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George is a city with 203,253 inhabitants in South Africa's Western Cape province. The city is a popular holiday and conference centre and the administrative and commercial hub of the Garden Route.

Location

The city is situated halfway between Cape Townmarker and Port Elizabethmarker on the Garden Route. It is situated on a 10 kilometre plateau between the Outeniqua Mountainsmarker to the north and the Indian Oceanmarker to the south.

Climate

The Garden Route has a Mediterranean climate, with warm summers, and mild to chilly winters. It is one of the highest rainfall regions in South Africa. Most rain falls in the winter and spring months, brought by the humid sea winds from the Indian Ocean.

History

18th and 19th century

The town of George was established as a result of the growing demand for timber and the wood used in building, transport and furniture. In 1776 the Dutch East India Company established an outpost for the provision of timber; its location is thought to be near the western end of York Street. The Timber Post had its own Poshouer (manager), some 12 woodcutters, a blacksmith, wagon maker and 200 oxen plus families. After 1795 and the British occupation of the Cape, a caretaker of the forests in the area was appointed. After the second British occupation in 1806, it was decided that the Swellendam magistracy was too large, so that of George Town was carved out of it. In 1811 Van Kervel was appointed as Landrost (magistrate) and the town was proclaimed by the Earl of Caledon, governor of the Cape Colony on St George's Day, 23 April 1811, and named after the reigning British monarch, King George III. George gained municipal status in 1837.

From 1772 there was a gradual influx of settlers intent on making a living from the forests. These were mostly descendants of the Dutch settlers. In early days the lives and livelihood of the people revolved around the timber industry and the rich forests in the vicinity and it remained a quiet outpost. It was the dramatic improvement of communications – the roads, rail and air links eclipsing the ox-wagons and coastal steamers of the 19th century - that exposed other charms and resources of the region and resulted in unprecedented growth for the town.

Woodcutters: 1900 – 1940

After the ostrich feather slump and a severe drought in the Karoo during the early part of the 18th century, many "bywoners" found themselves without work. Rather than stay in an arid region they crossed the mountains to find a livelihood in the forests.

Forest settlements, such as Karatara and Bergplaas (1922) were started and many of the "dangerous" working-class people from the Gautengmarker were moved to these settlements. They were, however, a minority group, as most of the woodcutters lived outside these settlements. A small number were descendants of British immigrants who could find no other means of livelihood. There were also a small number of Italian immigrants who had been brought to the area from Turinmarker in 1879, as part of a scheme to start a silk industry in the Knysnamarker area. It turned out to be a complete failure due to the lack of mulberry leaves. Finding themselves without work some of these Italians drifted into the forests and joined the woodcutting community.

Sons were considered to be an economic asset as, at the age of around 14 or 15, after very little schooling, they could assist their fathers in the forest. The majority of these sons eventually became woodcutters themselves.

The Forest Act of 1913 required all woodcutters to be registered. In 1939 all remaining woodcutters were removed from the forests and given a government pension.

Timber Industry

From the beginning of European colonisation in South Africa in 1652, timber and the provision of various woods was of paramount importance for the survival of the settlers. Once forest areas near the present Cape Town were exhausted, the search for more timber continued along the coast.

The great forests of the Southern Cape were discovered as early as 1711, but due to their inaccessibility it was only in 1776 that the Dutch East India Company established a timber post where George is today.

Early woodcutters and their families lived in forest clearings where they evolved into a closely-knit community where intermarriage was common. The men were thin and wiry, but they were also tough and strong with an incredible skill in felling, sawing and handling timber.

The utilization of the forest trees led to such industries as furniture and wagon making. By 1910 several large sawmills had been established in the district. Timber for export was transported to coastal ports by ox wagon.

Today you will find sawmills with the ultimate in modern wood technology and innovative furniture factories in the Southern Cape. Unique to this area is the age-old technique and skill of manufacturing wood furniture by hand.

Historic background of the George Museum

What the visitor sees in the George museum today has grown from the private collections of one man, Charles Sayers. He was the owner and long-time editor of the George & Knysna Herald, a newspaper established by his parents in 1881. Sayers collected and preserved all aspects of his hometown's history, with a specialist interest in old mechanical musical instruments and typewriters which today form the nucleus of the museum's important collections.

In 1967 he opened his "Mini Museum" to the public, housed in a single room adjoining a café in Courtenay Street. The people loved it and much encouraged by local authorities he moved to the original George Town House – the administrative building next to the market square which dated back to 1847. By now the Sayers Museum had attracted the attention of officialdom and barely six months after the move it attained provincial museum status as a fully-fledged cultural history museum for the region, with indigenous timber and its allied industries as its main theme. The growing popularity led to another move, this time to the building, which had been the original drostdy (magistrate’s residence and office) in the young town. The original "Mini Museum" has been re-created within the present George Museum.

Outeniqua Mountain

In 1668 the first European explorer, Hieronymous Cruse, penetrated Outeniqualand with its dense indigenous forest. The highest peak in the Outeniquas is Cradock Peak (1578 m) and the prominent George Peak is 1337 metres high.

The name Outeniquamarker is derived from the Khoi word meaning "people carrying bags of honey". The slopes of the emerald-green mountains were covered with heather and swarming with bees, according to the reports left by early travellers. "Nature has made an enchanting abode of this beautiful place", wrote the 18th century traveller Le Vaillant, when he entered the foothills of the Outeniqua range in the Southern Cape. A great deal of that enchantment and delicate beauty still captivates the modern traveller. For instance, there is the rare George lily (Cyrtanthus elatus), found near water in the deep ravines of the mountain, and a variety of ericas and proteas thrive on the fern-clothed slopes. Carpets of pink watsonias are a common sight during summer.

Montagu Pass

The historic Montagu Pass between George and Oudtshoornmarker was declared a National Monument in 1972. It is open to traffic and is a good gravel road, some 10 km in length. With many serpentine curves, this pass gradually winds its way through the fynbos-covered Cradock's Kloof until it reaches the summit.

The world traveller Anthony Trollope visited George in about 1878 and his comment on the Montagu Pass was: "...equal to some of the mountain roads through the Pyreneesmarker". Emma Murray was so enthralled by the Montagu Pass that she wrote in a letter to a relative in 1852: "One forgets everything in the beauty and grandeur of the scene. It was to me exquisite enjoyment".

A traveller will notice that some parts of the stone wall along one side of the road are slightly protruding. The purpose of this was to prevent the axles of the wagons from scraping against the walls and thus becoming damaged.

The building of the Montagu Pass

The Civil Commissioner of George, Egbertus Bergh (1837 – 1843), campaigned tirelessly for a new road through the formidable Outeniqua Mountains to replace the notorious Cradock's Pass. Then came John Montagu, the new dynamic Colonial Secretary, who cleared the public debt, recognised the importance of good roads and set the wheels rolling.

Work on the pass commenced in 1844 and H.O. Farrel was appointed superintendent of the project, but the task was beyond his ability. Henry Fancourt White, a qualified surveyor, newly appointed as Road Inspector by the Central Road Board, replaced him in 1845.

On average, 250 convicts were employed at any given time on the construction of the pass. They were housed in two camps; South Station, presumably on the same site where the tollhouse was later built, and North Station near the summit of the pass. The headquarters for the construction was sited where Blanco is situated today.

The total expenses for the construction of the Montagu Pass amounted to £35,799 of which £1,753 was spent on gunpowder. Five and a half miles of the pass had to be blasted out of solid rock.

Railway over the mountains

The building of the railway line over the Outeniqua Mountains, between George and Oudtshoorn began in December 1908 from the George side and in 1911 from the Oudtshoorn side. The track was blasted out of the rock, and seven tunnels were excavated. At one stage some 2 500 workers were employed. During April 1913 this most scenic railway line was completed. Sir David de Villiers Graaff performed the official opening on 6 August 1913. The line was built at the enormous cost of £465 000.

Toll House

During the construction of the Montagu Pass, in about 1847, a stone toll house, with a thatched roof, was erected on the George side of the mountain. According to a proclamation in the Government Gazette of 24 February 1848, a toll gate was set up, and a tariff of tolls publicised. Upon payment of the prescribed fee the toll keeper would raise the bar across the road to enable the vehicle or animal to pass.

The first toll-keeper was John Kirk Smith, born in Nottinghammarker, England in 1818. During 1849 he collected the amount of £400.13.8p in toll fees. His son William Kirk Smith was appointed toll-keeper in 1880. William and his son made "veldt schoens" (simple leather shoes) at the toll-house for sale to travellers and transport riders. Soon they had a thriving business and J.K. Smith, grandson of the first toll-keeper, expanded this concern to Market Street in George. From this humble beginning grew the large and flourishing shoe industry J.K. Smith and Company, which was the forerunner of Modern Shoes Ltd.

Other early toll-keepers were James Scott (1852) and Charles Searle (1858). The toll-house caught fire on 23 July 1855 and the entire roof was destroyed, later being replaced with corrugated iron.

In the Government Gazette dated 16 July 1867, the toll-tariffs were:Each wheel of a vehicle – two pence;Animal drawing a vehicle – one penny;Animal not drawing a vehicle – two pence;Sheep, goat or pig – one halfpenny.

All tolls were abolished on 31 December 1918, but thanks to the fact that it was declared a National Monument in 1970, this interesting relic of the last century has been saved for posterity.

Blanco

Henry Fancourt White, enchanted by Outeniqualand, bought a portion of the farm Modder River in 1848. He sold a portion to Frances Cook, who named his farm Oaklands, and subdivided the rest into erven. The little village was called "Whitesville" in honour of Henry Fancourt White, but at his suggestion the name was changed to Blanco, the Latin term for white.

In 1859 Henry White built a beautiful double storey thatched mansion, which he named Blanco House. In 1903 his son Ernest Montagu White renamed the house Fancourt – in honour of his father. Today Fancourt is a National Monument and a well-known hotel.

The main route from Mossel Baymarker to the Langkloof passed through Blanco, where a settlement of merchants was soon established. The village was also the main postal centre. This caused dissatisfaction among the businessmen of George, and so a direct link from George to the toll-house was built in about 1882. This road was called Bain's Trace and was probably built by Thomas Bain, who surveyed the new route.

The Lake System

The lakes originated about 20 000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene at the end of the last era of ice ages which was largely centred in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, these lakes can be regarded as geologically relatively young.During that last glacial period, the sea-level dropped to about 130 m lower than at present as a result of the accumulation of ice in the northern hemisphere. Rivers then extended into the newly exposed coastal areas, cutting deep valleys into them.At the end of the last glacial period the sea-level rose again, drowning these newly formed valleys, until, after a last slight rise and fall of sea-level, a level of about one to three metres above the present level was reached some 6 000 years ago. The sea level then slowly receded to reach the present level about 4 000 years ago.The partial draining of these valleys exposed part of the coastal area, thereby forming all the present Wildernessmarker Lakes except for Langvlei and Rondevlei. Martin (1962) postulates the Langvlei could have been formed by wave erosion preceding the last rise in sea level while Rondevlei, during the same time, probably originated as a wind-deflating basin. Ruigtevlei, to the east of Swartvlei, was a lake that disappeared; leaving a large area that is only inundated after floods (Martin, 1960a).During this last change (drop) in sea level, the mouth of Swartvlei Estuary moved 2 km eastward to the present position at Sedgefieldmarker, and Groenvlei lost its connection to the sea through the Swartvlei Estuary, and sand dunes now effectively covering any traces of a previous connection to the sea.

Attractions

George has a sophisticated infrastructure with banks, conference facilities, businesses and shopping chains including the newly completed Garden Route Shopping Centre, transport and sporting facilities, yet retaining its small town atmosphere. The town is also a major accommodation centre.

George has numerous world-class courses, some designed by famous golfers. Amongst these are Oubaai and Le Grande George. The most well-known is Fancourt Golf Estate, which hosted the Presidents Cup in 2003 and is often the host to high-profile golf tournaments.

Every December, top national rugby sevens teams from around the world come to Outeniqua Parkmarker for the South Africa Sevens, one of the tournaments in the IRB Sevens World Series.

George has many historical landmarks:

The First Class School for girls was started by Miss Christina Petronella van Niekerk, a "New Age" young lady with visions for the future which were very different from those ideas held by the conservative population of George.

George is often used a base to explore Tsitsikamma National Parkmarker.

The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe is South Africa's last scheduled mixed steam train service and operates on the Outeniqualand Preserved Railway between George and Knysnamarker on the Garden Route. Opened in 1928 and declared a preserved line in July 1993, this train winds its way through picturesque scenery. Unfortunately, due to recent heavy flooding in the area, the line has been damaged. It has been rescheduled to run between George and Hartenbos [163699] until further notice.

The Outeniqua Transport Museum houses a large collection of steam locomotives and carriages.

The Garden Route Botanical Garden is situated the top of Caledon Street. The Garden Route boasts the largest continuous natural forest area in South Africa, covering some 650 km². Marketable timber is harvested from 20% of the State forest. Stinkwood, named for its unmistakable odour when freshly cut, is highly prized by the furniture industry, as are white pear, hard pear, ironwood and assegaai. The most sought after timber is the Outeniqua Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus).

Churches

Pacaltsdorp Church is the oldest in the George district, completed in 1825. The Norman-style church has thick stonewalls and features a tall square tower topped by battlements. Across the road is the little mud house in which the first missionary, Charles Pacalt of the London Missionary Society, lived after arriving in 1813.

The Dutch Reformed Mother Church was consecrated in 1842 after taking 12 years to build with its 23 metre domed tower and 1 metre thick walls. It was constructed by a supervisor and a number of skilled slaves who continued to work as 'apprentices' after the emancipation of slaves in 1834. Completed in 1843, St Peter & St Paul Catholic Church in Meade Street is the oldest Catholic Church in South Africa. St Mark's Anglican Cathedral, designed by Sophy Gray and built in 1850, attained cathedral status in 1911. It was the smallest cathedral in the southern hemisphere until extensions in 1924-25. The nave is the oldest section. Its most distinctive feature is the number of stained glass windows in relation to its size.

Education

George is the tertiary hub of the Southern Cape, with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Universitymarker, together with a number of private colleges.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Saasveld, offers two centers of excellence – the Centre for Resource Management and the Centre for Business and Information Technology studies.

Schools include the Afrikaans-medium George High School established in 1947 and Outeniqua High School established in 1923. The English medium school is York High School and there is also a double medium technical school named PW Botha College.

Transport

N2 Freeway between Mossel Bay and George
Road:George is 420 km east of Cape Townmarker along the N2 national road and 330 km west of Port Elizabethmarker.

Rail:There is no scheduled passenger service to George. Rovos Railmarker and the Union Limited however offer vintage train trips to the Garden Route. The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe steam train offers leisure rides between George and Mosselbay.

Air:George Airportmarker (IATA code GRJ), situated approximately 7 km from the city centre, has scheduled flights to Cape Town International Airportmarker, Durban International Airportmarker and Johannesburg International Airportmarker.

Local government

The Executive Mayor is Philip H de Swardt of the Democratic Alliance.

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