Port Elizabeth of Yore: Military Road-The First Road up the Hill

One of the requirements of the recently arrived English military in 1795, was a fort on the hilltop but just as important was a road stretching from the landing beach at the mouth of the Baakens River, to the fort.

Apart from its military significance, it would be the only road up the hill until White’s Road was constructed by Henry Fancourt White in 1850. Bookended by Baakens Street at the bottom and Belmont Terrace on the hill, this road has lost its significance when roads were cut into all the kloofs as far as Albany Road [formerly Cooper’s Kloof].

This blog covers all the significant buildings which occupied this historic street. The majority of them have already met their ultimate fate – demolition. In the case of Newspaper House, it will be “demolition by neglect”. Even the last of the historical or significant buildings will shortly be – as John Cleese would intone – ex buildings.

Main picture: 1818 Military map by Lt Wily-Military Road marked in yellow

Routes up the Hill
Up till the 1840s, the Hill, as the area to the south of Main Street was called, was inaccessible for the most part, except by Military Road and by two stony footpaths – one from the side of St. Mary’s up to the Monument, the name given to the Donkin Pyramid, and another past the site of St. Augustine’s up to the Reverend McCleland’s residence at No. 7 Castle Hill. Interestingly, in the painting of Castle Hill by Henty Fancourt White, the “pathway” appears to be adequate for use as a roadway but it never was.

In a map of the Royal Engineers dated 1837, it states that the Royal Engineers constructed a “new” road up the hill. As a new road is not reflected on any of the maps of the era, one can presume that the drafter of the map was using the word “new” liberally rather in the sense of “upgrade”.    

Start of the settlement
The English “settlers” were preceded by two groups of other people, the long established khoikhoi whose abandoned huts constructed from easily dismantled reed mats over a framework had long since decomposed whereas the sturdy stone and rock farmhouses of the Trekboers, such as the Bothas at Botha’s Place at Buffelsfontein and the Ferreiras at Cradock Place, were either in use or the rubble from destroyed houses were still visible. Even though proof of Dutch farmers presence in the area, from all the writings on the period, the underliying assumption is that the Eglish were the inhabitants.

According to Harradine, “In 1799, the English Government decided to establish a permanent defence post at Algoa Bay, and the [HMS] Camel, escorted by the [HMS] Rattlesnake, duly arrived from Cape Town with a ready-made Block House in sections which the troops and sailors proceeded to erect at the drift near the mouth of the Baaken’s River. Around this fragile structure of wood and canvas were soon built barracks, stores, workshops, and a hospital for the use of some few hundred troops ordered to take up duty there.

At the same time, Fort Frederick was erected on the Hill overlooking the valley and in order to gain access to it, the troops constructed a road which they called Military Road, and thus began the first settlement of the future Port Elizabeth.”

First “settler” house
Captain Moresby in his vessel, HMS Menai, provided any and all assistance to Sir Rufane Donkin within his power. In gratitude, a large piece of land in the Baakens Valley (later known as Rufane Vale) and a building erf facing the sea, were granted to him. A house, to be named Markham House, was commenced on the erf and Donkin laid the foundation stone. The settlers dug the foundations. Captain Moresby’s house stood on a plot in the recently constructed Military Road, at the back of Newspaper House  housing the E.P. Herald offices.

This house could not listed as first house in Port Elizabeth as technically Trekboers had constructed houses in the 1770s and 1780s, Moresby’s house can only be catergorised as the first house in the new Port Elizabeth. As Moresby was commissioned in the Royal Navy, and hence unable to take ownership of it, the house was ultimately converted into Markham’s Hotel named in memory of Lady Donkin who was the daughter of George Markham, Dean of York. Later it was called Hope’s Hotel and for many years prior to its demolition was renamed Scorey’s Hotel and the open space in front of it probably used as a vegetable garden being known to the residents as Scorey’s Place.

Scorey’s Hotel being depicted as the large building on the left with the garden of Anne Scorey just below the hotel. The road in the middle of the painting by Comfield became Baakens Street which forged into Main Street.

Hope Inn later Hope Stoep
Apart from the Red Lion Tavern originally located in Main Street but later operating from Evatt Street past Hyman’s Kloof, the only hotel for many years was Hope Inn, later called Hope Stoep, located on Military Road.

Baakens Valley. December 1823, drawing by John Comfield. On the left is “Markham House” on land given to Capt. Fairfax Moresby. The foundation stone was laid by Sir Rufane Donkin in 1820. Richard Hunt bought the property in 1823 and established an hotel, known by several names over the years, finally being the Hope Hotel and ceasing in 1848. The building then became 3 dwellings. To the right is Uppleby’s warehouse at the junction of Baakens & North Union Streets

Markham House
To create further confusion, at the foot of Military Road was one of the oldest houses in the Bay. Markham House, later to be an Inn built in 1884.

Originally Markham House built in 1884 but later Markham Hotel

Steam mill
During September 1849, William Henry Coleman’s steam mills were completed. Situated on the lower corner of Military Road and Baakens Street, they were the first of their kind in the Eastern Province,. This land, known as Court Stores’ site, was owned by William Coleman, a member of the first Board of Commissioners. In 1848 he erected a large steam sawmill with a towering brick chimney stack, on it. For many years he operated a lucrative timber trade business adjoining the old Commissariat yard as seen in the early pictures of the town.

Painting by Harriers showing Coleman’s Steam Hill. Behind and to the left is the Commissariat Building

Store of William Rodwell
William was the first resident to be subject to a shark attack. He lost a leg but survived.

Store of William Rodwell on the corner of Dagleish Street and Military Road

Temporary Trinity Church
In January 1854, a dissident group of St Mary’s parishioners, disapproving of Rev W.H. Fowle’s “high church” sympathies, left St Mary’s to form their own church. The first Trinity Church was built at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street and opened in 1858. On the Hill site a new church, designed by P.M. Pfeil, was opened on 1 April 1866. A spire and a schoolroom were added in 1873 and 1883, both designed by James Bisset. Trinity was burned down by pyromaniac Frances Livingstone Johnston in April 1897 and rebuilt to plans by William White Cooper. It then took the name of Holy Trinity.

Temporary Trinity Church on the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street

Newspaper house
During October 1857, John Paterson sold the Eastern Province Herald to Impey, Richards and Company. George Impey was editor until 1878. At the end of 1857 the paper was published twice weekly. In 1861 the offices were located in the building on the southern corner of White’s Road and in 1864 the paper relocated to “Herald Chambers”on the northern corner of White’s Road, later Cleghorn’s building, which had been built by Paterson.

Baakens Street & corner of Military Road. The “EP Herald” building. The editorial & business offices opened in July 1903. Next door is the Markham Hotel built in 1884.

In 1882 the firm became Impey, Walton and Co and in 1894 Edgar Walton was on his own before taking N.E. Harris as his partner in 1895. In July 1903 the firm moved into its new home at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street and in October 1952 took over the Times Media building on the adjoining site. Currently this building is in the process of demolition by neglect and unless immediate action is taken, it will be declared a “derelict” and be formally demolished.

Newspaper House-Military Road January 2024

Fire Station
In April 1859 Robert Archibald was commissioned to form a fire brigade. In May two fire engines were taken into use and an appeal was made for volunteer fireman. Due to the lack of available municipal buildings, the first fire station was expediently located in the basement of the Town Hall. In 1904 a small station was built in Military Road. The wood-and-iron building included an engine house, stabling for two horses and a bedroom for men on duty. It housed the new Shand Mason pair-horsed hose cart and this continued in use after a munici­pal Fire Department was created in 1917 and the first motorised fire engine was acquired.

Military Road. 2 November 1904, the opening of the Fire Brigade’s new premises to house
the Shand Mason pair-horsed hose cart. The wood-and-iron building included and engine
house, stabling for the two horses & a bedroom for men on duty.

At a Council meeting on the 14th February 1917, the appointment of Algernon Pett as the first full-time Fire-master was confirmed. The Fire Department was now a section in its own right. Pett took over on 1 April and re-organised the Department. The headquarters, though too small, was the Military Road building. A 65 hp Chalmers motor car was acquired and converted into a hose-and-escape tender. It had a speed of 58 mph and hills were no problem. An ambulance was also provided, and the first case was transported on 10 September.

Wool market
During November 1853, the Municipality bought the land at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street on which the temporary Trinity Church stood. A wool market, designed by Pinchin and Smith, was constructed on the site and opened in April 1866. In 1885 this was connected to the new market buildings and an ornate facade was added in 1894. To better house the museum’s exhibits, they  were relocated to this building from 1887. After the museum was moved in 1919, a produce exchange was created in the vacated space. The market itself was demolished in 1933 for the building of the Wool Exchange.

New Wool Exchange
On the 3rd August 1934 the new Wool Exchange, built by the Municipality on the site of the old wool market in Military Road, was formally opened by the Mayor W.F. Caulfield. On 3 September it was officially opened by the Minister of Agriculture. Every bale of wool coming here was put up for public-auction at the Exchange. A second storey was completed in October 1939. Port Elizabeth was the premier wool and mohair port of the country and when there was no local manufacture of woolen goods each season’s clip was exported. The distinctive bales are familiar in many photographs of harbour and market scenes.

During the flood of 1897, Military Road was torn up for half its length, several feet of water covering the road and swamping the wool market.

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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