From our Residents: Bridgewater Manor’s history

Bridgewater Manor residents live on a historic South African farm whose story is recorded in many well known books, namely Peggy Heap’s book “Hottentots Holland”, Hans Fransen’s “Guide to the old buildings of the Cape”, Lawrence Green’s “Beyond the City Lights” and André Theron Morkel’s “Morkel: A remarkable South African family”. 

Philip Morkel from Hamburg, Germany, arrived at the Cape in a VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship in the early 1700s. In 1713, Philip Morkel married Catharina  Pasman who had inherited the farm Onwerwacht (later called Die Bos) a huge tract of some 500 morgen which stretched from the Hottentots Holland mountains, including what is now Somerset West, right through to the present day Strand. It became Philip’s property in 1718. He is the progenitor of all the Morkels in Southern Africa.

During the late 1700s portions of the farm were split off and given to the Morkel  sons. A large portion known as Voorburg, a farm lying alongside the Lourens River, was given to Willem Morkel. Voorburg is the name given to the main lounge at Bridgewater Manor.  Third generation, Willem Morkel inherited Voorburg when his father died in 1788. The will specified that a house and farm buildings be constructed on the farm.

Willem and Anna Morkel started building a homestead in 1788. The Manor House carries a plaque commemorating this date. In Victorian times, the building was much changed with a double storey addition, loft windows and very tall gables. Inside there are some very high early ceiling beams and in the entrance foyer, big heavy doors. Many travellers were hospitably received at Voorburg. An 1803 traveller’s diary records: “Unconstrained hospitality, we were sumptuously entertained, the evening meal was a lavish one, the beds were good.” When Willem died in 1839, Voorburg was sold and renamed Bridgewater, being close to the bridge across the Lourens River. 

During the years the farm was further subdivided again and again. From 1817, as the town of Somerset West developed, this area was called Bridgewater – a residential area. However, the Voorburg Manor House continued to play a central part in the life of the town.  In the late 1890s, horse racing meetings were held nearby and Race Balls and Race Dinners were popular social events often held in the Voorburg homestead, owned at the time by Mr Pieter Myburgh.

About 20 years ago a new bridge was built over the Lourens River near Fagan Street. Later, Andries Pretorius Street was extended and connected to Main Road, so separating the Manor House from the river.

Bridgewater Manor Retirement Village

In September 1987 Bridgewater Manor Retirement Village was advertised. It was developed by Nick and Pat Baines.

On 1 June 1988 Bridgewater Manor was opened – coincidentally 200 years after the homestead was first started. There is a commemorative plaque for the opening outside the door from the Voorburg lounge to the garden. 

Cottages 1 to 37 formed the first phase and all was nearly ready for the first occupants.   Thea Selzer (sadly she passed away on 12 May 2019) and her husband moved in on the first day. Thea had a wonderful memory and told us much about the history of Bridgewater Manor since its founding. 

Thea remembered that the wall along Andries Pretorius Street from cottage 3 to the bottom gate was not built – the property was open to the street. There were deep furrows waiting for the sewerage and water pipes, with small footbridges over them so that residents could reach their cottages. Security staff only came at weekends. The walls and security gates were only erected sometime later. Sand and bricks lay where further cottages were to be built.

For the first 3 days there was no electricity (June is a cold month!) and there were no telephones for 3 months. The main kitchen was not yet finished. So, the caterer brought in ready cooked meals and washing up was done in what today is the reception area.

Only the first dining room was ready. The other four were still to be completed. Then building started on Health Care and more cottages were added. The project was completed in 2½ years – much earlier than expected. And although not everything was perfect in the beginning, Thea said “We all had lots of fun and few complaints, if any.” And, we have a special lady who has been here since day 1 – Caroline Stopforth. a Dining Room Head Waitress. She too has many interesting tales to tell.

Before the new Clubhouse building started, there was a decorative gate in the boundary wall. It is called the ‘Fleur gate’ and is a beautiful piece of wrought-iron work with leaves and grapes decorations. For security reasons the gate was kept closed. The gate is in memory of a young girl called Fleur Secretan who died at the young age of 18. She was the companion of Mrs Rockey, the previous owner of Bridgewater Manor. The ‘Fleur gate’ has been re-erected next to the Clubhouse in the newly landscaped garden.

We are blessed with a Manor House with its beautiful lounges and gracious atmosphere, surrounded by comfortable cottages and attractive gardens. An 1849 painting shows Somerset West as it was then, with large trees on Voorburg.  Two huge Norfolk pines still stand – one with the star on top which is lit at Christmas time. 

In 2012, the Financial Management of Bridgewater Manor was taken over by Faircape. This has resulted in not only fewer headaches for the Residents’ Management Committee, but also splendid input into the maintenance and refurbishment of the Manor House and the kitchen. The dining rooms were repainted and newly carpeted, new dining room tables and chairs were installed and trolleys provided for serving meals.

A new borehole is operational providing irrigation for the whole garden. Improved staff facilities are now in use in the attractively renovated barn, a dedicated library room has been developed as well as six new Health Care rooms and adjacent garden courtyard.   

In February 2019 the new Clubhouse opened with splendid new facilities – an activity room, a games room, an indoor heated swimming pool, a small gym, a coffee shop, more toilets and showers. Vacant cottages are being extended and refurbished.

Our story ends with a remarkable fact – we are proud to have as residents, a direct descendant of Willem Morkel who built the Voorburg Manor House, a 9th generation Morkel and his wife – Dennis and Elween Morkel. Sadly, shortly after this article was written, Mr Dennis Morkel passed away.

Written by Mrs Pamela Duff (Bridgewater Manor)

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