Port Elizabeth of Yore: James Daly of No. 7 Castle Hill

Over the past two centuries since the construction of No. 7 Castle Hill, only three people owned it before it was declared a National Monument. It was James Daly who purchased the No. 7 from the daughters of the Rev. Francis McCleland in 1904 and was culpable for the near destruction of this cottage. As the spectre of demolition loomed but prior to the damning verdict being announced, the municipal surveyor Harold Smith purchased it in order to restore it.

In this noble selfless quest Smith was ultimately successful. Having already covered the lives of McCleland and Smith, this blog will reveal the life of Daly and his family.

Main picture: Portion of Harries ‘Southern View of Port Elizabeth’ showing No 7 Castle Hill

In 1860, following years of famine in Ireland, James Daly, aged 36, and his wife, Mary, with one child, came from Fermoy in County Cork to settle in Port Elizabeth. He opened a store at the back of Main Street and, as the business prospered, he put into practice his chosen motto “Put your money in bricks“. By the time he died, in 1913 at the advanced age of 89, he owned several properties on Prospect and Castle Hills, all named after parts of Ireland, as well as others elsewhere in town.

No. 7 Castle Hill
After the death of the original owner, the Rev. Francis McCleland, in 1853, his unmarried daughter and teenage, George, continued to occupy the house. Once the “maiden aunts” decided to seek fame and fortune in Cape Town in 1861, possibly because their sister already lived there, they moved to Wynberg.

It was at this stage the sisters rented the property out and collected the rentals. This continued for 43 years from 1861 until 1904. Probably due to old age, the property was put on the market. It was at this stage that Mr. James Daly who was collecting a portfolio of properties in Central purchased it not as a home but to earn rental income.

This change of ownership was disastrous for No 7. 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 to respectable people but slowly 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 landlord, 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.   

The 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 and that was 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 Eliazbeth’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 cosy little homes. The refurbished Sterley cottages diagonally opposite No. 7 are a consequence of Smith’s renovations on No.7.

Daly’s family
Seven more children had been born to Mr. and Mrs. Daly after their arrival in Port Elizabeth, and the family home was “Fermoy”, No. 15 Prospect Hill, a charming house. The children all attended Catholic schools, the boys at St. Aidan’s in Grahamstown, to which the elder ones travelled by train as far as Alicedale and from there on by ox wagon. Three of them, John, James and David, were well-known Port Elizabeth athletes, but this was not the only sport in which they excelled. All the family were musical, and John took to municipal politics and became a City Councillor.

The well at No 7 Castle Hill

Before marriage, two of the daughters ran a school in the South End which was eventually taken over by nuns. Daughter Jessie, a notable soprano singer and talented amateur artist, married Mr. Hyla Brannan a Somerset man from Taunton, but he died early and the widow, with her son and three daughters, went to live with her parents at “Fermoy”. Her son Walter took up the legal profession. Miss Jessie Brannan was head of the Kindergarten at the Walmer Primary School for over 30 years and the third sister became Mrs. Zits Sheard, of the Cathcart district.

Among the properties acquired by Mr. Daly was No. 7 Castle Hill. The original owner, the Rev. Francis McCleland, had died in 1853 and the house was bequeathed jointly to his four daughters, who were scattered in different parts of South Africa. Mr. Daly bought the house from them and eventually sold it to Mr. Harold Smith.

Irish names on Prospect and Castle Hill by E.K. Lorimer [Looking Back, Volume VII, December 1967]

Leave a Comment.