Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Brief History of the Library

What the saga to establish a library in Port Elizabeth indicates is the civic mindedness of its citizens. This is a case in point in which the denizens of the town understood that to improve society, education in general and libraries specifically had a significant role to play in this process. Unlike today’s public libraries which offer a free service in those days it was a “subscription” service.

Main picture: Library

Land grant
John Owen Smith is regarded as the chief founder of the Port Elizabeth Public Library which existed from 1848 to 1965, when it was absorbed into the new Municipal Library Service. He was one of the three signatories of a memorial addressed to Sir Benjamin D’Urban in 1835 asking. for a grant of land for the purpose of establishing a “Reading Room”. The other two signatories were the Rev. Francis McCleland and William Smith, presumably the gentleman who became Port Elizabeth’s first Mayor 25 years later.

According to the Library’s pamphlet, in 1835, the Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, granted a piece of land in the Market Square as a site for a Commercial Hall or Exchange which would include a library. However, in contrast, according to Margaret Harradine in her book “The Social Chronicle” she states that “Land for a “library and commercial hall” was granted by Sir George Napier in 1839 with the site being that of the present library in the Market Square.” Although the land was granted, apparently nothing was done with it, for we find the same plot granted again in 1839 by Sir George Napier, but this time “for the purpose of erecting a Library and Commercial Hall thereon”. Presumably John Owen Smith had a hand in this second transaction as he was one of the main shareholders in the Commercial Hall. Again, although the Commercial Hall was completed in 1845, no move for a library was made until 1848, although a circulating library for magazines and newspapers, known as the News Society, run as a commercial proposition by William Ring, had a room in the building.

Buses and trams outside the library

Commercial Exchange Hall
In July 1843 the foundation stone of the Commercial Hall was laid. The build­ing, designed by C.C. Michell, was completed in 1845 and served for all public occasions until 1856, when the old courthouse was burnt down, and the Hall was expropriated to “serve” that purpose.

The Commercial Exchange building was a low two-gabled building with a sloping roof and a front entrance or porch supported by two stone pillars. A flight of stone steps led up to it from an open Market Square. Although it was a dull Georgian type of structure, the first settlers considered it an architectural achievement and it served the purpose as a village hall for meetings and social gatherings.


The Port Elizabeth Public Library and Reading Room opened in a room in the Commercial Hall on the 2nd October 1848. Commencing with about 154 members, the initial secretary was William Passmore, and the librarian was John Freeman, with hours from 5-9 pm. The Commercial Hall included library space in its design, but in 1856, when it was expropriated for use as a courthouse, the library had to use temporary premises until the Town Hall was ready for it in 1860. The Port Elizabeth News Society had earlier (1846) provided newspapers, books and periodicals, and by then William Ring had operated a commercial circulating library for a time.

The William Savage Memorial Hall

The Library was highly regarded by the citizens. The “Herald” in October 1848 commented that “The Library rises indeed like a Great Blessing among us and over us, a holy radiance across our community.” And in July 1853 it commented profusely and gushingly that “The Public Library, henceforward, will stand forth the proudest monument of the wisdom, intelligence and liberality of the first inhabitants of Port Elizabeth, on which posterity will be caused to gaze.

Main Public Library in1939

Circulating library
To satisfy the need for a library service, in the interim William Ring opened a “circulating library and newsroom” in December 1845. Ring lived in Port Elizabeth for only a few years but was also a partner with Jules Leger in the first firm of professional photo-graphers here, between 1846 and 1847.

John Owen Smith
Strangely, John Owen Smith had no part in the actual establishment of the Library in 1848. At that time a group of businessmen called a meeting and resolved on the establishment of a Public Library, drew up a constitution and a list of rules, and among them obtained donations and subscriptions. They took over a room in the Commercial Hall, (presumably the one occupied by the News Society which now disappears from the scene), and the Library was opened on 2nd October, 1848. John Owen Smith’s name does riot appear among the members of the first committee elected, but at the first annual meeting in July, 1849, he was among those chosen. It may be that in 1848 he was overseas, for at that time his ship “Emily Smith” was being built in England and he may have been there in connection with this. By September, 1849, he was acting as Chairman of the Committee and he filled this post several times up to his retirement in 1861.

His chief claim to fame, however, is that he was instrumental in obtaining for the Library Committee sole possession of the building and plot. The Library Committee minutes of the 7th July, 1853, contain the following passage: “Mr Smith submitted a proposal for the endowment of the Library so as to give it a fixed income of about 100 pounds sterling (sic) per annum irrespective of subscriptions, viz. the purchase by friends of the Library of the interest of shareholders in the CommerciaJ Hall, and offered to give to the Library his five shares in that Building and a further donation of 100 pounds sterling”.

Other members of the Committee immediately offered to give up their shares ·and a sub-committee was formed to carry out Mr. Owen Smith’s proposal. They were successful, for within a year all but four shares had been acquired. The remaining shareholders must have been somewhat stubborn for it was not until 1862 that the last share was obtained, by purchase. In the casae of Rev. Francis McCleland, it was not stubbornness which prevented the sale of his shares but the fact that he had passed away during July 1853.

Library in the Town Hall
In 1859 the grant of land for the erection of a Town Hall stipulated that the building should be for a library and athenaeum as well. This was necessitated by the loss of the use of the Commercial Exchange in 1859.

Construction of a library building
In 1885, it was decided to build a library. A prize of £105 was offered for the best architectural design and the first choice was that of Henry A. Cheers of Twickenham, England. The building contractors were Dollery & Strang and a local architect, Orlando Middleton, was appointed as Clerk of Works. The Cape Government gave a grant of £12,000, the Municipality paid £8,000, and the Savage family gave a total of £10,000 in memory of William Savage. The main hall is named the William Savage Memorial Hall. The date 1901 above the front entrance is the year in which the library was completed, but the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War caused delays and it was only on the 29th July 1902 that the library was officially opened. It is faced with imported terra-cotta blocks.

The library was the first steel-framed building erected in Port Elizabeth and its style has been described as late Victorian Gothic and Flemish revival, but at the time it was said to be Elizabethan. The façade has many decorative features- coats-of-arms, medallions, sculpture, cast iron, and oriel windows. The original roof had fish-scale tiles, still to be seen on the turrets. The interior has fine teak woodwork, ironwork and plaster ceilings.

There are stained glass windows appropriate to the original contents of the rooms. In the main hall, there are the Savage Memorial windows with one showing Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom and the splendid glass dome. The decorative wall panels are made of anaglypta or embossed wallpaper. The windows in the Africana room depict famous newspapers and editors of the time and there are two Devonshire marble columns.

Later changes
In 1950 the ground floor offices were converted into shops and Plate-glass windows installed, but the facade was restored in 1989 to its former glory. In 1960 the Council sold the Cleghorn’s building, adjacent to the Provincial Administration, which pro­posed to demolish both Cleghorn’s and the Public Library and to build offices. Common sense prevailed and this idea was abandoned. Instead, Cleghorn’s building was demolished in July 1972 for road widening.

The Library was declared a national monument in 1973 and was restored and renovated by the Municipality in 1989/90.

Book collections
Besides the fiction and non-fiction available in the lending section, the library has extensive reference and South African collections. Special collections include the Owen Smith gift of historic European works, the Coulton bequest of maritime books and the Roger Ascham music collection. Most of the original furniture is still in use.

Quo Qadis?
The future of reference libraries in South Africa is perilous as they face the twin impediments of a governing class who view history and colonial history in particular as being irrelevant or of minor importance at best. In addition, the lack of funding has a corrosive effect not only upon the infrastructure but the skills and morale of the staff. The lack of maintenance can have catastrophic consequences by allowing a leaking roof to destroy precious documents and books.

Already the Port Elizabeth reference library has experienced the destruction of 17,000 books due to a leaking roof, but it has taken 8 years to repair. Fortunately, according to reliable sources none of these books were reference books. In an article in the Herald, an official made light of this loss by claiming that books have a shelf life of only 20 years!     


Pamphlet printed by the library to celebrate its centenary in 2001. Mrs Isobel Lemmer (nee Porter) has kindly provided me with a copy.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
John Owen Smith and the P.E. Library by A. Porter (Looking Back, Volume X, Number June 1970)


    • It is being repaired and is not open. I have huge concerns regarding the continued upkeep of museums in general as Joburg is experiencing a similar problem


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