Church Square owes its existence to its location in front of The Groote Kerk, the foundations of which were laid by Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel in 1700. The square wasn’t officially named Church Square until 1791 when it was referred to it as “Kerkplijn” on a map.
Slaves would sit and wait for their masters to come out of church, passing their time under a “slave tree” beside the carriages. Although the original “slave tree” was removed in 1916, a commemorative tree has been planted in its place. Besides being the open space dedicated to serving the church, it was also a popular meeting place for dogs – so much so that the Company had to appoint a dog whipper whose responsibility it was to keep dogs away from the church and the square. The size of the square was gradually reduced to make way for a larger graveyard, particularly after smallpox epidemics in 1713 and 1755. That graveyard has now been built over.
Another prominent building on the square is the former Slave Lodge, built by the early Dutch settlers in 1679. Slaves lived in the building until 1811 when the building became used for a variety of government departments , including the Cape Supreme Court, the library and the post office. Since 1960 it has been used as a museum. It has been renamed The Slave Lodge and contains exhibits regarding the history of slavery.
In 1920 a statue (called “Oom Jan”) of the parliamentarian, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, was erected in the square in recognition of Hofmey’s efforts to have Dutch recognised as a language on equal footing with English in the Constitution of 1910.
As with other public spaces in Cape Town, Church Square has had to be reclaimed in recent years from its role as a car park. The City of Cape Town and the Cape Town Partnership have been active in the plan to re-pave the space, introduce greenery and once again, make the square into a well managed, multi-functional space for all Capetonians. The square was re-paved, trees introduced and a memorial to the square’s origins as a slave market was unveiled in 2008. Eleven granite blocks give passers-by an indication of the names of some of the slaves traded in the square. Today the square is widely used by pedestrians, camera crews and performance groups.