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George Rex

21 Jan 2015

Bamboo, the Guest House visitors are soon acquainted with George Rex via the name of the access road to the Knysna Heads and, indirectly, to Bamboo itself. The man himself had a profound impact on the founding and development of Knysna. So who was George Rex?

George Rex, born in 1765, was the eldest son of Whitechapel Master Distiller John Rex and his wife Sarah. He was sent to the Cape Colony in 1797, where he served the Crown in a number of posts until 1804 when he settled in what became Knysna. He acquired virtually all of the land surrounding the Knysna Lagoon via his purchase of the farm Melkhoutskraal and other loan-farms including Sandkraal and Welbedacht. He became a successful timber trader and exporter, establishing himself as an influential man in Cape society. He entertained many distinguished visitors from all corners of the globe.

George Rex had a large complement of slaves in his service. Shortly after being posted to the Cape he met a slave girl, Johanna Rosina, whom he later freed. Johanna bore him 4 children. He took on a second consort, Carolina Ungerer, who was in fact his first wife’s daughter (by another association)! Carolina bore him his fifth child when she was only 15 and together they had 8 more children.

George Rex was instrumental in the development of the local timber industry as well as the in the establishment of Knysna as a port town. He proposed the establishment of a harbour in Knysna Lagoon to get the timber that was being harvested in the local indigenous forests to the markets. In 1820 he ceded some of his land to the British Admiralty where a port could be built. This project never came to fruition as a result of a devastating fire. After a safe passage into the lagoon was discovered in 1817, ships regularly docked in Knysnsa to collect timber. Traffic slowed somewhat after a rail link to George was opened in 1928 and the port was officially closed in 1954.

For many years rumours abounded that George Rex was the illegitimate child of King George III and Hannah Lightfoot. The story went that, in order to avoid a scandal at home, George III had essentially banished his son to the Cape where he was forbidden to marry! But, alas, these rumours were scotched by Patricia Storrar in her book “George Rex: Death of a Legend”.

After 35 years in Knysna George died in 1839 and was buried on his farm Melkhoutskraal, known today as Old Place. Knysna continued to develop at a pace after George Rex’s death and is today one of the top tourist destinations in South Africa, something he no doubt have been proud of!