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.

3 thoughts on “Miss Helen’s last wish: keeping the Owl House alive”

  1. We need to acknowledge the many people who have contributed to ‘Helen’s wish to keep the Owl House intact’. It’s an ongoing process, which the Owl House Foundation has obviously been committed to over these many years. The Advisory Committee are honoured to have been invited by the OHF Board to input to Helen’s last wish to keep the Owl Hose alive. We also need to ensure that the Owl House continues to be an internationally recognised Cultural Tourism site of very special significance.
    Thank you Elbe for these informative blogs!!!

  2. Or maybe, in her imagination of her final departure from her precious Owl House, as her body was carried, she visualised one last ceremonial procession through her populated throngs of cement sculpture, farewells to birds and camels and mermaids and her garden hostesses along the way as the Moon Gate came into view. The Moon Gate is the symbolic divide for Helen between this world and the next but as it was fenced across, the next best practical thing would be to slip out through the galvanized gate at its side. If one understands Helen’s imaginative endeavour and the world she created at the Owl House, her request makes perfect sense.

    And I am sure that Helen would be very pleased to know that the Advisory Team to the OHB have currently been spending the a good many months and hundreds of hours attempting to understand her creative endeavour anew and come up with the best solutions for its preservation. This is really the big news for the Owl House, currently – that a group of experts has finally been brought in, and the visionary work of Helen Martins has a chance, finally, of getting the expert attention and artistic respect that is its due, in relation to preservation and planned visitor experience. Elbe, how about a blog article on the vision of the Advisory Team? I think that would be of great interest to the public interested in the Owl House.

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