Robben Island Club House

Old Chief Medical Superintendent's House

In 1840 plans were put in place to build a residence for the Medical Officers quarters. The original structure was built during the late Georgian (George IV of England) era, ca 1843-1846, by convict labour using local materials. It consisted of a basic square divided by a central passage with rooms off to the side. The original facade was classically simple Georgian with the moulded parapet still to be seen below the gable erected in 1964. The entrance had an enclosed portico.

Two outbuildings and a walled courtyard were also extant. The outbuildings were later extended. The southern facade shows three windows, a door in the wall of the courtyard and a smaller window in an outbuilding in a painting of 1872, with 4 chimneys. The four chimneys are also seen in a photograph from 1920.

In 1843 a resident surgeon was appointed to work with the sick. Seriously ill patients were sent to Somerset Hospital. From 1846 to 1895 it was the residence of the Surgeon Superintendent of The General Infirmary with responsibility for the mentally ill and lepers.

Dr. Birtwhistle was in charge in the late 1840's and from eyewitnesses appears to have doled out punishments to the insane that may appear to be harsh and cruel by today's standards. Placing the insane under the care of the medical profession was a revolution at the time. Prior to this they were locked up and treated as common law criminals in prisons. Use of a black "hole", presumably the basement under the residence, to treat wayward patients was common. The practice of shaving off the hair and blistering the heads of patients was also often referred to.

In the 1880's Dr Ross occupied the residence. His daughter or wife was buried in front of the residence with a blue tiled grave surround, which was still in existence in 1949 but has now disappeared.

In 1893 the Surgeon Superintendent is relieved of administrative duties when the first Commissioner is appointed to the island. There appears to have been considerable tension between a series of commissioners and doctors because of a perceived loss of status by the chief medical superintendent.

In the late 1880's the house was "Victorianised" with the addition of a verandah with convex corrugated iron and wooden lattice work. The verandah extended around from half of the northern side to the front faced around to the southern facade.

The first tennis court appeared in 1905, with its own dedicated struxcture as well as a croquet field and pavilion.

Chief Medical Superintendent s House

Chief Medical Superintendent's House, with croquet court in front (photo: Elsa Witt Album, circa 1920)


From 1945 it housed General Moodie who was in charge of defence of the island. During the 1950's the building started to be used for evening entertainment by island residents. It also appears that Captain Edwards stayed here with his family after the Moodies.

In 1964 the building took on its present form with the neo-Cape Dutch gable which rests on the original Georgian parapet. From the 1960's onwards it was the place where warders and their families could socialize. Initially, as was custom, the men's bar did not allow women with a separate ladies bar. Many women still had attitudes in the 1960's about not going into "such places". Warrant officers also had their own bar in the south eastern room of the Club. On many occasions a glass of refreshment was enjoyed while watching the rugby, jukskei or other sports. Darts were also played and later in the late 1980's pool was introduced. In the 1960's the bar was only open for a short time in the evenings and single wardens were not allowed to take their drinks back to their quarters.

From the late 1970's when televison was launched for the first time in South Africa a TV was introduced and became a focal point for family gatherings. With the closure of the prison it became the bar for Robben Island staff and residents. Some unsavoury incidents in the early 2000's saw the closure of the bar.

Coordinates:

  • Decimal degrees: -33.810041 (Latitude) 18.37878 (Longitude)
  • Degrees, Minutes & Seconds: S33 48 01 (Latitude) E18 22 18 (Longitude)
  • GPS: S 33 48.021 (Latitude) E 18 22.300 (Longitude)
  • UTM: 34S 256681 (X) 6256874 (Y)
  • Above sea level: 33 ft / 10 m

... also on Robben Island.

Sources:

  • Fraser, S. 2006. Seven Days in Cape Town, 2nd ed. Cape Town: Struik Publishers.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 2013. Robben Island. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/916 (accessed 12 March 2013).