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Royal Engineers Building
Makhanda (Grahamstown), Eastern Cape


Date:1823 - 1863


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33°18'40.26" S 26°31'10.48" E Alt: 549m

Speech delivered by the (then) Registrar of Rhodes University, Dr. K Hunt, on the occasion of the unveiling of the National Monuments Council Plaque, April 1991.



Mr Chancellor, Mr Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen

This building began its life as part of a military complex and was probably built in stages between 1823 and 1863. It has an interesting history in which military activities and scientific endeavour have both had their place.

A sketch of an unknown artist, dated May 1820, suggests that the ROYAL ENGINEERS already occupied two buildings on this site. A plan of 1823-24 shows that the number had grown to four, and on a plan of 1863 there were 8 buildings, among them a distinctive building with two single storey wings and a double storey central section. It is built of precisely fitted stone blocks worked in the manner characteristic of artificers attached to the Royal Engineers at the time.

The buildings in the complex were probably occupied by the Royal Engineers until their removal to King William's Town in the mid-1870's. Dr Eily Gledhill, who has done a great deal of research on these buildings concludes that from these headquarters of the Royal Engineers "emanated an astonishing amount of planning, construction and supervision of the roads, bridges, forts and other military establishments on the eastern frontier".

Scientific research began in this building just 100 years ago – about mid 1891 – when Dr Alexander Edington chose the site for the Cape Bacteriological Institute. The Institute played an important part in producing a vaccine to combat smallpox epidemics in the Southern Africa, but the greater concentration of work was on animal diseases like horse-sickness, heartwater and rinderpest. Indeed I like to think that the greater rinderpest epidemic which worked its way through Africa in 1896 was finally halted here by the work done in this building!

In 1918 the work of the Institute was subsumed by the Control Research Institute at Onderstepoort and the building passed into the hands of the South African Police who used them for administrative purposes until they were acquired by Rhodes University in 1986.

Now they are occupied by the Rhodes department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science – a department which is the forefront of both research into the management of marine and freshwater resources, and the training of people competent to use their skills and knowledge in these fields. The Royal Engineers built roads and bridges as well as military installations; the Ichthyologists are building a body of knowledge on the ichthyological wealth of Southern Africa which is already proving significant.

Rhodes has nine buildings marked by the badge of the National Monuments Council, seven of them on this campus. Among them are the Old Military Hospital where the Cape Parliament deliberated in 1864 on the only occasion that parliament met outside Cape Town and which now houses the Department of Botany; the Drostdy Lodge which houses the Department of Mathematics, and the Drostdy Barracks which housed the Department of Linguistics and English Language and, for the moment, the South African Dictionary Unit – all of which are included symbolically in the plaque which Mr Chancellor, it is now my pleasure to ask you to unveil.


Ref: Transcript of Speech delivered by the (then) Registrar of Rhodes University, Dr. K Hunt, on the occasion of the unveiling of the National Monuments Council Plaque. Cory Library Ref: MS 19425

Information provided by Liz de Wet of the Cory Library, Rhodes University, Grahamstown:

Submitted by William MARTINSON

Writings about this entry

Gilchrist & Powell Ltd. (Compiled and Published). 1906. How to See South Africa: The Official Guide to South Africa. Johannesburg: Gilchrist & Powell Ltd. pg 120