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 businesses 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. It was 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.

Background to Lot 23

According to Harradine in her book: The Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth, Lot 23 in Main Street was officially granted to the Port Elizabeth Church Committee (St Mary’s Church) on 27 November 1827, a piece of land stretching up to the foot of the Donkin Reserve. By 1843 a large part had already been sold. The six lots forming St Mary’s Terrace, with a small access road, were sold in the 1830s and Lot 7, a long strip on the north boundary, as well (to Samuel Buffrey on 1 September 1835).

On 10 April 1843 the Vestry sold the remaining empty space fronting the High Street to merchant brothers William and Joseph Smith, on which to build their business premises.

Preserved in the archive of the Diocese of Grahamstown is the agreement from this time, signed by Churchwardens Daniel Phillips and Caesar Andrews. The building to be erected was not to be used as a “canteen, gaming house, nor any trade requiring the use of fire“. It seems likely that a height restriction, leaving the little church clearly visible, had also been negotiated, because all the surrounding buildings of this time had two storeys, usually with business premises below and living quarters upstairs.

The agreement gives a detailed description of the intended Smith building: “in the form of vaults, having an elliptic arched roof of 14 inch brickwork and three foot rise from the springing, the north and south arches to have four braces of one-and a-half inch iron, bolted in plates, running the whole length of the building, the walls of abutment nine foot six inches from the level of the floor to the springing of the arch.”

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.

By the end of 1931 all this was about to change. The Smith Bros. building was now occupied by several shops: E. E. Downing’s Music Saloon, Don & Co.’s grocery store, Miss Gleaves’ fancy goods shop and C. E. Gardner’s pharmacy, managed by William Marriott. All were to be demolished to make way for the new United Building Society’s office block and the extension to St Mary’s, comprising the new nave. Clearing of the U.B.S. site (numbers 2-6) had already begun and between 8th and the 18th December the builder, R. G. McClelland, had removed the supporting buttress and portions of the front and back walls. Connecting rods were taken out with nothing being put in their place, and excavation and openings in the interior walls had weakened them.

The architect, F. 0. Eaton, and the builder were keeping a close watch regarding the foundations of St Mary’s Church, seeing a danger there, and these had been underpinned, but the tenants in shops Nos 8 and 10 were not warned of the hazardous position in which they were now placed. On the day before Christmas, the future building site was a busy place, with workmen preparing for the holiday break and those in charge checking that all was safe for the next week, after which the shoring up of No 8 would be carried out before demolition of Nos 2 – 6 was completed .

The Building Inspector was there too, to ensure that the site was secure and surrounded by hoarding. Also watching the Church’s safety were architect, W.J. McWilliams and Rev. C. E. Mayo. That afternoon McWilliams visited the site and went into the passage between the church and the back of the shops, where the stone wall was being demolished and took note of the construction of the arches and roof which was now revealed. At 2 p.m. he and his partner, Victor Jones, went to look again and from the forecourt of St Mary’s could see that the whole row was in a “state of unstable equilibrium” and that a collapse could occur at any time, including shops 8 and 10. This was reported to Canon Mayo, who immediately went to find help. At this time a crack along the length of the roof of No. 2 was also noticed.

The shoring of the wall of Miss Gleaves’ shop was quickly begun, but not in a way that could possibly be effective. McWilliams returned to his office at 3 p.m. and shortly thereafter the masonry roof and part of the walls of shops 2 – 8 fell. As it was Christmas Eve, last-minute shoppers were busy in Miss Gleaves’ shop and seven people died, with others injured. Miss Edith Adeline Gleaves was killed (her sister Violet Mary was injured) together with Sr. Louisa Stumke of the Provincial Hospital, Miss Dorothy Wade, Mrs Millicent Walker, Mrs Florence Bower, and a messenger named Cassim Chandly. Workman James Matawana died in one of the empty shops. All died of fractured skulls. Miss Maisie Allison was badly hurt and was still in hospital when the Court case was heard in October 1932. On 29th December the pharmacy collapsed as well, destroying the stock inside which could not be removed.

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.

The new nave was visible shortly after its construction, but it would soon be hidden by the UBS Building

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 inquest was held on 5 February 1932 and then, and during the subsequent Circuit Court hearing in October, numbers of witnesses and experienced professional men were called to give evidence in the case in which the architect, F.O. Eaton and builder, R. C. McClelland, were charged with culpable homicide, but acquitted. The crux of the matter was exactly how the demolition should have been tackled, particularly what should have been done to keep each vault stable in the process and whether the heavy roof should have been removed before the walls. The tie-rods, which had been an essential part of the original structure, were also seen as vital, but some had been removed, either in 1931 or years before. Opinion was divided on the general stability of the whole row before demolition even began.

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

A civil action was subsequently brought in the Supreme Court in Grahamstown by pharmaceutical company Lennon’s (they were awarded £1500). The judge spoke of “negligence and lack of skill and care” and it seems that the second factor was seen as mainly responsible for the tragedy. The nature of the 1843 building was such that “the dead weight of the structure and the thrust of the arches” meant that, without essential precautions being taken, once the first vault was dismantled the others would fall like dominoes. This was simply not understood.

Sources

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

Anonymous article ‘The Saddest Day of the Year’ in Looking Back, Vol 31, No 1, March 1992.

The Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth: Its windows and furnishings, a pictorial record and some aspects of its history by Margaret Harradine (2018, Xpress Copy and Print, Port Elizabeth)

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