Many of Port Elizabeth’s sons and fathers have served with distinction in the Prince Alfred’s Guards including many of my uncles. This blog shines a spotlight onto one of the remnants of that once proud unit, its historic Drill Hall.
Main picture: Prince Alfred Guard’s Drill Hall or Shed in PAG parlance
Second only to the Cape Royal Rifles of Cape Town raised in 1855, came the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps, formed and accepted for service by the Military Authorities on 19 September 1856.
According to regulations the Volunteer had to pay not only an entrance fee on joining the Corps, but also monthly subscriptions during his member-ship. He was compelled to provide his own uniform and equipment, including his rifle. Dressed in a Rifle Green tunic, with green or grey trousers, waist belt, pouch and forage cap, the Volunteer attended a course of fourteen parades and received training in musketry during the year.
Soon after its formation, the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps adopted a uniform modelled on the same design as that worn by the Rifle Brigade (the Prince Consort’s Own), viz. Lincoln-Green cloth with black shoulder belts and accoutrements, whilst the head-dress was a shako. The title “Prince Alfred’s Guard” was assumed unofficially until 1875 when Royal permission was granted to the Corps and the name “Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard” adopted. The title is normally rendered today as Prince Alfred’s Guard or simply P.A.G.
In order to increase its strength, on 31 July 1874 the Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard, absorbed a local Scottish Corps into its ranks and on 6 May 1876 the Queen’s and Regimental Colours, brought out from England by Colonel Alfred Carrington Wylde, were presented to the Volunteers at a ceremonial parade held on the Donkin Reserve. The uniform adopted by the Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard in 1876 was of dark green material, imported from Britain, with scarlet facings and white helmets – which replaced the traditional shako – with scarlet puggarees, whilst the popular Highland Company wore a tartan kilt, plaid and cap with a plume of green feathers.
The Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard’s baptism of fire was at the Battle of Umzintzani on 2 December 1877, when 70 men of the unit, under command of Captain George Gordon, formed the largest individual unit detachment in the column of 147 volunteers who were attacked by the Gcalekas south of Ibeka, but drove off the enemy. The name of this battle is superimposed on a piece of white metal fixed diagonally across a brass Nguni shield with crossed assegai and knob stick worn by the regiment as a collar badge since 1900.
The regiment also played a prominent part in the Basuto ‘Gun War’ of 1880-81, during which they stormed Lerotholi’s Kraal on 22nd October 1880 in the first ever bayonet charge by a volunteer unit in battle, led by Major George Russel Deare. On 17 February 1882 the Regimental Headquarters and Drill Hall, on Prospect Hill, was officially opened by the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, Henry W. Pearson, and in 1894 both the Queen’s and Regimental Colours of the Prince Alfred’s Guard were handed over to the St. Mary’s Collegiate Church authorities for safekeeping.
The regiment, wearing khaki for service dress, again saw action in the Langeberg Campaign in Bechuanaland in 1897, and on 16 October 1899 the soldiers were mobilised for service in the South African War of 1899-1902, during which the regiment saw considerable action.
Railways were then of vital strategic importance, and after initial training the regiment established headquarters at Rosmead and was used to garrison the lines between Stormberg and De Aar. However, by 24th January 1900 Major H. Wathen Court was instructed to form the regiment into light cavalry, and it was one of the first colonial units to be mounted.
Within the first few weeks of active service the regiment’s mounted infantry had earned the congratulations of General Kitchener for their coolness and bravery under very heavy fire during the Boer retreat after Paardeberg. While unmounted detachments of the regiment continued to guard the important lines of communication, the mounted men became scouts with the 6th and then the 11th divisions for Robert’s advance up the main line to Brandfort, Kroonstad and the Vaal, which was crossed on 25 May 1900.
At Elandsfontein the scouts captured several engines and a large quantity of rolling stock. On 31st May 1900, Roberts occupied Johannesburg, and five days later Pretoria. The war should soon have ended, but now began weary months of guerilla warfare in which detachments of the regiment were widely scattered from the Transvaal to the north-west Cape attached to various columns and were mentioned in dispatches on various occasions. Following the Peace of Vereeniging on 31st May 1902 the regiment returned to Port Elizabeth.
With the South African War over, the formation of a new Scottish Company in the regiment was considered by members of the local Highland Association. This company came into being on 31 July 1903 and the uniform adopted was a scarlet doublet, the Prince Alfred’s Guard regimental buttons and badges, the Cameron kilt, tartan hose tops, spats and sporran, and Glengarry cap with regimental badge. Officers and pipers wore full plaid, sergeants and other ranks half plaid. On ceremonial occasions the Glengarry cap was substituted for the traditional white helmet with spike and chain.
Mobilised on 6 August 1914, the unit saw no active service in the First World War as a regiment, but many of its members, having done garrison duties in the Cape Peninsula, served gallantly as volunteers in other units overseas.
The regimental story in the Second World War was very different. During this war the Prince Alfred’s Guard was mobilised on 10 October 1940 under Lieutenant Colonel J.L. Ries, V.D., who was succeeded on 14th September 1942 by Lieutenant Colonel H. A. Olsen, D. S. O., E. D., under whom they sailed for Egypt on 19 April 1943 as an amoured regiment of the 11th Brigade in the 6th South African Armoured Division.
Fighting in Sherman tanks as part of the division in Italy from the fall of Cassino in May 1944 to the end of the war in Europe in 1945, the Prince Alfred’s Guard fought with courage and tenacity, earning the respect of regiments with which it had gone into battle. Seven of its officers and men had been decorated for gallantry, and eight mentioned in dispatches and the regiment was able to add six names to its battle honours.
Wherever the men of the Prince Alfred’s Guard served over the last century from the mud of Italy to the dust of the desert, there was always a home waiting for them in Port Elizabeth. That home is the Drill Hall, and if a regiment can be said to have a soul, then it is the Drill Hall on Prospect Hill that embodies the spirit of Prince Alfred’s Guard. There in its messes, in its museum, and in its records are the relics and mementoes of this regiment’s proudest tradition.
The Volunteer Drill Shed
Only a short distance from the historic Fort Frederick, the onetime headquarters of the Imperial 820 Garrison, stands the Drill Hall, the Regimental Headquarters of Prince Alfred’s Guard. It crowns the Hill and once overlooked the stormy Algoa Bay, where almost at its feet the new modern harbour came into existence, and on the distant side of the open bay, lonely St. Croix Island was visible.
It certainly is no idle figure of speech to say that this imposing late Victorian building is one of the few real Drill Halls built and owned by an individual military unit anywhere in the Republic of South Africa and has become not only a landmark in Port Elizabeth but also a centre for the most important military activities of its citizens. The Drill Hall, designed in late Victorian baroque style, owes its origin to the efforts of Captain Alfred C. Wylde, and his brother officers, who, in 1864, petitioned to His Excellency the Governor, Sir Philip Wodehouse,
for a grant of land for the purpose of erecting thereon a suitable Drill Hall and Headquarters for the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps, later named the Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard.
The petition received the favourable consideration of the Governor, and on 27 October 1864 a piece of land, situated on Prospect Hill, was granted to the Volunteers. A copy of the Deed conveying the grant, reads as follows:
Original Grant re Volunteer Drill Hall Site,
By His Excellency Sir Philip Edmund Wodehouse, K.C.B., Governor.
I do hereby grant in freehold unto the Civil Commissioner of Port Elizabeth for the time being, the Mayor of Port Elizabeth for the time being, and the Senior Officers of Volunteers of Port Elizabeth for the time being, as Trustees for the Volunteers of Port Elizabeth, a piece of land upon the Hill in the town of Port Elizabeth as a site for a Drill House and Gymnasium for the use of the aforesaid Volunteers and for no other use or purpose whatsoever containing 83 square roods and 48 square feet, on condition that the said land shall by the said Trustees be held in trust for the Town Council of Port Elizabeth in case and as soon as it shall no longer be required for the purpose aforesaid, which Town Council shall thereupon be entitled to the said land, transferred to it by the said Trustees, or by the two first of them should the third abovementioned have ceased to exist, and which Town Council shall have power to alienate or otherwise dispose of the said land for the benefit of the Municipality of Port Elizabeth in such manner as the said Council shall deem most expedient. The land thus granted is:
Bounded on the N.W. by Prospect Hill.
II II II N.E. II a Street.
II II II S.E. II Castle Hill.
II II II S.W. II Municipal Land
And with full power and authority thenceforth to possess the same in perpetuity, subject, however, to such regulations as are either already or shall be in future established with regard to such lands.
(Signed at Aliwal North, 27 October 1864.)
Work on the Drill Hall commenced on 15 September 1880 and soon afterwards, on 16th December 1880, an additional grant of land, being 13 square roods in extent, adjoining the building site was sanctioned under the authority of Sir Arthur George Cunynghame, K.C.M.G., “with full power and authority to henceforth possess the same in perpetuity.“
On 28th January 1882, the following report concerning the Drill Hall appeared in the local newspaper ‘The Advertiser’: –
“The Drill Hall, which is now rapidly approaching completion, and which, when finished, will be one of the finest halls in the Colony, and suitable for any kind of entertainment, as a spacious stage has been erected, was commenced in September 1880, just prior to the Fourth Detachment of the Prince Alfred’s Guard leaving Basutoland. The original plans have been altered, as regards the stage, which is now considerably enlarged and improved”.
At the back of the stage a very pretty Scotch scene has been painted by Mr. Nevay, and it reflects great credit on the artist. The architects of the building are Messrs. Storey and Wilson, both of whom gave their services gratuitously. The builder was Mr. A. Marshall, Messrs. Small & Morgan were entrusted with the carpenters’ work, and Messrs. Nevay & Knox undertook the painting. The plumbing work and gas fitting was carried out by Mr. C. W. Frames.
The entire cost of the hall, when completed, will be £7,000. The roof, gaseliers, lamps, etc., imported from London, cost £700, the freight paid on the same amounting to £400.
The dimensions of the Hall are as follows: –
Length, 98 x 76 feet; height, from floor to girder supporting roof, 26 feet 6 inches. The stage is raised 4 feet from the floor of the Hall and has a rise of 7 inches from front to back. It is 36 feet 6 inches wide by 26 feet 10 inches deep. The two side wings being 17 feet by 15 feet 6 inches in addition. Under the stage there is also plenty of room.
Water is laid on, and there are 6 dressing rooms in addition to the two rooms at the side of the stage. The ventilation has been well attended to, and the gas for the whole Hall can be regulated by one person from the stage. On either side of the main entrance are to be found two rooms, each 20 feet by 14 feet, and two others in addition, one on either side, measuring 40 feet by 20 feet. The main entrance will admit columns of men marching in and out in fours with ease. It is proposed to open the Hall with a Regimental Ball to be given on 17 February, as a return to those ladies and gentlemen who have so kindly assisted the Corps in the work.
The chairs for use in the Hall are now being put together and are of the very best description of Austrian Bentwood Furniture. Arrangements are also in train to supply the necessary scenery and stage appliances at an estimated cost of £300, and it is hoped that the stage will be ready for use at a very early date. From the foregoing some idea of the immense structure will be gained. At a trial lighting of the building on Wednesday last the gas arrangements proved to be very good, and the delicate colouring of the walls showed to fine effect. The acoustic properties of the Hall are considered to be very good.
The officers and men of the Regiment have great reason to be proud of their new Drill Hall, and any dramatic or public companies arriving in Port Elizabeth, will have the advantage of engaging a hall of suitable dimensions, and possessing an excellent stage. Our local clubs will not be slow to avail themselves of the opportunity also.“
Completed, the Drill Hall was formally opened by the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, Henry W. Pearson, on 17 February 1882. Pearson, at the time, had just become a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Cape Parliament, in succession to Port Elizabeth’s leading citizen, John Paterson, who had drowned at sea in 1880. Equally interesting is the informative report of the Regimental Ball which appeared in the local press soon after the official opening of the Drill Hall.
This report reads as follows: –
“The military ball given at the new Drill Shed by Major (George) Deare, officers, and members of the Prince Alfred’s Guard on Friday night, passed off most successfully, and was no doubt the largest reunion of the kind that has ever taken place in Port Elizabeth.
Everything passed off without the slightest hitch; the scene from the time of commencement of the proceedings was an exceedingly animated one, and we congratulate the committee and the sub committees upon the satisfactory results of their respective arrangements.
We gave a description of the fine building, which is no doubt the largest and best finished of the class in South Africa, a few issues back, and need only now say that the hall is 95 feet long and 70 feet wide, exclusive of stage, and is lit by two 80-burner sunlights, and double brackets, in the centre of each pilaster all-round the room.
The roof is constructed of wrought-iron frames, covered with boarding, over which roofing-felt has been laid, and to secure the building being cool, wooden battens have been fixed between the felt and the corrugated iron covering.
The stage itself is 40 feet by 27 feet, and the ante-rooms 16 feet by 16 feet. The basement under the stage has been fitted up with dressing-rooms, as also the ante-rooms on the stage, level at present. The stage has not been completely fitted up, but arrangements, we believe, are pending as regards this. To Mr. Storey, the architect, assisted by Mr. Wilson, both of whom gave their services gratuitously, much praise is due.
The brickwork has been executed by Mr. Alexander Marshall, the carpenters work by Messrs. Small and Morgan, the plumbers and gas fitters work by Mr. C.W. Frames, and the painting and decorations by Messrs. Nevay and Knox.
The ground on which the Shed stands was recently granted to Major (George) Deare in trust and we hope that success will attend the enterprise connected with the structure.
The guests commenced to arrive shortly before nine o’clock on Friday evening. Outside the Hall a Guard of Honour had been formed, and a very large crowd assembled round the doors. The room had been neatly decorated and, on the walls, there were various devices formed out of bayonets etc., whilst on the stage there were some very choice plants. The flag of the corps showed up conspicuously amongst a profusion of bunting which hung from the ceiling, and altogether the scene was a most effective one.
The band of the regiment occupied the orchestra, wearing as well as the other members of the corps, their scarlet uniforms. The company included many of our leading residents and a large number of ladies who have always evinced a deep interest in the gallant corps, were present.
The Mayor, Mr. H.W. Pearson, MLA., Mr. A.G. Wylde, CC and RM, and Mr. Campbell, Resident Magistrate of Cape Town, were amongst those present at the opening of the proceedings.
A few minutes before nine o’clock the Mayor, followed by a large number of ladies and gentlemen, ascended the stage and in formally handing over the keys of the building, congratulated Mr. Storey, the architect, on the success which had attended his work. His Worship also congratulated the officers, non-commissioned
officers, and men of the corps on the completion of a building which did them so much credit. The structure was one which would be found exceedingly useful here, and he certainly thought the town should be proud to possess such a structure. He trusted that the providing of the hall would be the means of keeping the Volunteers together here, and he felt sure they would always look upon it as their rallying point. The Mayor then handed the key over to Major Deare, on either side of whom stood the officers of the corps and stewards of the ball.
Major Deare in suitable terms thanked the Mayor for having taken part in the opening ceremony, and said he was glad to welcome the guests present to the Hall. There had, he said, been many suggestions as to the most appropriate arrangement that could be made for opening the place, but after much consideration it had been decided that the best would be a ball, at which all those who had encouraged the Volunteer movement in this town might be present.
The members of the corps, officers and men, had not forgotten the kindness the inhabitants had shown them in days gone by, especially in 1877 and 1878, when the comforts which they sent up to them were so much appreciated and so gladly received.
Had not those comforts been forthcoming they would have been sadly missed. Nor did they forget the kindness shown them in 1880 and 1881, when they were so liberally provided with luxuries in Basutoland. The officers and members of the corps felt under the circumstances that it would be a small recompense to the inhabitants, who had treated them so kindly, to open the Drill Shed with a ball. In conclusion the gallant Major thanked Mr. Storey for the gratuitous services which he had rendered.
The dancing then commenced, the Mayor, the Resident Magistrate, and the leading people present taking the opening quadrille, and remaining until considerably after midnight. The light fantastic was indulged in until close upon three o’clock, everything throughout proceeding right merrily. Refreshments were provided in abundance. There were private rooms for the ladies, card rooms for the gentlemen, a refreshment bar, and it was evident that much thoughtfulness had been brought to bear in connection with the arrangements. The caterer was Mr. Pasfield, of Queen Street, who carried out the duties entrusted to him in his very best style, giving the greatest satisfaction to all concerned. Mr. Finlay provided the wines, etc., and, with a good staff under him, was enabled to attend satisfactorily to the wants of those present. The members of the Uitenhage Companies, under Captain Thornton and Lieutenant Black, were present, and returned to their home by special train, which left at half-past three on Saturday morning”.
The final cost for constructing the Drill Hall amounted to £8,086. The Corps contracted for the building with only £3,000 in hand, of which they them-selves raised £1,500, with the Colonial Government contributing the other half on a £ for £ basis. It was completed only with the expenditure of considerable time, trouble and money by Major Deare, the officers and men of the Prince Alfred’s Guard, backed by the merchants and citizens of Port Elizabeth.
Further accommodation was subsequently provided for the Corps by the addition of a first floor built at a cost of £750. The facade of the addition is sympathetic to the original structure.
Without doubt, the headquarters of the Prince Alfred’s Guard was in its early days the finest building on the Hill, and even more than a century after its opening, it remains as an imposing monument to the zeal and foresight of Major George Russel Deare, his officers and men, and the proud tradition of the regiment.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
The History and Evolution of the Prince Alfred’s Guards Drill Hall, Prospect Hill, Port Elizabeth by Tennyson Smith Bodill