Jim Freeman
6 minute read
31 Jul 2019
9:53 am

Lord Milner Hotel: Totally revamped, but the spirits of yesteryear linger

Jim Freeman

There are said to be spirits of British officers and soldiers who hang over the hotel balustrade, drift through the library or wait on the station platform for trains that never arrive to take them home.

Picture: Jim Freeman

I might have had an encounter with a ghost at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein a few years ago but at the time I thought it was a drunken blogger who mistook my room for hers and rattled the doorknob at half past three in the morning. Either way, I was jolly glad I’d locked the door.

The Lord Milner (www.matjiesfontein.com) is reputed to be the most haunted hotel in South Africa and that’s hardly surprising given its history that includes use as a military billet and hospital for wounded British soldiers at the turn of the last century. It’s hard to believe there’s any malignant spectral presence though because Theresa, one of the resident cats, spends her nights sleeping placidly at the foot of the creaky stairway down which one of the more active ghosts is said to descend.

“The lady on the stairs,” says Werner Smit, “is Kate, a young nurse who used to play cards with convalescing officers in the room at the top of the tower. Kate was only 19 when she died in very mys – terious circumstances. “Then there’s Mary-Anne. She’s the one who rattles doorknobs, especially that of Room 26. It’s apparently how old she was when she died of disease during the Anglo-Boer War.

“Lucy floats around the corridors in her nightdress and the ‘Lady in White’ wanders through the gardens. Some people say it’s Olive Schreiner, who lived here while she wrote The Story of an African Farm. She’s also said to frequent the billiard room over the pub.”

There are said to be spirits of British officers and soldiers who hang over the hotel balustrade, drift through the library or wait on the station platform for trains that never arrive to take them home.

“There’s a jilted bride who waits at the door of the church and even a little girl who looks through the window of the coffee shop at the people inside. Our chef is one of the people who have seen the little girl …”

This is the same chef, Shantell van der Mescht, who gave me a strange look the evening before and agreed only reluctantly to “model” for a series of ghostinspired pictures I wanted to shoot after the hotel had shut up shop for the night. Her white jacket, black jeans and a long expo – sure provided the wraithlike image on this week’s cover of Citizen Travel .

Smit, who’s spent the past 18 years in the tourism and hospitality, wears two hats; he’s general manager of the hotel and factor of Matjiesfontein for the Rawdon Family Trust, owners of the land and everything that stands on it … including the station. The village was established in 1884 by James Douglas Logan, an enterprising and ambitious Scot who’d landed in Cape Town seven years earlier at the age of 19. Harking from a railway family in Renfrewshire, his first job was as a porter on Cape Town station.

By dint of diligence and ability, he became station-master within two years. Logan was then offered the position of district superintendent of the railway section between Hex River and Prince Albert. The young Scot moved to the Karoo, to Touws River, in August 1879.

He immediately realised that passengers needed to be provisioned as they headed into the interior of South Africa and cornered the market, creating a business empire that, as Dr Dean Allen writes in his book Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa, “eventually stretched from Bulawayo to Cape Town”. (The story goes that Logan was a contemporary of Cecil John Rhodes but their friendship cost the prime minister of the Cape dear. When it emerged Logan had acquired the monopoly of railwaycatering concessions without the contract going out to tender, questions of influence peddling forced Rhodes to resign and dissolve his government.)

In those days, there were no such things as dining cars and galleys on trains; passengers would disembark and dine at designated stations – from whence the popular South African term “railway café”. Logan bought three farms just up the line from Touws River around a dilapidated and barren siding called Matjiesfontein. He found a permanent subterranean water source that irrigated his vegetable gardens and orchards, enabling him to build two restaurants (catering separately to first- and second-class passengers) at the refurbished station.

This was the first step in trans – forming Matjiesfontein into the almost perfectly preserved Victorian village it is today. Logan resigned from the railways in 1883 “to devote his full attention to his burgeoning catering activities”, writes Dr Allen who adds that money was never enough to Logan: his desire to create an empire was more for the social status and recognition that could accrue.

Apparently an asthmatic who found the clean air of the Karoo beneficial to his chest, Logan decided Matjiesfontein would be perfect for a health spa for what we now call “the rich and famous” … a destination rather than just a meal-and-leg-stretch interlude. He built a hotel which he named after the governor of the Cape, Lord Alfred Milner. Incidentally, it was at Matjiesfontein that the first international cricket match took place in the (now) Western Cape.

It was between England and South Africa in 1892, and Logan paid for the English to tour the country. Just after it was completed, the first Anglo-Boer war broke out and about 10 000 British soldiers were billeted at Matjiesfontein. The hotel was given over to officers and the wounded, while the veld served as encampment for other ranks and their horses. It was during this time that Logan became known as “the Laird of Matjiesfontein”, a self-bestowed title based on patronage and protection that harked back to his Scottish roots. From this came the local pub name, the Laird’s Arms.

Following Logan’s death in 1920, Matjiesfontein fell into disrepair until it was taken over by hotelier David Rawdon in 1968 and restored to former glory before reopening two years later (it was declared a national monument in 1975).

Rawdon died in 2010 and ownership passed into the hands of his sons John and Tom who entrusted the day-to-day management of the property to the Valor Hospitality group in 2016. The past three years, says Smit, has seen extensive renovation and refurbishment, not only of the Lord Milner but also the ancillary attractions. The “sideshows” include a transport museum with two Royal Daimlers from King George VI’s 1947 tour of South Africa with his daughters the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, a courthouse, period post office and bank, and the Masonic Lodge that was the original hotel.

The feel is inescapably Victorian (pictures of the frumpy queen abound) but there’s a uniquely Cape folderol in the broekie lace on many of the buildings. The Lord Milner is and will, at the owners’ insistence, remain a three-star facility. However, according to GM Smit, the hotel boasts “five-star service and four-star rooms”.

Nearly all the 49 rooms have been refurbished and modernised (the latter mainly in the bathrooms – old plumbing sucks) but without losing their historical integrity. Matjiesfontein remains a working siding visited mainly by luxury sleeper trains such as Rovos Rail and Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe. Passengers can alight for a walkabout and tour of the station buildings.

Johnny Theunissen chivvys tardy passengers onto the bus with his posthorn or tinkling the ivories and belting out Daar kom die Alabama in the pub till long after closing.

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