Knysna: of tall ships and stinkwood tables

brig knysna, ship model knysna

Knysna’s Old Gaol Museum: maritime rooms. Model of the brig Knysna

There’s a tall ship in Knysna that’s made of stinkwood that was harvested in the forests almost 200 years ago (give or take). And we love the romance of its history.

But as with most things, it wasn’t all romance and swashing and buckling, of course. Still…

The story begins with George Rex, who settled in Knysna in 1804, and built a huge business here as a farmer and timber merchant.

Wikipedia tells us that dearest Uncle George had “33 slaves there in 1805 and was part-owner of the ship Young Phoenix, 1810-16. He became a timber exporter and trader, having licence for 400 woodcutters in 1811.”

We’re not sure what happened to the Young Phoenix, but by the 1820s, Rex had decided to build a new ship on the banks of the Knysna River for which he built a temporary shipyard – with slipways made of stinkwood.

Brig Knysna

The ship’s keel was laid down in 1826, and the job was done by 1831, when the brig made her maiden voyage – across the Knysna Lagoon, through The Heads, and bravely out to Cape Town.

The good ship Knysna made many coastal voyages, and even sailed as far as St. Helena during Rex’s lifetime – but she was sold after his death in 1839, and ended up trading on the coast of England, where she was wrecked off Crackington Haven, near Bude in Cornwall, in 1844.

Her story didn’t end there, though, because some of the stinkwood baulks (rough-hewed beams) that the shipwrights had used to build her slipway were rediscovered by schoolteacher Bobby Veldtman in 1946 – lying where they’d been abandoned in the Knysna River, just off Westford Farm, near the present-day Simola Golf & Country Estate.

Those baulks must have been cut in the early 1820s at the latest!

Of course the old South African Railways & Harbours (SAR&H) decided to claim them immediately, using the excuse that they’d been found below the high water mark – but the secretary of the Knysna Publicity Association (now Knysna & Partners) managed to convince the government that the timber should be kept in Knysna, and a local furniture factory was appointed to use it to build a set of chairs and a large, triangular-shaped boardroom table for the then Knysna Divisional Council (they’re now used by the Knysna Municipality).

Old Gaol Museum

So what’s this about ‘there’s a tall ship in Knysna?’

Well, they didn’t use all the timber for the Council’s furniture – the little that was left over was used in the early 1950s to build two models of the brig Knysna.

The models were built by Roland Benn – a cousin of Reuben Benn, the last full-time pilot in the Knysna Harbour before it was closed in 1953 – and they were presented to the municipalities of Knysna and East London. (The original brig Knysna had been the first ship to enter the Buffalo River in East London, and so prove that the mouth was viable for use as a port.)

Knysna’s model of the brig Knysna stood for many years in the passage outside the town clerk’s office, but it’s now been moved to the Maritime Room of the Old Gaol Museum Complex, on the corner of Queen Street and Main Road. And you can visit it there – together with half a dozen other tall ships from back in the day, as well as a few steamers from the early 1900s – on any weekday or Saturday morning.

  • Brig: a square-rigged vessel with two masts, often with additional fore-and-aft sails on the gaff and on a boom fitted to the mainmast.
  • The Brig Knysna, registered at Table Bay in 1831: “1 Deck, 2 Masts, Rigged Brig: Stern square, Carvel built, no galleries; Head: a figure. Length 73’10”; Breadth: 21’; Depth 12’4”. Tonnage: 139 86/94” (from ‘Knysna the Forgotten Port‘ by Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams, Emu Publishers, Knysna, 1988)