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.

It takes a village

It has been 41 years since Helen Martins, the renowned outsider artist and creator of the Owl House took her own life.

Throughout these years it took a lot of hard work and selfless volunteers giving their time and effort to keep the Owl House, as it stands today, intact and running.

Over the years, there were a myriad of people that have poured their heart and soul into keeping the Owl House in good repair. Not only keeping the everyday wear and tear at bay, but making sure that the administration is in order. This means that today, the Owl House shows a profit and have grown to such an extent that they can employ a number of local residents.

But it takes a village to keep it alive.

This blog will focus on all the good deeds of these people, while looking at some interesting facets of Helen Martins’ life and times.

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