Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Artillery Piece in the Market Square

Since 1863, the obelisk had occupied pride of place in Market Square. After 48 years, it had almost become synonymous with the centre of Port Elizabeth with its water troughs serving as a vital drinking place for thirsty horses. On 4 March 1921 the obelisk was be dethroned to be replaced by the S.A. Heavy Artillery memorial in the form of a howitzer.

Would this memorial gain the cachet of the obelisk or would it be ignominiously removed unlamented? Only time would tell.

Main picture: The howitzer on a granite plinth in Market Square in 1926

Obelisk

On the 2nd May 1863, the Obelisk was erected in the Market Square to commemorate the wedding of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra. Made in France out of an igneous stone similar to granite, the Obelisk was exhibited at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. John Paterson bought it and shipped it home on the “Rose of Montrose” as a memorial for the grave of his late partner and brother-in-law, George Kemp. The Kemp family was opposed to the idea of an ostentatious monu­ment, so it was donated to the town. James Searle supervised the extremely difficult landing of it and James Wyatt erected it. In June 1878 four granite troughs, designed by James Bisset and manufactured in England, were placed around the base with drinking fountains.

Market square after 1903 but before 1922

On the 3rd & 4th March 1921, the Obelisk was removed from the Market Square and put into storage, eventually being re-erected outside the Museum in May 1975.

Heyday of the howitzer

Immediately thereafter a howitzer, one of six given to South Africa by the British Government, was placed on the granite base as a Heavy Artillery Memorial.

The obelisk’s final resting place outside Bayworld

This process was completely in time for the visit of Earl and Countess Haig and the Empire Delegates of the Comrades Societies. The aim of these bodies was to press for unification of all under the name “British Empire Service League”. General Douglas Haig had been Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces on the Western Front. Amongst the other duties of Earl Haig on the 25th April 1925 was the unveiling of the S.A. Heavy Artillery Memorial in the Market Square. A plaque listed the names of the Port Elizabeth officers and men of the Regiment who had died during WW1 in defence of the Empire. The local branch of the Comrades of the Great War Association arranged ceremonies on the Donkin Reserve for ex-servicemen. The ceremony was attended by Earl Haig who also visited Walmer and the Snake Park afterwards.

At a Council meeting during February 1933, the City fathers passed a motion to move the S.A. Heavy Artillery memorial to a site on the edge of St George’s Park

At the outbreak of WW2, the South African government under Jan Smuts voted by a narrow margin to assist Great Britain in her time of need. As all the governments subsequent to WW1 had downsized the Defence Force to a skeleton of its former self, the UDF had to draw on all South Africa’s resources, however outdated. An example of this desperation was the development of the bush cart, a two-wheeled ox-drawn vehicle for warfare in rough terrain. These vehicles were issued to the Army in 1936 by the Minister of Defence, Oswald Pirow, but were never used.

Howitzer with the original water trough still being used

Whether the Councilor or the Union Defence Force initiated the donation of the howitzer is unclear but whoever initiated the transfer, as the howitzer was still in good repair thanks to members of the S.A. Heavy Artillery Association, it was sent to Potchefstroom in the Transvaal as a practice piece during December 1939. All that was required to make it operational was the woodwork on the wheels which needed to be replaced.

The 6”26cwt Howitzer. The new location of the Heavy Artillery Memorial in St George’s Park in 1955-6 (courtesy of Faith Merrick)
The ‘gun emplacement’ in St George’s Park today that is meant to house the 6” howitzer. (Ronnie Lovemore)

After the war the howitzer was returned and it resumed its position on the corner of Park Drive and Rink Street, close to the entrance to the Scottish Cemetery at the north-east corner of St George’s Park.

During the late 1990s or early 2000s, it was decided that the howitzer was getting very rusty and it was in a disgraceful condition and required repairing. According to Richard Tomlinson of the Port Elizabeth Historical Society, it was removed by the SA Army for the necessary repairs to take place. Nothing happened until it came to the notice of the Historical Society of PE that this historic artefact had been dumped near to the SAAF Museum. Accordingly as a Committee member of the Society, he decided one day to follow up on this information. He found the British gun dumped on a piece of waste ground on the far side of the car park from the Museum. Imagine his surprise when, next to it, he discovered a similar howitzer of the same period which turned out to be the German counterpart. Both guns were in a deplorable state.

He reported this information to the Committee, and he recalls that Committee-member Jenny Bennie also visited to check these guns. They were told by the military authorities that the British gun would be sent to the Queen’s Fort Museum in Bloemfontein for restoration, and he understood that the two guns were collected and despatched at that time.

During 2008 Richard visited the Queen’s Fort for the first time and, whilst there, he made tentative enquiries about the two howitzers. However, there was nobody on site who could answer his queries. There the matter has rested ever since. Richard is of the belief that the guns were probably sold as scrap metal.

Source

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)


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