Old Town Revisited
© Victor, Stephanie 2005 Imvubu 17:3, 1.
With the assistance of the Friends of the Museum, the History Section, celebrated Heritage Day in style this year by hosting a special reunion for Old Town’s erstwhile residents. At the luncheon, partly sponsored by ex-residents themselves, guests were encouraged to recall the history of Old Town and to share their memories and experiences.
Memories about Old Town were recalled with the aide of a specially prepared slideshow consisting of people and places that characterized this historic part of King William’s Town. The slideshow was produced from the History Section’s large photograph collection as well as from memorabilia collected from residents. Our guests were entertained by ‘The Merrymakers’, a wonderful group of musicians originating mostly from Old Town. The function was recorded on film for posterity.
Old Town, aptly named because it formed an historical part of our town, dates back to about 1865 when the first streets were laid out in King William’s Town. The first main road, Smith Street, was the life blood of Old Town. Around this historical heart grew a close-knit, multi-racial community more especially during the twentieth century. During the Second World War (1939-1944), for example, the people of Old Town organized concerts for war funds. Residents recall stories about common interests, such as music, dancing and sporting activities. Landmarks like Pelham’s Boarding House, the Masonic Hotel and the Welcome Café are also frequently mentioned.
Old Town was declared a European area in terms of the Group Areas Act of 1966. However, owing to a lack of alternative accommodation, no immediate action was taken by the local authorities to evict non-white residents. In 1975 the area was declared an urban renewal area, in other words a slum, and the first eviction notices were served in 1979 by the SA Department of Community Development.
Housing was also problematic for Old Town’s Indian residents. During the 1980s, plans to develop a separate Indian suburb near Balassi fortunately never materialised, for moving out of the centre of town would have had dire consequences for the predominantly business-orientated Indian community.
Deeply opposed to the Group Areas Act, most Old Town residents were reluctant to be moved from their homes and closely-knit neighbourhood. Some residents were provided with better homes elsewhere that boasted electricity, water and conveniences they previously never enjoyed, but for others the move has meant a loss of place, self-identity and values that can never be replaced.
The King Borough Council started acquiring Old Town properties and slowly cleared what it termed ‘slum’ housing. In 1983 the last traces of Old Town disappeared and large sections of MacKinnon, Berkeley and Charles streets vanished. Soon, the development of a modern shopping complex would eventually eradicate every last vestige of their erstwhile homes.
As late as 1993, residents in historic MacKinnon Street living in council-owned houses, received eviction notices. They were the last residents to leave Old Town. Among them was Mrs Katy Izally, who also became known as ‘the iron lady of the struggle’.
According to Council propaganda at the time, Old Town was not fit for human habitation and would be too expensive to restore. And now Old Town is no more. With the loss of place, the sense of self and community, the people of Old Town have had to deal with the painful loss of identity and were forced to start anew, facing increased rents and transport costs to and from Breidbach. Nevertheless, warm memories, a few landmarks and a sense of history remain as traces of a bye-gone past.