Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Mechanics Institute

For the most part the upper echelons of Port Elizabeth’s society possessed more than a modicum of civic pride. Whether it was the improvement of the town itself or the upliftment of its residents, all such efforts would ultimately bear fruit and produce the town that it would become. Amongst such people was the Geard family. Starting with the initial Geard in Port Elizabeth, Charles Geard, through to his son, John, and his grandson, Charles, for three generations they bore the mantle for the improvement of the technical skills of its residents.

This is the story of more than a physical institution but also the dedication of a caring elite and was an eloquent testament to their passion and public spiritedness.

Main picture: Donkin Street. Above C Frames’s premises is the Mechanics Institute, designed by Percy Strutt and opened 23 January 1865. The land was a Government grant & after the Institute closed in June 1954 it reverted to it & became a Post Office.

English roots

The Looking Back Volume XII No. 4 December 1972 casts a minute ray of light on the Mechanics Institute’s birth in 19th century England.

The movement started in Britain soon after the beginning of the industrial revolution and was a result of the “Nonconformist Conscience” which played such a large part in the social history of 19th century Britain. Certain public-spirited men were disquieted at the plight of the working men who had flocked into towns and cities as new factories rose. Most were unlearned and ignorant and their leisure hours (few enough, then!) were spent in boredom, drunkenness and vice. George Birkbeck was the leading figure in the movement and as early as 1800 started classes for working men in Glasgow.

But the first Mechanics Institute in the full sense of the term was set up, again by Birkbeck, in London in 1824. The original aim was to teach mechanics the principles of their trade and then more generally to provide ‘useful knowledge’. Lord Brougham’s Society issued the ‘Library of Useful Knowledge’ at one penny per copy. Later, recreation was added to the activities. Libraries and reading rooms were added and from these arose the public library movement.

George Birkbeck

A dream realised

Charles Geard was familiar with the movement and decided that Port Elizabeth needed one. On the 24th May 1849, the Mechanics’ Institute opened in a large room built by Mr. Frost and leased for it by Charles Geard. The purpose of such Institutes was to enable working men to educate themselves in their free time. On 6th December 1849 land between Donkin Street and Constitution Hill was granted by government for the erection of a building which Geard paid for. Nothing was done until 1863. when it was realised that the land would soon revert to the Government, and steps were taken to re-establish the Institute and raise funds for a building. The design chosen was that of Percy Strutt, and it was opened on 23 January 1865. The Mechanics’ Institute ran a library and formed a useful venue for a number of organisations.

Twin celebrations

January 1864 was designated as the date when the inauguration of two activities would be celebrated on the same day. The first, the more important one, was the opening of the water supply from the “Frames Reservoir” on the Shark River at Happy Valley. This dam was the creation of Clement Wall Frames who leased the land and the river from his cousin, C.E. Frames. He formed the Shark River Water Company and provided the lower parts of the town, where pressure was not a problem, with piped water.

Opening the value at Frames Dam in 1863

The official opening of the town’s first water scheme became the occasion for a grand ceremony. In spite of a cold drizzling rain, a large crowd had gathered round the Mayor and Council­lors on the Market Square. At a given signal from Mr. Frames, who was in charge of the works, the Mayor pompously turned on the tap and a jet of water rose to a height of some twelve feet and was greeted by tremendous applause and the hearty cheers of the spectators. The band of the Volunteers immediately struck up some lively airs and the Market Square buzzed with excitement.

The procession then moved down to the breakwater in the South End where a cask was filled and taken across to the ship Armenia anchored in the roadstead. From there the crowd moved off to witness the laying of the foundation stone of the Mechanics Institute in Donkin Street.

Other uses of this building

Many of town’s local Societies met at the Mechanics’ Institute which was centrally located near the bottom of Donkin Street. Many eventually went on to build their own halls, which were available for letting as well, which then also provided an income.

Amongst the first to utilise it was the Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, a benefit society that began as the Manchester Unity of Odd-Fellows. On the 30th Sep 1862  the formal opening of the first Lodge was celebrated. The members met in the Mechanics’ Institute until on 21 March 1876 a large hall, designed by Joseph Robarts, was opened near the foot of Russell Road. This was later familiar as the Red Cross headquarters.

1908-The building of the Independent-Order of Oddfellows

On the 2nd May 1873, John Fox Smith, commissioned by the Grand Lodge of England and having been in Cape Town since March, established a branch of the Independent Order of Good Templars here. The first lodge of this popular temperance society was the “Anchor of Hope”, followed by “Excelsior”, “Southern Cross” and Juvenile Lodges “Bud of Promise” and “Fountain of Hope”. Initially meetings were held in the Mechanics’ Institute until in 1877/8 the Templars’ Hall was built in Princes Street.

A meeting was held at the Mechanics’ Institute on the 21st May 1895 to establish a Chess Club as it was some time since there had been one.

Flood of 20th & 21st November 1869

Donkin Street near the Mechanics’ Institute which had previously been a kloof with a spring supplying water to the town’s residents below, presented the appearance of a large ditch and indicated that the volume of water must have been enormous. The Institute itself was badly cracked and if it had not been planked up, it would have fallen into the ditch below. Near and below Dr. Housley’s house a frightful chasm had been washed out and the sand and debris deposited in Main Street to a depth of several feet.

Faded away

Gradually better education and more recreational facilities steadily displaced it leading to its decline. These activities were mainly in the sporting arena but also included volunteering for the Prince Alfred’s Guards, the local military unit, amongst others. These attracted residents and steadily displaced the raison d’etre of the Mechanics Institute.

For many years before it closed it had been very little used. Its income was derived from the rentals of two shops which had been added to the building and from the hire of the hall. Little interest was shown in debates and social evenings which the committee tried to organise. With hardly a whimper, it gradually faded away until it ultimately closed its doors in June 1954.

When it was decided to wind up the affairs of the Institute in 1954 the committee wanted to donate the building to a charitable organisation or hand it over to the municipality. Before doing so the government stepped in and pointed out that under the terms of the grant that when the land was no longer required for the purpose for which it was granted it must revert to the government. As a consequence, the old Mechanics Institute became a Post Office. The compensation paid to the Institute was in the main donated to the Port Elizabeth and Walmer Society for the Care of the Aged.

Thus ended a noble cause.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

Memoir of the Hon. John Geard Rev A. Hanesworth (1904, Fort Beaufort Printing and Publishing Company, 1904)

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

The Looking Back Volume XII No. 4 December 1972

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