The Knysna owned by George Rex

The ‘Knysna’ owned by George Rex

The Knysna River had a chequered past as a port, in part because of the danger of coming through The Heads, and partly because of the change in the economic climate of the Cape Colony.

The Cape was experiencing shortage of wood as most of the indigenous trees had been cut down and used for housing and ship building by the Dutch colonists. When George Rex, a timber merchant from Cape Town, arrived in the area in 1804, he found that transporting timber by oxwagon was an almost impossible task. He then suggested to the authorities the idea to transporting the timber by sea.  As his farm Melkhoutkraal bordered on the lagoon, George provided the land for the jetties to be built. Up to this point no large ships had attempted to enter the Knysna lagoon so it was not known whether it would be possible to export timber by sea.

Knysna was first declared a port in 1817 and the first ship to enter, ‘The Emus’ was wrecked.  The first permanent pilot was appointed in 1818.

In 1820, the British Navy established a dockyard on the banks of the lagoon.   Because of the huge timber resources that were available locally, it seemed economically viable.  Its buildings were burned down twice, however, and it was closed down after only five years.

In 1827 the port was de-proclaimed for economic reasons, and the pilot was sent away.  John Rex, son of George, then acted as a voluntary pilot for the next thirty years and it was only in 1858, three days before he died, that he was officially appointed to the post.

Many large ships were wrecked trying to enter or leave The Heads, and the harbour mouth gained the reputation of being one of the most treacherous in the country.  Still, until the completion of the railway line in 1928, shipping was the only economically viable connection with the outside world.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, loading and unloading of ships had been extremely difficult in Knysna.  Cargo was loaded onto rafts or smaller boats and rowed to shore, or, if larger items had to be unloaded, the ship was hauled onto a sand bank at high tide, and, when the ship settled onto the mud at low tide, the cargo was put off directly onto the mud.

knysna-00bGeorge Rex ran a vessel of his own, the 127-ton brig Knysna, the first ship to be built in the area. Made of stinkwood, it was launched in 1830 and made many trips along the west, south and east coasts of South Africa.  It appears that in 1842 she was bought by a Harrington seaman for his own use.  She was wrecked off the coast of North Cornwall the following year –

The Cumberland Pacquet, Tuesday, 19th November 1844, page 1:

“The Knyana, Gibson, of Harrington, from Westport for Bristol, with a cargo of oats, was caught in the gale of the 11th instants, and driven on shore at Crackington, about eight miles to the west of Bude.  The crew were saved, but the vessel has become a complete wreck, and the cargo is washing on the beach.”

In 1867 ‘Skipper Horn’, a local businessman completed the construction of a jetty.  This stone jetty (upon which the Knysna Yacht Club was later built) served the needs of the shipping community until 1883, when the Government Jetty on Thesen’s Island was completed.

The first ship that loaded cargo from the Government’s wharf was the Thesen’s big Ambulant – she took on 3000 yellowwood railway sleepers bound for Cape Town.

In 1869, the Thesen family made their first visit in Knysna.  They were en route for New Zealand, when their ship, the Albatross, was damaged off Cape Agulhas.  They returned to Cape Town for repairs, and were offered a charter to bring goods to Knysna.  In 1870, after a number of trips to Knysna, they decided to abandon their plans for New Zealand, and to settle there.  They eventually built up a business that included timber (forestry and saw milling) as well as a ship yard and a shipping line.  The shipyard was known as The Knysna Boatyard.

The Knysna Boatyard saw service during the Second World War: 640 craft were built there for the Allied Forces.  The largest were ten ships of the Fairmile class – wooden submarine hunting boats – and the smallest were the long boats that were used as life rafts.  After the War, the yard built fishing vessels and pleasure craft, including yachts and houseboats.  It was eventually sold off to independent investors, but it was bankrupted and closed during the 1980’s.

A well known Pilot at The Heads was John Benn.  He was a shipwright in Mossel Bay who was employed by Skipper Horn to direct the salvage of the wreck ‘Musquash’, which had gone down at Coney Glen in 1855.  By the time he arrived in Knysna, the ship had already broken up, but Benn decided to stay on anyway, to build a new ship – the ‘Rover’ – for Horn.  He went on to become, in 1868, the first of a dynasty of Pilots that would ‘rule’ the mouth until the closure of the harbour in 1954.

In 1954 the harbour was officially closed.  The railway line and improved roads and fast vehicles had made communication by land cheaper, more efficient and much safer than by sea.  Today the lagoon is used mainly by pleasure craft.

A mysterious ghost ship

In April 1881, John Benn and his crew discovered an abandoned three-masted schooner at the mouth of the Noetzie River.  No valuables or signs of life were found on board, and the masts and rigging were bleached white from the sun.  It was obvious that she had been adrift and without crew for some time.  The ship’s log was missing, but her cargo log was intact, the last entry showing that the ship had carried guano in 1876.  A scrap of paper dated 1880 was found, but no clues were left behind to explain what had happened to the crew.

The ship was identified as the Phoenix previously known as the Ville Pierre from the island of Reunion.  It is an old sailors’ superstition that renaming a ship brings bad luck.  Would this have been the cause of the mysterious disappearance of the crew?

The Phoenix was attached by the customs officer, and sold at auction for 15 pounds.