Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Mystery House at the S-Bend

The large dwelling at the S-Bend on the road to Humewood was erected in 1894/5 for the Harbour Manager, RH Hammersley-Heenen, resident engineer and general manager of the South African Railways. When first built, the house had a beautiful position next to rocks and sand and close to the sea. It was only with the construction of the breakwater in the 1920s, that the beach expanded as sand accumulated against the obstacle.

Main picture: House given the Welsh name Lenherne

80 years ago on the 16th June 1941 the St. John’s Ambulance Auxiliary Hospital was opened. Usually known as the St. John Convalescent Home for Officers. It had close links with the St. John Rest Home in Alexandria in Egypt which was ultimately closed on the 16th April 1945.

In 1960 it was sold to the municipality of Port Elizabeth and was declared a National Monument under the old NMC legislation on the 16th March 1984. The large Norfolk pines next to the building were cultivated from seeds obtained from the Canary Islands, and were included in the proclamation. The seeds were collected when they constructed the aerodrome on the Norfolk Island, of the Canary Islands. In addition, vegetable seeds were obtained from Sydney. Supplies produced from those seeds were supplemented by purchases when possible.

Lanherne‘ is used by local sea cadets.

Custodians of a bygone era [by Lt. Cdr. W.M. Barie]

‘LANHERNE’, the gracious Victorian mansion which stands proudly in the shadow of three towering Norfolk pines at the well-known S-bend in Humewood Road, Port Elizabeth, has had a long and chequered life and association with the sea since it was built in 1894. The house was originally built for the resident harbour engineer and general manager, Mr. R.H. Hammersley-Heenan, by the harbour authorities at a capital cost of £2 053. ‘Lanherne’, we are told, is Welsh for the place of the valley and the bend – a description that aptly described the area in 1894.

The original ‘Happy Valley‘ lies some 500 m to the north­west, whilst the beach with its kink was a mere 200 m from the front door. But, alas, today the valley houses the Apple Express diesel locomotive workshops, whilst the original beach lies buried under manganese ore dumps and the sea has receded to about 1 km away. The house served as the official residence for the harbour engineer and the system manager from 1894 until 1941. During the period May to December 1936, the messenger of the court, one Capt. E.C. Kelly, stayed there for the great sum of £14 per month.

Early in 1941 the house was made available to St John Ambulance as a convalescent home for servicemen. This occupancy lasted until May 1945, by which time 1 303 soldiers, sailors and airmen had passed through its front doors. From 1945 to 1960 it again provided a home for various railway officials, the last being Mr. A.M. Vlok, the system manager. In 1960 it was sold with 49,700 sq. ft. of land to the Port Elizabeth City Council for £9 444. From 1960 to 1967 the senior architect of the City Engineer’s Department, Mr. G.J. Stephenson, lived in the house. From 1967 until 1979 it was let to the International Youth Hostel Association.

The Port Elizabeth Naval Cadet Detachment, housed in SAS Donkin since 1937, had to move from the SAS Donkin in 1979 and was fortunate to secure a lease on the Lanherne property from the City Council. The building and grounds were in a sad state of repair and work commenced in earnest, under the very able leadership of the then Officer Commanding, Lt Cdr. P.C. Londt. Material which could not be scrounged had to be bought.

By the beginning of November 1979, R4 246 and about 5 000 manhours (of work by Officers, Cadets and parents) later, the house was ready to receive its new tenants and on 6 September 1980 the Chief of the SA Navy, then V Adm R.A. Edwards, SSAS, SM, officially opened TS Lanherne.

On 16 March 1984 the Minister of National Education, Mr. Gerrit Viljoen, published Government Notice No. 491 in the Government Gazette proclaiming the building, together with the three Norfolk pines, to be a national monument. Over the last eight years many items of historical interest, mostly of naval or maritime origin, have been collected, greatly adding to the character of the house.

On the main deck (front lawn) stand an ex-World War II 12-pounder and a 4″ gun, as well as a 20 mm Oerlikon. The third and first guns are in working order and are used on gunnery courses and during action displays.

On the flag deck lies a very old and heavily corroded sailing ship anchor which was trawled up by an I&J trawler many years ago. It was presented to TS Lanherne by the wife of the late skipper. Alongside this lies a cast-iron 16 pounder muzzle loader (very weather-beaten), a relic from some or other casualty of the last century.

The ship’s bell is another survivor from a shipwreck, but is comparatively young. It was the bell from the Oranjeland, that ill-fated ship which ran aground on East London’s beach at 19:00 on the evening of 13 August 1974.

And what of the Norfolk pines? They grew from seed brought from the Canary Islands and planted nearly 100 years ago. At one time these trees were indicated on the coastal navigation charts of the SA Navy as ‘Trees conspic‘.

On entering the house one is confronted by an array of nautical memorabilia by way of C Navy crests, colour prints of nearly all the SAN ships’ badges, the mounted bronze propeller of one of the lifeboats of the Edinburgh Castle which was launched on 16 October 1947, a map of Port Elizabeth dated 1846 and at the head of the beautiful stairway, the OCs board listing names, ranks and periods of command of all the OCs of the unit from its inception in 1935.

On the wardroom flat there stands a showcase housing cups and shields won in bisleys by CPO Clack, RN and SAN, and presented to the unit by his widow. One trophy is inscribed ‘Helios Shield 1933 China Fleet Range Staff“. In the same cabinet rests a piece of shrapnel; mounted on the base is an inscription, ‘The first piece of shrapnel to fall on an allied ship at the Battle of Jutland.

On the wall outside the captain’s cabin hang many photographs of officers who have inspected the ship’s company at the annual prize-givings. This illustrious gallery includes five Chiefs of the Navy. The most historical items here are a framed photograph, a newspaper clipping and a clutch of medals that belonged to the first Port Elizabethan to be killed in action in World War II – Lt Ronald Basford RNVR. He died in action in the Mediterranean on Monday 13January 1941. Displayed nearby is the commissioning pennant of HMS Warrior, 1955, donated to the unit by the late WO1 Doug Mathews, SAN.

There is certainly no shortage of naval atmosphere in TS Lanherne for the 100 cadets and officers; after the grog issue, even the chandelier sways and the floorboards creak in the wardroom.

Sources

Navy News / Vlootnuus, Volix May 1990

Cadets restore WWII guns [From NavyNews]

TS LANHERNE is restoring the WWII 12-pounder and 4-inch guns mounted at the Naval Cadet Base in Port Elizabeth. This is being done by cadets under the supervision of Mr. John Duffel­-Canham, an ex-RN gunner and civilian instructor who says that he now finds it “difficult to prevent all and sundry getting into the act”. No matter how dull the weather, small groups of eager cadets are showing keen interest in this restoration work which they do in their own time so as not to interfere with their normal cadet training routine.

Cadets spreads mineral jelly over a bright length of steel barrel after removing old paint and rust

After a few weekends and much elbow grease, 40 years of old paint and rust along the keys and the recoil section of the barrel were cleaned up and a royal cypher of George V vintage “saw the light” again. The motto is not, however, the usual one on the Roya! Coat of Arms. The cadets are still in the process of bringing up the lettering but in the meantime, it has been suggested that it may be the cypher of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

Naval cadets from TS Lanherne in Port Elizabeth work on the restoration of one of the WW II guns

Lt Charles Humm experienced his “moment of truth” when he provided the final “touch” and eventually the 12- pounder breech was open. The residents of Humewood and the captains of vessels in the harbour need have no fear, however! The firing mechanisms will not be made functional. “These guns fired their last rounds a long time ago,” NAVY NEWS was assured.

Naval cadets practicing

The instructors at TS Lanherne realise, of course, that modern technology has vastly altered the concept of gunnery from what it used to be. However, they believe that this type of work done by the cadets helps to instill discipline, the idea of maintenance and even a sense of readiness at all times. During their courses, the cadets are made familiar with the concept of drill and practice to perfect weapon handling. Safety in handling weapons and ammunition is also emphasized throughout. A cadet who has been in TS Lanherne for only three years, recently scored 80% in the gunnery examination.

The SA Navy turned 100 on 1 April 2022. No official functions were held. The PE Navy Vets in conjunction with the Sea Cadets at TS Lanherne held a colours parade in celebration of this milestone.

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