The Family Behind Thesen Island

Today, Thesen Island is a choice location among Knysna residents and holiday-makers alike. It’s known for its upmarket eateries and dreamy venues along the canals, but its origins are far more industrial and can be traced back to a single family that characterised its inception.

When European settlers arrived in the Cape they were drawn to Knysna for its industrial opportunities: Namely, the vast expanse of hardwood trees that were needed for construction throughout the country. They referred to the island as Paarden Island (horse in Dutch), possibly due to the surrounding estuary being home to the rare Knysna seahorse.

However, Thesen Island as we know it today was predominantly shaped when Arndt Leonard Thesen, a timber merchant from Stavanger in Norway, departed with his family for a new life in New Zealand in 1869. However, after restocking in Cape Town their ship, The Albatros, ran into some heavy weather, damaging the ship and making further travel impractical. They turned back for the Mother City and, whilst waiting for repairs, were approached by local tradesmen to make a cargo drop-off in Knysna. When they saw this small town for the first time, the family immediately realised the potential here and opted to settle along the South African coast instead. The year was 1870.

Given the surroundings, it made sense to continue the family business, Thesen & Company and the Thesens went on to lead the development of many industries in Knysna, including forestry, boat-building, wood-processing and even oyster farming! In 1904, Arndt’s son, Charles, who’d since rised to head-up the family business, bought Paarden Island and constructed a timber processing plant on it in 1924. Eventually, it became known as Thesen Island.

Back then, the island was little more than a grassy sandbar in the Knysna Lagoon, only accessible at low-tide, but with time a causeway and shipping berth were erected to make the island more accessible. After one of their ships crashed into a wooden jetty, the Thesens replaced said structure with a concrete wharf which can still be seen today.

In 1974 the Barlow Rand Group purchased Thesen Island from the family. As environmental concerns were at an all-time high, the decision was made to adapt Thesen Island into residential plots. The Turbine is an example of an old electricity generating plant that has been refurbished and lovingly restored so that visitors can still marvel at this bygone bit of Thesen Island’s history.

For a broader overview of Knysna’s history, click here.

The Turbine’s History

Before The Turbine Hotel & Spa was the dazzling repurposed structure it is today, it served as a power station, as can be attested to by the colourful machinery that form part of the decor and intrigue of our hotel.

Its final day of operation was on 26 June 2001, more than twenty years ago.

The power station was originally built in 1939 when Thesen Island was still the hub of the timber industry in Knysna. It was fuelled by wood waste generated by the numerous saw mills in the area and powered both Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. It even fed into the Eskom grid before it was decommissioned, but that’s a story for another day…

Instead of becoming an industrial wasteland, Thesen Island was transformed into a stunning marina that draws visitors from across the world.

Since its purchase and refurbishment, the exterior of The Turbine has changed very little. Visitors can still marvel at the original brickwork that dates back to the 1930s and gape at the three large steel chimneys that stretch skywards, giving the hotel its industrial-chic appearance. Upon entering the entrance hall, the glass floors perfectly display machinery in the belly of the building – a glimpse at the inner-workings of a power plant.

When the time came to design the hotel around what is, to-date, a heritage site, consideration had to be given to preserving the machinery and ensuring the plans did not alter their positioning in any way. This gave natural rise to tremendous creativity and a hotel that is built around a building whose original purpose was a far cry from the 5-star accommodation spectacle it is today.

Each room’s design incorporates this machinery and does not shy away from flaunting these massive industrial centrepieces. There are blueprints on the wall and behind the front desk you can still see the large, complicated control panel from yester-year. The pipes, which run the length of some rooms, have even been repainted according to their use: Blue pipes carried condensate, orange pipes were used for oil and green pipes transported sea water coolant. No matter where you are in the hotel, there is always some interesting piece of memorabilia to look at, seamlessly combined with modern touches and breath-taking art.

The painstaking process of refurbishing the power plant has proven a tremendous success and gives credit to everybody that was part of this worthy project. The Turbine Hotel & Spa isn’t just another accommodation option in Knysna, but a living, breathing part of its history, incorporated into modern life and cherished by all who call this island home.

Stay with us:

If you’d like to stay within the luxurious walls of a refurbished power station, look no further than The Turbine Hotel & Spa, one of the best 5-star accommodation offerings on Thesen Island.

Book online using our seamless booking platform by clicking here or get in touch directly.

Contact details:
+27 (0) 44 050 3500 | +27 (0) 62 403 0493



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