Drostdy Gateway, Somerset Street, Grahamstown





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Post date: 07/08/2012
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History: Surveyor Knobel’s layout of Grahamstown was focussed on a main street that ran from the triangular military camp in a westerly direction up the hill. He foresaw that the military area offered a most suitable site for a church or other public building, while the upper end of the street would be closed off and dominated by the Drostdy. His prediction proved correct: today the stately cathedral stands on the triangular square and the top of the street is graced by the dignified and attractive Drostdy gateway.
In 1812 it was decided to establish a sub drostdy at Grahamstown. The public buildings were carefully planned and a contract to build the gaol and the Drostdy was awarded to Lt. W. L. von Buchenroden, but the lack of trained labourers led to the cancellation of the contract. On the arrival of the British Settlers Sir Rufane Donkin transferred the landdrost’s office to Bathurst and it was only in 1822, when Lord Charles Somerset re-transferred the office to Grahamstown that the building of a Drostdy was resumed. On 6th July, 1822, the contract was awarded to Piet Retief, who also held the contract to build the barracks. Both his tenders were too low and, being a field- commandant, he was frequently absent on military ser vice, with the result that both undertakings failed and he suffered financial ruin.
In 1823 when Retief’s contract was cancelled, only the outer mills of the Drostdy had been built and covered with a fiat roof. It was to be completed six years later, but mean while the landdrost refused to move into this large and expensive place. In 1830 the judges of the circuit court were housed in it, but now Governor Sir Lowry Cole insisted that it be used for the purpose for which it had been built. A contractor was instructed to do the necessary repairs, but the outbreak of the Sixth Border War in 1834 made this impossible and in 1835 the Drostdy was still standing empty. Consequently Sir Benjamin D’Urban decided to use the drostdy and the surrounding land for purposes of defence against the Xhosa. The building with its land was transferred to the British government and the Royal Engineers converted it into fortified barracks. The Drostdy was altered to accommodate 100 men, while the gateway was designed by Capt C. J. Selwyn, R.E. as the entrance to a military establishment. However, Sir George Napier who succeeded Sir Benjamin was forced to reduce expenditure and the gateway with its guardhouses and walls on either side was not completed until 1882.
After this the Drostdy area was used for military purposes for a long time. In 1873 the Grahamstown public school (now Graeme College) was housed in it and in 1886 the buildings were transferred to the trustees of the school. It was again used for military purposes during the Anglo-Boer War, when additional buildings were erected.
When the Rhodes University College was established in 1904 the buildings were made available to that institution. In 1935 the old Drostdy was demolished to make room for a new administrative block. The main entrance of the building, directly behind the fine old gateway, marks the approximate site of the former Drostdy, and the positions of the corners are marked by inscribed tablets in the administrative building. The historical facts are recorded on a bronze plaque.
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Construction Date: 1882
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