Port Elizabeth of Yore: An Allen who Entered the World of Shipping

This member of the Allen family in Port Elizabeth did not follow the preceding two generations and enter the building trade. Instead he made his mark in the shipping business as well as various other organisations. This blog is the story John William Gordon Allen whose stellar career in the shipping business spanned five decades. In addition he contributed immensely to the MOTHS [Memorable Order of the Tin Hats, A club for returned service men after WW I and WW II] over many decades. Fortunately for society he was called Gordon to distinguish him from others bearing the family name of John William.  

Main picture: Gordon Allen immediately prior to a MOTH’s dinner. He looks a bit pensive. He often sat quietly for a few minutes or scribbled some quick notes just before giving a welcome address or giving a speech.

On 21st  June 1914 a small cry came from a house in Guthrie Street, Sydenham, Port Elizabeth. There a baby boy called JOHN WILLIAM GORDON ALLEN came into this world. Like most babies in those days, Gordon were born at home under the care of a midwife. It was an anxious period in the Allen household hoping that there were no complications during the delivery   

His mother was BARBARA MAUD ALLEN (born Rowe on 20 May 1882 ). His father was JOHN WILLIAM “BILL” ALLEN born 9th June 1873 ). Two sisters were older – MARIA VERA born on 9 May 1910 and VIOLET HILDA born 16 August 1912. Later a brother SAMUEL OLIVER was born 25 April 1916. Gordon’s father was born in Port Elizabeth and his mother at Goedgenoegt outside Uitenhage. In fact, Maud and Bill need not have been concerned. Not only was he healthy but this child would grow up to make an impression on the lives of many others.

Scouting career

At an early stage he showed strong leadership qualities. He was a Pack leader in the Wolf Cubs, a Troop Leader in the Boy Scout Movement where he had also the distinction of a King’s Scout.

During 8-10 February 1927, Sir Robert and Lady Baden-Powell visited Port Elizabeth and attended a Scout Rally at the Crusade at which Gordon was present

Gordon recalled that his first camp was at Schoenmakerskop about fifteen miles from P.E. with the ‘Wolf’ Cubs. They were taken in the chauffeur driven Willy’s Knight car of Mrs. A.M. Gibaud who also built the Adderley Scout Hall in Leylands Road North End P.E. Her husband was Managing Director of Bagshaw Gibaud (boot and shoe factory)

Gordon attended many Boy Scout camps with the Adderley Troop at Humewood , “Hell’s Gate”  outside Uitenhage, Glencairn outside Cape Town and St. Georges Strand, a seaside resort near Port Elizabeth. The Adderley Group consisted of two troops , a cub pack and a Rover Crew. Two sisters, Ethel and Paterson, ran the Pack,  Cornelius Joubert the Scout Troop, and Sam Morris the Rover Crew while N.M. Griffin provided assistance.

Unlike most children, Gordon progressed in the movement first as a Senior Rover Mate and later as a  Scoutmaster. He was fortunate to meet the founder of the Scouting movement, Lord Baden Powell in St. Georges Park, Port Elizabeth during February 1927 and a few years later camped in Glencairn , near Cape Town at a National Rover Moot in about 1933. Here Gordon was pictured, planting a tree with Peter, who was Baden Powell’s son, and this was published in the Cape Argus newspaper. A Scout Moot is an event for senior branches (traditionally called Rovers) and other young adult members. Moots provide an opportunity for young adults in Scouting to meet together with the objective of improving their international understanding as citizens of the world.

Family events

Several of Gordon’s uncles and other relations lived on farms in the Settler areas. One such farm was in the Addo area on which Gordon, his dad and his cousin Cecil Rowe spent an idyllic week.  Later in life, Gordon recalled how he did the shopping for his father and how he helped with the cooking. They all slept in a barn presumably with hay as an extemporised mattress. Using a .22 rifle belonging to his cousin CYRIL ALLEN, the well-known Eastern Province rugby player, he shot a rabbit which made a fine stew that night.

Three generations of Allens: John William “Bill” Allen, John William Gordon Allen and David Allen, a friend from Herbert Hurd Primary School

Working career

As an earnest and callow youth not yet 15 years old, Gordon  commenced his first job on 1st January 1929 at Parry, Leon & Hayhoe Ltd located at 5 Jetty Street Port Elizabeth. This company were Clearing and Forwarding agents, warehousemen and ship’s agents for Holland Afrika Line etc. What motivated Gordon not to complete his schooling and to forsake the family tradition of being carpenters and builders, is lost in the mists of time. As was the method of training in those days, a new recruit would be given the most menial task in a department and as they gained experience,  the novice was rotated between the departments.   

On 16 March 1934 Gordon resigned and joined Cutler & Wilson Ltd. in Mill Street next to Garlicks and A.E.C. Bank.

Aboard the P&O Liner “Orsova” in Port Elizabeth on 11th October 1968.
L to R- JWG Allen (Ship’s Agent), Staff Captain Harrison, Mrs Allen, Mayor of PE NP Rademeyer, Mrs Rademeyer, Captain JD’O Green

An interlude “up North”

In those days, the words “Up North” had a very special meaning especially for English speaking boys. On the 4th September 1939, the United Party caucus in Parliament refused to accept Hertzog’s stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favour of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, two days later on the 6th  September, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. Heeding his call, Gordon joined many other young men in South Africa by volunteering to serve outside South Africa.    

Picture of JW Gordon Allen with with his sister Vera Allen after the war. His 8th Army flash. Postcard with his photo in Eqypt

Gordon was away for five and a half years during World War Two. His “touring” at the expense of the Union Defence Force took him to the Western desert, Kenya, Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Sudan, Egypt, Suez Canal, S.A. Coast, the Red Sea, Eritrea, Mediterranean Sea, Tunis, Benghazi, Tobruk and various parts of South Africa.

After some ACTIVE SERVICE in World War II, Gordon gave service in several capacities including Adjutant on land and at sea on a troopship as Administration Officer, Transport Officer plus a member of Courts Martial. This all took him up and down Africa through at least eight countries then with the 8th Army through to Tunis and later up the Mediterranean when convoys went as far as Gibraltar.

The most serious injury during his service “up North” was not sustained due to the depredations of the German or Italian foes but something more mundane. It arose during one of his overseas trips whilst swimming in the placid pale blue Mediterranean when he almost lost five toes on his right foot. A brass strip on the sea floor sliced across his foot, damaging it badly. Luckily with the assistance of a British Army Doctor, the incision healed well.

Apart from this traumatic incident, Gordon can boast about 33 scars on his body from at least 12 incidents or accidents. Two emergency operations, a broken clavicle and the sharp end of a pickaxe (road working type) through the right  hand. Luckily, he even survived an accident on a surf board. One has to wonder whether these injuries were inflicted due to his being a daredevil risk taker or possessing a talent for clumsy behaviour.    

MOTHS 1945-1995
Names of attendees at the MOTHS celebration of 50 years

The Good and the Great

Returning to civilian life, Gordon became a foundation member of the P.E. MOTH club. Being an affable man with an even temperament and a quiet nature resulted in Gordon being appointed to various committees – several as Chairman – of  the Algoa Shellhole, the P.E.  Moth Club and Life Member of the Club, Chairman and/or President for fourteen years, eventually being awarded the MOTH’s ‘ORDER OF MERIT’ in 1966.

During the course of his duties, he met or entertained various lords and Cabinet Ministers. Amongst them were Lord Baden­-Powell, the World Scout Founder, New Zealand Cabinet Minister, Lord Leathers (British Transport Minister during World War 2 ) and the Managing Director of Cory Mann, George & Co. which subsequently merged with Freight Services Ltd.


A 1929 Nash Roadstar

Gordon obtained his driver’s licence in 1935, at the age of 21. His first vehicle, CB 891, was a 1932 Nash Roadster. A steady stream of vehicles followed this: a SINGER sedan, CB 802, a STANDARD, CB 9664, a WILLYS CB 11875, then a CHEVROLET Automatic. After that there was a variety of vehicles supplied by his employer. In London during 1970, he was fortunately to have the use of a FORD Capri supplied by his agent in London, DAVIES TURNER & Co.


St. Barnabas Anglican Church was Gordon’s my place of worship on a regular basis for eighty-two and a half years before emigrating to Australia in December 1996. Situated in Rhodes Street, Sydenham, Port Elizabeth, the church normally, on average, attracted a congregation of about 300 including the Sunday School. Years ago, there were over 200 children in the Sunday School, but many families relocated over the years as the town opened up new suburbs. Initially  Gordon attended Sunday School there and later he taught in it. He attended church regularly from young as a small boy, served at the altar and even conducted an evening service, assisted by his friend Jack Payne when the Minister John William Keates attended a church Synod. His subject for the sermon was ‘AND THE SOWER WENT FORTH’.  He was instrumental in writing a booklet in the history of this church entitled “A Historical Record of St. Barnabas Church 1904-1985”  

St Barnabas Church taken from Prince Alfred Road

Speech at Gordon’s Golden Jubilee

Not many people can claim  to have celebrated  their Golden Jubilee before officially going on pension. This unique situation was attributed to GORDON ALLEN in the Freight Services Group House Journal Vol 4/No 6 issued in JUNE 1979. This young man – still very active – joined the clearing and forwarding agent PARRY, LEON & HAYHOE LTD in January 1929.

Those days most of the so-called Shipping Agents had offices in the vicinity of Jetty Street, Strand Street and Main Street close to the Customs House and the Harbour and Railway Goods Sheds. Two weeks after going on pension in Johannesburg, Gordon started back in the Port Elizabeth office of Freight Services as a consultant where he remained for a further four and a half years, finally packing up in December 1983.

What a pension must go with that service you will think. For the first 29 years of employment (with takeovers) private family directors did not cover pensions or medical aid schemes. Gordon is thankful for a pension today which is regularly reviewed to keep pace with rising costs. Some of the names of firms under his management were Cutler & Wilson, Cory Mann George and Freight Services Ltd. , all  in P.E. Over the years he was involved in Customs Clearing & Forwarding, Warehousing, Insurance, Travel and Ships Agency. Export of Manganese Ore was first handled with ‘Bucket and Spade’ before the Mechanical Ore Plant was built. Memories go back to the occasion when two Mail boats KILDONAN CASTLE AND KENILWORTH CASTLE travelled together to replace the WINDSOR CASTLE (four funnels) as she was in for repairs. The fire in the CANARVON CASTLE in 1936 caused by spontaneous combustion in a bale of blankets. Damaged goods occupied a whole harbour shed, for many surveys and the auction sale. He handled the S.S. UNITED STATES in P.E.,  large passenger vessels and hundreds of bulk carriers, maize and ore exports plus wheat imports. All nationalities and type of Ships’ Masters were encountered some being in port for more than a fortnight.

In 1971 Gordon was transferred to London as Freight Services United Kingdom representative to investigate and initiate the formation of the Group’s international forwarding concept. After his return to P.E. he was transferred to Johannesburg as the company’s Overseas Development Manager. The next seven to eight years was spent in various departments and positions with an accent on marketing and consultancy.

Gordon  served on The Harbour Advisory Board, the P.E. Forwarding Association, Skal Club,     Association of SA Travel Agents,  Shipping Agents ,  Soccer Club and ran Educational courses on many subjects, including airfreight, for young men some of whom are now senior executives. So from Oil Rigs (GLOBAL MARINE  was the  first in these waters) and the first Dragline.

After some ACTIVE SERVICE in World War II Gordon gave five and a half years’ service in several capacities including Adjutant on land and at sea on a troopship as Administration Officer, Transport Officer plus a member of Courts Martial. This all took him up and down Africa through at least eight countries then with the 8th Army through to Tunis – later up the Mediterranean when convoys went as far as Gibraltar.

Returning to civilian life, Gordon became a foundation member of the P.E. MOTH club. He is a Life member, has been Chairman on seven occasions and President for fifteen years. He has been Old Bill of his Shell hole and of the P.E. District MOTHS. as well as President of the Mechanical Transport Old Boys Association.

Before the war he was an active ‘Scouting’ type from Cubs to Scouts to Rover Scouts and is still in possession of his Scout shirt with badges depicting ‘Kings Scout’ and a few jamborees in the 30s.

I have removed the part of his speech regarding his children and provided an uptodate version below.

Wife and mother ‘Queenie’ has been a wonderful support and adviser to the whole family. Most of her time is spent in helping others. Having served as a MOTHWA for thirty years and a frail care Ward is named after her in the MOTHWA Haven in Port Elizabeth.

Children to be proud of

Les qualified as a PhD scientist University of PE and UNISA, working as Professor of Nuclear Physics at UNISA before accepting a position at the University of Melbourne. David qualified as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town before leaving for Australia where he settled in Melbourne working as a Gynaecological Oncologist. Rob, the youngest, qualified as an optometrist in East London before completing further advanced studies in the UK. He subsequently settled in Auckland, NZ.

Letter of Appointment to the Harbour Board -Gordon Allen


The primary source was David Allen, Gordon’s son

Undated cutting from the Herald

Speech given at Jubilee Function


    • Hi Pieter,

      Definitely not. The David Allen that I refer to in the blogs on the Allen family used to live in PE & I was friends with him in primary school.
      He is an oncologist living in Australia



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