Long before Old Nick Village became a landmark shopping destination on the Garden Route (and the location of our flagship store and weaving mill), the surrounding land was inhabited by hunter-gatherers (known as the San people) and nomadic pastoralists (known as the Khoekhoen or formerly ‘Khoikhoi’). These nomadic groups lived off the land, migrating between coastal and inland regions depending on the availability of game, seafood, tubers and wild fruit.
During the 15th century, European merchants sought a sea passage to the lucrative spice trade of the East. In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias found a feasible route around the storm-driven tip of Africa to India – later becoming the first European to anchor at South Africa. Dias, believed to have given the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ its name as a marker of optimism in finding a sea route to the East, later rounded a prominent peninsula on the Southwestern coast. Now known as Plettenberg Bay, he named the landmark ‘Bahia Alagoas’ (Bay of Lagoons).
In the early 19th century, Portuguese navigator and cartographer Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo arrived at the bay, this time naming it ‘Bahia Formosa’ (Beautiful Bay).
Then in 1630, the Portuguese carrack, São Gonçalo, was wrecked in the lee of Robberg while carrying a cargo of pepper from India back to Portugal. The stranded crew built a temporary settlement, trading with the indigenous people and building a church, and later setting sail on ship built from the wreckage and forest timber.
In the late 17th century, a colony was established in the Cape of Good Hope. The indigenous people consistently resisted the colonial invasion, dispossession of their land and means of livelihood. This led to violent clashes and fatalities on both sides.
The loss of the Khoekhoen’s cattle through trading with the Europeans resulted in the slow disintegration of their social structures. This was sadly exacerbated by smallpox epidemics. Many survivors moved north and those that remained were eventually incorporated into settler society, most living lives of servitude.
Against this backdrop, the Cape became a challenging destination for adventurous Europeans seeking their livelihoods as farmers, hunters, woodcutters and frontiersmen.
After the Dutch East India Company (VOC) took over control of the trade route to the East in the 17th century, a refreshment station was set up at the Cape for passing ships. Travellers of the new settlement quickly became aware of the riches of the Southern Cape – including the wealth of available timber.
The Dutch Governor at the Cape, Joachim Von Plettenberg, became interested in the abundant forest of stinkwood and yellowwood in the Southern Cape to supply the growing needs of the Cape of Good Hope settlement and the European market. The Dutch visited in 1778, erected a possessional stone and renamed Bahia Formosa, “Plettenberg Bay.”
In 1786, the Dutch East India Company entered into contracts with local woodcutters to regulate the harvesting of timber. Johann Jacob Jerling was commissioned to build a timber store, heralding the beginning of the local timber industry. Today the store still stands, and is now one of the oldest historical sites in Plettenberg Bay.
In 1840, with the Cape now under British colonial rule, two British pioneers made their arrival. William (who would go on to build Plettenberg Bay’s first church, St Andrew’s Chapel) and his brother George lived and farmed in the Piesang Valley area of Plettenberg Bay. Over the next few years, seeking the labour of skilled artisans, they interviewed and employed several English families, many of whose descendants still inhabit the region today.
Among these English families seeking a new life was William Derbyshire, a farmer and millwright who made the arduous journey to Plettenberg Bay by ship and then ox-wagon to work on Newdigate Estates.
In time, William Derbyshire owned an extensive tract of land at Ganzevallei (meaning “the whole valley”) where he farmed in his own right.
In 1853, 14-year-old Aaron Toplis was sent to Africa to recover from TB and came to live with the Derbyshires. As a sickly child, he had learned to read and write, a skill many did not have. By the age of 22 he was the Bailiff of the Newdigate Estate.
Aaron Toplis married William’s daughter, Selina Derbyshire, in 1861 and they built their home on Ganzevallei, where he ran a store from the front room. In 1899, he completed the “new shop” which became the ‘Gansvlei General Dealers’.
Aaron’s son Percy married Isabelle Cuthbert and they lived with their children Raymond and Cuthbert at Gansvlei. In 1900, he became Field Cornet of Plettenberg Bay, and for a time the court house was run from one of the outbuildings at Gansvlei.
At the start of World War Two, Gansvlei, now reduced to 400 hectares, ceased to operate as a farm.
By the 1930s, Plettenberg Bay was becoming a sought-after holiday destination and began its development into the premier resort it is today. Percey’s son, Raymond Troplis, farmer and shopkeeper, laid out a 9-hole golf course on Gansvlei between the homestead and the lagoon. However in 1938 he suffered a stroke and was bed-ridden until his death in 1951. The golf course fell into disrepair, subsequently becoming a camping and caravan park.
Percy’s second son, Cuthbert, continued to live at the Gansvlei homestead and run the store. He built and maintained a long wooden bridge from the caravan park across the lagoon which gave easy access for holiday makers to Lookout Beach. He died in 1980.
In the 1970s, a wily Englishman Spike Devine, set up shop selling second-hand furniture in the old Plett jail – also known as “Old Nick”. The name played on a double meaning, taking from the British slang for “jail”, and the fact that the goods were not always in good “nick”. When he subsequently took up a lease on the old Gansvlei store, he brought along the name.
Aaron’s house, shop and barns with their sun-dried bricks and yellowwood floors have been known as “Old Nick” ever since.
It was in 1978 when another Englishman, Stuart Holding (a weaver) and his wife, Janet (a potter), became the new tenants of the old shop.
Over 20 years, with the help of local employees, they built up a reputation for quality original handmade weaving and pottery products.
They built hand-looms and a wood firing kiln and set up studios.
In 1998, the Holdings bought all the farm buildings from the Toplis descendants. Renovations have made spaces for other creative manufacturers and retailers who design, make or sell products of an African, and particularly South African, origin.
In 2010, Stuart and Janet’s son Dax and daughter Tessa, with their families, joined the Holding team, moving forward with youthful energy and ideas.
The Holdings are acutely aware of their unique responsibility as custodians of one of the few historic Cape farms in Plettenberg Bay and are committed to nurturing opportunity and sustainability with the natural and built environment.
Old Nick Village is a vibrant and ever-evolving shopping experience, with an eclectic mix of shopkeepers that highlights the extraordinary and inspiring connection between ancient crafts, innovative small-scale manufacturing and contemporary artistic design.
Amidst this unique, design-centred mix, you’ll find our flagship store and weaving mill – a place where visitors can see, hear, touch and enjoy the age-old art of textile making.
Old Nick is a place to change pace, browse, shop and be inspired. Be sure to visit us on your next stop up the Garden Route.