Illness, sanitation and fashion in Colesberg in the mid-1850s

The immense heat of Karoo droughts brought problems for humans as well as animals. Thelma Gutsche writes, in The Microcosm, that the great heat of 1852 was accompanied by locusts and typhus fever. This affected the entire Colesberg district and absorbed all of the energies of the local medic, Dr Orpen. All races suffered and many people, among them children, died. Infections, particularly measles and typhoid, constantly swept across the district and its “healthy” reputation seemed founded only on pulmonary cases. “But, then there was little notion of hygiene in early Karoo towns. Travelers constantly complained of the streets of Colesberg. These were full of refuse, stones and dead cats. There were no pavements and the rivers, which burst their banks during rainstorms, often lapped at the doors of homes, stores and warehouses. Carts, wagons, tree trunks, poles, planks, huge scales and massive weights, as well as the inevitable stones, rocks, and boulders, impeded the progress of pedestrians, making walking very difficult.


The contrasts between religious persuasions of farmers and townsfolk became quite striking on Sundays and provided some memorable sights, particularly in Colesberg. “The landed gentry of the district would come to town in traditional style a day or two before the service. Their dress hardly varied from their pioneering days, thirty or more years before. Men wore colourful embroidered waist coats under short blue jackets with six brass buttons and stand up collars, white calico shirts – without a tie – yellow moleskin (a kind of corduroy) trousers – ending above the ankles – no socks and home-made veldskoens. They also wore large locally made hats of a kind of felt compacted from local wool. To these, some added an ostrich plume. In their pockets farmers carried a dassie-skin bag containing home-cured tobacco, a stone pipe with a long horn stem and a bowl covered by a silver cap attached by a silver chain. They also carried a small brass tongs to pluck a coal from an outspan fire to light their pipes and to scrape them clean. Some had a tinder box, flint and steel. Women wore high waisted voerschitz dresses, shawls, huge kappies and veldskoens without stockings, whereas ladies of the town preferred Victorian styles and modes. Opulent families rode to church in carriages drawn by teams of greys, roans, chestnuts, bays, blacks, in fact horses of virtually every colour pranced up the main street every a Sunday. The Doppers were no less rich and proud, but their appearance varied. The men wore their hair long and cut off square near the nape of the neck and in a fringe above the eyebrows. Disapproving of moustaches and beards, they shaved clean except for a surrounding fringe beginning with whiskers and ending under the chin. Their wives were drab by comparison and children dressed identically to their parents. “No records exist telling us what the Boeremense thought of the townsfolk in their stove-pipe hats, fussy cravats, spongebag trousers and incipient crinolines,” writes Thelma Gutsche in The Microcosm.


© Rose’s Roundup, vol. 2, no. 73, October 2009

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