Historian tells tales of Sea Point

Historian Helen Robinson and chairperson of the Cape Natural History Club, Gill Anderson.

The most notable thing about Sea Point is how much the landscape has changed throughout the years, says historian Dr Helen Robinson.

She was speaking at the Cape Natural History Club in Newlands on Friday.

Although Dr Robinson is most well known for her work on her home suburb of Wynberg and has had several books published on the topic, she did live in Sea Point until the age of four.

Dr Robinson has always had a passion for history – something her grandfather, who was himself a historian, encouraged – but she shocked her family when she left school.

“I said, well I know history is my thing but I’m going to Cape Town to study drama.”

She sees her role as part anthropologist, part historian, writing about the origins of a place and its social history.

“My subject is always concerned with the place and the people who were there. What I do is try to recreate the history of a place.”

She said one of the first things Van Riebeeck was asked to do when he came to the Cape was to examine the land east of where they landed.

“He did and he tested the soil and found that it was totally unsuitable for the refreshment station. Therefore he turned it down.

“Because he did that, it left the land reasonably unoccupied. Nobody would have thought what it would have grown into.”

Now Sea Point is one of the most desirable places in the country.

Dr Robinson’s talk started with an aerial photograph of Cape Town showing just how little land was left untouched by development.

“It’s a disturbing picture as far as natural history lovers are concerned,” she said.

“The most notable thing about this is about how the whole of the peninsula and so much of the ground is entirely changed. Sea Point started as a ground that nobody wanted. People went there for picnics and holidays by the sea.”

When they realised that nobody really wanted it, the Dutch East India Company had put all the graves at the entrance to the sea.

“Not only did they put the cemeteries there, they put the place of execution there, Gallows Hill.”

By 1880 most of the graves had been desecrated. “Many of those graves were of people who had been executed at Gallows Hill.”

Dr Robinson also talked about how Sea Point had for a spell become its own municipality.

“When I was born, my parents took me home to the flat at the Winchester Mansions. It is a very different place now,” she said.

Dr Robinson said it was important for young people to become interested in history again.

“People are beginning to realise what they’ve lost. The moment it becomes a consciousness that you’ve lost something, it just might have been very valuable. Those sort of things are very important. It’s also the same reason why people today are very interested in their family histories.”