The near demise of the Owl House

Did you know that the Owl House was almost destroyed and refurbished as municipal offices some years ago?

The story goes that Helen Martins’ precious Owl House nearly met its early end when the local municipality, who owns the property, was looking for a new office building and management considered flattening the Camel Yard and using the property for this purpose.  They even went as far as to obtain a quote from a demolition and building company to calculate the cost of clearing out the yard, but as it was to be quite expensive,  the idea was abandoned and the Owl House was saved from a near tragic end – luckily it seems.

The Owl House and the property it stands on belongs to the newly established Dr. Beyers Naudé Local Municipality. The then Nieu Bethesda Municipality took ownership through an arrangement with Helen Martins’ family and the Owl House Foundation (OHF) manages the museum for the municipality.

But it was a close call for the beloved Owl House, Helen Martins’ legacy and the drawstring of tourism to the tiny village of Nieu Bethesda.


The municipality gained ownership after Helen’s death, but it wasn’t an easy feat. She left the house and yard to her nephew, Herman Martins, in her last will, with instructions that it be kept as a museum. But, as it were, this document was never signed and witnessed.

Local lawman and writer Victor Dercksen tells the story of how he was approached in 1980 to handle the transfer of ownership of the property. This was four years after Helen’s death. “A piece of paper that was thought to be the deed of purchase was handed to me. It turned out to be only the donation of the content of the house to the municipality.

“The only way to lay claim to the property was to seize it for non-payment of taxes. But, as it turned out, some Good Samaritan had been paying the monies due all four years.”

It was only through the intervention of the MEC for Local Government in Cape Town that the taxes were returned to the said Samaritan, which paved the way for the “sale” of the house and an auction was set up. As planned, no one showed up and the municipality bought the house for the final sum of a full R10. Even though the municipality has changed names in the meantime, it still owns the property.

Day to day

Today the day to day running of the Owl House is overseen by the Owl House Foundation and a number of permanent staff, with the help and wisdom of an advisory team (also known as the A-team).

The OHF was founded in 1996 to draw local residents in as volunteers. PPC was encouraged to revive their support and they provided legal and logistical help in establishing the Owl House Foundation as a non-profit organisation. An agreement between the foundation and the municipality lead to the non-profit organisation taking over the daily running of the Owl House, including administrations, staff and conservation and renovation of the historical building and adjacent yard.

The agreement included the rental agreement, which has, according to previous directors, been reduced over the years.

The board of directors are elected every year during the Owl House Foundation’s annual general meeting. Members of the Owl House Foundation (informally referred to as Friends of the Owl House) are made up of interested and affected parties who pay an annual stipend. They can be nominated and elected as members of the board during the annual general meeting.

The board of directors of the Owl House Foundation continue to give their time on a volunteer basis to keep the Owl House and Camel Yard in the condition it is today.

Become a Friend of the Owl House by clicking on our contact page here!

Miss Helen’s last wish: keeping the Owl House alive

If you had ever visited the Helen Martins Museum, which was Huldah van Wyk’s brain child, you would have seen a number of copied documents against the walls. These include letters to Miss Helen’s friends during her last months.

This is also where one of my favourite quotes come from, and it gives us some insight into the fact that Helen was reaching the end of her life – and were maybe thinking about taking her own life.

The quote I am referring to appears in a letter to her friend, Jill Wenman, and is later referred to in another of Jill’s letters. It reads:  “Now my darling, as you get older you come to realise that dying isn’t the problem … Living is the problem. That is why you have got to live it passionately and to the full. My agony would be to ‘live dying’ without being able to work …”

Another important document in the museum is Helen’s last will, a handwritten document written on 31 May 1976, which was later typed out, presumably dictated to Jill Wenman during a visit in May 1976. It is interesting to note that the will was never signed and witnessed, but most of the very specific instructions were kept.

The will itself is a very interesting read. She explicitly asks for a number of things, including that her body not be removed through the front, but out through the red door and out the zinc gate at the side of the house. Her reasons might never be known, but it seems that she was scared that some of the items in the house might be damaged. Or maybe it was just about public appearances?

A few months after her will was written, she took her own life by drinking caustic soda. She was rushed to the hospital in Graaff-Reinet where she died three days later on 8 August 1976.

But taking a look at Miss Helen’s will, shows immediately whom she cared about most.

She asked that her radio be left to her loyal right-hand man, Koos Malgas and to Jonas Adams, two new pots. A saucepan to Suzette Pienaar, a local resident, friend and nursing sister, who also accompanied Helen to the hospital in the ambulance after she ingested caustic soda and another saucepan went to Barbara Shaper.

She left her letters from Jill Wenman to her sister Annie, but asked explicitly that the rest of her communications be burnt. This was never done, but could in fact give some insight into the person Helen was. There are also a  lot of letters from her lover of 21 years, Johannes Hattingh, which was written after he moved away with his family.

Her will does give one the sense that there was a lot of people she cared about. Known mostly as a recluse who shunned company, many locals do tell of visits to the Owl House and drinking tea in the kitchen. The children, mostly girls, of the community would visit over weekends and she would show them what she has created during the week.

Miss Helen also asked that the house, furniture and everything in it go to her nephew, Herman le Roux. She did ask that the house be preserved as a monument or a museum. In such the Owl House was sold to the local municipality.

It is interesting to note that at one stage, everything was nearly destroyed as the local, then Nieu Bethesda Municipality needed space for a new office. They were going to strip the Camel Yard and refurbish the house, but luckily found a new space to use.

Soon after a group of people became involved in keeping the Owl House up and running. The Friends of the Owl House was formed and later the Owl House Foundation, a non-profit organisation, tasked with the daily running of Helen’s legacy. Today the Owl House is still a huge part of Nieu Bethesda and has drawn thousands of visitors to the sleepy little village in the Eastern Cape.

Helen’s wish to keep the Owl House intact is the one wish that has been fulfilled.

A true friend of the Owl House: Huldah van Wyk

It was with great sadness that the village of Nieu Bethesda said goodbye to one of their long-time residents recently. Huldah van Wyk has been a part of the Owl House and the Owl House Foundation for more than a decade and has made it her life’s work to keep the house and garden in good repair.

Huldah van Wyk. Photo by Sarina Engelbrecht
Huldah van Wyk. Photo by Sarina Engelbrecht

Huldah has spent the last 13 and a half years in Nieu Bethesda after buying her house, the old Pastorie in Martins Street, in 2001. She got involved with the Owl House as soon as she moved into the village. She was a part of the Owl House Foundation board of directors for 11 years and served two terms as vice chairman and two years as chairman.

Her love for the Owl House started long before her move to the village and Huldah has been a Friend of the Owl House since 1989 and especially enjoyed getting newsletters while she was still living in Johannesburg.

“The best feeling is knowing that you can make a small difference and help to preserve Helen’s artwork, the garden and her home, over the years for others to enjoy.” She also really enjoyed the teamwork of the board and sharing their passion.

She was the brain and driving force behind the founding of the Helen Martins Museum, which is now housed in the Owl House office building in Martins Street. “I’ve always wanted to started a small museum for Helen. At the time Peet van Heerden was the chairman and I was vice-chair. I made the proposal to the Owl House board and immediately got the necessary support and made some funds available.”

She immediately set to work and got a local builder, Jan-Peet Steynberg, to do the building and suggested what it should look like, what to paint and bought the cupboards and tables herself. She painted the sun on the wall and the museum was ready to be filled.

Huldah explains that the idea at the time was to use the stoep, the only available space, and turn it into a shop. Another local resident, Pierre Offerman, built the shelving and was meant to build two more cupboards. Unfortunately Pierre passed away before completion of the project, but the Offerman family donated two beautiful cupboards to the museum after he passed away.

“I did all of the work myself. Maybe I am one of the those people who have to be in control of everything?” she jokes. “But it was a privilege! I went through hundreds of photographic slides manually to decide what to have printed and framed.”

She was especially happy when doing her research when she found a slide, a colour photograph, of Helen in the garden where the statues were still painted. A lot of the colours in the garden have faded over the years and unfortunately there is very little recorded colour photos of the garden in that time.

From there she set out to make copies of the most important documents, letters as well as Helen’s unsigned will.

There is also a lot of letters left over from the years Helen lived in Nieu Bethesda. Interestingly Helen asked in her will, which was never signed, that her correspondence be destroyed, but this wish was never fulfilled. The will in itself is an interesting story. (Read more here.)

“There were way too many letters and I had to choose which ones to use and which parts.

“It was then that I found a hidden letter in one of Helen’s kitchen drawers. I used this too. My goal was to show that Helen was very educated, clever and a very musical person.”

Huldah got to go through the cupboards and choose clothes from the boxes held in archive. “Here my goal was to show that she did indeed have a sense of style and detail. She worked in old clothes, and that was what most of the residents saw her in, which led to many people’s perception of her unkempt appearance.”

Unfortunately the clothes have since been stored away and is not part of the display anymore.

It is interesting to note that the locals remember Helen in her later years with very rough hands from working with cement and the children of the era, whom she loved deeply and would always kiss hello, said she had a moustache! Some of her clothes were rather exceptional and Huldah placed a photo of Helen wearing the same dress next to it. (Editor’s note: My own grandmother, Freda van Heerden, tells of Miss Helen visiting “town” in a fancy red dress after her sister, Alida, passed away. Apparently Helen had inherited all her nice clothes and ended up wearing them when she would go to Graaff-Reinet.)

Another interesting chapter in Huldah’s involvement was the unlocking of Blue Beard’s room under the grapevines. This room was locked over the years, although no one is sure why. “I asked Peet van Heerden, the then chairman, if we could open it as a birthday present for myself! Inside there were a myriad of boxes and bottles of preserved fruits in the bath. It was also here that I found a small coloured mermaid, where all the others are white. It can now be seen in the Owl House.”

Yet, there were some strange moments too … “I had a dream one night that I was walking across the bridge with a group of tourists. I had to tell them that I had no space left in the guest house, but then the strangest thing happened! I suddenly morphed into Helen! In front of my own eyes I changed into her and I said to the guests: ‘Come to my house, I would love to show you my home!’”

In another instance, while Huldah was working on Helen’s things in the Helen Martins Museum, something told her to have a look in one of the potted plants. “It was the strangest thing! My very expensive sapphire and diamond ring had broken and the stones were lying in the plant. I really believe it might have been Helen thanking me for the work I put in. I would never have found it any other way!”

Huldah also found a box decorated with glue and pebbles, or coloured sugar, although the image was unclear. “It was the same method we used as children to make Christmas cards or stars. My theory is that it might have been the inspiration for Helen’s glass on the walls, although we would never know. The box can also now be seen in the museum.

“The name, Blue Beard’s room, has some sinister connotation, but if you look at the floor and the corner cupboard it speaks only of love. It is a known fact that Helen hung her mirrors high, even though she was very short, but here a mirror hangs at her height.”

These are just some of the tales she has to tell of her years being a part of the Owl House. The friends, board and community as a whole will greatly miss her now that she has moved to Jeffrey’s Bay.

As a last thought: Huldah says that the thing that has always amazed her about the Owl House is that people either hate of love it. “No one is ever left cold.”