Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fire at the Herald’s Offices in April 1902

Buildings of this era faced several dangers, not least of which was the fact that often wood was used extensively in building construction. The shambolic state of fire fighting services was thrown into sharp relief whenever yet another prominent building was destroyed in a conflagration.  Finally in 1917, 15 years after this conflagration, the Fire Brigade was professionally manned.

Main picture: The total staff and equipment complement of the PE Fire Brigade in 1904

Location of the Herald’s Offices
In 1902 the Herald was still located in the building on the corner of Whites Road and Baakens Street and had not yet moved to its future home on the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street. Later this building which was one of the first three storey buildings in Port Elizabeth would be demolished to make way for the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance or CMLA Building. Much later it would be taken over by the Town Council who renamed it as Pleinhuis.

Above: Fire Service in 1894

Prior to that, up to 1894, the Herald offices were located in the Cleghorn’s building which was up to that date known as the Herald Chambers which they shared with Cleghorns & Harris. As Cleghorns grew, their need for additional space resulted in the Herald’s relocation in 1894 to the southern side of White’s Road. The Herald, by this time, had sold the building to Cleghorns.  As such they were merely tenants in that building.

The fire and its aftermath
On 25th April a fire broke out accidentally in the machine room of the Herald at 5.30 a.m. after turpentine was spilt. The Herald was being printed at the time. Workmen were unable to contain the fire, which spread up the stairs to the first floor where the editorial offices and typesetting were situated, and which suffered the worst damage but the fire brigade was situated close by in Military Road and though considerable damage was caused, total ruin was averted. Some firemen were overcome by smoke.

Above: Fire Brigade Practice from an article in the Herald in 1904

Fortunately the firm had already bought the site on the corner of Baakens Street and Military Road and plans for a four storey building with a basement were approved by the Town Council at about the time of the fire. For some time after the fire the Herald was printed by another local newspaper, the Cape Daily Telegraph, formerly the P.E. Telegraph with which Philip’s P.E. Mercury had merged. The new building must have proceeded apace because the Herald was published from there in 1903.

Notification from the grave
In 1988 the Herald received the following letter from J.R. Anderson of Johannesburg: “I came across a letter addressed to my grandfather, Supt. J.G. Anderson, who was the fire chief in Port Elizabeth at the turn of the century. I found the letter among my father’s papers recently and I thought your readers might be interested, especially in the elaborate letterhead which is of possible value. “What I would like to know from you is to which fire the writer is referring. You may keep the original letter for your archives or the local museum.”

The letter, reproduced above, dated 30th May, 1902, and addressed to Mr. Anderson, Fire Brigade Office, reads:

Dear Sir,
We have pleasure in handing you cheque for £2.2.0 and another for £8.8.0.
Will you kindly accept the same on behalf of yourself in the first place and on behalf of your staff in the second for your valuable services during the fire.
We are E.H. Walton & Co.,
John B. Smith.

In 1988, the Herald published both letters and also the following comment: “Deputy Chief Officer D.C. Sparks, who is an authority on fire brigade history which he has researched for several years, says: ‘Port Elizabeth’s first fire pumps were bought by insurance. companies. They arrived in 1859 in Skimmer of the Seas and were handed to the town Council. The town engineer was in charge, and they were manned by volunteers. In 1867 the town decided the service was too expensive, and insurance companies took over until 1880, when the town resumed responsibility. Only in 1917 was the brigade manned professionally.”

History of the E.H. Walton Group 1845 to 1995 by G.S. Walton (Port Elizabeth, EH Walton & Co. 1995)

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1 Comment

  1. Not sure if you know, but the Herald appears to have abandoned the building at the corner of Military and Baakens streets as of several years ago. Unsure of where they moved to, but this building is closed up tight and decaying. Very sad. Thanks for the article, keep it up!


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