The Thesen Family and Knysna

21 Jan 2015

The Southern Cape coastal resort town of Knysna’s history is linked to a number of enterprising characters such as Stephanus Terblanche, Joachim van Plettenberg, George Rex, George Parkes and the Benns. Prominent amongst these early pioneers one finds a Norwegian family, the Thesens. Modern day visitors to Knysna are left in no doubt that the name Thesen and Knysna are somehow entertwined – Thesen Street, Thesen Islands, Thesen House and Thesen Harbour Town are just some of the names they will come across in their travels.

Thesen Family

Thesen Brothers

circa 1860’s
circa 1920’s

The Thesen legacy began in Stavanger, Norway when Arnt Leonard Thesen, a well-known and respected man in local shipping circles, decided, together with his brother Matthias, to seek greener pastures in New Zealand in the 1860’s. The Danish-German War severely impacted the regional shipping industry leading to the demise of many local businesses, including A.C. Thesen & Co. The Thesen brothers took the bold decision to emigrate and sail to New Zealand aboard their only remaining asset, the 117 ton two-masted schooner the Albatros I. In 1869 the Thesens, together with their children and servants, set sail from Tonsberg, having loaded a cargo of building timber on behalf of a local merchant for sale upon their arrival in the Antipodes.


On the 16th November, 1869 the Albatros I docked in Table Bay, after what must have been a testing 78 day sail. Barely a week later the schooner left Cape Town, after effecting necessary repairs and restocking provisions, on the intimidating 12000 mile journey to New Zealand. The family encountered the notorious Cape storms off the coast of Cape Agulhas and were forced to limp back to Table Bay, the Albatros I having been severely battered in the storm. The extent of the damage to the Albatros I forced Arnt to sell his cargo to finance the required repairs.

The local Norwegian Consul suggested that the family cash in on the dearth of cargo ships servicing the Cape coast. Matthias’ son, Hans, undertook a number of exploratory trips to various coastal ports, including Knysna, over the ensuing months. Hans persuaded the more senior family members to accompany him on a trip to Knysna. So impressed were they with the area that the Thesens abandoned their Antipodean plans and opted to settle in Knysna. The Albatros I duly docked in Knysna on 8th April, 1870.

Thesen House

Thesen House


Arnt and Matthias rapidly ascertained the potential of the local shipping and timber industries and formed Thesen & Company, with the Albatros I as the core of a future fleet of vessels. The brothers soon acquired timber yielding property and ventured into saw-milling. Upon Arnt’s death in 1875, his son Charles Wilhelm, a dynamic and energetic young man, took over at the helm of Thesen & Co., diversifying their interests dramatically. The company expanded into agriculture, silviculture, woodworking, mining, transport, trading and communications.

Charles Thesen

One of Charles’ sons, Hjlamar (Harry), pioneered both oyster farming and honey production in Knysna. Charles was prominent in Knysna public life for decades, serving as Justice of the Peace, mayor, Chamber of Commerce Chairman and as a member of the Cape Provincial Council.

Thesen & Co., also owners of a large fleet of steamships, known as “ The Thesen’s Steamship Company Ltd “ with its white star on a red field insignia, purchased Paarden Island (now known as Thesen Island) in 1904 and relocated their saw-milling operation to this more accessible location. Charles constructed the 22 mile long rail access between Diepwalle and Paarden Island, known as the ‘South Western Railway’, also known locally as the Coffee Pot.

Thesen Timber Truck

During WWII the British Admiralty, impressed by the skilled woodworkers at Thesen & Co., commissioned numerous vessels from the company, including a variety of wooden life boats and the famous small wooden Fairmile warships. The Thesens continued their boat building operations after hostilities ceased, where their focus shifted to large wooden fishing craft, yachts and motor launches. The well known Voortrekker and Albatros II yachts both came from this yard.

Charles passed away in 1940, leaving behind a remarkable business and legacy which was continued by his sons, Leonard, Harald, Hjalmar (Harry), Eric and Rolf. Barlows, an industrial conglomerate, purchased Thesen & Co. in 1974 and continued to trade under the name of Thesen & Co., operating the sawmill on the island for the next 26 years. Thesen Island then caught the eye of property developers, the result being the present day Thesen Harbour Town.

Ironically the Albatross I was finally sunk in a storm off Cape Agulhas on 24th March 1874, after a few years of working as a cargo ship between Cape Town and Knysna.

Bamboo, the Knysna Guest House visitors will hopefully appreciate the extraordinary endeavours of the Thesen family in the Knysna area – all precipitated by a typical Cape storm off Agulhas!

All photos courtesy of Hatti Thesen