Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Commercial Developments of the Richardson Family

Maybe not quite as prominent as the Mosenthal family in 19th century Port Elizabeth, but the Richardson’s were a close second. Similarities abound between the two families; both were Jewish immigrants who operated in the agricultural sector and both introduced innovations into their market segment and operated locally and internationally. Even their headquarters were contiguous to one another in Market Square. Mosenthals occupied the corner premises of Jetty and North Union Street whereas Richardson’s building was next door in North Union Street. 

At the risk of overstatement, these two Port Elizabeth entrepreneurs were in the top tier of those companies which were largely instrumental in Port Elizabeth’s rise as an economic force in the 19th and early 20th century.

Let me introduce the Richardson’s and some of their businesses.

Main picture: Richardson’s head office in Market Square

Ostrich feathers

Like the majority of companies in Port Elizabeth in the early days, the Richardson’s initially made their money in the agricultural sector and in this case their first business was in the trade of ostrich features. The company’s founder, Sir Lewis Richardson, born on 2 February 1873 in Birmingham, England, emigrated to South Africa with his parents in 1882. The family settled in Steytlerville but at an early age Lewis started trading in ostrich feathers before later settling in Port Elizabeth. It was here that he started the The Ostrich Feather and Producer Agency Ltd in the middle of the 1890s operating from small, rented premises in Main Street from where he set out to challenge the old-established groups which held a monopoly in the ostrich feather trade in the town.

He offered the older dealers such stern competition that he succeeded in breaking their monopoly in the town around the turn of the century. Subsequently his brothers, Mr Sam Richardson and Monte Richardson joined him in business and around 1913 the name of the business was changed to L. Richardson & Company which opened branches in London, New York, Boston and Bremen.   

The wool business

Before WW1, the Richardsons had already engaged in the purchase and export of wool. This was extremely fortuitous as the ostrich feather market collapsed at the commencement of the Great War. To differentiate themselves, they decided to import a wool washing plant from America. Instead of the usual method of cleaning the wool by placing it in flowing water, the wool would be mechanically washed. To accommodate the machinery, they constructed a new building in Queen Street and the company was called Richardson’s Wool Washery and Carbonising Works. They became one of the largest buyers of grease wool in the country. After scouring in this automatic plant, it was shipped in chartered vessels to the United States and Europe.    

Richardson’s factory in Queen Street
The state-of-the-art mechanical wool washer
Close-up view of the mechanical wool washer at Richardson’s plant

Mohair

Concurrently with its wool-buying and exporting business activities, the firm also traded in mohair which was purchased in the Eastern Cape and then shipped to Bradford in England for sorting and sale.

Knighthood bestowed

For his services to the Allied war effort and his assistance in rehabilitating ex-servicemen, Lewis was awarded a C.B.E. in 1919, knighted in the following year and conferred a Baronetcy in 1824. He was created 1st Baronet Richardson, of Yellow Woods, Province of Cape of Good Hope, South Africa [U.K.] on 26 January 1924.

Monte Richardson
Sir Leslie Richardson
Sam Richardson

Citrus

 Land was purchased in the Sundays River Valley in 1922 and virgin veld was converted into irrigated and highly productive citrus groves. Initially export markets were found in the United Kingdom and by the outbreak of WW2, the Richardson’s citrus estates had become one of the largest citrus producing concerns in the Eastern Cape.

Richardson’s Building between the Mosenthals building on the left and the Reserve Bank building on the right

Entertainment and hospitality business

In 1931, Sam and Monte Richardson, Lewis’ brothers, entered into a novel field unrelated to agriculture. One of these even has a tangental family connection when the Richardsons approached my grandmother, Daisy McCleland, with an offer to purchase her tearoom and adjacent properties which she owned in Schoenmakerskop. Their intention was to demolish the tearoom and build a posh hotel and entertainment area. My grandmother rejected the offer on the grounds that it would spoil the character and ambiance of Schoenies. They were nonplussed as they announced the purchase of property at Seaview on which they would build a hotel. Daisy was equally unperturbed as she told her family that her scones and savories would be fresher than those of the Richardsons.

On June 18, 1937, the new Seaview Hotel was opened with a dance. The land was the property of the Richardson family who began developing it as a holiday resort under the name “Clarendon Marine Township”. In 1931 a tidal swimming bath was built with an unusual art deco structure at one end (Jones and McWilliams). There were rondavels for hire and a refreshment kiosk. Bowling greens, tennis courts and pulling greens were made and there was a fishing jetty. The spot was very popular. On 31 May 1939 a golf course was opened as well. The hotel was designed by Maurice Herman and had its own electricity plant. A visitor described it as “the most perfect place imaginable”. In August 1942 the hotel was taken over as a training base for Naval Officers.

Swimming pool at the Seaview Hotel per THL

The Richardson’s entrée into the world of entertainment was in 1931 when they constructed their first cinema. No information can be found as to its name or location. Subsequently a second cinema known as the Astra was built in Jetty Street. It was destroyed by fire in 1947 but was re-opened in 1948 on the ground floor of a multi-storey office block built on the same site.

The building was opened in December 1934 and was demolished in the late 60s early 70s.

Richardson’s Head Office in Market Square

This elegant building to complement the adjacent Mosenthal’s building, was built in 1923. The Artefacts website describes this building as follows:

The sculptures were done by James GARDNER. The building was located between the Mosenthal and Company and the Reserve Bank on Market Square. It was demolished in 1974.

Cumming-George 1933

THIS BUILDING is an office block facing Market Square, Port Elizabeth, erected for Sir Lewis Richardson, Bart. C.B.E. The colonnade of the ground floor is carried out in Paarl granite, and the massive piers terminating the elevation, the balconette, and the cornices and sculpture are of Oudtshoorn sandstone – yellowish brown in colour. At each entrance to the colonnade steps are bronze gates, and a bronze railing between the columns of delicate design. The sculpture pieces in high relief at the terminals of the top storey represent Commerce and Industry. The ground floor is wholly used as his office by Sir Lewis Richardson, and is liberally laid out with reception room, board room, private office and general office, all panelled in oak, with a marble and concrete stair leading to the upper floors. The lift serves all floors. The roof is of Roman tiles.

Debt of gratitude

The city of Port Elizabeth owes certain residents a debt of gratitude in that their entrepreneurial endeavours set the town on its path to development. In both cases one of their legacies should have been their elegant head offices in Market Square. In an act of almost wanton destruction, the City Council elected to demolish both buildings for use as parking space and a bus terminus. This act had the result of ripping out the heart of the most historical part of the town. Both buildings should have been preserved as an embodiment of two talented families whose contribution to Port Elizabeth’s development has been incalculable.

Let’s doff our hats to their achievements.

Sources

http://www.thepeerage.com/p55852.htm#i558517

https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=1545

Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

Cumming-George, L. 1933. Architecture in South Africa – Volume One. Cape Town: The Speciality Press of S.A. Ltd.. pg. 139, 140 ill

 

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