Port Elizabeth of Yore: Initial Impressions of Port Elizabeth on Arrival During the Early 1800s

During the first 50 years of its existence, Port Elizabeth did not impress the new arrival. It was dusty and treeless with a barren and bleak hillside being rather uninviting and unwelcoming. Unfailingly these arrivees to Port Elizabeth would describe the town in rather negative insalubrious terms. It was only with the planting of trees on the Hill and St. George’s Park that the town discarded its inhospitable mien. Interestingly after finally leaving the town, they were extremely complimentary of the town and its people especially praising its enterprising zeal.

 A number of such recollections have been gathered into this blog.

 Main picture: The Landing Area 

John Hamilton Wicksteed After obtaining the approval of the Cape Parliament to proceed with the Van Stadens River Works, Gamble obtained permission from the Town Council to send to England for a Resident Engineer. John Hamilton Wicksteed was selected for the position and arrived in Algoa Bay on the 29th December 1877 aboard the vessel, Edinburgh Castle.

John Hamilton Wicksteed

 Wicksteed described the scene that greeted him as follows: “Port Elizabeth, I   am sorry to say, is rather like a quarry in outward appearance. I had been told so in Cape Town. Nothing more uninviting could be conceived. Ugly houses and warehouses and broad hot streets creeping up the side of the hill, and not a spot of green anywhere.”


Lewis Mitchell

Lewis Mitchell, later to become a celebrated manager of Standard Bank, was sent out to the Cape Colony by the London and South African bank in 1864. He disembarked at the terminus for mail boats in Algoa Bay, and recorded his early impressions of his new home in his unpublished memoir as follows:

I can vividly remember our landing in a surf boat amid what appeared appalling breakers….. The place was singularly unattractive to a newcomer. I was bound by my indenture to remain in the Bank for five years and I little thought I should remain at the Port for 21 years and leave it with regret.

 “………there were drawbacks to life in Port Elizabeth in those days. It was a very hard drinking place, it was windswept and dusty, the soil shallow, the trees stunted, the amenities few. But it was never slow. The inhabitants possessed a healthy spirit of discontent and strenuously applied themselves to secure improvements, threatening the Government at Cape Town with secession of their demands were not met.”


J.B.N. Theunissen On Saturday 29th March 1823 the Dutch corvette Zeepaard HNMS, en route from Batavia to Holland, was wrecked in fog off Bushy Park, Port Elizabeth. Theunissen was a sailor aboard the Zeepaard. This comment is extracted from the introduction to his book Aanteekeningen eener reis door de binnenland van Zuid Afrika.

Zeepaard in 1819

Port Elizabeth under the name of Algoa Bay had already been established under the Dutch Government, but this establishment obtained its present name under the British government. It contains about forty homes. Besides the officials, our hosts and three or four merchants, the population is poor. A tailor, who charged me three times his [normal] rate, admitted that poverty forced him to take the opportunity to do so. These and other similar observations made me lament the fate of these unfortunates.

James Laing’s confirms negative viewpoint

Port Elizabeth of Yore: James Laing’s View of PE in 1831

Sources: Wicksteed’s comment from Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (October 2008, Express Litho Services, Port Elizabeth) Lewis Mitchell’s comment from Hoisting the Standard Comments by J.B.N. Theunissen from Aanteekeningen eener reis door de binnenland van Zuid Afrika Aanteekeningen eener reis door de binnenland van Zuid Afrika were translated into English by a running friend Steve Groeneveldt






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1 Comment

  1. Good day, Dean,
    Thank you for blogging about the rich history of Port Elizabeth. I’m currently looking for more works and the history on the city. Is there any readings you would suggest?

    • Hi Stephen

      There are not many books on the history of PE. OF course I have written +- 450 blogs & 2 books with 2 more still to follow. My books present history like a blog in that they cover an event.

      The most comprehensive book is a chronological history:
      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). It is out of print but the PE Historical Society still have some copies.

      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446


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