The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 1 - Dec 2017


By Richard Tomlinson

A map of the railway route from Cape Town to De Aar,
showing the blockhouses numbered as per list.

After the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Colonel S Waller, Royal Engineers, compiled A History of Royal Engineers Operations in South Africa 1899-1902. In Chapter XIV (pp 3-5 of this document), he states: 'In Cape Colony in the early part of 1901 the De Aar Railway was blockhoused with masonry blockhouses from Wellington (45 miles [72.4 km] from Cape Town) to Richmond Road [Merriman] 454 miles [730.6 km] distant. In this distance there were [eighteen] blockhouses placed for the defence of the large railway bridges; they were elaborate structures of stone or concrete and were erected by contract, [three] contractors being employed.'

In discussing the contribution of Australian-born South Africans in his book, Sisters of the South (1951), Conrad Lighton identifies one of these contractors (p248): There was Mr Alfred George Gray, the Cape Town builder, who probably had more memorials standing to his activities than any other man in South Africa. He built the blockhouses which have stood at many of our railway bridges and other strategic points for the past 50 years. Mr Gray passed away at a ripe age in February, 1951.'

In his History, Colonel Waller continues by describing the construction of the blockhouses:

'Choice of sites. The position of the bridges rendered the choice of sites a difficult one. The rivers had, as a rule, low banks liable to flood during heavy rains and generally composed of alluvial deposit, a fine, spongy silt unsuited for the foundations of a heavy building.'

The bridges, on account of this formation, were generally approached by heavy embankments, which produce dead ground and restrict the fire of works placed close to them, so that the difficulty lay in getting the necessary command and yet keeping near the bridge.'

'By increasing the width of footings, suitable sites were in some instances obtained with a good field of fire through the bays of the bridge between piers, in which case one blockhouse sufficed, as at Richmond [Richmond Road, now Merriman]. With long bridges, a second blockhouse was necessary to ensure covering the dead ground caused by the embankment at the far side of the river; a small work to hold [seven] or [eight] men, placed at the diagonal corner, was generally found sufficient for this purpose. In the case of two bridges close together, as at Brede River and Dwyka, one blockhouse at each bridge has sufficient, as they could co-operate.'

'Contract time. The time stipulated in the contracts for the completion of the blockhouses was six weeks, which, even under favourable conditions, was too short a time. It turned out, owing to delays in railway transport, incorrect delivery of material (some of which, owing to pressure on the railways, was entirely lost), insufficiency of labour and other causes, that the time of completion ranged from [three] months 24 days in the case of the blockhouse at Tweefontein [now De Wet] to [five] months 11 days in that of the Western blockhouse at the Breede River [Wolseley].'

Construction materials

Here I would like to add my brief comments on the materials used for constructing the walls of this run of blockhouses. The rule, in general, was that, wherever sound building stone was available in the locality, this was to be quarried and delivered to the site. Cement and sand was to be used for mortaring and pointing the stones. However, it was decided in five cases - at De Wet, Laingsburg (Geelbeck River), Krom River South (Krom River), Krom River North (Salt River) and Merriman - to utilize shuttered concrete, without steel reinforcement, for the walls.

The two blockhouses at De Wet and Krom River North have collapsed. They were built too close to a river or watercourse. Nevertheless, this experiment must be deemed successful as the other three examples are standing in good condition to this day.

I have not encountered evidence of any further examples of concrete-walled blockhouses around the country. The reason for the discontinuance can probably be explained by the expense of the materials (especially the imported cement) and perhaps also the cost of labour and material in the use of wood plank shuttering.

In search of blockhouses

In 'Britain's Last Castles: Masonry Blockhouses of the South African War, 1899-1902' (published in Military History Journal, Volume 10 No 6, December 1997), I gave these three-storeyed masonry blockhouses the term 'Standard Pattern', as they were built to the original design of Major-General Sir Elliott Wood, KCB, Engineer-in-Chief, South Africa (1844-1931) and the design was used, sometimes with small variations, in other parts of the country.

In the mid-1990s, the locations of a very few of this run of eighteen blockhouses along the Cape Town-De Aar line were common knowledge. The two at Wellington and near Laingsburg (Geelbek River) are much photographed and both are mentioned in The Historical Monuments of South Africa by J J Oberholster (The Rembrandt van Rijn Foundation for Culture, at the request of the National Monuments Council, 1972) and countless other publications.

In 1996 I decided to try to locate the remaining sixteen, in conjunction with a tour of Anglo-Boer War fortifications extending from Stormberg and Aliwal North in the Eastern Cape to Wellington in the west. I reasoned that, if these blockhouses were still in existence, I should be able to find them by following the railway line as closely as possible from Merriman, using the railway service roads. This search was fairly successful as I found all but two. Much of my success was due to the valuable guidance I received at Beaufort West from Mrs Rose Willis, at that time in charge of the Tourism Office in the town, who had made a study of these blockhouses and written a short typescript summary for tourists. In 2004 and 2009 respectively, I located the sites of the last two.

It should also be mentioned that some corrugated iron blockhouses, fences with occasional gates and small one-storey forts were erected at the same time to defend individual features or vulnerable sections of the line between these Standard Patterns. I duly noted remains of those forts still surviving on my 1996 tour, but, as these structures were made of unmortared stone and fragmentary in condition, they are not included in this account.

Location and condition

During my search, I recorded the locations and condition of the blockhouses in this important line for the benefit of fortification enthusiasts and members of the public who might find this interesting:
Starting at Wellington, the complete list of eighteen Standard Patterns in this line (with the generally used name for each structure in italics, its former place name as used in the war-time records, given in square brackets, and the associated river, in round brackets ):

  1. Wellington (Krom River): Located on the north side of the town and just east of the R44 national road, it is in good condition externally and in the care of the Municipality. It retains its roof. I was not able to gain access to the interior. (It was proclaimed a National Monument in 1937).
  2. Hermon South Blockhouse (Limiet River): Located to the east of the A44 Porterville Road, 6 km south of Hermon Station, beside a disused alignment of the railway and north of the Umiet River. This is a stone blockhouse, complete with roof. Interior not inspected.

    Hermon South Blockhouse
    (Photo: R Tomlinson)
  3. Hermon North Blockhouse (Berg River): To the west of the A44 road, 5 km north of Hermon Station on the south side of the Berg River and clearly visible from the road. Built of stone, it has lost its roof, angle galleries and floors. Il)terior not inspected.
  4. Tulbagh Road (Boontjies River): Situated close to Groote Vallei Farm and north of the Boontjies River, this blockhouse is stone-built and missing most of its roof and floors.
  5. Wolseley [Ceres Road or Brede River] North-west Blockhouse (Brede River): On the west side of the railway and R46 Tulbagh road near the south bank of the northern of the two sections of the Brede River, it is built of stone and has been lime-washed externally. It is complete with its roof, floors and galleries. I understand that the various alterations visible were carried out in the early/ mid-twentieth century to convert these two blockhouses into living accommodation for workers on the farm (see next entry).

    Wolseley South-Eastern Blockhouse
    (Photo: R Tomlinson)

  6. Wolseley [Ceres Road/Brede River] South-east Blockhouse (Brede River): These two Wolseley blockhouses are situated on a farm owned by the Dicey family, and are open to the public on! request to the owner (please contact Mrs Natasha Dicey, email ndicey@ in advance to arrange access). On the east side of the R46 and south of the south section of the Brede River, it is also stone-built (but unpainted) and retains its roof, floors and galleries. In the early twentieth century, the three steel-shuttered windows at first floor level were altered to increase the daylight (and changed again in a recent restoration); the original access openings for ladders in the timber floors were also modified. However, many interesting original features have survived in both buildings.
  7. De Wet [Tweefontein] (Hex River): On the east side of railway and on the south bank of river, ~ km north of De Wet Station, this was one of five un-reinforced concrete examples, but was undermined by the river and has collapsed.
  8. Laingsburg Bridge (Buffels River): Located near the north-west corner of the railway bridge over the river, to the south-west of the town, the remains were washed away in the great flood of 1981 and the exact site is uncertain (the author has an archive photo of the complete building, showing its position relative to the original railway bridge.)
  9. Laingsburg (Geelbek River): Between the N1 highway and the railway and to the west of the river, 12 km east of Laingsburg, this is another concrete example, still in good condition and complete with roof and galleries, but missing its floor-boarding on the top floor and the entire middle floor. (It was proclaimed a National Monument in 1965).
  10. Ketting [Bloed River Station] (Bloed River): On the east bank of Bloed River and accessed by a gravel road turning north off the N1 by the MTN mast, about 50 km east of Laingsburg, and 7.4 km from this turnoff. Built of stone, it has lost its floors, galleries and most of its roof.
  11. Dwyka West Blockhouse (Dwyka River): On the west bank of the Dwyka River to the north of the railway, it is of stone but has lost its roof and floors.
  12. Dwyka East Blockhouse (Dwyka River): On the east bank of the river and south of the railway, also stone-built, this blockhouse has lost its floors, roof, and both galleries.

    The two Dwyka blockhouses. The Dwyka East Blockhouse is in the foreground
  13. Leeu-Gamka [Fraserburg Road] (Leeu River): Located south of the N 1 and west of the bridge, this stone blockhouse has lost its roof, galleries, floors and the top courses of its parapet walls.
  14. Beaufort West: Placed north of the railway to defend the 'Rooibrug' steel railway bridge on the east sid,e of town, the stone blockhouse was restored in 1999 under the supervision of Rose Willis, by replacing its roof, floors, ladders, steel door and window shutters, and she showed it to me in 2000. When I re-visited it in 2009, the replacement timber floors, three steel ladders, several steel supports for the roof, the original steel door and three window shutters had been 'stolen', and the rest of the roof has since disappeared. So it appears that this heritage structure has received no visitors except thieves in nine or so years! On a visit in September 2016, I found the remainder of the restored roof gone.
  15. Krom River South (Krom River): Almost hidden in the thick woodland on the north bank of the river, 50 metres east of the railway and 300 metres south of Krom River Station, this concrete blockhouse is missing its floors, but is otherwise reasonably complete.
  16. Krom River North (Salt River): On the southern bank of the river and 500 metres north of Krom River Station, this concrete example has collapsed due to undermining by an irrigation canal which leaves the river just west of the blockhouse .

    The Salt River Blockhouse, Western Cape, as seen from the railway embankment, September 2009.
    (Photo: R Tomlinson)

    The Salt River Blockhouse (detail),showing two loophole plates in the facing wall, and one to the right.
    (Photo: R Tomlinson)
  17. Brakpoort (Brakpoort River): On the south bank of the river between the gravel road and railway and 4 km south-west of Brakpoort Station, this stone blockhouse has been given a cement wash on the external walls. It is in good condition and is complete with its roof, angle galleries and a few floor timbers.

    Brakpoort Blockhouse, Northern Cape.
    (Photo: R Tomlinson)
  18. Merriman [Richmond Road or Waterval] (a tributary of the angers River): On the south-west side of the railway and 1.2 km north-east of Merriman Station, this concrete blockhouse is in good condition and complete with its roof, galleries and some floor timbers.

The concrete example at Merriman.
(Photo: R Tomlinson)

Author's note:

It should be borne in mind that I recorded most of these blockhouses in 1996, Tulbagh Road and the two at Dwyka in 2004, the site at Laingsburg Bridge, the pair at Wolseley and the Beaufort West one revisited in 2009. Although I have revisited some of the easily accessible examples later when passing, my comments on the condition of these structures essentially date from these years. These masonry blockhouses are one of the more eye-catching reminders of this period of South Africa's history.

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