Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Description of the Town in 1861

This blog is a verbatim copy of an article of unknown origin or authorship. That begs the question of who indeed wrote it. As a best guess it was Tennyson Bodill as it came from his files.   

Notwithstanding vigorous growth during its first forty years, Port Elizabeth was still a dinky-sized town in 1861. From a scruffiness in its early years, which was unbecoming, it was the debut of the Town Hall which ushered in a whole array of elegant buildings such as the original Standard Bank building. What the town lacked then, and the city does now, was greenery. This paucity of vegetation has deprived its inhabitants of its aesthetic beauty, which would have enhanced the attractiveness of the town.

Main picture: The original St Mary’s Church before it was burnt down in 1895. Never an object of beauty, it was a plain unadorned box of a building.

The converse of Macaulay’s imaginary picture of the New Zealander amidst the ruins of fallen London might with great appositeness be applied to the town which forms the subject of this resume. From the utterly desolate and dispiriting appearance which Port Elizabeth presented to the eyes of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1820, few who at that time stepped upon its horse-shoe-shaped strand, and contemplated the scene around them, however steadfast their belief in the ability of their race to surmount difficulties, but would have treated with incredulity its ever attaining, in aspect or in reality, the position and influence it enjoyed in 1861.

Were there ever demanded a practical demonstration of that mission which appears to be  the peculiar property of the Englishman alone, the mission of promoting civilization, refinement, and wealth wherever he unfurls the banner of St. George, one need do no more than point in proof to the identical place about which is the subject in this resume.

To trace the gradual rise and progress of Port Elizabeth, rapid as it may have been, would require the labour of writing a couple of octavo volumes. In a serial, or article, a little more than a cursory delineation of places can be described; number and diversity of articles being with us points of paramount importance.

Statistics and details are to be found in Blue Books, in quantities sufficient to gorge to repletion the hungriest political economist. The general reader, for whom this article is written, will, it is trusted, be satisfied with a brief sketch of the town as it was.

The first thing which will fix itself on the mind of the newly arrived stranger to Port Elizabeth in 1861 was its extreme length. He saw extending, for nearly two miles, one continuous chain of houses, stores, shops, churches and chapels. His astonishment would, however, on this point but of short duration, as his eye becomes familiar with the peculiar natural features of the site of the town, and as it was then attracted towards the hill which partially overhangs the main street, and which was then, and still is, so thickly studded with buildings of every magnitude and description of architecture, that the  principal feelings he experienced was one of regret that there should be utterly wanting that systematic arrangement of streets, squares, and promenades which would have contributed to render the locality as pretty a suburban village, perhaps, as one might have met with in a long journey.

Cottages on the hill with Russell Road on the top right

Supposing the stranger to have debarked from one of the vessels in the bay and allowing him to have sufficiently admired the long and substantial jetty and sea wall, the probability was that he would have wended his way towards the main street of the town. Passing the long line of Boating Companies’ Stores on the one hand and the wool-pressing establishments on the other, the most prominent object which attracted his attention was the Town Hall, a magnificent building, and one which the Bayonians had, and still have, just reason to be proud, inasmuch as there existed no other structure throughout the Colony which, during that period could stand comparison with it. Here the Town Council have their hall, rooms, offices etc., and managed the affairs of the town.

The Town Hall with its portico but without its majestic clock tower. The building on the right behind the obelisk was the Post Office

The Athenaeum held its meetings in the Town Hall. The market offices were also in the building, and two large lower rooms were occupied as a public library and reading room.   The basement stores were rented to merchants, ship-brokers, agents, and others, the whole forming a noble specimen of colonial workmanship and having the chief frontage towards the future Market Square. To the right of the Town Hall, as seen on the photograph above, slightly elevated owing to the abrupt rising of the ground, was the Post Office which, under the management of Mr. WILMOT, of the Colonial Civil Service, had earned the reputation of being one of the best-conducted offices under the Government. On the opposite side of the Market Square was the Customs House, a modest and unpretendious-looking building which, but for the words above its porch, would never be taken for a Government Office. Behind the Town Hall was the Court House of the resident magistrate, a low, neat building, admirably adapted for its purpose, although frequently appropriated for other uses. The Court House was once ‘par excellence’, the building of the town; but in 1861, thrown into comparative insignificance in point of display by its imposing-looking neighbour, the recently-erected Town Hall.

Commercial Hall housing the Court House

In the immediate neighbourhood of the Market Square were two episcopal churches, one, since demolished, of which the Reverend W.A. ROBINSON, Trinity College, Dublin, was incumbent, and where extreme “Low-church” views are supposed to have been preached, and the other, still existing, St. Mary’s, the principle church of Port Elizabeth, wherein the Colonial Chaplain officiated in 1861. St Mary’s Church was supposed to be the temple of the “High” or Tractarian party. It was, and is, the very model of some of our English rural churches, and although considerably spacious, is, on occasion, crowded to excess. The choir of Mr. ROBINSON’s church was, by many competent judges, allowed to be the best in the Colony.

*Rev W A Robinson is mentioned as Minister of the first Trinity Church. The Rev Francis McCleland was among the British settlers of 1820, but first settled in Clanwilliam in the western part of the Cape Colony for 5 years, as he had come out as a member of Parker’s Irish party. In 1825 Anglican members of the Settlers in Port Elizabeth had attended a meeting at which Captain Francis Evatt was present and an approach was made to the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, regarding the founding of an Anglican church in the town; the building was designed by Sophy Gray, the wife of Bishop Robert Gray of Cape Town, who was a talented amateur and was to design many churches in the Colony. Somerset appointed McCleland Colonial Chaplain and on 1 October 1825 the foundation stone of St Mary’s Anglican Church was laid. McCleland clearly had ‘low church’ sympathies and, when he died in 1853 and was succeeded by Rev W H Fowle, who was more in sympathy with the ‘Tractarian’ or ‘high church’ movement (much more formal in their services), many of the congregation decided to look around for a church of their persuasion. At first they met in a room in Kemp Street, until the first Trinity Church was founded in 1854, which was built at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street, opened in 1858. Due to certain debts accruing over the years at this site and the need to minister to the population on the Hill, the Bishop recommended a move thence. Sites were bought and the foundation stone of the new Holy Trinity Church was laid on 10 July 1862. The first ministers were Rev W A Robinson and Rev H I Johnson, the latter also being the first Rector of the Grey Institute school.

Churches visible in the Central Business District

Supposing the stranger to be on pretty good terms with all that he had hitherto seen, and, continuing his walk up the Main Street, if he was in any degree of an enthusiastic temperament, he was literally amazed as well as delighted with the magnificence of some of the wholesale stores. Three and four stories high, plate glass windows, massive masonry and chaste architecture, presented themselves to his notice on either side of the way. His gratification, too, would have been much increased as he learnt with astonishment the amount of business annually performed at these mercantile palaces.

The Independent or New Church in Main Street on the corner of Donkin Street with the Town Hall in the background

The Independent Chapel was just situated at the most bustling part of Main Street. In this building was fixed the town clock, a piece of mechanism, showing enough in its way, but possessing no feature so remarkable as its inaccuracy. Two out of the three streets which, leading to the private residences on the “Hill” branched off the Main Street here; consequently, this part of Port Elizabeth on busy days presented an exceedingly animated appearance. It was not an uncommon occurrence for from sixty to seventy wagons laden with produce, to arrive on the same morning in the town, and as it was the object of each wagon to discharge freight and procure its return load on the same morning, some idea may be formed of the jostling, hurrying, and disorder attendant upon such occasions. There were several excellent street keepers always about, but their exertions not unfrequently rendered confusion worse confounded. About three hundred yards further, the wholesale stores dwindled off in number, although for the next three quarters of a mile dwelling houses and shops alike predominated. The latter were in fact so numerous that it became a perfect marvel to the stranger how the occupants existed. Exist, however, they did, and not unfrequently made fortunes.

St. Paul’s Church, at the northern part of the town, was a good specimen of ecclesiastical architecture. The Reverend Mr. Samuel BROOKS was the incumbent. Like every other place of Divine Worship in Port Elizabeth, on the sabbath it was filled with hearers, who were mostly resident in the neighbourhood, or else persons who resided in the heart of the town, but preferred the more moderate views held by the incumbent to those of the officiating minister at St. Mary’s Church.

St Paul’s Anglican Church in Cooper’s Kloof [Albany Road]

From this part of the town the scene assumed somewhat of the character of an ‘urbs in rure‘, as for the next half mile private dwelling-houses were interspersed, with here and there a shop or two. About a mile and a half from the Town Hall there stood the new Prison, a building which cost the country some £6,500, and as in point of style it appeared half baronial­ castle, half alms-house, it could not fail of attracting a large of notice from up-country visitors. Here it may be said that Port Elizabeth terminated, for although there were numerous houses extending over another half mile yet they were principally shops in the Boer trade, the properties of which have selected this locality with the laudable view of striving to be the first to clench bargains with the Dutch farmers as they arrived in town with their produce. An early morning market was also held here, which for a brief space of time succeeded; but the novelty of the thing fast wore off, and as the market proper was held at eight in the morning, the probability was that the latest established would have been the first to be abolished.   

Port Elizabeth seemed to rejoice in duality. There were two banks, two boating companies, two insurance offices, and two newspapers. Let a new thing be started then, and it was predicted that a week later another new thing of the same species would also be originated.

Standard Bank Building after the second half was built in 1879

In his excursion on the “Hill” the visitor would at once have observed that with the exception of the Public Hospital, the Grey Institute, the Lighthouse, and an unsightly Pyramid erected to the memory of the deceased wife of some former Governor, the dwellings, with few exceptions, appear to have been adapted for residences for the upper classes. The “Hill”, in fact, was the Claremont or Rondebosch of Port Elizabeth. Some of the mansions were truly elegant, and although horticulture was sadly at a discount there, one or two private gardens may have been found to be well worthy of inspection.

Grey Institute before the Edward Hotel erected or even Belmont Terrace was built

The object of the Grey Institute was to provide a sound education for the youth of the town and division. Petty differences, and as some said, incompetency on the part of the under teachers, had thrown serious drawbacks upon the progress of the institute, in which, however, a healthier tone appeared to have been infused after 1859.   The Head-master, Mr. J.R. MACLEISH, Esq., was formerly at Swellendam Grammar School, and those who remembered his antecedents there found no difficulty in believing him to be, both on the score of qualification and natural aptitude for tuition, the right man in the right place.

The Hospital was a vast, spacious, and well-regulated establishment for the sick, and one which in every way redounded to the credit of the Bayonians. Not much could be said in favour of the, then new, lighthouse. When it lit up at night it presented from town a very sorry glimmer, which reminded one of an ophthalmic lantern.   Certain authorities, then, supposed from their position to have been competent, maintained it efficiency. So it was supposed that they must have known best.

The visitor must indeed have been a dull observer of men and manners who, upon passing his first couple of days in Port Elizabeth, would have failed to perceive that with regard to the inhabitants and the town itself, everything and everybody bore upon it the impress of a direct master passion. This predominating spirit was the thirst for wealth, the all-absorbing desire to get rich, to make money. So far from any disguise upon the subject, this spirit was evinced in the streets, in the houses, on the markets, at the sales, in the shops, in the dwellings, and in the persons of the inhabitants. The character of Port Elizabeth may have been summed up then as essentially ‘fast’. People then lived at a terrific pace.

Everything was sacrificed, everything succumbed to the ruling principle. The amount of physical and mental wear and tear undergone by the Bay merchants, shopkeepers, and traders was almost incredible.  “From early morn to dewy eve”, the cry was money! With the exception of the Public Library, there was not a place of public relaxation in the town. No gardens, no park, no club, no theatre, no mechanics’ institute, no nothing as one may have said then. The only departure from daily routine was when at rare intervals some amateur dramatic performance or literary lecture was given; and the avidity with which the public seized upon such opportunities proved that they were but too sensible of their requirements in that respect.

It must not, however, be understood as imputing avarice to the Bayonians. Parsimony formed no trait in their ‘morale’. Ready to get, they were likewise ready to give. Only when anything was required from a thorough man of business in Port Elizabeth, was he told at once of the requirement, naming the purpose, and figure. This was done as briefly as possible, without boring the man of business and, whether the requirement was in aid of charity, or an individual, religion, teetotalism, or public amusement, he would at once have responded to the appeal more liberally perhaps than would have been ventured to hope for. The Bay “man of business” was keen, shrewd, calculating, and persevering. If in a fair mercantile transaction or speculation there were any possible means of getting to windward of a person, he was just the very man to do so. But there was no selfishness about him, not one atom.

It would, of course, never have done to let a place which had so much to protect have been without any legally constituted protectors. Consequently, there were three established bodies of volunteers in the Bay; the Port Elizabeth Rifles, the Port Elizabeth Artillery, and the Naval Brigade. Through the steady and constant practice to which the two former were submitted they were very efficient at drill. A good band of instrumental performers were attached to the combined volunteers. The Naval Brigade, it was ventured to prophesy, were to become the pride of Algoa Bay. Shortly after its establishment, the Naval Brigade numbered some seventy stalwart well-trained A. B.’s, men of sober habits and good character. The Brigade was well officered, and in case of maritime distress, wreck, fire, or any other untoward event which called forth strong arms, presence of mind, and indomitable courage, this body of gallant seamen would have been found to prove themselves invaluable.

The allusion to seamen of sober habits reminds people that the description of Port Elizabeth would have been very defective if reference to the altered state of this important town in the matter of sobriety were to have been omitted. Half a dozen years before, the back-slums and the by-streets along the beach were notorious for drunkenness, profanity, and dissipation of of every kind. Nearly every fifth house in Strand Street, then a narrow thoroughfare which ran parallel with the Main Street and separating the latter from the beach, was a canteen of the lowest description, the interior of, and the entrance to which were wont to have been thronged with the lowest class blackguards of all nations, in every stage of inebriation. In 1861 such things were happily only known as things of the past. In 1861, the aforementioned localities were then remarkable for a general tone of industry and sobriety. If a notorious drunkard were to be tolerated then amongst the numerous and respectable class of surf-boatmen and beach-workers, by far the greater part of whom were members of Total Abstinence Societies, of which there were three in healthy operation in Port Elizabeth. From a most credible authority it was stated that in Algoa Bay, at the time, there were a thousand male operatives who had signed and who had adhered to the Total Abstinence pledge!

It was evident that in so heterogeneous a community as that of Port Elizabeth, religious opinion was considerably diversified. Besides the three churches of the establishment and the Independent Chapel, aforementioned, the Wesleyans had two places for public worship, the Baptists one, and the Roman Catholics one. The latter, notwithstanding the additions which from time to time had been made to it, was still far too small for its rapidly increasing congregation. Besides the aforementioned, there was the Chapel of the London Missionary Society, a Kaffir Chapel, a temporary Mosque, a Mormon Temple, and a Plymouth Brethren’s’ Meeting House.

Take it as a whole, Port Elizabeth was just what it professed itself to be, a place of business, not of pleasure. The man who went to reside there, presuming that he went for a reason which attracted nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand, to get a living, had to make up his mind not only to work, but to work hard. A drone received no mercy at the hands of the Bayonians, be his status in society what it may; if he was a man of independent means, people wrote him down as an ‘ass’ for selecting his ‘otium cum dig‘, amidst a perpetual whirl of turmoil. If he was dependent upon his physical or mental resources to earn his daily bread, he soon discovered to his cost that sloth and apathy found no ready response in the Bay. If he was sober, industrious, and willing to work, there was work of all kinds for him to do and plenty of it, if he went the proper way to look for it; but if he exhibited, in any degree, the reverse of these qualifications, the sooner he put RAWSON’s Bridge between him and Port Elizabeth the better for himself and the community likewise.

The stranger in Port Elizabeth would very soon have gratified his curiosity to learn the general aspect and bearing of the place upon society. A walk down the Main Street, a ramble through the streets across the Baaken’s River (the Green Point of Port Elizabeth), a drive on the Hill, and another to Zwartkop’s River, for the purpose of visiting the very handsome bridge across it, would soon have exhausted the sights of the place. If he possessed letters of introduction he would have found the Bayonians unreservedly throw open their homes to him and place their horses and servants at his disposal in the frank spirit of cordial hospitality. If on the other hand he were unknown to anyone, either in person, or by letter, the chances were that he would have remained comparatively unnoticed for half a score of years. The reason for this state of things was obvious.  It was impossible for society to have been otherwise in Colonial seaports, where ships and strangers were daily arriving and departing, and in an age then advanced and knowing, when the adventurer and the parvenu could have assumed so accurately the manners, the attire, and the ‘personnel’ of the gentleman as to have rendered it perfectly justifiable for all parties to exercise more than the usual caution in distinguishing between the sterling and the base, the spurious and the legitimate.

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