The Parish of Swartland was founded in 1745, on the recommendation of the Commissioner van Imhoff, on the farm of the Widow van der Westhuizen but it was not until about 1800 that the land surveyor, J W Wernich drew up a plan for the sale of five plots below the site of the present day Moederkerk . The town was given its present name in 1829 by the Governor of the Cape SirLowry Cole, who was the son-in-law of the Earl of Malmesbury in England.
Jewish traders or smouse are believed to have visited the town in the late 19th century. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 many Jewish families, fleeing persecution, made their way to South Africa specifically from Lithuania and Latvia. And so began a long and fruitful association between the Jewish immigrants and the local Gentiles in Malmesbury and the farming community of Dutch settlers.
The first Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation appears to have been formed about 1900. By 1906 the congregation began collecting money for a synagogue and Max Goldman drew up the plans for the building situated on 1 Prospect Street. The foundation stone was laid on 11 November 1911 by Abraham Katz and Benjamin Olswang. The words ‘How Goodly are Thy Tents O Jacob’ are inscribed in Hebrew on the archway above the front door of the Museum together with the Star of David.
In the early days most of the Jews in the well-established community of Malmesbury were general dealers, fresh produce dealers, and some were still smouse servicing the outlying farms. Later they bought land and became successful poultry and dairy farmers. These immigrant Jews were hard working and determined to make a living and contribute to their new country. Thus they set up jewellery shops, tailoring businesses, and garages, ran cafés, bars and bakeries.
In 1971 it was decided to dissolve the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation and in 1974 Dr Leon Goldman purchased the synagogue and transferred it to the then Malmesbury Municipality with the proviso that it be used for cultural purposes only.
The Museum as we know it today is the result of the dedication of the Cultural Committee of Malmesbury . Fundraising was started as far back as 1989 in order to fund the layout of the Museum. The planning of the displays and the division of the interior into various sections was done by the architectural firm Malherbe and Rust from Paarl. On completion the Museum was formally opened on 10 October 1991 by the Mayor Clr Klasie Rust. The section dedicated to the Jewish pioneers was officially opened by Julius Kretzmar on 12 August 1994. In the same year the building was declared a National Monument (classified today as a Provincial Heritage Site).
Architecturally it is a fine example with a centrally placed front door and teak windows rounded at the top. The facade is topped by an ornate Cape Dutch Revival gable and inside it is double volume with a gallery.
Today the Museum also houses the history of Malmesbury, Wesbank and Ilinge Lethu and the Dutch Reformed Moederkerk, together with an interesting display of medical and dentistry items donated by the local hospital and the family of the late Dr George Hofmeyer van Zyl. The Kitchen contains items dating back to the 1920’s and there is a reconstruction of an old fashioned General Dealers, which was part of a collection purchased from long time local collector and amateur historian, Trevor Rinkwest. It is full of interesting items recognizable to the older generation, but a great novelty to the children of today. Over the years a clothing collection has been assembled including a black wedding dress. Of special local interest there is a short history of Bokomo and a display of equipment donated by them from their first bakery.
The Museum is administrated by a committee of volunteers and financial statements are audited annually. The building is maintained by the Swartland Municipality, from whom we receive a monthly grant-in-aid. Fundraising for projects etc are the responsibility of the committee. For a small fee members of the public may join as Friends of the Museum.
Please take the time to visit the Malmesbury Museum. It is open on weekday mornings from 9:00 to 13:00 and at other times by appointment.