Phillip's Graves and Irigation Tunnel
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  • Longitude: 24.84809
  • Latitude: -33.821535
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Phillip's Graves and Irigation Tunnel

Dr John Philip head of the London Missionary Society in South Africa, started Hankey with the the purpose of the establishment of the village was to grow mielies and corn for the LMS main station at Bethelsdorp and also to carry out evangelistic work.

The graves are situated behind the old "Philip Manse" beside the railway line and maintained by the Congregational Church.

Philip's Irrigation Tunnel

William Philip, son of Dr John Philip head of the London Missionary Society in South Africa, studied surveying in Cape Town from 1834 to 1836. Later he trained as a missionary in Britain and in 1841 he returned to the mission station at Hankey.

At first irrigation-furrows leading from the Klein River were dug to irrigate the fields in the immediate vicinity of Hankey, but William PHILIP had a far more ambitious Plan in mind. About a kilometre from the missionary post a small, steep and rocky ridge forces the Gamtoos River to make a considerable horseshoe bend in a northerly direction and then to continue to the immediate west of the village. A valuable piece of arable land lay in this bend of the river, below the ridge. This was the piece of land which William Philip aimed at irrigating out of the Gamtoos. To be able to do this he decided to cut a tunnel through the ridge at the very spot where the river starts turning northwards and where the ridge was at its narrowest.

This is one of the oldest irrigation works in the Eastern Cape. In 1842 William Philip, son of Dr. John Philip - founder of Hankey, and labourers from Hankey began cutting a tunnel approximately 94 metres in length through the hill, 88 m of which passes through solid rock. It cost £2 500, of which £500 was contributed by the London Missionary Society, the balance being recovered by means of a water-rate on the lands to be irrigated.

William Philip made an accurate survey of the land and in 1842 the members of his congregation with himself as engineer, surveyor and supervisor tackled the task. Such faith did Philip have in his measurements that the parisioners started tunnelling from opposite sides of the ridge which is 90 metres high. The greater part of the tunnel passed through solid rock and progress was very slow because the instruments at their disposal — pick-axes, hammers and chisels — were very primitive. After almost a year the one group of labourers could hear the digging of the other. Then they continued all the more keenly until Jan Bosnian, one of William's most trusty old workers, pierced the wall with his pick-axe from the river's end. He was so excited that he ran back along the tunnel from force of habit and then across the ridge to Hankey to break the good news to William Philip. The latter has left us the following comment: "At about two o'clock on Tuesday night, 13th August, 1844, a shot was fired at my bedroom-window. I knew that the signal meant 'the tunnel is finished.' I looked out of the window and saw the messenger running toward the town, torch in hand and shouting all the time."

Then pandemonium broke out in the village. The villagers shouted, wept, rejoiced and laughed confusedly. The church-bell was rung, fires were kindled, torches were carried everywhere, while pots and pans served as orchestral instruments.

William Philip made the following comment on the completion of the project: "The measurements were far more accurate than I supposed, so that my first attempt in practical engineering was successful."

On the evening of 13th August William went to let the water through. He opened the inlet only partially and even then the rush of water was unstoppable. It was, according to Philip, a little river which could turn the largest mill in the country. All along the ridges a canal was then dug from the outlet across the farms of Michael Ferreira and Van Rooyen to lead the water on to the grounds of the missionary post.

It was completed in 1845, but William Philip did not enjoy the privilege of reaping the fruits of his labour. On the day of the inauguration of the tunnel he and John Fairbairn jr. were drowned in the Gamtoos River. In 1932 the tunnel and irrigation furrows were badly damaged by floods, but with Government aid they were restored and improved. In 1963 the Historical Monuments Commission recommended the proclamation of the tunnel as a historical monument. The area irrigated is some 301 hectares, owned by 45 irrigators, so that the average size of a holding is only about 7 hectares.

(SESA vol 5: 423-424; Oberholster 1972: 130-131)


All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.


Writings about this entry


Oberholster, JJ. 1972. The historical monuments of South Africa. Cape Town: Rembrandt Van Rijn Foundation for Culture at the request of the National Monuments Council. pg 130-131

Richardson, Deidré. 2001. Historic Sites of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. pg 29

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