Port Elizabeth of Yore: Recollections of the 1830s and early 1840s

These are the highlights of the recollections of Port Elizabeth in the 1830s and early 1840s by the Rev. Canon Hewitt. The extended full-length version has been lost over a century ago. Notwithstanding that, this brief summary provides yet another insight into the life and times of our ancestors in Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: The Commissariat building in Baakens Street

Port Elizabeth had been made a warehousing port in 1836 and in 1837 a magisterial district, though the circuit courts were still held in Uitenhage, where all taxes were payable. All this time no building was to be seen below [beyond?] the monument except Fort Frederick. There was no jetty for landing cargo, while the sea came nearly to where Main Street now stands, and was separated then as now by sandhills, beyond which are traces of ugly rocks and old ships’ timbers, telling of wrecks that had been. A footpath through scrubby bush and rocky ground was the only ascent of the Hill, and away towards Grahamstown would be seen a solitary wagon or so. Port Elizabeth in the early forties was a dirty, ill-scented, ill-built hamlet, with about 100 houses, exclusive of huts. The Main Street extended from the Commissariat buildings in an irregular line of houses and stores, with frequent gaps, past Hyman’s Kloof (now Russell Road), as far as the Toll House, an octagonal building on the site of the Baptist Church [now demolished] in Queen Street. Beyond that was ‘outside the Bay’ with only two or three properties, the Tees [later St. Patrick’s Hall], Cooper’s low, red-tiled house, at the foot of Cooper’s Kloof [now Albany Road] Reid’s large house, where the Chinaman’s Gardens used to stand, afterwards the property of Mr. Pullens and then you were well out on the frontier, Uitenhage Road. On the town side of the toll, standing back from the Main Street, was Hartman’s House, Evatt and Alice Streets, with a few low disreputable houses and shanties, chiefly inhabited by the lower class of Irish and Malay, and known as Irish Town. Hyman’s Kloof, with grassy sides and a stream of water flowing through. A footpath [up the hill] led to a Hottentot Location, and about a mile further, was a Fingo Kraal. Returning along Main Street, on the south side was another small ravine, with a trickling stream, just beyond where the post cart pulled up at the post office on the site now occupied by Lennon’s fine building. The Union Chapel was the only place of worship with the exception of the unfinished St. Mary’s. There was no bank until about 1850, no newspaper until about 1845, no library. The only Inn was Hope Inn, now Hope Stoep, and at the foot of Military Road was one of the oldest houses in Port Elizabeth, Markham House. Living in those days was cheaper than now. People were not so fastidious as to habitations; beef was 2 ¾d.per pound and butter 9d per pound, though against this was the postage of 11d to Cape Town.

 Another writer speaking in Port Elizabeth in the 1850s, had this to say: “The police establishment was limited to four old decrepit men by day and none at all by night. Between 1850 and 1860, within three or four hundred yards in or near Jetty Street were fifteen canteens of the most disreputable type. There were no licensing courts in those days and the Resident Magistrate, anxious to increase the revenue, never refused an applicant who had the money for a licence in his hands. Character was not considered. Gas [lighting] was unknown and the oil lamps so few and far between as to be worse than useless. The Main Street, which was ankle deep in sand up to 1851, was made something of a hard road by convicts in that years.  

Port Elizabeth benefitted greatly from the wars, as the only port for landing of military stores, and generally, through a large war expenditure of £154,000 per annumin excess of the ordinary military outlay. The town was also enriched by the steady increase in other products but in wool specifically.

The Frontier in turmoil

A Memoir of the Late John Geard by Rev. A. Hanesworth (1904, Fort Beaufort Printing and Publishing Company)

Rate this post

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful details. I wish I had seen this before writing about Tancred’s arrival in 1842. Also, from a previous piece, Livingstone arriving on the ‘George’ a year before Tancred on the same vessel. Thanks for all your hard and devoted work on the history. Bernard


Leave a Comment.