Port Elizabeth of Yore: Great expectations but uninviting facade

Like many mariners, settlers and visitors before him, JM could not suppress his dismay when Port Elizabeth came into focus. Instead of the anticipated forest of trees and lush vegetation, all that JM could discern was a stony hill without greenery of any sort rising sharply from the shoreline. As he sat down to record his experiences that night, the word uninviting came to his mind.

On the morrow when he would explore the town, any misapprehensions about this town would be dispelled.  Any and all misconceptions would also be cast aside.

This blog is a brief extract of JM’s journal who, for personal reasons, desired anonymity. Hence the use of the initials JM. The period covered was late 1881 up to March 188.

Main picture: Market Square in 1896

Early on Wednesday morning, we anchored in Algoa Bay,  an expanse of water much larger than Table Bay, being 15 miles wide across its entrance and open to the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean…Seen from the deck of a vessel lying out in the Bay, Port Elizabeth is not inviting, and those who expect to feast their eyes on groves and palm trees fringing the shore will be greatly disappointed by finding a very ordinary looking town built on the sides and top of a very steep hill, rising immediately from the shore, surrounded by a treeless waste of sand on every side; the houses are nearly all white, with the South African sun blazing down upon them with almost blinding radiance. A steam launch came alongside to take passengers and luggage ashore, and as I stepped upon Port Elizabeth jetty, I realised that I was in a foreign land with 6,000 miles of water between me and my native land.

A busy market day on Market Square 1870s

March 1882
Port Elizabeth is about 500 miles to the east of Cape Town, and may be called the Liverpool of South Africa, but its great drawback is that it possesses no harbour. A breakwater was formed a few years ago at enormous cost, but the sea washed up the sand very soon and rendered it useless. The anchorage in the bay is pretty good, but when a strong southeast wind is blowing, vessels occasionally drag their anchors and are driven ashore. I have seen three wrecks since Christmas; at such times a tremendous surf rolls on the shore, cutting off all communication with the vessels. All the passengers and cargo are landed by means of lighters and steam launch. Prior to the construction of the jetty, all of the passengers were carried through the surf on the backs of naked Fingoes and Kaffirs.

Seen from the Bay, the town has a very uninviting appearance with not a tree to be seen. But on ascending the hill to the aristocratic portion of the town, there we find streets lined with trees, and pleasant villas surrounded by gardens, the picture of comfort and ease. Here are also found beautiful public gardens, beautifully laid out and well-filled with trees, shrubs and plants. In 1820, when the first British settlers landed on its shores, it was nothing but a sandy wilderness on which stood a few fishermen’s houses, where now stands a fine well-built town containing almost 20,000 inhabitants, with its town hall, banks, public offices, large stores, shops, churches, chapels, et cetera  equal to any English town.

Some of the buildings are handsome, the style of both houses and streets are thoroughly English, and were it not for the sight of up-country wagons, with their long teams of oxen and black drivers, and numerous natives walking about, one could easily imagine that he was in some provincial town in England, and it presents a fine picture of colonial life and activity not witnessed in any other town in South Africa. Its inhabitants are an active, enterprising body of people; they are also very hospitable, and always glad to give a hearty welcome to any strangers from the old country who may visit them.

Some idea of the progress of the town may be formed from the fact that when the present postmaster, Mr. Wilmot, was appointed 22 years ago, the sale of stamps was £200 per month, money order business trivial, no letter carrier or town delivery. Now, postage stamps amount to £1.400 per month, money orders over £2,000; there are six letter-carriers, seven branch offices and the first really good system of American delivery boxes in the Colony. Going about the streets you are surprised at the newness of its buildings but here there is no smoke to make the buildings black, fires are only required for cooking purposes and wood is always used as coal is too dear.

View of the town from the sea

The town hall is an imposing building, in which is the museum a splendid reading room, and a public library containing 12,300 volumes. In front is the Market Square.  A market is held every morning, commencing at 6 o’clock and presents a busy and stirring scene. All the provisions, fruit, etc. are sold by public auction in baskets, or by the box or per 100.

Sixty Years Later by J.M. [Looking Back Volume X11 Page 103]

5/5 - (2 votes)

Leave a Comment.