Hartbees house


Also Hardebiesieshuis, Hartbeeshuis, Hartebees house, Hartbeest house, Hartebeest house

A rudimentary house stemming from the North European Long House tradition through the so-called 'Kapstyl' house. ( A thatched A-frame construction resting directly on the ground with rounded thatched ends, the door in one end and a window in the other in some instances.) The 'Hartbeeshuis' (haru-bies huis) is described by Baines (1848) as follow 'The Hartebeest houses are usually built of reeds, and are sometimes plastered with mud: they are in the form of roofs, but the lower part of their sides often approaches towards perpendicular'. Here the door is placed in the middle of one of the long sides of the structure. The lower portions of the dwellings were sometimes mud-built walls.

The derivation of the term 'hartbees' is contentious. The name is confused both in the variety of spellings and the way it is loosely applied to any rustic shelter. As Trigardt1 relates in his diary: 'Carolus went to chop wood for the hartbees houses we usually make at such times.' Latrobe (1818) 'A hartebeest-house, having a roof, put upon a wall about two feet in height ...';2 Backhouse (1844) 'The Hartebeest houses ... are usually built of reeds, and are sometimes plastered with mud; they are in the form of roofs, but the lower part of their sides often approaches toward perpendicular;'3 Baines (1848) of those seen in Shiloh and illustrated by him '...a number of hartebeest houses resembling a thatched roof distitute of walls...;'4 Lion Cachet (1882) 'De oude Voortrekker bouwde zich, op de plaats, waar hij zich vestigen wilde, gewoonlijk eerst een 'hartebeesthuis' - een keet, van riet met klei bepleisterd, en bijna enkel uit dak bestaande...;'5 Mansvelt (1884) s.v. hartebeesthut: '...een hut, welker wanden slechts 1 à 2 voet loodrecht worden opgetrokken, en die overigens slechts uit een steiloplopend dak bestaat...;'6 Schonken (1914) 'Wilde de boer een nieuwe boerderij ("plaa[t]s") betrekken, dan richtte hij zich om te beginnen slechts voorloopig in. Eerst legerde zich het gezin rondom, onder en in den grooten tentwagen. Intusschen maakte men zoo spoedig mogelijk een ronde hut, zooals de kleurlingen die vervaardigen, of ook wel een ' hartebees[t]huis, dat is een hut met een zeer schuin rieten dak; de wanden bestaan uit een staketsel, dat met bies of riet is opgevuld en van buiten zoowel als van binnen met leem is bestreken;7 als deur doet een staketsel dienst, dat met een ossehuid overtrokken is en met riemen bevestigd wordt. Dan volgden kraal, stal en wagenhuis. Op al de primitieve bouwmaterialen voor zulke tijdelijke gebouwen in te gaan, ware overbodig;' Van Dale (1950) 'Hartebeest-huis: hut van riet met klei bepleisterd en bijna geheel uit dak bestaande..."8

Some derive the term 'hartbees' from the 'harde biesies'9 or the hardy reeds used for the construction. Backhouse10 has a fanciful account of the derivation of the word:
the Hartbeest houses are so called from an imaginary similarity in the figure to the outline of a species of buffalo, called in South Africa, the Hartebeest: they are usually built of reeds, and are sometimes plastered with mud: they are in the form of roofs, but the lower parts of their sides often approaches towards perpendicular. Some of them have holes in the roof to let out smoke'.

Spoelstra’s11 explanation is equally picturesque:
-and house surely got its name because hartebeest and wildebeest so often stormed in there as if it were their home-'

Nienaber12 sees it as a hybrid form of the Khoi 'harub' (=reed mat) + 'biesie' (Cape reed) forming a tautalogical aglutination 'haru-bies' which corrupted into hartbees.

The sense of the temporary and rustic nature persists in a later description:
'The hartbees house was a temporary construction of thatch on a framework of wood. There were no walls: walls and roof were one. Even the doors and windows were of grass... In some parts of the country the walls were of clay sods and the roof thatched with reeds.'13

Today a distinction is made between a structure of clay walls and thatched roof, now understood as a 'hartbeest' house, and an all-roof structure, now termed a kapstyl or A-framed house.

  1. Trigardt, 1964: 19 (translated from the original Afrikaans)
  2. Latrobe, 1818: 256
  3. Backhouse, 1844: 357
  4. Baines, 1961 [1848]: 65
  5. Lion Cachet, 1882:
  6. Mansvelt, 1884
  7. Schonken, 1914: 84
  8. Van Dale, 1950: 695
  9. 'Biesies' is a native marshlands plant of the Cape which is like a reed in appearance but quite different in anatomy, the reed being of the grass family. Chondropetalum tectorum is one of the common Cape thatching reeds.
  10. Backhouse, ?
  11. Spoelstra, 1924: 73 (translated from Afrikaans)
  12. Nienaber, ?
  13. Van Niekerk, 1950: 463


A footnote to an article titled "Rough Notes of a Shooting Expedition to the Orange Free State" by 'Seo' describes the Hartebeest House of a Mr Bain, situated in close proximity to the Modder River. Seo, with two fellow officers of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, had embarked on a hunting expedition from Grahamstown in November 1861.

'Hartebeest hut..... so called because the framework is lashed together with riems or thongs of the Hartebeest hide. The hut to which allusion is made above, was built somewhat in this fashion. Poles were placed resting against one another much in the shape of the letter A for the gable ends, and then a crosspole was lashed to the apex of each end to form the ridge of the roof. Smaller poles, resting with one end on the ground and the other against the crosspole, answered for the rafters, and along these, in a transverse direction, other smaller poles were firmly lashed with the hartebeest riems. The roof was then thatched with reeds and grass, a door was constructed with a small porch, and the interior was plastered with mud. The ends were wattle and daub (a kind of basket-work of branches smeared over with mud).'

Transcribed from page 227 of:

The North Lincoln Sphinx - A Regimental Periodical 1860 - 1862; Reprinted by the State Library, Pretoria, 1968.

Originally printed for private circulation only, it was compiled by the Officers and Men of the Second Battalion of the Tenth Regiment of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot and was printed on the Regimental Press, in Grahamstown and Keiskammahoek.

Submitted by William MARTINSON.

Buildings on this website in Hartbees house style