Paulet House and the Jakes Gerwel Foundation
Paulet House was built in 1825, the year Lord Charles Somerset sold off the Somerset Farm as erven and declared the area a town. It was one of the first houses to be built. The house was named after Lady Mary Poulett, the second wife of Lord Charles Somerset who was governor of the Cape Colony from 1814 to 1826. Why the spelling of the name changed to “Paulet” is unclear, but why the house has been named after her is more obvious. The story of Lord Charles Somerset played a big role in the establishment of this town, which has been named after him, at the foot of the Bosberg.
The first owner of Paulet House was a 27-year-old butcher, Robert Robinson, who came from England to South Africa on the Brilliant with a group of British settlers in 1820. He was accompanied by his wife, Martha, and their five children: Louise, Robert, John, Phillip and William. The Robinsons came with high hopes to South Africa where they would acquire their own land and build a new life together as a family. It was the Robinsons who built the front part of the double-storied house. It’s not clear how long they lived in Paulet House. It is known that it was the family of the well-known lawyer, Francis Pierre du Toit, lived the longest in Paulet House. In 1937, the widow May Archer, who had been living with her husband Thomas in the house until his death earlier that year, subdivided the plot. Petrus Jordaan bought one half and Du Toit bought the half on which the house stands. Here where he and his wife Wiletta raised their three sons, the couple lived for 46 years in total until Du Toit’s death in 1983. In the same year, the house was declared a national monument. In 1991 Piet Badenhorst bought Paulet House from Du Toit’s widow and turned it into a guesthouse. The guesthouse continued to exist even after Prof. Jakes Gerwel bought the house in 1993.
The house has been maintained remarkably well over the years and the small dog cemetery in the rose garden where the Du Toit sons laid five of their dogs to rest is special. Another interesting feature is the little outhouse that is still in good working condition. However, in 2007, Gerwel, who is a son of the Somerset East district, undertook a restoration project of Paulet House before taking up residence at Christmas that year. The restoration of Paulet House as one of the 13 national monuments in Somerset East has been done with a fine sense of the need to preserve objects of historical significance. He thus proceeded with utmost care and accurate records, in written and photographic form, have been kept of all items and material that were found under the floor planks and even inside the walls.
It was discovered during this restoration process that Paulet House originally consisted only of the front double-storied section. It was only years later that two further sections towards the back had been added to enlarge the house to its present size. The front part of the house had been built with partially cured bricks joined with mud mortar and the roof had been covered with clay tiles. Everywhere in the house only the best hand hewn timber such as stinkwood, yellowwood, ironwood and Oregon pine, had been used. This includes flooring, the top and bottom ceilings, wall panels, the heavy stinkwood doors dividing the lounge and dining rooms as well as other doors, fireplaces and other decorative elements. The architectural records are now an important part of the history of the house and show with certainty that it was built between 1825 and 1827.
During the restoration process the front door has been returned to its originally place on Paulet Street and a balcony with a view on the spacious garden has been built in at the back. On the far south of the plot Gerwel also had a building erected that he used as a museum for his unique collections of horse carts and tortoise shells. During the restoration process, a well that is probably older than the house itself and that possibly dates from the 1700s has also been discovered. The chance discovery was made when someone stepped on to two flat stones and noticed water trickling from under them. Once the stones and rubble were removed, the well that had been laid out with uncured bricks was found.
Paulet House, as Prof. Jakes Gerwel affectionately called his Somerset East home, had a very special place in his heart. And it is this house, Paulet House, that his wife Phoebé donated to the Jakes Gerwel Foundation shortly after his death in 2012. In order to build out Prof. Jakes Gerwel’s legacy, the Foundation decided to turn Paulet House into a writers house. The Jakes Gerwel Family Trust and the Rupert Historic Homes Foundation contributed to the funds for the project. The expertise of architect John Rennie, contractors Frans Taylor and Jacque Oelofse, and Michelle van Niekerk of Nest Interiors made it possible to host the first writers residence in 2019. Thus, restored to elegance, the venerable lady now invites guests and their stories to stay a while before sending them in fine form into the future.
Gert Johannes (Jakes) Gerwel (18 January 1946 – 28 November 2012) was born on the farm Malvern outside Somerset East. He was a South African academic and anti-apartheid activist and served as Director-General of the Presidency when Nelson Mandela was in office. In 1999 Gerwel was instrumental in brokering the deal under which Lockerbie bombing suspects were extradited to Scotland. Included in the many positions Prof Gerwell held was chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Rector of Rhodes University.