Way back in 1666, the same year that building of the Castle commenced, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) granted land on the slopes of the ‘Windberg’ (Devil’s Peak) to Hendrik Lacus (or Lacirs), an early VOC official. In those days what was to become the upper Woodstock suburb was still an untamed place, roamed by wild animals, from mountain zebras to leopards and even lions. Building materials were scarce and the first farmhouse on Roodebloem would have been a fairly crude structure, possibly made of a combination of mud bricks, small rocks, blocks of antheap from Table Mountain and klompie bricks (small bricks used as ballast on ships). The name Roodebloem probably came from the proliferation of pretty red flowers that grew on the lower mountain slopes in the area before cultivation.
Although Lacus would have had his hands full keeping any livestock safe from marauding lions and other sharp-toothed predators (a lion was shot on the property trying to hunt livestock in 1705), and any fruit and vegetables that he was cultivating from raids by mountain baboons, the farm was ideally situated above the wagon track from the newly-built Castle to Hout Bay (now Victoria Road) and water was plentiful, thanks to the streams flowing down Table Mountain, ideal for irrigating his crops. The farmhouse was perfectly situated at the end of what is now Salt River Road, which ran up from a drift (crossing) over the Salt River estuary, and lay close to Table Bay down below ¬– an important route for travelers and explorers into the largely unexplored interior. Roodebloem’s position meant that passing travelers could pay to graze their horses and buy supplies for the journey. Like Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Lacus was found to be a rather dodgy character –¬ lining his pockets with VOC funds, and he was sent to Robben Island and later banished to Batavia (now Java).
After a succession of owners, Roodebloem came into the hands of Johannes Pfeiffer. Adam Tas (the man who took it on himself to crusade against and expose governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s corruption) and Jacobus van der Hayden visited him there once, on their way back to Stellenbosch from town. At this time the VOC still had heavy control of farmers; anything the free burghers cultivated had to be sold to the Company for cripplingly low prices and they weren’t allowed to trade with the indigenous Khoi people who were still in the area. They were also banned from selling wine and spirits unless they had special permission from the VOC and Roodebloem’s close proximity to Table Bay must have made it tempting to smuggle alcohol to passing ships to make extra money. In fact there was rumoured to be a tunnel under the house that could have been used for this purpose. ¬
When Pieter Laubscher took ownership of the farm in 1777, the original, simple farmhouse was improved and enlarged into a traditional gabled, H-shaped, thatched homestead (Picture 1).
At this time the large farm extended over much of the upper part of Woodstock, with big fields and vineyards on the slopes of the mountain, and the farmlands were further enlarged throughout the first half of the 19th century. An early 19th century owner was Hendrik Laubscher and it was members of this family who were buried in the cemetery behind the house. The burial vaults were either later destroyed or grown over by long grass, but the rather creepy, derelict spot is still marked by a lone pine tree behind the house, just off Roodebloem Road between Wormwood Lane and Bideford Road.
Sometime in the early 19th century the house was Georgianised and enlarged again, and a second storey and French doors added, becoming more of a townhouse than the former farmstead. Urban sprawl was turning Woodstock into a suburb, with clusters of houses springing up everywhere as the old farms were subdivided. At the end of the 19th century, Roodebloem was given a Victorian makeover and an interesting balcony supported by half-barrel vaults was built. The resulting building that we know today is a fabulous, rather eccentric structure incorporating at least part of the original H-shaped Cape Dutch house.
In the 1850s another fine house was built on the property and various members of the Van Breda and Van der Byl family lived there, farming dairy cattle very successfully. The grounds once stretched right down to Woodstock beach! This house later became the well-known Lord Milner Hotel and is now called Roodebloem Manor, today serving as offices for the King James ad agency in Avenue Road. It was restored in 1989.
In 1860, when Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred visited the Cape, he was invited to visit Roodebloem by then owner Mr. Pickering to admire the view from the farm. It was also Pickering who installed the first phone line at the Cape, from the Castle to Roodebloem.
Eventually the property was reduced to a small block between Listowel and Elson Roads, with Birkdale as its approach from the busy Victoria Road.
Artist and avid architectural conservationist Ruth Prowse (Picture 4) bought the old complex and moved into the Retreat (Picture 5), an old thatched outbuilding next to the house in 1958 – her mother having lived there in the early 20th century. She took a deep interest in the homestead and its history and did much to preserve it. The present Ruth Prowse School of Art (www.ruthprowse.co.za
), which operates from the old farm complex is named after her and was founded by artist Erik Laubscher in 1970. Roodebloem was restored recently and though half-hidden behind modern buildings in Victoria Road, this historic house still commands a fine view over Table Bay.