Port Elizabeth of Yore: Rise and Fall of the Car Industry

Just as the slump and ultimate decline in the wool industry made the future economic prospects of Port Elizabeth bleak, so too does the motor vehicle industry’s relocation to the economic hub of South Africa portend a grim future for the town. 

After the booming fifties and sixties, the seventies awoke to new realities which the City Fathers had not contemplated: the decline of its manufacturing base. This process was ineluctable as the vortex of demand in Gauteng sucked manufacturers ever inward. Far from its market, aspersions were cast on Port Elizabeth’s manufacturing credentials. Instead of adapting to this reality, it persevered with the previous one. Simply put, its strategy should have been a focus on economic activities decoupled from Gauteng such as tourism, medicines manufacture and development, movie making, technology development et al. 

In retrospect, the stages of development of the motor vehicle industry in Port Elizabeth are now at an end. Hence it allows one to analyse dispassionately its still warm corpse. 

This blog deals with its stages of development as a requiem mass is held after the demise of yet another motor manufacturing icon, General Motors, at the age of 95 years. 

General Motors is a fitting metaphor of this process and is replete with all these elements.

Main picture: General Motors’ factory

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Narrow Gauge Walmer Branch Line

Today nothing remains of this railway line which wended its way through the sylvan town of Walmer in the early twentieth century. Not even a memory, the sound of the whistle or the smell of the coal fired engine which traversed the arboreal streets such as Villiers and Water Road all the way to the municipal boundary at 14th Avenue recalls this miniature train. 

Main picture: Narrow gauge train leaving the Main Station in Port Elizabeth  Continue reading

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Victoria Quay

Originally the sea waves crashed to shore where Strand Streets lies today. Devoid of jetties, piers or breakwaters, the beaches stretching from the current Campanile to the South End were used as landing beaches. 

In 1857, this situation was to change. Ultimately the sandy beaches along this stretch of coast was to be replaced by a sea wall. Exactly why it was named a quay and not an embankment cannot be ascertained.

Main picture: Victoria Quay from the North Jetty Continue reading

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Wages, Strikes and the Mfengu Beach Labour

In his thesis on the development of the Port Elizabeth Harbour, Mr E.J. Inggs raises some interesting facts not only about the convoluted path to the ultimate construction of a harbour but also the operation and importance of Port Elizabeth’s harbour to the Cape Colony.

Apart from these aspects, what really piqued my interest was the issue of the wage levels of the Mfengu Beach Labour, as he calls the cargo loaders and unloaders. Their remuneration perfectly reflects what Economics 101 identifies as a fundamental factor in economics viz supply and demand.

 Main picture: Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Early Black Settlements

These settlements were never called suburbs or townships but colloquially they were known as locations ab initio . What is less well known is that there were various black settlements in Port Elizabeth from its earliest days. Their inhabitants were generally Khoi but later came the Mfengu after the British authorities granted them rights to live here in 1851.

Conspicuously absent from central Port Elizabeth is even fragmentary evidence of their location dwellings or artefacts. All that remains of these settlements are some footnotes to history. Ultimately these residents were relocated to Red Location and New Brighton in the early part of the 20th century.

This blog attempts to set that right.

Main picture: Part of Stranger’s Location at the top of the hill next to Russell Road

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Frederick Korsten: Founder of Eastern Province Commerce

Of all the early inhabitants of the nascent Port Elizabeth, Frederick Korsten deserves to be remembered, yet there is no tribute to him. The most fitting monument would have been the preservation of his former magnificent home but even that now lies in ruin. 

Even a comprehensive biography would have salved our conscience yet even that road to salvation has been rejected. John Centlivres did make an attempt in 1868, yet in length it is little more than that of a eulogy. What he fails to mention or even allude to, is that Frederick Korsten was his father-in-law, nor does he provide an insight into what made him tick. 

Such disdain for history reflects poorly on the denizens of Algoa Bay.

Main picture: Frederick Korsten

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Early Days

 This blog is based mainly upon the reminiscences in the 1940s of Anthony Scallan who was born on the first floor of his father’s shop in Main Street on 12nd October 1952. Below, the sign on the shop front, it read, “James Scallan, Tailor.”  This business was run by John’s grandfather, James Scallan, an early Settler but not strictly 1820, and by his father, Patric [sic], who had been born in 1822. 

This blog vividly recounts what Main Street was like in an era when most buildings were double-storied with the upstairs area being the family’s home. 

Join me on a journey to a long-lost world of early Main Street, not only the buildings but also some of the characters that inhabited them. 

Main picture: Brister’s furniture makers in Main Street just before Donkin Street  Continue reading