A more telling criticism of Strand Street is that it was always a slum but this is perhaps too jaundiced a view. All buildings, areas and fashions conform to a lifecycle, so why would Strand Street breach that rule. Perhaps a brief view of its history will give one pause.
But what is factually correct is that Strand Street is that portion of old Port Elizabeth which became a slum.
Main picture: Premises of Stephen, Fraser & Co built in 1892-93 in Strand Street. Photo dated 1904. Demolished for Freeway
Strand Street created
In 1813, the Governor, Sir John Cradock, authorised the surveyor, Johann Knobel to lay out ten erven for sale in the vicinity of the Fort and landing place as well as several larger lots on the road to Cradock Place. Those Lots at the Landing Place are today Main and Strand Streets. Some of these purchasers bought on spec and never actually lived in Port Elizabeth. Land was also granted in Baakens Valley.
Strand Street stretched in an elongated rectangle from the present Campanile Hotel [Formerly the Palmerston Hote] to the current Railway Station at one end of the rectangle with the other extending north to Griffin Street. In the lanes running east to west thousands of people of all races were housed: whites, coloureds and many Malays but no blacks as they resided in Strangers’ Location at the top of Russell Road. Religiously the Malays were catered for by two Mosques, the oldest being the Grace Street Mosque, opened in 1855, and later the Strand Street Mosque, later the Cotton’s building,. There were many two-storied buildings with those facing Strand Street being shops as well as several hotels. The side streets leading off Main Street stretched almost to the beach front and did not terminate, as they do to-day, in Strand Street.
In the early 1850s the construction of a sea wall was commenced, the contractor being Mr. Mattheus, who erected a barrier of large rocks and stones. Prior to this, the surf broke heavily where the station now stands, and from the foot of Jetty Street to some distance north the foreshore was littered with filth and refuse of every description, causing unpleasant odours to permeate the town by day and by night, besides being a paradise for dogs, cats and swarms of rats. The foam from the breakers used to blow up Jetty Street and across the open Market Square. Then a proper sea wall was commenced by the Council, who reclaimed that large tract of valuable land known as Victoria Quay which was granted to them as freehold by the Government and along which the railway was laid at a later date.
In the 1850s and for many years afterwards, Strand Street had the unenviable reputation of being the vilest and most disreputable locality in the whole town. The distance between the corner of the old Palmerston Hotel to the foot of Rodney Street was scarcely a few hundred yards, yet it contained no less than thirteen canteens, later styled hotels, and half-a-dozen suspicious-looking shops used as smuggling houses. Starting from the Palmerston Hotel, first one met a canteen in the lane at the back of the old Malay Mosque (later demolished) with an entrance from Strand Street, followed by the Standard Hotel, a ship-chandlers’ store used by sea captains, and the Union Hotel a few yards away from it. Then came the Prince of Wales Hotel on the corner of Grace Street, Salmond’s Hotel, Ted Sasse’s Hotel, the Caledonian Hotel, Crocker’s Hotel, the Admiral Rodney at the corner of Rodney Street (hence its name), and Kromm’s Hotel — all in the busiest portion of the town.
Criminality was rife and was where many succumbed to their worst impulses. In his book, Port Elizabeth of Bygone Days, Redgrave provides vivid word pictures of depravity. Confronting the lawless, drunken masses of people was an undermanned, unprofessional police force with little more than prayer on their side to confront the troublemakers. There was little wonder that these policemen avoided the area and avoided confronting any suspicious characters. The unvarnished truth was that they risked life and limb if the intruded into this nether world.
The saving grace of this area which should rightly be the showcase to the town occurred on the 13th December 1866 when a Town Council meeting agreed that the Government could expropriate a large tract of land between the railway lines and Strand Street in order to extend the railway premises. To achieve this outcome, all the old buildings and the slums were demolished and some sites were leased to merchants who built handsome stores, a number of them between 1892 and 1804.
Strand Street had been rescued from a sordid future.
During 1890 plans were passed for several large stores to be erected in Strand Street, then largely empty. These buildings were designed by E.J. Sherwood and G.W. Smith. What appears today to be a single long building on the east side, later used by the railways, was actually several adjoining buildings which was the work of Sherwood.
The final nail in the coffin
After this unintended reprieve, a development in the 1960s was to finally destroy this historic area: the construction of the Settlers’ Freeway. This highway together with the construction of the Jetty Street bus station have ripped the historic heart out of the town returned it into slum land once again.
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
The Bay in Living Memory – Part 1 by Voullaire (Looking Back, Volume 55, 2016)