Port Elizabeth of Yore: Emerald Hill

Unlike other picturesque parts of Port Elizabeth, this area despite its beauty, is relatively unknown to residents of the town. This farm originated in 1815 when the Governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, granted the farm to John O’Neal, its first owner. Many other pioneers from Ireland, or the Emerald Isle, settled in the area, hence its name.

An hotel, the Emerald Hill hotel, was established o Emerald Hill “surrounded on the west and southwest by miles of forest and bush.”

Main picture: Emerald Hill Hotel

Redgrave’s description
In his book Port Elizabeth of Bygone Days Redgrave describes Emeral Hill as follows: Emerald Hill, the famous farm and suburb adjoining Walmer, was originally granted by Lord Charles Somerset to John O’Neal in September 1815. The place derived its name from the fact that its first owner and numerous other later residents of the area all hailed from Ireland, or the Emerald Isle. It is indeed a very beautiful district to which the old generation attached happy memories. For many years it was owned by John Miller, who had his residence there, and then by Mathew Kemp. Later, an hotel licence was granted to Mr. Mapplebeck, but eventually it became the property of the Dominican Sisters who rebuilt it and now run it as a Girls’ Boarding School known as St. Dominic’s Priory. From Emerald Hill Priory is a mag­nificent panoramic view of the entire coastline round Cape Receife and the Bushy Park Estate which stretches for miles along the coast onward towards Cape St. Francis. What remi­niscences the hill, the vales and the kloofs of the extensive Bushy Park conjured up to many of the old sportsmen who recalled the warm-hearted hospitality of its first owner, Charles Lovemore, a grand 1820 Settler styled the Prince of Sportsmen, and whose game coverts were always thrown open to the many Nimrods of the early days of Port Elizabeth.

Howard Mapplebeck & his family in 1886

Salient events
The Gazetteer by Logie and Harradine provides a brief summary of the ownership and use of Emerald Hill as follows:

  • Emerald Hill is a subsection of the original Loan Place Buffelsfontein which had been granted to Jacobus Theodorus Botha  
  • In 1841, James Samuel Reed leased the section later known as Emerald Hill
  • In 1858, John Miller purchased the section which he named Emerald Hill
  • In 1875, Miller sold the property which had been divided into six plots.
  • In 1876 that portion named Emerald Hill together with a house was bought by Johan Gottfried Gruber who established a hotel on the property. However, he was refused a licence and let it to Eduard Steinmann.
  • In 1891 Gruber was finally granted a licence for a club, but the venture failed.
  • In 1899 the Emerald Hill Hotel was sold by James Carter to the Dominican Sisters for a school
  • In January 1901 the first pupils for the new school, St Dominics Priory, was admitted.
  • The 11th June 1907 witnessed the opening of the first of the new buildings, designed by Smith, Sons and Dewar, at St Dominic’s Priory, Emerald Hill.
St Dominics Priory

The Emerald Hill Hotel by Mr W Scruton
After noting all the attractions available in the Port Elizabeth region such as Cadles, Zwartkops and Redhouse, Scruton goes on to describe the attraction of the Emerald Hill Hotel and vicinity. He then continues “But while these places have their attractions and are each and all most desirable for a change, there is no place that is so easy of approach and so admirably suited to our requirements, with such a charming variety of scenery, together with the healthy nature of its surroundings, as the well-known hotel at Emerald Hill, situated about five miles from town , and connected by a daily covered wagonette service that protects us from rain and sun alike, with a lovely drive through the new Valley road [presumably New Road across the Baakens, later replaced by Target Kloof] in forty minutes, we reach the entrance of the Willow-lane with its golden blossoms, dark green leaves and delightful aroma, and along through the long avenue of trees, between which we can here and there obtain a view of the fields of waving corn and forage in all their verdant greenness. Along past the bend in the road we pass the stables and the old homestead, when suddenly the hotel itself is disclosed to our view, standing sheltered by giant gum trees, with an air of peace and quiet about it that we feel upon arriving that we are at home, though from home.

The hotel stands in a most sheltered and picturesque situation, and though several hundred feet above sea level, is not in any way exposed, for it is surrounded on the west and southwest by miles of forest and bush, sheltered from the northwest by gums and other large trees, while from the stoep can be seen in the distances the town. On the east side a lovely grassy slope leads up to the new look-out station from which can be seen the steamers and passing ships, the sea, and a lovely panorama of the country for miles around.

The building itself has been the residence of more than one of the Mayors of Port Elizabeth in years gone by and has more of the character of a gentleman’s country residence than that of a country hotel. It has a large and spacious dining room capable of seating a goodly number, a drawing-room with piano and usual surroundings, a snug little bar with a choice assortment of liquid comforts, light and airy bedrooms, and in addition to those contained in the building, there are several outside, while a large and covered-in stoep is also a great resort, with its comfortable Madeira and folding chairs and tables, where afternoon tea is frequently served.

Quiet walks for lovers and honeymooning couples, forest and woodland scenery, a veritable paradise for the botanist and lover of nature, while the amateur photographer can fairly revel in landscape scenery, and whether he be the five-acre field student or the press the button young man, he can find material enough to furnish him with pictures that would enable him to win all the medals that the Colony can afford, or produce lantern slides rivalling those made in Japan.

Emerald Hill Hotel from The Bay in Living Memory

Since it was only those who had carriages or carts who could go visiting or sightseeing, it was Sundays and holidays when most of the hotel’s business was done. Mr Mapleback, the manager of the hotel, arranged horse races occasionally during these holidays on the land now known as Salisbury Park. His fine stables were located at the side of the gate at the entrance to the hotel grounds. Mapleback’s horses were of the best and he employed an English groom to take care of them and one could see the horse’s name at the head of each.

The Emerald Hill hotel attracted all those men who had an interest in horses. In order to understand the size of the business that he did, Mapleback’s butcher had a standing order for ten dressed fowls every Wednesday and twenty on Saturday and he had a commission to purchase any small wild animal or large birds that he could receive while Mapleback also kept poultry which was not slaughtered but was of a better type kept on view in the runs.

Mapleback owned a harness-making business but he himself never got personally involved in making harnesses. As far as running the hotel was concerned, he was a thoroughly English gentleman but due to his superintending the operation of it, it operated as a first-class hotel, forty years before its time. As the main building was too small, he erected wood and iron cottages opposite the bedrooms. Unlike other such establishments, upon entering the hotel one was not assailed by liquor on display. Instead, the bar was located at the southeast corner to which one was compelled to walk around the veranda.

On the east side of the hotel was a large lawn bordered by a hedge of shrubs. Beyond this he had erected a look-out and to the south of this lawn he kept runs enclosed by wire netting in which he kept monkeys, baboons and any small wild animal which he could obtain. These runs as well as the poultry runs were provided as entertainment for the ladies and their children. Presumably the men were entertained in the bar and inspected the horses. Mapleback also kept a large wagonette which he used to ferry the male guests into town for business purposes and it also took them out in the evening.

Emerald Hill Hotel (Looking Back, The Bay in Living Memory, Volume 58, 2019)
Emerald Hill Hotel (Cape Daily Telegraph, 17 September 1898
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).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
The Algoa Gazetteer by CJ Skead (1993, Algoa Regional Services Council, Port Elizabeth)

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