Words and Archival Images courtesy National English Literary Museum (NELM)
Olive Schreiner came to Cradock in 1867 when she was 12, in the wake of the collapse of her parental home after her father’s insolvency.
Her brother Theo (23 in 1867), who had become headmaster of the local public school after teaching for four years in Grahamstown, was head of the little household, with their sister Ettie (17) as housekeeper.
In the following year their younger brother Will, then 11, joined them. The four remained together until 1870, when Theo and Will went to seek their fortune at the diamond fields. Ettie stayed in Cradock to run a small school; Olive, at the age of 15, left to become a governess with the Orpen family in Barkly East.
Olive appears to have started writing two stories while she lived in Cradock (called Rain and Diamonds), but not surprisingly no record from this period exists to bear witness to her emergent creative genius.
Nevertheless it was in Cradock that her religious and philosophical convictions were given form, and in Cradock where she made friendships which were to play a role in directing her activities for the next eleven years.
She returned to the district in 1875 as governess to the Fouchés at Klein Ganna Hoek, having begun, three years earlier, a novel (Undine) and several stories and allegories.
Her writing continued as she moved from one post of governess to the other (the Martins at Ratel Hoek in 1876, the Cawoods at Ganna Hoek in 1879, and back in August that year to the Fouchés, now at Lelie Kloof). By 1880 she had finished the first version of The Story of an African Farm; in 1881 she sailed to Britain.
Olive came back to the Cape, a famous woman, in 1890. Her ties with the Cradock area were strengthened in 1892 when, on a visit to the Cawoods, she met Samuel ‘Cron’ Cronwright, then farming on Krantzplaas; they were married in February 1894. Her attachment to the district is evidenced by her desire to be buried on Buffelskop, south of Cradock, where in 1921 she was reinterred.
Schreiner House in Cradock is thus a fittingly symbolic centre for her commemoration as a writer and woman of great insight and influence.
While Schreiner House is one of the oldest dwellings still standing in Cradock, there is no evidence of its exact age or original appearance.
An 1853 map of Cradock shows a building on the site. The first purchaser of the erf was John Pressly, who paid £30 for it in 1847; he sold it in 1854 to John Distin for £95. The inference is that Pressly erected the building between 1847 and 1852.
Judging by the 400mm-thick mud-brick walls and the heavy yellowwood ceiling beams in the core of the house, what he put up was in all likelihood a three-roomed cottage – a bedroom and living-room in line, with a kitchen in a wing.
It could either have been flat-roofed or have had a double pitched roof over the bedroom and living-room; both forms existed in Cradock at the time, as Thomas Baines’ painting of the town in 1848 shows.
The property was sold for £112 in 1856 to William Destin, who in turn sold it in June 1857 to Carl Kaaland for £120. Fourteen months later, Kaaland sold it to Peter Sidey for £200. This relatively large increase in value suggests that it was Kaaland who added the dining-room and stoepkamer and constructed the passage.
That these were additions and not part of the original building is evident from the ceiling beams, the foundations and the thickness of the walls. At this point the whole house was placed under a flat, corrugated iron roof. This was probably the form of the building, approximating to a standard Cradock form of the second half of the 19th century, when Theo Schreiner hired it from Jemima Sidey, who had inherited it in 1866.
At later stages a bathroom, pantry and kitchen extension were added along the western side, and in about 1930 the stoep was given a verandah of corrugated iron.
Early photographs of Cradock provided a degree of certainty in reconstructing the exterior, while contemporaneous cultural patterns as shown in other buildings were helpful in determining the uses to which the rooms were put.
Thus the room to the left of the front door had become the parlour, that to the right a bedroom and the back room a dining/living room.
The kitchen’s function was unchanged and the stoepkamer (enclosed veranda room) must have served as another bedroom. It was decided to restore the house to this form, typical of the 1860s and that which the Schreiners in all likelihood were familiar with.
The post-Schreiner additions on the western side have been retained (with the exception of the kitchen extension) to provide accommodation for the service facilities needed in a museum.
Schreiner House was bought by AA Mutual Life and restored with funds provided by the company and by Cradock Municipality. The restoration was carried out by the department of the Town Engineer to a policy determined by Professor Dennis Radford of the Architecture Department, University of the Witwatersrand.
Invaluable assistance on site and in obtaining period fittings was given by Sandra Antrobus of Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor in Market Street. Schreiner House was donated to the National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, on 7 November 1986.
Schreiner House is a satellite of the
NATIONAL ENGLISH LITERARY MUSEUM
87 Beaufort Street Grahamstown
Private Bag 1019 Grahamstown 6140 South Africa
Tel: +27 (0) 46 622 7042
email: nelm @ru.ac.za