Port Elizabeth of Yore:  The Political and Social Situation 150 Years Ago

This blog is largely based upon a lecture presented by W.E. Vardy on the 24th November 1913 at St. Cuthbert’s. Vardy’s lecture encompassed the whole ambit of life in Port Elizabeth from Church Life to the Commercial environment prevailing during that developmental era. However this blog only deals with these two aspects: the political and social

The political environment for this period can be characterised as apathetic at best.  Instead what loomed large in the residents’ minds was an entrepreneurial mindset which subconsciously espoused a pro-business ethic.  Ironically, it was John Paterson who transcended that divide and utilised his mouthpiece, the EP Herald, to place in sharp focus the need for a municipality.

By ignoring the political dimension, in all likelihood Port Elizabeth forfeited the opportunity to more rigorously advance its demand for a fully-fledged harbour.

Main picture: The oldest photograph of Port Elizabeth

Verbatim report
It was, in fact, at one time most difficult to find men willing to offer themselves for parliamentary honours, and I remember an occasion when the whole matter was made fun of, by some people mockingly putting forward an illiterate fellow of the Costermonger [Defunct English for a person who sells goods, especially fruit and vegetables, from a handcart in the street]  and unwashed class, but happily the good sense of the community became frightened, and put a stop to the buffoonery in time, by finding a suitable candidate.

There was a sort of unwritten understanding that politics were not worth bothering about, should not be taken seriously and that those who· did so consider them, were “cranks”. The trade of the town and port being “the one thing needful”. I will give an illustration, although it tells rather against myself. Going home one night along Main Street, after one of my frequent evening visits to the Library, I passed a Chemist’s shop, now no longer standing, wherein it was the custom of two elderly gentlemen to meet the Chemist and discuss, at least secretly, the politics of the day, Imperial, and as I believed, Colonial also.

Although only about 18 at the time, I felt a deep interest in public questions, and often wished for an opportunity of listening to these three men of wisdom, and – if it might be – of giving utterance to some thoughts of my own, and especially at that time after reading, as I had been doing, the proceedings of the Cape Parliament.

Was Port Elizabeth’s progress stymied due to its lack of political clout? Why did the town never receive the same priority regarding the construction of a harbour in spite of the tonnages shipped?

I thought my object could be attained, being well known to each of the three gentlemen; if I could find some reason for entering the shop,· and so be-thought me to make a purchase of a box of “Bockle’s Anti-bilious Pills”, that being the favourite remedy of its kind at the time.

The purchase was ·duly effected, discussion going on all the time. During a lull, and just as I should have been leaving, I ventured to remark, “I see that the Cape· Parliament is discussing a measure for the eradication of the “Xarithium Spinosum” the burr weed. I was led to mention this because, if passed by Parliament and carried into effect, it seemed to me it should prove to be a measure of great value to the country. Two of the gentlemen smiled kindly and approvingly, but the Chemist who had just served me with the Pille – a great politician on the quiet immediately assumed an indignant and ferocious attitude, (though I believed afterwards that it was only assumed) and demanded in angry tones “What had we to do with the Cape Parliament, it was nothing to do with us in Port Elizabeth! Our business was to sell Calicoes and Prints, sardines and French Brandy, and to leave such matters as politics alone!”

The North Jetty in 1910

My embarrassment can be more easily imagined than described! How I backed, to the shop door and got out, I don’t know but the impression on my mind is with me still, and whether the old gentleman’s wrath and sarcasm were real or assumed, I knew that his attitude was· the “good form” of the day.

As an instance of political apathy, I may mention that for a long time, many “years in fact, Port· Elizabeth sent two members to Parliament who persistently and consistently voted in different lobbies, and, in consequence, neither political party either cared for or was afraid of us. We were in fact without influence, and often the butt of the House.

Naturally, our interests suffered, and when applying for this right, or that advantage, we found ourselves without friends or alliances, and our wants were unheeded. · Many will say from

recollection even today, that Port Elizabeth has lost much that she might have had, and although one of our members – the late Hon H. W. Pearson eventually became Treasurer General, the fact that the other was in opposition, made the appointment of no advantage to us. The course taken by the building of Railways from the several Ports resulting in the loss of Trade loca1ly was in several cases inevitable, but there was far more neglect of Port Elizabeth than there need have been, while the fact that we have still an open roadstead is due to our own want of unity, public spirit and influence in Parliament.

Speaking of the open roadstead, I should in fairness make mention of the old Breakwater which ran out, from the Corner turning onto the Sea Wall. When completed, it started with good prospects of usefulness and one or two small vessels were brought alongside, but its life was brief.

The fact is, the Engineer of the day either knowing nothing of,or ignoring currents and sand-travel, erected a closed structure, with the result that nature resenting the intrusion, soon surrounded it with sand as high as itself. Young people of both· sexes, myself among the number, made use of it for amorous· excursions under the light of the moon, but for other purposes it soon became useless, and, at great expense had to be removed. All that has been done since in the way of harbour works after the lapse of so many years the eye can see.

Again, to be quite fair, I should make reference· to our Grey Institute and Provincial Hospital, both of which were 50 years ago doing good work, and having done so ever since are shortly to be housed in properties more suited to their recent great expansion, and they are Institutions of which Port Elizabeth, has always been proud. But the education of the young, and the care of the sick poor are matters which no Government can turn a deaf ear to, and it would have been strange indeed if such necessities had been denied us!

In harmony with this spirit of lethargy in public life our newspapers have never been in the van as leaders of political influence. In my earliest days the “E.P. Herald”, a valuable commercial paper, and the “P.E. Telegraph ran side by side; the former is with us still, the latter disappeared a few years ago, and has not been replaced.

In the early 60’s, these papers were published bi-weekly only on Tuesdays and Fridays to connect with the outgoing mails, and only sometime later did we become possessed of the daily issue of both.  As years went on, one or two ventures were made from outside to place the town in a better position in this respect, but whether through inefficient management, want of capital or lack of political atmosphere, they failed and we ·today are served (except for a free advertising medium) with nothing more than a daily morning issue – a state of things which generally is not considered up to date.

As in Political, so in Municipal matters, there has been some lack of interest and enterprise for with very few exceptions, our leading inhabitants have left municipal matters severely alone. It is true our Mayors have for the most part been first-class men, but they have had few men of vision or business ability around them in the Council and in consequence Port Elizabeth has offered no attractions to visitors, has been looked upon as a purely business town inhabitants very much self-centred and inhospitable. Certainly, we are now mending our ways and waking up to the necessities of the situation but meantime other sea-side communities, wiser in their generation have been before us, and whatever our belated efforts may yet do for us, much that might have been secured to us has been lost.

Before passing on, I should however state that there was one outstanding member of the Town Council in the person of the late Mr. George Whitehead whose name should be mentioned because his services were of much value to the Town. A typical Englishman gentleman of the best sort; of means and leisure and of strong, common sense, his knowledge and advice were always sought freely given, in all building and architectural problems this Council looked to him as a matter of course and he as readily responded and thus in his day and generation he served the town well.

Of his descendants, two sons are still with us in Port Elizabeth, both striking physical reproductions of their Father, and, like him in usefulness of life. The name George Whitehead is perpetuated in one of them and ex-Mayor, at present deputy-Mayor, and a diligent Councillor, while John of this society, and for very many years one of our Churchwardens, is equally diligent and useful in public movements, whether Mercantile or Agricultural. Worthy sons of a worthy Father. Long may they be spared.

We cannot, I think, impress too strongly upon our young people, the coming seniors, the undoubted duty and (what should be considered) the great privilege of taking an intelligent and constant interest in the affairs of public life, whether Imperial, South African or merely local. A knowledge of the leading Statesmen of. the Empire, and of the great political movements, whether in the Homeland or in this Union, leads those, who possess it to watch and ponder over political thought and tendency, and to note and decide, in their own minds what is likely to make for the happiness and well-being of the people. There are few who so engaged do not benefit by such occupied thought, and few who cannot, in some way however small, do or say something which may make for what they think to be “righteous.”

How often do we hear· people say “Oh! I take no interest in politics when – to put it on low grounds – and seeing that we govern ourselves, to take no interest in politics is, too often, to neglect our own interests.

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