Hidden behind palm fronds in Durban’s bustling CBD is the Old House Museum, a replica of the family home owned by Sir John Robinson, the first Prime Minister of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), and joint founder and first editor of The Natal Mercury. The museum, which features life size mannequins of the Robinsons dressed in the fashion of the era, was opened to the public in 1954. An extract from the newsletter of the South African National Society (SANS) provides interesting insight into the history of the site that now houses the Old House Museum:
Durban’s Old House Museum in St Andrew’s Street is a typical cottage in mid-Victorian style under indigenous trees in a garden. The Old House stood on half an acre, running down from St Andrew’s street to the mangrove swamps. The first owner was Donald Moodie, then Colonial Secretary of Natal, who bought the land for fifty-one pounds, seventeen shillings and six pence in 1849 and sold it the same year to John Goodricke. John Goodricke built the first half of the house, the main supports being mangrove poles (the salt in them was said to discourage termites), and the walls wattle and daub, lime-washed inside and out, the roof thatch. The building had a veranda all round, for shade and to protect the walls.
In 1850, the house was sold to G.H. Wirsing for £100 and a piano. The second section was then built of brick; with yellow-wood floors and a ceiling it became a superior dwelling. In 1858 George Robinson bought the house, his neighbours being the Millers, Churchills, Gillespies, and, for a while, the Feildens. It was just before the Second World War that the current owner Mr G. Churton Collins offered the city the Old House, to be administered by Durban’s museum department. The Old House was opened to the public in 1954.
Daphne Strutt and Killie Campbell were friends, and both committee members of SANS. Dr Killie Campbell persuaded many people in Durban and Natal to search their homes and produce their family treasures. The original house had to be rebuilt, and in 1953, when the Old House had been completed, all the collected historical items were placed in the Natal Settlers Old House Museum, which was opened on 12 June 1954 by the Hon. D.G.Shepstone, Administrator of Natal.
Image of Sir John Robinson statue courtesy of kznpr.co.za