The Historical Whale Watching Town of Hermanus

Each year thousands of domestic and international tourists flock to the shores of the gorgeous coastal town, Hermanus. Internationally renowned for whale watching, Hermanus is an ideal holiday destination. Despite being one of South Africa’s most loved tourist destinations, Hermanus has managed to maintain the quaint and tranquil atmosphere of years gone by.

The Hermanus of Days Gone By

This gorgeous seaside town has a proud history dating back to the early 1800s when a man by the name of Hermanus Pieters followed a path etched into the ground by a herd of elephants. Hermanus Pieters was a traveling teacher and Sheppard who growing tired of his locality, made the decision to pack up and try somewhere new. He wandered south of Caledon along the elephant trail and ended up next to the sea where he discovered a fresh spring. Hermanus Pieters decided to set up camps here because of this spring and the fine grazing the land provided for his livestock. This beautiful setting became known as Hermanuspietersfontein (directly translated as Hermanus Pieters Fountain). Once farmers in neighboring districts begun to hear of his success they too began their journeys to this new and fertile location. Many of the farmers only vacationed in Hermanuspietersfontein during the warmers summers months. They spent their time fishing whilst their wives and children spent many a happy day along the magnificent beachfronts. Once the winter months set in the farmers would return to their homes, the fishermen however stayed. The fish was plentiful and the men had great successes in the ocean that lapped the shores of this small town. By 1886 so many families had moved to Hermanuspietersfontein that a church and school were built. In 1902 after an irate postmaster’s complaint due to the towns’ exceptionally long name, Hermanuspietersfontein became Hermanus. The town was so beautiful and filled with fresh sea air that it was not uncommon for doctors to recommend a trip to the seaside town for their patient’s health.

In the late 1800’s the Harley Street Doctors of London discovered Hermanus as an excellent place for people with consumption (TB) to recuperate. By the 1920’s there were approximately 15 Sanatoria in Hermanus to cater for these well heeled, early (medical) tourists.

Hermanus’s reputation grew and the Sanatoria slowly changed into hotels. Before the 2nd World War there was a well established International Tourist Trade in Hermanus – the well-to-do Englishman who spent three or four months in Hermanus every year to get away from the worst of the English winter. The hotels used to send busses to Cape Town to fetch their guests off the Mail Ships. After the war many of these people settled here, buying and building homes for themselves. The social scene in Hermanus during the 50’s and 60’s was amazing, with hotels providing entertainment and music. During the late 50’s there were 15 or 16 hotels and the town was thriving. It was the place to go for people in the Western Cape.

The Sleepy Village beside the Sea

The residents of Hermanus fought strongly for their home to remain a sleepy, quaint seaside village rather than succumb to the modernization that was creeping up all around them. One of the most significant contributors to this “village feeling” was William Hoy who was a frequent visitor to Hermanus. Hoy was the general manager of the railways and he ensured that the natural beauty of Hermanus would not be marred by the extension of the railway line into the village. Hundreds of years later Hermanus is the only place with a railway station in the country with no trains. Hermanus is historically rich with many tales and interesting facts about the people who were responsible for making the town what it is today: from anti-railway activist William Hoy to the last indigenous beachcomber who lived in a cave in town. These people amongst many other contributed to both the development and the relaxed feel of Hermanus today.


One of the holiday- makers who will never be forgotten is William Hoy. Like many other great South African settlers, Hoy was borne in Scotland. At the age of 12 he left school and set off to Edinburgh where he found work as a junior clerk on the north British railway, earning 12 shillings per week. Hoy, who had beautiful copperplate handwriting, started learning pitman’s shorthand and soon was earning extra pocket money teaching shorthand at night school. In 1890, a recruiting officer of the cape government railways arrived in Edinburgh. Hoy successfully applied and soon after, arrived in Cape Town. After only two years in the country, he became chief clerk to the traffic manager in Kroonstad and a year later, when he was 27 he was the Transvaal agent for the Railways. During the Anglo- Boer war, Hoy was in charge of military railways, coordinating the movement of troops, supplies, horses, and etcetera. Hoy married Gertrude Price in 1901. They only had one daughter, Maudie. His farther- in- law, Sir Thomas Price, General Manager, appointed him as chief traffic manager, a post he had earned by hard work. Another milestone came when he bought the first type writer in the country and personally typed the first letter which possibly made him the first and only railway manager to have risen from ranks of shorthand typist. In 1910 he became the youngest railway General Manager ever and had control of the second largest Government- owned railway in the world. It was during this time that the Hoys wanted to get away from Cape Town and they discovered Hermanus, where he could enjoy his favourite hobby- fishing. He became the most enthusiastic patron of the village and was enchanted by its natural charm. Local businessmen and residents alike were hopeful that the general manager of the railway would soon help them by building a branch line from Bot River to Hermanus. Their hopes, however, came to nothing, as Hoy wanted Hermanus to remain unspoilt and not run over by masses that could turn up once there was a railway line. When deputation pressed him for the line to Hermanus , he took them to Sir Lowry’s pass station on a new years day and when the train arrived , hundreds of people , laden with picnic baskets , blankets and radios poured from the train , laughing and talking excitedly. Hoy introduced the first road service of South African railways from the railway station at Bot-River to Hermanus in 1912. Lorries to carry freight [particularly fish] and a bus to carry passengers were introduced. William Hoy was knighted in 1916 .He died in 1930 at the early age of 62. His fishermen friends carried his coffin up a newly made pathway for the burial on the Koppie. This is a mountain just behind the station building which was very close to his heart. From that day on it was named Hoy’s Koppie.

Hermanus would never have had a magnetic observatory if there had been railway lines. The scientific contribution to the world is certainly of as great importance as a train- free Hermanus has become for many of its residents.