(I’ve done a similar post! on the park in more recent days – ‘Our era,’ the 1960s. Enjoy both, and take both with a pincha cerebos).
Harrismith’s young town council, established only in 1875, though the town had been going for much longer, decided in 1877 to lay out a large park for its citizens to enjoy on the banks of the Wilge River on the south-west edge of the new dorpie.
Over the following years – and mainly thanks to the efforts of the Landdrost Warden who came to Harrismith in 1884, and Harrismith’s first Town Clerk A. Milne, the area was laid out with winding roads, walking paths, a “lovers lane of poplar trees” and up to 38 species of other foreign trees, in what was then highveld grassland. Or, as described by park praise-singers: “a bare, crude piece of ground!”
Here we see the Wilge River banks and surrounds just upstream of the park site – near where the ysterbrug, or Hamilton Goold bridge was later built:
Tree planting commences. Platberg the backdrop.
The typical Free State river was narrow and shallow, so an attractive little lake with a central island was built on the right bank (town side) and used for boating. Swans were introduced from London ‘for beauty.’ As for trees, so all local life **sniff** was regarded as inferior to things imported from “home”! Home being a small island to the NW of France. The swans did quite well, settled in and bred, the cygnets being sold for £15 a pair, but not long after, they met their end at the hand of ‘some unidentified vandal with a .22 gun.’ Probably an early indigenous wildlife fan, I’d like to suggest?
As the trees grew, so more and more birds roosted in them, large heronries eventually being established. Predictably people complained and as predictably, the council “did something about it,” shooting the local birds while pontificating against the shooting of the foreign birds! The birds’ carcasses dropped into and frotted in the lake, causing a big stink! In the 60s there were still many cattle egrets in the trees and I recall lots of white poo and some dead babies on the ground beneath their nests.
In 1897 the lake was named Victoria Lake in honour of the silver jubilee of the Queen – that’s the queen of England, that little island to the NW of France – along with thousands of other things named “Victoria” that year around the world – much genuflection was expected of the colonies. Also they were probably trying to ease her pain over the royal pasting (or snotklap) we had given her at Majuba.
More & more trees would be planted over the years by schoolkids and enthusiasts. Gotta get this place looking more like England, dammit!
The park was officially opened in 1906 by Sir Hamilton Goold Adams, at “a colourful ceremony with troops on parade and a military band in attendance.” Now they were gloating, having given us a revenge pasting in the 1899-1902 Tweede Vryheids Oorlog (Anglo-Boer War).
In 1907 the river was dammed by a weir just downstream of the park, thus creating a wider and deeper river for the full length of the park.
This greatly added to the river’s charm and utility, allowing for swimming, drowning, more boating and bigger boats – even the first motorboat in 1918, owned by Mr E.H Friday. Later a boat house and a landing stage were erected by the Boating Syndicate who advertised ‘Boats for 2 and boats for 4 and boats for all’ in 1922. The Syndicate graduated to a motor launch capable of taking 14 passengers slowly along the river, including full-moon evenings where people would sing the songs of the day, accompanied by “the plaintive sounds of the ukelele”.
On the edge of the park nearest town sportsfields were laid out, starting with a cricket oval and an athletic track, then rugby, soccer, softball and hockey fields; and jukskei lanes. No croquet?
The park was extended across the river and a new suspension bridge about 300 yards downstream replaced the one the military had erected (the thrifty town council using some of the metal from the original in the replacement). In time a caravan park was started, but this was soon moved to the town side of the park.
An impressive entrance – wrought iron gates between sandstone pillars – was erected and named the Warden-Milne gate in honour of those
who had done so much to get the park established. Well done, chaps! We enjoyed the fruits of your labour in our youth in the 1960s! OK, not really labour, organisational abilities, nê?
Gotta love marketing! In a brochure extolling the virtues of our lovely dorp, the blurb says – where we would have said Dammit, it’s FREEZING! – “the town enjoys a bracing climate.”
Wilge river – Willow river; Interesting name, as the willows are from the northern hemisphere, and were planted later; only after a while would they have become such a feature of this river (and many other South African rivers); Wonder if our river had another name when the town was first settled?
dorpie – village
ysterbrug – iron bridge; for horsedrawn carriages and those newfangled automobiles / motorcars
snotklap – a tight slap that – if timed right – whips the snot out of the klap-ee’s nose and leaves it wrapped round his face ear-to-ear
nê? – amiright?