A visit to Koopmans-de Wet House opens a window to the lifestyles of the rich and famous of 18th century Cape Town. The fate of the house was never clearly implied in the Will of its last owner, Margaretha Koopmans-de Wet. It is believed that she did intend for it to be preserved ‘as is’ for future generations to enjoy, and Koopmans-de Wet House did end up becoming the first private residence to be declared a museum in South Africa.

Heritage under the hammer

After her death in 1911, a debate raged on as to what to do with the house until it eventually ended up at auction two years later. The Cape Town City Council and the Union Government, with support from private investors, sprang into action and purchased it for the sum of £2 800, along with several important items of furniture. The house was handed over to the South African Museum as soon as the gavel was down.

Following some restorative work and modifications to suit its new use, Koopmans-de Wet House was opened as a museum the following year.

Wonder as you wander

Today it provides an immaculately preserved portrayal of the home life of the eminent Koopmans-de Wet family and their peers. It is also a delight for those, like me, who enjoy a glimpse backstage to ponder on what scenes once played out here.

A guided tour is just the thing to whet the wonder-lust, revealing intimate spaces and treasured artefacts from the day to day lives of these Cape Town celebrities of yesteryear. 

It was here that Marie Koopmans-De Wet mourned the death of her husband every day for over 27 years, wearing only black from the day he passed until she followed after. Here she also rallied supporters to help her pack over 2 000 support boxes for women in the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War, and arranged petitions and women’s meetings in support of the Boer armies efforts.

What remains…

You enter the house via an entrance hall, just like any formal visitor of the day, where a Neo-classically styled console table and hanging lamp hold pride of place, along with a plaque commemorating Dr. W F Purcell’s contributions to the museum. Dr. Purcell was a friend of Mrs. Koopmans-de Wet and was instrumental in securing the house for posterity.

From the entrance hall you meander along solid teakwood floors through the drawing room, bedrooms, kitchen, halls and dining room. The table is set with European silver and crystal, and priceless porcelain from the Far East – as if in anticipation of one of the dishes of the day, simmering with French, Dutch, German, Eastern and Malay flavours. The furnishings throughout are immaculately preserved examples of typical Neoclassical items acquired from all over the country to add to the original collection.

Artworks abound, in the form of portraits holding pride of place above the classic 19th century fireplaces; and priceless renditions of a Cape Town long gone – a place of wide open spaces in the shadow of Table Mountain, with a few manor houses dotted among the pastures and fields.

Ladies of the house

I found the ‘gaandery’ particularly interesting. This small hall functioned as the ops centre of the house. From here the leading lady could monitor and organise the daily tasks of her slaves from a window overlooking the courtyard, and also keep a watchful eye out for any visitors. If she needed to go out, she would summon two of her minions to hoist her up and carry her through the town in the sedan chair on poles which is still a feature of this room.

Marie Koopmans-de Wet was particularly active on the Cape Town social and cultural circuit and received many a prominent personality, including presidents, governors, politicians, travellers, scientists and academics at her house.

She was also an avid campaigner for the preservation of Dutch culture and managed to ensure the conservation of several historical sites in the city. We have Marie to thank for the trees of the Company’s Gardens, the old Malay graveyard, and the preservation of Groot Constantia Homestead and the Castle of Good Hope in their original state.

Pop down to Strand Street and tune in to the life and times of yesteryear’s Cape Town celebrities any weekday between 10am and 5pm.