Port Elizabeth of Yore: HB Smith – The Saviour of No 7 Castle Hill

Perched on the brow of the hill overlooking the activity on the jetty and town below and the ships bobbing in the roadstead, was Number 7 Castle Hill. Sunday 10th July 1853, like all Sundays, was a sombre day, with no shops or amenities open with the only “entertainment” being the obligatory attendance at a church service. As is usual in Port Elizabeth, the swirling clouds of sea sand were channelled down the untarred Main Street tormenting the pedestrians while chubby clouds flickered past overhead.

Being weak and unwell over the past several months, the clergyman, the Rev Francis McCleland, had been unable to perform the Sunday service at St Mary’s Church that day. Apart from Castle Hill being one of the steepest hills in the town, Francis was too frail to even attempt the climb after the service. While the congregation below prayed for his speedy recovery and good health, Francis McCleland passed from this world.

The least of anybody’s concerns that day was the future of No. 7 Castle Hill. Yet by 1938 it was uninhabitable. It was at this point that the rare exception of a man would appear. This blog will accord Harold Bayldon Smith his rightful place in the history of this remnant of a bygone age.

Main picture: No.7 Castle Hill

Given Francis’ wife Elizabeth had been deceased for eleven years since 1842, but with the youngest son, George, born in 1840 still living at home, as he was only 13 years old, the unmarried daughters who were still residing at home would step into the breach and assume responsibility for him.   Fortunately, two of Francis’ daughters never married and until 1861, when they let out the property, they took care of George. After they relocated to Wynberg in Cape Town, it was decided to sell the property and Mr James Daly purchased it.

This change of ownership for No. 7 was disastrous. Today he would have been characterised as a slumlord. From being one of the most respectable homes in the town, it ceased to have that cachet. It was now one of the least respectable. As happens to many worthy houses in these circumstances, a process of decay sets in. As it decayed, surrounding and adjacent landlords adopted the same approach of not maintaining the property. The property changed hands. Its rooms were initially let out to respectable people but, slowly and ineluctably, only the dregs of society would rent accommodation at No. 7. In those days, No. 7 would have been known as a baudy house. In today’s parlance, it would be called a brothel or a house of prostitution.

Abused by the tenants and neglected by the landlords, it gathered grime over the last respectable coat of paint. Floors sagged as joists and boards rotted. Even the simple architecture suffered. In this condition, the house was eventually condemned.

Eventually but not finally.   

A white knight comes to the rescue
No. 7 was lucky. It was reprieved, paroled from a certain death sentence. At that time, there was only one man in Port Elizabeth who knew the history of this house, a land surveyor by the name of Harold Bayldon Smith. Through his profession he was acquainted with the title deeds of almost all of Port Elizabeth’s properties. Combined with this knowledge, he also possessed a strong sense of history as well as a strong civic pride. He felt deeply that this historic home of one of the leading settlers should not be destroyed. To save it he took a leap of faith and purchased the house of ill-repute.  Then he had No. 7 Castle Hill fumigated and ultimately renovated over a period of time. Surprisingly the whole area started to revive. Flats were erected in the vicinity while others purchased old cottages and converted them into charming cozy little homes. The refurbished Sterley cottages diagonally opposite No. 7 are a consequence of Smith’s renovations on No.7.

Smith was stockily built with short slightly bandy legs. His unsunburnt knees protruded between his shorts and socks. This dress code and a white Panama hat were de rigueur for his outdoor profession. With a ruddy face, perhaps a little ruddier from the exertion, he might pause at the door to light his pipe.

Living at the top of the steepest street in Port Elizabeth and walking to and fro from his office which was halfway up another hill, probably assisted Mr Smith to survive to a ripe old age. Cometh the man cometh the hour. Smith was at the forefront of a wave of awakening and awareness of the city’s history. Notably the establishment of the PE Historical Society was a consequence of civic-minded residents’ desire to record and preserve its history.  

Feeling his years at last, Smith publicised the identity of the house and commenced the process of having it declared a national monument. Happily, Smith survived long enough to see his endeavours bearing fruit when in 1962 No. 7 was declared a national monument.

Role of Mrs Lorimer & the King George VI Art Gallery
It is ironic that the inaugural art exhibition in 1957 of the King George VI Art Gallery established in 1956 should be the inspiration for the establishment of both the Port Elizabeth Historical Society and the opening of No.7 Castle Hill as a museum. The early days of the P.E. Historical Society are almost inextricably entangled and enmeshed with those of the King George VI Art Gallery.

The inaugural exhibition staged in 1957 was entitled “The 1820 Settlers and Early Port Elizabeth.” An appeal in the press brought in all kinds of suitable exhibition material on loan, – history rather than art, but they could not afford to be too particular. The resulting exhibition proved to be an outstanding success and was the direct reason for the establishment of two important features of. Port Elizabeth life, – the Historical Society and the museum at No. 7 Castle Hill.

The first development was the Society. Public interest in the exhibition was so enthusiastic that Mrs Lorimer, the Art Gallery’s Chief Executive, was invited to speak on the city’s history at a Rotarian lunch at the King Edward Hotel. For Lorimer, this proved to be daunting for not only a newcomer to Port Elizabeth but could master little knowledge of its history given the time constraints. With an audience of prominent and knowledgeable citizens and civic dignitaries, Mrs EK Lorimer would – to put it mildly – be placed with the spotlight firmly on her.

The exhibition included many works not with any artistic merit but what they highlighted was the rich history which had been exposed to a receptive audience. This prompted an anonymous member of the audience to spontaneously proclaim “We ought to have a Historical Society.” There was a chorus of acclaim and the Rotarians agreed to sponsor a society if it could be organised. The Mayor promised support and there and then an ad hoc steering committee was formed with Mr H. Edge, as Chairman.

Later others were co-opted: Mr J. J. Redgrave, Mrs Pamela Ffolliott, Mr George Brewer and Mr E.L.H. Croft. At a series of informal meetings held at the Art Gallery, a rough constitution was hammered out and a public meeting was held at the City Hall with the Mayor, A. Markman, in the Chair. Two years later, Mr Edge was superseded by Mrs Lorimer who was the first active Chairman. Perhaps the most important innovation was made when EK Lorimer took over was the starting of the quarterly magazine “Looking Back.”

The second important development arising out of the Art Gallery exhibition was the earmarking for conservation of No. 7, Castle Hill, at that time owned and occupied by Mr Harold Smith, a retired surveyor. Not only had he made it into a comfortable home, but he had studied its history and had realised its age and importance. He was afraid that probably to suit some municipal development, it would, after his death, be carelessly bulldozed out of existence. Smith paid a visit to Lorimer at the Gallery to see whether she could suggest a means of having it preserved. At that time, she was inexperienced in such matters, but to make the story short, steps were taken towards getting the house proclaimed as a National. Monument, the Mayor, and Mr. Smith made some arrangements about the latter’s will. By its terms, the City Council had an option to purchase No. 7 within two Council meetings after Mr Smith’s death, whenever it should occur.

And this is exactly what happened! ·The house was purchased in 1963 with funds jointly provided by the Municipality and the Provincial Government and was to be organised as a Folk Museum under the wing of the Port Elizabeth Museum.: How that organisation finally came to the conclusion that the house was not worth saving and asked the Historical Society to take over; is another story. Suffice it to say that the Society did take over and, with Mr. Lionel Church as organiser and the help of the Donor Certificate raised sufficient funds to proceed with complete restoration. It was a labour of love.

Many members, under the leadership of Mr Rex Rainier, assisted with the physical labour entailed, and the final result is the beautiful little “Parsonage House” that we have today. Now, of course, the P.E. Museum realised their early error and have shouldered full responsibility; financial and otherwise, for “No. 7”. By these actions, No. 7 was saved from what might have been ignominious extinction.

Captain Rex Rainier as well as the PE Historical Society would also be instrumental in No.7 becoming a national monument. The success of the restoration organised and largely executed by Ranier is symbolic of the character of the leading lights in the Historical Society. My first exposure to the work of this Society was as a 10-year-old when Lionel Church or one of his minions paid every member of the McCleland family in PE a visit. With his cap in his hand, he requested donations to complete the renovations. As a token of their thanks for these donations, each family was given a numbered Certificate of Donor. Our family’s Certificate is Number 25. [See below]

Parsonage House – Certificate of Donation

The future
With White history being deemed pejoratively as Colonial History, the preservation of this history is not even on the agenda. Their contribution to the development of a modern industrialised country is vilified as they cast this history into the dustbin. Like all other government services such as health, schooling or security, civil society will increasingly be compelled to take over the preservation of historical artefacts and buildings. If yet another HB Smith is not soon uncovered, will No 7 Castle Hill survive another 200 years?

But for the enthusiasm, passion and dedication of Harold Smith, No. 7 would have followed the ineluctable downward trajectory of many other gems of the settler past. For this reason, I must thank Smith, Ranier and the PE Historical Society unreservedly for their sterling efforts in preserving this beacon to another world.

The Reverend Francis McCleland: Colonial Chaplain to Port Elizabeth 1825-1853 by Gabrielle Churchouse (1976, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria)
The Cassocked Man – Mired in Controversy by Dean McCleland (2017, Privately printed)
How it all Started by EK Lorimer (Looking Back,

Housewarming at No.7 by EK Lorimer (Looking Back, Vol VII, Sept 1967, No 3, Page 88)

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