Visiting Old Oom Paul and historic Church Square in Pretoria

Public spaces in cities usually attract interesting characters – especially if the spaces are also tourist attractions.

Church Square in Pretoria is no exception – and has the added characteristic that it is a favourite gathering place for the start of protest marches and trade union demonstrations.

Chicco (left) and Vincent (right) tending the pigeon

On the morning when I went there to take the photos accompanying this article I immediately noticed two people holding a pigeon, of which there are thousands in the Square, and bending over this bird with an intensity that immediately made me curious.

I went over to see what they were up to and found that they were, with great patience and care, removing some cotton that had gotten wound around the poor bird’s legs.

Chicco is all concentration as he cuts the cotton from the pigeon's leg

“It will lose the leg if this cotton stays on it,” explained Vincent, one of the two men. Meanwhile the other man, Chicco, was doing the “surgery” to remove the cotton – and indeed I could see that the leg was already in rather poor shape because of the cotton which had made quite deep indentations in each leg, just above the feet.

It turned out that Vincent and Chicco were flower sellers, with a stand at the western entrance to the square. Their bunches of flowers around the pylons at the western entrance made a colourful and fragrant display.

Freelance photographer Phala in his "studio"

A little further I came across a man with a sign leaning against a plastic bottle crate reading “Same Time Photos” and I noticed on his sleeveless jacket an insignia: “Freelance Photographer.” Intrigued, I introduced myself to him and we got chatting. His name is Phala and his studio is under one of the trees on the square. He noticed that my camera is a Canon and proudly showed me his – also a Canon!

All the while the sound of a “vuvuzela” was blaring hoarsely over the square. The sound was coming from a group of members of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union standing in front of the Old Raadzaal waiting for their comrades to begin a march to the municipal offices down Vermeulen Street, some of whom were attracting attention to their cause by blowing their vuvuzelas.

Along the paths crossing the square were people of all walks of life, some hurrying, not doubt to offices, others strolling, no doubt waiting for something else to happen.

In the middle of the square Old Oom Paul (better known outside of South Africa as Paul Kruger, formerly the President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899) stands darkly brooding over Pretoria’s central Church Square, with his top hat often providing a useful perch for pigeons.

Anton van Wouw's statue of Oom Paul

The Gereformeerde Kerk on what is now Church Square. Drawing from around 1865

The statue of Oom Paul was sculptured by renowned South African artist Anton van Wouw (1862 – 1945) and was first erected in Pretoria West, then moved to a position in front of the Pretoria Railway Station before being placed in its present position in 1954.

The name “Church Square” is derived from the fact that, on the very spot where Oom Paul now stands brooding there was a church – in fact three churches were sequentially built on that spot, the first in 1857, the last demolished in 1905.

The particular character of Church Square also derives from the series of interesting and mostly quite old buildings which surround it.

The Raadzaal

One of the most impressive is the Raadzaal on the south side of the square, built to house the Volksraad (Parliament) of the ZAR. It was designed by Sytze Wopke Wierda, who had been brought from Holland to the ZAR by Kruger as Government Engineer and Architect in 1887, and who was responsible for a number of other buildings in Pretoria, including the Palace of Justice which stands facing the Raadzaal across Church Square..

The Palace of Justice

The building is in an Italian Renaissance style with a figure said to be of Athena at the top of the tower which dominates the roof line. The Volksraad first met in this building in May 1890.

The Palace of Justice has twin towers and a semi-basement housing cells. The most famous trial held there was the so-called “Rivonia Trial” of 1963/4 in which Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and nine of his comrades stood accused of sabotage and which led to their incarceration on Robben Island off Cape Town until 1989 and 1990.

The old Reserve Bank building on the left

Also on the north side of the square is the Herbert Baker-designed Reserve Bank which pre-figured his later design for the Union Buildings.

Tudor House

To the east of the square is the interesting Tudor Towers built in 1904 by tycoon George Heys, who had the famous Melrose House built for his family. This building housed his offices as well as other businesses owned by him.

The jugendstil Cafe Riche built in 1905

On the other side of the square are the jugendstil Café Riche building and the General Post Office.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011


Birders’ paradise in Pretoria

The most famous book on South African birds is Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa, first published in 1940. The book was so authoritative that all birds in South Africa are now identified by their “R” number, the number they were given in the book. The book is now in its seventh edition, published in 2005. A species list from this edition is available here.

Austin Roberts. Image via Wikipedia

The author of the book was Pretoria-born ornithologist Austin Roberts, son of a minister who became the best-known authority on South African birds.

Roberts worked for the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria for 36 years until his untimely death in a car accident in 1946.

In 1958 the Pretoria Municipality declared a bird sanctuary and nature reserve in the Muckleneuk area of the city and named it in honour of the famous son of the city.

Today the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary is a very popular place with birders and just about anyone else looking for a peaceful, restful place to relax. Very popular too is the Blue Crane Restaurant situated on the banks of the lake in the sanctuary.

The sanctuary is now home to some 170 species of birds, notably South Africa’s National Bird the Blue Crane (R208), and large numbers of water birds.

There is a beautiful hide from which the water birds especially can be watched, but also in summer large numbers of masked weavers (R815) and southern red bishops (R824) can be spotted.

The diorama display of birds

There is also a building housing a display of stuffed birds in a diorama.

A red-knobbed coot (R228) foraging for food in the lake.

The sanctuary covers some 11.8 hectares and is part of the Walkerspruit Open Space System. Two streams feed the lake.

Looking across the water towards the restaurant

Adjacent to the sanctuary there is also a beautiful recreation park with attractive walks and playground equipment to keep children occupied.

© Text and photos, unless otherwise indicated, copyright Tony McGregor 2011

Fort Klapperkop – one of Pretoria’s historic forts

In the months prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 the government of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR – the South African Republic) four forts were constructed to defend the capital, Pretoria.


The entrance to Fort Klapperkop

One of these, Fort Klapperkop, was built at a cost of £50000 and was handed over to the government of the ZAR on 18 January 1898. Included in the fort was the Central Magazine, also handed over that day.

The entrance to the Central Magazine

By the following January the fort was manned by 17 troops, increased to 30 six months later, although only three months later the number had been reduced to 16.


A replica of the “Long Tom” cannon stands guard over the southern approaches to Fort Klapperkop

By October 1899 the armaments of the fort included a “Long Tom”, a 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt and three Martini-Henry hand-maxims.

The “Long Tom” was sent to Ladysmith (Natal) by train to assist the Boer forces there. A 65mm Krupp mountain gun was the only armament left at the fort, with two Martini-Henrys, by 7 November 1899.

The fort had a reservoir under its floor fed from the Fountains Valley some distance away.

Communications with the outside world were by means of heliographic and overhead telegraphic links as well as telephone.


The generator which supplied power to the fort

The fort had electric power supplied by a paraffin engine and generator.


Part of the moat around Fort Klapperkop

Unlike the other Pretoria forts Klapperkop had a moat and drawbridge, though the moat seems never to have been filled.


A display in the museum

The fort is now a museum with some well-planned displays.

Melrose House – Pretoria’s romantic Scottish link

“If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;” – from Canto Second of the “Lay of the Last Minstrel” by Sir Walter Scott.
It is not really necessary (though not a bad idea either – though you would not be able to go inside the house then) to visit Melrose House in Pretoria by “pale moonlight” as Sir Walter Scott proposed in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel“.

Melrose House

Cetainly this historic home in Pretoria has much of the romantic about it.

It was built in the late 19th Century by wealthy Pretoria businessman George Heys, who had started to make his fortune as a trader in the Kimberley diamond fields.
Heys and his wife Janie visited Scotland and were deeply impressed by their visit to Melrose Abbey and so decided to call their Pretoria home after it.

The stained glass window with the scene from "The Lay of the Last Minstrel"

To complete the romantic idea they had a stained glass window depicting a scene from Scott’s great romantic poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”  installed in the stairwell.

The scene is:
The way was long, the wind was cold,
The Minstrel was infirm and old;
His wither’d cheek, and tresses gray,
Seem’d to have known a better day;
The harp, his sole remaining joy,
Was carried by an orphan boy.
The last of all the Bards was he,
Who sung of Border chivalry;
For, welladay! their date was fled,
His tuneful brethren all were dead;
And he, neglected and oppress’d,
Wish’d to be with them, and at rest.

– from the Introduction to “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” by Sir Walter Scott

The table on which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902

The treaty which ended the convulsions of the Anglo-Boer War in May 1902 was signed in the dining room of Melrose House, which is now a museum. The table still stands where it did when the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on it.

The treaty was signed in this house because it had been commandeered after the occupation by the British forces as their headquarters.
The house was bought from the Heys Family Trust in 1968 and has been meticulously restored.
Today Melrose House is one of the best-preserved Victorian mansions in South Africa and as such offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of wealthy Victorian families.
The architectural style of the building can best be described as “eclectic”.
The house is in Jacob Maré Street opposite the main entrance to Burgers Park, which Heys had a large hand in designing.
The gardens of Melrose House itself have been re-developed to reflect the style of garden popular in the Victorian era. A gift shop and tea garden complete the experience for the visitor.
© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011

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The Union Buildings in Pretoria – summing up an architectural era


The Union Buildings from the foot of Meintjies Kop.

The Union Buildings from the foot of Meintjies Kop.

After the dreadful sufferings of the people of Southern Africa in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 there was widespread support for the unification of the four British colonies which had been involved in the conflict – the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange River Colony (formerly the Orange Free State Republic) and the Transvaal Colony (formerly the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek).

Movement towards unification was speeded up by the calling, mostly at Jan Smuts’s insistence, of the National Convention which sat from 1908 to 1910.

When it became clear that Unification was almost certain, the search for a suitable capital and an appropriate building to symbolize the unified nation, Pretoria was settled on as the administrative capital while Cape Town was given the legsilature of the new country.

The Union Buildings from the other side of the valley

An architect who had made quite a name for himself in South Africa, Herbert (later Sir Herbert) Baker, was given the commission to design the building and a site on Pretoria’s Meintjies Kop was decided on.


Looking up at the East Wing of the Union Buildings.

Looking up at the East Wing of the Union Buildings.

Baker, who would later go on to collaborate with Edwin Lutyens in designing the capital of India in New Delhi, was an almost exact contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, and, as Desirée Seymour-Picton wrote in her excellent book Historical Buildings in South Africa (Struikhof, 1989): “Wright was the innovator, Baker the apotheosis of an era, a dying era.


The statue of former Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog in the gardens of the Union Buildings

Baker designed a building which, in its breadth and classical lines, would symbolise the reconciliation and inclusiveness (at least of the two white language groups, English and Afrikaans) that was the hope of the unifiers.

The Union Buildings occupy the lovely position on Meintjies Kop with grace and grandeur. The two domed towers on the two wings of the sweeping building represent the two language groups, while the curved colonade represents the unifying constitution which guaranteed a place for each language in the new country.

The building process took three years and was completed by 1265 workers at a cost of £1,310,640. Because of the design each stone had to be individually dressed. Mostly local materials were used and the roofing tiles were manufactured in Vereeniging.


The Union Buildings are a popular tourist site and so the sidewalk salespeople do a roaring trade in front of them.

The Union Buildings are a popular tourist site and so the sidewalk salespeople do a roaring trade in front of them.

It was also highly significant and symbolic that when, after the 1994 elections which brought full dcemocracy to South Africa, the first president of the new South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was inaugurated against the backdrop of that graceful colonade.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011

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Vegetation on the warmer north-facing side of the quartzite outcropping

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Climbing up to the Wonderboom Fort in Pretoria


The cool and leafy interior of the Wonderboom

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Suburban pastorale – a place of peace in the east of Pretoria

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The peaceful waters of Struben Dam reflect tranquility

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Historic Burgers Park in the centre of Pretoria


The kiosk in the garden seen from the main gate.

In the bustling centre of South Africa’s Capital City, Pretoria, is a beautiful botanical garden where people relax under colourful flowering trees surrounded by signs of the history of the city.


People relaxing near a flowering bougainvillea

Burgers Park came about as a result of the dream of then-President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) Thomas Francois Burgers (1834 – 1881) that a botanical garden be built in Pretoria.

Burgers was unfortunately not see his dream realised as the garden was only laid out in 1892 due to financial constraints on the country.


The modern florarium

Today the park boasts a kiosk where light meals and refeshments can be bought and a modern florarium (built in 1974) housing plants from all over South Africa.

The entrance to the park is in Jacob Maré Street opposite the famous Melrose House where the Treaty of Vereeninging ending the Anglo-Boer War was signed in 1902.

The eclectic architecture of historic Melrose House opposite the entrance to Burgers Park.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011