Looking Back: An Appreciation of PE in the 1880s.

From “Memories” by the Lionel Cripps, C. M. G.

Published in Looking Back Volume IV No. 1

The first sight I had of Africa was when we passed Cape Verde, with its white sands and a quivering heat to match. I felt drawn towards it by an attraction that, up to now has never waned; not a bad start for a youngster who had great longing for adventure in the half empty continent!

Main picture: 1872 Watercolour entitled View of Port Elizabeth from the hill behind the cemetry by Oliver Lester in 1874 in NMM AM

When our “greyhound” of the Union Co fleet (S.S. Arab), in which we had been travelling for 23 days, arrived in Port Elizabeth I was met at the old wooden jetty by the head-clerk in my uncle’s business, and went out with him to the Zwartkops River, where my uncle was living during the summer months.

The first thing I struck on arrival was a gay party of some of the leading merchants, lawyers, and others, who, stripped and in light bathing costumes, were dragging a net for fish and enjoying themselves enormous1y and revelling in heat and salt water, the river being tidal.

My Uncle, who was a sportsman to his fingertips, often took occasion to join hunting parties which set out, with dogs and beaters, for bush buck drives the sub-tropical bush along the coast. In the coming years I often managed to go with him, having a boss over me in the business, in which I became the Junior, who had with kindliness enough to pander to a boy’s eagerness for an occasional outing, even between holiday times.

One of the sights of Port Elizabeth was the landing of cargoes from sailing and steam ships, chiefly the former, where the craft used were flat bottomed surf boats which worked their way to the sandy beach through shallow water, with the aid of huge hawsers anchored at both ends, and were there unladen by big gangs of natives, most of whom came from the Transkei and other native territories and were paid 7/6 per day.

I used often, when on duty near there, to stand and watch and admire the splendid physique of the Bantu and their skill in handling the heavy goods. I was told this work could not be done for an indefinitely long period as collapse might ensue, the pay being very good in consequence.

The bathing place for men was on the same beach where surf boats worked and I used to manage to bathe in summer before going to the store at 6 a.m. when I had the key for the front door. Bathing arrangements were primitive, a tiny wooden jetty 5 ft high, under or over which the water was free to come according to the tides. All undressed in the open and went stark naked, but it was worthwhile and there was no mixed bathing in those good old days. A very strong current used to sweep along and stir up the sand after a south-easter, when great breakers came in. We used to meet these, swim or dive through them and return with the one following. Every third one was the rule, as also with this one the fishing boats took advantage, landing them well up on the sand.

After the water had been brought into P.E. from the Van Stadens River, the town’s drains opened into the water on the landing beach and bathing there was no longer possible.

When I went to the Public Library, which was fairly often, I used to look up at Baines’ pictures on large canvasses, at the Rainbow at the Victoria Falls on the Zambesi, and the method employed by him for quartz crushing for gold that Hartley, the hunter, had discovered. I did not then greatly admire those particular paintings but was very interested in them as the parts dealt with were remote and fascinating subjects, which no doubt later on, as will be shown in later writing, influenced me in choosing Mashonaland as a home. Many years later I had the chance of buying some of Baines’ pictures, of which some now hang in the Central African Archives in Salisbury.

The theatre in P. E. was not one to be proud of, and one looked down upon its roof when descending White’s Road. It housed at long intervals good touring companies and operatic singers as well as conjurers and other entertainers and was well patronized by the public.

The Circus site was where the Produce and Feather Markets were subsequently built and Bell’s & Fillis’ travelling shows brought much excitement and joy to us, the performers being tip top riders and gymnasts, both male and female, and skilled in bareback riding. Not one of us boys can ever forget the sight of Emma and little Rosie Bell on their broad backed mounts riding round the ring!

Tennis and badminton were played in the Park, the former being a relatively new game. When I came out in ’79, football was not in fashion and the Vulture Club had collapsed for want of support and the game had to be revived. A new club, the Olympics, was formed by a few enthusiasts who popularized it, and many a good game was played between it and Grahamstown and Uitenhage clubs. I joined the Olympics and was on the “ground floor” with Howard Sherman as the captain, a man of great energy luckily and tireless where sports were concerned.

While living at “the River” Zwartkops, I joined the Rowing Club on the River and lived at the quarters with 5 or 6 others: Pease, Editor & owner of the Observer), Charlie Parker, a storekeeper in P.E., Pawley, Customs, and Edgar Marriott. It was glorious after working in town all day, to get out to the river with its fresh air and bathing.

The Feather Market was a fine sight with its long tables filled with feathers of many colours and qualities, all of which were handled and bought by clever, often witty, humorous buyers  who made the sales full of variety and movement. The keen-eyed auctioneers did their work, seemingly never missing a bid, whether given by a smile, a wink, a nod, a toss of the head or even a negative, given in such manner as to enable the auctioneer to accept it as a bid.

The markets then were booming, but as usual, after boom came reaction and a slump as fashions changed, and farmers, brokers, dealers, and markets collapsed together, until recently, when new uses were found for the products of the ostrich industry.

The life of a junior clerk was by no means an easy one, the duties starting at 6 am in summer, when the front door was opened by me for sweeping and dusting by a staff of natives. This was completed by 9 am when the late junior did the relieving so that the small boy could get his breakfast, which meant a stiff walk uphill and back to the Post Office and delivery of the firm’s post by 9am. After that work till lunch and from 2pm to 5:30 or 6pm. When the store key had to be delivered to one of the partners on the Hill.

I was happy enough and enjoyed the work rising to the height of Invoicing Clerk. The invoicing meant making up of long accounts, up to 30-40 pages of foolscap. Trains did not yet run far up country and customers from up country used to arrange for transport when wool and other produce came down on their wagons and took back their goods on their wagons, up to 8000lbs in eight.

The Afrikaners drivers and owners with their short Eton jackets, bell-top trousers of plain pattern and wide brimmed hats, were fine-looking, bearded men, mostly uneducated, hardly able at times to sign their names on the necessary paper and then only in a very crude fashion.

I used to look on these “transport riders” with envy as, having come from up country, they had seen sights and done things that I longed to see and do.

During the “good old days” when there was a boom in “bird” farming, prices ranged high, up to £60 per lb. for the long white wing feathers of the cock birds, and there was a huge demand for all types, down to shorts from the wings and even the tail feathers. Many a farmer and feather buyer must look back to those times with longing. The demand for the birds was great and incubators produced chicks that were sold at prices up to £5 per head as they stepped for the egg, if produced by birds of good repute.

Until the Van Staden’s River water was piped into Port Elizabeth, householders were dependent for their water supply upon wells in their back yards and tanks for rain water. Between Bird Street and Western Road, what must have been a natural depression which have become deepened with the years and filled with water drained from the streets during rain, was known as the Vlei. From this the nearby residents carried water for their gardens or drew it in carts fitted with barrels and drawn by mules, under these circumstances gardens were not conspicuous for their presence on the Hill. The best and old established houses had well laid out gardens, others boasted neat railed-in flower gardens, but eve these were a rarity in a town devoid of a good water supply.

Tennis was played on the Public Courts, but with the exception of one private court, there was not another in the town at this time.

The merchants, whose first premises were built in the Main Street, lived in them, raised their families, and carried on their trade and business in them until such time as their prospects warranted their building a house on the Hill, when the old premises became genuine stores and shops of later years. Only senior partners in businesses who were possessors of a Cape Cart and horses, or a riding horse, which might be led down to take them home, were privileged to have transport up the steep hill to their homes. All young men used shank’s mare and thought nothing of the long walk they had to do twice a day.

The morning market was early established and was well patronised by farmers of the surrounding district as well as those from distances as great as Graaff Reinett, Uitenhage, Gamtoos River from which fruit came. The hardier kind were sometimes in sacks, but grapes and stone fruit were well packed in boxes and arrived in good condition. Dried fruit from the hands of framers’ wives came packs in sacks and, though no equal in appearance to present day samples, were good in quality and flavour after the sun drying homely process to which they were subjected. All produce was brought in by ox wagons which were drawn up on the market square, where the oxen lay at rest at the yokes during the long hours  while produce was being disposed of, and until they were roused to take the long trail back rom whence they had started, it might have been the day before. Cookhouse was the rail-head. Beyond that, all transport was done by ox wagon.

The earliest church, St. Mary’s, close to the Mai Street, where most of the settlement had taken place, and in which the young of the early day population of the Anglican faith were all baptised, was presided over by the last of the British Chaplains appointed from Britain. Dr. Wirgman was an institution. He was headmaster of the Grammar School, where the Reverend Alexander Grant also held sway with an assistant master, “young Browning”, so immature that the senior boys hobnobbed with him and called him by his name, He was one among several who came and went, while the heads remained for many years.

The Grey Institute on the Hill, with its high clock tower, was the other large boys’ school. Its wheezy chimes might be heard far and wide in the town, often roughly contested by the high winds from either land or sea, for which Port Elizabeth holds second place to none other than the Falkland Islands.

In later years when the bathing beach of the “good old days” was no longer available for the enthusiasts among the young men, they swam from the new South End Jetty, where a bathing house had been erected. One of the regular swimmers was Rodwell, who went out usually and swam around a buoy and back again. One morning he had got around the buoy and returning when those on the jetty spotted an enormous shark making for him. A warning was given and Rodwell swam for the jetty for all he knew, the shark in full pursuit. The race was an unequal one and the monster soon overhauled his quarry, turned on his side and made a grab at the swimmer’s leg. This was partially avoided by a dexterous turn at right angles but the cruel teeth made a huge gash in the thigh. Fortunately there was no pain felt and Rodwell held on for the jetty, which he reached. As he fetched the steps, a youngster caught his hands and proceeded to haul him out. This the shark determined to have a hand in preventing, so grabbed one of the legs below the knee. It was a case then of “pull devil, pull tailor” Luckiy the latter won the pull but Rodwell’s leg below the knee was left as a sop to his opponent.

The pluck and indifference to pain then displayed by Rodwell was most remarkable. He called for his clothes and paid the bathing house keeper 1/- which he owed to him and was then driven to the hospital, a distance of 1½ to 2 miles. In a cab. There his leg was amputated above the first gash made by the shark on the thigh. He refused to take chloroform and bore the operation unflinchingly.

This incident created a great flutter among the habitual bathers from that jetty and many were to be seen  after that bathing off the sea wall where there was shallower water and where a good lookout could be kept for any sharks intent on tasting human flesh.

Another tragedy which more vitally shocked those who carried on in the peaceful atmosphere of Port Elizabeth of the 80’s was the fatal accident which happened to some of the pupils of the Collegiate Girls School.

All bathing took place from the Bathing House, situated at the outflow of the muddy Baaken’s River. The current at this point was very strong and more so when, after a heavy South-Easter, the sea bottom was pitted with large, deep holes, in which the water swirled and dragged at the swimmer. The girls were inexperienced in sea bathing, and particularly, as happened on this day, in the unexpected and treacherous nature of such a sea after a south-east gale. To the horror of the watching governess who was in charge, the girls were soon observed to be in difficulties. Two of them were swept away by the current, never to be heard of again, a third, feeling herself being dragged under, flung herself on her back and floated to safety, ad one was washed towards the bathing house where she was rescued.

No lifesavers or rescue appliances were at hand and no accident had happened before to mar the pleasure of the young people who flocked, in fine weather, to avail themselves of the amenity of the first bathing house to have been erected.

The Baaken’s River was crossed by a good bridge on the main road through South End which led to the present most desirable village of Walmer. The upper reaches of the sluggish stream, however, offered nothing better to the pedestrian or rider than well beaten footpaths and bridal tracks, which, meandering through scrub and its rocky bed, led to a fine deep pool known as Long Hole where the youths of Port Elizabeth disported themselves on holidays, plunging from a rock high above into the dark, green pool. Bathing kit and towels were unknown luxuries on these occasions in “those good old days.”

Settlement in Walmer came slowly and was only accomplished by those daring spirits who, for economy and to escape the Rates and Taxes extracted by the PE Municipality, secured plots and, building modest cottages upon them, rode or drove daily to town where their businesses were located. The sandy soil gave promise of what might be expected in time to come, when water would be available, converting the unattractive village to one of beauty and fruitfulness such as it is in the present day.

The only resort for people was the River, the Zwartkops River mentioned before, where three Boating Clubs flourished and gave healthful exercise and pleasure. Some members of these clubs lived permanently in them at the river.

The Occasion of a Regatta when the adherents of the three Clubs flocked out from town to picnic along the river banks, was a day to be remembered and discussed as one of the great events of the year. In Cape Cart, buggy, spider and on horseback they came, bravely to display the colours of their  favourite club in sox, tie, hat band and flag as they wildly cheered on their friends in the races. Port Elizabeth in those “good old days” was never surfeited with gaiety or pleasures and she made the most of what she achieved in that respect.   

Landing at Port Elizabeth, the newcomer from the old country would have been struck by the absence of what he might have expected of the picturesque or colourful, in the scene laid out before him. The harsh brown of the bush-clad hills, the bareness of the rough sand hills, without signs of habitation, the rocky beach below them, the long steep roads climbing the treeless hills which formed the township, with row upon row of houses looking like packs of cards that had been tumbled down them, all made a scene of as unattractive a part of the world as might be well imagined.

The first impression of the Bay, as it was called, cannot be denied to the visitor, who had yet to see the reverse of the picture of that so desolate a shore. To appreciate that reverse, he must stand at the granite obelisk, the pride of Bayonians, on Monument Hill. From this site, he will realise the magnificence of the vast stretch of the Indian Ocean spread out before him, the fine harbour with great liners and ships rocking at anchor, the lively traffic of steam tugs and boats gliding over the shimmering water, the fishing craft awaiting their turn to rush in on the curling waves that land them safely on the beach and, away in the North, the noble curve of the Bay, stretching as far as the eye can see, with its breakers pounding the smooth beach of yellow sand.

This surely is a scene to please the eye of the visitor, be it ever so jaundiced by his previous disappointment.

Note: Mr. L. Cripps married Mary Lovemore, daughter of Mr. Lovemore of Bushy Park. Mrs Mary Cripps, a member of our Society, lives in Rhodesia, where her husband became a prominent personality and first speaker in the Rhodesian Parliament, an office which he held for many years. Excerpts from the Memoirs of Mrs. Jessie Allen, elder sister of Mrs. Cripps has appeared in previous number of “Looking Back”.

Rhodesian Assembly in 1924 with Lionel Cripps in the middle of the front row

FRONT ROW – Sir Ernest W.S. Montagu, Hon. W.M. Leggate, Hon. H.U. Moffat, Hon. P.D.L. Fynn, Hon. Sir Charles Coghlan (Premier), Hon. L. Cripps (Speaker), Hon. Sir Francis Newton, Major the Hon R.J. Hudson, C. Eickhoff (Deputy Speaker), Mrs. E. Tawse Jollie, J.W. Downie.

Leave a Comment.