Although many people have heard of The Great Fire which destroyed the interior of the Lodge de Goede Hoop Temple, and some may even have seen a photograph taken afterwards, few know the details. Bate, in his history of the Lodge de Goede Hoop, and Cranstoun- Day in “The British Lodge”, dismiss the fire in a couple of lines, almost as though it was either too painful to write about or was insignificant in the overall history of Freemasonry in South Africa.
If, however, we turn to the contemporary Press, we get a very different picture of its newsworthiness, there being extensive coverage for over a week. Sadly, though, apart from a solitary photograph in the National Archives and several line drawings and engravings published in the newspaper of the time, there is apparently no visual record of the historical event.
At the time of the fire, the Temple had, some 10 or so metres away, the Hall which had been constructed for the Great Exhibition of 1878. This was made of wood and corrugated iron. Immediately in front of that building, where the old Senate Chamber now stands, were the Society rooms, with the front entrance facing Bouquet Street.
On Sunday, 21 February 1892, it was a fine day with a South-Westerly wind. During the morning, carpenters and painters, employees of the lessee of the Hall, were preparing scenery for a stage production. At the back of the Exhibition Hall, that is to say on the Company Garden side, a Mr Westall, who was employed as a sort of caretaker, had been instructed to burn some debris, presumably old stage scenery. Between one and half past, the carpenters and painters stopped work and Westall went for lunch.
At approximately twenty past three, a Mrs Brown Potter and Mr Kyle Bellew, members of the theatrical company that had hired the Hall, were chatting in the garden of the Lodge de Goede Hoop. Mr Bellew noticed smoke coming from between the sheets of corrugated iron which comprised the bottom section of the outside of the Exhibition Hall. He went into the building, only to find the extreme left of the entrance in flames. Although it was never possible to conclusively verify the fact, it is thought that a spark from the burning debris had ignited some material in the building. This in turn melted the lead pipes carrying a supply of illuminating gas.
Mr Bellew rushed to get a fire bucket from the back of the theatre, but he was too late. Within three minutes, the interior of the building, which was made of very dry wood, had caught fire. Assisted by the burning gas, the blaze was simply burning too fiercely and spreading too fast. There was a gasometer, a tank for storing gas, near the stage and within minutes this exploded sending burning debris on to the roof of the adjoining Lodge de Goede Hoop.
By 3.39 pm the Fire Brigade had been alerted and, at around 3.45 pm, galloping horses and ringing bells announced their arrival at the scene. As soon as the water was turned on, however, it was realised that the 4 jets that they had were not powerful enough to even reach the roof of the Lodge, and it was some time before further and sufficient pressure was achieved.
By this time, the fire had not only spread to the Lodge but also to the Native Affairs Office situated in the Society Building, the Banqueting Hall, and the cowsheds, stables and piggeries adjoining Government House (now Tuin Huis). The only factor that saved Government House from destruction was the direction of the wind. Had it been a South Easterly, Government House would also have been threatened.
With the fire spreading and the Fire Brigade desparately trying to extinguish it, the smoke and alarms attracted a great crowd of onlookers. The high walls obscured most of the activity, but some people had climbed on the roofs of nearby buildings to get a better view. Soon the Fire Brigade were reinforced by a detachment of the Royal Artillery who had come up from the Castle where they were stationed.
Canadian born Dr George Theal, Keeper of the Colonial Archives, tried in vain to save the historical documents stored in the Native Department offices. Once the roof of the Lodge de Goede Hoop had fallen in, the Fire Brigade switched their efforts to trying to save the Department – but it was a hopeless task.
As far as the Lodge was concerned, Dr Johan Herman, a Past Master of the Lodge (1860), together with Rev Dr D P Fourie, Deputy Grand Master 1893 – 97, and the Lodge Secretary, Mr William Tiffany, managed to enter the back of the Lodge building and rescue all the archives dating back to 1775. These, some of which were water damaged, are, thanks to the forethought of Col Colin Graham Botha some 50 years later, now housed in the National Archives,.
Little else was saved in the interior of the Temple and priceless objects such as 4 statues by Anreith, and paintings which had been presented over the years were lost. It is possible, though this is not stated in any report that the fire in the Lodge was aided due to its being lit by gas. An additional part of the tragedy was that the shareholders of the Lodge de Goede Hoop, the owners of the property had just gone to considerable expense to renovate both the interior and exterior of the building.
By 5.00pm the fire was virtually out; the interior of the Temple swimming in water and burnt debris; the exhibition hall and the Banqueting hall, which contained one of the oldest billiard tables in the country was smoked ruin. The fire flared up briefly around 7pm and a wall had to be demolished to put it out. Some small damage had been done to the Masonic Hotel, which was housed in the buildings on the corner of St John’s Street. The owner was a Mr Roux, who was probably the same person that presen
ted the present Master’s and Warden’s chairs to replace those destroyed in the fire. As to casualties there was only two pigs whose crackling is reported as being “somewhat overdone”. It took a little while for the fire to be completely put out as on Monday it was reported that it was still burning in places.
Although the Main Temple had been burned out the Masters Room (Middle Chamber), Chambers of Silence and Meditation, with their priceless statues, and that part of the Temple for the higher degrees survived, although they must have been damaged by smoke and water.
On 27 April 1893 over six hundred Freemasons from all four Constitutions assembled for the re-consecration of the Temple. The Exhibition Hall was not rebuilt but the Old Society house was, as the Good Hope Hall, complete with stage and scenery tower, being sold in 1915 to the Government, and has seen many changes of makeup in the last eighty odd years.
Today the Lodge de Goede Hoop, one of Cape Town’s oldest buildings having been built in 1801, is still there as one of the City’s hidden jewels.
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