The rich history of Riggton River Farm and Bonnievale

The Riggton River Farm

Mr Christopher Forrest Rigg, founder of Bonnievale, divided his farmlands into smaller sections and sold it off after he completed the irrigation canal. Four of these sections which made up a total of 25 hectares was later purchased by Mr Pierre Albertyn in 2002.

Mr Rigg’s residence, which is called Riggton, is a very historic building of Bonnievale and is also owned by the Albertyn family for the last 40 years.

Soon after purchasing the Riggton farm, Mr Albertyn saw potential in a small area alongside the Breede river and decided to prepare this area by removing all the low lying bush and shrubs and planted grass under the tall bluegum trees. Soon the area developed into a beautiful serene paradise, offering more and more opportunities to develop the area into a place where people could come and enjoy this gift of nature with their family and friends.


Christopher Forrest Rigg (1861 – 1926)

Christopher Forrest RiggChristopher Forrest Rigg

Christopher Forrest Rigg was born in Phyton, Scotland in about 1861, but his parents emigrated to South Africa when he was two years old. The Family settled in the gold mining town of Barberton in the Transvaal. Rigg’s father wanted him to become a detective, but instead he joined the gold mine as a dynamite blaster. While still a young man, Rigg traveled round South Africa, to Port Elizabeth, Lindley in the Free State, and to Johannesburg.

Rigg’s first wife, Petronella, was from Holland, and they had two sons, Gordon and Milfred. However, Rigg divorced Petronella in 1893 and she later married a Mr. Morries. In 1894 Rigg married again. His new bride, Lilian lsobel Elizabeth Moon, was from the Robertson district. At the time of their marriage, Lilian was 19 years old and Rigg was 33. They had three daughters, but only one survived infancy. The eldest, Mabel, was born in Johannesburg in 1895 but died the same year at Lindley. The second daughter, Gladys, who was born at Lindley, died nine months later. The Riggs then moved to the present Bonnievale area in 1900, where Mary Myrtle was born in 1903. A pretty child and strongly religious, she grew up lovingly cared for by her parents. She especially loved playing in a certain lucerne field near their home. Sadly in 1911 she contracted meningitis and on her deathbed she asked her father to build her a small church.

Mary Myrtle enjoying the Breede RiverMary Myrtle enjoying the Breede River

Mary Myrtle was buried in her favorite playground, the lucerne field near her home. Later, the field became the family graveyard. The two graves on the right hand side of Mary Myrtle’s grave are those of her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Moon. On the left is the grave of her mother, Lilian, who died in 1949.

Rigg kept his promise to his daughter and built the small Norman-style church in her memory. He quarried stone for the church from a hill about 100 meters away from the site. This must have been a time consuming process. The date on the cornerstone is 1921, but the first Anglican service was only held in 1924.

Myrtle Rigg Memorial Church built in 1921Myrtle Rigg Memorial Church built in 1921

The floor of the church is marble, which was imported from Italy, and the stained glass windows came from England. The roof is dome-shaped and made of stone from the river and cement. However, the roof leaked so badly in the beginning that Rigg had it covered with a 2 inch layer of solid lead. On one of his trips, Rigg bought the main door in Zanzibar. The door had originally been made for jail and was at the stage believed to be about 300 years old. The two side doors and the church furniture came from Thesen’s in Knysna. The church warden’s room is in the bell tower and is reached by a steel staircase. At the entrance above the main door there is a statuette in the likeness of Mary Myrtle, and in the background in a rose tree with seven roses, depicting the seven years of her life.

The Mary Myrtle Rigg Church is the only church in the world known to be built at the request of a child.


The Irrigation Scheme

Until 1900, apart from the Breede River, just a few mountain streams, the Boesmans, Boesmanspad, Bruintjies and Middle Rivers, Provided the area with water. Along the banks of the Breede River the only farming possible was stock farming, with cattle and goats.

In 1898 Mr. Dieterlie, a German, and Mr. Ernest de Wet, a farmer from the Robertson district, were the first to see the possibility of obtaining water from the Breede River for irrigation. They started their scheme where the Kogmanskloof River flows in to the Breede River. They had to excavate a deep canal under very difficult conditions, and after about 3 km their progress was stopped by the steep Olifants krans. In 1900 Dieterlie went bankrupt and they were force to abandon their scheme. De Wet died in 1902.

However, Christopher Forrest Rigg had recently arrived in the area and decided to use his expertise to carry on with the project. He brought in huge wooden channels 4 foot 6 inches wide and 2 feet deep, for the canal. These channels were set on pillars, and thick spikes were dug into the cliff to secure the cable which held them in place. In two places the remainder of these cables can still be seen. The seven meter pillars were mounted on thick poles set into the river bed. In addition to the difficulty of construction there were also problems with leakages.

The first water reached Bonnievale in 1900. At first the canal was small and in winter debris from the Breede River clogged the system, causing the suspended channels to collapse. Work on the canal then had to be started all over again, with the result that the water supply was suspended. This became an annual struggle until 1906. At this point, on 1 January 1906, Rigg used his blasting expertise to create a tunnel through the Olifants krans. About 80 -100 people worked on the project and they used about 80 cases of dynamite. Rigg excavated from two sides, north and south, making six access tunnels.

Rigg’s tunnel soon after completion in 1906Rigg’s tunnel soon after completion in 1906

However, Rigg, like his predecessors, had financial problems, but in December 1906 a bank in Robertson came to his rescue. Once the tunnels were completed, the canal scheme was a success. Rigg still had many setbacks as a result of the canal breaking from time to time. Just outside the town is a hill where the structure of the soil caused subsidence problems. Rigg called this hill “Rotten Hill” for obvious reasons. In 1914 cement was used for the first time to repair and strengthen the construction of the canal. The newspapers described the undertaking as “the greatest engineering project of its time in South Africa by one man”.

In 1909 there were many farmers in the valley and they established the Zandrift Irrigation Council. In 1910 Rigg donated the entire tunnel and canal system to the board, with the proviso that he could serve on the board.

Originally the canal stopped at the site of the Nordale Winery, going about 200 meters underground. In 1912 the canal system was developed further east. An engineer, Mr Burrows, took it as far as Boesmansdrift and La Rochelle. The water flowed under the river in a steel pipe which was laid by Major Kasie Wolhuter of Robertson.

It is 95 years since the canal was completed. Today, all of the east side and large sections of the west side of Bonnievale still use the water from the canals, which are much as they were when built by Rigg, in spite of great development having taken place since then.



Rigg bought up the whole of the present day Bonnievale from a Mr. Van Zyl, from the farm Mooiplaas to the present day municipal borders on the eastern side. He divided the land into 5 acre plots, making development possible.

In 1901 Rigg had a 65 page booklet published by The Cape Times, relating the history of the first settlers in this area, where there were no roads, no telephones and no bridges over the Breede River. In 1898 the New Cape Railway had been built, with headquarters at Swellendam. The line ran through the valley from Worcester, with a siding, Vale, at the site of the present station. Rigg had had his own telephone line laid to his farm from Ashton. He also requested the Railways to allow the train to stop at the siding, so that he could load his lucerne, beetroot, maize and other vegetable crops. The farmers were not able to grow apples, peaches or grapes as the Breede River only flowed in winter. From November until March, and sometimes even April, there was no water in the canals.

Photo of Bonnievale in the winter of 1937Photo of Bonnievale in the winter of 1937

Rigg’s book was distributed overseas as well as in South Africa, to attract interested people to the area. In the beginning many English and Jewish people came. They were soon joined by others from Oudtshoorn after the collapse of the ostrich industry in 1912 – 1914. Rigg’s agent, Mr. Lourens, was stationed in Oudtshoorn in order to canvass people to move to Bonnievale. When they arrived in the valley, they stayed in tents, rooms or prefabricated houses. Rigg appointed a water bailiff who sold and controlled the water by the volume. Today farmers still buy a share in the water in the canals.

Some people unfortunately could not meet their financial obligations and were forced to return to their land to Rigg for resale to others. Rigg made a lot of money in this way. He continued farming in Happy Valley until 1908. He then develop the area from Forrest Street to the eastern border of the municipality. He then sold the section where the town developed.

Rigg’s dream was that the town should be situated on the hillside, not on land suitable for farming. The town first developed in the Forrest Street area. The first Town Council was established in 1922 and the first Municipality was declared in 1953. As the inhabitants of the valley prospered, the town grew. Streets were tarred, electricity was supplied in 1951 and municipal water was made available in 1953.

The name Bonnievale was chosen in memory of Rigg’s grandfather’s home in Scotland.

In November 1926 while on trip overseas, Christopher Forrest Rigg died at sea. The ship apparently did not have cold storage facilities and he was buried at sea, despite Mrs. Rigg offering the captain 5000 pounds to keep his body for burial on land. A tombstone was erected in his honor.

Images Sourced from Bonnievale Museum, Le Roux Collection: Photos.
Text content Sourced from www.bonnievale.co.za and Stellenbosch University Library, SUNScholar Research Repository


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