The Mpumalanga Heritage Society recently did a tour of White River and some of its many colonial homes and buildings on the Yaverland and Plaston roads. It was a great day out with around 40 people in attendance. The group met at the White River Square in town and then drove in convoy to some of the colonial houses in the area.
A Brief History of White River:
At the end of the Anglo-Boer War the government of Lord Milner decided to establish an irrigation farming scheme for unemployed British soldiers returning from the war. Although not successful, it was the forerunner of a small farmer’s township. In 1904, Milner ordered the Transvaal Land Department to survey the valley. Building a weir over the river and constructing a canal, a hundred plots of land were offered up for sale.
A number of British ex-servicemen from the Boer War began citrus farming in what would become known as White River. The White River was known as Mhloppemanzi in Siswati and Witrivier in Afrikaans, because of its milky colour – caused by high levels of kaolin in the water.
Like the Lowveld settlers before them – seasonal San and Trekboer visitors – they soon experienced the harsh conditions of the region. Defeated by disease, drought, and insects, the new farmers left in droves and despite his best attempts, Estates Manager Thomas Holman Lawrence was unable to stop them. By 1911 a Mr McDonald was the only remaining farmer in the development.
Henry Glynn, Clem Merriman, Colonel William Barnard, Reverend Ponsonby and Exley Millar formed a syndicate to raise the necessary capital and bid for the failed settlement. Their offer of £10000 for 10000 acres was accepted and White River Estates established. In 1916 White River Estates became a private company with capital having grown to £30000, but the 1914 – 1918 war delayed development, which resumed again only in 1919.
Homes were built of wattle-and-daub and citrus planted. As it developed, the village of White River consisted of the Magistrates residence and court, an outspan on the site of where the Dutch Reformed Church is today, the White River Hotel and a police station and stables connected by the single main street which is today called Chief Mgiyeni Khumalo. Because the main industry was citrus farming, the White River Fruitgrowers’ Co-operative Company was established in 1924, packing the first citrus crop a year later and by 1926 the railway line from Nelspruit reached White River.
Huffy Pott met the visitors at the house that he grew up in. It is also called Sheiling House – A shieling (Scottish Gaelic: àirigh), also spelt sheiling, shealing and sheeling, is a hut, or collection of huts, once common in wild or lonely places in the hills and mountains of Scotland and northern England. (Wikipedia).
Built about 100 years ago, it is one of the oldest houses in White River and has a lovely view of the valley below. The walls were built with mud bricks. Huffy, who is a well-known character in White River told stories of how the first owners of the house kept lions on the property. His grandfather bought the house and he (Huffy) grew up here.
Nyati House was built in 1920 by Huffy Pott’s grandfather. It is set on a beautiful stand with large trees. It has a large verandah overlooking the lovely garden and valley below, looking northwards. Huffy stayed here during the Second World War when his father went off to fight in the war.
The original Turner House is also about a hundred years old. Huffy told stories about how as a youngster he would phone the manual exchange line to talk to the Turners. – For those too young to remember, a telephone exchange is a telephone system located at service centres (central offices) responsible for a small geographic area that provided the manual switching or interconnection of two or more individual lines for calls made between them. This is very different from our direct lines of today and was sometimes called a “party line”. They were notorious for having nosey people listening in.
The beautiful tall jacaranda trees on the property must also be over 100 years old.
The Old Planters Club:
The Planters Club is where people, (mostly men) met to have a drink and play a game of tennis. Most were citrus growers, hence the name ‘planters club’. There was also a hall for dancing and people had great parties there. We could not get in to see this property as it is now a private space, but whilst we were looking over the fence a couple across the road invited us to have a look at their house, built in 1933.
The Anglican Church was built in 1929. “A committee was formed to gather sufficient funds to build the church in White River, consisting of Colonel Ross, Percy Cazalet, Mr Nitch, Mr Merriman, Helen Turner and Colonel Cox. The White River Estates donated the land, which was planted with 500 citrus trees. The architect, a Mr Fleming, was a pupil, and later partner, of Sir Herbert Baker, and decided on dressed stone for the building medium. A skilled stonemason, Mr Allardyce, was employed. He had worked on some fine Johannesburg homes before tackling the little church. Granite blocks were quarried from the Campbell Ross farm opposite the present church.
The church is offset by a pair of imposing wrought iron gates, and these were a gift from Bunny Bains in memory of his parents. They have an interesting history. Sir George Albu, who was Director of General mining and Finance Corporation in Johannesburg in 1903, used to commute in a pony trap between his home on Parktown Ridge and his office in the city. Ponies and trap were stabled in a small backyard near his office, behind these impressive iron gates made to order in England. When the office was demolished, Bunny purchased the gates and donated them to St George’s Church, where they can be admired to this day.
[Nevill, Claire. White River Remembered. White River: Loius van der Merwe, White River Museum, Casterbridge. pp, 104-5.]
The day ended with lunch at the current Phat Boys Pub which was originally “Die Ou Pastorie”. Sometime between 1885 and 1895 an Anglican minister planted a tree on the village green across the road from where the original church stood. The Natal Fig is a national monument and still stands today. The vicarage was built near this tree between 1895 and 1905 and is probably the oldest house in White River. In 1916 the Anglican Church moved to its current whereabouts on the Plaston Road and the house was either given or sold to the Dutch Reformed Church, becoming “Die Pastorie”. What a great day it was, learning more about White River’s history.