Port Elizabeth of Yore: Dunning’s Memoirs of Bagshaw Gibaud

Prior to Bagshaw Gibaud’s closure at the rapacious hands of asset strippers in 1973, it was a prominent producer of shoes in South Africa. Like most of the foremost companies commencing operations in the 1800s, at the helm were visionaries and entrepreneurial men. The duo of Gibaud and Bagshaw were no exception.

Main picture: Original buildings of Bagshaw & Gibaud


Arthur Evan Dunning was born in Wales in 1872, Ironically it was the same year in which Dunning’s future employer, Bagshaw & Moore, was established in Port Elizabeth. Like most youths of that period, it was at the early age of sixteen that he relocated to Bristol where he learned the shoe trade, presumably in some form of apprenticeship. Early in 1893, Dunning left England aboard the Warwick Castle. After a brief stay in Cape Town, he proceeded onwards to his final destination of Port Elizabeth to assume employment offered to him by William Bagshaw. Denning would remain with the company for thirty-two years. Even at the age of ninety-nine years, Dunning sharp memory could still recall the initial crude premises and their early struggles in the primitive little tannery cum factory on the North End beach.

Dunning recalls the firm in its infancy.

It was a very small factory situated on the open beach below the railway line, later replaced by the marshalling yards and locomotive sheds of the North End station. Scattered around were rows of neat little cottages occupied mostly by railway employees. The building with its corrugated iron roof consists of 1 long spacious room supported from below by tall stout wooden poles or stilts. This enclosed upstairs room looked across the beach and the open sea on the one side and the railway line and sheds on the other. It served as the boot-making factory with one long wooden bench down the centre with the axis they two provided by a broad rickety wooden staircase below and open on all sides with a few tanning pits strung with ropes from which hung their tanned hides in an adjourning tin shanty, and fleshing and other processes were performed next to the factory stood the cottage occupied by William Moore and not far away was another cottage where William Bagshaw lived.

To obtain oil for currying the leather cows’ heels and pigs’ trotters were brewed in a large cauldron from which emanated the foulest odors – so much so that Arthur Dunning saw one lady visitor drop in a dead faint as she passed it. Two wooden huts nearby served as privies each containing a bucket, the contents of which were periodically disposed of at odd spots along the open beach. Altogether the place was extremely crude and primitive.

The only commodity then produced by the footwear factory was veldskoens, a rough type of footwear suitable for town, farm and country use, and requiring no polish. Costing only a couple of shillings they were extremely popular with the poorer people who at the time were by far in the majority of residents. Primitive but comfortable, the veldschoen consisted of an unfinished and unbeautiful low-cut upper, sewn and riveted, attached to a hard cow hide leather sole, the shape of which was the least consideration. One or two eyelets when inserted for laces but string usually served the same purpose. All the work was done by hand, the only piece of so-called machinery being an antiquated foot treadle machine used for stitching the uppers. William Bagshaw supervised the first veldschoen-making section while William Moore and a team of Fingoes ran the tannery producing the leather.

Tannery of Bagshaw Gibaud on North End Beach

The factory staff consisted of six Europeans and about a dozen non-white apprentices. As the latter took only a few weeks to master the simple Veldschoen trade, they were left to do most of the work. The six whites were ex-soldiers who had remained in the country after their Regiments had returned to England at the close of the Frontier Wars. They – the colonial soldiers – were often low and unscrupulous characters. Often, when they were given a substantial order for footwear, they would show their objection by downing tools and disappearing for a few days. To avoid recognition in local bars and hotels they would trudge along the beach and across the Fishwater Flats to a low-down canteen at Zwartkops where gangs of British navies and Fingoes were employed in the construction of the railway. Here they would indulge in fighting and drunken orgies that lasted until they were penniless. Upon their return to work, William Bagshaw and his partner knew better than to ask questions. They were only too pleased to see them back ready to tackle the orders which had piled up during their absence.

There was neither discipline nor continuity of work in the factory. Working hours were from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM with an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch. Salaries were on a piece-work basis and although exceedingly low by modern standards, were in proportion to the prevailing cost of living in those days. For a good week’s work, white man could earn about 25 shillings to 30 shillings whereas a nonwhite was paid 3 shillings to four shillings, but often some of his work was wrongly appropriated by the whites resulting in some ugly scenes after the closing hours. When the batches of veldschoens were completed, they were placed in bags and rolled unceremoniously down the wooden staircase to ground level, regardless of the possible damage to the contents. There they were collected,’’ piled onto a wagon and driven off to Bagshaw’s small office in Hill Street where all the correspondence, packing and dispatching took place.

Bagshaw & Gibaud’s tannery yard circa 1920

Occasionally small orders would come in from customers desiring a decent pair of boots or shoes. These would be assigned to Mr. Dunning who was the only qualified person in the factory to make them. Then William Bagshaw, whose clean-shaven face, blue eyes, ruddy complexion and graying hair he vividly remembered, would sit at Dunning’s desk and watch him for hours at his work as a skilled laster. Often they were joined by William Moore at whose home Arthur Dunning spent many a pleasant evening.

In his youth, Mr. Dunning learned to play the organ, the violin and the flute, talents that served him well in those early days in Port Elizabeth when after work there was little entertainment and it was unsafe to venture along the dimly lit streets of the town. After his marriage in 1895 to Sarah Anne Matthews daughter of William Matthews, a prosperous wagon maker with nine children, he built a cottage in Trafalgar Square, North End. Here he formed a musical club, and many were the delightful musical evenings enjoyed by friends in his home. Land was still cheap at North End and at a sale in William Armstrong’s auction rooms, 4 plots on Trafalgar Square were knocked down to him for a mere 100 pounds. He erected 4 spacious cottages on them.

Mr. Denning had no children and after the death of his beloved wife in 1941 he boarded with various friends for many years before entering the Fairhaven Memorial Home in Forest Hill. His greatest ambition was to be spared to see the firm celebrate its centenary. Sadly, this was not to be.

Despite Mr. Dunning’s portrayal of those tough old pioneer shoemakers working in Bagshaw and Moore’s primitive wood and iron factory cum tannery on the open North End beach, they must have had a good knowledge of the trade in order to have achieved numerous awards over the years.


In the Shoes of William Bagshaw, A Centenary History of Bagshaw, Gibaud and Company of Port Elizabeth. Edited and compiled by William R. Harding (Helderberg, Content Solutions, 2005)

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