This iconic building has served multiple disparate roles since its opening in 1885. During the 1970s, I watched the bands Freedom’s Children and the Troggs in action here. In 1993, the original building was extensively renovated and in keeping with this facelift, it was renamed The Feather Market Centre.
Below is a selection of several disparate uses of this building from the early years of its existence.
Main picture: Ostrich feathers being viewed prior to the auction
The South African Exhibition
On the 10th December 1885, the new market buildings, including the feather market, were officially opened by Sir Hercules Robinson, the Governor, to coincide with the opening of the South African Exhibition. The Exhibition was intended as a foundation for South Africa’s entry in the planned 1886 Exhibition for India and the Colonies in London. The first meeting to organise ours was held on 31 October 1884. The Governor was President of the Executive Committee and the new markets were chosen as the venue from the start. The Exhibition ran for a month during which 60,000 visitors attended.
Ostrich feather emporium
Ultimately this use might have been of short duration due to the collapse of this market, but it was the product which established a requirement for such a marketplace. Port Elizabeth missed the first ostrich feather boom from 1865-1870 as the first sale of ostrich feathers only took place on the 2nd February 1885 after the completion of the building. The ostrich feather sale was conducted by the resident Market Master of many years, John Corny, with the first feathers to be offered belonging to Henry Wathen Court, considered to have been the first person to have contemplated taming ostriches and breeding them.
Lionel Cripps’ description of the operation
Per Cripps, “The Feather Market was a fine sight with its long tables filled with feathers of many colours and qualities, all of which were handled and bought by clever, often witty, humorous buyers who made the sales full of variety and movement. The keen-eyed auctioneers did their work, seemingly never missing a bid, whether given by a smile, a wink, a nod, a toss of the head or even a negative, given in such manner as to enable the auctioneer to accept it as a bid.“
The markets then were booming, but as usual, after boom came reaction and a slump as fashions changed, and farmers, brokers, dealers, and markets collapsed together, until recently, when new uses were found for the products of the ostrich industry.
Second boom and crash
Port Elizabeth was well-placed to capitalise on the second boom from 1900 to 1914 as the market was well-established. WW1 intruded and killed the demand. On the signing of the Armistice ending WW1, the brokers and agents believed that the dark days were behind them. However bad luck struck in the form of the fashion market not being resurrected as it formerly rejected feathers as a fashion accessory.
Olympic Fun Fair
On the 22nd March 1909, an “Olympic Fun Fair” was opened by Mayor C.H. Mackay in the market buildings. It was started in connection with the annual Agricultural Show and attractions included a Big Wheel, Helter Skelter, aeroplane and a Chamber of Horrors. After its first appearance, the Olympia moved to Humewood until the Easter holidays were over. The final Olympia was held in 1920.
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).
Personal recollections of Mr Lionel Cripps published in Looking Back Volume IV No. 1