Fonds BC1039 - Cowley House Papers

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Cowley House Papers


  • 1981-1990 (Creation)

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Extent and medium

ca.2500 items

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Number 126 Chapel Road in Woodstock, Cape Town, is the address of an old house called Cowley House. It was at this house that the families of political prisoners used to stay on their way to see their loved ones.
The house was built in 1898 as a home for some Anglican priests who had come out from Britain to serve the people. They were the Fathers of the Order of St John the Evangelist, but because they were living in Cowley House, they soon came to be known as the Cowley Fathers.
When the priests left South Africa in 1978, the Western Province Council of Churches (WPCC) took over the house. The WPCC opened the doors of Cowley House to the families of political prisoners.
David Viti, who used to work for the WPCC, tells the story of how Cowley House came to be. "From 1963, the government began sending thousands of political prisoners to Robben Island. The families of those in prison would come to Cape Town to visit their loved ones in jail. They came from all over the country. Some even came from as far away as Namibia", he says.
Often the visitors had no relatives in Cape Town and so they had no place to sleep. They also had very little money. They would get off the train at Cape Town station and sleep in the waiting-rooms at the station. The next day, they would walk five kilometres to the docks to catch the prisons boat to the Island.
If they arrived late and missed the boat, then they missed the visiting time and the whole trip was a waste. This is because prison visits are only at a certain time, in the morning or in the afternoon.
This all changed in 1974, when David joined the WPCC.
One of the first things that David did was to offer his own home to relatives of prisoners on Robben Island. "Every weekend, about four or five people came to sleep at my house", he says. "It is a small house, with one bedroom, a kitchen and a verandah which I turned into a dining room. I had a car which I used for transporting them to and from the station and the docks".
"In 1978 the late Mrs Moira Henderson was the chair-person of the Dependants' Conference, an organisation that helps the families of political prisoners with subsistence grants. She asked the Anglican Church if they could let us use Cowley House. By this time, the Cowley Fathers had already returned to England. The church gave us the house that same year".
Even after they left South Africa, the Cowley Fathers continued to give support. The house was funded by donors and some foreign embassies. Relatives who could afford to give donations also contributed to the running of the house.
From 1982 some political prisoners were sent to Pollsmoor, Victor Verster or Helderstroom prisons. Some of the relatives of these prisoners also passed through Cowley House.
After February 1990, when political prisoners were being released, Cowley House took on a new role. It became a halfway house for prisoners as they were released from prisons in the Western Cape and tried to provide the means for people to re-integrate themselves into their families and communities.
At the beginning of 1993 there are plans to establish Cowley House as a trauma and rehabilitation centre for the victims of violence in South Africa.

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Scope and content

The collection consists of papers which tell the story of the running of Cowley House in its various phases and roles. Minute books, correspondence and some early background material tell the story of the role of Cowley House as a haven for visitors to political prisoners in the Western Cape. Letters from prisoners requesting assistance, requests for permits to visit prisoners etc paint a graphic picture of the problems of prisoners and their families.
The records from 1990 onwards are a valuable source of information about the release of prisoners.


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  • English

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  • English



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