Port Elizabeth of Yore: James Brister

Unlike many Settlers to South Africa, upon arrival James Brister did a tour of inspection  and was favourably impressed with the country to make it his home. As Port Elizabeth was likely to become a large commercial town, he commenced business there in a small way as an importer and manufacturer of furniture.

Today many pieces of antique furniture extant in Port Elizabeth bear the tag James Brister on them.

Main picture: James Brister

Early life
James Brister was born in Hertfordshire, England on the 20th April 1831. In 1859, Mr. Brister arrived at the Colony aboard the ship “Oaklands,” on her maiden voyage, together with J. H. Clarke, who was owner of the vessel. The second trip to the Cape of this ship was disastrous, for she was wrecked, and her large and valuable general cargo sold. In England, Mr. Brister was connected with the well-known firm of Chas. Hindley & Son, in Oxford Street. Amongst other important work, they were entrusted with the alterations and decorations of Lady Waldegrave’s mansion on Strawberry Hill, and he was responsible for it being carried out in a very satisfactory manner.

Settling in Port Elizabeth
Being an extremely organised individual, Brister bore letters of introduction from Lord Ebury to Sir George Grey, the Governor and for Bishop Grey. He then went on a trip to Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown and was favourably impressed with the country which was to be his new home in the future. Thinking that Port Elizabeth was likely to become a large commercial town, he commenced business in a small way in the premises lately occupied by Messrs. Bisseker George & Co., trading under the title of James Brister & Co., importers of furniture, &c. In a few years, the firm relocated to larger stores in Main Street. With Mr. Brister’s great capacity for work, and his sound practical knowledge, it soon placed him in the foremost rank of colonial firms, and his transactions covered a large area of South Africa.

Main Street with James Brister’s shop on the right

James always took an active interest in the welfare of Port Elizabeth, and conversely the townsmen, recognising his ability and unbridled interest, elected him to many honourable and important positions. He was elected president of various societies, appointed a member on hundreds of committees too numerous to mention, was several appointed mayor and acting mayor on a number of occasions. Amongst other positions, he was chairman of the South African Milling Co., the Provident Insurance Co., Tudor Oil Works and director of Humewood Sanatorium, the Theatre, and the local branch of the Imperial Insurance Company.

Other activities
Not only was James Brister a director of many organisation, business and non-business but he was also instrumental in their formation and operation of a number of them. Several diverse activities have been selected to highlight his eclectic interests.


On the 11th of September 1878, the Cape Parliament passed the Port Elizabeth Tramway Company Act. To take advantage of this concession, James Brister formed the Port Elizabeth Tramway Company. As they purchased horse-drawn trams, the trams were unable to service the areas on the Hill being underpowered as two horsepower conveyances were clearly underpowered and hence unsuitable. To suit this limitation, the first line stretched from Market Square to Adderley Street. Five tram cars were purchased from America and the horse-drawn trams commenced operation on 14 May 1881. The journey took 25 minutes, and the fares were sixpence first class and three pence second. An extension to Prince Alfred’s Park was opened on 22 February 1888. In June 1897 the horses were finally retired when they were replaced by electric trams. The age of clearing horse dung from the tram rails was over. However, the street cleaners still had to contend with the dung of the oxen-drawn wagons for another decade when they too could be put out to pasture.

The Port Elizabeth Steam Mill Company was formed on 6 July 1882. The building, designed by G.W. Smith, was located in Queen Street. On September 6th, 1884, the Company was officially opened with Chairman and Directors John Tudhope, M.G. Salomon, Robert Davidson. Charles Hannam, James Brister and H.W. Dalldorf. In 1891, after a merger, it became the S.A. Milling Company.

During the Presidency of James Brister, the Zwartkops Sailing Club decided to include rowing as part of its activities in July 1890. To do so, they imported four in-rigged rowing boats and two canoes. A boathouse was completed by December, with dressing rooms as well, and there were some 200 members. To legitimize these amendments to the Club’s focus and activities, on 6 January 1891 a complete set of rules and by-laws was accepted.

Redhouse before 1914-1918

Brister must have developed an interest in football before settling in the Cape Colony as he attended the inaugural meeting of a new club, the P.E. Football Association, at the Algoa Hotel opposite Trinder Square on the 10th of June 1891. At this meeting, Brister and J. Mcllwraith were elected Vice-Presidents and A Dickson as President. Chocolate and maroon were chosen as the Club colours, and they shared the ground in Park Drive which the Council had let to the Caledonian Cricket Club.

Another of Brister’s interest must have been philanthropy and the development of young men. By being involved in the creation of the Port Elizabeth Young Men’s Institute on the 5th Mau 1893 he demonstrated his fervour.  Such organisations are fraternal in nature and come into being on the basis of a common bond normally social or academic. At its inauguration, Brister was appointed its first President. Swift progress was made such that by January 1894, the Institute had acquired the Diocesan Grammar School on the corner of Western Road and Belmont Crescent as its premises.

Amongst Brister’s business ventures was the development of the Beach Hotel in Humewood next to Shark River which is not to be confused with the current hotel of the same name. The Beach or Humewood Beach Hotel was the brainchild of a syndicate, with James Brister as Chairman, was formed in 1893 to build this hotel. This syndicate foresaw the shining and potential prospects of Humewood becoming the entertainment mecca of Port Elizabeth.   

Beach Hotel

G.W. was contracted to design it and Edward Steinmann was appointed its first manager. It was opened on 16th February 1894. Being in close proximity to Humewood Beach and Happy Valley, it was in a unique location and rapidly became very popular and successful. To boost its popularity further, a tearoom was opened on 1st December 1901 and later a roller-skating rink was opened on the site. On 1 December 1915 the wood-and-iron building was burned down. The Municipality bought the land and in due course built the Hotel Elizabeth which opened on 29 July 1927. This in turn was demolished to make way for the Mark 2 version of Hotel Elizabeth.

Another example of Brister’s handiwork

Private life
James married his first wife Matilda Tee on the 5th July 1860 and wife number 2, Elizabeth Lucas on the 12th April 1882. James was mayor from 1884 to 1890 and later in 1894. From 1882 to 1885, Brister resided at Dunlop House which was later converted into the Grand Hotel. In 1893 he purchased Moor Park, Gordon Terrace. The man who was characterised as “thoughtful, practical, eminently unassuming and of value to the town passed away on the 7th November 1896.  


Brister’s generosity would outlive him in the form of bequests. As an example, on the 25th August 1899 his estate made a bequest to the Ladies’ Benevolent Society which opened five new almshouses, designed by G.W. Smith, on their prop­erty in Westbourne Road.

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