This is a question I have sometimes been asked by theyoung or by relative newcomers to Betty’s Bay. Those of you who have been here a while will know that what many of us called “Little Beach” when we were kids later came to be named “Jock’s Bay”, in honour of one of the great characters of Betty’s Bay, Jock van Niekerk. [His house over-looked said bay.]In fact, one can regard Jock as one ofthe principal pioneers of the area, so great was his influence on the early development of our town.
But first, some background information...
Many people don’t realise just how recently the Betty’s Bay that we know today came into existence. Prior to World War II, getting to Betty’s Bay was a major mission. The road from Gordon’s Bay ended at the Steenbras River and Betty’s Bay could only be accessed via Kleinmond, which in those days was in its infancy. At the time, there wasn’t a bridge over the Palmiet River, so visitors to the area had to make use of a rather primitive pontoon. The upshot of this inaccessibility was that Betty’s Bay remained a largely undiscovered gem until 1945, an extraordinary fact given its proximity to Cape Town.
Not much had happened here before the war. In its very early days, this isolated stretch of coastline was inhabited by a few intrepid cattle herders, some runaway slaves and outlaws, and a few surviving members of the indigenous tribes. Later, once the rich diversity of the vegetation had been discovered, it was visited by several botanical explorers.
The whaling station at Stony Point was established in 1912 and it prospered in the early days of the twentieth century. The company had three whaling ships and in a“good” year it would be responsible for the slaughter of 300 Southern Right whales. Up to 200 men were employed at the whaling station, mainly Norwegians, and provisions were brought in by sea. The whaling operations pretty much petered out during the first months of the Great Depression, owing to the falling price of whale oil, and the company finally closed its doors in 1930.
Meanwhile, a few farmers worked some of the land, there were a couple of holiday houses and there was always a trickle of adventurous holiday-makers and campers into the area, most of whom being drawn to Betty’s Bay by its abundant fishing opportunities.
During the war, two developments took place in Betty’s Bay that put the town firmly on the map. First, two radar stations were built to monitor shipping round the Cape of GoodHope and to identify U-boats that might threaten Allied interests. One was at Mooihawens, now the youth centre near the harbour, and the other was at Hangklip, in the buildings that later evolved into the legendary Hangklip Hotel. The original barracks are still standing and in use at Mooihavens. [My godmother was posted there throughout the war. She became one of the earlier Betty’s Bay enthusiasts.]
The second event that changed Betty’s Bay forever was the establishment of an Italian prisoner-of-war camp near Rooi Els. The men incarcerated there built the coastal road that linked Gordon's Bay and Kleinmond. The road was given the name of Clarence Drive after another of the area’s early pioneers, one Jack Clarence. Suddenly Betty’s Bay rose from obscurity.
Now, back to Jock van Niekerk...
He was born in 1907 and baptised Jasper Albertus. He attended Wynberg Boys’ in Cape Town, and later, when his great sporting prowess became evident, he moved to SACS, where he was the school’s star wing. When he left school he played for Villagers Firsts, coincidentally, in the same team as Harry Starke, another of the early Betty’s Bay residents. Jock went on to play for the Springboks in 1928 and 1931. In his very first test in the 1931 tour of England he damaged his knee so severely that his rugby career came to an abrupt end. [Danie Craven always felt guilty about this. He had passed the ball to Jock that led to the tackle that caused the damage.] Jock then moved to the Elgin area where he was involved in the exporting of fruit to the UK and Europe. In 1945, he made Betty’s Bay his permanent home and, in partnership with Alf Broadwith, started building houses. Most of the early houses at Betty’s Bay had a recognisable Jock van Niekerk look to them.
At the time, there were very strict building regulations for the area: no fences or garden walls were permitted, corrugated iron structures and roofs were forbidden and, most bizarre of all, given the vulnerability of the local vegetation to fire, only two roofing materials were allowed, thatch or wooden shingles. This lack of pragmatism on the part of the original town planners would prove to be very destructive to Jock’s legacy. Three fires took their toll. The first was in 1960, when two houses burnt down, the second in the mid sixties, which took out a couple more, and, most devastating of all, the great fire of 1970, when no fewer than twenty properties were destroyed, Jock’s included. He rebuilt his house to its original plans, but with a tiled roof instead of thatch, and it still stands today, accessible from Cliff Road.
Jock was married twice, first to Maisie, who tragically died of cancer in her late thirties, and then to Jeanette, who had nursed Maisie during her final illness. The van Niekerks were very much part of the local social scene and Jock was a regular participant in the bowls’ tournaments that took place on the Starkes’s famous bowling green, which was adjacent to their house above Dawid’s Kraal.
Jock was also well-known to the part-timers who had houses here. In those days Betty’s ay had no electricity [That only became available in the nineties.] and people would battle endlessly with the notoriously temperamental gas and paraffin fridges of the time. Whenever a fridge died and couldn’t be revived, Jock would come to the rescue. He would arrive in his famous WWII Land Rover, stand the fridge on its head for half-an-hour or so while he shared a cuppa or a beer with the occupants, turn it the right way up, fiddle a bit with its mysterious innards, then relight it and, voilà, it would be back on track, for a while at least.
As well as being a fridge whisperer and property developer, Jock was a dedicated conservationist. He was heavily involved in the creation of the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens and it was he who persuaded H.F. Verwoerd to declare part of the Betty’s Bay coastline a Marine Reserve. Verwoerd agreed on condition that it bore his name. Needless to say, the original name is no more!
A typical “Jock van Niekerk house”
Many of Jock’s houses can be seen today. The original Mills family cottages, on the sea side of Bass Lake, are still standing, as are several others dotted about the older parts of Betty’s Bay. They are instantly recognisable, those that haven’t been drastically altered or modernised, as Jock made extensive use of the local sandstone, and all have a decidedly early-post-war look to them.
Their great appeal [to me, at least] is that they were generally modest and inoffensive, fitting unobtrusively into the landscape. It is a great pity that the builders of so many of today’s Betty’s Bay houses did not emulate Jock’s earlier style of building. Our town could have been a lot more pleasing to the eye and restful to the soul!
Jock van Niekerk died in 1983. On his death, rugby legend, Danie Craven, used these words to describe him: “This wonderful man, this prince of wings .”