Port Elizabeth of Yore: Richard Attwell’s Pioneering Enterprise

This biography by Eric Attwell covers Richard’s life in Grahamstown as an 1820 settler as well as his later life in Cape Town. The Attwell’s connections with Port Elizabeth in the form of the South African Milling Company are also covered.

Main picture:   Queen Street. The Port Elizabeth Steam Mill Company was opened on 6 September 1884 & the building was designed by G W Smith. It later became the South African Milling Company

On the 17th March 1820, 110 days after leaving the Thames port of Deptford, the Nautilus’ sailed into Table Bay. The joy which the sight of Table Mountain must have brought the travellers after four exhaust1ng and hazardous months at sea must have been quite overwhelming.

After urgently needed repairs had been effected at Simonstown the Nautilus sailed on to Algoa Bay, where on the 9th April the 35 ships bringing the 3,500 settlers to their new homeland gathered. Aboard the Nautilus, forming a part of Crause’s party, was a family group hailing from Battlesden near Toddington in Bedfordshire, Richard Attwell, his wife Ann and their children, Richard Labrun (19), Edwin (16), James (11), Sarah and Brook

in common with many of the new arrivals the Attwells were given farmland on the banks of the Fish River. But life there was hard. Apart from the erratic rainfall the farmers were subjected to frequent raids and thefts of cattle by the Xhosa tribesmen. Eventually the family sought the comparative peace of Grahamstown. But Richard, a baker by trade, decided to broaden his horizons and made his way to Cape Town, where he started a bakery. Later he bought out a baker by the name of Smit and the business began to expand.

The original bakery, which was in Strand Street, had a curious layout. Near the front of the building, which had been erected on a fairly substantial slope, was a trap door leading to a cellar. In the early days of the business this cellar had been used to quarter the slaves worked in the bakery. In recent years Vadas, a paint firm, rediscovered this cellar together with Smit’s gravestone which lay in what was once a garden.

One of the bakery’s early specialities was a special tough ships biscuit designed to withstand the sharp temperature changes experienced by ships passing in and out of the tropics. With a growing number of vessels calling at the Cape, the product was in steady demand. The bakery also had a lucrative contract with the garrison.

With the increasing sophistication of life there was a growing demand for cakes and confectionary and Attwell’s bakery soon had a substantial share of this business. In 1841, it was decided that the business should produce its own flour and a plant was set up In Lower Bree Street. Attwell married soon after reaching Cape Town and he had a large family. About 1850 one of the sons, Richard, entered the business, but he died a few years later at the age of 28. His brother, James William, eventually took his place. When Richard Labrun, the founder of Attwell’s Bakery died in 1872, James — who had Joined the concern at the age of 12 — ran the business with the help of his brother-in-law. James originally lived a few doors from the bakery, which adjoined the Albion Hotel (now the White House hotel). Later he built himself a fine residence, known as Portswood House, in Portswood Road, Green Point.

During the 1870’s James Attwell bought for R100 each several shanties in Waterkant Street. Here he erected a three-storey factory for the manufacture of biscuits. The building also contained offices and a shop. ln 1838 the original bakery was substantially altered and extended.

James Attwell was well-known and popular in Cape Town, where his robust build and goatee beard made him a distinctive figure. Despite the handicap of starting work at the age of 12 he acquired a good education, and his knowledge of the industry was unsurpassed.

Attwell became one of Cape Town’s leading grain merchants, realizing before most of his competitors the importance of bakers producing their own flour. His original windmill driven plant wag soon replaced by steam operated equipment. Later he imported a roller mill, the first of kind in the Cape Colony. In time a second mill was established at Artois in the Boland.

“Purveyors to the Royal Navy, Her Majesty’s Army and the Colonial Government, Attwell and Co had by 1880 grown into a substantial business.

During the 1880s, Attwell became friendly with another notable Cape Town figure, J.M. Stephen. Born in Cape Town in 1850, the son of a ship’s captain, Stephen worked for some years for the Cape Argus, where he acquired a reputation as an enterprising journalists. He often stole a march on other papers by going out in small boats to meet incoming ships in search of news. Later he became the Port Elizabeth Steam Milling Company’s Cape Town wheat buying agent.

On March 28th,1891 Stephen’s firm, the Port Elizabeth Steam Milling Company, and James Attwell and Company amalgamated to form the South African Milling Company Limited. With an initial capital of R150,000 it was one of the country earliest large industrial enterprises. The head office was In Port Elizabeth and James Attwell was appointed Managing Director of the Cape Town Branch.

Premier Milling building

In 1895 James Attwell became Major of Cape Town. He died two years later while on a visit to England. It is of interest to note that the South African Milling Company’s auditor from 1895 to 1920 was George Brooke Attwell. His uncle, also George Brooke, achieved the rather unusual distinction of being Mayor of two towns in his lifetime — East London (1884/5) and Mowbray in 1900) .

Snowflake” the South African Milling Company’s famous brand name was registered in the Deeds Office of the Cape of Good Hope by Attwell and Company in 1884

A Pioneer Enterprise by Richard Attwell supplied by Ron Segehout

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