Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Owen Smith – Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

It is a testament to the young John Owen Smith’s tenacity and self-belief that he embarked on a ship en route to the Cape Colony without his parents at the age of 15. Yet by the age of 27, he was well-established in auctioneering, finance, bonded warehousing, construction, merchanting and later shipping in Port Elizabeth. Before returning to his homeland, his later ventures were in mining in Namaqualand and the northern Cape.

Of all the residents of Port Elizabeth during the mid-1800s, surely JO Smith should be renowned, yet little is known about him? Why has no biography been written about his life? For somebody who must have thrown caution to the wind, was it perhaps a retiring nature and lack of self-aggrandisement that left him in the shadows? Much is known about his businesses, but the nature of the man is like an eel, hard but slippery, visible yet lurking in the shadows

Main picture: The only known likeness of John Owen Smith is this bust of him at the Port Elizabeth Public Library

Early life
John Owen Smith was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, in 1804. At age 15 he emigrated without his parents to Cape Town aboard the Sarah arriving on 23rd July 1819. The ship Sarah was presumably a merchant ship as it is not listed as a naval vessel and it is assumed that it was the property of his uncle and father who were in the shipping business. He then moved to Graham’s Town at age 17 and began trading. Here he met and later married Elizabeth (nee Gilbert), the daughter of a local building contractor in 1826. The newly-weds moved to Port Elizabeth, where an enterprising Smith set up business in Main Street and he appears in the census for Port Elizabeth in 1825. By the 1830s he was established in Port Elizabeth as a merchant, speculator and auctioneer. Besides these activities, he later owned a shipping company. Perhaps it was his fact that motivated him in September 1836 to erect a flagstaff close to the landing beaches for the use of the port.

Sixth Frontier War
Smith’s civic mindedness was first brought to the fore during this war. During January 1835 Port Elizabeth started to prepare defences against a possible Xhosa attack. Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban landed en route to the frontier. Plans for the defence of the town were drawn up by Major Charles Collier Michell, Surveyor-General and Civil Engineer of the Cape, who had come to Port Elizabeth for this purpose. With the assistance of Capt. Evatt and J.O. Smith, a Town Guard was formed, and St Mary’s was fortified as a garrison.

Charles Collier Michell (1793-1851)

Port Elizabeth by then only had about 100 houses. To defend the town against attack, an outer wagon line of defence and an inner one to allow women and children to reach ships in the Bay, were planned. The Port Elizabeth Yeomanry under Capt. Harries was formed for service in the war. Martial Law was in force between 3rd January 1835 and 9th July 1836. Sir James Edward Alexander, an army officer and explorer, then a Captain, served as Aide-de-Camp to D’Urban during the war.

Smith began as an auctioneer and was involved in boating until he founded his merchant firm. He owned his own gunpowder store and his construction company was responsible for the building of wooden jetties in Algoa Bay.

Other commercial interests:

  • As a financier he helped his friend, John Paterson, to start the Eastern Province Herald in 1845.
  • Owned a good deal of farmland around Port Elizabeth.
  • Involved with the P.E. Bank and Branch Savings Bank.
  • Justice of the Peace.

January 1846: The Port Elizabeth Bank was founded. The first Directors were William Fleming, William Smith, Daniel Phillips, J.O. Smith and Joshua W. Kemp. In 1854 a building for the Bank, designed by D. Macdonald, was erected in Main Street near the corner of Donkin Street.

26th April 1850: John Owen Smith imported a flour and saw steam mill for his business, the second steam mill in Port Elizabeth.

Together with other local financiers he helped fund the establishment of tl1e Standard Bank of Port Elizabeth in 1857.

December 1873: The Diocese of Grahamstown purchased J.O. Smith and Co’s gunpowder magazine on Richmond Hill. It was enlarged and became St Stephen’s Church on the lower corner of St Stephens and Edwards Streets, for Xhosa, Fingo, Zulu and Basuto worshippers.

7th December 1875: The Cape of Good Hope Bank opened a branch at 81 Main Street in the former home of John Owen Smith.

Shipping businesses
Over his life in Port Elizabeth, Smith operated a boating company which owned numerous vessels, most of which were named after his eight daughters and three sons, built a private jetty in 1844 to facilitate loading and off-loading of these vessels, chartered ships and had other vessels built for trading purposes.

Some of the highlights are as follows:

By mid-1840 there were three boating establishments engaged in the work of the Bay, owned by J.O. Smith, W.B. Frames, and J.T. Mallors and T.L. Minter.

In October 1844 John Owen Smith built a dwarf jetty from his stores at the landing beach to the sea to aid the loading and off-loading of goods at his bonded warehouse.

April 1846: Formation of the Eastern Province Boating Company, the second public company here. The Company began operating on 1 June. The Directors were Joseph Simpson, W. Dodds, George Garside, E.H. Salmond and J.O. Smith.

14th February 1854: J.O. Smith’s new clipper schooner Shrimp was launched. She was built here by D.S. Dawson with a tonnage of 45 and a cargo-carrying capacity of 60 tons. She made a couple of trips to Bird Island and to Mossel Bay before leaving on 18 April for Alexander Bay with a cargo. She left Table Bay on 6 May and was not heard of again.

The Mazeppa
Of all the ships that Smith ever owned, this was a notable exception in that it was involved in some non-commercial activities and hence became renowned in its own right. The Mazeppa seems to have been built as a slaver in the U.S.A. in about 1830. After being purchase by John Owen Smith, the Mazeppa was based in Algoa Bay from 1837 to 1848, after which she moved to Port Louis, Mauritius.

The Mazeppa

In July 1839, captained by John Tate, the Mazeppa sailed to Delagoa Bay and took on board the survivors of Louis Trichardt’s party of Trekkers. On another occasion, the ship was captained by a C.J. Cato, on its way from Delagoa Bay to Port Natal [future Durban] to rescue the British garrison, which had been besieged by the Boers. Later on, the captain steered the ship into what is now known as Mazeppa Bay in the Transkei for shelter and ran aground. That is how this bay derived its Italian name. Legend has it that its ruins are buried under the sand dunes at Mazeppa Bay.

Mazeppa Bay

In 1858, she was “sold abroad”. In those 20 years she sailed all along the Southern African coast and across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. One of the enduring mysteries is whether or not she reverted to the slaving trade during the African and Mauritian periods of her life. J O Smith also played an important role in the development of Natal. It was his agent, George Cato, who eventually became Durban’s first mayor.

ato Manor, the home of George Cato dated1868

Other business activities
Among his other business activities were the following:
• In 1832 an agency for the sale of Newcastle coal in Port Elizabeth, and another for The Grahamstown Journal.
• In 1833 acting as an auctioneer and selling a whale fishery. In 1839 he auctioned the slaver, Don Pedro du Porto.

The Dom Pedro would have looked like this
  • In 1834 acting as an agent to the agent for Lloyd’s of London in connection with the loss of the schooner, “Courier”.
  • In 1836 treasurer of an establishment proposing to run a weekly post-wagon between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.
  • In 1838 an importer of weaponry on a fairly large scale, and apparently selling arms to the Natal Boers.
  • Smith also owned a magazine for bonding gunpowder from 1842-49.In 1840 owner of one of three boating establishments in Port Elizabeth.
  • In 1841 an agent and consignee of the wool clip delivered in Port Elizabeth and sold in London. He also had a bonded warehouse in operation during most of the 1840s.
  • In 1844 Smith conducted a “personal examination of the coast from the Buffalo to the Umzimvooboo. The result of this has been the establishment of a trading station in Hintza’s territory, and the opening of a communication by sea with that country.
  • In 1845 lessee of Bird Island in connection with the guano deposits
Bird Island in 1894

• In 1845 Chairman of the Port Elizabeth Trust Association.
• Trading as J.0. Smith and Company, the owner of two or three sheep farms of 20 000 morgen in the Middelburg district with some sheep imported from Australia.
• A financier of sufficient means to stand surety for the Port Elizabeth sub-collector of customs, Port
Elizabeth Civil Commissioner, and the Port Elizabeth Postmaster.

Application for a licence by John Owen Smith to deal in gunpowder

Guano business
In May 1844, the entrepreneurial Smith, always alive to a business opportunity, had successfully bid for the unexpired portion of the lease of Bird Island held by an insolvent, Joshua Norton, for the purpose of harvesting the guano on the island. An advertisement placed in the Government Gazette stated: “these islands are frequented by a great number of seals and guano in inexhaustible quantities, and of a superior quality, which the lessee is authorised to dispose of for his own emolument”. Guano (mineral-rich seabird droppings) was finding a ready market overseas as a valuable fertiliser, and Smith began harvesting without delay

The Government, eager for any new source of revenue, passed a notice on 5th November authorising the Collector of Customs, William Field, to be the sole issuer of licences for guano concessions on all the islands within the Colony except Bird Island. A dispute arose between Field and Smith on how he was to be taxed, Smith turning down an offer of £25,000 to vacate the island.

Bird Island lighthouse

Eventually an agreement was reached whereby the net profits from the proceeds would be split evenly between Smith and the Government. Initially Smith was prohibited from selling guano in England. After he objected, a new agreement was reached whereby Smith agreed to pay the Government £1 per ton of the registered weight of the vessel removing the guano. It was speculated that Smith would ‘profit greatly’ under this new arrangement, making an estimated £40 000 – a tidy sum in those days. Capt. George Dale, master of the brigantine Homer, one of the first vessels to load at Bird Island, described the mass of guano he found there as being about 30ft (9.5m) deep and covering almost two thirds of the island. However, the treacherous surrounding seas ‘made loading a most hazardous affair’. Ships would have to ride at anchor for weeks, even months at a time while Smith’s workers scraped up the guano, spread it out to dry and bagged it. Once finished, they would load the bags into long boats and row them out to the waiting ships as and when the weather permitted. A year later Bird Island claimed its first guano victim, the schooner Charles.

Smith’s company held the lease for more than 50 years.

Smith was involved in so many spheres of early Port Elizabeth life. Amongst them he owned shares in the Commercial Hall, the site of the current Public Library. It was a public building in which the first library was accommodated in the form of one room. Three years later in 1848, Smith became a founder member of Port Elizabeth’s first public library. A marble bust of this benefactor, and only likeness of Smith still extant, stands in the South Africa Room (Africana section) to this day.

The Commercial Hall where the Public Library is now located

As a library endowment suggestion, he gave his shares to the library committee and encouraged others to do the same so that eventually the library owned the site and the original building. His private book collection was given to the library by his son George, who changed his second name to Owen and who ran the business here with Henry Bailey Christian.

For all his endeavours, John Owen Smith, is best known in Port Elizabeth historical circles as the true founder of the city’s public library.

HMS Thunderbolt
When the Royal Navy began to consider the use of steam propulsion one of the earliest steam driven ships was the sloop, H.M.S. Thunderbolt, a paddle steamer which was also fitted to carry sail. On the 3rd February 1847, she was returning from a survey of the Buffalo River mouth with the object of establishing a military fort there. HMS “Thunderbolt”, a 300 hp steam-driven, iron paddle-wheel sloop belonging to the Cape Station, was on her way to fetch the 90th Regiment to transport them to Simonstown.  

Thunderbolt Reef

As she was rounding Cape Receife she struck a reef which was subsequently named after her. She was badly holed, but the captain managed to bring her into the bay and beached her near the mouth of the Baakens. Attempts were made over the following three weeks to salvage her, but she suffered further damage when a south-easter sprang up. On the 10th August 1840, the hull was sold to Smith who took off everything of value and then blew up the remainder. Thomas Baines in his painting of the bay in 1847 shows the ship beached at the mouth of the Baakens, but Porter thinks he must have used his imagination as in his journal he records that when he arrived only the engines remained. The commander and first officer of the Thunderbolt were both later cashiered for failing to obey sailing instructions for this part of the coast.

HMS Thunderbolt

Mining interests
The existence of copper in Namaqualand had been known since the days of Governor Simon van der Stel, whose expedition to the present Springbok district in 1685 returned with samples of copper ore. Unsuccessful trials were also carried out at this same spot by Gordon and Paterson in about 1780. Nothing further seems to have been heard of Namaqualand copper until 1836.

In that year Capt. James Alexander found coloureds in the village on the banks of the lower Orange smelting copper ore for bullets. They obtained it from a source in the heart of the nearby Richtersveld. These were probability members of the Bondelswarts, a Khoikhoi tribe who resided in this area and not coloureds as he probably misidentified them.

James Edward Alexander

In 1845 Thomas Fannin, an official of the country’s oldest commercial mining enterprise, the SA Mining Company succeeded in reaching the source of the ore discovered by the local coloureds and sent samples back to Cape Town. It was not a payable proposition, however, and the company faded out of existence for a few years. Various reports of the mineral wealth of Namaqualand continued, and a few years later led to a lot of prospecting and applications for mineral rights. In 1848 Donald McDougall, the survivor of a shipwreck and later a trader at McDougall’s Bay just south of Port Nolloth, secured mineral rights in the Richtersveld from a Namaqua chief. The rights extended along the south bank of the Orange River for 100 kilometres from the mouth.

Kaptain Hendrik Wittboi, the Namaqua Chief

One of the most promising copper prospects was Kodas Mine, about 10 kilometres from Sendelingsdrif (Missionary Drift) on the Orange River, with one of its shafts reputed to be the deepest of any Namaqualand mine.

Near Senderlingsdrift and the Kodas Mine

In 1854 it was registered in the name of John Owen Smith. The early 1850s were the years when JO Smith with his customary vigour concentrated his energies on mining enterprises. His ships were operating up the west coast to the extent that a small coastal inlet between Port Nolloth and McDougall’s Bay was named J Owen Smith Bay, and appeared on many maps of that era.

The ruins of the Kodas Mine

Under the guiding hand of JO Smith, ore mined at Kodas was carted in mule drawn wagons to the nearest point on the Orange River before being taken downstream for transhipment near the mouth. On a rock face overlooking the Orange at Koeskop, a few faded letters in white paint record the passage of the first copper barge past that point in 1854.

The Orange River at Koeskop

Another of Smith’s unusual sidelines was the purchase of a prefabricated 10 horse-power steam pinnace for plying the Orange River near Kodas. It is supposed to have inspired one of Jules Verne’s lesser known works, “The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa“.

In 1854 the Surveyor General, Charles Bell, named J.0. Smith as the lessee of seven different mineral rights in Namaqualand. Leases were of the order of 10 or 20 morgen in size and rents usually £10 to £20 a year. Six of Smith’s leases were in the coastal area, the other was at Kodas. In a report in 1854, A.G. Bain comments: ” . .. the mining district of Schaap and Kousie rivers, where Mr J 0 Smith and many others are the fortunate lessees of the richest and most promising mines of the Colony.” Three years later (1857), the Government Geologist, A Wylie, lists Smith as lessee of four mining areas in the Richtersveld or South Namaqualand: Kodas, Schaap River, Konolosliep and the Stinkfontein Centres. Bell’s 1854 report published two statements and two forms of application for the purchase of shares in the Port Elizabeth Mining Company. The chairman of the Provisional Company was W M Harries, with Thomas Wormald (secretary), Alex Wares and J Paterson as committee members. ·It would be interesting to know the subsequent history of the company and what relationship, if any, Smith had with it. ln view of his widespread activities he certainly seems to have had a hand in almost everything going on in Port Elizabeth during the middle decades of last century.

Tragedy struck the John Owen Smith family when, on the 26th March 1861, his son drowned while swimming near the breakwater with his brother-in-law H.B. Christian. As an act of condolences, all the shops and businesses in the town closed the following day for the funeral.

Charles Davidson Bell

Smith also brought his family into the Namaqualand mining world. His second daughter, Mary Anne, married Henry Bailey Christian, and his sixth daughter Alice, George Christian. He had three sons and eight daughters. George went into partnership with his brother-in-law, John, who subsequently drowned while bathing off a beach at Port Elizabeth. Henry Christian had 16 leases in Namaqualand in 1854. With seven of those claims he missed a “diamond” opportunity, as they covered almost the whole area of the future Alexander State Diamond Diggings.

Later life
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Smith resided above his shop in Main Street and did not migrate to the more elegant part of town, The Hill.

Recognised by local historians as being one of the first true ‘merchant princes’ of Port Elizabeth, Smith chose to retire to the country of his birth, leaving the Cape for the last time on the 11th June 1861 after being in the Cape Colony for 36 years. However the Company lived on under his son George and son-in-law H B Christian. Smith died at Leicester Gardens, in London 10 years later of septicaemia on the 16th August 1871 . The 11 Smith children were Elizabeth Gilbert, James Owen, George Chalmers, Mary Ann, John Owen, Sarah Elizabeth, Jessie, Emily Owen, Alice Owen, Edith and Henrietta Gilbert.

Thomas Baines Sketch of the JO Smith Jetty

An Irishman, John Montgomery, whose daughter married Smith’s son, reminisced: “John Owen Smith had a very small store supplied with a scanty stock of merchandise. I think I could have carried the pots, kettles, tin buckets, and all the stock-in-trade that I could see on my back. He was very kind to me, and although our dealings with each other were small, they were extremely satisfactory. His uncle from the Cape anchored in the Bay in a small trading vessel and soon came ashore. He bought all my biltong, and everything else I had to dispose of.

In 1894 Richard Shaw designed a memorial window to John Owen Smith for St. Mary’s Church, Port Elizabeth. The carved reredos and the windows above it in St. Mary’s Church were donated by Mrs. Smith in memory of her husband and the son who drowned. The original church was destroyed by fire in 1895, but the Smiths’ gifts were reproduced and are still the main features of the sanctuary.

J.O. Smith’s business premises and house in Main Street, later occuoied by his son-in-law, H.B. Christian

John Owen Smith played a very pivotal role in the early history of Port Elizabeth and at the time of his death, it was said of him “he identified with Port Elizabeth and all belonging to it – he may almost be termed its founder“.

John Own Smith: Merchant Prince Extraordinary by John Clement in the Eastern Province Herald dated Thursday 9th August 1984
Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 – A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)

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