Port Elizabeth of Yore: Kirkwood – A Vision for the Sunday’s River Valley

Amongst the treasure trove of entrepreneurs that were conceived by this unlikely town, was as equally unlikely character: James Somers Kirkwood. Initially he arose to prominence due to his wit, showmanship, bonhomie and vitality in the auctioneering business. Why these character traits created the “Kirkwood Show” was James’ ability to convert even the unlikeliest and most mundane of sales into a skit, a parody or a comedy. Perhaps entertainment would have been a more rational vocation for him. The trait that most defines a comedian is that of intelligence and Kirkwood probably possessed it in spades. However, what he is best remembered for today, is his vision for the development of the Sunday’s River. Recession, drought, vision before its time as well as the discovery of diamonds at Dutoitspan, all drove potential investors to forsake the local developments and instead to seek fame and fortune in Griqualand West. Mores the loss for Kirkwood and Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: James Somers Kirkwood

Early life

James Somers Kirkwood was born in Edinburgh on the 7th July 1821 and on the 20th December 1855 he married Adela Dorothy Chabaud, a sister of the attorney, Gustavus Henri Chabaud whose father was the well-known notary, John Anthony Chabaud.

The auctioneering business

Mr. Kirkwood started business as an auctioneer, and in 1860 he took over the premises in Rodney Street which had recently been vacated by the temporary Hospital. The building belonged to Mrs. Bruton, who had leased it to the Hospital Board pending the erection of the New Provincial Hospital on Richmond Hill. Her son, James E. Bruton, was one of the earliest photographers to be established in this town and his studio was in Jetty Street near the two-storeyed Palmerston Hotel, later to be taken over by Mr. A.H. Board whose family bought the Rufane Vale Estate from Captain Fairfax Moresby in 1829. The premises in Rodney Street were then described as being, “just off Main Street opposite the sand dunes”, and the heavy timbers and spars with which most of the original building had been built still formed part of the strong cellars until the mid-20th century, though the roof and façade had by then been slightly altered. 

The Temporary Hospital taken over as Kirkwood’s Auction Rooms

James Somers Kirkwood, after whose family the village of Kirkwood was named, was a very popular and well-known figure among the early residents who held him is high esteem and in due course elected him to the Town Council. A tall, stately man of pleasing personality, flowing beard and smiling eyes. His comfortable large home, called Hillside House, stood in Bird Street, near the Trinder Square. Later he erected Somer’s Roost on the escarpment on Prospect Hill overlooking the foot of White’s Road, close to St. Augustine’s Church.

As a first partner, Mr. Kirkwood took John Alfred Holland who, not long afterwards, set up on his own account and employed as clerk, Mr William Armstrong, whose sister he eventually married. When the old Congregational Church, or Robson Church, as it was generally called, was sold, William Armstrong took it over and the place became known as Armstrong’s Auction Rooms until it was finally converted into the present Nederland’s Bank / Nedbank at the foot of Donkin Street.

The Independent / New Church or Congregational Church in Main Street

Mr. Kirkwood then went into partnership with Mr. Alfred Marks, formerly in the employ of Messrs. Dunell, Ebden & Co., and the firm flourished under the name of Kirkwood, Marks & Co. for a number of years. Mr. Marks married Miss Brown who, with her brother Teddy, were considered the most handsome couple in town. When Mr. Kirkwood retired to devote his time to the development of the Sunday’s River Valley Scheme, Mr. Marks carried on alone until he eventually passed away and the establishment was then taken over by his son, Alfred Edmund.  When the latter died, his brother Stanley Hubert Marks continued the business with the late Frank P. Clear as partner, and for many years this old-established firm still carried on under his personal direction as A.E. Marks & Co in the same historical building.

In the early days Mr. Kirkwood had in his employment Mr. Nelson Pearson who was a very thriftly and hard-working man. His descendants are still well represented in this town. He was a sound business man and rapidly accumulated much wealth and property, all of which he bequeathed to his well-educated children. His homestead was at the rear of the old Grey Institute off Pearson Street on the Hill.

Sales were innumerable in those days when people seemed to be forever on the move, and furniture, property, livestock and goods of every description came under the hammer every week. Property was fairly cheap then and in one instance the premises of A.J. Clairmonte & Co in Main Street having been gutted by fire, the site was sold by Kirkwood at a public sale for the sum of £280. The farm Nooitgedacht, situated in the Victoria West district and in extent upwards of 35,000 acres, was sold at 5d. an acre to Mr. Wood, junior of Grahamstown. Patrick Scallan was offered a farm in Walmer for £75 but considered the price excessive, especially as the place was “too far from town”. But from the 1870s onwards the price of landed property rose rapidly though it was still comparatively cheap at the beginning of the 20th century.

Mr. Kirkwood was endowered with a keen sense of humour backed by a sound education and to listen to his witty remarks at one of his sales was in itself an entertainment. These sales he invariably advertised in the local newspapers and followed them up by cleverly written articles boosting up the item to be sold. He was prepared to sell anything from a pin to the “Lame Ducks” as he styled the wrecks that lay on the windswept beach. His witty remarks and joviality were always greatly enjoyed by the big crowd that gathered round him for the sale whether it was held in Rodney St, on the open beach, from the steps of the old Commercial Exchange in Market Square or way over in the small village of Uitenhage.

Some queer items came under the hammer in these days, even a tombstone which he advertised as “A massive Aberdeen granite Headstone and coping with ornamental railings. The headstone bears an inscription, but this can readily be chiseled off. It is a handsome thing in its way, neat, solid and sterling like, and would pass muster on any Necropolis in South Africa.

It was little wonder then that Mr. Kirkwood’s sales always attracted a large crowd. Everything put up by him for auction was readily sold and he became eventually a very wealthy man. Yet it seems ironical that the closing period of this active career should have been darkened by a great financial disaster for he had always been known there as a keen and clever businessman. He had long realized the enormous possibilities of that the beautiful and fertile tract of land known as the Sundays River Valley with which his name will forever be associated.

He evolved a very big scheme for its irrigation and the rapid development. So convinced was he of its future success that he bought up, on his own account, no less than 74 000 acres with view to floating a company to be styled “The Sundays River Land and Irrigation Company” on the basis of shares but this was the rock that wrecked Mr. Kirkwood’s career, eventually causing his death.

At that particular period, the public was thoroughly captivated by the ostrich farming boom – much to their cost – and nobody fancied the prospect of growing cereals, tobacco and vines on irrigated lands when no mention was made of the precious ostriches. Agricultural irrigation with just then at a discount. Hence the far-sighted scheme was overlooked, and the new company crashed in the most dismal fashion and this magnificent tract of land was allowed to pass into the hands of the bondholders. Mr. Kirkwood never quite recovered from the disappointment. He became insolvent and shortly afterwards passed away with his friends averring that he literally died of a broken heart.

Ostrich feathers on display in the Feather Market hall.

The Sunday’s River Valley Irrigation Scheme in the 1880s

In the book on the family’s history, Bernard Johnson records in detail the development and insolvency of this scheme especially the part played by Charles Lovemore.

You enquire about the appeal. I really do not know more than I did at first. It is most unsatisfactory but we are advised not to appear anxious, but we cannot help thinking and wondering how it will end.” From a letter of 7th October 1888 written by Margery Lovemore to her brother, Donald Moodie, at Grootvadersbosch, near Swellendam.

Margery Lovemore had good reason to be worried. The ‘appeal’ related to a claim for £ 6,000 against her late husband’s estate which had been heard before the Supreme Court in Cape Town, but an appeal had been made to the Privy Council in London and judgement was awaited. Not only was there the possibility of having to meet the claim, but the costs of defending the case all through the judicial process would have more than doubled the call on Charles Lovemore’s estate. In today’s money and court costs, it would probably have amounted to more than half a million pounds.

The cause of all the worry was the vision of a thriving farming community in the Sundays River Valley, north of Uitenhage, growing produce of all kinds, with ample water supplied through a system of irrigation canals. The vision was that of James Somers Kirkwood, whose name is perpetuated by the town that bears his name which began to grow at the beginning of the 20th century.

James Kirkwood was born in Edinburgh on 7th July 1821, a son of the Writer to the Signet of that city. At school he must have excelled in the English language, for he was a master of what today we would call advertising copy; his lawyer father would probably have been dismayed with the free use of adjectives and superlatives which proliferated in his son’s auction notices. If these are anything to go by, his speech would have been impressive and convincing.

He had arrived in Port Elizabeth with his brother in 1840 and soon made his mark, becoming involved in business, property and local politics. With his height, physique, large bushy beard and clear, steady eyes, he had a striking appearance. It was said he could sell anything. People attended his sales, not necessarily to bid or buy but to enjoy the humour and repartee which characterised his auctions. Setbacks and insolvencies of both himself and some of his partnerships did not deter or debar him from continuing in business and making money.

Kirkwood must have been aware of the potential of the Sundays River Valley from the early 1860’s when, in partnership with A J MacDonald, he was auctioning farms in the Eastern Cape. For instance, the undivided half of the farm Malmaison, with the adjoining Small Kloof, came up for sale on 21st January 1860 (Eastern Province Herald, January 17) and other properties were on offer during the I 860’s and 70’s. Towards the end of the I 870’s, Kirkwood came to an arrangement with Andries Hartman, a big landowner in the Valley which ended with Kirkwood purchasing, for £9 000s, ten of his properties, totalling some 17,850 morgen (Transfer No 350 dated 23rd January 1879).

A loan of £5 000s was obtained from the Guardian Assurance (or insurance, both titles were used) and Trust Company (Mortgage Bond No 351 of the same date): The balance due for the purpose came from a loan of £7 000s s from Alfred Ebden of Port Elizabeth (Mortgage Bond No 271 dated 6th October 1879). Kirkwood’s wife, Adele Dorothy, daughter of the lawyer, Gustavus Chabaud, also purchased property, including the farm Hillside, which became their Valley residence. Some of the properties acquired, not essential to Kirkwood’s scheme, were sold.

In 1877, The Cape Government had passed the Irrigation Act No 8, which provided for subsidies to landowners, who developed their own irrigation schemes to increase productive land. Kirkwood quickly appreciated how the Act would help further his vision of plantations and fertile fields. By 1881, he had possession of over 12,000 morgen, which he valued at £16 000. He began to look for financial backers and, amongst others, approached Charles Lovemore of Bushy Park.

Charles Lovemore himself was a large landowner, having bought up most of the former farm Buffelsfontein to the west of Port Elizabeth; he also had a large farm in the Richmond district. By 1881, he had retired from active farming and, at first, refused to go along with Kirkwood’s scheme. He was quoted as saying that he never intended to purchase another acre of land in South Africa. (Report of the proceedings of the Supreme Court, Eastern Province Herald, August 29, 1887). Kirkwood took him to see the valley, and his persuasive words did the rest. With Joseph Walker, who had represented Port Elizabeth in the Legislative Assembly, he signed an agreement on the 1st September 1881, under which they undertook to support the forming of a company to take over those Valley properties which Kirkwood had acquired, and which were registered in his name. The agreements also covered improvements to those properties, and also further land purchases to ensure the viability of the scheme. It was an open ended agreement, with purchases held against the accounts of the parties involved; they were to be liable in proportion to their shareholdings. It was this agreement which was to be the basis for the claim initiated by the Guardian Insurance and Trust Company against Charles Lovemore’s estate.

Charles Lovemore’s business contacts with James Kirkwood went back many years. In 1859, he had purchased part of the Buffelsfontein farm which adjoined Bushy Park from Paterson, Kirkwood and Phelps, a partnership which was dissolved soon after. Lovemore paid the first instalment on purchase and paid the second and final before it was due to Kirkwood’s own company, Kirkwood and Co. Kirkwood maintained that the instalment had not been properly paid and Lovemore found himself on the wrong side of a court judgement. One wonders why he ever trusted Kirkwood again.

In early 1882, Kirkwood was anxious to buy further property, particularly the farm Malmaison with the adjoining Small Kloof, totalling 2619 morgen. The price was in the region of £4 000s. To raise the money, Kirkwood approached the Guardian Company, which refused to advance him any more money.

Malmaison was situated astride the Sundays River, and its inclusion was essential to the irrigation scheme. Kirkwood produced the agreement of 1st September 1881 showing the commitment of such credit-worthy people as Charles Lovemore and Joseph Walker; on this security, given by Kirkwood alone, and, with an assurance from him that he was authorised by Lovemore and others, the Guardian Company advanced the money in three bonds, each of £2 000s. Kirkwood proceeded with the purchase, and Malmaison was registered in his name (Transfer Nos 408-412 dated 20th May 1882).

By December 1883, Kirkwood and his syndicate, now enlarged by six additional well-known persons, were ready to go public, and “The Sundays River Land and Irrigation Company Limited” was launched with prominent notices in all newspapers in the Eastern Cape. It received favourable editorial comment, and support in all but one, the Kaffrarian Watchman, which doubted the early profitability of the venture.

The prospectus set out the Company’s objects, and other essential information, in glowing, but not exaggerated terms. One suspects the lawyer had toned down any draft prepared by Kirkwood, because there is an absence of the excessive descriptions which were typical of his auction notices.

There was no reason why the company should not have been successful. The land had been proved to be fertile, the quality of grass for grazing was good and the property values sound. The Colonial Engineer had recommended an irrigation scheme for the Valley some years before and, most importantly, he had advised that, even in a period of drought, there was a sufficient flow of water in the river. But a skeptical public remained unconvinced, and, despite an extension of the option date, not a single share was taken up. It was not long before financial and cash flow problems arose. Alfred Ebden’s loan of £7 000s was at 8%, above the norm, and he was the largest bond holder; the money had been spent either on land purchases, preliminary irrigation works, or to pay interest charges on other loans. Expenses exceeded the modest income from a few rents. To stave off a financial crisis, Charles Lovemore made a personal contribution of £3 094 14s 6d.

In May 1885, Charles Lovemore’s health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer attend meetings or participate in the company’s affairs. On the 28th of that month he had given a power of attorney to his trusted friend, J A Holland, to act for him in all matters relating to the Sundays River Company. John Holland’s first act was to repudiate any onus which might be attached to Charles Lovemore personally. He pressed Kirkwood for information on the company’s accounts and called on him to meet expenses which continued to mount. Alfred Ebden was threatening to sue for repayment. Such was the situation when Charles Lovemore died in December 1885.

Towards the end of 1886, Kirkwood could no longer hold off his creditors. Applications for repayment led to the compulsory sequestration of his estate on 15th November 1886. His personal liabilities and those of The Sundays River Company were considerable. All the Company’s properties were registered in his name, a situation accepted by the Provisional Committee to save costs on transfer and legal fees. Kirkwood was now virtually penniless, though his residence in the Valley, being registered in his wife’s name, was outside the sequestration order. In any case, it had been specifically excluded from the 1st September 1881 agreement.

The Guardian Company now looked around to see from where it could recover its losses on the advances made to Kirkwood. Members of the syndicate maintained that they were not responsible individually and were in no position to meet any claims. The estate of Charles Lovemore, known to be a highly valued one, was the natural choice, especially as it was accepted that he had been a party to the Company’s··policies and actions. The Guardian Company lodged a complaint against his trustees, which included J A Holland.

After a preliminary hearing in the Magistrate’s Court, the case was heard in the Supreme Court in Cape Town on 23 and 254 August 1887 before the Chief Justice and two judges, Mr. Justice Smith and Buchanan. The point at issue was quickly narrowed down to whether Kirkwood had authority to pledge Charles Lovemore’s name, in his absence, for the loan of £6 000s.

Before giving judgement, the Chief Justice had ruled that the Court considered it unnecessary to hear counsel for the defence, the essential facts having been established during evidence-in-chief and during the cross-examination of witnesses. The Secretary of the Guardian Company admitted that he had arranged the loans directly with Kirkwood, believing that the 1st September Agreement empowered him to pledge the credit of syndicate members. They had not denied their collective responsibility, but the wording of the Agreement did not commit them as individuals.

In his lengthy judgement, the Chief Justice said that, whilst syndicate members had been content to leave the affairs and management of the Company in Kirkwood’s hands, there was nothing to show that he had the authority to pledge an individual’s credit. He found for the defendants and warded costs against the plaintiff.

The Guardian Company at once sought leave to appeal. Permission was given on 31st August 1887 to go to the Privy Council in London. Doubtless, the Guardian Company believed a principle of directors’ or syndicate members’ responsibility had still to be established, and its lawyers may have felt that, by not hearing the defence case in full, with its chance to cross-examine, the Supreme Court had come to a too-hasty judgement. In a comment on the judgement, the editor of the Eastern Province Herald wrote that “The validity of the syndicate and the liability of its members have yet to be established …..The judgement has simply declared that Lovemore’s estate is not liable to the Guardian Insurance Company.” (Eastern Province Herald, 29 August 1887).

The strain of the past years in the insolvency court had taken its toll on Kirkwood’s health. He died on 11th May 1888, aged 66, and a special meeting of the Insolvency Court had to be convened to authorise a payment for his funeral. A long obituary in the Eastern Province Herald included: “of later years, reverses of fortune and the failure of his cherished plans in connection with the Sundays River Estate, sapped his robust health. It is not work, but worry, that kills the most genial, kind-hearted of men.” (Eastern Province Herald, May 14).

Dr Frederick Ensor, the doyen of medical practitioners in Port Elizabeth, wrote his own tribute in the same newspaper issue: “ ….his fancy was attracted by the valley of the Sundays River for carrying out a scheme of irrigation works on a large scale…..It became a fixed idea and seemed to absorb his whole mind. His imagination pictured the Valley …. occupied by a people devoted to the culture of tobacco, the vine and shining fields of mealies….in the periods of wandering, he would talk of syndicates and irrigation, and quickly vanishing pictures of Sundays River Valley

The appeal was heard in Privy Council in February 1889 with distinguished Queen’s Councillors for both parties. Judgement was given on the 15th. It upheld that of the Supreme Court in Cape Town, finding that the Guardian Company had assented to making the loans on Kirkwood’s word alone and that syndicate members were under no personal responsibility for the loans (The Times, London, February 16, 1889).

In Port Elizabeth, a year before, the Insolvency Court had ordered the trustee of Kirkwood’s estate to put the assets up for sale by auction. It was held on 22 March 1888. The Guardian Company had little choice but to bid for the whole which, less four farms of little or no value, was knocked down for £10 500, a figure which the Eastern Province Herald of March 24 reported, would not nearly cover the mortgage bonds.

The whole affair, with its bad debts and legal expenses, must have cost the Guardian Company dearly. No figure was given in the Company’s annual accounts, and the chairman referred to it briefly at the Annual General Meeting.

All was not lost. The Guardian Company was fortunate enough to find a capable manager, Arthur Goldhawk from Grahamstown, who laid the foundation for a profitable concern. Out of it came the Strathsomers Estate Company of 1903, and its successors, which have brought Kirkwood’s vision to reality. Now, with water from the Orange River added, the Valley need have no worries over the future.

The tragedy, if that is the right word, is that the good citizens of Port Elizabeth in 1884 did not share the confidence of the Provisional Committee in the irrigation scheme, nor, unlike Charles Lovemore and James Kirkwood, were they prepared to risk even a small amount of their money. As one gazes today over the rows of citrus orchards from Kirkwood’s Lookout, one can only reflect on a dream which might well have come about many years earlier.


Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)
Lovemores, Then and Now, June 2000 Edited by Annette Lovemore and Michelle Beckley (nee Lovemore) 2000, Down Town Print & Copy, Port Elizabeth)
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).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

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