Port Elizabeth of Yore: Disaster on Christmas Eve

The morning of the Thursday 24th December 1931 was not unlike any other Christmas Eve. Whether those passengers crammed into buses and trams had already completed their Christmas shopping, this was a day when many residents of Port Elizabeth would make that trip to Main Street to experience the thrill and excitement of this special day.

Instead many would witness a tragedy which would blunt their enthusiasm and joy over the festive season.

Main picture: St Mary’s Church in 1931 showing the business on Main Street being demolished

Shoppers imbibing the Christmas spirit

Spicing their conversations this year were not only the standard topics such as the weather and the anticipation of Christmas, but the evidence heard in court the previous day in the “Tarantula” case as this had been a popular talking point for a considerable time. Who was the Tarantula”? His exploits had amazed, amused and intrigued almost everyone, while the mystery of his identity added to public interest. But now with the hearing of the case the day before the facts were disclosed for all to dwell on.

The office workers and shop assistants were the first to arrive in Main Street. The shop workers, who were predominantly white, would scurry into their elegant shops. Amongst them were the Trenley Birch & Co next to Castle Corner and Fischer Jewellers which had been the shop of choice for over half a century. For many it would mean working until nine o’clock that evening for it was customary for shops to remain open until that time on Christmas Eve and Old Year’s Night.

One of the very earliest photos of the newly opened Fischer & Co building in Main Street circa 1914

Those not working as well as females who were not supposed to work once they were married and certainly did not occupy any managerial or executive positions would come into town and join the crowds thronging the pavements and making merry with party hats, coloured switches and candy-striped bugles. Quite a gala occasion with much light-hearted fun.

The heat of midday and tired feet chased many of the shoppers into the eateries. In the early afternoon, it was  not so busy in the street or on the pavements, as it would be in the shops that people would be engaged with the late purchase of gifts.

Building operations

By the turn of the century, most of the original two storey buildings in Main Street with the shop downstairs and the living accommodation on the first floor had vanished. They had been replaced by the elegant faux Gothic and Art Deco buildings of that age. As if to impress their clientele, it was the banks, building societies and the insurance companies which were the first to upgrade their premises. Notable examples were Standard Bank and Guardian Assurance.

Main Street circa 1930s

The next on the list to erect an elegant building with a marble façade was the United Building Society. Probably due to a shortage of funds, in 1832 three plots in St. Mary’s Terrace were sold. Later, in 1843, frontage abutting Main Street was sold but portion had to be repurchased in 1924 to accommodate the nave. Almost from the date of sale of this frontage on Main Street, being in a prime business location, it was used as business premises. For the UBS to be erected on this site, these single storey premises would have to be demolished. In fact, the demolition of the vaulted buildings had already begun on the building on the corner of Main Street and St. Mary’s Terrace. It was already in the process of being demolished. Two shops adjacent to this business, not yet due to be pulled down, were still occupied. With little warning, the roof of Miss Gleave’s shop collapsed, killing her and six other people. It was injured others who were inside at the time. The cause of the devastation was the collapse of two walls and the masonry roof which buried this popular fancy goods store with its staff and Christmas customers under tons of rubble.

First Standard Bank premises in Port Elizabeth

Depending on how far one was from the scene, the sound of the crash differed, but the heads of all who heard it in Main Street switched in the direction of the City Hall to see a pall of dust drifting from west to east across the street. No one could guess the enormity of the disaster that so suddenly struck in the heart of the city and indeed it would be a long time before the full horror of the tragedy could be determined.

Once the significance of the tragedy was realised there was a spontaneous rush of men to the scene, trying to remove the mass of debris in attempts to release those trapped. It was a formidable task and later, with organised planning being introduced into the operation, the work continued into the night while a depressing atmosphere pervaded the city.

Tension mounted as news was awaited concerning the identity and condition of the victims. The eventual death toll in the disaster was seven, on this – the saddest day of the year.

The architect and the builder were charged with culpable homicide, but the courts decided that there was no proof of negligence on their part. The chemist’s shop adjoining Miss Gleaves, also collapsed, destroying the stock and Lennon’s, the lessees, brought an unsuccessful civil action as well.

St Mary’s Church showing the effect of the sale of frontage along Main Street

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

The Saddest Day of the Year in Looking Back, (1992, Vol 31, March)


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