Born in Stavanger, Norway on the 14th November 1856 and died on 1st February 1940 in Knysna, ship-owner and timber-merchant, was the fifth son of Arnt Leonard Thesen (born 26th October 1816 died 24th June 1875, a well-known ship-owner and town councillor of Stavanger, and his wife Anne Cathrine Margreta Brandt, who, having suffered financially through the Danish-German War of 1864, decided to emigrate to New Zealand. Charles set sail on 14 August 1869 with his parents, five brothers, two sisters, an uncle who had arranged the migration from Norway, and a cousin, in the family-owned Albatros, a 117-ton schooner which was their sole asset.Another brother, Ragnvald, was picked up at Plymouth. The ship arrived at Cape Town on 16th November, and left again on 24th November, but heavy weather off Cape Agulhas forced her back to Cape Town. It was decided not to go to New Zealand but to settle at Knysna, a densely forested estuarine port 400 miles east of Cape Town. Thesen’s uncle, Mathias Theodore Thesen (born 26th October 1813; died 18th June 1884), together with his son, Hans Thesen, had examined the possibilities of trading at Knysna, considering both freight-earning for the ship and trading in indigenous wood and general merchandise.
At Knysna Charles’s father and uncle established themselves as Thesen and Co. in 1870, basing their economic future on the embryonic timber and shipping industry and having a noticeable influence on the thinly populated village and district, while the Albatros formed the nucleus of a future fleet of coastal-trading steamships. After five months in the company Thesen’s uncle left to establish his own business at Plettenberg Bay, where he died in 1884. From February 1872 Charles Thesen worked as a clerk for William Anderson & Co. at Port Elizabeth. On his father’s death in 1875 he joined his brothers in the family business. His dynamic personality soon brought him to the front so that, at twenty-five, he became a member of the first municipal council of Knysna and mayor of the town (1890-1893 and 1921-1924). In 1889 he became a divisional councillor, serving on both bodies concurrently for many years and being elected chairman of the divisional council from 1925 to 1928.
During fifty years of public service Charles dominated almost every facet of Knysna’s life. Chairman of the local chamber of commerce, justice of the peace, member of the Cape Provincial Council, general manager of a privately-owned narrow-gauge railway in the main forest, he was the chief instrument in persuading the South African Railways to extend the line from George to Knysna, thus replacing with rail transport Thesen’s now uneconomical sea transport. The Thesen ships were then sold.
Before the close of the century Charles had taken out British citizenship and had become accustomed to the South African way of life, speaking English fluently though with a strong Norwegian accent. He had a commanding presence and was tall and spare. He had shrewd mastery of detail and money and at times an almost prophetic vision in acquiring large tracts of land for farming and tree-planting, carrying out afterwards the many activities resulting from his interests. His patriarchal hold on the family business was retained to the very end.
Charles Thesen’s first wife was Bessie Harison, daughter of Capt. Christopher Harison (see footnote), government conservator of forests. There were five sons and three daughters. Charles’s second wife was Hannah Thesen, daughter of his cousin, Capt. Hans Thesen (born 17th October 1843 and died 5th March 1909); there were one son and two daughters. Thesen’s sister, Blanka Thesen, married F. W. Reitz, the younger (see footnote), in 1874. His elder brothers were: Hjalmar (born 14th February 1846 died in1923), Rolf (born 9th August 1850 died 18th October 1883), Ragnvald (born 9th August 1850 died 8th July 1936) and Nils (born 24th April 1853 died 23rd November 1929).
Thesens’s portrait appears (infra) in Hartmann and in S.A.W.W., and there are portraits in the possession of the family.
Source: Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa (SESA)
Image: Who’s Who 1938
Footnote 1: (OLAI HARTMANN, Skandinaver i Syd-Afrika. En raekke biografier og skildringer. C.T., 1900; – S.A.W.W., 1913-1940; – W. TAPSON, The Knysna divisional council: the first hundred years, 1862-1962. Knysna, 1962; Timber and tides: the story of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay . Jbg., 1963; – Private information: H. W. Thesen, Knysna.)
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