Salem, Eastern Cape

Founded: 1820

Named after the Hebrew word in Psalm 76 meaning peace.


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Salem was founded as a village community by Sephton's party in 1820. Its name, meaning 'perfect', shows the enthusiasm with which they set about creating an English village in the winding green valley which formed the principal part of their holdings. The tents were very hot during the day and cold at night. They were not always a protection from the occasional heavy showers of rain, and in the frequent high winds they were anything rather than safe and secure dwellings. Hence everyone was soon busily occupied in cutting poles, and conveying them to their respective homesteads, or handling the hatchet, the adze, the hammer and nails and other implements and materials required for building operations . . . The floors of these dwellings were usually made of clay. Ant-hills, which had been deserted by the ants, were used for this purpose; and, when properly laid, they made hard and level floors, which were kept in order by being often smeared over with a mixture of fresh cow-dung and water - a mode of securing clean and comfortable earthen floors.

These houses were only temporary shelters, many of them probably being 'harte-beesthuisies'. It is recorded that the glazier, Richard Prior, one of the party, left the settlement because there was no glass with which to ply his trade. Within a few months, though, when the first crops had been planted and the settlers firmly established, steps were taken for the improvement, and even complete rebuilding, of the houses.

An old ruined boer farmhouse, which formed the nucleus of the village, was patched and used as a town hall, church and store for commissariat supplies. But this, being of wattle-and-daub and badly built, was subject to rapid decay, and measures were soon taken to replace it with a more permanent building. The latter, erected during 1822, tells us something about the Salem settlers and their attitude to construction, for, as very little money was available for the new building, the settlers decided to erect it in such a way that even the most poor and unskilled could help by giving their labour. The walling was accordingly in rammed earth.

Rammed earth construction was very common in settler buildings before the 1823 floods, and doubtless many of the Salem houses, since lost, were built in this way. But we know that by 1821 a number of other constructional procedures were being used as well. The Rev. William Shaw, chaplain for Sephton's party, built with his own hands his Manse of stone. It was a double-storeyed building with a tiny one-room plan, and must have been very like the surviving early houses of the same date at Bathurst.

Charles Wood, a skilled joiner and 'staircase maker' built his house entirely of timber, with the exception of the fireplace.

Meanwhile, the potter, Hancock, had built a kiln and in 1823 sold a load of bricks to Dr. Campbell of Grahamstown, so that a demand for burnt bricks must at this time have existed among the Salem settlers, and presumably some of the Salem houses were built with them.

In October 1821, Rev. William Shaw noted in his journal that 'Salem continues to be the most promising settlement in the whole district'. Within a year of its establishment there were no fewer than 75 houses, many constructed of stone, and a number double-storeyed.

But the size of the village gradually decreased as skilled workers, discouraged by the failure of their crops, left for the bigger urban centres to practise their crafts. By the middle of 1822 the party was reduced to less than a third of its original size, and the village had shrunk accordingly, the remaining houses being scattered over a wide area. In character, as one would expect, the dwellings were very English. Sophia Beddoe, visiting Salem in 1862, remarked that they were 'whitewashed, and some . . . thatched and the village altogether has an English look about it'.

A second phase of building activity followed during the economic boom brought about by the expanding wool industry. Many Salem houses date from this period, a number indeed, from the same year, 1832. By now the settlers had consolidated their building techniques into stone- or brick-walled, thatched-roofed structures with gable ends, such as the house built by the joiner Richard Gush. But it is interesting to find instances, even at this late date, of the effect of the indigenous traditions such as produced the Matthews' house.

Salem escaped damage in the 1835 Frontier War, but in 1846 several of the houses were burnt by the natives and had to be rebuilt. On the whole, however, later additions to the town are few, and in the neighbourhood of modern Salem may be found some of the most picturesque and evocative examples of Albany settler architecture.

[Extracted and edited from: Lewcock Ronald, 1963. Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: AA Balkema. pp, 218-220.]

To read the article The corbelled stone structures of Glenfield Farm, Salem - some interpretations revisited by FISHER Roger C and CLARKE Nicholas J, Click Here.

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List of references:

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pp 217
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. pp 146
Richardson, Deirdré. 2001. Historic Sites of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. pp 41

List of structures:

Corbelled Charcoal Kiln: C19.
Devonshire Farmstead: 1832.
Farmersfield: n.d..
Methodist Church: 1850.
Ringwall: n.d..
Salem Chapel - Old Stone Church: 1832.
School: n.d..
Upper Crofts: c1832.
Village Hall: n.d..