I matriculated at Charley Hofmeyr High School in Ceres and something that has puzzled me for many years is the inability, or possibly unwillingness, of the townsfolk in general, Wikipedia, and the tourism industry in the town to get the story about the origin of the town’s name right. I should possibly not be surprised as the incorrect derivation of the name is also alluded to in the otherwise very reputable publication, New Dictionary of South African Place Names, by Peter E. Draper (2004), published by Jonathan Ball. The matter of the town’s name has been addressed before now by Dr Jurie van den Heever and Mr Jerry Levine, but it keeps raising its misinformed head, so I am going to attempt once more to set the record straight.
It is, in fact, quite correct to say that generally the name Ceres has its origin in the classic mythology and it’s pantheon of deities. The town of Ceres in the Western Cape was, however, definitely not named in honour of the Roman fertility goddess, but rather after a town in Scotland of the same name and that town was, in all probability, not even named in honour of the particular female deity! Allow me to elaborate on why it is very, very unlikely that the local town of Ceres was named after the lady in question and, to do this I will make extensive use of the excellent material researched by Dr Jurie van den Heever and Mr Jerry Levine as well as my own research.
At the time of the founding of the town of Ceres, two of the prominent people involved with roads and in particular the construction of Michell’s Pass were Andrew Geddes Bain (the well-known road builder and, more specifically the builder of Michell’s pass in 1848) and Charles Davidson Bell (Surveyor General of the Cape at that time). Bain and Bell both hailed from Scotland which would have given them a common bond. Bain was born in Thurso, in the far north, in May 1797 while Bell hailed form Crail, further to the south, where he was born on October the 22nd 1813. It is important to note that Crail is about 9 km from the Scottish town of Ceres, which was renowned in Roman times for producing Durham wheat of such a high quality, that it was reserved for the tables of the Caesar and other Roman nobility. The wheat connection is particularly important as the area around the new town of Ceres was, at that time, also known for the production of high quality wheat. It is, however, distinctly possible that the Scottish Ceres might not in fact have been named after the Roman deity at all. The Latin word Syrs means marshland and this might be the origin of the town’s name because the men of the village played a prominent part at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when the English knights in their heavy armour and chargers became bogged down in the marshes (“Discovering Fife” by Raymond Lamont Brown, John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1992). The marsh connection is, as we shall see later, also of interest concerning the South African town of Ceres. In Gaelic Sair means “west” and very probably referred to the fact that Ceres lay to the west of St. Andrews.
The name of Ceres in Scotland is somewhat of a mystery and I quote from a source on the town. “There is much argument as to the origin of the name “Ceres”. Was it a survival of the Roman invasion because of being identical with the name of the “Goddess of Harvest”? However, the spelling was not always the same. Before the 17th century it was “Seres”, whilst the oldest known form is “Syres”. St. Cyrus, to whom the Church there was dedicated, is also given credit for the name. Another suggestion is the Latin word “syrs”, which means marshy ground near a running stream. There is also the possibility that the name is derived from that of the “Syras” family.” The Syras-family connection seems, in recent years, to have been largely discounted.
However, back to Ceres in South Africa and a further point to take note of, which clearly points to the involvement of Bain in particular in the founding of Ceres, is the fact that the first six streets of Ceres were named after six prominent members of the Royal Society, i.e. Charles Lyell (Geologist), William Buckland (Cleric, Geologist & Palaeontologist), Gideon Mantell (Obstetrician, Geologist & Palaeontologist), Sir Roderick Murchison (Geologist), Sir Richard Owen (Biologist, Comparative Anatomist & Palaeontologist who first used the term “Dinosauria”) and John Phillips (Geologist). Mantell became Voortrekker in 1938 and Buckland was renamed Van Riebeek in 1952. Misspelling turned Phillip into Phillips, which did not spare Lyell or the original Mantell either. These names appear on all the early maps of the town as well as the title deeds of the first erven sold and traded in the town. It is a generally accepted fact that Bain was the founder of Geology and Palaeontology in South Africa and, more specifically, that it was Lyell’s epoch making work Elements of Geology that brought this about. According to Bain himself he read it and was “smitten”. As the names of the first streets in Ceres were all famous British scientists (Geologists, Anatomists or Palaeontologists) of that period, it does not require extensive mental gymnastics to deduce that Bain was almost certainly the only person who would have been sufficiently aware of their existence (and importance) to have given their names to the streets of the new town. Bell might, admittedly, also have had some knowledge of these erudite scholars. It should be noted that Murchison Street originally appears as Ure Street and was later changed to Murchison (date uncertain). Andrew Ure was a Scottish doctor, scholar, chemist and member of the Royal Society; in other words fitting company for the other academics after whom streets were named.
Ceres was at the heart of a very conservative, Dutch Reformed, (and very probably fundamentalist) religious community and one has to have serious doubts whether they would have accepted Ceres as the name of the new town if it had been put forward as the name of a heathen goddess. Add to this the fact that the level of education of the farming community was, at best, very elementary (almost certainly not including classic Greek or Roman mythology) and it becomes far more plausible that they would have accepted the explanation that the town was being named after a town in Scotland, also famous for producing high quality wheat and associated indirectly with Bain and Bell who would have been well known to them. Bain was thoroughly acquainted with the fundamentalist religious tendencies of the farming communities in South Africa as he had lived in Graaff-Reinet and travelled extensively in the interior, so he would have cautioned Bell and the Colonial Secretary, Montague about this. The names of the streets in the new town also leave one with the distinct impression that the community was probably not consulted or, if at all, only in the most cursory fashion, as these six gentlemen were at that time, turning Bishop Usher’s Bible based calculation of 6 000 years for the age of the earth on its head. This knowledge would not have gone down well with the local church elders! Also, take into consideration the tendency of the British government to name towns in South Africa after government officials, military figures or members of the aristocracy and one cannot but come to the conclusion that a very good argument must have been put forward for the name Ceres. The mere fact that she was the Roman goddess of Fertility would not have sufficed.
A somewhat tenuous connection between Ceres in Scotland and Ceres in South Africa can possibly be drawn from the fact that there was apparently an extensive marsh between Ceres and the present day Prince Alfred’s Hamlet, bordered by the Dwars River and the Skurweberg. This marsh was later (according to local oral history) the source of a very loud explosion that mystified the locals, but could possibly have been caused by spontaneous ignition of “marsh gas” i.e. methane. This explosion apparently opened up a channel which subsequently drained the marsh into the Dwars River. This specific aspect has, as yet, not been properly researched.
Is there documentary proof for my argument against the South African Ceres’s name having originated with the Roman Goddess, Ceres? I firmly believe there is and offer the following to support my conviction.
The commonly stated (and accepted) fact is that the town was founded and named in 1854 by Jan Hendrik Munnik the father of the late Senator G.G. Munnik. This I claim is highly debatable in view, not only of the arguments presented thus far, but also on the grounds of the following compelling reasons. Michell’s Pass was completed in 1848 and it seems strange that it would take six years to establish a village on what was already, by all accounts, a busy main route to the North. It did in fact not take six years, because on April 25th 1849 a report of the Central Road Board, written by the secretary Willem de Smidt, states that immediately after the opening of Michell’s Pass, about 1800 acres of unappropriated Crown Lands in the Warm Bokkeveld at the eastern entrance of the Pass, and well supplied with spring water, were laid out as the site of a village, on which is bestowed the name of “Ceres”. The proposed village of Ceres was announced in the Government Gazette 2268 of 17 May 1849 and the sale of the first land in the village took place in Tulbagh on the July the 21st 1849. Sixteen of these erven were registered in the Surveyor General’s & Deeds Offices in Cape Town on October the 29th 1849. It should be noted that all of these later erven lay to the west of the Dwarsrivier. These indisputable facts are in my view sufficient to negate all claims by Mr Munnik to having founded and named the town in 1854.
The Government Surveyor H.W. Marriot, writes on January 10th 1849 to Charles Bell the Surveyor General: “I hope to start in the morning for Ceres the plan of which I hope to send you in a few days.” Mariott’s original drawing 1712 of the town he laid out has disappeared but a replacement 1712ff is available for examination. The names of the streets, as mentioned earlier, may be verified on that plan.
Jan Hendrik Munnik was without doubt an important landowner in the district but how did this come about and, more importantly when. The farm Riet Valley (later Rietvalley) was granted to George Sebastian Wolfaardt on March 8th 1832 and the major portion of this farm was sold from his estate to Johannes Cornelis Goosen on March 1st 1851. Two portions of the farm remained and one (Erf 1183) was sold jointly to Hendrik Lodewyk de Lange Vos and Jan Hendrik Munnik and the other (Erf 1017) to Hendrik Lodewyk de Lange Vos on October 10th 1856. The first of these two properties, Erf 1183, was divided into 10 erven of different sizes which were sold on December 16th 1856. On February 2nd 1857 another three erven from Erf 1183 were sold to Jan Hendrik Munnik from the joint estate. All these erven lay to the east of the Dwarsrivier. All of this points to Mr Munnik’s participation well after the founding of the town.
In summary then, there is ample evidence to show that it is highly unlikely that Ceres was named directly in association with the Roman goddess in question. It is far, far more likely that the connection is an indirect one and that the name was given in association with the town of that name in Scotland, because of the connection with wheat, Bain and Bell. The information in italics in a previous paragraph on the Scottish Ceres makes a direct link to the Roman goddess even more unlikely. The possibility of a link with the town of the same name in Scotland is further strengthened by the connection between Bain, the names of the first six streets and the association of these persons with Bain’s strong interest in Geology and Palaeontology. The existence of the marsh and the link with the Latin Syrs is probably of less importance, but should not be entirely overlooked.
Most of this research was carried out by an associate and close friend of mine, Dr. J.A. van den Heever, a palaeontologist, and Mr. Jerry Levine a practising geologist in Johannesburg. Both of these gentleman hail from Ceres. Mr. Levine’s father, Mr Jockey Levine, used to own the now non-existent Grand Hotel and Dr van den Heever’s mother owned the also now non-existent bakery.