Norval’s Pont has its origin as a farm which was established by one Petrus Brits on 15 March 1835. The farm, which he named Dapperfontein, or Brave Fountain, was awarded to Brits by Sir Benjamin D’Urban, Governer of the Cape Colony at the time.
The farm was rented for the princely sum of £1 per year for the period of five years. If the tenant stayed on the farm for the period of five years then ownership was transferred to the tenant.
Brits stayed on the farm and the title was made over to him. He then proceeded to sell the farm to John Norval, a native of Glasgow in Scotland, who had recently arrived in the Colony, together with his two brothers.
The Norvals were comb makers and the abundant supply of tortoises to be found on the farm, provided an almost limitless supply of tortoise shell, the optimum material for the finest combs. They also set themselves up as sheep farmers and turned their hand to the production of broad brimmed felt hats.
Tensions developed between Boer and Briton in the aftermath of the Great Trek and between them and the Basotho, Koranna, Xhosa and Griqua in the territories of Trans Oranje to the north of the Orange River.
Sir Harry Smith, who had become Governor and High Commissioner of the Cape Colony in 1847, with the local rank of lieutenant-general, decided to annexe the largely undefined territory of Trans Oranje as the Orange River Sovereignty. This somewhat questionable addition to the British Empire was subsequently garrisoned by fifty to sixty Cape Mounted Rifleman.
This development was not well received by Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, who after consulting with a variety of Voortrekker leaders, gathered a strong commando behind him and moving south from the Transvaal to counter Sir Harry Smith’s annexation, occupied the newly established settlement of Bloemfontein on 17 July 1848. Sir Harry Smith was furious when the news of the occupation reached Cape Town on 22 July 1848 and he issued a reward of £1000 for the capture of Pretorius. He then ordered two companies of the Rifle Brigade, two of the 45th Regiment and two of the 91st Regiment, together with two squadrons of the Cape Mounted Rifles and three guns, to march from Grahamstown to Colesberg, and from there to Dapperfontein.
Sir Harry Smith’s small army crossed the Orange River at Dapperfontein using inflatable rubber boats, as the river was flowing strongly. After the battle of Boomplaats, fought between the Boers under Pretorius and the British in the vicinity of Jagersfontein on 29 August 1848, at which the Boers were defeated, the British column advanced on the small hamlet of Winburg.
Winburg at the time consisted of three houses and a few huts, and there British sovereignty was again proclaimed to a 21-gun salute.
Smith made himself extremely unpopular by executing a solitary Boer prisoner in Bloemfontein, who was found guilty of rebellion against the Crown. After this somewhat farcical expedition he returned to Cape Town.
Entrepreneurial John Norval saw the potential of establishing a profitable ferry service for travel across the until-then unbridged Orange River. The rubber inflatables left over from Sir Harry Smith’s expedition quickly perished in the hot Karoo sun, so a sturdy wooden pont was constructed and the ferry business quickly developed into a very profitable enterprise. The pont was designed to carry a trek wagon, oxen and other impedimenta across the river at a cost of £1 a trip, a small fortune at the time.
With many Boers trekking north, Norval's Pont, as it became known, became the favoured river crossing for the trekkers and other travellers who needed a reliable means of crossing the Orange River.
During the 1840s the Norvals' diversified their business with the construction of a hotel and bar at Norval’s Pont and this facility became known as the Glasgow Pont Hotel. The Hotel remains open to this day.
On 17 December 1890 the ferry was replaced by a new railway bridge, when the railway line from Noupoort Junction to Bloemfontein was opened. Norval's Pont became Norval's Pont Bridge Station.
The bridge was an impressive 500-metres in length and constructed on eleven columns of solid concrete. The bridge at the time was considered to be the finest in South Africa, and the steel bridge sections were manufactured in Britain and shipped out to South Africa to be assembled on site.
The Norvals' ferry business declined and ultimately they went back to farming and managing the Glasgow Pont Hotel.
In May 1899 a train stopped at the Norval's Pont Bridge station carrying the British Viceroy Lord Alfred Milner, en-route to the ill-fated Bloemfontein Conference. The conference was hosted by President Martinus Steyn of the Orange Free State, where a variety of unreasonable and unacceptable demands were to be made to President Paul Kruger of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, ultimately precipitating the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo Boer War.
An account of Milner’s visit to Norval's Pont describes how he watched railway officials adorn his locomotive with crossed Union Jack flags, at this the last stop in the Cape Colony, before crossing the bridge into the Orange Free State, while he enjoyed a cigar and a cold glass of ale from the Pub at the Glasgow Pont Hotel.
With the countdown to war, whispers of discontent became rumblings of anger along the Orange River. Locomotive Foreman Baker at Norval's Pont Bridge Station telegraphed nervously that "the Dutch farmers on the Orange Free State side are openly saying that if hostiles break out they will cross the bridge and shoot every Englishman they can lay their hands on."
In one of the first actions of the war, Generals Koos De la Rey and Christiaan De Wet launched an attack across the bridge at Norval’s Pont, laying planks on the bridge's rails to roll their munitions across the river.
Dapperfontein farm was occupied and declared a new addition to the Orange Free State. Susannah Norval was quick to have the underfloor of her family’s shearing shed dug out to hide her precious linen to prevent it being commandeered for bandages.
Defences were hastily erected by the occupying Boer forces. However in the face of advancing British and Colonial troops this new addition to the Orange Free State was abandoned, and the bridge was blown up by retreating Boer forces, destroying three of its central columns on 5 March 1900.
A few days later British sappers began with the construction of a pontoon bridge, which allowed both foot soldiers and cavalry to cross the river. The area around the bridge was heavily fortified by the British and a blockhouse and the remnants of several stone fortifications remain to this day.
By the end of March 1900, a temporary railway bridge had been constructed and this was used throughout the period of conflict. With the end of the war the original railway bridge was converted into a road bridge.
With the end of the conventional phase of the war the Boers resorted to guerrilla tactics and many local people sought the security provided by the garrisoning of Norval’s Pont by British and Colonial troops. The population of the settlement swelled dramatically, and during the height of the conflict there were a few thousand inhabitants including prisoners of war, British soldiers, the Engineer’s Corp as well as a substantial military supply depot.
The settlement was also a major crossing point across the Orange River for British soldiers deployed against the Boers in the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Another significant development was the establishment of the Norval’s Pont Concentration Camp in November 1900.
Despite its location in the Cape Colony, the Norval’s Pont Concentration Camp formed part of the complex of concentration camps established in the newly proclaimed Orange River Colony. Initially the camp housed Boer women and children, with approximately 400 interns by February 1901. The concentration camps were created to house the victims of the scorched earth policies introduced by Milner and Kitchener, where the farm houses of the Boer farmers were destroyed to prevent them being used to provide support to the Boer Commandos. In June 1901 hundreds of African prisoners were also interned in the camp, and by February 1902 there were as many as 3479 detainees.
Initially fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and milk were provided for the internees, however with the ever increasing numbers in the camp the rations were reduced to meat and flour after January 1901. The unsanitary conditions in the camp, due to increasing overcrowding, and the deterioration in the food supply as the war progressed, coupled with a measles outbreak as well as scarlet fever and diphtheria, resulted in more than 400 deaths in the camp during the war.
On 25 February 1901 Lieutenant S. Cole-Bowen was appointed as Superintendent of Norval’s Pont, and took over the command from Captain Du Plat Taylor of the Grenadier Guards. The Concentration Camps were no longer under the management of the British Army, but under civil administration. Emily Hobhouse, the daughter of the Vicar of Bodmin, Cornwall in England and noted Boer sympathiser, who visited Norval’s Pont in 1901, described the conditions at the camp as one of the best in the network of Concentration Camps in the Orange River Colony.
who died at Norval's Pont Concentration Camp
However, given the harsh conditions and the unnatural circumstances in which the internees were forced to live the death of many was unavoidable. Lieutenant Bowen tried to make every family as comfortable as possible, but the overcrowding of the camp made it impossible to provide for every person’s needs.
Emily Hobhouse wrote in her report on the camp that, even though she slept in a marquee tent with a double layer of canvas for shelter, her bedding was always soaking wet in the morning from the dew.
During the day the temperature rose to 40° Celsius, and she mentioned that in the clock-tents the temperature rose as high as 43° Celsius. After more than a century the position of the tents used to accommodate the internees is still visible, given the incorporation of empty milk and food tins in the original paving.
The names of those who died in Norval’s Pont Concentration Camp are recorded on a memorial in the local cemetery to honour their memory.
The Hendrik Verwoerd Dam, a few kilometres to the east of Norvalspont, was built between 1966 and 1972. The dam was constructed in the Ruigte Valley, very close to the point where the Dutch explorer and soldier Colonel Robert Gordon, of Scottish descent, became one of the first Europeans to visit the Orange River in 1777.
The Dam was constructed as the key constituent of the Orange River Project, a substantial irrigation scheme for the distribution of the water from the river. In 1975 the 82.5-kilometre Orange Fish River Tunnel was opened. This water tunnel, with a diameter of 5.35-metres, conveys water from the dam into the valley of the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape.
The water from this system is used to irrigate vast swathes of agricultural land along the Great Fish River in the eastern Karoo, and particularly in the area around Cradock. A budget of R300-million was committed to the ambitious Orange River Project, and aspects of it were planned to unfold over a period of 30 years.
Over the years a variety of weirs, canals and smaller aqueducts were built distributing the water from the dam to Somerset East and the Little Fish River, to the Sundays River and onto the massive citrus orchards around Kirkwood and Addo. The water is also used to supplement Port Elizabeth’s supply of drinking water.
The specially constructed Roberts Splitters or concrete teeth projecting over the crest of the dam wall, were engineered to dissipate the kinetic energy of the overspill water, ensuring that the water tumbles back and forth instead of falling in a steady scouring sheet, that could eventually erode the rock at the foot of the wall.
The splitters are named after a South African engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel DF Roberts, who came up with this innovative design in 1936. This technology has been used on many dams in South Africa, including the Vaal, Loskop and Vanderkloof dams, and its use has spread to dam construction around the world.
The dam was officially renamed the Gariep Dam on 4 October 1996. Gariep being the original Khoekhoe name for the Orange River.