Port Elizabeth of Yore: Match Manufacturing

In the publication “The Match Industry in South Africa,” Mr. D.R. Leith notes the following: “Matches were first manufactured in South Africa in July 1885, in Port Elizabeth, by Mr. Thomas Milward.”

After an auspicious start in Port Elizabeth, match manufacturing operations were set up elsewhere in South Africa. In 1903, the light of a new industry was extinguished in Port Elizabeth when the factory was shuttered.

This is the story of why that initial attempt did not ignite a new industry in Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: The staff of the first match factory founded in Port Elizabeth in 1885. Mr William Brooker is seated in the middle, with his son, W.H. Brooker on his right. The other sons, C.F. and A.V. Brooker are, respectively the lad in a hat at the right in the back row, and the small boy seated on a case at the left. The photograph was taken circa 1902. Continue reading

Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Paterson vs PE Municipality in 1863

John Paterson must have finished Friday 22nd May 1863 in a euphoric mood. The Town Council had accepted his proposal to use the unwanted obelisk as a memorial to the betrothal of the Prince of Wales and Alexandria of Denmark. So far, Paterson had experienced improbable good luck, much like the Midas Touch. During that day’s festivities, Paterson had been royally feted with cheers of acclamation. 

On the other hand, the next day, Saturday 23rd, would be a stark contrast to this, culminating in a legal confrontation with the Port Elizabeth Town Council. It was marred by an accident which would cost John Paterson the best part of £600, a King’s Ransom in those days.

Main picture: John Paterson Continue reading

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Woolwasheries, the First Industry in PE

Prior to the establishment of woolwasheries in Port Elizabeth, there were no industries in the town. The salient feature of economic activities was a focus on merchanting and activities related to the harbour. Activities such as house construction, shoe and bootmaking were prevalent but they were not undertaken on an “industrial scale.” Instead they were all undertaken on a “made to order” basis on the owner’s property rather than for stock in a factory.  

With the burgeoning wool trade, various entrepreneurs sensed a business opportunity. Thus commenced the woolwashing industry for which Port Elizabeth is still renowned.

 Main picture: Woolwashing in Humewood  Continue reading

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Saga of the Obelisk

Originally intended by John Paterson as a tombstone to his business partner and friend, George Kemp, but when rejected as inappropriate by Kemp’s family, it was salvaged and placed in Market Square where it majestically stood for 58 years.  

Instead of connoting its initial conflicted sepulchral/royal origins, it should have been dedicated to Paterson himself, who could, if you will, be characterised as Port Elizabeth’s greatest son.

This is the story of that saga.

Main picture: The obelisk with its prominent position in Market Square

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Port Elizabeth 160 Years Ago

These reminiscences form part of a lecture presented by Mr. W. E. Vardy at St. Cuthbert’s Church on the 24th February 1913 entitled “Port Elizabeth 50 years ago.” This forms part of the second section entitled, “Political and Social Position.” Vardy was a merchant who resided in Havelock Street.

Port Elizabeth of the 1860s was expanding swiftly but it did not yet bear the mark of a grand, prosperous and salubrious town. The lifestyle was frugal in the extreme with most residents making their own bread and clothes as well as collecting their own water as the water from the Shark River was brackish and hence unpalatable. Modern services such as sewerage, electricity and the telephone were still 50 years in the future for most denizens.   

Apart from minor amendments and corrections, this is a verbatim copy of that speech.

Main picture: Main Street in 1864. The first block of houses on the right are bounded by Grace, Britannia and Staines Streets. The building on the right still stands today though its facade has changed immensely but the stone wall in Grace Street remains as it was then. Deare and Dietz, who occupied the premises, brought out H.W. Pearson to Port Elizabeth as their bookkeeper. The large buildings on the left are warehouses and stores belonging to the large merchants, one of whom was Dunells & Ebden. The smaller buildings in the middle are particular to the architecture of time when families lived above their business premises.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Cape Mounted Police

The establishment of towns witnessed the concomitant creation of an incipient constabulary albeit on a skeletal basis. This force was funded by and under the control of the local authority. At this juncture, the rural areas did not have any police presence. In view of the increasing incidence of stock theft and other such crimes, the Government was compelled to step into the breach. 

In terms of the Police Act of 1873, the Government offered to establish a special Mounted Police Force whose sine qua non was to operate solely in rural areas. 

Main picture: Sergeant in the Cape Mounted Police

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach over the Years

Prior to the construction of the harbour wall in the 1920s, the beach from the Baakens River to the Shark River was largely unusable for swimming purposes. This is the reason why the first beach south of the Baakens River to gain popularity was Humewood. 

Yet after the erection of the harbour wall, there was a steady accumulation of sea sand against the sea wall to the point where the accumulated sand now stretches along the whole length of the wall. 

Main picture: Sand dunes covering the whole of what was to become Humewood and Summerstrand. Even though it is unclear, there is no beach along the coast

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Acrimonious Rivalry between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth in the 1860s

For the most part, the relationship between the two adjacent towns was cordial but with an undertone of superiority on the part of the residents of Uitenhage. This situation was about to deteriorate. During the 1860s, the state of healthy rivalry degenerated into fierce acrimonious contestation. At issue was the length of rural roads that the Uitenhage Divisional Council was responsible for vis-à-vis Port Elizabeth. Yet another contentious issue was the ownership of the tolls collected on the main roads. 

This episode is a timely reminder that rash impetuous decisions must never supplant rational compromises however aggrieved one party feels. A wilful disregard for the truth and the facts would prolong the dispute until wisdom prevailed. This situation is eerily similar to modern disputes about resource allocation a la the NHI.

Main picture: The Wylde Bridge which replaced the Rawson Bridge

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Old Gamtoos River Bridge

Like all river crossings before the advent of pontoons and later bridges, the travellers could only cross the river at locations sufficiently far inland so as not to be affected by tidal inflows while still being as close to the coast as possible. Furthermore both of the ingress and egress points had to be characterised by gentle slopes. 

This blog covers the evolution of the crossing of the Gamtoos River from pontoon to a single lane bridge. 

Main picture: Ferry across the Gamtoos River

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Mackay Bridge over the Sunday’s River

The Sundays River is the Eastern boundary of the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area and is situated right next to the Addo Elephant National Park’s southern boundary. The Khoisan people originally named this river Nukakamma (Grassy Water) because the river’s banks are always green and grassy despite the arid terrain that it runs through. It is said to be the fastest flowing river in the country. 

For many years, travellers to Grahamstown had to cross the river using a punt. Ultimately the need for a bridge was acknowledged. 

Main picture: The Mackay Bridge

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