Of all the historical artefacts to have been lost in Port Elizabeth, the destruction of the old Customs House must be the most significant. Its demise was being badly damaged by fire in 1978. Attempts to save the building failed and it was demolished in 1982.
Main picture: Customs House with its tower which was removed after a flood in 1908
Original Customs House
When Port Elizabeth’s first customs official, William Dunn (1821-27), arrived in December 1821, he was given one of the old wooden garrison buildings dating back to the first British occupation (1795-1803) to use as a customs house. By February 1822, however, a quote of R$34500 for a new building was accepted from H Schutte. But a delayed start saw the government take the opportunity in April 1823 to order Schutte to build it at the Kowie instead. Construction started there in August 1824 and the building was completed by the end of the year. Thus Dunn was left with the old military building. In 1824 a request for a new building was supported by the local landdrost, J G Cuyler, but Dunn had to be satisfied with permission being granted in April 1825 for him to hire Hunt’s house as a combination customs house, post office and residence. The annual rent was R$60.
By 1826 support for the Kowie as the major eastern Cape port was on the wane. The commissioners of inquiry decided that a collector should be appointed at Port Elizabeth and a separate customs house established where “the custom duties received in the eastern province may be accounted for in the same manner as those in Cape Town.” They felt Algoa Bay was more “attractive to shipping” in addition to being close to Uitenhage where they proposed to have the seat of government. It was recommended, however, that a customs officer continued to be appointed at Port Frances, “who should report to and act under the orders of the collector at Port Elizabeth“. The whole move was to be financed by trimming £900 off the salaries of customs and port officials in the western Cape.
D P Francis was appointed Port Elizabeth’s first collector of customs and port captain in 1828. By 1831 it was decided to create the separate post of harbour master. Edward Wallace duly arrived in November and took over the port office from Francis. But it was found that the customs office was too small for both of them. Thus Francis suggested that Wallace operate from the two buildings used to house the port boatmen which was conveniently near the landing beach.
Fifteen years later Port Elizabeth still did not have a customs house specifically built as one. Early in 1846 the customs department moved into a wing of the recently completed Commercial Hall which it rented for £45 a year. The other wing was occupied by a reading club for £30 a year. However, the centre room, one of the largest in the eastern Cape, had never been put to the use for which it had been designed. In August 1846 tenders were called for it and the south wing’s hire.
Eventually in 1865 a start was made on constructing a customs house. The foundation stone was laid by the sub-collector, F B Pinney, on March 22. Situated on the corner of Fleming and North Union Streets, this land belonged to William Fleming. The Italian-style building was designed by Alfred Warren and built by Charles Inggs but objections from the government had seen it reduced from three to two floors. The building was handed over to the customs department on June 18, 1866, ” ‘replete with every convenience,’ and a credit to its designer, Mr. A. Warren, and Mr Inngs (sic), the builder.”
The New Customs House
At a Town Council meeting on the 2nd October 1889, after a letter from H.S. Greaves, Colonial Architect, of the Public Works Department in Cape Town, was read, it was agreed that the Government could have reclaimed land at the bottom of Jetty Street on which to build a permanent custom house. Foundations were commenced on 20th November 1889, and Captain Young moved into his office in March 1891.
The Harbour Board advertised its move into the new building in 1893. The customs house created a most imposing entrance to Port Elizabeth.
It was located on ground reclaimed from the sea at the foot of the North Jetty. It was constructed in 1891 on the site of the “Captains Rest Rooms” which was patronised by the seafaring folk. The sea used to wash almost to its walls but now, due to reclamation for the Charl Malan Quay in 1933, the sea has been pushed back about 137.16 metres.
Originally the Customs House occupied pride of place on the shoreline of the North Jetty but was now not quite as prominent as before.
Customs House with its tower
The Customs House was situated at the main entrance to the Port Elizabeth harbour. This is an imposing assortment of buildings, erected under the supervision of the Public Works Department, containing various offices for the examination of luggage and goods. The design architect was Adolph Gislingham Howard.
After the removal of the Tower
After the 1908 flood, the tower was thought to be unstable and it was removed. Exactly how the flood affected the tower is unknown but a priceless artefact was lost.
After the construction of the Charl Malan Quay in 1934
The Coat of Arms on the Customs House, which have been brought from the original Fleming Street custom house, was removed in 1961 and destroyed.
The Final Years
Badly damaged by fire in 1978, attempts to save the building failed and it was demolished in 1982.
Customs House today
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
First purposely built Customs House at PE from the thesis of Jon Inggs at Rhodes in the 1970s, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth harbour development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986, pp 260-61.
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Destruction of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth
Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road Methodist Church – 1872 to 1966
The Royal Visit to Port Elizabeth in 1947
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street before the Era of Trams