Smithy at the President Pretorius Museum collapsed

by | Nov 4, 2020 | Events, People, Places | 0 comments

Potchefstroom lost its third heritage building in four months when the smithy at the President Pretorius Museum collapsed at 10:00 on Thursday 29 October. The building was approximately 175 years old.

The smithy at the President Pretorius Museum as it appeared during the Antiekmark of 2018 with ox wagons of the Trekboervereniging. Photo: Lennie Gouws

The smithy at the President Pretorius Museum collapsed on 29 October 2020. Photo Johan Wolfaardt.

The building formed part of the President Pretorius Museum complex which consisted of the main dwelling, a coach house and stables and the smithy.

The smithy was a north-facing freestanding building to the south of the main dwelling. It was built from dressed stones up to about one metre from the ground and above that with unfired mudbricks.

The Museum is named after President Marthinus Wessel Pretorius (see a timeline on the life of MW Pretorius at the bottom of this article) who acquired the farmstead and surrounding land in 1852. He built the main dwelling and expanded some of the other buildings. The complex was declared a National Monument in 1979 and the buildings were restored and officially opened on 30 May 1980 as the President Pretorius Museum.

The house, built by President MW Pretorius, is now part of the President Pretorius Museum. The museum complex consists of the house, the smithy and a coach house and stables. It was opened as a museum in 1980. Photo: Lennie Gouws

Cracks in the wall

Since the museum was closed during lockdown. Johan Wolfaardt, senior professional officer at the President Pretorius Museum, only noticed cracks in the walls of the smithy when he visited the museum on 13 September. He duly contacted officials at the JB Marks Local Municipality (the municipality of Potchefstroom), who is the owner of the museum, to inform them. Further investigation revealed that the wooden pole that supported the thatched roof has moved and also buckled near the roof. This caused the whole weight of the roof to rest only on the walls, which caused the walls to buckle to the outside, hence the cracks.

A restoration architect advised that the walls be supported from the outside, after which similar support could be built inside. A new supporting pole could then be installed. Before the outside support was not in place, it was not deemed safe to enter the building as it could collapse at any time, therefore the wooden support pole could not simply be replaced. Quotations to erect the support structures were obtained, but due to lengthy processes of approval, the go-ahead was not given to start building it.

Subsequently the walls finally buckled on Thursday 29 October and the building collapsed in a pile of rubble.

Johan Wolfaardt, senior professional officer at the President Pretorius Museum, noticed that this supporting pole not only cracked near the roof, but moved on the floor, probably due to earlier earthquakes. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

The photo, taken in 2012, shows the supporting pole that cracked and moved, leading to the collapse of the roof of the smithy. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Possible causes of collapse

On 13 September 2020 when Wolfaardt first noticed the cracks in the wall of the smithy, he also noticed that the supporting pole has shifted, causing little ridges in the dirt floor. The shift might have been caused by recent earthquakes in the area. (On 7 July 2020 an earthquake occurred with its epicentre in the Carletonville area (51 km from Potchefstroom), registering 4.4 on the Richter scale. On 24 April an earthquake occurred with its epicentre near Fochville (52 km from Potchefstroom), registering 4.3 on the Richter scale.)

What also might be an aggravating factor is large trucks travelling over speed bumps in Thabo Mbeki Street, about 35 metres from the smithy, which cause the ground to vibrate. The speed bumps was installed a view years ago.

In 2017 the roof of the smithy was rethatched. It is common practice nowadays when buildings are rethatched, to put the new thatch on top of the old ones. This was done at the smithy, but the fragile building with its unbaked mudbricks was simply not strong enough to carry the heavy weight of a double load of thatch. The earthquakes and vibrations caused by the trucks going over the speed bumps might just have been the last straw that literally broke the camel’s back, causing the collapse.

Now what now

According to a report on the web page of the local newspaper, the Potchefstroom Herald, a cultural historian at the museum told the newspaper that the building will be restored.

Rietfontein’s variegated history

By 1838 Rietfontein, as the farm on which President Pretorius Museum Complex is today was formerly known, was owned by Barend Greyling, stepson of the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief. The farm was situated to the north of the Wasgoedspruit, but the initial borders are unclear. In 1841 it was decided to relocate the town, later named Potchefstroom, from Oudedorp to its current location, just south of the Wasgoedspruit, a tributary of the Mooi River

It was soon realised that more land was needed to expand the town and the Volksraad bought parts of Rietfontein from Greyling and also parts of other farms for this purpose. These portions then became the townlands of Potchefstroom. By 1842 JHN Grobler received a plot in the area where the Fanie du Toit Sports Ground of the NWU is now and established a mill. More mills followed soon.

In 1852 MW Pretorius bought part of the townlands area between Molen Street, the Wasgoedspruit (south), Mooi River (east and northeast) for the puny sum of £3, receiving this enormous discount as part of his remuneration for his duties as Commandant General.

His main farm was Kalkheuwel in the Magaliesburg district and he only later relocated to Potchefstroom. The main dwelling on the property was erected by Pretorius approximately 1857.

Smithy is much older

The smithy appeared to be much older. Wolfaardt suspected this and consulted with the restoration architect, Mauritz Naudé, who did extensive research on pioneer buildings in the Free State and the old Transvaal. According to him the building showed similarities to buildings which were erected for a short period between 1830 and 1850. It also shows similarities to some of the earliest buildings still standing in the Oudedorp area.

It is suspected that Greyling erected what we now know as Pretorius’s smithy as his dwelling on the farm. The building showed similarities to other pioneer dwellings, including tacks in the walls which indicated that a curtain rail, made from thongs (rieme) was installed to separate the sleeping area from the living area. Horizontal yellowwood beams found in the walls might formerly be racks for a storage area, later bricked up.

The fact that the building is twice the size of other known smithies from the period also indicates that it earlier served another purpose.

The building seemed to have been built in the Karoo style with a sloping roof. This was confirmed after the collapse when the older roofline and the remnants of a clay and reed ceiling (brandsolder) was revealed.

It appeared that Pretorius built the gables on the west and east ends and added the thatched roof to have the same appearance as the main dwelling.

Pretorius used this as a smithy where he serviced many vehicles, including ox wagons. He did not receive an adequate salary from the government of the ZAR and had to provide his own income.

After Pretorius

When Pretorius’s third wife passed away in 1894 he sold the property to JC (Casper) Bodenstein. Bodenstein died during the Anglo-Boer War and his widow sold it to the Alexander Maclagen (Maclachan) in 1903. The Maclagens enlarged the house by adding rooms to the front (west).

Alexander Maclagen (on veranda) bought the former Presidency in 1903 and enlarged the house to appear as it is in this photo. (Photo: Potchefstroom Museum)

In 1917 the property was rented by the Theological School and Literary Department, which became the Potchefstroom University College in 1919. The smithy served as a laboratory for Zoology. An alumnus of 1922 later recalled that many dissections took place in the former smithy. Students had to find their own specimens and small rodents and even some pets of the residents of Potchefstroom did not escape the students. Used carcasses were simply discarded underneath the quince hedge south of the building. Students walking pass the hedge to a swimming area in the Mooi River speculated about the source of the bad smell in the area. Wolfaardt said that this piece of information explained why he found the jawbone of a rodent under the hedge behind the smithy. After 1923 the Potchefstroom University acquired redundant cantonments from the military, which was erected on the current location of the North-West University and the zoology laboratory was relocated there.

This is how the smithy appeared when it was the zoology laboratory of the PUC, between 1917 and 1922. (Photo: Northwest-University, Archives and Museum)

The property, named Oakdene, by the Maclagens, remained in the family’s possession until 1945 when it was bought by the Hervormde Church. The church laid out the suburb to the east of the old Presidency, hence the name “Heilige Akker” (Holy Acre). It then served as an orphanage for the Hervormde Church. The church was planning to demolish the buildings to build an orphanage, but decided against it. It later served as a dwelling for homeless people.

The city council in 1965 discussed the possibility of acquiring the property and open it as a museum, but they were only able to buy the property in 1973. Restoration work started in 1978 and in 1979 it was declared a National Monument. It was opened as the President Pretorius Museum on 30 May 1980 by the State President, Mr Marais Viljoen.



Potchefstroom Stadsraad, Potchefstroom Bult Roete Trail, 1992?, p 1.

Johan Wolfaardt, Potchefstroom se die Bult se voorgeskiedenis tot en met 1906. Accessed on 3 November 2020.

Interview with Johan Wolfaardt, senior professional officer at the President Pretorius Museum on 30 October 2020.

Veteraan van die maand, PU-Kaner, 9 March 1973, p 7. Accessed on 3 November 2020.

Feesprogram uitgegee met die fees by die geleentheid van die selfstandigwording van die Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir Christelike Hoër Onderwys – 14-17 Maart 1951, (PU vir CHO, Potchefstroom).

Venessa van der Westhuizen, Derde historiese gebou in puin, Accessed on 3 November 2020.

Marthinus Wessel Pretorius – timeline

1819 – Born on 17 November on the farm Letskraal in the Graaff Reinet district. He was the son of the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius. He was trained by another Voortrekker leader, Gerrit Maritz, to become a wagon maker and blacksmith.

Letskraal. Photo: Johan Wolfaardt

1838 – At the age of 19 years MW Pretorius was a member of the Boer commando at the Battle of Bloedrivier.

1841 – On 19 December Pretorius married the widow Aletta Magdalena Smit.

Aletta Pretorius. Photo: President Pretorius Museum

1846 – Their only child to reach adulthood, a daughter Christina, was born on 30 April.

1852 – According to property registers Pretorius bought a portion of the townlands of Potchefstroom, formerly part of the farm Rietfontein. He bought the farm at a discounted price as part of his remuneration as Commandant General.

1853 – Pretorius bought a portion of the farm Elandspoort to establish a capital for the ZAR there. He founded Pretoria in 1855 and named it after his father. It was declared capital in 1860.

1853 – After his father had passed away Pretorius became leader of the emigrants (as the Voortrekkers were then known) to lay the foundation for a new republic in the area north of the Vaal River. He carried the title of Commandant General.

1857 – On 5 January Pretorius was elected as the first President of the ZAR with 21 votes against three. He was in inaugurated with much pomp and circumstance on 6 January.

1860 – On 8 February he also became President of the Orange Free State. He resigned as President of the Orange Free State on 1 October 1862, after his attempts to unite the two Boer republics failed.

1864-1871 – Pretorius became President of ZAR again, that being his third and last term.

1871 – On 8 November Pretorius resigned as President after the loss of land that the ZAR suffered in the border dispute after the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley was laid at his door.

1880 – After the annexation of the ZAR by Britain in 1877 and named Transvaal. A triumvirate was created, including Pretorius, Paul Kruger and Piet Joubert, to restore local rule in the Transvaal. This led to the First War of Independence which was won by the Boers. Pretorius was thus joint head of state until 1883 when Paul Kruger was elected President of the ZAR.

1881 – Pretorius was one of the delegates at peace negotiations in Pretoria and co-signatory to the peace treaty on 3 August.

MW Pretorius in old age. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

1881 – Aletta Pretorius passed away on 10 January.

1888 – He married the widow Magdalena Catharina Botha in January, but she died the next year.

1890 – He married Elizabeth Hartogh on 26 November.

1894 – After she passed away he sold the farm Rietfontein to JC Bodenstein and lived with his daughter Christina Meyer on the farm Witstinkhoutboom, north of Potchefstroom.

1900 – During the Anglo-Boer War he was placed under house arrest in a house in Lombard Street (James Moroka) in Potchefstroom.

The house in Lombard Street (James Moroka) where Pretorius was kept under house arrest. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

1901 – After he was seen outside at night he was interrogated by British soldiers for two hours in freezing cold. He became ill due to this and passed away on 18 May.

1911 – A decade after his death his grave fell to ruin. This led to public protest. A monument erected on his grave was unveiled on 3 October 1913 by the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha.

Monument on the grave of MW Pretorius, which was unveiled in 1913. Photo: Lennie Gouws

1979 – Former residence in Thabo Mbeki Street declared a National Monument. In May 1980 it opened as the President Pretorius Museum.