There is a modest white gravestone in the old cemetery in the Eastern Cape town of Middelburg. This is the resting place of John Sweet Distin Esquire, formerly of Tafelberg Hall, a farm with its own distinctive ‘table mountain’ on the outskirts of Middelburg.
Few speak of Distin anymore but his name spans the length and breadth of farming South Africa, for he is widely attributed with erecting the first stock fences in our country, pioneering a revolution in livestock management.
It is hard to believe there was a time when there were no stock fences here; a time when no one even knew how to erect these fences that are now intrinsic to our national landscape.
With no local skills available, Distin brought in a man from Australia to fence his farm, Tafelberg Hall, which he bought in the mid-1800s, having made a great deal of money as a trader in the Eastern Cape.
Distin’s tale of fortune and fences begins with a splash when he arrived in South Africa in 1846 after jumping overboard in Algoa Bay as his ship left the harbour, and energetically swimming to shore.
The story goes that Distin and his parents were returning to England from New Zealand when their ship docked at Algoa Bay. As they departed, their twenty-year-old son made up his mind to try his luck in South Africa. With that, he jumped overboard.
He joined the British army for a while, made a bit of cash fighting what they called the Kaffir Wars, and subsequently established his trading business, which financed his love of farming and the purchase of Tafelberg Hall.
So firmly did he advocate the need to divide livestock farms into fenced off stock camps for veld rejuvenation and animal health in the 1860s, that he put it before parliament.
Defeated in parliament, Distin headed back to his farm and set about fencing his own farm.
At the time, no one wanted to concede that the vast coffers required for fencing were a necessity, until overgrazing and disease forced the government’s hand many years later when the Act regulating the erection and maintenance of dividing fences was passed in 1883.
Distin’s ‘first fence’, now a national monument, is still standing taught and strong, tethered to the original sneezewood fencing poles at the foot of the table-shaped mountain.
You cannot miss Tafelberg should you find yourself traveling on the road between Middelburg and Cradock: a mountain that tells the tale of a remarkable man of energy and enterprise who once walked these plains. A man described alternately as “a most progressive farmer” and “rather eccentric with vivid blue eyes, a red face and a temper to match.”
“He was not the first or the last owner of Tafelberg Hall, which dates back well over two centuries, but he was certainly the most interesting,” the current owner of Tafelberg Hall, William Asher explains as he leads the way down the cavernous passage of the old Herbert Baker mansion where he and his 25-year-old son, Gareth, reside.
Tafelberg Hall has been in their family since 1947 when William’s father, Allan Asher, bought the farm, two years before William was born.
The passage leads to a vast room with a polished sprung floor that once was a ballroom. At the far end is a dining table where bottles of chutney, Worcester sauce and mustard await the next meal.
It’s a bachelors’ den now, devoid of the cushions and curves ascribed to ‘a woman’s touch’. Not that a lady or two doesn’t visit on occasion. To the contrary, the Ashers hosted a ball here for the local church when Tafelberg Hall once again supped on the laughter and intrigues of the fairer sex. Just as it had so many years before when Distin’s wife, Selina, renowned for her love of all things beautiful, had transformed her Karoo home into an oasis of sociability and grace. “There were many balls then, William Asher continues.
On the dining table he has laid out the history of Tafelberg Hall, told through cuttings from the Middelburg Echo, once a thriving newspaper with an editorial office in town, and through books that tell the stories of the great Karoo farms.
All speak of the grandeur of Tafelberg Hall, with its mill, granary, shearing house, carriage house, blacksmith’s shop and extensive labourers cottages. Extending 20 000 hectares, it was a showpiece of modern farming methods at the time, headed by a man who believed in buying in the best breeding stock, from his extensive ostrich flock to his sheep.
Accounts from the day describe how it was hard to believe Tafelberg Hall was in the heart of the Karoo, as it resembled a villa in Cape Town’s leafy precinct of Rondebosch. It had terraced gardens patterned with roses, vineyards, and hundreds of fruit and nuts trees…quinces, pomegranates, loquats and almonds.
Distin cleverly created a system of dams dug sufficiently deep to prevent rapid evaporation, which maximised the flow of water throughout the farmstead.
The grand gardens are no more, the labour and upkeep would be far too intensive, but the mood of what came before lives on in the atmosphere at Tafelberg Hall and in the view across the plains.
Distin’s dreams came to an end at Tafelberg Hall when he lost his fortune through a combination of the ostrich feather slump and his wild, spendthrift progeny. He had eleven children, including seven sons, some of whom were far more interested in parties.
On one occasion they were sent to Cape Town to sell livestock, but instead of bringing the considerable cheque home, they booked out the Mount Nelson Hotel, hired a band and spent the money on a party to top all parties.
Distin ultimately went bankrupt and in 1898 he was forced to sell Tafelberg Hall, handing over the keys to his kingdom. The next owner was a man from Johannesburg named Robert Struben who had made his fortune as one of the first men to discover gold on the reef.
Struben demolished the old homestead and had Herbert Baker design the house that stands today, as a fitting dwelling for his high society wife. They did not last long in the Karoo as she considered herself to be several cuts above the local community, creating a self-inflicted isolation she could not bear.
A century later, Tafelberg Hall resonates with all the characters who have inhabited its halls. The Ashers keep the homestead intact, constrained by the exorbitant costs of historic restoration. They recently replaced the expansive corrugated iron roof and constantly debate which of the giant trees surrounding the house need to be felled to protect its foundations.
Gareth Asher, a graduate from Grootfontein Agricultural College, unquestionably sees his future here.
“I enjoy farming and the simplicity of the lifestyle,” he explains. “The city is no place for me. One building looks exactly like the next and what do you do after work each day? Here you can take a walk in the veld.”
He has no desire to emigrate. “I was born here so why would I want to leave. Wherever you go it’s hard work and I would rather work hard here where I fit in. People who don’t like it here must pack up and go. The rest of us will get on with life here at home.”
“Life changes wherever you are, sometimes fast, sometimes in more subtle ways,” adds William Asher. “That modest white gravestone in the old cemetery in Middelburg says it all.”