Most of us have used the foot bridge over the Zandvlei at some stage. How many of us, I wonder, have noticed the plaque on the western side of the bridge, which refers to the Thesen family?
Having lived in Knysna, and being vaguely aware of the role the family played in the development of that town, my interest was piqued on seeing the plaque.
Was it the same Thesen family, I wondered? And so I started doing a little bit of delving, digging and reading.
The story of how the Thesen family came to ‘wash up’ in Knysna is an uplifting tale.
The Thesens were a wealthy and respected family in Larvic, Norway, involved in a number of businesses including shipping. It was headed by two brothers, Arnt and Fredrick. But the Danish-German war of 1864 led to the collapse of the firm.
Fredrick chose to stay in Norway, but Arnt took the brave decision to load his family onto their schooner, Albatross, and set sail for New Zealand. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise
that this was an undertaking of note. To set sail to literally the other end of the earth with one’s family, to an unknown future. Talk about Viking courage! They set sail in July, 1869.
The plan was to load the ship with timber, which would be sold in New Zealand, to raise the much needed funds to start a new life. When they reached Cape Town, they called in to replenish their water and provisions. As have so many before and after. They then proceeded on their journey.
But the fickle finger of fate had other plans. While trying to round Cape Agulhas, the Albatross sustained serious damage and was forced to return to Cape Town, yet another victim of the Cape of Storms.
While the Thesens were in Cape Town, they were approached by merchants with the view to the schooner being used to make shipments from Cape Town to Knysna. They sold the timber they had aboard, giving them a much needed cash boost.
This, plus the hospitality extended to the family by the Norwegian Consul-General, resulted in the family deciding to settle in Knysna, focusing initially in shipping timber. But they diversified into many other ventures; saw-milling, forestry, hardware, oyster farming, whaling, gold prospecting, and others. Their saw-milling operation was set up on what became known as Thesen Island, now a mostly residential area.
And so to Cape Town. One of Arnt’s sons, Neils Peter, established a branch of the family business here.
In all, three members of the family built homes in St. James; Niels Peter, (Ambleside), Theodore Mathias (Tilsist) and Oscar Leonard (Dagali)
Neils Peter, (1853-1929) owned a large tract of land known as the Muizenberg Marine Estate Ltd. In 1927 he organised and financed the construction of the bridge, which was originally constructed out of timber. An apt material, given the commercial history of the family.
The original wooden bridge decayed over time. The footbridge was subsequently rebuilt by the City of Cape Town some 21 years ago, and they also ensured the Thesen link stays known by erecting the commemorative plaque seen here.