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Go Straight to Jail

Go Straight to Jail

Feb 2016

Words and pics Marion Whitehead

Eduard Cornelissen couldn’t wait to go to jail. He’d been plotting his break-in for years. And it wasn’t just any old jail he wanted to move into. 

The thick walls of the 1895 prison in Vanrhynsdorp, on the N7 in the West Coast district, looked so promising to him. Built back in the day when strong men made things to last, its decline into decay over the years had saddened him.

The last prisoners were let out in 1938 and the cells remained empty until someone had the bright idea of turning the old prison into a museum and tourist information centre. But, over the years, the building became unsafe and the museum was closed down and its contents stored elsewhere. 

“I had my eye on this building for a long time,” declared Eduard when I met him the week after he opened The Old Jail as a living museum. “It was run down and uncared for, and had no electricity or flushing toilets. One wall in the women’s section of the prison had partially collapsed and the wooden floors were rotten.”

A geologist by training, he’s turned his hand to building and renovating over the years and stone masonry is one of his strengths. But there was one ingredient missing for turning the jail into the tourist attraction the platteland boykie dreamed of – a wife to share his vision. “So I went to Joburg and brought Monica back here as marriage material,” he said with a grin.

A tall, willowy blonde, ex-teacher Monica was severely tested by the building chaos still going on just weeks before opening. But the Gauteng gal is developing desert-rose qualities in the Knersvlakte and has bloomed in her new role, bringing her chic style to The Old Jail. 

When I arrived the building had undergone a metamorphosis at the hands of its new custodians. Huge loaves of bread were baking in the wood stove in the warder’s old kitchen, and a courtyard was crammed with collectables and bric-a-brac. “Only the ones with the dots on are for sale,” Eduard cautioned as I eyed some tools from the pre-power era.

Stately succulents, interesting rocks, multi-hued gravels, local arts and crafts, huge bars of boereseep, sweeties and a host of knick-knacks all have a place in the confined quarters. 

And each cell has its own little treasures. In one, renowned wildflower artist Wilna Eloff’s fine, detailed paintings of Namaqualand plants were on exhibition. Mindful of the jail’s original purpose, Eduard has decorated another as a modern cell, labelled Metal Rebel. “In the old days, 20 men would have shared this room,” said Eduard. Here you  can get in touch with your dark side and don prison garb for a punishing selfie with a suitably grim expression. 

Just don’t get locked in for the night – ghosts are standard in a place with such a history, and the walls have many stories embedded in them. Ghost tours stop here to try their luck with eerie sightings. “A young girl has been seen dressed in Voortrekker clothing, carrying a bucket and bandages in the old sick room,” said Eduard.

The sun was still high in the cobalt blue sky, so I settled down for some hard labour within the high walls of the prisoners’ exercise yard, lifting forkful after forkful of daintily decorated cheesecake to my mouth and putting some effort into making a big dent in a steaming cappuccino. 

I was just thinking how the prisoners never had it so good and that they should have stayed for this change of the guard, when Monica told me they’d bought the Muishuis restaurant next door and she was going to move the coffee shop there as soon as renovations were complete. Darn, now I’m going to have to plan my own great escape.  

Source: Country Life

Country Life