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Old Gaol - First
Makhanda (Grahamstown), Eastern Cape

Wilhelm Ludwig VON BUCHENRODER: Architect



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33°18'44.83" S 26°31'22.26" E Alt: 552m

Like most of the cities and towns of South Africa, Grahamstown grew from modest beginnings. A simple, elongated building in High Street, not far from the Drostdy gateway was one of the first buildings to arise in the town, if indeed it was not the first. It was originally a gaol.

In 1812 Major G. S. Fraser, deputy Magistrate of Uitenhage, was sent to Grahamstown to establish a sub-drostdy or magistracy there. Jacob Cuyler, the Magistrate of Uitenhage, instructed Fraser to select a suitable site for a house and gaol, and to submit plans and estimates for the building to him. Fraser chose this site because it was close to the area he had in mind for the drostdy.

In January, 1813, the plans for a house for the Magistrate, a house for the Messenger of the Court and a gaol were submitted to Colonel Cuyler and approved by him. On 16th April, 1813, contracts were entered into with Lt. W. L. von Buchenroder for erecting these buildings, but the work progressed so slowly on account of the lack of trained workers that by June, 1814, the Messenger of the Court's house and the gaol had only reached the height of the roof. Baron KNOBEL, the government land-surveyor who laid out the town in that month, took the northern wall of the gaol as the line of High Street which thus served as the basis for the layout of the whole town.

In June, 1817, VON BUCHENRODER had still not yet finished the building. The government paid him for what he had completed and cancelled the contract. The date of the completion of the building is not known, but in January, 1822, the Magistrate of Albany, H. Rivers, reported that the gaol, to which a pound had meanwhile been added, was not only too small, but that its situation in the middle of the town was most offensive to the inhabitants. He recommended that it be sold and the proceeds be used for a new gaol. Consequently a new gaol was completed in 1824 and shortly after this the little gaol building became the Grahamstown Public School until about 1842. It then became the first public library of Grahamstown and served that purpose until 1863.

After 1863 the building was used for various purposes until 1930 when the government transferred it to the City Council for preservation as an historical monument on condition that it may not be disposed of without the consent of the government. By 1948 it was so dilapidated that the City Council was about to request permission to demolish it. At this stage the historical importance of the building was brought to the notice of the Historical Monuments Commission at whose instigation, supported by the Eastern Province Branch of the South African National Society, it was restored by the City Council and preserved for posterity.

Bronze plaque 1953

[Oberholster, J. 1972. The historical monuments of South Africa. Cape Town: Rembrandt van Rijn. p, 139-40.]

Declared a national monument on 27 December 1985 vide Item 32 of Government Notice 2836, page 12 of Government Gazette No. 10047.

The SAHRA Property Register lists the historical importance as being:

The construction of this gaol commenced on 16 April 1813. In April 1822 the Magistrate of Albany reported that the gaol was too small and was offensive in that a residential area adjoined it. It was sold in 1824 whereafter it became a school and later a library.

Some of the plaques on the wall are from the first 1820 Memorial.

June 2018: The original slate roof tiles have regrettably been recently removed and replaced with modern painted fibre cement tiles.

Books that reference Old Gaol - First

Oberholster, JJ. 1972. The historical monuments of South Africa. Cape Town: Rembrandt Van Rijn Foundation for Culture at the request of the National Monuments Council. pg 139-140
Richardson, Deirdré. 2001. Historic Sites of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. pg 26