The History Of Simon’s Town


Reaching back to around 1650, Simon’s Town boasts a wealth of historic and strategic interests. It has been a naval base and harbour for more than two centuries and is home to beautifully preserved buildings, a colourful military past, and a rich and culturally diverse heritage.

The part which Simon’s Town has played in maritime strategy is inseparable from that of the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa as a whole. The meeting point of the two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, is a key focal point of maritime trade between East and West. Inevitably, it followed that the two good anchorages – Table Bay and Simon’s Bay – became important havens for shipping. The dangers of the Table Bay anchorage during the winter months were quickly and forcibly brought to the notice of seafarers but were tolerated when the callers were few. As ships began to frequent Table Bay in increasing numbers at all seasons of the year, the incidence of shipwrecks during the winter became greater than could be borne with equanimity.

Simon van der Stel Names Bay

Simon van der Stel named the bay the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula. Sheltered from the violent northwest gales, it was the obvious alternative, and Simon’s Bay was selected by Simon van der Stel himself as the safest anchorage.

For many years to come, there will be no facilities for visiting ships and communications with Cape Town will be exceedingly difficult. Despite the greater safety in winter, captains of ships tend to avoid calling there whenever possible, preferring to risk the greater danger of Table Bay to enjoy the superior amenities of Cape Town.


Simon van der Stel (Image ST Museum)

France Controls The Cape

In 1650, the Dutch East India company decreed that a permanent settlement should be established at the Cape to serve as a post for the replenishment of the Company’s vessels on the passage to and from the East Indies. At no time was it ever intended to gain any military advantage for which there was no necessity at that period. The Cape of Good Hope only began to assume importance as a strategic point in the military sense with the increasing rivalry between France and Great Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

When Holland entered the War of American Independence in alliance with France and Spain against Great Britain in 1780, the British Government had become aware of what a menace the Cape of Good Hope in the hands of an enemy could be to its trade with India. It was soon decided that an attempt must be made to capture the Cape to deny its use to the enemy. The first attempt, under Commodore Johnstone, suffered so many delays that the French were able to forestall him and reinforce the defences to admit to a successful attack.

During the next decade, these dilatory methods cost Great Britain dearly. With the Cape under their control, the French were enabled greatly to increase their depredations on British ships trading between India and Europe. Relief only came with the termination of hostilities when the French troops returned to Europe. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1793, the Directors of the East India Company were not unnaturally nervous about the consequences of the Cape once again falling into the hands of the French. The occupation of Holland by the Revolutionary armies in the winter of 1794/5 brought matters to a head and called for action.

Admiral Sufferin Commander of the French Fleet that landed Troops in False Bay 1781 (Image SAMHS)

Two British Occupations

The British Admiralty lost no time in preparing an expedition for the occupation of the Cape, which they accomplished in 1795. The Netherlands government (in its new republican form) at last realised that an occupation of the Cape by a hostile power posed a very real threat to communications with Batavia. With a well-situated base to work from, the Royal Navy was able to establish an effective blockade of Mauritius, drastically restricting the depredations of the French commerce-raiding frigates. During negotiations for peace this year, the possession of the Cape became one of the most forceful bargaining points. Preliminary Articles of peace were not signed until 1801, and as one of the conditions, the short-sighted government of Addington agreed to restore the Cape to the Dutch. When the Treaty of Peace was signed in 1802, restoration of the Cape to its former owners was no longer possible as the Dutch East India Company had gone bankrupt in 1799. Its successor, the Batavian Republic, became the new owner of the Cape instead.

News of the terms of the Treaty did not reach the Cape until August 1802. For various reasons, the British evacuation was not completed until March 1803. The evacuating squadron had not reached England before war broke out again, but preparations for the re-occupation of the Cape were not put in hand until a new government under William Pitt came to power. In January 1806, a force too strong for the weak Batavian forces to withstand took possession of the Cape once more for Britain. Within two or three months of the capture of the Cape, all effective threats to the supremacy of the Royal Navy in southern waters were ended. Their ships were again able to establish a blockade of the French islands, although it was not always possible to make the blockade entirely effective. The only complete solution to the problem was the capture of the islands, and measures to this end were put in hand. In 1810 Mauritius, Bourbon, and Tamatave were captured and the fall of Madagascar in 1811 left the French without a single colonial possession. As a result, there was little left for the ships of the Royal Navy to do in Cape waters and their number was soon reduced.

The First Occupation – The British Fleet under Admiral Elphinstone at the Battle of Muizenberg 1795 (Image ST Museum)

The Second Occupation – The British Fleet under Admiral Popham at the Battle of Blaauberg 1808 (Image ST Museum)

The Royal Navy Base Moves To Simon's Town

The naval authorities now had the leisure to give some time and attention to the consolidation of the base facilities. The removal of the whole naval establishment from Table Bay to Simon’s Bay and vice versa at six-monthly intervals was manifestly inconvenient and costly. It had furthermore become clear to the experienced seamen of the Royal Navy that Simon’s Bay provided a safe anchorage at all seasons, which Table Bay did not. The Commander-in-Chief of the Cape Station was emphatically in favour of the removal of the principal base of the Royal Navy to Simon’s Bay. This was immediately accepted and the necessary buildings were completed in 1814. It was perhaps fortunate that this was accomplished before peace was declared in 1814, as it is doubtful whether the considerable expenditure would have been authorised in peacetime!

The Royal Navy in Simon’s Bay early 1800s (Image ST Museum)

A Period Of Peace

Valuable as Simon’s Town had been in wartime, in the years of peace which followed it proved to be quite invaluable. The first important task laid on the ships of the Cape of Good Hope Station was the guardianship of Napoleon Bonaparte during the years of his detention on St Helena. With his death in 1821, Simon’s Town Dockyard establishment was drastically reduced. A nucleus of trained staff remained to cater for the ships which continued to call on their voyages to and from the East. There were still a few ships on the Cape Station, including those commanded by the illustrious surveyors who in the 1820s surveyed the coast of Southern Africa. Simon’s Town was their secure base from which they returned for refitting and recuperation. Much the same consideration applied to the small vessels employed in the suppression of the slave trade. In addition, the cargoes of slaves in the captured slave ships, which could number up to seven hundred or more, were landed and housed in any accommodation available pending their allocation as indentured servants.

HMS Brisk captures Slave ship (Image ST Museum)

Coastal Skirmishes

Near home, the Royal Navy’s ships were constantly in demand for transporting troops and their equipment to the frontier during the many Xhosa Wars of the nineteenth century. Algoa Bay, the Kowie and the Buffalo Rivers and Waterloo Bay provided convenient disembarkation points and each was provided with a resident harbour master and boat crew. All had to be supplied from the main base at Simon’s Town. It was on short coastal journeys such as these that steam-driven vessels proved most suitable. For all oceans, voyages by sail remained the normal means of propulsion until the end of the century.

Waterloo Bay in the Eastern Cape (Image SAMHS)

Steamships And The Dockyard

It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that improvement in steam propulsion began to make a real impact on the Cape Station. Vessels unaided by auxiliary steam power were becoming the exception rather than the rule. The installations in the Dockyard, which had not been altered in any way since 1814, proved quite inadequate to deal with the complexities of steam engines. The increasing use of iron in the construction of ships as well as their very size posed new problems in maintenance, which had to be addressed to keep up with the changing times. Considerable extensions and reconstruction took place during the 1850s and ’60s. With the advent of reliable steam engines, the smaller vessels were able to approach close to the shallow bars of the east coast rivers in comparative safety. These little ships found themselves much in demand by missionaries and explorers; such occasions also offered convenient opportunities for “showing the flag” in places not usually visited by ships of any kind, and to act as a warning to any potential slave trader that the Navy’s arm was longer than ever.

Early Steam Ships in Simon’s Bay (Image ST Museum)

The Anglo-Boer War

Throughout the Anglo-Boer War, Simon’s Town and Cape Town were the principal ports through which passed the reinforcements of men, supplies, and equipment for the British Army. Without these, the few British troops would have been overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the Boer forces in the first few months of the war. As it was, the British were able to maintain an uninterrupted flow of men and ammunition from the United Kingdom and other parts of the British Empire, while the Royal Navy’s command of the oceans virtually prohibited all similar supplies from reaching the Transvaal and Free State Republics. There can be little doubt also that it was only the healthy respect for the Royal Navy which prevented Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany from intervening on behalf of the Republics.

Second Boer War – Bloemfontein Concentration Camp Image source

British Troops off to the Front (Image ST Museum)

East Dockyard Opened

In the closing stages of the nineteenth century, the resources of the Simon’s Town Dockyard were once again proving inadequate for the needs of the larger steamships; however, with the opening of the East Dockyard and Dry Dock in 1910, Simon’s Town once again became equipped to meet every requirement of any ship of the Royal Navy. It was not long before these facilities were urgently needed: In 1914, Great Britain and Germany were at war.

East Dockyard Opening Ceremony 1910 (Image ST Museum)

Simon's Town During World War I

The part which Simon’s Town and the ships of the Africa Station played in this war differed in no respect from the part it had played in earlier wars. These tasks were to eliminate all enemy ships, especially commerce raiders, from the waters around the southern end of Africa and to eliminate all the enemy bases within its sphere.

At the outbreak of war, there were several German warships at large in all the oceans of the world. These included the Emden, the Konigsberg and Admiral von Spee’s powerful squadron believed to be in the South Pacific. Until these ships were accounted for, no protracted expedition by sea against the German colonies could be contemplated without a powerful escort of warships. The Emden was destroyed at Keeling Island, the Konigsberg in the Rufiji River, and von Spee’s squadron at the Falkland Islands. With all hostile warships satisfactorily disposed of, operations against the two German colonies of South West Africa and Tanganyika could now commence.

For the remainder of the war, Simon’s Town spent a humdrum but busy and essential existence as a refuelling and refitting base for the escorts of the numerous troop convoys passing between Europe and Australasia, India and the Far East. The most destruction in South African waters was done by the minefields laid by commerce raiders off Dassen Island and Cape Agulhas.

Captured German Barque, Simon’s Bay 1914 (Image ST Museum)

Simon's Town During World War II

Simon’s Town activity followed much the same pattern in the Second World War as it did in the First. In the early stages of the war, it was the assembly base for the ships engaged in the rounding up of German ships in the southern oceans, the most important of which was the Graf Spee. There followed other heavily armed raiders disguised as merchant ships, including the Atlantis which laid mines off Cape Agulhas and elsewhere. They operated with considerable success but were eventually intercepted and sunk by ships based at Simon’s Town.

With the closing of the Mediterranean, all traffic between Europe and the East had to be routed around the Cape as in former days. Although the merchant ships were put into Cape Town for replenishment only Simon’s Town was capable of dealing with the special requirements of the warships.

The entry of Japan into the war and their swift conquest of Malaysia and the East Indies intensified the vital role which Simon’s Town had to play. In the latter stages of the war, with the reopening of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, Simon’s Town regained much of its importance as a staging post. By this time, however, the war in the southern oceans was virtually over and Simon’s Town’s task was finished for the time being. It had done its job well.

Troop ships in Simon’s Bay WWII (Image ST Museum)

Postwar Simon's Town

After the cessation of hostilities, naval activities slowed down. Following negotiations between the South African Minister of Defence and the British Government, the Dockyard was handed over to the South African Navy in 1957. (The Union Jack that was lowered at the formal hand-over is now in the Historical Society’s rooms).

Ten years later, in 1967, Simon’s Town was proclaimed a White Group Area. Over the next few years, the coloured people were obliged to move away, their family ties sometimes going back to the very early days of the Town’s growth. Their houses were left behind, and the Town fell into disrepair; many of them were eventually bulldozed flat: thus was part of Simon’s Town’s quaint attraction lost. The Historical Society’s efforts in preventing such destruction were to no avail, yet at the same time, the National Monuments Board proclaimed “Studland”, Admiralty House, St Francis Church, “Ibaka”, Palace Barracks and the Martello Tower as National Monuments.

In 1975, the face of the town again started to change when extensions to the dockyard were started. A large area of land was reclaimed at Jaffa’s Beach, and the harbour walls were extended further to sea to form a new and larger Tidal Basin.

Lowering of the Union Jack 1957 (Image Cape Argus)

Kindly Provided By The Simon’s Town Historical Society