History of Knysna – Meet the Thesens
Beautiful Knysna Villas

Many visitors to Knysna know about Thesen Island. This upmarket, luxury island in the middle of the Knysna lagoon is home to numerous hotels and apartments, including our very own Thesen Harbour Town Apartments, a variety of boutique stores, and some of the best restaurants on the Garden Route


But few people know where Thesen Island got its name. Well, let us introduce you to the Thesen family.

A legendary Knysna family

The Thesens were a Norwegian family who settled in Knysna in 1870. Their discovery of this beautiful seaside town was quite by accident. Arnt Leonard Thesen, together with his brother Mathias Thesen were en route from Stavanger to New Zealand where they planned to settle. After restocking supplies in Cape Town, they encountered heavy weather just a few days out which damaged their sails and rigging. This forced them to return to Cape Town and while there for repairs, some traders approached them to deliver supplies along the coast. After realising the potential of Knysna, they decided instead to settle here, proving that in order for dreams to come true, you first need to encounter some setbacks along the way.

The family of Charles Thesen
The family of Charles Thesen

The Thesens went on to play a leading role in developing the shipping industry in the area as well as various other industries including forestry, wood-processing, boat-building, and oyster farming. Charles Wilhelm Thesen, who rose to the head of the family firm, purchased the island that became known as Thesen Island in 1904. He also served as a municipal councilor for Knysna for over 30 years, and as mayor of Knysna for eight terms.

Charles Wilhelm Thesen

What did Thesen Island look like then?

At the turn of the 19th century, Thesen Island was just a grass-covered sand bar in Knysna Lagoon, only accessible at low tide. The land was included in the farm Melkhoutkraal and horses and cattle were grazed here. In 1883 a causeway between the island and mainland was constructed to improve access to the wooden jetty. A shipping berth was erected in the same year. 


The Thesens then stamped their presence on the island, when their ship, the Ambulant, was the first to load cargo at the new jetty. For five decades the family either operated their own shipping business or acted as agents for other shipping lines in Knysna. In 1913 another Thesen ship, the Agnar, crashed into the wooden jetty. It was subsequently replaced with a concrete wharf, named Thesen’s Jetty, which can still be seen today.

The navy visits Thesen Island in Knysna

In 1924 the Thesens moved their sawmill operation from the forests at Bracken Hill to the island and began manufacturing a variety of wood products. They later started a boat building yard and oyster farm on the island. 

The sawmill on Thesen Island
Then and now: Thesen Island

Thesen Island now

The Barlow Rand Group purchased Thesen Island from the family in 1974, together with its sawmill and processing factory. However, the pollution emanating from the industrial activity was becoming a problem for Knysna’s sensitive lagoon. So, the Barlows together with property developers and architects, Chris Mulder Associates Inc set to work on transforming the island.


To maximise waterfront opportunities, Thesen Island was split into 19 individual islands and renamed Thesen Islands. The land was excavated to create canals separating the islands and a new chapter in the history of the island had begun.

Thesen Island now © Neil Fantom

Today, many of the old factories and even the island’s clinic have been refurbished and repurposed as hotels and restaurants. You can even still see some of the old machinery which has been lovingly restored, giving visitors a glimpse into this fascinating history.

Some of the old machinery still visible on Thesen Island


Discover all this and more on a self-guided heritage walking tour around the island next time you stay in Knysna!

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