Smithfield, the town that almost wasn't

by John von Ahlefeldt - 

Smithfield, so history has it, was founded in 1848. But like most truths, there’s more to it, and in fact the village founded that year was about 30 km away from the present site.

The story began when Charles Halse, owner of a 1200 hectare property in a particularly attractive, hilly area of the southern Free State, had the commendably entrepreneurial idea of turning his land to account by establishing a township.

Original site not accepted

What seemed a sound idea to Mr Halse did not go down terribly well with certain of the more prominent locals for various reasons, at least one being animosity between the parties.

This was in spite of – or perhaps because of – the developer having persuaded no less a personage than the dashing Sir Harry Smith, then governor of the Cape Colony, not only to give his name to the project but actually to visit this isolated spot and lay the foundation stone of a church.

As matters turned out, neither the church nor Smithfield came to pass: in the planned form, that is.

Not enough water

The story generally told about the dramatic change in plan centres on a claimed lack of water or at least sufficient quantities of the stuff, in spite of the farm on which the township was planned being named ‘Waterford’. In fact, a strong aroma of personalities and politics hangs over the machinations leading to ‘Old Smithfield’ failing to develop much beyond a couple of houses, some already built, others in the process of being erected in anticipation of what promised to be an unusually attractive village.

So, for whatever reasons, the matter was taken out of the hands of the originators of the scheme. Sir Harry, he of the beautiful young Spanish wife and a tendency to lend his, and her, name to many other embryonic towns in the country, was duly notified that more suitable land had been acquired.

Farm 'Rietpoort' bought for the new town

The farm Rietpoort, belonging to the Griqua chief Adam Kok, was acquired for the equivalent of R600 and the worthy Sir Harry did the decent thing and agreed that his name could grace what became known briefly as ‘New Smithfield’. It fared rather better than its ill-starred antecedent. True to form, the governor also allowed his wife to be honoured with the naming of Juana Square.

About 18 months after the proclamation of the original township, the first stands in ‘New Smithfield’ were sold for the princely sum of R300 in today’s money. To mark the occasion of the establishment of this, the third town in what we today call the Free State, Thomas Vowe established his magistracy here. Smithfield was on its way.

Scenically, ‘New Smithfield’ lacked the charm of the undulating terrain of ‘Old Smithfield’, but being tucked into an accommodating L-shaped hillside did provide it with a character and charm of its own – the unending vistas to the south providing the drama.

'The place could be a picture'

In fact, a couple of years later, The Friend newspaper published a leading article in which was described the writer’s first visit. Passing through the town poort, he wrote, ‘a magnificent valley bursts upon your view. This is the new village of Smithfield. It may be made the most beautiful village … the place could be a picture.’ Today the community would describe the words as being suitably prophetic.

And, as is the process of development, and fuelled by the development of sheep and cattle farming in the district, the normal accoutrements followed: the first school, the first church, the tentative ventures into commerce; all lent evidence to the infant settlement developing strongly into childhood. Indeed the Smithfield school (circa 1850) is reputed to hold the distinction of being the first such institute of learning in the territory.

Urban development does not always come easily in an environment as undeveloped and often hostile as this. While the presence of Smithfield represented evidence of progress in the process of the country’s development, the neighbouring Basotho people had other ideas. Having considered the area to be part of their natural inheritance and settlers to be intruders they reacted accordingly.

Times of war

The resultant tension must have been a serious setback for the people of the new village and within six years the presence of Sir George Grey, the new governor of the Cape, and of Moshoeshoe were required to try and iron out their differences. The Smithfield discussions were largely fruitless and failed to prevent the outbreak in 1858 of the first of three Basotho Wars in which Smithfield played the unenviable role of frontier town. It also mustered its own commando force that, with the aid of ‘Ou Grietjie’, their cannon, saw much fighting.

By 1860 the Smithfield advance into adolescence was acknowledged with the appointment of its own town board, a body that oversaw the running of the now prosperous settlement until 1949, when it was promoted into the more august role of municipality. Over the years the growth of Smithfield in stature was helped by the contribution of farming, in particular the high quality merino wool, to the local economy.

Although the collapse of the international wool market in the second half of the 20th century placed a severe strain on the town, leading to a severe thinning out of the population a subsequent improvement in wool prices has restored the equilibrium, aided by another significant influence – tourism, in which it has assumed a prominent role, but not for the first time. 

Travellers from all over the world

In the early days travellers on their way from Grahamstown among others to the south, found Smithfield conveniently located en route to the north. Nowadays excellent guesthouses and restaurants cater for visitors from all over the world. The town position, astride what has become known as ‘The Friendly N6’, mid-way between Gauteng and the Wild Coast, as well as the Sunshine Coast of the Eastern Cape, provided real potential which has been energetically turned to account. An added bonus is the fact that the town is halfway between Durban and the Western Cape on the shortest non-Transkei route.

From this new enterprise Smithfield has been introduced to an entirely new market. With greater attention being focused on the town, a healthy injection of new blood has brought numbers of people from other parts of the country, as well as a smattering from overseas. Property has been changing hands at a brisk pace and prices have responded accordingly.

A new community

With the new residents have come new ideas, new interests. Painters, sculptors, photographers, jewellers, builders, jacks of all trades, all finding themselves as much at home in this (well, relatively!) cosmopolitan capital of the southern Free State as their long-established farming neighbours.

The newcomers have been generally welcomed by a hospitable and warm-hearted local community, many of whose roots go back several generations. Perceived wisdom is that although both locals and newcomers need to adjust to changes of this sort, it is the latter who must make the greater adjustment. With rare exceptions this seems to have happened. The result – a much enriched community.

*This is an edited version of the original article that first appeared in To Go To, Vol 13, Autumn 2006

You are here