Vergelegen is arguably one of South Africa’s best-known estates, but most people assume that its story begins with a disgraced governor and ends with award-winning wines. There’s much more to it than that.

Like all good stories, it is interspersed with supposition and myth, dark deeds, acts of love and, of course, triumphs over adversity.

Officially it starts in 1700, although some would have that its origins stretch back as far as 1685, when the then governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, was instructed to move the Dutch East India Company’s outpost to land which it had bought in 1672.

What is known is that at the turn of the century and 48 years after Jan van Riebeek landed at the Cape, Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel built the original homestead at Vergelegen.

Unlike Van Riebeek, whose misdemeanours sometimes tend to be glossed over, Willem Adriaan got a lot of bad press, amongst it, this description in the Pictorial History of South Africa: “Tyrannical, self-seeking, corrupt, Willem Adriaan inflicted hardship after hardship on the unfortunate colonists, and smouldering resentment was soon to burst out into a fierce revolutionary flame.” 

Like or loathe him – there seems to be little middle ground – it is indisputable that between 1700 and his return to Holland in 1708 Willem Adriaan achieved something incredible at Vergelegen. He built a homestead, a tannery, workshop, wine and grain stores, a slave lodge and a waterwheel to grind grain. Part of this mill wall still stands today. He planted orchards and orange groves. His vineyards contained some 500 000 vine stocks. He established 18 cattle stations with 1 000 head of cattle and 1 800 sheep. He also planted the camphor trees which still grow in front of the homestead and oak trees, one of which still exists and is Africa’s oldest living oak tree. 

Willem Adriaan, disgraced governor, but indisputably also farmer, horticulturist, botanist and forester, was sent packing for Holland, after which the estate was divided in four and auctioned. The Company also ordered that the main house be demolished. There is some doubt as to whether this order was carried out.

The owner of the portion of the farm on which the buildings stood was Barend Gildenhuijs. After he died his widow married a German sailor, Michiel Otto, and it was during this time that rumours of buried treasure on Vergelegen first emerged. 

The treasure is purported to have come from the Dutch East Indiaman, the Schonenberg, which was wrecked off Cape Agulhas in 1722 and was said to be carrying a cargo of silk, pepper, wood, gold, silver and precious stones. 

Apparently three Hottentots Holland farmers conspired with the Schonenberg’s captain to beach the ship and steal her cargo. They trekked to the Agulhas coast and lit a signal fire on a hill to guide the captain in. Upon seeing it, he ordered his crew, some of whom were in on the scam, to run the ship aground. The captain then sent most of the crew overland to inform the authorities about the wreck, while he and his cronies remained with the stranded ship. Soon afterwards the three farmers arrived on the beach and offered their assistance to salvage the cargo, which was quickly loaded onto their ox wagons.

The valuable cargo was then hauled to Vergelegen, where it was apparently buried, allegedly in the orchard behind the homestead. The slaves who had buried it were all shot and the only man who knew exactly where it was hidden was later found dead. 

In the late 19th century a large copper pot of a type apparently used on board East Indiamen to cook rice and a ship’s bell were dug up by farm workers. At the time a servant girl claimed that her grandmother, as a child, had hidden in the pot when the other slaves were allegedly killed. 

Vergelegen had a series of owners until 1798, when Marthinus Wilhelmus Theunissen acquired it and it stayed in the Theunissen family for a century. Marthinus was a soldier and politician as well as a farmer. He had fought heroically at the battle of Blaauwberg and later, as a respected citizen of the district, it was his letter to Lord Charles Somerset that resulted in the village being named Somerset West. 

The farm was self-supporting throughout most of the 19th century, with successive Theunissen families growing most of what they needed. The main income was from the sale of wine made from Muscadel, Hanepoort and Hermitage grapes. 

In 1899 the Theunissens sold Vergelegen to their neighbour, Sir James Sivewright, a successful businessman, who owned and lived on Lourensford. This represented a change in the fortunes of the estate, which until then had been owned by farmers with little capital. This was not a problem that Sivewright and his successors faced, as most had made their fortunes in diamond and gold mining.

He later sold the farm to Samuel Kerr, an Irishman who had profited from his time in the diamond fields. Kerr bought Vergelegen as a place to retire and for his large family to entertain and socialise. Unfortunately his money didn’t buy good taste and his programme of modernisation amounted to what has been described as virtual vandalism of the old homestead. Kerr died on the estate and his grave is still there today.

Fortunately Randlord, Chairman of the Central Mining and Investment Corporation, former President of the Chamber of Mines and Jameson raid plotter, Sir Lionel Phillips bought the estate for his fractious, art-loving wife Lady Phillips.

Before Lord Phillips bought Vergelegen, Florrie Phillips had lived and lavishly entertained in a succession of grand homes, including Hohenheim on the then outskirts of Johannesburg, where it was said the Jameson raid was planned. It was also where Sir Percy FitzPatrick later told his children the stories that would later become Jock of the Bushveld.

Lady Phillips took ownership of Vergelegen on 31 March 1917, but only began to implement her plans for the estate two years later. Her husband authorised a total of £20 000 for alterations and extensions to the homestead. She was to spend considerably more. 

Unlike her predecessor, she took care with the restoration and together with her architect, Percy Walgate, travelled around the province studying authentic Cape Dutch architecture and buying up doors, windows and joinery to replace those that Kerr had destroyed.  

Between 1922 and 1924 the homestead was carefully restored. Two new wings were added and the house was electrified. The old winery was converted into a library for Sir Lionel’s huge collection of books. The cost was £32 684, an overrun of £12 684 on the original budget. Of course this didn’t include the gardens, which she insisted could only be tended by her English gardener, Bill Hanson, who was persuaded to come to South Africa. 

Unlike the Theunissens who had made some money from wine, Florrie would not plant vineyards, saying that “there is too much bad wine made in South Africa already.” While she did a great deal to improve the land, she wasn’t a very successful farmer and always ran at a loss. When she died at Vergelegen on 23 August 1940, there was no cash in her estate. 

Sadly for someone who had done so much to restore and conserve part of South Africa’s cultural heritage, she died disliked by her neighbours and deserted by her servants.

The estate was purchased by the Barlow family who ran it as a mixed agricultural farm and who re-introduced vineyards. It remained their home until 1987, when it was bought by Anglo American Farms. 

Since this acquisition Vergelegen has undergone a renaissance. The homestead building was painstakingly restored by John Rennie and displays of antiques, ceramics and art testify to its history. All 18 diverse gardens, covering 10 acres and part of a cultural heritage area spanning 60 hectares, have been replanted and are maintained to the exacting standards that Lady Phillips would expect. This contributed to the estate being named a Global Award Winner in the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, Best of Wine Tourism Awards for successive years. 

Many landmark events have been located at the estate, such as the first meeting of the ANC’s executive after Nelson Mandela’s release. Guests have included fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Bill and Hillary Clinton,  and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, to name a few.

Something that Lady Phillips would not have expected is that the estate is now producing internationally-renowned wines. Vergelegen has won a plethora of local and international awards for its wines and exports to numerous international markets. It is also continuing Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s tradition of agricultural pioneering, leading the wine industry in controlling leaf roll virus, a disease that affects the volume and quality of the grapes. 

Vergelegen’s current success is based on more than its world-class wines, but also an appreciation that wine and great wine brands don’t exist in isolation. Abiding commitments to the cultural, environmental and natural heritage of this iconic estate have all contributed to it being referred to, by one well-travelled guest, as the Versailles of South Africa. 

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