Beaufort West, oldest town in the Central Karoo, lies in an area which has been inhabited for centuries. Some of the world’s most interesting stone age sites have been discovered on its outskirts. Bushmen once lived here and fine examples of their rock engravings have been found nearby. The farmers came in the mid 1700s and Xhosa tribesmen also moved into this area, once a swamp, now one of the world’s most interesting arid zones.
In 1818, at the request of Lord Charles Somerset, then Governor of the Cape Colony, a town was established on the prize farm, Hooyvlakte. which lay in a sheltered spot, between two normally dry rivers, at the foot of the Nuweveld Mountains, so named because of the new grazing they offered. A town represented authority, education, religious instruction and social intercourse. Hooyvlakte had water and an adequate number of buildings. A town with huge erven was laid out. Irrigation furrows were laid so that water from the permanent fountains, could be channelled to fruit and vegetable gardens. Today, irrigation furrows, which date right back to those early days, still line the streets of the old town area. Pear trees, many of which still survive, were planted for shade. The town was called Beaufort in honour of Lord Charles Somerset’s father, the fifth Duke of Beaufort.
The town still has some good examples of early Karoo architecture among its historic homes. Most of which can be seen on a walk through the historic central area. Beaufort West became the first municipality in South Africa in February, 1837, and had the first town hall in the country. Today this forms part of the museum and houses a magnificent display of awards presented to surgeon Professor Chris Barnard who performed the world’s first heart transplant almost 30 years ago. His father, the Reverend Adam Barnard, preached in the little church, next to the town hall and the family lived in the adjacent house. Both these buildings are part of the museum and all three are national monuments. In addition to these interesting old buildings there is a superb example of dressed stone architecture, or “snecked” masonry in the municipal offices.This free style architecture was popular at the turn of the 20th century and is one of the tourist attractions of town.It was built as the Girls’ Public School. More of this dressed stonework, so much of which was done in the Karoo by Scottish stone masons, can be seen at Christ Church Anglican Church, a Neo-gothic style building, designed by Sophie Grey, wife of the first Bishop of Cape Town, Rev Robert Grey who designed many of the churches on the platteland. The jail, which stands in the middle of the main road and the N1 is a landmark on the north/south route, and at one stage, there was a gallows nearby. The old Anglo-Boer Way blockhouse still guards the red railway bridge. Built of local Karoo stone, it is a silent reminder of “The last of the Gentlemen’s Wars.” Boer and British soldiers are buried in the town cemeteries. There is also a monument in the mountains to those killed when a donkey convoy en-route to Fraserburg was ambushed by the Boers. The stone wall, around the town cemetery is the result of a community effort and has been declared a national monument.