A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE THESEN FAMILY AND ITS ASSOCIATION WITH KNYSNA AND THE SURROUNDING DISTRICT
surname Thesen will be familiar
to many older readers through an association with S.S.Agnar, a passenger and cargo-carrying
steamship which belonged to the Thesen steamship Company and which plied
between Knysna and
Other readers may be more familiar with the name through the romantic history of the 117-ton two-masted schooner Albatros owned by the Thesen family and which brought them to South Africa from Norway in 1869, while some may remember the yacht Albatros II, the Thesen family centenary entry and winner of the first Cape to Rio Race in 1971.
many generations before coming to
Church records of parish farms, many of which were eventually sold to private owners are fairly elaborate and “Thesen” is no exception. The farm was situated on the western side of the River Vormen and was considered to be one of the best agricultural farms in the district comprising 104 acres of cultivated land, 106 of grazing, as well as 140 of forest, giving a total of three hundred and fifty acres in all.
In the year 1657 the basis for taxation for the farm by the Church was:
six horses, thirty-two head of cattle, eighteen sheep and four pigs. In 1665 the tithe required was: thirty-two and a half barrels of mixed grain, and sixty-two and a half barrels of oats.
In about 1657 private ownership of the farm began together with an association with the military in that it was providing horses for the cavalry section of the armed forces. Records for that year also show that the agricultural ground was planted with half a barrel of wheat, four barrels of barley, one barrel of peas, a quarter of a barrel of flax, one barrel of rye, thirty barrels of oats and twelve of potatoes.
Like other farms in this area “Thesvin” is very old and may well have been cleared at about the time of the birth of Christ. There are two grave mounds on the farm both situated on the outskirts of the home fields, one is about twelve metres in diameter and two metres high and the second, slightly smaller, about ten metres in diameter and one and a half metres high. An axe-head of stone with a hole for its wooden handle was found near these grave sites.
1795 a large land-slide is recorded which took a part of the property with it
According to official records a merchant-shipping firm styled
Thesen and Co.” commenced trading in
The firm’s expansion was rapid because of world conditions generally at that time and shipping was particularly favoured due to the repeal of the English Navigation Act after the Crimean War. The fishing industry around the Baltic and the North Sea had also been a rapidly expanding business but following on these times of prosperity, the year 1864 brought with it a serious recession and in 1868 the town of Stavanger was faced with a slump which resulted in the collapse of eleven large firms. Amongst these was the well-established and important firm of A.L. Thesen and Co.
from the general recession of 1868 the particular reason for the difficulties
of the firm arose from the fact that the partners had made heavy financial
commitments in grain from the
This final disaster came as a severe
blow to the Thesen brothers whose firm had been an institution in the small
town and who had always played an important role in the commercial and social
life of the region and in 1869, Arnt
Another personal tragedy for Arnt
It seems that Arnt
“British Vice Consulate,
“The bearer of these presents is Mr. A. L. Thesen who intends with his family to leave this country in order to settle somewhere else. Mr. Thesen has been the holder of the highly respectable firm A.L. Thesen and Company which was obliged to suspend business on account of the unfortunate crisis that took place in Norway this year and which put so many esteemed and wealthy firms out of position.”
“As to Mr. Thesen’s conduct he has always been known as an able and highly respected gentleman who has been trusted with many confidential charges and was until his departure one of our Municipal Councillors.”
“For honourable and honest mode of living he deserves the best recommendation, and one may without disappointment trust him in any capacity where confidence is required. The citizens of this town will always feel exceedingly happy to learn of Mr. Thesen being even as respected and honoured abroad as he was here and sincerely wish he may succeed.”
“Witness my hand and seal of Office”
“Wilh. S. Hansen”
“Office Seal of British Consul for
this point, prior to their departure for
Albatros was a ship with an interesting history. Built in Baltimore U.S.A. of Burma teak, she had been bought by the Thesen brothers Arnt and Fredrik, on the recommendation of Mathias Theodore who had surveyed her in San Francisco in 1850. Mathias had arrived as second officer of a barque from which the three passengers she had carried as well as the crew, had departed for the newly discovered Californian gold fields and accordingly his contract was at an end. Mathias negotiated a price with the agent of Albatros ashore and arranged for the necessary payment of approximately ten thousand kroner (plus/minus six hundred pounds sterling).
With most able-bodied men in the town having joined the gold rush of ‘49, and having obtained a cargo with the assistance of his brothers in Norway, Mathias crewed her with some difficulty and sailed her to China from whence, after a period in the Eastern seas, he took her to Norway to become part of the Thesen fleet engaged in the Baltic trade.
Captain M.T. Thesen, although never a
partner in the firm of A.L. Thesen and
Company had as has been mentioned, captained the Albatros for some years, so it was doubly
fortunate that he was now, as part owner and Master, prepared to emigrate with
his brother and sail her to her proposed destination. With him was his son Hans
who was twenty-six years old and also in possession of a Master Mariner’s
(In order to estimate the then value of this cargo, it may be of interest to note that local yellowwood - the only softwood building timber available - was selling at approximately 3/6d a cubic foot. So this quantity of 5940 cubic feet of Baltic Deal would have been worth some one thousand and forty pounds sterling. This may be compared with the price of a large brick-built, double-storey house in Knysna which was later to cost the family six hundred pounds sterling).
She also carried with her some of the more personal and
valuable possessions of the family including household silverware, copper and
brassware and several original oil paintings all obviously from their home in
On the reverse side is the maker’s name
history of this ornate and well preserved sword bequeathed to Hjalmar Harison
(Harry) Thesen - raises some interesting questions concerning its origin and
apparent importance as there is no record of Arnt
the 14th August Albatros set sail again for Plymouth in
England in order to embark Ragnvald
was the end of August when Albatros finally
Unfortunately the ship’s logbook of the journey has been lost - probably in the fire which destroyed the original Thesen office block in Knysna - and there are no living memories of the voyage. However Marie Tose (Thesen ) (now aged eighty-five) remembered her father, Charles Wilhelm Thesen , telling her of his mother’s reluctance to continue the voyage from Plymouth into the unknown; the circumstances surrounding this scene must have been moving enough for a thirteen year old boy to remember for the rest of his life.
Albatros remained in
It is difficult from a modern perspective to imagine the discomforts and dangers of an unbroken voyage of seventy-eight days in a small ship, under the conditions which pertained at sea over a century and a quarter ago.
family had planned their departure and provisioned the ship as only men and
women of vision could have done. The storms of the
But the human spirit is resilient and for the children too, all was not doom and disaster of either grim foreboding, weather, privation or homesickness. There was in all probability, great excitement to be found in each succeeding day on the ship itself and the warm, blue, unfamiliar ocean through which they sailed. Flying fish and a following of sea birds to be fed; whales, dolphins and the changing moods of the ocean. Games of tag are not restricted to land, nor are practical jokes and the adventurous antics of adolescent boys.
This report appeared in a
“The following vessel arrived in
Albatros from Norway bound for New Zealand with a
cargo of thirty-six standards containing 36,000 pieces of planks and wood; and
as passengers Mr. and Mrs. Thesen and eleven *children and two servants. The
vessel has put into
(Note: *children included nine family members and two belonging to members of the crew.)
the 24th November began the second leg of her twelve thousand mile journey to
finance the heavy costs of repair and with the co-operation of the owners of
the cargo, the timber was sold in
this time the Norwegian Consul and his wife in
the next three months the Albatros under the command of Hans Thesen, the
twenty-six year old son of Mathias Theodore, made numerous trips to Knysna and
other ports and it was partly because of Hans’s favourable reports of Knysna
and the area, that the senior members of the family joined the ship on one of
its voyages to Knysna to make a first-hand inspection of the possibilities
there. As a result of this appraisal, it was decided to reconsider the original
this year too, the new firm of Thesen and Company was established and launched
with the trustworthy Albatros acting as its foundation but the
partnership between Arnt
Albatros operating out of Knysna did valuable
work as a cargo carrier until 1874 when she was wrecked near
“Our beloved Albatros has gone.”
Some years after the wreck of the Albatros various flotsam relics were discovered by a member of the family in a cottage in the Bredasdorp district and these, most importantly, her nameplate are to be seen in the Knysna Maritime Museum.
Here follows an interesting first-hand record of the wrecking of the Albatros. It was written by Mrs. M.J. Willis of Knysna in 1934: (she was ten years old at the time of the disaster.)
“The schooner Albatros
commanded by Captain Knud Thomasen left
“Besides the crew, there were on
board as passengers, the Captain’s wife and child, a boy of about ten years and
the same age as myself, and my Mother, Mrs. Brant, my younger sister and
myself. To wile away the tedium of waiting for the ship to cross, old
“After clearing the Heads, the Albatros
proceeded on her voyage. I do not remember how many days we were at sea
but at 2 o’clock one morning we were awakened by a grating noise which sounded
to us like a chain running out and our first thoughts were that we had arrived
in Table Bay and the anchor had been let go. We could see that my Mother was in
distress and asking her what was wrong she told us the ship had struck a rock.
The grating noise ceased proving that it was a sunken wreck the ship had struck
because she slid off again and began to settle. The ship’s position was off
“Immediately the ship struck confusion seemed to prevail on board, the Captain seemed to have lost his head and the ship began to fill with water.”
“Mother hurriedly put on some clothes on we children and some on herself and the last thing before leaving ran down to the cabin to fetch the money she had with her. Two boats were launched - a lifeboat and a dinghy - and brandy and food put aboard.”
“The mate, a man named Maynard,
and Timothy Melville, the cook, went in the dinghy, whilst all the rest, ourselves included, went in the lifeboat. The boats pulled
off a good distance and by this time it was daylight when we saw the poor old
ship lurch over on her side. It was said that being loaded with wood she did
not sink but washed ashore on L’Aghullas beach. My
father, Thos. Brant, heard the news of the shipwreck before he knew what had
happened to us. Our boat made for
“The sea was rough and almost the whole of the way
the boat was rowed through kelp. It was not a nice journey. We did not catch
sight of the dinghy until nearing the island which it reached before we did.
The landing on the island was safely accomplished and when ashore we found
there were two fishermen there. We heard that the island was inhabited by four
fishermen but the other two were away on another island collecting guano. We
had to remain on
day we got a conveyance which took us to the nearest railway station from where
we were able to get to our home in
“During our enforced stay on
Albatros had been carrying a cargo of sawn timber and manufactured wagon components and while this cargo was well insured, the ship herself was not.
it was this last disaster which hastened Arnt
brother’s firm in
the death of his father, Charles Thesen, who had been studying business
procedures while working for a firm of hardware importers in
As time went by, Charles was to reveal an exceptional talent for leadership and business, which resulted eventually in his being acknowledged as the head of the firm. From letters in the old letter press books of the 1890's and early 1900's (now in the Cape Archives) it is clear that the firm and
C.W. Thesen in particular, had wide ranging interests and explored every and any avenue in the hope that one or the other might prove to be of benefit to the area or of profit to the firm.
These included attempts to get a newspaper established in Knysna (there was one in George), encouraging a tailor to set up shop in Knysna (to make C.W. Thesen’s suits!), agricultural experiments, tree growing, hay making, farming, lignite mining, gold prospecting at Millwood, insurance and a constant badgering of authorities for better school equipment, roads, a railway and communications in general. C.W. Thesen even tried to persuade the management of the dynamite factory to come to Knysna instead of Somerset West.
From at least one of these, an interesting scientific record has emerged and which has only recently come to light and been placed in the appropriate scientific hands. This is a Whale Census which was carried out by the Pilot (Benn) from the top of the Eastern Head at the request of Thesens with the future of a possible whaling industry in view.
On the strength of this record a paper was published in the South African Journal of Marine Science entitled:
“Whale observations from the Knysna Heads”
by Doctors P.B. Best and G.J.B. Ross.”
This record of whale migrations - numbers and species and whether going east or west - has aroused considerable interest and will prove a valuable tool in terms of whale conservation.
However, Hjalmar Thesen carried considerable responsibility, particularly for the shipping side of the business as the following letter will show. (This letter, to Pile and Company of London in 1895, reveals the rather endearing trust and adventurousness of a fairly large transaction in those times):
“There is a probability of our requiring a small steamer,” and reference was made to a drawing in their catalogues, "she would require to carry 400 tons deadweight on 11 feet draught. Hatches of 17 feet 6 inches preferred. They must be able to take logs up to 45 feet long through one of the hatches, with very powerful winches to lift the heavy logs, one at least to handle seven tons. A double derrick, with all the latest appliances for quick despatch of cargo, is needed and must be able to put logs and wood on deck. The ship must be very strongly built, for rough coast work, to go alongside wharves and to work 100 ton lighters in open roadstead. ”
An enquiry is then made as to whether the after hold could be made into cabins for engineers and mates, so as to allow space amidships for six to twelve passengers and for the Captain. He goes on:
“Where is the galley? Could there be a chart room on top of the cabin? Two masts would be preferred, with gaffs for sailing when the wind is favourable, also appliances aft for towing. Engines and boilers must be of the very best, with all the latest improvements and with spare gear. Speed to be about 9 knots on a very small consumption of coal and to condense water for all purposes. Altogether she must be a useful and modern cargo boat, specially designed for economical working with quick despatch and taking water ballast.”
Although such fittings were still novelties in large ocean liners, Thesen and Company included a significant enquiry:
“What is the extra cost if lighted by electricity.?”
the year 1898 the brothers had appointed an agent in
“Mother was 80 years old a couple of weeks ago, when the Agnar, the Norwegian ship Thela, and our firm all had their flags flying. I can see mother is not so strong, and she gets fainting fits every now and then.”
She died at the age of eighty-two in 1900 having led a happy if circumscribed life. She had grown increasingly deaf, yet all the while cherished by her family.
Pedersen it seems, would have been personally appointed by Hjalmar during the acquisition of the steamer Agnar for he says of this ship:
“She still works well and we try to keep her in good order... will you please get me the price of a water-heating stove, well packed like the one in your bathroom.”
Albatros’ work was continued by her sister ship, the 100 ton schooner Ambulant and then by the 427 ton and first steel vessel, which was the Agnar. Encouraged by the success of the Agnar, Thesens acquired the considerably larger Ingerid of 708 tons in 1899. Ingerid was followed by the Clara and in 1913 the Thesen Line was expanded by the acquisition of the 540 ton Karatara.
“We have contracted for building
The name first suggested - typical of the Tzitzikama country - was the Homtini but in the end she was christened Outeniqua. Her actual tonnage was 1019 and she was the largest vessel of the fleet.
1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of World War I, the government under
General Louis Botha commandeered both the Ingerid and the Karatara for use as allied troop transports
into German South West
“Transports are getting nearly 6000 pounds per month, yet going with half cargoes. If this is so, we are getting too little for our ships and ought to ask 50 pounds per day for Outeniqua.”
and reliable operations were further stimulated by World War One and in 1916 a
special subsidiary “The Thesen’s
Steamship Company Limited” was established with a capital of one hundred
thousand pounds. The pride of the Thesen fleet was the big coaster Outeniqua. In 1921 when the well-known
“Houston Line” of
In 1925 as though loath to lose all contact with the sea - C.W. Thesen bought the elegant 1481 ton steam yacht, Sherard 0sborne and this ship was a popular attraction lying at anchor in the Knysna lagoon just off the Brenton shore. She was one of C.W. Thesen’s few personal indulgences and he had hoped to take his family on a long pleasure cruise to the northern hemisphere. The trip never eventuated, because - it was said - most of his sons and daughters were at that time in the process of making marriage or engagement plans and were not to be tempted away. Her brightly lit teak decks with mahogany and brass surrounds made a fine dance floor for the family and their friends.
Heavily modified, Sherard Osborne ended her career as a floating fish meal factory off the South African west coast. This venture, the first of its kind and poised for brilliant success at the very beginning of the great cold water, purse-seining boom, was never profitable due to bad management which resulted in a series of accidents.
The whole project it was said was a vision ahead of its time and instead of leading the extensive pelagic fishing industry which followed, the experiment ended in failure.
Also into the realms of history go the three masted schooner Lars Rundsdahl of the “Sandwich Island Bird Guano” enterprise, as well as other pioneering exploits such as the “Paarl Roller Flour Mills”, the “Amalgamated Motors” and “Muizenburg Marine Estates”.
As much of the story of the firm of Thesen and Company with its subsidiary manufacturing branches, sawmilling, pine plantation and forestry interests, is well known and recorded, it is only worth noting that at this time of writing (one hundred and twenty eight years later) the Company still exists under the same name, on its historic Thesen Island although ownership has now passed out of the hands of the family.
the time of the sale of Thesen shares - all family held – to Barlow Rand in
1974, the Company owned five thousand hectares of Radiata Pine which was then the largest block of this species in the
country. Thesens had been the pioneers in establishing this Californian
“The new wharf is nearly finished and through the courtesy of Sid Bramley, superintendent of Public Works here, we have lately been allowed to make use of the jetty and tramway and have found it to be a great improvement on the old way of handling shipping.”
the early 192O’s, C.W. Thesen was joined first by his sons
C.W. Thesen’s driver then returned with the carriage to Knysna.
1924 Thesen and Company’s Brackenhill sawmill and wagon
component manufacturing works were moved to
The government wharf and causeway to it - over the Ashmead channel - were completed in 1883 and before that time, sailing vessels tied up and landed cargoes and passengers where the yacht club now stands. Albatros would have made use of this jetty.
Contrary to popular belief neither the Ashmead channel nor the Green Hole creek were used as alternative routes to the jetty before the causeway was built. While the entire length of the navigable lagoon was sounded for depth and accurately charted, depths for the Ashmead channel ended from either entrance at five feet and were not considered worth recording in the shallow centre. No soundings were recorded beyond the entrance to the Green Hole bay.
The twenty-two mile long “South Western Railway” from Deepwalls to Knysna was begun in 1904 and completed in 1907. The little train was known affectionately by the locals as the “The Coffee Pot”. C.W. Thesen was its Chairman for a period of thirty-five years. (The first official record of the assets of this Company - disbanded in 1947 - was: one horse, one saddle, one bridle, value twenty-five pounds!)
During World War Two the British Admiralty negotiated with Thesens for the assembly and manufacture of a variety of wooden life boats and other craft including the famous, small wooden Fairmile warships. To this end and as part of its war effort, the firm closed down its widely known Stinkwood furniture manufacturing department and released the skilled artisans employed there for this boatbuilding work. The operation ceased with the end of hostilities but the after-effects of the yard with its craftsmen remained, resulting in the continued building by Thesens of large wooden fishing craft, yachts and motor launches. Apart from the petrol-driven, depth-charge carrying Fairmiles which fought on the Burmese coast against the Japanese, the well-known yachts Voortrekker and Albatros II both came from this yard.
of these expert woodworkers were the product of a
the majority of the children who took part in the Albatros
adventure of 1869 died without
heirs, there is now a fifth generation with the surname Thesen
with the eldest, there was Hans, [he married Alida
Berg and had nine children] who together with his cousin Niels
long thought to be a firm bachelor married late in life, soon after his mother died.
His wife was Katrine Holst, a girl whom he had
presumably met in
married Amy Georgina Duthie, daughter of Captain
Thomas Henry Duthie of
the girls, only Blanca, the great beauty, married. Her husband was Francis
William Reitz, Chief Justice and later to become President of the
Sigurd, the youngest of the members had four children by Catherine Nixon and all of these families still flourish.
Most prolific of the clan however was Charles Wilhelm Thesen, the thirteen year old family member who had ten children by his first wife and three by his second. He had in all, twenty-seven grandchildren.
As well as the numerous first cousins from the progeny of C.W. Thesen’s six sons (three of whom had no children) there are those from the families of his five daughters. These daughters are:
Louise Thesen, who married Hugh
Ella Thesen, who married Robert Thornely Jones
Kate Thesen, who married Chauncey Reid
Hildur Thesen, who married Ted Stent
Marie Thesen, who married Colin Tose.
Of the three sons who married and had families, the wives were Edna Gladys Reid who married Harry, Helen Katherine Mallett who married Eric, and Mary Fleming Bennie who married Rolf. All of these families have strong Knysna connections. The annual Christmas tea-party still held on Thesen Hill, Knysna, attracts on most occasions up to forty first, second and third cousins.
Charles’s sixth and youngest son was Adolf Frithjof Thesen, born in 1902 to his second wife, Hannah. He was an attractive personality from all accounts, blue-eyed, fair-haired and intelligent and fortunate in having, not only loving parents, but a large family of older and younger brothers and sisters as well. High spirited and considered out of step with the high principles of those times, he settled in the Argentine as a young man and died there at the age of fifty-three.
C.W. Thesen’s first wife and the mother of his ten children,
Bessie Georgiana Harison, was a member of an old English family who had lived
Having tried his hand at farming, he eventually joined the - then fledgling - forestry department and rose to become the first Chief Conservator of Forests for the southern region in 1874. Based in Knysna for the last years of his life, it was not surprising that C.W. Thesen, , with mutual timber interests, was to meet and eventually marry one of his two daughters.
Christopher Harison’s fourteen years of dedicated
service to this region left an enduring mark on systematic forest management.
He was the, first
to apply a scientific approach to the
problem of conservation, regeneration and controlled felling and was the
first official to endeavour to bring some measure of protection to the
elephants and buffalo, which even then were under threat in the Tsitsikamma forests. Apart from his military rank it is
possible that he had had some estate and forest management training as a result
of his family’s land holding interests. His daughter, Bessie Thesen, writing
to her sister Katie in
“Your letter came this morning with the tidings of poor Aunt Louisa’s death - dear old lady, I always felt more warm towards those two than any of the others and am always sorry that you did not see them. I suppose Sutton will also have passed out of Harison hands before you ever see it as it seems inevitable at present they say.”
“I don’t think Papa will be much distressed as he can scarcely take in such things nowadays much.”
As a reference to the life of those times and the upbringing of Bessie Thesen’s children, extracts from her letters to her sister are an interesting reflection on this first generation of English-speaking South Africans. The following refers to the Boer War, then in progress: the first of the three wars which were to have their inevitable effect on the history of the family.
“My dearest Katie,
“I have been hoping to give you a long letter but don’t know now if I shall manage it tonight.”
“ It is strange to see that all our latest war news reaches you at the same time (and possibly much more reliable news) as it does here in our district. We are again in comparative quiet, the commandos have split up and scattered northwards mostly – I am hoping great things of the next few weeks.”
“General Louis Botha, one of the most sensible and one of the best of the Boer generals is being interviewed as you know and one cannot but hope that the wail of his country may soften his heart and those of his misguided advisers. For it is an undoubted fact that most of the better class Boers are ready to give in now. Poor Reitz - his mind has long been cranky on the subject so one cannot say with any confidence what he will advise.”
It will be remembered that Reitz had been her brother -in-law (Blanca died in 1887), which probably accounts for her wry puzzlement concerning his
hitherto unrevealed loyalties! (He was at the time the
During the Boer War, the army depended greatly upon the goodwill of Thesen and Company who offered special rates for freight on the Agnar. Agnar also transported prisoners of war and labour recruits and on one of her voyages, she was to carry no less than 187 mule drivers at very little cost.
Agnar was due for a major re-fit in
“My dearest sister,
Since the boys came back from Keurbooms River at the
beginning of April I have been more or less busy getting my big son ready for
his trip. You see the outward voyage will take over 40 days, no short journey!
I have to provide him with clothes sufficient for that length of time without
washing. Of course many things he must necessarily get on landing and I shall
trust to you to tell of any obvious want in his wardrobe. You know Colonial
boys are not brought up on the same lines quite as English ones, and he may not
The outward journey in fact lasted forty-eight days, the last three under sail while the Agnar’s engineers made running repairs to her boilers. But she returned triumphantly refurbished and re-fitting with electric light to add to her lustre.
Sadly, two months after her last letter was written, Bessie died of complications as a result of her final pregnancy. She was only thirty-eight years old.
The letters from which these extracts are quoted are given in full in Part II of the Thesen history which follows, together with the many written to Bessie by various members of her family.
Her husband, Charles, was now faced not only with the great loss of his wife but with the problem of attending to the needs of his large family. In 1902 however he married Lucia Johanna Christine Thesen who was the daughter of his first cousin Hans Thesen and it is to her eternal credit that she lovingly took on the responsibility of her step-children as well as bringing up three children of her own. Rolf Thesen, one of Bessie’s and Charles’s sons, makes these comments and I quote them as pertinent to what has already been said:
“I would like to note a few more personal aspects around some of those who did not come so firmly into the limelight but who nevertheless played an important part in the life of the family. My own mother: small of stature but lion-hearted. Dad did give her the credit of being his mainstay on many occasions.”
“As she (Bessie) died when I was
four I did not have the
privilege of experiencing her qualities of love and caring. I have read and indeed have copies of some
letters she wrote to her only sister in
“My stepmother, Hannah, was a lifelong friend and great admirer of my mother Bessie and took on the responsibility for her large family, some grown-up and possibly difficult. However, as the only mother I really knew I do offer grateful thanks for all she did for us.”
of Charles’s marriages were consecrated in the old
Charles’s and Bessie’s grandchildren, there are twelve first cousins still
alive, while of those of his second wife, Lucia Johanna Christine, there are
four, as well as many second and second cousins once removed from the progeny of Niels
members took part in the two World Wars, from
Thesens have played a very significant part in the economic growth of Knysna
the time of his death in 1940, C.W. Thesen owned large tracts of forest and
farming land as well as properties in
It is not generally known that the oyster farming industry in the Knysna lagoon came into being as a result of Harry Thesen’s individual vision and endeavour. He was also a pioneer of commercial honey production in the area.
piece of land upon which this stone hut stood was leased from the Divisional
Council (initially at the
nominal amount of one shilling per annum) usually renewable in
ten-year periods. The site has an unbroken view over the whole sweep of
In the late 1800’s C.W. Thesen would re-locate his entire family from his house in Knysna for the Christmas holidays to the base of the Robberg peninsula. They travelled by means of cart, and ox-wagon with all the paraphernalia of tents, cooking utensils and pots and pans, and not forgetting the essential bamboo fishing rods. Those were the days of Cuttyhunk flax, or Irish linen, braided green fishing line, copper wire and home-made sinkers.
camp-site was under the milkwood trees on the Van Rooyen’s farm and it is probable that these camps were the inspiration
for C.W. Thesen’s sons to locate a hut site on Robberg itself and to build the
rondavel there many years later. In the 1930’s merely getting to the hut by car
was in itself an adventure with the
In 1984, sixty years after it was built, the land upon which it stood was expropriated by the Provincial Administration. The hut still stands but it is now used by the Provincial authorities as a water-storage, tool shed and sleeping area for Nature Conservation staff.
However, this cottage in all its simplicity had played a very significant role in the lives of three generations of the Thesen family and had served to bond relationships which remain unbroken to this day.
With this story now told, C.W. Thesen’s handwritten memories, recorded shortly before his death in 1940, will make an eloquent and compelling epilogue especially as they include details of the actual voyage of the Albatros and I intend to give them in full.
His last scrawled, pencilled notes read:
“My father A.L. Thesen was the principal, as a Town Councillor
and Mayor, to inaugurate the supply of water for the town of
“During the winter months in my young days the Bay (Stavanger) would fill up with sailing vessels large and small to be laid up for the winter overhauled and repaired and when required to be re-classed in the Norwegian Veritas."
“It was with great pride that the inhabitants watched the large vessels
come sailing into the Fjord. I remember well such vessels as Nordens Dronning and Sir Robert Peel at
different times arriving and being moored and surrounded by boats coming to
wish Captain and crew welcome, by the shipowners down
to the lowest and youngest, myself included. (Sir
Robert Peel was
one of my father’s ships about five hundred tons register bought from
three months or thereabouts, the larger vessels set sail for some English port
to load, generally for some distant land sometimes at very remunerative rates
of freight, and at other times over non-profitable periods. In shipping, there seem periods of great
prosperity and then periods of depression, but on the whole,
“The arrival of the English Mail
was a great day, for the shipowners received their
Captain’s draft on
“I remember cases about 2 feet high by 4 feet across and 6 feet long, with soft yellow sugar arriving per lighter at our warehouse from West Indies, and not as now in bags, each case must have weighed 6 or 800 lbs. The cases were strapped at the ends with raw hide, about one and a half inches wide with the colour of the animal’s hair attached. The raw sugar was as it came from the sugar mills in the West Indies, yellow in colour as it was turned out from the centrifugal pumps and not as today, nearly white from the improved machinery, and to satisfy the requirements of some of the trades such as native, the sugar has to be re-coloured to the appearance as supplied nearly 100 years ago. I would take great delight in eating a lump of yellow sugar as it came from the pump.”
“Grapes at that period were
imported in earthenware jars, each being packed separately in cork dust, not
touching one another. The grapes came from
“I do not think tomatoes were known in those days.”
“Of my father’s ships the schooner Iris had been bought by my father after she was wrecked at Kalhamerenand and then floated and repaired.”
“Another ship the Byfoged Christensen was lost with all hands a
few years later in the
wrecked in the Black Sea, bound for
“The brig Trafik was exchanged for a warehouse at Haugesund.”
“I often went with my father on his visits of inspection such as when the Iris was wrecked and re-floated and when the warehouse at Haugesund was exchanged for his ship the Trafik.”
“A great sorrow befell my father and mother when on the
this point there is a gap in the handwritten and typed pages but we have
already heard of the events leading up to the decision to emigrate
“The Norwegian Schooner Albatros, after having loaded a cargo of unplaned inch boards, left Tonsberg, 15th August. 1869,
1. Owned by Mr. A.L. Thesen, who was a passenger.
2. His brother Captain M.T. Thesen, who was in command of the expedition.
3. His son, Capt. Hans Adolf Baars Thesen, who was the Captain of the Albatros.
4. Knud Thomasen, 1st officer.
5. His brother, Thomas Thomasen, Boatswain.
6. Ole Larsen, Ship’s Carpenter.
7. Rolf Thesen, Sailor, (A.L. Thesen’s son.)
8. Ragnvald Thesen, Sailor, (who joined
And as passengers:
11. Mrs AL Thesen and
12. Hjalmar Thesen
13. Blanca Thesen
14. Charles Wilhelm Thesen
15. Alfhild Leonora Thesen
16. Theodor Fredrik Thesen
17. Sigurd Thesen
Mothers and Children
18 & 19 Mr Knud Thomasen’s wife and 1 child.
20 & 21 Ole Larsen’s wife and 1 child.”
Here he gives and interesting account of the provisions with which the ship was loaded for her long voyage. There were live pigs and fowls, barrels of salted pork, fish and beef and preserved beef. Milk was condensed in bottles and he mentions that this looked like grains of white rice and dissolved easily when put into hot water. He also mentions tinned goods, mostly tinned fresh beef in fourteen pound tins as well as dried potatoes in twenty-eight pound cans and he remarks that the potatoes looked like small, dried mealies. He mentions that he spent a good deal of his time in the galley. His memoirs read on:
“We arrived at
has been mentioned, Ragnvald arrived in the 1154 ton Nordens Dronning. She was carrying a cargo of rice from Akyab (
“We lost sight of land during the day with fine weather and fair wind. After losing sight of the English shore and white cliffs, we did not sight any land for many weeks. Under the Equator we had a good deal of calm intermittent with heavy showers of rain. On such occasions sails were spread horizontally and rain water collected for use on board."
“At one time from calculations
taken by Capt. M.T. Thesen and his son Hans, we could be nearing the Brazilian
Coast, and on the second morning the young sailor Thomasen was sent up to the
highest point in the rigging, that is on the fore-top-mast, when he reported
that he could see land in the far-off distance, and the ship’s chronometer and
compasses shown to be correct. The orders were then given to set about or turn
in an easterly direction, and set a course for
“One early sunny morning Mother and I were seated on a wooden bench, acting as a hencoop underneath, with our back towards the cabin and looking at the huge swells coming on behind and overtaking us, and looking as though the sea would swallow us up, but how impressive it was to see the stern of the ship lifting herself beautifully over the crest of the sea and pushing the ship on faster than before, when the ship slid back into the trough of the sea which repeated itself all day. My Uncle, the Captain, was standing close by looking forward how she behaved drinking his black coffee, when he gave some urgent orders which, when not carried out smartly enough to his liking, threw his coffee cup violently on the deck, and my Mother who was deaf exclaimed what a strong cup that was which did not break. The cup was a very strong heavy sea cup used at sea in those days."
“On one occasion I was with the cook, Franzsen, in the galley. He was kneading dough in a large tin dish for baking bread, when the ship took a heavy lurch and I fell into the dough, getting comfortably seated in the dough. The cook hauled me out of it and landed me on my feet with the tail of my trousers holding over all one inch of dough like a pancake. He took a knife and scraped the dough back into the dish and continued to knead the dough, and baked his bread later in the day, and the family no doubt, partook of the bread for their next day’s meal.”
“A good deal of my time was spent in the galley, and I don’t know if I could say that I assisted the cook, but it may be that he would prefer it if I was not there, but in any case he was very good to me.”
in mind that Charles was thirteen years old it can easily be imagined that he
would be welcomed neither amongst the very young children nor with the crew in
their dangerous tasks. The galley therefore would have been good neutral
territory and the cook, Johannes Franzsen, a friendly
man glad of the company. This Franzsen was the one
who painted the delicate water colours of the Albatros at various stages of her voyage and which
are to be seen in the
“Still with favourable wind for some days. Early on a sunny morning it was a marvellous and impressive sight never forgotten by me, on the 78th day after losing sight of England, seeing Table Mountain appearing growing out of the sea hour by hour, growing higher and higher until about noon we could see Robben Island.”
rounding Robben Island we got the Table Mountain
south easter very strong and I became frightened
expecting the Albatros to capsize, however we came to safe anchorage
very near the Adderley Street wharf built of wood and
the Consul’s representative came on board, Mr. Sjogren. Mr. C.G. Akerberg
was then the Swedish Norwegian Consul at
He mentions that they had
only intended to stay in
was accordingly arranged that the Albatros would load a cargo for
Knysna. The family landed and hired a house at the top of
“The Albatros sailed for Knysna commanded by
Hans who was the first Thesen to cross the Knysna Bar. Thereafter she did
further trips to