A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOREST HALL

Forest Hall Manor was built in 1862 by an English gentleman and colonist, William Henry Newdigate - the third son of Francis and Lady Barbara Newdigate of Astley Castle in Warwickshire, England. History tells us that he built the stately home for his beautiful bride, Caroline Duthie - the grand-daughter of George Rex of Knysna. With next to nothing available in the way of infrastructure and skills in the then still untamed and barely colonized part of Africa that is now known as The Garden Route, Newdigate imported masons and carpenters from England to build his 'gift'. The floors, door and window frames, ceiling supports and the grand central staircase were hewn from the ancient hardwoods of the surrounding forest.

The Newdigates played host to many of the colonial pioneers of the day (including Bishop Grey and Thomas Bain), and the Estate, with its rolling lawns, croquet games, music and dances, finest china and family silver, was an 'island of gentility' in the middle of the dense Tsitsikamma - home to leopards, baboons and herds of elephant, bushbuck and water buffalo. While the women - corseted and with parasols to keep off the African sun - 'took their tea' and the children chased butterflies, the men formed hunting parties and went on fishing expeditions. Forest Hall was an 'English Gentleman's Estate', a haven of civilization and - so it is told - great joy, but five years after it was built, an unforeseen and dramatic page was added to its history.

The Great Fire of 1869 has gone down in the annals of local history as possibly the most devastating and terrifying event of the times. It swept through the fynbos and forest between the sea and the mountains with an extraordinary ferocity, burning almost the entire area from what is now Humansdorp (near Port Elizabeth) all the way through to Mossel Bay. The loss of habitat and life was absolute. As the Newdigate family, their servants, and others who had fled there from the surrounding communities huddled in the house, under a black sky choked with ash, their desperate prayers seemed answered. For hundreds of miles around nothing had been spared, but a sudden change in wind direction and a dense fog that rolled up the cliffs from the sea turned the flames; alone in the area, Forest Hall, and the fortunate people cowering inside, survived to begin anew.

That glorious and stately chapter of Forest Hall's past sadly came to a close in the early 1930's. Though the house was still in the Newdigate family, it was left vacant after William and Caroline's three spinster daughters moved to be closer to the town of Plettenberg Bay in their later years. Other family had long before moved on or passed away. The house fell into a long slow decay and over the years the home that was once so vital and alive became an empty shell; like all old homes to suffer such a fate, it became a 'ghost house', the source of chilling stories and legends amongst locals.

The intervening years have seen the house slowly and painstakingly restored, first by tenants who lived there for many years, then by Hilary Peter, the great grand-daughter of William and Caroline Newdigate (after the tenants left and the house fell into disrepair a second time), and in the more recent past by new owners. The house and the grounds today are somewhat more than just reminiscent of its aristocratic origin, but instead of ghosts, there is new life and a deep sense of permanence. Forest Hall is fitted with the finest in modern amenities, but the essential character of this beautiful monument to South African history has not changed - even as everything around it does.

In recognition of this value and its now irreplaceable structure, Forest Hall was declared a National Monument by the South African Heritage authority in 1992.

 

 


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