Birth of the Berea


INFO: “The Durban online Spring 2008” edition

The development of the Berea had to wait for the expansion of the town through the draining of the Western vlei, which constituted a barrier between the town and the Berea.

Early paintings indicate a very sparse population and wonderful views of the bay.

Others show euphorbia and flat-topped trees or picturesque huts with Salisbury Island, Bluff and the Point in the background.

It was shortly after the settlement of Port Natal (in 1824, when retired Royal Navy officer Francis George Farewell and ivory trader and adventurer Henry Francis Fynn arrived from Cape Town with a party of about 40 people) that Capt Allen Gardiner arrived in 1835 with his vision of bringing the gospel to the Zulus. However, he received no encouragement at all from Zulu king Dingaan and returned sadly from Umgungundlovu to D’Urban, where he was welcomed by the settlers. This apparently reminded him of the Biblical story of St Paul “who had been badly received by the Thessalonians but warmly received by the people of Berea on his return” (Acts xvii, 10 and 11)

Gardiner’s first act was to have a school and a church built in what is now Ridge Road: he called it St Thomas’s Church. It’s still there, in Ridge Road, and his daughter Julia’s burial stone can be seen in the old churchyard. She’d died shortly before the ship bringing the family arrived in Port Natal. Julia Road (named after her) runs past the church on its north side. The little church experienced such an increase in congregation in a few years that a new church was built at the corner of Musgrave and St Thomas roads.

Gardiner was very active in other affairs as well and was responsible for renaming Port Natal as D’Urban in honour of the governor of the Cape (Sir Benjamin D’urban) and for drawing up a settlement plan.

As a result of disputes, Gardiner decided to leave Natal and ended his life tragically when supplies of food destined for him and fellow missionaries failed to arrive to save them from starvation in Patagonia.

The ridge, now known as Berea, was originally known as Patahoogte (sweet potato heights) because the original track from Durban to Pietermaritzburg skirted the farms of settlers who grew sweet potatoes.

This track, or road as it may have been called then, was an extension of Smith Street (as it still is today). In 1855 a committee of the Council decided to place a tollgate on the Berea, as well as on the hills known today as Field’s Hill and Botha’s Hill. One shilling for a wagon, sixpence for a horse, halfpenny for cattle and a farthing for sheep, goats and pigs.

Also in 1855, the future of the Berea lands was discussed by the Council. The question, “Should a portion of the town lands be sold to furnish funds for the corporation” led to animated discussion and a public meeting. At this meeting it was agreed that posterity would derive benefit from the sale despite one resident questioning, “What good has posterity done for us, I should like to know?” the first sale of freehold stands was in 1856 when 35 acres were sold at an upset price of 10 pounds per acre. At that time the Western Vlei (the site of Greyville racecourse today) separated the little town form the Berea, which was not much more than bush, with a solitary windmill on the ridge – were present day Windmill Road meets Ridge Road.

In 1862 steps were taken to drain the vlei through drains running into the harbour; and in 1875 Councillor Currie proposed the sinking of an artesian well at the foot of the Berea to alleviate the growing drinking water crisis. This still bears the name of Currie’s Fountain. Until late in the 19th century the Berea remained a bush-clad hill with much wildlife, including elephants.

On of the first houses to be built (1846), and the last of the surviving Durban homes was Elephant House, the name deriving from the fact that it had survived attacks from a herd of elephants. Thomas Milner used it as a shooting lodge until 1853 when it was sold to John Goodricke – and early, if not the earliest advocate and attorney of Port Natal – who was mayor in 1858, and member of the Legislative Council in 1859. Edward Snell bought the house in 1857 and in 1863 it was bought by Alexander Murchie and remained in the Murchie family (Murchie’s Passage running between West and Smith Street is named after the Family) until Brian and Elaine Agar bought it at an auction in 1975. At that time Brian was a senior partner in another famous Durban legal firm (Livingtstone, Leandy).

The Agars spent much time and effort restoring the house at 745 Ridge Road, today a national monument, to as close as possible to its original condition.

Many houses of that period have long been demolished to make way for “progress”, including the home of the Agnew sisters at 412 Berea Road. When the western freeway was planned, the sisters refused to sell their home, but in the end they were moved to a new house.

Overport House made way for Parklands Hospital. Many grand residences were built but are no longer used as such, or have been demolished.

What might be called the base line of the Berea is Umgeni Road, which today is one of the busiest and most frenetic roads in Durban. However, in stark contrast to today’s scene, pictures form the dawn of the 20th century typically show one bicycle and a rickshaw at rush hour – hardly anything menacing.