Port Elizabeth of Yore : Volume 1 – Defying the Odds

As Port Elizabeth approaches its bicentenary in April 2020, this event has to be celebrated for not only was it the birth of a new town, but it was also home to many of our ancestors. This four-volume set of books records those birth pangs and well as the people and events which over the next 150 years made Port Elizabeth what it is today.

Volume 1 entitled Defying the Odds will be released later this year with the other three volumes following at six-month intervals.

Comments on the back cover

Initially Port Elizabeth was only earmarked as a landing place for the British settlers and not as their destination. Yet in the thirty-year period from 1820 to 1850, contrary to expectations it experienced a tremendous growth spurt. So prodigious in fact was its expansion that it even overtook Cape Town in terms of the volume of exports.

This is the story of the people and events that form the basis of this incredible journey.

This book forms part of a four-volume series which takes the reader on the fascinating odyssey from the original inhabitants – the Khoi – through the town’s development into an entrepôt, wool processor and exporter to its pinnacle as the Detroit of South Africa.

Evaluation of the Rev. Francis McCleland

Character

The objective of any biography is to obtain an understanding of what motivates that person and how they handle situations, especially the troublesome ones. Essentially what one attempts to do, is to understand what makes a person tick. Even in the best cases, vital pieces of evidence are missing, hidden behind the veil of their private lives. Just ask a divorced person for a resume of their ex-spouse and compare the response with what is publicly known about the person. The mask will slip, and the real person will be revealed. So it is with Francis McCleland except that Francis’ obnoxious actions towards third parties became common knowledge and were not restricted to one person. Being so egregious, the other parties took public umbrage at Francis’ actions and hence his personality – or at least  to the putrescent bits.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Impetus for the Separatist League

Almost ab initio, the Cape Colony was cleaved into two after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. The Eastern Province separatism originated as early as 1823. The initial resentment which inspired separatism arose due to the British settlers’ demands for a greater military presence on the frontier. Within thirty years, this resentment was driven by a different set of concerns as the two regions differed in their demographics and their politics. However, the west-east division was not absolute until it was built into the structures of the Cape’s legislature with all the English majority areas being demarcated as being part of the Eastern Province. This was a prelude to the formation of the Eastern Province Separatist League which demanded greater autonomy for the Eastern Province as a separate Colony with its own capital. 

Main picture: In 1854, the Cape Colony was split into 2 provinces comprising 22 districts

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My Draaifontein Great Grandmother: Mary Ann Beckley

Normally women during this era were hidden from the purview of subsequent generations. Whether they are remembered – if they are recalled at all – is through the deeds of their husband and not for what they achieved themselves. But Polly – Mary Ann’s sobriquet – was different. She survives not through some outrageous deed but rather her wistful letters and poignant poetry.

Main picture:Joseph James and Mary Ann Beckley with their youngest daughter Grace on the front verandah at Draaifontein.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Liberty Ship – the Anne Hutchinson

WW2 was fought across the oceans of the world. As such the seas off Port Elizabeth were not immune  from the depredations of the scourge of the seas: The U-Boat. One such vessel that was sunk off the Eastern Cape coast was the Liberty Ship, the Anne Hutchinson.

The American Liberty ship Anne Hutchinson SS was torpedoed and shelled on October 26th, 1942, by German submarine U-504. Her stern portion up to No. 4 hatch was blown off. The forepart was towed into Algoa Bay on October 31st. Three lives were lost.  

Main picture: Anne Hutchinson after being torpedoed

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Draaifontein Farmhouse

The original house of the McCleland’s in PE was No. 7 Castle Hill but how many in the McCleland clan are aware that the distaff side of the family for three of the Rev Francis McCleland’s sons, whose wives were all Beckley’s, were raised in this unprepossessing house on the hill along Draaifontein Road.

Whether this house was built in 1803, as is now supposed, or in 1815 when Capt. Francis Evatt was granted this property, is irrelevant in the oldest extant house stakes. On either count, no. 7 Castle Hill is the lame donkey to the virile horse.  

 Main picture: Photo of the Title Deeds taken by Tony Beckley

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Wild and Cantankerous Seaview

For me, Seaview has always been the embodiment of a wild, eccentric and cantankerous old man. One moment it could be placid and charming and yet the next moment it displayed its obstreperous wilful nature. To make peace with such a character, one had to make peace with its mood swings

The focal point of Seaview has always been the hotel which sadly has recently been demolished. Naturally Seaview is much more than its hotel. It is a township located on a rugged stretch of coastline unsuited for swimming but with its own wild beguiling charm.

Main picture: The interesting thing about this picture is that it is pre-1934. They started construction on the hotel in 1934 from the right of the hotel as you looked at it with the ocean behind you. The giant Norfolk pines are not yet even visible, the two structures that are visible are on what would become hotel land.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Parkin – from Humble Beginnings to Property Magnet

John Parkin was the leader of an 1820 Settler Party which arrived aboard the Weymouth on the 15th May 1820. A carpenter and wheelwright by training, John Parkin resided at Lower North Street, Exeter, Devon.

Shortly after settling at the area designated for the Devon party at Kariega, John Parkin relocated his family to Port Elizabeth where he acquired a huge farm, eponymously known as the Baaken’s River Farm. By the time of his death in 1856, the Parkins were one of the wealthiest families in town.

Main picture: John Parkin of Baakens River Farm

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Destruction of St. Mary’s Church by Fire in 1895

The destruction of the St. Mary’s Church was devastating for the community in Port Elizabeth. Not only was it the first church to be erected in the town but it was also the focal point of many activities in the town as well as being the mother church for all the sibling Anglican churches.

If there was any beneficial effect of its destruction is that it afforded the congregants an opportunity to transform a non-ecclesiastical oblong building devoid of architectural merit into a building befitting its status and not just a building fit for purpose.

Main picture: St Mary’s church the morning after the fire

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: What Happened to the Bell of the Chapman?

One of the seminal events in the history of the Eastern Cape and ultimately South Africa, was the arrival of the British Settlers in 1820. Notwithstanding their importance and impact upon the trajectory of South Africa, no artefact of that landing is extant.

If an artefact were still surviving, should it not have pride of place at the Bayworld Museum? If such an artefact is indeed extant, where is it located?

Main picture:  The Chapman’s Bell is housed at the Centurion Bowling Club, Lyttleton Manor Centurion

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