Rand Mines and other companies in the Eckstein group. When war broke out (Anglo Boer war) in 1899 he went to Cape Town and played a leading role in the formation of the Cape Railway Pioneers Regiment serving the British army.
He died on the 14 June 1900 at the bridge over the Sand river near Virginia. The bridge had been wrecked by the Hassell's American Scouts. And this is where it gets interesting. There were a number of Americans living at the goldfields around Johannesburg, when war broke out some of them left and joined the British, as LI Seymour, and other Americans joined the republican forces. Notable was John A Hassell who formed a unit under the name Hassell's American Scouts. It was this group that blew up the bridge. The railway pioneers under the leadership of Major LI Seymour were sent in to make the necessary repairs. Whilst doing that there was an attack by the Boers which killed Seymour and his compatriot, also American, Joseph Clement, who's name is also mentioned on the gravestone. One of the sources, the Military History Journal states that Seymour was killed by a sharpshooter of the American Scouts.
Electricity came to town in 1904 when the first station consisting of three generators of 60kW each was commissioned to supply street lighting and an initial 40 consumers. The power station was at the corner of Brand- and Cross street, it supplied at 250 Volt DC, that is direct current. It explains why the station was in the middle of town, transmission losses of DC current is considerably higher than that of AC (alternating current). The cost of the station and the infrastructure was £9000.
Production increased year by year, by 1922 a new station was erected at a cost of £22000. And there is talk of a three wire system, thus the change to AC had been made.
Demand kept increasing and the town council was looking at expanding capacity. But the newly formed Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) had been given the monopoly for electricity generation in the country. It undertook to supply Kroonstad with the required capacity, this didn't happen and eventually the town was given permission to erect a new power station of 5000kW. That was 1952 and is the one shown in the picture. It is not running, I have no information when it was shut down.
In the church yard is a big statue of Sarel Cilliers. It is there because he played a major part in the early history of Kroonstad. But foremost because he was the author of the vow that was made before the battle of Bloodriver in 1838. At the time he was the spiritual leader of the Voortrekkers. For the later part of his life he lived at Doornkloof. At the base of the monument is the vow read out before the battle, the english translation I got from Wikipedia and it says: We stand here before the Holy God of heaven and earth, to make a vow to Him that, if He will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a sabbath, and that we shall build a house to His honour wherever it should please Him, and that we will also tell our children that they should share in that with us in memory for future generations. For the honour of His name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.
Ref 1.: Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa, Nasou Limited, 1974
Ref 2.: G.B.A.Gerdener, 'Sarel Cilliers - Die Vader van Dingaansdag', 1919
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Ref 3.: Dot Serfontein, 'Keurskrif vir Kroonstad', Perskor, 1990. A chronicle of the founding, growth and future of a Free State town.
Ref 4.: PJ Nienaber, CJP le Roux & Etiene Botha, "Vrystaat Fokus", CUM Boeke, 1982
Ref 5.: Eeufees Kroonstad Centenery, editor PJ Germishuys, printer O.V.S. Afrikaanse Pers Bpk Kroonstad, 1975
Ref 6.: Vervalle kloosterskool voel steeds soos 'heiligdom, Volksblad, 1 Aug 2001