The first white inhabitants
Between 1820 and 1826, Afrikaner trekboer (migratory farmer) J.N. Brits trekked from the Cape Colony, crossed the Orange River and settled near a spring (fountain) in the vicinity of the current Old Presidency in Bloemfontein. He named his farm 'Bloemfontein' after the flowers (wild clover) that grew around the spring. He built himself a small pioneer house and laid down a garden.
The founding of Bloemfontein
In 1846, Major H.D. Warden was appointed British Resident of the area between the Orange and the Vaal rivers, to maintain peace between the various population groups. He and his soldiers settled on Brits’ farm and founded the village of Bloemfontein. Warden’s soldiers erected a Residency for the British Resident, as well as a fort, Fort Drury, a school room and barracks for themselves. In 1848, General Harry Smith annexed the area between the Orange and Vaal rivers as British territory and named it the Orange River Sovereignty. Initially, Bloemfontein was predominately an English village and in 1848 only two Afrikaans families lived in the town.
Management of the town
On 23 February 1854, the British government withdrew from the Orange River Sovereignty and the area became an Afrikaner republic, the Orange Free State, with J.P. Hoffman as first Afrikaner State President and Bloemfontein as the state capital. Bloemfontein developed gradually and more Afrikaners settled in the town. The next five Presidents, namely J.N. Boshof, M.W. Pretorius, J.H. Brand, F.W. Reitz and M.T. Steyn, who all lived in Bloemfontein, were all Afrikaners.
Between 1854 and 1900, the government of the Orange Free State was therefore the responsibility of the Afrikaners, although the capital was quite cosmopolitan due to all the different cultural groups who settled there. Although the first municipal commissioners were appointed in 1850, Bloemfontein only received full municipal status in 1880, when Robert Innes was elected the first Mayor of the capital. Initially, the municipal commissioners managed the affairs of Bloemfontein and appointed civil servants for the town, but after Bloemfontein obtained municipal status, the Mayor and the Town Council, called the Bloemfontein Corporation, handled town affairs and appointed municipal servants.
Since 1872, local concerts and shows, in which Afrikaners participated, were held regularly in Bloemfontein. Various schools and local societies performed in local musical, dramatic and variety concerts in the Free State capital. From early on, visiting artists, singers, musicians, dramatic actors, performers, shows, operas and operettas from the Cape and abroad visited Bloemfontein from time to time. During 1896 alone, 28 different artists and performers visited the town.
In 1874, the Bloemfontein Choral Society was formed and in 1878, the first cultural and educational society in Bloemfontein, namely the Bloemfontein Literary and Scientific Society, was founded. It was followed by the Bloemfontein Orchestral Society in 1883, the Bloemfontein Dramatic Society in 1890, the Young Men’s Literary Society in 1891 and the rekindling of the Bloemfontein Choral Society in 1893. Other important bands were the Free State Artillery Band and the President Brand Rifles Band, all stationed in Bloemfontein. Lectures on various topics were attended mostly by men, and occasionally by women. The Bloemfontein Literary and Debating Society organized regular reading, debating and music evenings.
The National Museum of the Orange Free State, which was founded in 1877 and housed in the old First Raadsaal in Bloemfontein, was a well-known cultural institution. Only a few years after the founding of Bloemfontein in 1846, a reading room was established, which developed into a full-fledged public library by 1875.
In 1877, the lending library housed in a room in the city hall where the citizens of Bloemfontein could borrow reading material already had 250 English and 100 Dutch books. Afrikaners participated in all of these cultural societies and activities.Dutch newspapers, for example De Tijd, De Express and De Burger, played an important part in the cultural and political life of Afrikaners in the Free State and promoted the Dutch language as forerunner of Afrikaans.
Shortly after the founding of Bloemfontein in 1846, attention was given to education of children. The first government school that was attended by both Afrikaner and English children was built in St. George’s Street in 1849. Originally Afrikaners spoke a simplified form of Dutch which developed into the Afrikaans language.
The first school for Afrikaner boys was the now well-known Grey College in Bloemfontein. Grey College is the oldest school north of the Orange River and third oldest in the Republic of South Africa. Sir George Grey, Governor of the Cape Colony, visited the new Republic of the Orange Free State in October 1855 and donated money towards the establishment of an institution of higher education. The school was officially opened in January 1859 with Dr. Andrew Murray as the first headmaster. It developed into an excellent school, especially after the appointment of the well-known Dutch educationist, Dr. Johannes Brill, as headmaster in 1873. Today classes are presented in Afrikaans and English.
The first school for Afrikaner girls, originally called the “Oranje Vrij Staat Dames Instituut” (later Eunice), was founded in 1875, although today the school is thoroughly English. The Dutch Reformed Church originally played a very important role in the founding and governing of both Grey College and the Dames Instituut Eunice, but later on both schools were placed under state rule. In 1874, the “Infant School”, a nursery school for pre-school children in Bloemfontein, was founded in Fountain Street. The Infant School served as kindergarten department for both Grey College and the Dames Instituut Eunice. During the first years of its existence, the Infant School was a private institution, but since 1888 it received an annual government grant by which it became a semi-government institution.
Most Afrikaners in Bloemfontein and in the vicinity of the Free State capital were Christians and members of the Dutch Reformed Church. The first congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church in Bloemfontein was founded in 1848 with Dr. Andrew Murray (junior) as the first minister and in 1852 the first Dutch Reformed Church building was completed. It was replaced in 1880 by the well-known Tweetoringkerk (Twin-spire Church) which is still standing today. During the republican period, the Dutch Reformed Church was also the church of the state and played an important role in the education of the Afrikaner people in Bloemfontein. The Dutch Reformed Church was responsible for the founding and control of Grey College, the Dames Instituut Eunice and the Bloemfontein Infant School, before the schools were transferred to the Free State government.
Their church and the Bible were very important for the Afrikaners and they used the Bible as guidance for the way they lived. By 1895, the Dutch Reformed congregation in Bloemfontein consisted of 751 souls – 319 members and 432 children. Every three months Holy Communion (Nagmaal) was held at the Bloemfontein Dutch Reformed Church and during this occasion many Afrikaans farmers in the vicinity visited the town and also attended the church service. During the communion weekend the farmers stayed in little church- or dorps houses, or in rooms hired out by business people and during this long weekend the town had a gay and festive atmosphere as old friends reunited. In November 1898 the Dutch Reformed congregation of Bloemfontein celebrated its 50th birthday with two days of special festive activities.
Bloemfontein’s cosmopolitan character before the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) can be ascribed to the various population groups, for example English speaking citizens, Afrikaners, Dutchmen, Germans, Jews, Black people, Coloured people and even a few Indian people until Indians were restricted in the Free State from 1890 onwards.
The shops and other businesses in Bloemfontein in the period before the Anglo-Boer War mostly belonged to Germans, Jews and English-speaking citizens, but the Afrikaners played an important economic role as producers of farm produce and as civil servants, as well as consumers of products and services. Since 1859, Bloemfontein also had an excellent municipal market where farm produce and other products were sold.
The first bank in Bloemfontein, the Bloemfontein Bank, was founded in 1862 and in 1877 the state bank, the National Bank of the Orange Free State, opened its first branch in Bloemfontein. After the first railway line from Cape Town reached Bloemfontein in 1890, the economic development of the Free State and its capital accelerated.
Sport & recreation
Hunting, target shooting and horse-racing were the most popular kinds of sport amongst Afrikaners. Boxing and wrestling were also very popular since the Great Trek. Since 1875, regular athletics meetings were held in Bloemfontein. The English-speaking citizens introduced athletics, cricket, tennis, rugby, soccer, billiards and hockey, but the Afrikaners also participated in these kinds of sports. Since 1885 walking matches became very popular.
The establishment of the Ramblers Sport Club in July 1896 was an important stimulus to the local sport scene. Cricket was extremely popular and before 1900, Bloemfontein had a total of ten cricket clubs, although they did not all exist simultaneously. In 1896, there were four rugby and six soccer clubs. The various schools participated in cricket, rugby and soccer and had their own sport teams. Different clubs competed against each other, but the teams also played against teams from other towns. The Free State rugby team also participated in the Currie Cup competition.
Cycling in the 1890s formed part of athletics and as bicycles were something new in Bloemfontein, it only became widely used in the Free State capital by 1895. Even the girls and ladies of Bloemfontein participated in tennis and cycling, although in the beginning, cycling for ladies was frowned upon by the establishment. Cycling was practised as a sport code, but it also became a very popular social activity after 1895. Two cycling clubs, namely the City Cycling Club and the Southern Cross Cycling Club, organized social cycling events, for example pleasure trips on bicycles on Sundays and at night.
In the early years of Bloemfontein’s existence, only boys and men participated in swimming. In the beginning dams were used for swimming, but in 1892 the first swimming bath was opened on the corner of Douglas and Gordon Street and was filled up by means of a furrow that was dug out of Bloemspruit. Now ladies and girls also participated in swimming, but men and boys, ladies and girls each had their own allotted time for swimming and no mixed bathing between the sexes was allowed.
Other popular forms of recreation were croquet, dancing, roller skating and reading in which men, women and children participated. Collecting various objects and doing needlework were very popular activities amongst the ladies and girls. Picnics, circuses, visiting artists and performers, bazaars, the yearly agricultural show, concerts and social visits were also popular forms of recreation.
Bloemfontein was indeed a very social place before 1900. At night young people gathered at friend’s homes to play games, sing and make music. The Bloemfontein Club for 'the encouragement of social intercourse amongst gentlemen' was founded in 1881. Men were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company at the various social clubs in Bloemfontein, but as women were not allowed to become members of these clubs, they held their own social tea parties called 'at homes'.
The Afrikaners thus played an important part in all facets of the history of Bloemfontein from the settlement of trekboer Brits on his farm Bloemfontein in the 1820s until the British occupation of the Free State capital in March 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War.
This text was adapted for SAHO by Marianna Botes, Researcher: National Museum, Bloemfontein.