Port Elizabeth of Yore: A pyromaniac at large

Every community has its “nutjobs”. In Port Elizabeth’s case it was Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston who arrived by ship from Australia at the end of 1896. Her proclivity was a hatred for church altars. This malady or affliction manifested itself in the form of pyromania. At least three attempts at arson can be attributed to her actions. On the night of the 30th March and 1st April 1897, Frances successfully reduced the Holy Trinity Church in Havelock Street to ashes.

St Augustine’s had a narrow escape when a suspicious clergyman found her in a compromising position inside the church. On confronting her, she made a swift exit. As if that was insufficient, her affliction drove her to St. Mary’s. It was some alert workmen busy on the top storey who noticed smoke issuing from the building and rushed down to find the new altar ablaze but succeeded in getting the fire under control. The next morning, Miss Frances Livingstone Johnson, the perpetrator of these crimes, was caught by detectives again in St. Mary’s, seeking a fresh point of attack to incinerate the Church.

St Augustine’s parish church under construction

If her obsession had not been so overwhelming and she had restricted her hatred to one church, she would have escaped prosecution. On the 7th April. Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston was charged with arson for burning down Trinity Church in the early hours of 1 April and attempting to set fire to St Mary’s in the afternoon.

In due course she was sent to the asylum on Robben Island where she nearly suc­ceeded in burning down the entire Government buildings there whilst the officials were giving an evening party.

Dutch map of Robben island from 1731

Short Historical Notes on the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department by D.C. Sparks[Looking Back, Vol 29, No. 2, September 1990
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).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

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