Port Elizabeth of Yore: Piers- Painter of PE in the 1840s

Better known as a geologist and a palaeontologist, as a painter, Major Henry William Hull Coleman Piers, was not in the same league as a Thomas Baines or even a Harries. In spite of this fact, his paintings are sought after as they serve as a source of information on the country during the 1800s. During the period 1840 to 1843, HW Piers painted a number of pictures of a struggling town still in its infancy.

Main picture: Port Elizabeth showing the first jetty, 1840 by HW Piers [Cory Library]

Born: 29 Jun 1813, Messina, Sicily, Italy
Marriage (1): Ann Weakley on 30 Mar 1842 in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa

  • Died: 18 May 1887, Cape Town, Cape Province, South Africa at age 73
  • Buried: Cape Town, Cape Province, South Africa

This biography is a verbatim extract from the S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science excluding his geological and paleontological interests for which he is remembered.

Henry W.H.C. Piers, better known as H.W. Piers, was the son of Major Henry Piers (1784-1872), resident magistrate for Paarl until 1846, and his wife, Ann, born Rumbold. Henry was an amateur artist and self-taught geologist in the military establishment of the Cape Colony. He started his career in the Royal Engineers, Cape Town (1834-1839), and subsequently served in the Ordnance Department, Grahamstown (1840-1843), in Cape Town (1845-1846), as acting barracks master at Port Natal (now Durban, 1848), as deputy ordnance storekeeper and barracks master at Port Elizabeth (1849-1855), as acting barracks master at Fort Beaufort (1856-1858), in King William’s Town (1859-1860), and again in Cape Town (1866-1868).

Entitled Port Elizabeth from the Donkin in 1840, this painting shows the first jetty circled in blue and St Mary’s Church circled in red. [Cory Library]

During his peripatetic career he produced many drawings and paintings of scenes in the Cape Colony, including detailed topographical sketches, in pencil and watercolour. For example, a drawing of Stellenbosch (1835); a plan of the Castle in Cape Town (1838); a plan of Port Natal, showing the positions of British troops, Boer camps, landing places, roads, etc (1839); paintings of Port Elizabeth (1840, 1842); a drawing of the Rogge Battery near Cape Town (c. 1845); a drawing of Hof Street, Cape Town (c. 1850); and a drawing of the river wall at East London (1862).

Another view of the first jetty of which the hamlet was undoubtedly proud; probably painted from the St Mary’s cemetery. [Cory Library]

Copies of most of these works are in the Cape Town Archives Repository. In 1866 he requested the government of the Cape Colony to employ his son, Walter R. Piers*, and in 1870 requested employment for another son, Alfred H. Piers. He published two articles in the Cape Monthly Magazine (third series) titled “Kaffraria” (July 1871) and “The migration of Piet Retief and the Dutch Boers, beyond the Orange River, in 1836-1837” (November 1871).

During 1873 and 1874 H.W. Piers, [presumably not his doppelganger HW Piers] was an accountant in a Port Elizabeth bank and secretary of the Port Elizabeth Mechanics Institute (a voluntary organisation for the promotion of adult education). He married Ann Weakley at Grahamstown in 1842. Their many children included Dr Charles Edward Piers* and Walter Rumbold Piers*.

Painting style
In Piers’s style of painting buildings, they do not accurately conform to the actual structure or size as most adornments are dispensed with. Instead the building is starkly depicted as a box or rectangle. Furthermore unlike Harries’s depiction of the town in 1840 which bears a reasonable resemblance to the actual structures and layout, Piers’s is less so. Notwithstanding this annoyance, his paintings do provide one with a general overview of the area.

Sketch by HWC Piers of Port Elizabeth in 1842

As Piers’s paintings cover the period of 1840 to 1843, they depict the only extant views of the short-lived and ill-fated first jetty which was destroyed during a nocturnal storm when 3 vessels broke free from their anchors or maybe even just dragged them along. Smacking into the jetty with a huge force, they utterly destroyed it.    

More puzzling are the dates of the paintings. Major Piers was an officer in the ordnance department during this period of mid-19th century. According to his biography, Piers was based in Grahamstown during the period 1840 to 1843 and was only based in Port Elizabeth from 1849 to 1855. This does not preclude Piers from making trips to Port Elizabeth when he was based in Grahamstown but it does cast doubt upon the dates of his various postings. Nonetheless, why was Piers not prolifically painting scenes from Port Elizabeth when he was based there in the 1850s?

Paintings of Port Elizabeth
I concur with Redgrave when he states: To Mr. Hudson, Mr. Piers and Mr. Fancourt our town is indebted for its earliest views, for without their very fine pictures of the straggling village then referred to as ” Elizabeth Town ” no other records appear to exist. When these good gentlemen sat down to sketch the village as it appeared from the bank of the Baaken’s River, from the beach, or from the old Market Square looking up Castle Hill towards the barracks and the Fort, they little realised that their artistic efforts, however amateurish, were destined to become the most priceless treasures in the history of ” Little Bess “, for in those days there was no such a thing as photography which was to come many years later.”

All of Piers’s paintings of Port Elizabeth pertain to the period 1840 to 1843. Below are copies of some more which are extant. Seven of them was housed in the Cory library at Rhodes University.

According to the Cory Library, this painting represents the Landing Beaches in Port Elizabeth in 1840. However, that description cannot be correct. The double storey house is probably No. 7 Castle Hill with the Sterley cottages opposite it. http://vital.seals.ac.za:8080/vital/access/manager/Mirador?pid=vital:13983

Landing Place in 1840 with Fort Frederick on the hill in the background [Cory Library]

In comparison, the picture below was painted 46 years later by George Otto Battenhausen in 1886. Note that the modus operandi of the shipping operations without jetties or a harbour was still the same. Notwithstanding the lack of a port, the extent of the warehousing is indicative of the volume of the shipping activity.

Port Elizabeth from the Jetty 1842 by HW Piers with the Parsonage owned by the Rev Francis McCleland visible on the hill left of centre
Landing place in 1840 by HW Piers

Baakens River and Fort Frederick in 1840 by HW Piers
Baakens Valley. 1842, sketch by H W C Piers. The hotel now has a pitched roof over the centre part. Later called Scorey’s Hotel

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Piers, Henry W. / Piers, H.W.
Port Elizabeth directory and guide to the Eastern Province, 1873, 1874: Port Elizabeth Mechanics Institute.

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