Gilbert Curtis Billson was born on 22 April 1884, the youngest of 7 children born to George Curtis Billson & Alice Mary (nee Quick), the previous 3 siblings all having died in infancy.
Main picture: Gilbert Curtis Billson
His great-grandfather, Thomas Bilson (1794 to 07.03.1835) came out with the Calton party on the ship “Albury”, arriving in Port Elizabeth on 28 May 1820. The family was settled on allotment 34 at Clumber, but after 2 years they moved to Port Elizabeth where he became a Constable due to his military background (he had served in the Royal Horse Guards & was shot through the leg in a charge at the Battle of Waterloo). Thomas was killed on 7 March 1835 at the age of 41 near Fraser’s Camp during a skirmish with a Xhosa raiding party that had crossed the Fish River. His wife was Mary Jane Curtis, & this surname was later given as a second name to some of the male descendants. The second “l” in the Billson surname was added in 1864. They had 8 children.
Not much is known about Thomas’s son William (b. 27.04.1824, d. 1872), save that in 1847 his occupation was given as Carpenter & that he moved to Humansdorp at some stage. He married Caroline Beer from Humansdorp & they had 7 children.
William’s son, George Curtis Billson (b.20.10.1849, d.05.01.1901) was a farmer & hotelkeeper at Greenbushes, & at the time of his untimely death owned various properties in the area, including Hunter’s Retreat & Fitch’s. George’s eldest son, Sydney, had caught a boomslang & put it in a box prior to sending it away. George showed it to some friends later in the afternoon, & in handling it was bitten on the wrist. Over the next few days his arm swelled & he became very ill. The Doctors could do nothing for him & he passed away on 05.01.1901 at the age of 51.
Gilbert was only 16 at the time of his father’s death. It is unsure where he was schooled, possibly Marist Brothers, but his own sons later went to Pearson. As the son of a wealthy man, Gilbert did not have a trade or profession. He married Esther Susannah Olive Fleischer (b. 06.04.1893, d. 06.05.1925) & his father-in-law taught him mechanics in order that he could support his wife & family. They had 2 sons & a daughter (George, Shirley & William) & this love of things mechanical was passed down to his son William (Bill) who was an avid motorcycle enthusiast & well known in Port Elizabeth for the beautifully restored vintage motorbikes he owned. Gilbert must have been involved in motorcycles too, as his daughter Yvonne Lovemore has an oak biscuit barrel with porcelain lining, that he won in a motorcycle race in Port Elizabeth. She also has a copy of his driver’s licence, dated 04.04.1917, which gives his address as 27 Villiers Road, Walmer.
Olive passed away at the age of 32 after complications following a gall bladder operation. Her mother, known in the family as “Granny Fleischer”, looked after the family. The widowed Gilbert then married Catherine Agatha Black (b. 01.03.1910, d. 01.09.1995), known as Irene, on 09.04.1932. He was then almost 47 & she was 22, only 4 years older than his eldest son!
At this time Gilbert was a Foreman Carpenter. He was excellent at woodwork & some of the items he made are still in the family’s possession today – his granddaughter Janine Cotterrell (nee Lovemore) has a beautiful teak hall table that he made, a special piece indeed. Gilbert & Irene had 3 daughters (Ruby, Yvonne & Myra). At the time of their marriage they had a flat in Walmer – Coode Flats – but due to noisy neighbours soon moved to a house at 12 Wyndham St in the Victoria Park area, which they hired for a number of years. They bought a Dodge Tourer for £20 with Irene’s savings. The Depression was affecting everyone in the 1930’s & Irene continued working at a clothing factory until her first daughter was born in 1933.
In 1937 they bought a Whippet Sedan for £200. By this stage Gilbert had gone into partnership with his friend, a Mr Bucholtz. They had built the Metro Theatre & also the Astro Theatre in Jetty Street. The opening of the latter was a grand affair indeed, with the “Merry Widow” playing. Sam Richardson, the owner of the Astro, was much taken with their young daughter, Ruby, calling her “his own little Shirley Temple”. It was here that Gilbert met Sam Richardson’s nephew, Sir Lesley Richardson, who had gone into partnership with 2 Jewish brothers. They decided to build a hotel at Seaview, & asked Gilbert to draw up the plans & build the hotel for them. Mr Bucholtz had passed away by now.
The family now moved to a large house almost on the beach, about 3 miles from the site, rent-free from the Richardsons plus shooting rights. The property was teeming with bushbuck & kudu, & there would be guests for shooting parties every weekend. They had standing complimentary tickets to see any show at the Astra. On Fridays, they would lunch at the Seaview Café – sole & chips – & swim in the pool at the hotel, which Gilbert had built before commencing construction on the hotel itself. Sundays were spent entertaining. Building was completed late 1937 / early 1938.
The Seaview Hotel was a Port Elizabeth landmark & institution for many years. During the war years it was called the HMS Good Hope & was used as a navy base, the only one in the history of the Royal Navy where officer training was conducted off British shores. It went through a number of owners – & name changes – before ending its days as the Seaview Hotel once again, sadly being demolished in 2014 to make way for a residential development scheme. It was variously known as the White Elephant (early 1950’s), Minhetti Hotel (when it was bought by 3 brothers from Kimberley, 2 of whom were married, & so they combined their wives’ names – Minnie & Hettie), & Jewel of the Ocean. But through all this, the dinner dances & Sunday lunches were legendary, & the old hotel holds a special place in the hearts of many Port Elizabethans.
By the time their second daughter, Yvonne, was born in March 1938, the family was living at 106 Fordyce Road. Soon afterwards they moved to No 3 Morningside flats in Brickmakerskloof. Gilbert was now Building Foreman for the firm Harris & Harroway, & built many well-known landmarks in Port Elizabeth: the Provincial Hospital, the Technical College in Russell Road, St Joseph’s Nursing Home, & Park Drive flats. The family moved again, to a “nice old house” in Villiers Road, near 2nd avenue, where their youngest daughter, Myra, was born, & then again to a big house in 4th Avenue, Walmer. They now owned a Studebaker sedan.
There were also buildings at the harbour for the SA Railways (Sturrock building – Customs & Excise building at the harbour?), as well as the British Wool Stores building (Dorman Long & Co) in Deal Party on the Grahamstown Road which was quite an innovative design for its time. When building the Cold Storage for the Railways, Gilbert had a lot of difficult people working for him, & his health began to deteriorate. He suffered a nervous breakdown, which led to a heart attack & stroke, & he passed away on 23.06.1941, aged 57.
His young widow, Irene, was forced to sell the car & furniture. Once again, “Granny Fleischer” stepped into the breach to care for the young family & distraught widow. Irene herself suffered a nervous breakdown & spent 3 months in Fort England, before finding employment as a Matron at Canterbury House, at the Teachers Training College in Grahamstown. Refusing all offers of adoption of her daughters from within & outside the family, she fought to keep her family together by placing her children in the local orphanage, the Queen Alexander Home, where she could see them on her days off. Three years later, after a hernia operation, she met Frank Harrison (Peter Ferdinand Emmanuel Harrison), a widowed watchmaker from Grahamstown, while recuperating at a friend’s farm. They were married on 02.09.1944 & the young family was reunited.
- Born 22-04-1884
- Died 23-06-1941
Compiled by Janine Cotterrell
(Granddaughter of Gilbert Curtis Billson)
4 October 2014
- Memoirs of my Grandmother, Catherine Agatha Brümmer (nee Black).
- Family tree information from Ruby Watson (nee Billson), Roydon Billson (including photos), Louisa Billson & Dawn Wood (nee Billson).
- Personal communications from Yvonne Lovemore (nee Billson), Neil Billson & Peggy Billson (wife of William “Bill” Billson).
- Seaview Hotel information & photos off the internet.