History of Leisure Island
(With acknowledgement to Vicky Williams and Winifred Tapson)
Before the recorded history of Leisure Isle, it lay undisturbed near the mouth of the Knysna lagoon, a grassy sandbank that was home to countless birds, small mammals and a population of steenbok.
The Island was formed some 5 000 years ago during a time when the level of the sea was four to five metres higher than it is now. There was considerable sand movement within the estuary, as there is today, and when the sea level began to fall this caused large sand banks to form. These gradually rose in height through tidal and wind transport of sand, and the islands initially called Steenbok Island (Leisure Isle) and Paarden Island (Thesen Island) were formed. Soon plant and animal life began to colonise the island habitat.
The eastern shore of the Knysna lagoon was granted in 1770 to Stephanus Terblans, the first white settler in the area. There he established his farm Melkhoutkraal, which in time became an impressive estate, but it did not include the scrubby sand dune that had become known as Steenbok Island - this remained state land.
A Scottish master mariner, James Callander, the first man to fall under the thrall of the Island, become excited by its possibilities and developed a vision for its future. He was commissioned by the Governor of the Cape to explore the rivers, bays and forests in this area in 1798. Callander made Knysna his base, built a small wooden cabin on the Eastern Head and soon became convinced that Knysna could become a first-rate port. He wrote: 'It is the best situation on this coast for shipping timber, having a small island (Steenbok) immediately within the narrow entrance where fifty ship-loads of timber may lay….This island is so situated that it commands the entrance of the River - and a few guns on it would destroy any [enemy] coming in'. Callander applied for twelve morgen of land, including Steenbok Island, where he planned to start a fishery. His application was refused but he re-applied fifteen years later 'to have a Grant of 500 yards of land on the Island named Steen Buck for Establishing a Fishery in the river Nysna'. This too was refused.
Steenbok Island was the property of the British Colonial Government until 1821, when it was ceded to George Rex, the fourth owner of the farm Melkhoutkraal. Rex and his descendants owned the Island from 1821 until 1929, when it was purchased by George Cearn, an American who had made a considerable fortune from coffee in Kenya. He purchased the Island from a Rex descendant, John Duthie of Woodbourne Farm for £7,000. George Cearn was 53 when he and his wife Ethel retired to Knysna, and he was in search of a 'project'. Steenbok Island soon captured his imagination, and to the great astonishment of the people of Knysna, as well as his wife, he developed a vision of turning the uninhabited little island into a place where people could live and build their homes, raise their families and retire in idyllic surroundings. He re-named it Leisure Isle, and set about turning his dream into reality.
History of Leisure Island
Connecting Leisure Isle to the mainland and securing its perimeter from the corrosive power of the waves and currents was the first priority. Mr Dantjie Keyter, a massive figure of a man, was employed as foreman, and he recruited a labour force of some fifty short-term prisoners from the local jail by paying their fines and making them free men. They were paid half-a-crown a day and received a hearty meal cooked by Dantjie's wife. They quarried stone from a hillside on Woodbourne Farm (the scar is still visible as you leave the Island) and for three years they toiled, building the causeway, the road foundations and the sea wall that encircled the Island. The stone was transported in long lines of cocopans to wherever it was needed.
When this mammoth task was done, George Cearn proceeded to have the Island surveyed in 1933, and declared a township in November 1935. Preparations took shape under Cearn's meticulous eye - clusters of pine trees were planted, and an avenue of gums along Links Drive. The township plan included a school, a church, a commercial precinct and a recreational area. A network of roads criss-crossed the Island, and all was ready for the first Islanders to claim their place in the sun.
300 plots were offered for sale. As Winifred Tapson described it 'One by one little cottages sprang up. Tentatively at first, and in a patchwork sort of way. Only a handful of the more adventurous Knysna inhabitants dared to take the bait. The rest of the community remained profoundly indifferent. A retired couple from elsewhere put up a house; then another, and another. A few, not yet retired, built cottages for their summer holidays. Gradually more confidence crept in, and the houses gained in size and design…. Throughout the first twenty years of Leisure Isle's life, human occupation seeped into it very cautiously'.
During the 1930s George Cearn set about building a nine-hole golf course on the site now known as Steenbok Nature Reserve. Sand dunes were flattened and planted with grass, and fairways, bunkers and greens were laid out. The Cearns built a house near the course. The Knysna Golf Club had at that time a rather miserable course on the slopes near Thesen Hill known as the 'goat course', and in 1939 it was decided that they should make the new course on Leisure Isle their home. The Cearn's house was then leased to Mr G E Herring and became the clubhouse. Herring extended the building and opened a Private Hotel, which became the pivot of social life on Leisure Isle. Herring sold the hotel to Bill Anderson, who applied for a liquor licence and established the well-loved Leisure Isle Hotel that survived for many years, eventually giving way to the Island Cove development. The Hotel was very popular and many, including Bobby Locke, enjoyed its golf course and other attractions.
History of Leisure Island
In the mid-fifties most of the interior of Leisure Isle remained scrub and bush, and steenbok could still be encountered along with the few surviving pheasants which had been introduced from England. In 1951a Village Management Council was instituted, falling under the Divisional Council. This took care of the affairs of the Island until 1968, by which time problems with the supply of water and electricity and other essential services necessitated a take-over by the Knysna Municipality - a step which was strenuously opposed by many islanders.
Over the next fifty years Leisure Isle grew and evolved into the special place we know today. The full tale remains to be told.
The publication of a separate, expanded History of Leisure Isle is contemplated, and LIRA would welcome input from anyone interested in sharing their memories and knowledge of the early days of this Island.