Of all the business colossuses that Port Elizabeth has produced, John Paterson might outrank them all except perhaps the Mosenthal Brothers. Pamela Ffolliott correctly labels Paterson a Titan. To successfully establish two enterprises of the stature and calibre of Standard Bank and the E.P. Herald which have endured for more than a century and a half is testament to his foresight. Paterson encapsulates the vision, energy, restless spirit and other attributes of a successful businessman.
As his two most notable business accomplishments viz the establishment of the Eastern Province Herald and Standard Bank have been examined in detail elsewhere, this blog will only investigate the earlier life of this remarkable, indefatigable man as well as his civic-mindedness which drove his desire to establish a municipality in this forsaken town.
Main picture: John Paterson
William Fleming played a vital role in Port Elizabeth from 1842 until his death in 1861 at the age of 65. Like many of his contemporaries, he deserves to be recognised not for his legal and business acumen but rather for the civic mindedness which he displayed in the latter period of his life.
One of his sons was also named William. In tracking the careers of both men, the confusion regarding whether it was the father or the son to whom an event or activity should be attributed takes time to untangle. In the McCleland family tree, William Fleming is especially relevant as he married Adelaide McCleland, daughter of the Rev. Francis McCleland, making him my second great uncle.
Main picture: William Fleming as a Captain of the Prince Alfred’s Guards
Was it a Comedy of Errors or Merely a Dose of Reality?
With the rapid growth in exports from Port Elizabeth, incessant demands arose to build a proper harbour in the form of jetties and a breakwater. The initial attempt at harbour building was the construction of a jetty using the wreck of the vessel Feegee as its base. Its usefulness was short-lived as a sudden gale drove several vessels through it, irreparably damaging it.
Various configurations of a breakwater were later proposed and the design that was adopted was constructed just south of the Baakens River. This was the start of a town’s nightmare as first the sea and then a flood were to silt the harbour up, posing a threat to the operation of the landing beaches. Instead of a crowning achievement, this episode resulted in not only the necessity of dismantling the breakwater but even more disconcerting, it caused the postponement of the construction of the breakwater and quays by 60 years.
If successful, it would have been a transformative change for a town in no small measure defined by its primitive method of discharging cargo onto flimsy lighters out on the roadstead.
Main picture: The breakwater south of the Baakens River – a fatal design flaw
Prior to 1975, the Comrades Marathon was only open to white men. Despite this restriction, several women and black people ran the race in contravention of that restriction. One such person was Robert Mtshali, a young black runner, who in 1935 completed the race in 1935 as an unofficial runner in the time of 9:30. To provide Mtshali with some form of recognition for his achievement, a local Councillor, Councillor Dr. Vernon Lyall Shearer, presented him with an unofficial award.
While I have always been aware that baskets were used on occasions to transfer passengers to and from tugs, that always left the majority of the passengers with no ostensible method of transfer. After sleuthing by my brother Blaine and by means of an article in Looking Back uncovered by myself, the mystery has finally been resolved. Archaic and dangerous would be adequate descriptors of the practice employed.
Main picture: A tug ferrying passengers from North Jetty to an awaiting ship in the roadstead. Note the wicker baskets on the jetty as well as a steel rod hanging over the water.
One can safely assume that prior to the establishment of the first newspaper, the E.P. Herald, in Port Elizabeth in 1845, and before the establishment of Port Elizabeth as a borough in July 1860, very little historical information was formally recorded. In their endeavours to earn a living in a town without facilities, recording history took a low priority in their lives. Until that time, it was visitors and travellers who recorded their observations of the town. Most of them were not complimentary about it but that is the only source of information of this nascent town.
In this blog, it is the journal maintained by the Assistant Surgeon on the ship, the Falcon, which forms the basis of William Dunn’s observations of the town. They are trenchant and incisive, unflattering in their candour but were no different from those of many an observer from that period.
Main picture: Port Elizabeth in February 1835 painted by Charles Michell. The Inn at which Gunn and his fellow mariners shared breakfast is the large building on the hill
Many people once pejoratively called Prince Charles a sentimental old fool for deploring the destruction of the architectural coherence of an area by demolishing an old building within a section of a town or street which epitomised a particular architectural style. As such, Charles was roundly condemned for wanting to stifle progress and advancement. Instead, it was an earnest plea by Charles to preserve such sections of the town where there was merit to do so. For not to exercise caution would destroy the architectural integrity of that area.
Sadly, Port Elizabeth has witnessed the destruction of such an area which would fall within the remit of Charles’ rebuke. Without a doubt, this area encompasses the old Market Square and includes Jetty Street and the old Customs House. To this we can add the demolition of the Fleming building and the old Collegiate School for use as a parking area
Main picture: The Main Library in 1939. All of these buildings whether they were constructed in 1859 like the Grey Institute or the Donkin lighthouse in 1861 are still standing. At this date if one had to turn around and look across Market Square, all of the original buildings would still be standing. From Castle Corner to the Mosenthal and Richardson buildings, they would all be present. Then as in in fit of pique, in the 1970s they would all be demolished.
This blog is loosely based upon the reminiscences of Mrs. Margery Lochhead who was born in 1888 in Port Elizabeth and recalls the town of her youth. Not only was the town on the cusp of a new century but it would also herald the advent of revolutionary technologies such as the motor vehicle and electricity. These inventions would forever change the mode of transport but also humanity’s relationships with work and leisure.
However, these changes were still in the future. In the latter part of the 19th century, the horse, the cart and Shank’s Pony [i.e. one’s own legs] were still the predominant modes of travel.
Main picture: Main Street before 1883. Note that this portion of western Main Street north of Donkin Street still possessed numerous of the original basic single and double storey buildings. As redevelopment steadily extended towards Russell Street, in due course these buildings would be replaced with larger more elegant structures
When the elements defeat ingenuity and determination
The first practical scheme to improve Port Elizabeth’s harbour facilities was mooted barely ten years after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. This reflects the stunning growth of Port Elizabeth as a harbour. Notwithstanding the determination of the local residents, politics and other considerations would intrude to prevent the hopes and aspirations of this dream being realised.
Nine years after being mooted in 1831, construction of the First Jetty commenced in 1840. The maxim, “The past we inherit and the future we create,” was now validated. This blog covers the cycle of this project from its initial conceptualisation to its unfortunate, untimely and unexpected destruction in 1843.
Main picture: The first jetty
The demolition of this elegant and stately building was a loss in two aspects. Firstly in and of itself, due to its architectural merits, the building deserved to be retained. More importantly this building together with the other buildings in Market Square represented an integrated whole. The demolition of an elegant late Victorian building and replacing it with a faux modern prison-like building was unconscionable and unforgiveable. The whole area deserved to be retained as a whole
Main picture: Mosenthal’s building in Market Square