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Sephton Manor
Fort Beaufort district, Eastern Cape

Date:c1835
Type:Fortified Farmhouse
Status:Extant

In response to an article published in the Graham's Town Journal, George GILBERT submitted actual proposals for a particular type of fortified homestead whereby frontier farmers could build or improve their houses.

'I beg leave to enclose plans of a farm-house and kraals designed by me to be built on a farm near Fort Beaufort, just before the commencement of the Kaffir Irruption; and which, as soon as circumstances permit, I intend to carry into execution.'1

The house was Sephton Manor, Known also as 'Septon', or 'Sipton'2, a name possibly derived from the Latin for seven, 'septem', the distance in miles of the location of the farm on the road from Fort Beaufort,3 otherwise after Sephton, one of the leaders of a Settler party. George GILBERT is presumed to have occupied the house, he himself having written in his correspondence

'The plan as designed is capable of being extended or diminished, so as to meet the finances of the farmer. It is also adapted for the residence of two families...'4

The survey done in 1850 for purposes of formalising quitrent is, however, in the name of William Gilbert, probably a brother. It is possible that more than one family did live there, since a minimum of eight defenders was required to protect the homestead effectively.

To-day (2003) the place is in the simple verandahed cottage style of the Victorian era of the latter C19. It has remained uninhabited, although still fully furnished, since the death of the older Mrs Adler, the internal timber shutters of the loopholes making for useful wall cabinets. Mr Morris Adler recalls how his mother stored the objects associated with the celebration of the passover in the cellar, the previous use of which is unknown.5 Little by way of the original character as a fortified farmhouse is evident externally since the loopholes of the house itself have been plastered over and a covered verandah added between the bastions, now easily passed off as 'stoepkamers'6. An accretion of rooms have been added to both eastern and western sides thus further camouflaging the once severe lines of the building. Then too the roof, roofline and gables have all been changed with time.

The area in which the house stands is at the edge of the Karoo, a semi-desert stony and scrub landscape, undulating with bushy riverines, otherwise vast and desolate. In the time neighbours would be separated by vast distances, and the military presence even further away. Yet the now tranquil domesticity in a hostile landscape can readily be contrasted with the description by a contemporary visitor to the Gilbert homestead:

'Mr Gilbert's house, where we breakfasted, was indeed a curious spectacle. It was more like a fortress than a private dwelling; three acres were enclosed in a strong stone wall; a tower had been built in the middle of the house, armed with three7 pieces of small cannon, not for ornament, as is sometimes done in England, but for use; stands of arms were in the tower; a wooden barricade before the entrance. It was a melancholy, but yet satisfactory sight: melancholy for the necessity,- satisfactory, for the determined energy which it displayed in him as in several other of our frontier farmers, who are determined, even if their cattle are forced from them, to defend their dwellings.8

It was recorded that:

'The homestead was one of the most defensible in the district, so seven of us volunteered to remain a few days and protect the property until troops arrived to garrison it as it was a place that should never [have] been abandoned.'9

Raiders would be fired upon through the loopholes and raking fire delivered along the walls by means of the towers located at the wall and house. ALEXANDER10 had recommended a raised pulpit or sentry box in the kraal in the event of the walls being breached. The last line of defence would have been a retreat into the homestead itself, with raking fire offered through the loopholed bastions and covering fire from the tower. It would seem that Sephton Manor survived the war of 1846, The War of the Axe, since only in 1847 was Gilbert forced to abandon Sephton Manor and flee to the nearby Stoneyfields, also a fortified farmhouse in his possession.

Still Sephton Manor must have stood but the Gilberts again forced to flee in 1850, this time to Rietfontein:

'We proceed on our way to Rietfontein, where we found everything in confusion. W Gilbert and his wife had arrived there that evening with but one servant, having left their home Sephton Manor and all it contained to the mercy of the rebels.'11

Hermanus, the rebel leader, was joined by the "Kat River Hottentots" in the uprising of the Eighth Frontier War, and were joined by many of the servants of the farmers.

'the beautiful homestead of Mr Gilbert, ... might easily have been defended had the servants stayed loyal. As it was, everything which could not be taken away was committed to the flames by the enemy.'12

Merriman,13 the Christian zealot preacher who did his rounds of the Eastern Frontier on foot, breakfasted at the abandoned homestead on 16 December 1850. He appended his journal entry as follows:

'N.B. - This house was sacked and burnt a few days after, not by K***rs, but by Hottentots.'

Cory14 records that when in October of 185115 Colonel Fordyce's 74th Highlanders bivouacked there (although it is recorded as "Gilbert’s ruined homestead at Klu-Klu", that is the tributary of the Kat on which Sephton Manor lies) they found the farm still a burned-out ruin. At what time Gilbert re-occupied and restored the dwelling is not certain, although Cory does add in a footnote that ‘It is now the military-looking building called Sephton Manor.'16 Cory also mentions that 'This place was enclosed by a high, stone, loop-holed wall and surmounted by a tower.'17

The question as to whether there was ever a tower attached to the house, as might be deduced from the annotated copy of the Graham's Town Journal, is described by Merriman, and inferred from Cory remains a problem. There still is a tower built into the kraal wall a distance from the house. Is this the original tower to which the various chroniclers refer? It is now only from the measured drawings that one can re-discover the exact initial layout of the house. All the original walls are thicker, some of which might be reconstructed as the base of a tower, although not in the 'middle', but to one side of the house. Since they are positioned in line with the surrounding wall, a placement suitable for the tower added to a once annotated copy of the printed illustration, the walls could well be the remnant base of such a structure.

Gilbert built Sephton Manor according to the prescripts contained in his letter to the Graham's Town Journal, and so this building can be used to determine the elements which characterise the fortified farmhouse. These are as follows:

  1. A defensive farmyard wall, loopholed and sometimes with corner bastions or lookout towers
  2. Lookout towers
  3. Corner bastions with loopholes attached to the main dwelling
  4. Loopholed lower-storey walls, shuttered on the inside
  5. Water well or cistern within the defensive area

____________________________________

  1. Graham's Town Journal [GTJ]: 10 Sept. 1835
  2. Lewcock, R. 1963. Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Balkema: 171
  3. Personal communication, Mr Adler, owner (1986)
  4. GTJ 10 Sept. 1835
  5. Personal communication, Mr Adler (1986)
  6. Radford, D. 1984. The Stoepkamer tradition in South African architecture. Lantern. Vol. 33. No. 1: 26-34
  7. 'two' in Varley, D. H. & Matthew, H. M. (Eds) 1957. The Cape journals of Archdeacon N. J. Merriman 1848-1855. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society: 145
  8. Merriman, N. 1853. The K***r, the Hottentot and the frontier farmer. London: George Bell: 102-3.
  9. Campbell, P. 1876. Reminiscences of the Kaffir Wars. London: 40
  10. GTJ. 20 August 1835. Supplement.
  11. Campbell, 1876: 50
  12. Cory, G. E. 1930. The Rise of South Africa. London: Longmans, Green: Vol.V, 332
  13. Merriman, 1853: 102-3
  14. Cory, 1930: Vol.V, 406
  15. Kannemeyer, M. 1955. Farmhouse fortresses. Africana notes and news. Vol. XI. No. 7: 262 says '1848', Lewcock , 1963: 171 '1852', but a close reading of Merriman, 1853: 102-3 and Cory, 1930: Vol. V. 404-6 correlates the year 1851 with the events
  16. Cory, 1930: Vol.V, 332
  17. Cory, 1930: Vol.V, 332


Writings about this entry

Hartdegen, Paddy. 1988. Our building heritage : an illustrated history. South Africa: Ryll's Pub. Co. on behalf of the National Development Fund for the Building Industry. pg 59