As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month, we can see many women making big shifts in various industries and roles. This includes public safety, construction, consumer goods and manufacturing, software & IT, design and agriculture.
As modern women continue to take giant strides in the professional arenas, it is the women of the past who inspire change and progress for the current and future generations. One such woman is Elizabeth Catherine ‘Kitty’ English, known more formally as ‘Mrs English’. A successful businesswoman and farmer, Mrs English was considered a modern woman for her time and the person most closely associated with the resurgence of the historic farm of Lanzerac, originally called Schoongezicht.
A woman farmer, particularly in the wine and dairy industry, was unusual during the 1800s. According to local Tour Guide and Historian, Pietman Retief, women of these times traditionally retreated to a more domestic life, overshadowed by their husbands. But not Kitty. “She was adventurous, fearless, a good marksman and horsewoman. She even followed her husband to wild and dusty Kimberley, a rough and ready frontier town at the time with very few women. After her move to England, she is said to have been heavily involved in the renovations at Addington Palace. On returning to South Africa, she reverted to a life of farming, a life she knew well.”
The enigmatic Kitty’s impact on the SA wine industry
Mrs English illustrious life has continued to fascinate, although little is actually known about her. “She began her farming career late, arriving at Lanzerac when she was 76, where she worked for only nine years before her death in 1929. It was during this short time that Mrs English set sound and exacting standards for viticulture. She was known to be difficult and masterful, liked to micro-manage and incredibly devoted to her family.”
“That said, not much is known about how she acquired her love of farming and her considerable fortune. What we do know is that Kitty English returned to South Africa from England after the death of her husband Fred in 1909. Upon his death, Mrs English was unable to look after their estate in the UK and handed it over to a board of trustees, who converted it into a hospital to treat soldiers during World War 1.
After wrapping up his estate, she acquired Lanzerac (then called Schoongezicht) in 1920, a beautiful property set against the rolling hills of Jonkershoek Valley just outside Stellenbosch. At the time, it consisted of a small manor house, outbuildings and 148 morgens of land. Kitty upgraded the manor house between 1921 and 1922 using acclaimed South African architects Baker Kendall and Morris before turning her attention to the farm. She invested in building on a tradition of wine-making on the farm, a tradition that lives on today at Lanzerac.”
Historian Phillida Brooke Simons writes that Kitty was a ‘woman of great personality and enterprise’. “Being the oldest and forced to rely on her own resources, she probably learned to take a leadership role. In time she became a formidable personality, learning to hunt and ride and was even known to be a crack shot.”
The legacy lives on
By the time of Kitty’s death in 1929, she had accrued a substantial personal fortune, in addition to Lanzerac Estate. She had an investment portfolio with interest in gold mining, Huletts, Imperial Cold Storage, Irwin and Johnson, as well as the benefits held by the “Mrs English Fund”. Though Kitty wished to micro-manage the future of Lanzerac after her passing, the estate remained unused and in the bank’s trusteeship until 1934, when builder Jacobus Tribelhorn bought it for a fraction of its original value. He marketed the wine label professionally, and his cellar was considered one of the most modern at the time.
Despite a change of ownership over the years, the legacy of Mrs English lives on. Not only was Lanzerac productive and profitable with its viticulture and dairy farming, but it has become one of the most acclaimed wine estates in the country. To honour the formidable Mrs English and her contribution to the wine industry in South Africa, Lanzerac created the Mrs English Chardonnay 2018 as part of its Heritage Range.
“Sourced from a single vineyard in the Jonkershoek Valley, the Mrs English 2018 is a complex wine with an abundance of citrus flavours on the nose, a full palate and lingering aftertaste. Great care is taken during the blending process to ensure a wine with impeccable balance, character, poise and deliverance, just like Mrs English herself.”
“This month, we celebrate all South African women making a difference or standing strong in the face of adversity. As such, we will also be hosting an afternoon tea at the Women’s Safe House in Stellenbosch during August. At Lanzerac, we continue to honour the life and legacy of Mrs English, as well as the brave, formidable women who came before her,” concludes General Manager, Emile Langenhoven.
Steeped in history dating back to 1692, Lanzerac Wine Estate is a Cape Winelands landmark and Stellenbosch icon. Combining old-world charm and hospitality with modern amenities and services, Lanzerac is ideally positioned in the idyllic Jonkershoek Valley on the outskirts of the historic town of Stellenbosch. The establishment caters to every visitor and holiday-maker and encompasses a hotel, a winery, several restaurants and dining venues and an on-site spa