Know Your Country - Woodstock Had a Beach

Apr 02, 2015

If you lived in 19th century Cape Town and you and your rag tag bunch of 19th century friends wanted to go to the beach, one of your top options would have been Woodstock. And although the Woodstock of today is better known for its rundown factories and hipsters quaffing decaf lattes, it used to be a popular beach.

Up until 1937 you would have seen children building sandcastles, teenagers flirting with each other, and probably a few old men playing beach bats in their red speedos. But it's not just the lack of beach that's different, a lot has changed and is still changing in Woodstock.

Woodstock is one of the oldest suburbs in Cape Town. It lies 2 kilometres to the south-east of the city centre and is sandwiched between Table Bay on the one side and Devil's Peak on the other. It began its life in 1788 when a silversmith by the name of Pieter van Papendorp settled in the area setting up a homestead on the main road from Cape Town to Stellenbosch.

Van Papendorp's estate has an interesting history, and famously saw one of the most important moments in the Cape's history. In 1806 the British fought the Dutch and regained control of the Cape. The Dutch were forced to surrender, which they did on Van Papendorp's estate, under a Milkwood tree in Woodstock. Next to the tree used to be an old cottage that became known as the Treaty House. Years later a rumour started circulating that the house was haunted - that was until one day the local Reverend Bergh, and owner of the house, was found in the attic making strange noises while guests stood downstairs.

By the early 1800's a group of small fishermen's houses and farm cottages had sprung up. The area became known simply as Papendorp. It was a picturesque farming town with plenty of open farmland. Locals used to get fresh milk from the cows, harvest the crops growing, and buy fish from the fishermen selling the catch of the day.

By 1862 the first railway in South Africa was laid connecting Papendorp and Cape Town. The farms became sub-divided and lower cost housing was built.

A few years later Papendorp merged with the nearby Salt River. A town meeting was called at a local hotel to vote on a new name. There were a group of fishermen at the hotel who had been enjoying a few drinks at the bar, and in a moment of inebriation decided that they would vote to call the area after their favourite watering hole. The watering hole happened to be called Woodstock, and because there were more drunk fishermen than sober townspeople, the name was passed.

With a new name began a new era. The end of the 19th century was an interesting time for Woodstock as it changed from being a quaint farming hamlet to a working-class, urban area.

The main source of income in Woodstock had been fishing, but now the railway provided a great source of employment. With diamonds being discovered in Kimberley, there was a great influx of money and activity in Cape Town and Woodstock too saw a tremendous boom. One story perfectly illustrates this. During the diamond rush a lot of people were stealing illicit diamonds, and one such man took £20 000 worth of diamonds and ran off to Cape Town. The cops, however, were close behind him and so he buried the diamonds under a tree on Victoria Road. He was found by the police and convicted on another charge. Once he'd served his short term in prison, he left, ready to find his buried diamonds. Instead he found a road built over where the tree had been.

With the boom in industry there was also a boom in population. At the end of the second Anglo-Boer War in 1902, many British people returned to the Cape. In order to accommodate this influx, terraced houses were built in what is now Upper Woodstock.

One of the unique things about Woodstock's population was that it was comparatively racially integrated. Because of Woodstock's link to the railway and its industrialization it had become a working-people's suburb, and so divisions in the town were made more on the basis of class than on race.

With a growing Cape Town population, and not a lot of space to expand, the decision was made in 1937 to reclaim the foreshore gaining 480 acres of land. Dredging and land-filling began and by 1945 the largest dry dock in the Southern Hemisphere was created. But this came at a cost for Woodstock, as their popular beach had to be destroyed. Today Beach Road, next to the Old Castle Brewery, marks where the old beach would have been.

In the late 1950s, the Apartheid government introduced the Group Areas Act and Cape Town became divided by race, but Woodstock managed to escape the division and continued to be a racially mixed area.

By the end of the 20th century much of Woodstock had become dilapidated. Industrialization had taken its toll. But in the mid-2000s investment was poured into the area with the Old Castle Brewery being redeveloped as offices and the Old Biscuit Mill being converted into a series of upmarket shops and restaurants.

Today, the suburb of Woodstock is a mixture of urban renewal and dilapidated industrial warehouses. The face of Woodstock is once again changing with gentrification. From Van Papendorp's homestead, to a thriving fishing village, to the popular beach spot, to the industrialized town, and now to the gentrifying town, Woodstock will forever be in flux.