Port Elizabeth of Yore: From Sandy Hills to Tent Town to Sandy Hills Once Again

For the Settler, this voyage would be the quintessential destination to a terra incognito, not only from a location perspective but also from a livelihood point of view. Most had not been selected psychologically with the criteria of the rugged pioneer in mind nor did many possess any farming skills or aptitude. Apart from the tiny Deal Party, Port Elizabeth, or “landing place with fresh water” as it was shown then on the maps, was merely a waystation en route to the Albany District. As such, their initial impact on this hamlet was minimal; more like that of any itinerant or peripatetic soul. 

Yet their impact would ultimately be immense as those without the requisite farming skills would drift back to the area to apply their skills and their trade. It was only then that the hamlet would be converted from sandy hills into a vibrant fast-expanding town vying with Cape Town as the Colony’s largest city. 

This is the story of this transient herd, their travails and their experiences whilst in Port Elizabeth. By now, the story of the 1820 Settlers is well known and does not form part of the history of Port Elizabeth per se. As such, this blog will focus on the salient facts but not the minutiae of the Settlers’ experiences.

Main picture: Arrival of the 1820 Settlers

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Dam

The saga of how Port Elizabeth acquired an unsuitable dam on a trickle of a river as its primary water supply in the 1860s, is explained in this blog. Coupled to these considerations was the fact that the water was not potable, should have raised warning flags. Perhaps it is emblematic of the era where visions were limited by parsimony and despite the Council’s laudable motives, its chosen solution never stood the test of time. 

For all that, the Town Council did protect the interests of its residents by not financing the project itself and when bankruptcy did occur, no losses were borne by the denizens of the town. 

Main picture: Opening the value at the Frames Dam in 1863

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Source of Water

As David Raymer points out in his excellent book on the water supply to Port Elizabeth entitled, “Streams of Life,”Until 1880 the greatest problem [that] the settlement of Port Elizabeth faced was the question of a dependable and adequate supply of fresh water for the residents.”

This blog covers the first attempt to address this conundrum.

Main picture: One of the original wells in Port Elizabeth

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Market Square used as a Market

For the first forty-five years of Port Elizabeth’s existence, Market Square was the focal point of trade in farmers’ produce in Port Elizabeth.  During 1865, the Municipality relocated the Market close to the Law Courts’ Building, but subsequent civic pressure forced them to relent. This was temporary respite as it ultimately had to be permanently relocated elsewhere. 

This blog covers the period to 1865 when the Market was held in Market Square. 

Main picture: Market Square and Castle Hill circa 1860 painted by Mrs J Clark. The free-standing house was the original dedicated Post Office

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Quo Vadis: The Future of Main Street

Architecturally Main Street has arguably evolved through four stages in its 200-year history. At the risk of offending the sensibilities of certain of the residents, put in the starkest terms, these stages reflect both the demographics and the economic status of the town. But this venerable street now faces the prospect of terminal decline. It is my strongly held opinion that unless alternative uses are found for the area, whatever architectural merit remains of this area, and this includes Central PE generally, will be irreparably lost forever.

That begs the questions of how and what.

This blog merely serves to raise the warning flag and offer some ideas of what may be done. In its starkest terms, a more comprehensive integrated long-term plan is required to address this issue.

Main picture: Main Street during the transition from the initial plain double storey structures with shops on the ground floor and living accommodation on the first floor to more elegant structures complimenting the graceful Town Hall.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Pictorial History of Willows

I would have preferred to have written a history of Willows, albeit short, but as I have been unable to uncover any information about this iconic resort, I will invoke my right to present a pictorial blog only. Even as regards photographs, there is a dearth of them covering the early years.

Like many Port Elizabethians, the McCleland family stayed at Willows at some point in their lives. In our case it was over the Easter holidays. Sometimes we even took our home-built canoe along but as the main pool was miniscule, it could, in all honesty, only be used when the facility was not crowded.

Main picture: Two views of Willows separated by 50 years

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Birth of the Standard Bank

John Paterson was at the forefront of many of the developments in Port Elizabeth. Amongst these were the establishment of the Grey Institute and the Eastern Province Herald. Perhaps the least obvious creation of John Paterson, was that of the Standard Bank. 

It was to be in 1857, that Paterson, a prominent Port Elizabeth businessman, was to turn his hand at banking when he attempted to commence a bank with the title The Standard Bank of Port Elizabeth. A prospectus was duly issued reflecting a proposed capital of £ ¼ million. 

Main picture: The original Standard Bank building

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Mill Wheels Grinding: The Orphans

{aka Yenta searching for mills- like any good Jewish Donna Quixote would do} 

As any writer/researcher or mill-chaser will allow, there are times when one is stumped. You sit with a collection of faded sepia photographs, of mills, and try as you may, they simply have no story, or were ignored in the course of history, and their records are lost.

All you get when you search from rumours, “I’m sure there was a mill here long ago” – not much help hey?    

Main picture: Mill of Julian Francis Langholm

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Mill Wheels Grinding – The Crumpled Mill, Mansfield

{aka Yenta searching for mills- like any good Jewish Donna Quixote would do}

[Of the 384 mills built in the Eastern Cape, a collective of grist, big wooden wheel- wind, paddles, and horse mills,  wooden wheel on top of the mill, only 90 have been identified to date. Of the 1000 mills built in South Africa, all genres, approximately only a further 20 have been recognized.]

This settler mill, has a very sad tale of great expectations, mayhap no business plan in place, and ended up as a crumbling, neglected, ruin of a mill. {Circa 1840}, Mansfield, the land, itself, is a vast old ‘settler, landmarked farm’, holding copious amounts of fresh water from the strong stream, to the left of the photograph; {the water provided is so endless, that it supplies the village of Port Alfred with fresh water} circa 2018.  Perfect for this large ‘grist-mill’  {the one with the large wooden wheel} .

Main picture: Mansfield Mill in 1987

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Periodic Visitations by the Irascible Rain God

Port Elizabeth has had the misfortune to suffer from periodic devastating floods. Our ancient forefathers would have attributed this to displeasing the Gods in some way or the other, normally by being sinful. With the benefit of science, this phenomenon can surely be attributed to the fact that Port Elizabeth is at the confluence of two weather systems, periodically introducing extreme weather. As the most devastating floods, as well as many of the worst south-easters, occurred during the three months September to November, it can safely be assumed that weather patterns as opposed to vexatious gods, is the culprit for this flooding. 

This blog only covers the significant floods until November 1908. 

Main picture: Repairs after the 1908 floods

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