Port Elizabeth of Yore: On the Cusp of the 20th Century

This blog is loosely based upon the reminiscences of Mrs. Margery Lochhead who was born in 1888 in Port Elizabeth and recalls the town of her youth. Not only was the town on the cusp of a new century but it would also herald the advent of revolutionary technologies such as the motor vehicle and electricity. These inventions would forever change the mode of transport but also humanity’s relationships with work and leisure.

However, these changes were still in the future. In the latter part of the 19th century, the horse, the cart and Shank’s Pony [i.e. one’s own legs] were still the predominant modes of travel.

Main picture: Main Street before 1883. Note that this portion of western Main Street north of Donkin Street still possessed numerous of the original basic single and double storey buildings. As redevelopment steadily extended towards Russell Street, in due course these buildings would be replaced with larger more elegant structures

By the late 19th century, most of the transport either involved the use of pack animals or the use of one’s won legs and feet. The advent of railways and the bicycle had changed this balance but only fractionally. As the train could only operate on fixed railway lines and most roads were not suitable for cycling, the age of the horse and the cart were still the primary mode of transport. Wealthy merchants used to have servants to take their horses down to town so that they could ride home for lunch. Alternatively, they would go home by Cape cart.

Main Street’s western side after a heavy downpour

A horse-drawn tram service was operated from the Market Square to the park at North End using a double-decker tram with an open top. As theses trams were unable to ascend any of the steep streets up the hill, a tram service to the areas on the Hill could only be offered when electric trams were installed in 1897. The only other form of transport were the cabs but were seemingly mainly used only by the well-heeled and not those down-at-the-heel. These conveyances were based on the Market Square, parked on either side of the obelisk with water troughs at its base, and took one anywhere for 1/-.  

1894 Eight school boys wending their way to school, along Main Street- photo by Sir Benjamin Stone

Jacobson’s Cabs had their livery stables in Queen Street. At the opening of the Circuit Court the Sheriff always fetched the Judge from the P.E. Club and drove him to court. The attendants wore top hats and tails. The day of Margery’s wedding coincided with the opening of the Court and she was lucky enough to be driven from her home in Cuyler Street to the Church in an open carriage.

On the eastern or seaward side of Market Square there were only double storey buildings with shops such as Beldon’s Boot Shop, Gardner’s Chemist and Flack’s Cafe where large, iced cakes were a specialty. After these shops was the well-known Phoenix Hotel with its building set far back from North Union Street. Unlike this side, the westward or landward side of Market Square mainly comprised three storey buildings with the store, Cleghorn’s, being the most prominent. Next came the Commercial Hall which had served multiple purposes since being constructed, the most notable being as the Court House, after the previous building on the corner of Military Road was destroyed by fire. After that was the original St. Mary’s Church, a building of little or no architectural merit. Between the church and Main Street were several single storey flat-roofed shops with the most prominent being Dreyfus’s.

EP Herald offices at the bottom of White’s Road. These three buildings between Castle Hill Street and White’s Road could take the prize as the tallest buildings in Port Elizabeth for many years.

Initially Main Street comprised only two storey buildings of indeterminate heritage and questionable quality. On the ground floor was the shop while the floor above was the home of the merchant and his family. That era was a bygone as these buildings were steadily being replaced with elegant Victorian or Art Deco buildings. Standard Bank built their own elegant 3 storey building to replace the space hired from the Guardian Assurance Company. Further down was an equally elegant building, the Mutual Arcade with its passage through to Chapel Street.

This photograph taken in 1880 depicts the era of the new elegant Victorian buildings in Main Street showing the Standard Bank, Guardian Life Building and Lombard Chambers. Further down was Armstrong Auctioneers which took over the “New Church” building.

Spate of pyromania
During the 1890s, Port Elizabeth suffered from a spate of fires all intentionally set. Amongst the buildings targeted were St. Mary’s, Cleghorn’s and the Holy Trinity Church in Havelock Street. St. Mary’s Church was burned down on 9 March 1895. The cause was never ascertained. Cleghorn’s Building was razed on the 6th May 1896, and again the cause was not known. On 1 April 1897, a deranged woman succeeded in burning down Holy Trinity Church and attempted to set fire to the newly rebuilt St. Mary’s Church, but the fire was extinguished before severe damage was caused. The culprit in these cases was a deranged pyromaniac, Frances Livingstone Johnson, an Australian woman, who was certified insane and sent to Robben Island. Apparently she bore a hatred for church altars. According to Margery, when she saw Canons Wirgman and Mayo enter the court at her trial, she screamed ”Here comes the devil and his holy angel” but perhaps this was apocryphal.

Cleghorn’s Building after the fire in which a policeman was killed.

Train and tram services extended
Later a train service was instituted from Customs Road, which ran parallel to the landing beaches, to the foreshore at Humewood. This railway line was laid down to transport the town’s garbage to Driftsands to use as a stabiliser for the moving sand which was steadily creeping northward ultimately burying Frame’s woolwashery at Shark’s River. Margery recalls that there was a waiting room below where the original Hotel Elizabeth was situated. This site was originally occupied by the Humewood Beach Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in July 1915. The trip from town cost 6d.

The signboard on the siding simply states Humewood but this was the platform for trips to Humewood

After the introduction of electric trams in 1897, this rail service was supplanted by a tram service. Electric trams enabled the long-awaited tram service up the hill to be instituted. Initially lines were laid up both Whites and Russell Roads with a branch extending along Cape Road to the P.E. Golf Course close to the top of Mount Road. A line to South End ending at the top of Walmer Road was also laid. Only later was the line to Humewood laid. This marked the apogee of the electric tram service. The flexibility of buses was to be the nemesis of the tram. Even the train service to Walmer was affected and swiftly succumbed to the introduction of a bus service.

Market Square
From 1820, the area in front of the future Town Hall was eponymously known as Market Square. Like most towns of that era, the centre of the towns were all used as open-air market areas where farmers could sell their wares and produce. Margery recalls that the streets were macadamized but not tarred, producing grit in windy weather. The roads up the hill were problematic in that they were washed away whenever there was torrentially rain sweeping boulders and other rubble down all the major roads in their wake. The advent of tarred roads removed this disconcerting issue.                                                                                                                          •

Market Square operating as a market place

Adventures by the Brown family
The family’s annual treat was a trip to Uitenhage by train to attend the Chrysanthemum show. The railway line passed the golf course at North End where all the golfers wore scarlet jackets. The Hill Course, and the Hillside Course off Mount Road, were subsequently opened.

A photograph of the Port Elizabeth – Uitenhage railway line in 1877

Cycling was popular in this era. Margery’s family, the Browns, rode by bicycle to Humansdorp in about 1895. She was about 6 or 7 at the time. Her father and sister rode a tandem, to which she was strapped as a passenger, and her mother, in frilly white blouse and long skirt, rode her lady’s cycle, which had proved to be a white elephant in a merchant’s showroom until her mother purchased it. On the first night they reached a spot 10 miles out of Humansdorp, where they camped in a tent that her parents had pitched. After visiting friends in the town, they then cycled back to Port Elizabeth reaching Greenbushes by the second night. Margery fell asleep on the way home, hanging over the handlebars. The family had to take all their food with them as there were no take-away joints or Ultra City’s en route. The quality of the “national road” was atrocious at best with dozens of farm gates to be opened en route. Even after the introduction of motor vehicles, the quality of the road did not improve for decades.

A woman with her bike in about 1896

In about 1900 the family went on holiday to England in the Pembroke Castle.  While they were away, the Anglo Boer war broke out. They returned to South Africa on the Dunnottar Castle. On board were many soldiers and important men, including Sir Redvers Buller, a British General. Although there were few women on board, they nevertheless held a ship’s Ball. Margery was invited to dance by a sandy-haired young man, who later took her to dinner. Afterwards her mother informed her, “Do you know who you were dancing with? That was Winston Churchill.” Did Winston ever admit to Clemmie, his wife’s nickname, that he had danced with young girls while away from home. Churchill was en route to South Africa as a war correspondent. Margery recalls wearing an accordion-pleated dress to the ball, one with loops at the side of the skirt on the hem, so that one caught one’s fingers in them and swept the skirt about.

Margery’s family used to take the train to Walmer as a treat to have tea at Miss Hedge. The old Royal Theatre, situated where the SARS building is now located, was a crude place with mostly amateur companies performing. Occasionally there were visits from the Leonard Payne Touring Company and other groups. Wolfram’s bioscope came periodically to show movies, but the projection equipment was very finicky and always broke down.

Going out of town to Newton Park

An engine pulling a short train of three passenger coaches through leafy Walmer

At this time Tower House was the last house on Cape Road. Then there was veld as far as the plantation near the golf-course. Then came Gates’ Hotel where St. Hugh’s Church is situated. A treat was having a bottle of lemonade and a Marie biscuit at the hotel on a Sunday drive.

There was a tollgate at a bend in the road near Cotswold, maintained by Mr. and Mrs. Paine. The present Stella Londt Home was situated on Parkins’ Baakens River Farm. The Parkin girls used to travel from the future Sunridge Park by pony cart to the original Collegiate school situated in Western Road. Only later was a new building constructed in Bird Street.

The Londt’s house situated in the future Sunridge Park

Anti-German riots
Where the Park Gate Mansions building that now stands in Western Road was the Deutsche Liedertafel or German Club which was a centre of culture and music. Roger Ascham and Herr Bracht, among others, played in an ensemble there. After the sinking of the American passenger ship, the Lusitano, by a German unterzeeboot in 1915, some residents rose up against the German community. Their first target was the German Club which was burnt down by an angry anti-German mob. Among the German homes burnt down was one that stood on the site of the old Christian Science Church in Park Drive. Even the grand piano was dragged out into the street and burnt. The Frielinghaus family at their home Matopos in Park Drive narrowly escaped being lynched until a policeman settled the irate crowd by explaining that both of their sons were fighting the Germans in France.

The Liedertafel after it was set ablaze by an enraged mob

The Mfengu and khoikhoi residents of the town lived mainly in two locations being Gubb’s Location in Mill Park and Strangers’ Location in Russell Road. The inhabitants of these locations often formed gangs, and participated in small-scale wars which erupted in fighting in the streets. This caused a fair amount of consternation amongst the residents of the surrounding areas. During such times, as a safety precaution, the other Port Elizabeth residents kept well clear of the warring gangs.

Part of Stranger’s Location at the top of the hill next to Russell Road

During this period, many one-women schools, which catered mainly for female students, operated in the town. Amongst them was Miss Ablett who ran a school at St. Mary’s Church. At that time, the main schools in Port Elizabeth were the original Collegiate in Western Road, before it was relocated to Bird Street, the Holy Rosary Convent in Western Road, the lovely Grey Institute in Belmont Terrace, the Erica on Richmond Hill, and the North and South End Grey Schools.

During this period, an Art School offered lessons in the Athenaeum building in Belmont Terrace. Mrs. Burness held dancing classes in her studio off Cuyler Street. She was an elegant lady with an elaborate hairstyle, who always wore white gloves and a gold chatelaine, a set of short chains attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items. Mrs Lochhead recalls that the boys would always be very well-behaved, bowing from the waist, while Mrs. Burness watched, but when she turned her back, they would give the girls a shove into their seats.  Among the pupils were the Bagshaw girls, one of whom married Major Allister Miller, who used to arrive at classes in rough veldskoene. This was the beginning of the P.E. footwear industry!

Members of the Camera Club in front of the Athenaeum in 1896

North Jetty
By the late 1800s Port Elizabeth still did not yet have a harbour or even a breakwater. What it did have was a jetty from which passengers and freight had to be transferred by tugs to the vessels anchored in the roadstead. Even though this jetty was officially called the Barkley Jetty in honour of the Governor, it was more commonly known as the North Jetty. Getting from the jetty to an awaiting ship was a primitive and sometimes dangerous affair. On the Jetty was a waiting room. One had to go down steps from the side of the jetty, grab a rope, and jump into the tug, which took one out to the ship where one had to ascend a hair-raisingly unsteady ladder to board the ship. If the person was frail and infirm, or afraid of surging water and bobbing vessel, they were placed in a basket and swung out to the tug. 

North Jetty in 1893

South End
South End was referred to as the “Place over the River.” A community of St. Helenians, who all had men’s names as their surnames, lived there. There were the James’s, the Georges and the Henrys. The Brown’s serving maid was a Henry, and she used to take Margery to her home in Gardiner Street. Once while visiting, they were in the process of slaughtering a pig at their home. After witnessing this, Margery vowed never again to cross “over the river” to visit her.

The Boer War
Port Elizabeth was very excited about the War. This probably arose due to the humdrum staid existence that the local residents led. The residents would flock to North Jetty to watch the troops and horses being offloaded from the surfboats onto the jetty. The horses were particularly unusual as they were landed from lighters in slings and would occasionally break loose and gallop up Main Street.

Horses being offloaded during the Anglo Boer War

The Drill Hall in Prospect Hill street on the hill served as a hospital, as there was much enteric and typhoid about. Where the old Junior Collegiate would later be erected in Bird Street, a mass of tents was pitched. Children in Port Elizabeth were requested to assist the hospital by cutting up newspapers to stuff pillows for use by the patients. Margery made a trip to visit the Boer Concentration Camp situated close to where the Mount Road Police Station is now located. The Boer women were offered jobs, for example needlework, so that they could earn money, but most of them refused.

Port Elizabeth’s first gramophone was owned by old man Sterley. It was operated by means of a wax cylinder and the public could listen to the recording by means of earphones. Every day Sterley would set up his gramophone at the library and charged customers 6d for the pleasure of listening to the music.

Tragedy strikes
Tragedy struck on Christmas Eve in 1931 in front of St. Mary’s Church when the roof at Dreyfus’s corner, over Miss Gleaves’ shop, collapsed. Miss Gleaves and two or three others were killed. It was found that the roof had been lined with rubble as insulation. The chemist shop next door was also affected.

From left to right: The Town Hall, the Feathermarket Hall, the 3 triple storey buildings between Castle Hill and White’s Road with St Augustine’s Church in Prospect Hill Street

Childish fun
A sweet shop in Western Road situated where the filling station is opposite the King Edward Hotel, was run by Mother Malloy, an old Irish woman who always wore black, including a black pork-pie hat. When business was quiet, she used to sit on a stool on the pavement outside her door. It was here that the children used to purchase their favourite sweet – jaw-puller toffee.

Margery’s brother died aged 6. On their way to the cemetery, they used to pass a shanty in which lived ”Old Mother Bags,” a legend to all children. The children would tease her by sticking their heads in the door and then shout ”Old Mother Bags” before running for their lives.

Reminiscences of Mrs. Margery Lochhead, September 1977, Looking Back.
Information from Rod Lochhead – Majorie’s grandson

Marjorie Lochhead (nee Brown)

Gibson Lochhead

Margery was my grandmother (my dad’s mom). I only knew her quite briefly as she died when I was about 7 years old. She was quite a ‘prominent’ PE lady during her time – very active with PEMADS (one of the founder members I think?) and I do know that she had quite a rebellious feminist streak and had a notorious reputation as a lady who openly rode a bicycle in public which was very much frowned upon at the time!

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