Imvubu Newsletter

Wood and Iron Buildings

© Victor, S. 2009. Imvubu 21: 2, 2.

A recent visit to the home of Ms. Maureen Zeelie, of Louisa Street, has alerted me to the few remaining wood and iron structures left in King William’s Town. Ms. Zeelie lives in one of two corrugated iron cottages situated on the same plot.

Mrs. Zeelie, the mother of Ms. Zeelie, was briefly interviewed in November 1985. She stated that her grandfather, Joseph Ballack, erected the houses. He also assisted with the building of the old King William’s Town Station, the Berlin Station and the old Zion Church in Berlin. There is conflicting information in the museum files regarding the origin of the houses. It is variously stated that the buildings originated from Sweetwaters or from the old King William’s Town Race Course, near present-day Zwelitsha, whence they were transported to the present site in the 1940s. The Zeelie family refutes the foregoing assertion stating that the cottages were already in the present location prior to 1940 and in addition, came from Blikkiesdorp or Gillam’s Drift, a settlement previously located on the site of Schornville.

From the foregoing, it seems clear that the cottages were transported from a nearby locality and subsequently reassembled in the present location highlighting one of the interesting features of wood and iron structures, the fact that they were portable. Corrugated iron was first manufactured in London around 1830 when cropped and profiled steel sheets were galvanized producing lightweight, fireproof, corrosion resistant sheets ideal for export to British colonies, like Australia and South Africa, from about 1845. Corrugated iron was an excellent, ready-made building material meeting the diverse challenges of affordability, portability, utility and strength. According to Gill Vernon, who completed a study of wood and iron cottages in East London, a three-bedroom wood and iron house could be packed in a case weighing two tons, which made transportation of the prefabricated units relatively easy.

Corrugated iron dwellings were originally meant to be relatively temporary structures and were therefore ideal as a housing solution for pioneer and mining settlements, such as Kimberley and Pilgrim’s Rest. Corrugated iron sheets proved to be a first class building material and the houses weathered particularly well. By the 1880s larger finished timbers became available resulting in more elaborate structures.

Vernon has identified some features that, with a few minor variations, were common to wood and iron houses. The houses were timber framed, clad externally with corrugated iron and internally with tongue and groove panelling of Baltic deal. They were usually built on a fairly substantial foundation, often stone, with sneeze wood posts supporting the wooden floors. The wooden floors were often raised above the stone foundations, preventing mould and mildew. Sliding sash windows were popular. In the gabled houses there were large louvre ventilators. The front veranda, consisting of timber posts supporting a straight or curved corrugated iron roof, shielded the front door and windows and kept the houses cool. An iron canopy over the windows was also popular. Kitchens originally included a brick chimney or embrasure.

Only a few wood and iron cottages are still extant in the oldest parts of King William’s Town including Louisa, Thomas and Arthur streets. That was not always the case. According to Ms Mizpah Durant and Olga Randall, Kingites by birth, there were also wood and iron cottages at the end of Buffalo Road, at the end of Cambridge Road, in Market Street, near Kingspark, and in Peters Street. Compared to East London, there is no evidence of wooden fretwork brackets and fascias or decorated gables in King William’s Town suggesting that the simpler wood and iron cottages were more popular.

Wood and iron structures were also popular as churches, outbuildings, shops and warehouses. A beautiful ‘tin tabernacle’ is still in use by the Free Church of Scotland congregation in Ginsberg. The Methodist congregation of Leightonville erected a wood and iron church on the present site in about 1940. A photograph in the museum files confirms that Pirie Mission once boasted a wood and iron church, but the building has since been demolished.

There are wood and iron outbuildings in Blaine Street, West Bank and Albert Road. The museum has two wood and iron outbuildings. Industrial corrugated iron buildings include a warehouse opposite Schornville and the partly iron clad old King William’s Town Power Station. Many of the residential wood and iron buildings have been demolished or plastered over with the windows and front doors having been replaced. It is essential to preserve the last remaining examples of our wood and iron buildings for posterity.


Schacter, Mark ‘Things of Beauty – and Joys for (Nearly) Ever’ in The Daily Dispatch, 27.01.83.

Vernon, G.N. ‘A Study of the Wood and Iron Houses of East London, South Africa’ in Annals of the Cape Provincial Museums (Human Sciences), Vol. 1, Part 4, 21.12.1984.

Museum files

Interview with Ms Maureen Zeelie, 10 July 2009.