On the 13th March 1875 Walter Searle and his friend Henry (later Lord) de Villiers bought adjoining pieces of land in an area that was one part of the huge Stellenberg farm owned by Willem Adriaan van der Stel. Henry built the beautifully fashionable Wynberg House – now sadly demolished – while Walter opted for a more sturdy looking single building with large gables and broad, thick thatched roof.
Together with his wife Margaret (nee McIntyre) and 2 sons, Walter junior and Malcolm, Walter moved into the new home on 12 acres on Wynberg Hill and named it Highlands.
At the age of 64 and in ill health, Walter Searle returned to Cambridge, England. His 2 sons inherited Highlands. Malcolm William bought out his elder brother and took up residence in Highlands with his new bride Emma Jane (Jenny) St Ledger.
Alongside his thriving practice at the Bar, Malcolm and Jenny Searle found much time to travel, only settling and starting a family 10 years later. When in 1899 their baby’s nurse smelt smoke and sounded the alarm, it was too late; fanned by the blustery South-Easter the fire quickly spread to the thatch and Highlands was burnt to the ground.
A friend of the family, Herbert Baker, began drawing up plans for a new home, positioning it on the sound foundation and remaining stoep of the old house. Initially the architect explored reconstructing the previous structure, perhaps on the Searles’ instructions. In any effect the plans for the new building were approved by the Wynberg Council in December 1899 and the construction of Herbert Baker’s Highlands began.
By New Years day 1901, the Searle family, now with 2 children (4 were to follow), took up residence in one of the most splendid homes in the Cape. Set majestically on the Wynberg hill with Devil’s Peak as a backdrop, Highlands was indeed splendid. The red broseley roof tiles imported from England, matched to the red brick coigns and the turned signature Baker chimneys.
Many of Baker’s inspirations were taken from his studies in Italy, funded by Cecil Rhodes and used earlier in Rhodes’ Groote Schuur house, also by Herbert Baker.
The 12 ornamental-rimmed terracotta pots, which adorned the imposing stoep at Highlands, are thought to have also been designed by Sir Herbert Baker; they were certainly imported from Italy in the late 1890’s. Of those original pots, 4 can still be found at Highlands together with a number of other Searle family heirlooms which were brought back to Highlands by Malcolm William’s grandson Jeremy St Leger Lawrence.
Knighted and appointed Judge President of the Cape Provisional Division of the Supreme Court,
Sir Malcolm and Jenny Searle led an active social life and frequently entertained at Highlands. His accidental death in a rail accident in 1926 left his widow not only with 6 children, but also a large house to manage and maintain. Less than a year later the St Leger Searle family sold Highlands.
Subsequently the Baxter, the Jooste and the Wilson families all raised children under Highlands red tiled roof many of whom return from time to time to reminisce, re-live and share memories of a truly happy, loving and thoroughly homely house: Highlands.
Highlands Country House is considered to be amongst the most important Cape homes of the era.
It has been lovingly restored and is run as a privately owned Country House Residence.