The history of Victoria West extends back more than 170 years to 1843 when the Dutch Reformed Church bought the farms ‘Kapokfontein’ and ‘Zeekoegat’ in order to establish a village. The new village was first just called Victoria, after Queen Victoria, and the ‘West’ was added to its name in 1855 to avoid confusion with the district of Victoria in the Eastern Cape.
The town was laid out on the bank of the ‘Brakrivier’ watercourse in 1843 and the first plots were sold on public auction on Monday, 2 September 1844. The condition of sale included the requirement to build a house on the plot within four years and to plant quinces, pomegranates and elder trees. Thrown into the deal was the right for each land resident to graze 20 oxen, two cows, two horses, some sheep and goats. It was forbidden for residents to sell wine or brandy. From its humble beginnings Victoria West was a centre for agricultural activity.
To the young farmer of that time “an evening spend” as it was called, conveyed the idea of outdoor games, in which everybody, old and young, took part, and so merry and happy were they in their innocent joy, and so heartily did they abandon themselves to the spirit of the moment, that the most austere onlooker would be infected by their mood, and be impelled to join their company.
The local farmers used the town as their central place of worship, called ‘Nagmaal’. ‘Nagmaal’ was more than just a time to pray. It was also a great social celebration, held every few months, and many a romance was born during ‘Nagmaal’ time.
The Victoria West Branch of the Standard Bank of South Africa was only the second to be established in South Africa when it opened on 15 April 1863. The Bank occupied several premises consecutively before moving into the present modern building. The signatures of the first shareholders can still be seen on a piece of 3-m pig skin in the Victoria West Regional museum.
On Monday, 27 February 1871, a severe flood shattered the Northern Cape community of Victoria West after a cloudburst which took the lives of many. More that 60 bodies were recovered, but the number of dead was never established with certainty. The headstone of Victoria West’s flood victims still stands in the town’s old cemetery.
Victoria West marked the beginning of the Diamond Way, lying on the main route from Cape Town to Kimberley. In 1866 diamond fever sparked with the discovery of the gem at Hopetown followed by Kimberley to the north. Fortune seekers flooded the wagon trail and Victoria West benefited greatly from prospectors, miners and travellers stopping over for rest and supplies.
On 23 February 1920 the Royal Automobile Club requested that arrangements should be made for the proper reception of their aircraft and its crew during their air travel between London and Cape Town. This was in reference to the historic voyage by Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and Sir Quentin Brand, who opened the first air route between England and South Africa. Until the late 1970’s when they stopped operating piston engine airliners such as the Douglas DC-3, the Victoria West airport served as a refueling station for South African Airways between Cape Town and destinations to the north. Today, the small airport (ICAO: FAVW) is still used by light aircrafts.
In 1923 a Greek immigrant, Andrew Aristides Bassil, came to Victoria West to manage the Good Hope Cafe. Not many years after his arrival, Bassil built the original Apollo theatre behind the café. During the 1950’s Bassil decided to upgrade, and in March 1957 the new Apollo theatre opened. The cinema had been substantially enlarged and modernised, boasting two galleries, a raked auditorium, upholstered seats, and new equipment capable of projecting wide – screen cinemascope films. The local press had no hesitation in describing the Apollo as ‘the most beautiful and efficient bioscope in the Great Karoo’ with special mention of the wide screen and handsome electrically-operated curtains. It was declared a heritage site by the National Monuments Council. The theatre is now the only remaining original Art Deco theatre in South.