Port Elizabeth of Yore: Legal Status and Governance

By any measure, in 1804, when Uitenhage was established, its future outlook was more sanguine than that of Port Elizabeth as the scene that greeted visitors to Uitenhage was the plenitude of fresh water and verdant countryside as opposed to decrepit shacks on the coast. Being cognisant of realties, in 1804 Port Elizabeth automatically became part of the Uitenhage District.

The blog covers the status and governance of this seaside hamlet as it grew first into a town and finally into a city.

Main picture: Watercolour entitled ‘View of Port Elizabeth from upper Russell Road’ by Lester Oliver in 1854

Division and Township Status

In 1804, the Commissary-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist, after whom Uitenhage is named, visited Fort Frederick and Bethelsdorp accompanied by a party which included his daughter, Augusta, and Dr. Heinrich Lichtenstein, a scientific observer, and Janssens. On 7 February while they were in Graaff-Reinet, he announced the sub-division of the District.

It was on the 25th April that the Proclamation creating the District of Uitenhage, formerly a part of the Graaff-Reinet District, was issued. It was Janssens who named it Uitenhage. Capt. Johann Christoph Ludwig Alberti of the Waldeck Regiment, who had succeed­ed Maj von Gilten as Commandant of the Fort, was appointed Landdrost. In September 1804 he chose widow Susanna Elisabeth Scheepers’ unoccupied farm “Rietvallei” in Uitenhage as the site of the new Drostdy.

In 1825, Port Elizabeth’s status was amended by the Governor in numerous ways both due to its size but also due to its demographics. First on the 8th April, Port Elizabeth became a Magistracy with Captain Evatt as Government Resident and Montagu Augustine Armstrong as Secretary. This was followed shortly afterwards, little over a month later, on the 28th May when it was announced that English was the language for judicial transactions in Port Elizabeth. This declaration also defined the limits of the Township of Algoa Bay as well as stated that the town was to be designated “Port Elizabeth'” in all Public Acts.

Port Elizabeth was officially made a separate magisterial district on the 19th December 1827. For some unknown reason, this declaration was reversed on the 6th February 1832 when it again became part of the Uitenhage District. It was only a month later on the 24th January of the new years that Hougham Hudson was appointed first Resident Magistrate of Port Elizabeth. On the 6th February 1832 Port Elizabeth was again annexed to the Uitenhage District and Hougham Hudson was appointed as Resident Magistrate of Uitenhage and M.A. Armstrong made Resident Justice of the Peace in P.E. Five years later on the 6th February 1837, Port Elizabeth was again made a separate Magisterial District with John George de Villiers being appointed Resident Magistrate, Edward Parker his Clerk, and E.F.S. Gie Clerk of the Peace. Two years later on the 16th May 1839, William Lloyd was appointed Resident Magistrate. A Captain in the Royal Navy, on 9 March 1845 Lloyd became the first Civil Commissioner of Port Elizabeth as well.

Town Wards

While being headmaster of the Free Government School, John Paterson had come to the realisation that if the residents desired a more salubrious town with water on tap as well as refuse and sewerage services, Port Elizabeth would have to be designated as a municipality with an elected council. Paterson used the editorial column of the Herald to propagate his viewpoint thereby raising the political awareness of the inhabitants. He advocated for the establishment of a municipality rightly claiming that the needs of the town had grown beyond the scope of the Resident Magistrate and his small staff.

Even though the town did not yet possess a council, during April 1846 the “Herald” published details of the population of each of the town’s 9 Wards. The total came to 2405 which included 156 Mfengu, 133 Khoi and 18 Bechuanas living in the vicinity of the Russell Road cemeteries. In contrast the 1922 headcount was 36,664 of whom 23,875 were White. This process must have been facilitated by John Paterson operating under a nom-de-plume as editor of the Herald.

Town Council

Finally after agitation since May 1845, sufficient interest was garnered to set up a meeting with the Governor at which their intentions were made known. To this end, a meeting of householders was held on the 9th January 1847. Chaired by William Smith, it appointed a committee consisting of W. Fleming, W. Smith, C. Andrews, W.M. Harries and J.C. Chase to draw up possible municipal regulations. On 8 February a meeting adopted the regulations and forwarded them to the Government.

The Governor must have been favourably disposed towards their idea as he agreed to draft municipal regulations for promulgation. Before the end of the year [Nov. 18 1847], Municipal regulations for Port Elizabeth (fifty in all) were promulgated by the Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger. One of the new rules stated that dogs had to be registered and wear collars, and owners had to pay one shilling per year per dog. Strays were destroyed.

No time was wasted. To set the ball in motion, the first Board of Commissioners was elected on the 3rd December 1847. The town was divided into 8 wards and the first Commissioners were J.W. Kemp, W.H. Coleman, W.M. Harries, C. Andrews, J. Crawford, W. Fleming, W. Smith and T. Proudfoot. Two Wardmasters from each ward were elected to assist the Commissioners. This municipal system was used until January 1861.

What lessons are rapidly learnt by all novice politics, is that politics is the art of the possible. Votes are easily swayed to support a cause for which they do not have to pay but as soon as one has to contribute towards the expenditure, many voters will demur. With the levying of rates and other dues for the first time, there would funds for the improvement and maintenance of the town. Unstated in the history books is what backlash the council had to endure as the residents never previously had to pay these levies. During December 1847, Commissioners for Improving the Port and Harbour of Algoa Bay were appointed. They were W. Lloyd, T.A. Bennett, W.M. Harries, W. Fleming and E.H. Salmond. Commonly known as the Harbour Board, the number was increased to 7 members in 1861. The board was granted land to provide it with an income and it received wharfage dues. Its functions were taken over by the Cape Government in 1908, and the Dept of Railways and Harbours after Union in 1910.

Growth vis-à-vis other towns must have been swift in comparison. As a consequence, on the 8th March 1848, the District of Port Elizabeth was upgraded and became a Division with the Resident Magistrate becoming the Civil Commissioner as well.

Even the most mundane issues have to be addressed. Rules and regulations have to be drafted, submitted to the Municipal Commissioners and adopted or amended. So it was the case with something as prosaic as street names. Prior to this, some streets and areas had been known by several names and others had none. During June, the Municipal Commissioners submitted a list of proposed street names to the public and those officially adopt­ed were published in the “Herald” on 21 June.

On the 23rd August 1854, Capt. John Montgomery Hill succeeded William Lloyd as Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate. Originally sent to the Colony as a Special Commissioner in connection with the abolition of slavery, Hill was transferred to Cape Town in January 1857.

Divisional Council

While the urban areas might now have some form of urban council, all rural areas did not fall under any controlling council. Initially the major driver for the establishment of some form of peri urban Council, was to facilitate transport by maintaining the roads and building bridges and passes The legal structure to administer these functions was known as the Divisional Council.

An Act was passed creating the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council on the 4th June 1856. The first Divisional Councils Bill was introduced into Parliament by John Paterson. Act 5 of 1855 created Divisional Councils in the Cape, but as Port Elizabeth had only 2 Field Cornetcies and not 6, a separate Act was required. Six districts were made, and 6 representatives elected, who met in the Commercial Hall with the Resident Magistrate as Chairman. Among their tasks was the upkeep of roads in their areas. Divisional Councils came to an end on 30 June 1987. The Field Cornet represented the Magistrate in a country district. The position was abolished in 1914 and the duties taken over by Justices of the Peace

Municipality Act

Port Elizabeth became the first town to be incorporated as a municipality under Act 31 of 1860 and on the 1st January 1861, the borough officially came into existence. The first meeting of the Town Council took place on the 2nd and The new municipal regulations came into force on 28 May.

At the request of the Town Council, on the 2nd September 1868 Parliament passed a Private Act for constituting the Town of Port Elizabeth a Municipality. In terms of this Act, Act no 31 of 1860 was repealed. The complete Act was published in the Government Gazette of 17 April 1868.

During May 1931, Ordinance no 3 of 1931 was promulgated, extending the boundaries of Port Elizabeth to include Korsten, Zwartkops Village. Deal Party Estate. Fairview Township and Winterstrand. There were still only seven wards, but each now had three Councillors. The Ordinance came into force on 14 August and the election of the Councillors took place on 7 September.

Finally in 1967 Walmer became part of the Port Elizabeth Municipality.


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).

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