Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Draaifontein Farmhouse in which my Gran was raised

Three of the Rev Francis McCleland’s grandsons all married Beckley girls who were raised in a unprepossessing house on the hill along Draaifontein Road which still exists today.

Whether this house was built in 1803, as is now supposed, or in 1815 when Capt. Francis Evatt was granted this property, is irrelevant in the oldest extant house stakes. On either count, no. 7 Castle Hill is the lame donkey to the virile horse. Yet few people are aware of this building’s historical significance.

 Main picture: Photo of the Title Deeds taken by Tony Beckley

Before the Beckley’s

According to the Gazetteer of Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine, the first white person in this area was Gideon Jacobus Kok in 1813. The area was surveyed in 1815 by J. Knobel and granted to Captain Francis Evatt on the 30th May 1815.

Above: The Title Deed of the Draaifontein Property

Elsewhere, it is recorded that Capt. Francis Evatt and the other officers of the Royal Garrison Company were granted property at Chelsea in 1815 but in 1821 it was sold to J.D. Ward. When Evatt relinquished the Draaifontein property cannot be established.

Confirmation on the Title Deed regarding Captain Francis Evatt’s ownership of the Draaifontein Property [Inscription: Copy of Diagram amended to Title granted to Capt. F. Evatt 30th May 1815, Surveyor’s General Office]

In 1842, the Draaifontein property was transferred to Ignatius Stephanus Ferreira. The first reference to Flanagan being involved with this property was in 1852 when it is recorded that I.S. Ferreira and Rodger Flanagan held the property. A year later in 1853, it was sold on auction by the auctioneers Armstrong & Co for the account of Thomas Flanagan in the insolvent account of James Joseph Flanagan. I.S. Ferreira must have still been residing on the farm as it is recorded that in 1865, he shot a buffalo cow on the farm.

Above: Stamp of auctioneer on the title deeds

The exact sequence of events now becomes murky in that in 1873, Joseph Young is recorded as being the owner yet in 1885, a sale notice for the farm appeared in the E.P. Herald as part of the insolvent estate of James Joseph Flanagan, the son of Rodger Flanagan. The Beckley’s first acquaintance with this property was prior to 1895 when they rented the property and probably stayed in the main house.

Above: Wooden stairs leading to the attic of Draaifontein Farmhouse subsequently dismantled and replaced with stairs inside the house.

House on the Draaifontein Farm

But when was this house constructed? According to Michelle Beckley, “the Beckley family  were always under the impression that the farmhouse was built round about 1815, when Captain Francis Evatt was the owner, but they have recently discovered that Rietfontein house, a similar structure, was already built when Lichtenstein travelled up from Cape Town in 1803”. Furthermore she makes the startling admission that “We are now of the opinion that Rietfontein, Buffelsfontein and Draaifontein houses were all built round about the same time and by the same builder, as the tops of the door-frames all lean to one side, which leads us to believe that the builder’s spirit level was out i.e. not so level !!! It would be safe to say that this house was built in the early 1800’s.”

If either of these two facts are correct, that makes this dwelling the oldest extant house in Port Elizabeth, dethroning no. 7 Castle Hill from its coveted position.

The circular level, in which a bubble floated under a circular glass to indicate level in all directions, was invented in 1777. It lacked the sensitivity of the conventional level. Mitigating against the possible inaccurate spirit level being used is the fact that it did not become a carpenter’s tool until the factory-made models were introduced in the mid-19th century. Secondly, the itinerant artisans of that era could not afford to be encumbered with a smorgasbord of tools. Instead they were compelled to only carry  a basic set of implements. If an erroneous spirit level did not rise to the non-level door frames, what could have caused the error? Perhaps it was something as mundane as the builder possessing an innate deformity such as a pronounced squint.

Above: Beckley family with my gran in the white dress & a sash

Naturally the ravages of time combined with modernity have resulted in changes to the house. According to Michelle Beckley, some of these changes were the following. “Originally wooden stairs on the exterior of the house led to the attic of the Draaifontein farmhouse, but they have since been demolished and a wooden staircase built inside. Draaifontein House has yellow-wood floors and ceilings in the main part of the house. The iron on the roof is at least 100 years old and rather than replacing it with the thin modern stuff, it works very well patching it here and there where necessary. [DFM: The reason why corrugated iron sheets of this era could survive so long is due to the fact that the corrosion resistant zinc coating was at least twice as thick as modern coatings. Hence their longevity.] The house originally had a slate roof. There was a Dutch oven built into the kitchen of the house, but this has since been removed, but we have kept the door in safekeeping.  The outside walls are built of stone, but it has mud-brick walls on the inside. The outside walls are more than 2 foot thick. The kitchen area seems to have been built after the main part of the house and as the chimney started crumbling due to the fact that normal brick had been built on top of mud brick at some stage, it had to be demolished in the 1990’s.

A home on the hill by Tony Beckley

This is a verbatim extract from the family history compiled by Tony Beckley. Only grammatical and spelling errors have been amended.

Only about 25 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, built on a rise proudly stands the old historic homestead of Draaifontein as it has for nearly 200 years. It is believed to be the oldest standing and occupied house in the district. The exterior virtually unchanged although the ravages of time are sadly taking their toll.

The house was strategically built only 200 metres from a perpetual water source in a nearby kloof. The cavity entrance flanked by two large stone slabs probably placed there by slaves during the construction of the homestead. The spring still serves as the main source of drinking water for the farmhouse today.

The main house entrance is into the front room, giving access to the rooms on either side and leads to the back room and kitchen. As I walked through the house Christopher proudly pointed out the original rustic yellow wood door frames and the well-worn flooring, that celebrates more than a century of natural wear marks, the wood’s naturally occurring vagaries and the signs of old-time craftsmen.

Slave labour was used to construct the 2 foot 6-inch-thick mud bound stone walls of the farmhouse. Floors of polished yellowwood and stout yellowwood beams, hand hewn from old forest trees that surrounded the farm support the ceiling and floor of the loft above.

The kitchen had a large open hearth fitted with iron bars to suspend tools used to care for the fire; shovels, pokers, tongs, and bellows and an array of long- handled pots, utensils and Dutch ovens. The hearth was considered an integral part of a home, often its central or most important feature. During the cold wintery evenings with no fireplace in the house the family would gather in the kitchen where meals were served next to a blazing hearth in the farm kitchen.

The once exterior whitewashed walls and a high-pitched roof in the Dutch style covered successively by slate, tiles and finally corrugated iron painted dull red are in need of restoration and tender loving care. The outside wooden stair access to the loft has disintegrated and only the solitary door high in the side gable and the original stone steps at the base remind us of its existence. A newer wooden staircase has been built inside.

The name Draayfontein is actually older than that of Port Elizabeth and goes back to the days prior to the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. The original Dutch spelling Draayfontein changed over the years as the Afrikaans language evolved and has been known as Draaifontein for many years. The farmhouse is part of the story of old Port Elizabeth and the name Draaifontein spread wider to become the name of the road and farming country which immediately surrounds it.

No one knows exactly when the old homestead was built or how and when it was named. But what is known of its origins, is that it was the county seat of Captain Francis Evatt, Commander of Fort Frederick and “Father of Port Elizabeth”; that the farm on which it stands was granted to him as a country residence or as it was then called – a hunting lodge, on permanent lease in 1815 by Lord Charles Henry Somerset, Governor of the Cape of Good Hope; that the site of the house was part of 2.539 morgen of government land granted to the commander on the 30th May 1815 at a nominal annual rent.

Above: The Beckley family on the main veranda of the Draaifontein house circa 1894 with my gran Daisy McCleland on the extreme left.

Original Title Deed to Draayfontein

30 May 1815

By His Excellency the Right Hon. General Lord CHARLES HENRY SOMERSET, one of His Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council, Colonel of His Majesty’s 1st West India Regiment, Governor and Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Castle, Town, and Settlement of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and of the Territories and Dependencies thereof, and Ordinary and Vice Admiral of the fame. Commander of the Forces, &c. &c. &c.

I do hereby grant on Perpetual Quitrent, unto Captain Francis Evatt of the Royal Garrison Company a piece of Two Thousand Five Hundred and Thirty nine Morgen, and Three Hundred and Ninety five Square Roods of Land Situated in the District of Uitenhage, in the Field Cornetcy of Zwartkops River extending Southwards to the Place Stade’s River belonging to I.A. Landman, Westwards to that of C. Schalkwyk called Buffels Fontein and North and Eastwards to Government land as will appear by the diagram, framed by the Surveyor General, on condition of his punctually paying, or causing to be paid, at the expiration of every twelfth month, from date of these presents, unto the Receiver General of Land Revenues the sum of One Hundred and twenty Rise Dollars and be bound (according to the existing Laws of this Settlement) to have boundaries properly traced out, and the Land brought into such a state of cultivation as it is capable of, within the first three years; the Land thus granted being further subject to all such Duties and Regulations, as either are already or shall in future be established respecting Lands granted under similar Tenure.

Given under my hand and Seal, at the Cape of Good Hope, this 30th day of May 1815.

Signed: C.H. Somerset

Captain Francis Evatt

On the death of Captain Evatt in 1850 at the age of 77 years the farm was divided and in 1852 the portion carrying the homestead was acquired by Roger Flanagan, the other being bought by Ignatius Stephanus Ferreira.  After Roger Flanagan the farm was occupied by Joseph Young until 1875 when it was bought by his son of the same name.

Left: Captain Francis Evatt

Around 1875 the Beckley family became tenant farmers in the De Stades area. Having returned to South Africa after their failed attempt at settling and starting a new life in Argentina. They remained tenant farmers in the area until Draaifontein once more came up for sale.

On 26 February 1895 Joseph James Beckley purchased at auction 1,160 morgen of the original Draaifontein farm including the homestead and a portion of forest land to total 1,520 morgen for the sum of £1050.0.0 Sterling. They only took possession of the property from Joseph Young on 1 May 1895.

There was a codicil attached to the deed allowing Mr Young until 31 May to vacate the house, remove his crops and for Mr Flannigan to cut wood and the natives to reap their crops and graze their stock until the end of May. Also, the buyer would be responsible to pay Rates and Taxes for the year 1895.

Traditionally the farm had dairy cattle for the production of cream, butter and cheese, chickens for the collection of eggs and an assortment of vegetables including pumpkins and mielies, which were sold on the market in Port Elizabeth. There was also a large ‘potato room’, where potatoes were kept, to bud the ‘eyes’ for the planting of the next crop. In more recent times indigenous proteas were cultivated for the lucrative local and overseas markets.  

A description of Draaifontein

This description of the farm Draaifontein penned by Mary Ann (Polly) Beckley

In the second stanza on the third line she refers to a “crash” which possibly, is meant to read “crush” the dictionary defines this as a narrow funnel shaped fenced passage along which individual cattle are driven for handling or treatment.

Joseph James Beckley passed away on the farm Draaifontein on 8 February 1912 after a year long illness of heart disease.

Mary Ann passed away 19 years later on Wednesday 30 December 1931. Both are buried in the St. Albans Church Cemetery, on the farm Draaifontein, Port Elizabeth.

Some time after the death of Joseph James in 1912 the Beckley sons were given the option of sharing a portion of the farm or a cash settlement for their share of the property. The family talk in vague terms about this period. I have no facts only speculation and hearsay. It seems there was an acrimonious dispute over the sub-division of the farm and settlement of the will. I can only speculate that Joseph James (Joe) being the eldest son, no doubt expected to inherit the parcel of land with the original farmhouse.

According to May Beckley: “William and Joe were asked to sign a document agreeing to the subdivision of the family farm, but both refused. They were disinherited, so Tom, Sid, Berite and Ebbie got the farms. Must have been around 1918 – 1920.”

Through this I believe there was a split in the family and the two eldest sons Joe and William moved out of the immediate area. The other brothers and sisters remained and continued to farm on their subdivided Draaifontein land. After this occurred there was little contact between the two groups, with Joe and William going their separate ways and raising their families in Port Elizabeth.

For many years Joe managed a neighbouring farm while Philapena and the children moved to live in Port Elizabeth. Joe visited his family every weekend always taking fresh produce for their consumption during the week.

It was at about this time that Joe’s family and his grandmother in particular who had remained in Argentina learning of the dispute made an offer of land if Joe would join them in his country of birth. Unfortunately Philapena refused to move from South Africa and Joe resigned himself to be a tenant farmer in the area. He continued to visit Philapena and the children in Port Elizabeth over weekends until he retired and got a job in the city at Murray & Stewart a large commercial building contractor. According to Clive Beckley…”Joe was never the same again…” after turning down the Argentinian offer.

At some time during the early to mid-1900 when stoves replaced open fire cooking, an AGA stove was introduced to replace the open hearth. According to Belinda Beckley…

“…the farmhouse had a large AGA stove, with all the old metal irons, which were warmed on the stove, for ironing the sheets and clothes. Bread was home baked and when it was cold, one’s pyjamas would be warmed in front of the AGA stove, before putting them on. Tea every day, would be served in the dining room. One would have water-biscuits, with cheese and farm butter, and of course, tea, from a teapot, with farm milk. In the middle of the day, would be a hearty meal, and all would eat together, the men coming in from the lands. The table would always be laid, with silverware, and each one had their silver serviette ring, with a big white serviette.”

On 26 December 1997 bush fires raged in Port Elizabeth for eleven days destroying vast tracts of grazing land and coastal vegetation. The runaway bush fire, driven by high winds, was burning out of control. It raced through the cultivated protea plantation at Draaifontein Farm ruining the family’s indigenous flower export business.

Thick black smoke covering a large area, with flames visible from kilometres away, making it almost impossible to see

Indigenous proteas

The following day gale force winds persisted, fanning the flames and spread through the surrounding area threatening the small Anglican Church of St Albans on the property. Only with the help of neighbours who fought to save the buildings were the Beckley family able to contain the blaze. Saving the Church from certain destruction. By evening the wind dropped and the fire seemed to be under control. In the lull after battling the blaze which had already damaged large areas, exhausted volunteer fire fighters were taking a well-earned rest.

…”The wind spun around giving a cyclonic effect, and with a terrifying ‘Whoosh!’ the pines in the horseshoe across the road from the house flared up”.

Fanned by an unpredictable wind change it flared up again. Burning embers and debris from the main fire showered down over the house, fortunately the wind changed back to its original course and the fire could once more be controlled. Miraculously later that evening heavy rains quelled the fire at Draaifontein.

The Port Elizabeth Daily Dispatch Correspondent.

…”Among the hardest hit by the Port Elizabeth fires, was Maitland protea grower Christopher Beckley who lost his entire export crop worth R1 million”.

Two years on the Beckley farm had only just begun recovering from the fire that devastated it previously. Sadly once again on 14 March 2001 fire raged through the whole Draaifontein area and left the farms of Athol, Frances Beckley, Kit and Carol Carter just about ‘wiped out’. And miraculously once again the Chapel of St Alban’s was saved from the fire by the Beckley family, staff and friends.

The farm has recovered from the devastating protea loss and has now adapted to the altered circumstances and produce free-range chickens and eggs for the immediate and local market. A Jersey herd for the dairy and a mixed beef herd on the side.

The roof was painted in 1995 shortly before the Centenary

Christopher Beckley sorting eggs

Later that same year Christopher using a sledgehammer demolished the badly cracked chimney which was in danger of tumbling down. The hearth and Dutch oven were retained for another 10 years and was finally removed in 2005 to make way for an electrically operated eye-level oven and more modern kitchen.

Some of the farms deteriorating outbuildings ravaged by time: Photographed 2003.

From top to bottom: The school house, the old dairy & once slave quarters, the stables and saddlery.

Anthony states that “In 2003 I was fortunate to visit the farm with my daughter Stacey. We were welcomed with generosity in true country spirit and made to feel right at home. We were treated to a traditional ‘braai’ for lunch and met with a number of relatives who had been invited for the occasion. For me it was a wonderful encounter, to be on the property and in the actual dwelling where not only my great grandparents and grandparents lived but especially to be in the very farmhouse where my father was born.

Sitting in the lounge room with Athol, Francis, Christopher and Michelle Beckley with the portraits of my great grandparents looking down at me from the opposite wall, filled me with a great sense of belonging. It made me feel that time had stood still and had welcomed me home as part of the history of not only the farm Draaifontein but Port Elizabeth itself.

Later that afternoon I left Draaifontein with a tinge of sadness for the historic farm and outbuildings, all desperate to be brought back to life, but it also gave me a sense of pride to know that for more than 100 years there was still a Beckley family and kinsman living and operating this enduring farm. The farm and little church which have given their names to the surrounding suburbs of Draaifontein and St. Albans deserve more recognition for the part they have played in the history of Port Elizabeth.

The twin portraits of Mary Ann and Joseph James Beckley my great grandparents.

The farm remains in the family name, in the safe keeping of Francis Beckley, her son Christopher and family who still live in the original old Draaifontein farmhouse. Believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited farmhouse in the Port Elizabeth area. Remaining portions of Captain Evatt’s original grant have long since been divided and sub-divided into small farm holdings and blocks for suburban housing.

The Beckley family on the verandah of Draaifontein. Photographed in approximately 1894 by PE Photographer – Arthur Green. Top of stairs from left to right: William, Mary Ann with Grace on her lap, Joseph James Snr., Philapena nee Botha (daughter in law), Joseph James Jnr. and Thomas.
Below on the steps: Elizabeth Daisy, Ethel Francis, Albert, Ebenezer and Sidney.

In this tranquil scene the leopard skin so casually draped on the stairs belies the wild untamed land they lived in.

The photograph below is dedicated to my Michelle’s father, Clive Percival Beckley. Born 1908 in this Draaifontein farmhouse. In later life he always expressed the wish and spoke often of returning there one day. Unfortunately living in Australia made it difficult and he passed away before that could happen. I’d like to believe that he was there in spirit when this photograph was taken.

Photographed in 2003 just over 100 years after the photograph on the previous page was taken. Christopher Beckley and Michelle’s daughter Stacey Beckley photographed on the same steps while on a visit from Australia. Although the leopard skin is missing, Christopher assured her he had recently seen fresh spoor and there was definitely at least one roaming the farm.

The old school in the background


In their Footsteps: A Beckley Family History by Tony Beckley. Unpublished

Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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