Of all the historical buildings that Port Elizabeth has unconscionably lost, this one perhaps rates as the most significant. On the threshold of the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, a Dutch immigrant by the name of Frederick Korsten, had made his mark prior to the establishment of Port Elizabeth. Perhaps for this reason alone, aside from any architectural merits of the buildings, these deserved to have been preserved for posterity.
This blog comprises two sections. Firstly it briefly sketches the journey undertaken by Korsten to arrive at Algoa Bay and what he did whilest in Port Elizabeth. In the second section, it provides an account by the final tenant of this property. He gives an insight into the treasures that were hidden therein. Finally the real reason for its reprehensible destruction are revealed.
Main picture: Cradock Place
Expressed preference for adventure
A native of Holland, from a tender age Korsten had expressed a preference for adventure. A secure but dull civil service job was not to Korsten’s liking but it was quite another matter to obtain the adventure that he craved. Almost as a rite of passage to this new life, Korsten joined the Dutch Navy. This stint was to be short-lived. It came to an abrupt end when the ship that he was on was captured by the British in Cape Town while they were attempting to recover the Cape from their enemy. Unfazed, Korsten ingratiated himself with the British authorities and was appointed as an administrator. For Korsten, this was merely an entrée into Cape Colonial Society for, with his insatiable curiosity, it foretold the distinct possibility that his sojourn as a pen-pusher would be brief, but also that his new occupation as a merchant would be fruitful. Both assumptions are accurate.
Coterminous with Korsten’s shift away from the civil service was the change of colonial hands of the Cape. First it was returned to the Dutch in terms of the Peace of Amiens and then it was retaken by the British. For other mere mortals, such disarray and upheaval would not have concluded in the precipitous step of making a drastic career change. For Korsten that was precisely what he did.
When Korsten chanced upon a contract to supply the British Military with salted beef, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. This was indicative of the man; ever willing to take a chance on a fortune and adventure. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
To a Terra Nova
By 1811, the eastern districts of the colony had largely been cleared of the marauding black tribesmen. This allowed the Cape government to proclaim its intention “to found extensive settlements from Algoa Bay, the future naval mart of those quarters, to Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet.” Perhaps it was the bold assertion in 1798 by Barrow, who foretold the possibility of business in the Algoa Bay environs in the salted-provisions business that hooked Korsten. This prediction was not based upon caprice but due to sound judgement. Combining the cheapness of cattle with the existence of extensive saltpans in the neighbourhood made this business viable.
As Korsten despised both unbridled risk and danger, he took heed of this advice in spite of its isolation from the rest of the Cape Colony and the potential for further incursions by marauding tribes. Therefore, when a tender was advertised on 28th December 1811 for the supply of salted beef destined for Mauritius and elsewhere, Korsten immediately responded positively. During March 1812, Korsten entered into a contract to supply 3,000 barrels of salted beef with the concession that the contractors and their employees were exempted from commando service. Furthermore, they were at liberty to cut wood for casks in the Government forests.
To facilitate this process, on 1st January 1812, Korsten purchased the “opstal” on the Loan Place, “Papenkuils Fontein”, later to be renamed Cradock Place in honour of the governor of the Cape, Sir John Cradock. This opstal was located about five miles from the landing place in Algoa Bay at the mouth of the Papenkuils River, resplendent in flamingos. It was here that Korsten built a huge estate at great cost. This included accommodation, cattle and slaves. This business venture can rightly be described as the first trading establishment in the Eastern Province and Korsten personally oversaw the operation of this business until 1820.
To provide some measure and idea of the extent and nature of the business, which was in effect a commercial outpost or entrepôt of the Colony, it was not unusual to find twenty wagons bearing produce on the property. Previously they would have had to travel to Cape Town in order to acquire imported and locally manufactured items. Instead of a tedious and expensive annual visit to Cape Town, these local farmers could now exchange their produce for these items at Papenkuils Fontein. The extent of the contractual business can also be gauged from the fact that frequently no fewer than forty oxen were slaughtered daily and salted, chiefly by experienced Europeans whom Korsten had employed.
In addition, the military officers and messes on the frontier were supplied with all their importable essentials, as were the civil servants of George, Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet. In reality, the huge “supermarket” that Korsten had created at Cradock Place enjoyed a complete monopoly in the supply of most non-agricultural products in the Eastern Cape. In Korsten’s defence, it should be noted that this was a natural monopoly in that he enjoyed no exclusive privileges but rather benefited from the inertia of the local inhabitants to engage in such trade.
In addition to his salting business, Korsten established a Tannery, a Cooperage for the manufacture of barrels, a Windmill for grinding produce and a Whale Fishery at Gomery near current-day Cape Recife. As part of the whaling business, Korsten had oil tanks constructed at a cost of £2,400. To construct them he was forced to employ a Mr Diesel from Cape Town. Besides the whale fishery, which in one year slaughtered twenty whales, Korsten was also in possession of a lease on the Santa Croix and Bird Islands which in one season alone, produced 14,000 seal skins. Ultimately, the whaling business became precarious when the American whalers intercepted the whales before they reached Algoa Bay to calf.
The original 6,000 acres of grazing land at Cradock Place was insufficient for Korsten’s salting business. As a result, Korsten deemed it necessary to acquire or lease three additional properties, Gomery in Summerstrand, Bushy Park and Hankey on the Gamtoos River.
Having nurtured his businesses in Port Elizabeth through their infancy, shortly after the arrival of the settlers in 1820, Korsten sold his business at Cradock Place and took up residence at the Fishery for several months.
Korsten’s son-in-law, John Centlivres Chase, would later occupy Cradock Place after he married Korsten’s daughter.
The Final Tenant
Dr. R.E. Stevenson provides us with a glimpse into Cradock Place immediately prior to its terminal decline in 1901. Given that he was a child of barely eight years old, his recollections some 65 years later must imply that he had a certain fascination with this venerable property.
Stevenson vividly recalls that “in its day, it ranked in beauty with the most beautiful of the old Dutch houses in the Western Province. I lived there for a couple of years. I suppose that it was 1900 or 1901. It belonged to Dr. Galpin who had seen me into the world six or seven years previously. My father and the doctor were close friends… and I think [that] it was lent to my father who would guard it and its treasures in the absence of the owner.
I remember the place vividly; the garden, the haunted room and the Voorkamer, full of wonders. There was the Egyptian collection with mummies and tear jugs; the collection of coins, some featuring Roman emperors with their Roman noses, another with William the Conqueror – very ugly and with a sceptre. There were also the stamps – the best remembered being the new coloured “Magenta” issued to commemorate the battle at that place. There were suits of armour Plantagenet and Moorish chain mail – the latter said to be extremely valuable.
A slagyster [spring-trap] on the stoep which had reputedly caught a gigantic leopard not long before, and a white wooden lady from a wrecked sailing ship, were sources of joy to a small boy.
At the end of the stoep was a small room with fascinating but terrifying tiles depicting all the most dramatic incidents of the Bible. Eve’s striptease, the serpent, the whale, the Beelzebub still live vividly in my memory. These tiles, though infinitely more interesting, were not regarded as being of great intrinsic value. The very dull frieze on the kitchen was regarded differently. Cecil Rhodes, whose visit to Cradock Place, I very well remember said, as I have been told, ‘Stevenson, I will write you a cheque for £1000 for those tiles’. They were not my father’s to sell and tragedy overtook the house before the offer was made to Dr. Galpin.
The Reverend James Buchan, father [Scottish novelist, historian and politician] John Buchan, was a frequent visitor. He was from the same part of Scotland and was a kinsman of my father. He was in Port Elizabeth on exchange with the Presbyterian minister. I think John Buchan also visited us.
The Martello Tower was out of bounds except in adult company and the vault would certainly have been out of bounds if adults had known about the broken door and the broken coffins full of bones in fascinating and shuddering view.
Then tragedy came. One day an elegant military-looking gentleman with the shiniest gaiters arrived. He was, I presume, the official to arrange the taking over of Cradock Place, expropriated by the Government. We moved out soon after and a caretaker moved in. Dr. Galpin’s treasures were certainly moved out [to] make way for the tenant’s furniture.
Soon afterwards, the house and furniture went up in flames, on the very night that the caretaker and his family had decided to camp out on the front lawn.
The house has never been restored and an attempt to replace the furniture at the cost of the insurance company, resulting in a call by the police. They were too late. The owner of the furniture had hurriedly become a foremost hand on one of the many sailing ships in the Bay. He left his wife and family as cruelly derelict as Port Elizabeth has left their loveliest house.
A Case of Arson
One has to paint the destruction of Cradock Place in the starkest terms. It was undoubtedly a premeditated act of arson. While Dr. R.E. Stevenson might never have been aware of the exact details of the arson, broadly they are correct. Fortunately for posterity, the details of this grave turn of events were recorded in the local newspapers at the time. Per an article in Looking Back dated 1971, these details are as follows:
In 1909, the estate was the property of the Cape Government which apparently had the idea of using it as a depot for the Cape Mounted Police. As it transpired, the police at that time were actually billeted at Sydenham. The homestead, or “Manor House” as the report refers to it, was at that time occupied by a Mr. J.A. Hughes. At 1am of the morning of 13th March 1909, a Coloured man named Kock, employed by Hughes, was sleeping in the old tower which was formerly Korsten’s corn mill. He was awakened by an attack of toothache and going outside, saw that the room forming the left wing at the back of the building, used as a sewing room, was on fire.
He immediately went to warn the Hughes family, who were camping out about a quarter of a mile from the building. The police were summoned from Sydenham, but by the time they arrived at 2:45 a.m., the whole building was well ablaze. Efforts to douse the flames with water from the old underground tank which still exists there, were unsuccessful. However, they did save the outbuildings consisting of storage rooms and stables. Forage in one of the rooms had caught alight but the police dragged out the blazing bundles, Private Davis being overcome in the process. Surprisingly, the police remembered the precious old Dutch tiles which lined the bathroom, and they managed to salvage these.
An enquiry into the fire was started under the leadership of the local magistrate and this, with its adjournments, lasted for two weeks. At the end, the magistrate decided to lay the facts before the Solicitor General as several suspicious circumstances had emerged. In December 1908, Mr. Hughes insured his furniture for a considerable sum. For some weeks previous to the fire, the family had been sleeping in tents in the grounds, for no very clear reason. On the previous day, the horses, usually kept in the stables, had been sent away. Kock, who usually slept on the premises, had been instructed that night to sleep in the tower. There had been some obscure transaction with rents that Hughes was supposed to collect. No actions by the Solicitor General can be ascertained, but apparently, Hughes very conveniently disappeared about this time.
For the sake of the theft of some items from this irreplaceable house, Hughes destroyed it by fire to cover up the unlawful act. What a shameful deed.
Today all that remains of the once-grand house are the foundations. As such, the buildings are long past being restored. Perhaps it would be better if even those foundations were removed as they serve no useful purpose other than to remind those with a historical predilection of this calamity.
Old Times and Odd Corners: The Founder of Eastern Province Commerce and his Frontier Home by John Centlivres Chase. (Privately printed and published in 1868.) [ This was reprinted in facsimile in an edition limited to 500 numbered copies by the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth in 1969, with a Second Edition (reprint) in 1975.]
Looking Back, Vol V No 3 (September 1965), pages 5 – 6, ‘Cradock Place’ by Dr R. E. Stevenson of Pietermaritzburg.
Looking Back, Vol XI No 3 (June 1971), pages 87 – 88, ‘The end of Cradock Place’