During the mid-1700s, as the Dutch farmers pressed ever eastward, the only other humans they encountered were bands of itinerant Khoikhoi. Even Bartolomeu Diaz in his squat wooden caravels had in 1488 noticed them in spite of their sparse density. The footprint of this nomadic people was light and easily erased. Never settling in a location long enough to leave an imprint, their influence was ephemeral.
This peripatetic people, who left no trace of their existence, were the first people in what would become Port Elizabeth.
Main picture: Statue of Dawid Stuurman
Up until the late 1700s, this area was teaming with wild game with large herds of elephants abounding. Various explorers and adventurers attested to the fact that this part of the country once boasted incredibly dense populations of most of the species encountered in South Africa. Until recently, none of these animals could be seen in this area anymore. Now, a recently opened game park has put this to rights.
This blog has been based almost exclusively on the Heritage Impact Assessment by Jenny Bennie.
Main picture: Homestead of Henry Bailey Christian from 1889 to 1892 Continue reading
Due to its overwhelming British influence, Port Elizabeth was regarded as the most English of all the towns in South Africa during the nineteenth century. Therefore it is fitting that the first official test match – of that most quintessential of English sports, cricket – should be played in Port Elizabeth between the English and South Africa.
Main picture: The South African team in the first test
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 original 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
The saga of how Port Elizabeth acquired an unsuitable dam on a trickle of a river as its first primary water supply in the 1860s, is explained in this blog. Sadly after a few decades the water became saline and no longer potable. Perhaps this venture was emblematic of the era where vision was limited by parsimony and where, despite the Council’s laudable motives, was doomed to failure.
For all that, the Town Council did protect the interests of its residents by not financing the project itself. So, 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
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
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 a temporary repieve as it ultimately had to be permanently relocated elsewhere.
This blog covers the period to 1868 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
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.
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
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