The romantic, enigmatic and forceful personality of George Rex is part of the folk-lore of Southern Africa. He arrived in the Cape in 1797, at the time of the first British occupation. A man of distinguished bearing, he was well-educated and obviously well-connected.
In Cape Town he was appointed marshal of the vice-admiralty court, notary public to the governor, and advocate for the Crown. He met Johanna, the beautiful young widow of a well-to-do merchant, and settled down with her and her four children.
When the British occupation ended he remained in the Cape and in 1804, at the age of 39, he purchased the farm Melkhoutkraal, on the shores of the Knysna Lagoon.
To reach this farm, Rex made a coach journey on a grand scale. His wife and her children rode with him in a coach bearing a coat of arms and drawn by six horses. Riding alongside the coach was a retinue of friends.
To the awed locals thee journey resembled a royal procession – and the name of the man, George Res, conjured up images of royalty travelling incognito.
Stories spread that Rex was the son of George III of England and Hannah Lightfoot, daughter of a Wapping shoemaker. Modern research does not confirm this belief, and there is no record of Rex ever having made any such claim. But his life-style and grand manner convinced the residents of the Cape, and especially of Knysna, that the man in their midst was indeed of royal descent.
Rex rebuilt the homestead of Melkhoutkraal, which had been destroyed in a Xhosa raid, and created a beautiful, rambling home for his family – now there were eight children. The farm was expanded. There was a watermill, blacksmith’s shop and spinnery producing silkworms fed on thee leaves of groves of mulberries. The lagoon occupied the full attention of Rex. He started a fishery, built boats from the timber of the forest and persuaded the British admiralty to develop Knysna as a port.
On 11 February 1817, the first vessel to enter the lagoon, the naval brig Emu, came to grief on a sunken rock and had to be run ashore to save it from sinking. For Rex and the people of Knysna watching from the shore, this was a sad spectacle, but it was not the end of the venture. The navy sent up a second vessel to salvage the first and this, the Podargus, had no difficulty in entering and leaving the lagoon in May 1817.
From then on Knysna was established as a port for medium-sized vessels.
Rex built his own 127-ton vessel, the Knysna, on the shores of the lagoon, and used the ship for trading along the coast.
Rex never returned to Britain. He died on 3 April 1839 after a full and rewarding life.
One of the best-known of his descendants is the celebrated clown Stompie.