Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Story of “Knockfierna” in Park Drive

Knockfierna (Hill of Fairies or Truth) was originally built in 1899 as an opulent grand Victorian Mansion by John Daverin, from Ireland, who was a successful Wool Merchant. John and his wife, Clothilda, brought up their seven children in the grand style befitting this era. It was then owned by Harry James Harraway and then Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson before becoming St. George’s Preparatory School.

This is the story of this mansion and its first three owners as told by Tennyson S. Bodill.

Main picture: Knockfierna circa 1900

There is a conspicuous isolated hill near Ballingarry in Limerick, Ireland, called “Knockfierna”, a noted fairy haunt. It serves as a ‘weather glass’ to the people of the circumjacent plains, who can predict with certainty, whether the day will be wet or dry by the appearance of the summit in the morning; and hence the mountain is called ‘Cnoc-firinne’, the hill of truth, i.e. of truthful prediction. [from “Irish Names and Places”, Dublin, 1870.]

Knockfierna in Ireland

Sauntering along Park Drive from Brickmakers Kloof Road on the eastern side of St. George’s Park sports fields, I notice an imposing Victorian mansion, its spacious grounds laid out with walks through short avenues of indigenous and exotic trees, backed by shrubs and flowering plants cultivated in neatly arranged beds and in ornamental vases. This is “Knockfierna”, the home that John Daverin built for his wife, Clotilde, and children.

A visit to the house gives one an idea of the lifestyle of the merchant princes of Port Elizabeth at the turn of the century. Port Elizabeth offered John Daverin the opportunity to become wealthy, and in return he was a loyal citizen to the town and to the Cape Colony. As a member of the Legislative Council of the Cape Parliament and as a close friend of many leading Cape Colonial political figures, John Daverin played a small part in the events leading up to eventual Union in 1910.

Born in Limerick, Ireland, on 29 September 1851, John Daverin was seven years old when his father, Timothy, with his wife Ellen and five children – Mary, Bridget, Ellen, John and Patrick – sailed from the port of Liverpool on the emigrant ship VOCALIST on 16th November 1858 for Algoa Bay. The VOCALIST was the fifth vessel to carry emigrants to the Cape in 1858 under an immigration scheme initiated by Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Governor of the Cape Colony. Built in 1856, she was a sailing ship of 1004 tons which had a short working life, as she was lost at sea in 1860 with a cargo of guano.

Under the command of Captain Magnus Flett she was reported to have had a pleasant voyage on this particular occasion and after a voyage lasting 68 days arrived at Algoa Bay on Sunday, 23 January 1859.

John Daverin Building in 1893

The Daverins were fortunate in that, although there were five deaths from ‘debility’ among the children and four births on their ship, there were no epidemics on the voyage. The general health of the immigrants had been remarkably good; the hospital for the men was not used once during the voyage, and that of the females only in cases of accouchement. Both Captain Flett and Dr. Patrick Culhane, the surgeon superintendent of the ship, spoke very highly of the behaviour of the immigrants.

When the VOCALIST arrived at Algoa Bay little time was lost in landing the immigrants. Among the 418 immigrants who sailed from Liverpool there were about 135 permit cases. These persons went ashore immediately and were received by their friends, presenting no further charge upon the immigration authorities in Port Elizabeth. Regulations allowed the other immigrants to remain on board for seven days after arrival if necessary, until such time as they could be passed on to the landing depot, which was situated close to the shore in the vicinity of the Baakens River estuary, and thence to their destinations.

At this time a breakwater was in the course of construction by the local harbour board. A staircase for the use of passengers had been fixed to the breakwater outside the surf during the week preceding the arrival of the VOCALIST. However, the builders of the breakwater were defeated by the violence of the sea and apparently the steps were not yet in general use when the lady immigrants from the ship were landed. It must have been an unforgettable experience for Ellen Daverin, and her three daughters, to be carried through the surf on the back of a ‘huge black man’.

First impressions of Port Elizabeth, in 1859, must have been rather strange and perhaps disappointing to the Daverin family, especially after spending the best of their earlier years in the Victorian setting of their native Ireland

The main street of the town, then a sandy road with potholes and boulders, from the bustling Market Square northwards, was lined on both sides with a variety of large shops and wholesale stores, many of these premises displaying merchandise behind plate glass windows.

Port Elizabeth was the important commercial centre in the region, imported goods had to be hauled in ox wagons over rough tracks to Uitenhage, Graaff-Reinet and Grahamstown, the exhausting journeys sometimes taking several weeks.

The streets of the town gave off clouds of dust from the south­easters and the passing traffic of horses, mail carts and ox wagons, loaded with produce for sale on the market square. The prevailing south-easters blew masses of foam across Jetty Street and across the Market Square, and on rainy days the wagons cut deep furrows through the muddy roads. The hearse certainly played an important part in the lives of the people, and even what was left behind in its stable was of great value to gardeners and farmers. In winter the streets were intolerably dark, and one was apt to trip ever the horseshoes that lay scattered about and were never removed. Water was obtained from the numerous wells in the town and drainage did not exist. Slop buckets were emptied in the public streets, saturating the ground in all directions with filthy water.

1864 The Town Hall (with pillared portico and hatted gentlemen standing at foot of steps), the Obelisk at right; to right of Town Hall is the Market Bell and, beyond that, the 2-storeyed house of Mr Caithness, formerly the Post Office. It has three windows looking out over the Square. Note the absence of houses on the hill. The shape of the Caithness house with some minor alterations such as addition of a lean-to verandah (slanting roof with poles holding it up) remained much the same as the building was in its time as a Post Office.

Many inhabitants of the town crowded the narrow sidewalks discussing topics of the day and gossiping.

The closer one’s approach to Strand Street, from Market Square, the more varied and penetrating the stenches became, as the town’s refuse was dumped at the foot of Jetty Street, on the site presently occupied by the railway station, close to the beach. Strand Street which had a vile reputation, was the resort of many criminal elements. Here thirsty seamen eagerly refreshed themselves at the numerous canteens and taverns which lined the street and adjoining alleyways.

The market square, though not picturesque, was the active centre of the town. Here troops in transit to the restless frontier of the Cape Colony, fraternised with inhabitants and here English and Dutch farmers outspanned to sell their livestock and produce to the public. Across from the square stood the Commercial Exchange building, then used as a Court House, and in the immediate vicinity was the Collegiate Church of St. Mary’s, the principal place of worship in the town.

Market Square before trams with St Mary’s visible

The “Hill”, in contradistinction to the “town below”, was the fashionable quarter of the town. The aspect and surroundings of this area, a flat table-land on the terraced ground above Main Street, comprised many superior and truly elegant villa-type residences. Terraced at various levels on either side of Hyman’s Kloof, to the heights above, were erected small colonial cottages with glaring white walls artfully relieved by simple doors and casement windows. In these houses lived many emigrant families recently arrived at Algoa Bay.

Such then was Port Elizabeth, the Daverin’s El Dorado. Little did Timothy Daverin dream that his son, John, would become a business genius and leading political figure in the Government of John X. Merriman. John Daverin was educated at the Grey Institute, Port Elizabeth. His father, Timothy, may have intended John for the law and he, after leaving school, was articled to Mr. S. du Toit, a well-known lawyer in those days in Port Elizabeth. He soon abandoned his legal studies in favour of a commercial career and joined a local firm of wool brokers, Messrs. Kirkwood and Austin. The experience gained at this firm must have stood John Daverin in good stead, for at the age of 21 years, in 1872, we find him manager of the Produce Department of Messrs. Blaine and Company.

This was the year when work commenced at Port Elizabeth on the construction of the railway to Uitenhage. Sir Henry Barkly, who was Governor of the Colony at the time, turned the first sod on 9th January 1872 at a spot close to the present Swartkops village. Before the line was completed to Swartkops, the Cape Government took over the work, buying out the private company who initiated the project. Later in his life John Daverin, then a farmer in the district of Alexandria, was to play a significant role in the events leading up to the development of the railway from the junction at Barkly Bridge to the village of Alexandria.

An incorrigible dreamer, who somehow managed to be a keen man of business, John Daverin realised the advantages that were being granted to the farmers by the railway development and the opening up of the country, which enabled them to gain access to the open market.

Young Daverin started the firm of John Daverin and Company in 1876, which first began as buyers and sellers of wool, mohair and general produce, but eventually, in 1885, confined their business to the selling only of wool, produce and ostrich feathers. The business prospered and the firm ultimately became one of the largest produce houses in South Africa, their newly erected large warehouses and offices being in Fleming Street and the vicinity.

Unlike a good many others who made their money in this country John Daverin did not retire to spend it in foreign lands, but devoted his energies to farming concurrently with his business, and in the process invested large sums of money in the development of his model farm “Springmount”, which he acquired in 1876, when it was a bare piece of veld without a permanent house, and with no trace of fences. This farm consisted of three portions of land, one being the remaining portion of a farm, Ruigtefontein, situate in the Field Cornetcy of Bushman’s River, Division of Alexandria, measuring 1 114 Morgen and 437 Square Roods. A further piece situated in the same area, being the remaining extent of Groenekop, measuring 563 Morgen and 554,2 Square Roods, and a final piece situate in the Division of Alexandria, being portions of the farm, Ruigtefontein, measuring 1 249 Morgen and 329 Square Roods.

The farm developed progressively and John Daverin’s financial position ultimately enabled him to build an elaborate homestead at Springmount. This homestead, recalling Europe in Africa, was indeed a beautiful structure of the solid yet facile style of Dutch architecture, and the homestead, together with the outbuildings, crown a minor hill which commands an uninterrupted view of Algoa Bay, Bird Island, St. Croix, Port Elizabeth and Cape Receife. The rich variety of trees which shelter the farm, all of which were planted by Daverin, created a particularly reposeful yet invigorating atmosphere and the almost Italian effect of the terraced lawns, symmetrically laid-out gardens, parterres and shrubberies took one’s thoughts to the older and probably very often more loved gardens of Europe.

Charles D’Alton

The water on the farm came from the springs located in the forest. At those springs were pumps pumping the water in pipes about three miles down to the farm homestead where it was stored in large tanks, and from those tanks led to the different fields under irrigation. The fencing on the farm measured more than 70 miles and contained 96 gates.

By the beginning of this century, the district of Alexandria had long been deprived of its proper development potential by the lack of railway communication. John Daverin, being a strong advocate of light gauge railways, worked undeterred towards the establishment of a railhead to serve the rich agricultural district of Alexandria. After many vicissitudes he managed to persuade the Cape Parliament to introduce a Railway Bill for the construction, under Act No. 34 of August 1906, of the branch railway from Barkly Bridge to Alexandria. The Act originally provided for the construction of a railway line from Barkly Bridge via Alexandria to a point on the Kowie Railway between Round Hill and Port Alfred. The planning of the railhead initially was for the construction of a 2ft. Oin. narrow gauge railway, but this was subsequently changed to the standard 3ft. 6in. “Cape gauge” line. Construction work on the line commenced in 1907. At intervals of fifty or one hundred feet a peg was driven into the ground, by the survey parties to fix the actual centre of the track. Then came the earthworks and the plate-laying, the bolting together of sleepers and rails with the line advancing daily through the developing farmlands to Alexandria.

Ballasting, the packing of broken stone under the sleepers, had to wait for the construction train to come up with its loads from a quarry in the district. Then the line was jacked up and the ballast packed tightly.  Finally, the stations and goods sheds were built, and the line was fenced and officially opened for rail traffic on 18 May 1909.

However, John Daverin’s father was not there to share in the success of his son’s noble work, having died seven years previously. Timothy Daverin died at Springmount on 17 March 1902 (St. Patrick’s Day), having survived his wife, Ellen, by five years Ellen Daverin (born Quaide) died on 19 February 1897.

Throughout his life John Daverin was very interested in foreign travel. He travelled extensively in Europe, America, New Zealand, Australia and made several trips to his native Ireland. It was during one of these trips to Ireland that John Daverin met his future wife, Clotilde D’Alton. Born at Golden Hills Castle, Golden, County Tipperary, on 12th December 1875, Clotilde Maud Mary was the daughter of John E. D’Alton, J.P., of Ballygriffen Park, County Tipperary.

The couple were married on 5 November 1895 at Monkstown, County Dublin, and soon after this occasion John Daverin and his young bride left Ireland for the Cape Colony. To Clotilde Africa was a fabled land of black people and monstrous animals. More than most brides, she had no idea at all of what she would have to face in her new life.

Arriving at Port Elizabeth in 1896 the couple lived in a semi­ detached house in Bird Street on the Hill above the business district of the town. This property — what is now known as the Port Elizabeth Women’s Club — being Lot 4 (now Erf 3959), was first acquired by John Cronk, a British Settler of 1820, on 1 October 1821 and subsequently transferred in favour of Nathaniel Randall on 8 March 1839. Following subsequent Deeds of Transfer the property was later acquired by John Daverin and granted to him in title on 29 December 1890, and under the terms of the Antenuptial Contract the property was transferred in title to his wife on 9 March 1896.

Settled in the comfort of their Bird Street home two children, both girls, were born in rapid succession.   When Daverin planned the house of his dreams in the late nineties, the Victorian era was in full swing in Port Elizabeth. The pavements and roads of the town offered an abundance of contrasts. Port Elizabeth was certainly a town of horse-trams and hansom cabs moving about in all directions with slush and dust being its heritage from the horse traffic. It was a town of silk hats, frockcoats, beards, curled moustaches, choker collars, leg-of-mutton sleeves, veils, bonnets and, threading through these gigmanities as herald of revolt, an execrated vixen in bloomers riding a bicycle.

Market Square in 1890

Port Elizabeth at that time was basking in its importance as the second city of the Cape Colony, and as the first in such vital matters as wool, mohair and ostrich feather shipments. Nowhere in South Africa were there bigger mercantile houses than Mosenthal, Mackie Dunn & Company, Dunnell Ebden & Company, and the large produce firm of John Daverin & Company. Many of the large overseas concerns, like the Royal Insurance Company, Cooper’s Dip and Fry’s Cocoa, set up their South African headquarters here rather than in Cape Town. Even the greatest financial institution of its kind in the sub-continent, the Standard Bank of British South Africa, was founded at Port Elizabeth.

Standard Bank Building after the second half was built in 1879

Talented architects were introducing a new approach to the design and decoration of commercial buildings and houses. Fresh ideas jostled with the old for supremacy in architectural design and the Standard Bank building in Main Street, with its decorative facade enhanced by delicate ironwork grilles, was one of the major edifices of the town. On the Hill houses were no longer built in neat rows along the streets, but now stood proudly in the middle of their properties, testifying to the taste and prosperity of their owners. These houses of fine craftsmanship, many with vigorously formed bow windows, decorative wooden steeps and balconies; the wooden trellis-work, with all the trappings of fretwork, being surmounted by curved corrugated iron, painted in the traditional candy-striped manner, and entwined with creeper; doors and fanlights, glazed with imported stained glass, dwarfed the smaller houses in the area.

On the tableland beyond the Hill, a short distance from John Daverin’s Bird Street home, was located the attractive St. George’s Park, laid out and maintained by the Corporation of the town. At this time the park was famous not only for its agreeable walks through avenues of trees surrounded by lawns, shrubs and flowering plants, but also for its fine ornamental conservatory, with its exotic plant collection, fountain and basin, the water being supplied from the Van Staden’s River Works. Here fashionable ladies and children, dressed in their Sunday best, strolled under parasols and men gathered to discuss the topics of the day.

The land on which St. George’s Park is situated was originally surveyed in 1863 by Robert Pinchin, a well-known Government Land Surveyor in Port Elizabeth. This land, measuring 85 Morgen 74 Square Roods and 110 Square Feet, comprised a central portion on which the park was established and 72 residential lots, separated from the central portion of land by a projected carriageway, later named Park Drive. The land was granted in freehold title to the Town Council of Port Elizabeth on 23 February 1864 on condition that the surrounding lots, within its boundaries, be sold as building sites for Villa residences and the proceeds from the sale of land be used for enclosing and ornamenting the central portion of the Grant, which was to be kept as a Park and place of recreation.

Another portion of land, situate in the central portion, measuring 300 Square Roods, previously granted in 1854 to the congregation of the New Church, Main Street, for a Burial Place was excluded from the Grant. John Daverin subsequently acquired Lots Nos. 3 and 4, measuring 604 Square Roods and 81,24 Square Feet, of St. George’s Park land on 23 August 1873.

Plans, prepared by an unknown but certainly not unskilled architect (traditionally claimed to be from Cape Town), for the construction of John Daverin’s home in Park Drive, estimated to cost £5,500, were approved by the Town Council of Port Elizabeth on 1 March 1899. The main contract was secured by Holloway Brothers, Builders and Contractors, Glen Street, Port Elizabeth. The firm ‘Kohler and Reynolds’, owners of Russell Road Machine Joinery Works, Port Elizabeth, sub-contracted to carry out the joinery and other carpentry work, costing £2,690.

The foundations of the house were laid in the midst of a garden planned for years to receive them; young trees already grew on the property. Completed in 1900, the house, which became something of a cause célèbre at the time, was a unique achievement in Port Elizabeth. Nothing resembling it had ever been attempted before. Many folks called it a ‘white elephant’. It certainly was, in truth, the fulfilment of a man’s dream and a woman’s nightmare.

Knockfierna circa 1900

In those days when there were no labour-saving devices, such a place of steps and stairs, and many passages, of large rooms with large carpets, and outsized pieces of traditional English furniture, of incredible yards of heavy curtaining, was something to daunt a veteran housewife and a posse of servants at her command. “Knockfierna” was the mansion proudly presented to Clotilde Daverin with all its contents, and she not long out of her teens. It was for her to proudly take her place as its mistress, and mistress of all those who staffed it under a Miss Harden.

A spacious study, warmed by books and paintings, carried the imprint of the man who lived graciously here. All his life John Daverin, who was largely self-educated, devoted as much time as he could spare to reading and study, and was especially intimate with the history of Ireland, possessing in his well-stocked library standard works on the subject.

Interior of Knockfierna

Intensely devoted to his native land, despite his love for his adopted country, John Daverin kept close links with Ireland and with its Agrarian Land Reform Movement and the Home Rule Movement. He knew most of the leading Politicians at Westminster who were concerned with Irish affairs and was a friend of John Redmond, the head of the Irish Members of Parliament at Westminster. He visited Ireland frequently and kept in touch with the Head Quarters of the political movements there. As with his South African Nationalism his Irish Nationalism sought to include all sectors of the Irish Community, in particular the then ruling class which was alienated from the Home Rule Movement.

John Daverin with his wife and their eldest son Jack in 1916 on the eve of their trip to Australasia

Daverin’s architect had an instinct and the right feeling for designing a building that was graceful and sophisticated. This is particularly evident in the vigorous external architectural quality of the stone and plastered facades of “Knockfierna”, which give the appearance of solidity and dignity. Masonry was successfully imitated by means of grooves in the plaster (‘rustication’).

Interior of Knockfierna

Romantically interesting on this bastion of Victorian permanence is the roofline with its gables of unusual shape and outsized chimney stack, blending harmoniously with the arched verandah and upper balcony, which surrounds the building on three sides. The verandah is surfaced with decorative tiles, imported from Bath, England.

On entering the building, the visitor is instantly attracted by the exuberant interior of the hall, which is cooled by a boldly tiled floor. A splendidly proportioned wooden staircase, which is a fine specimen of the carpenter’s craft, contributes to the elegance of the entrance hall.

This lovely mahogany staircase which rises from the cool tiled hall is divided on the first landing and branches into two small stairs on either side, taking one up to the second landing and the corridor from which opened the bedrooms.

Cheap sea-freights in those days encouraged the importation of almost everything from Europe. John Daverin imported a large elaborate baroque-styled mirror from Vienna to grace the staircase. This immense sheet of looking glass stands on the first landing covering the entire wall across the head of the main staircase and its height sweeps the eye upwards two floors to a stained-glass domed sky-light set in the decorative ceiling above it, giving a rich lighting effect. The mirror was framed in ornamental gilded wood and stood on a gilded base where, on special occasions, ferns and flowers were banked. The mirror, which still graces the staircase, is now painted white.

Although the entrance hall and staircase are the main architectural features, other spacious rooms in the building display Victorian opulence in fine neo-classical detail. The first room on the left of the hall is the study.    In its heyday tall mahogany bookcases, glass-fronted, covered two of the walls. On another wall behind the door were three large rolled maps which could be pulled down like blinds. A large window, reaching from floor to ceiling and about six feet wide, faced Park Drive. It was rather like a giant sash window with bottom and top pieces worked by sash cords with enormous weights, the whole rising easily up and down as required and giving the maximum of air and light to the room. On winter evenings heavy curtains of dark green tapestry would be drawn across the window and a fire would be lit in the tiled fireplace set in a hand-carved mahogany Adam-styled mantelpiece. Sumptuous in composition and detail is the adjoining dining-room. The walls of this room are cased in mahogany panelling, which is capped with decorative mouldings, and a large tiled fireplace, also set in a hand-carved mantelpiece, exemplifies the architect’s exceptional mastery of design and the craftsman’s profound skill to provide an atmosphere of warmth and comfort.

Knockfierna circa 1924

Equally striking, and rather more disciplined, is the drawing-room, which is situated to the right of the hall. Two slender fluted Corinthian columns and decorative beam, typically Victorian architecture, is the main feature of this room.

Mrs. Kitty Scott-Parkin, daughter of John Daverin, in her book ‘A CHRONICLE OF CHILDHOOD’ mentions that her mother’s domain was the drawing-room opposite the study and as daintily feminine as the study was comfortably masculine.

The furniture pieces of the drawing-room had nearly all been chosen by her parents on their European tour. Heavy gold brocade curtains reaching almost from the floor to the lofty ceiling were never drawn over the big window, twin to the one in the study. There were inner curtains of net and handmade lace which hung as a lovely veil, filtering the bright afternoon sunshine which slanted into the room over the trees and lawn of the garden.

The carpet’s deep pile – a cream ground with an overall pattern of pastel flowers – covered the floor and scattered upon it were the beautiful fragile chairs and small tables of a Victorian drawing-room. There was a built-in corner seat covered with flowered brocade matching the carpet, which had a high back of fretted white wood and shelves backed with pleated curtains of red silk on which were precious ornaments collected from all over Europe.

Glass fronted cabinets held more of these treasures and there were Kitty’s two special joys, a bronze group from Florence of a little boy and girl laughing together – they were almost life size- and a small glass-sided cabinet on slender mahogany legs in which her mother kept her most precious tiny gems of Venetian glass and Beleek china; these diminutive objects were the work of the Venetian craftsmen of the Victorian decade, artists as well as craftsmen. In colouring and design and in their minute perfection, it would be hard, if not impossible, nowadays to find contemporary objects as fine as those her father, John Daverin, had given her mother long ago to be treasured in the glass cabinet. It stood near the great window and when the afternoon sun caught its contents, they glowed like jewels.

The fireplace, never used for its real purpose in Kitty’s memory, had a fine brass fender and andirons. Above it was an elaborate over-mantle of white wood surrounding a mirror and having small shelves filled with more Beleek and old English and French china.

There in front of the mirror stood Clotilde’s exquisite china French clock, a tiny timepiece with gentle, delicate chimes. The hearth rug in front of this fireplace was a magnificent leopard skin mounted on curly black fur and complete with the green-eyed head and red, tooth-filled, snarling mouth of the beast. A strange object in this very ladylike drawing-room. Its origin must have been some whim of John Daverin. Kitty mentions that it was, however, a source of delight and somewhat fearful fascination to all small children privileged to make its acquaintance.

Originally there were six rooms upstairs, which included John Daverin’s own dressing-room and Clotilde’s little boudoir. Three of the bedrooms and guestroom each had a door opening onto a balcony and the attic room, which was located beneath the principal or central gable of the building, commanded an uninterrupted view of Park Drive and its immediate environs.

The cow house, stables, coach house and servants’ quarters behind “Knockfierna” originally could claim no great architectural distinction. Though uncompromisingly utilitarian these outbuildings were by no means ugly.

Stored in the coach house was Clotilde’s lovely equipage, the Victoria, and John Daverin’s large Landau.  The Victoria, a delightful conveyance with deep leather seating, named after the old Queen for whom the first of these carriages was made by Rootes, was often used by Clotilde, and if she wished, frequently accompanied by her children, when she drove out to return the calls of her friends and attend their At Home Days. The Victoria moved silently on rubber wheels and was so light that it must have cost the handsome greys that drew it, no effort at all, and the coachman’s back was more than usually stiff in his efforts to control their paces. The coachman’s uniform added the final touch to this occasion – royal blue tailcoat with silver buttons and black facings, white breeches and polished black Wellington boots. He also wore a cockaded coachman’s hat and white gloves.

Landau carriage

The Landau was used continuously by John Daverin or· on occasions when the Daverin’s drove out as a family.

Later, on 25 October 1905, the Town Council of Port Elizabeth approved plans for the construction of a coachman’s cottage. The contract was secured by J.L. Wilson, Builder, Edward Street, Hospital Hill, and the work, costing £320, was completed on 31 December 1905.

John Daverin, however, with his enterprising ability and wealth, did not remain satisfied with his flamboyant Victorian home and late in March 1906 made extensive alterations and additions to “Knockfierna”. The work, costing £1,889 0s 3d, was successfully carried out by John Dollery, of the firm Dollery and Strang, Builders, Russell Road, Port Elizabeth, and completed on 30 September 1905. These changes appear to have been the provision of a bay-windowed morning-room, billiard-room, butler’s pantry, cook’s pantry, larder and lavatory on ground floor level, with additional bedrooms on first floor level.

No cost was spared by Daverin with the acquisition of the latest sanitary fittings installed in “Knockfierna”. The exquisite vitreous china w.c. pan, glazed internally and externally with a pattern of dainty blue forget-me-nots, was manufactured by Doulton and Company Limited, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, England.

Although lacking refinement, the bathroom in “Knockfierna.” had a glory all of its own and was furnished with a whitewash-basin unit and bath with a semi-circular sheet metal screen and canopy. The bath – commonly known, at the turn of the century, as a ‘needle bath’-had a number of brass taps which could be regulated by the bather to discharge a jet of water, steam, spray or a full flow of hot or cold water, whichever was desired. The walls of the bathroom were covered with glazed Daulton tiles.

Needle bath

The billiard-room with all its accessories could, in its heyday, be regarded as a swaggering part of “Knockfierna”. Men used to gather here in the evenings for a game of billiards while the women sat apart. Blocks of marble were fixed into the floor to support the tremendous weight of a large mahogany billiard table. A story, traditionally told, goes that if one examines the panelling of the billiard-room closely, one will observe the deep scores where a dagger once stuck accidentally into the wood during a fight which had arisen as a result of a quarrel in a game of billiards.

In 1907 a large forage loft was built onto the section above the stables and this work, costing £136, was carried out by the contractor, J.L. Wilson. An interesting 9-inch brick wall surrounds “Knockfierna”. The entire boundary wall was built between a series of 24 inch and 30-inch piers, all of which have plastered brick copings, and the section of boundary wall in Park Drive is embellished with attractive wrought-iron infills between inverted flat arches. The cast-iron entrance gates were manufactured by John Shaw Fencing Works, Sheffield, England, and this confection of plastered brickwork and wrought-iron fittings, together with the octagonal kiosk- constructed of wood under a tiled roof- in the garden, complete a picture of the entire premises that is hard to rival in Port Elizabeth for sheer elegance.

As a citizen, John Daverin did not allow his business to absorb all his time and devoted a great deal thereof to furthering the interests of Port Elizabeth as a member of the Town Council, Divisional Council and the Grey Institute and Hospital Boards. He was also a member of the Alexandria Divisional Council, to which he was unanimously elected as a tribute to his splendid work for that district. In club circles John Daverin was known by reason of his membership of the reputable Port Elizabeth and St. George’s Clubs, while as a promoter of all kinds of sports, especially swimming, he was always most generous.

In 1908 John Daverin entered Parliament as a member of the Legislative Council for the South-Eastern Circle of the Cape Colony, to which he was elected by more than 16 000 votes, the largest number ever recorded until then for a candidate in that constituency. He was a leading member of the South African Party up to his retirement under the leadership of John X. Merriman. Following his retirement from politics John Daverin devoted a great deal of his time to his business and farming pursuits.

In his social life, John Daverin was of a retiring nature, but when time permitted, he enjoyed nothing more than the company of his friends to discuss subjects of mutual interest. He was one of the oldest and most respected members of St. Augustine’s Church, a familiar building of dressed stone at the foot of Prospect Hill and was a contemporary of Father Murphy (afterwards Monsignor), Bishop Ricardo, Bishop Strobino, for whom he had a special affection, and Bishop MacSherry. Ever generously disposed towards the poor and afflicted, John Daverin found an outlet for his charitable nature in Nazareth House – an imposing ecclesiastical building in Park Lane, in the immediate vicinity of St. George’s Park – and other charitable institutions which he liberally supported.

Nazareth House

Failing in health, John Daverin died suddenly at his Park Drive residence, “Knockfierna”, on 27 October 1922. After his death John Daverin’s widow-who survived her husband by 49 years, having died on 2 December 1971 – found it impossible to obtain satisfactory managers for her late husband’s business, and thus was eventually obliged to close it.

Grave of John Daverin in South End cemetery

Clotilde Daverin did, however, remain at “Knockfierna” until 1925 when the house was sold to Harry James Harraway, a Resident Partner, General Manager and Head of the total Mosenthal Group (Mosenthal and Company Limited) in South Africa, based at its Head Office in Port Elizabeth.

Harry James Harraway was born on 14 April 1875 in London, England, and started his business career with a London firm. He came to South African in 1893 on a contract to Dunell Ebden and Company, whom he served for ten years before joining Mosenthal’s in 1903. As head of this vast and reputable organisation, Harraway played a prominent role in the commercial and industrial development of South Africa, particularly in the primary industries of wool, mohair, skins and hides, ostrich feathers, karakul pelts and citrus growing.

During the lifetime of service Harraway devoted to Mosenthals, the company became the first dealers in Karakul pelts and later the largest exporter of skins and wool. The company also fathered the Sunday’s River Valley citrus industry by undertaking the first experimental shipments overseas at a loss.

It was during Harraway’s period in office as General Manager, which began in 1915, that the company branched into the manufacturing industry with the operation in Port Elizabeth of a clothing factory.

While he held the reins, too, Mosenthals took a prominent part in organising the South African exhibit at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925 and was responsible for the huge crest of ostrich feathers displayed at the South African pavilion. The crest had actually been made in Port Elizabeth for the visit of the Prince of Wales to South Africa, when it was erected opposite the Johannesburg railway station.

In his position as General Manager, Harraway had administrative responsibility for the whole of the organisation with its establishments in London as well as five major South African and Rhodesian cities.

H.J. Harraway was President of the Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce in 1920 and 1922, and his place among the Union’s leading commercial figures was recognised with his election as President to the Associated Chambers of Commerce of South Africa in 1924. He also held office in many public institutions and was on the directorates of several other commercial enterprises. Being particularly interested in the National Thrift Organisation, Harraway was a committee member of this organisation. He was Chairman of the Zwartkops Saltpan and Company Limited, and a director of Mosenthal Brothers Limited, Johannesburg, E.K. Green and Company Limited, Cape Town, and the Castle Wine and Brandy Company Limited, Cape Town.

Park Drive

Besides being associated with Mosenthal’s agricultural enterprises in the shape of the Gariep Estates on the Orange River and the Limpopo Ranching Company in the British Bechuanaland Protectorate, Harraway was personally interested in farming as a Karoo wool­grower. In addition to being associated with Mosenthal’s agricultural and ranching ventures, Harraway was also President of the Port Elizabeth Agricultural Society from 1927 to 1930, and Vice-President for a period of seventeen years.

H.J. Harraway took a benevolent interest in the welfare of the town’s sportsmen and their sporting activities. He also played some practical part in the development of organised sport, especially athletics and cycling, and was for a number of years President of the Eastern Province parent body.

In 1935 Harry James Harraway moved to “Aloes”, a pretentious house at 56 Park Drive (which still belongs to his family), having sold the property – “Knockfierna” – to Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson, B.A., London, the founder and owner of St. George’s Preparatory School.

The son of a teacher, Hutchinson was born in 1883 in Yorkshire, England, and came out to Cape Town in 1913 where he, with a partner, subsequently established the Western Province Preparatory School in Claremont. After serving the school as joint principal for twenty years, Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson came to Port Elizabeth and opened St. George’s Preparatory School on 30 January 1936 with 60 boys about 30 of whom were boarders.

Hutchinson, in his lifetime, was a perfect English gentleman and enjoyed the privilege of gracious living at “Knockfierna”. He was a man with wide interests and was a popular figure in the City’s cultural and sporting life and was well known in educational rugby, cricket and theatrical circles. He was President of the Olympics Rugby Club, Honorary Vice-President of both the Union and Pert Elizabeth Cricket Clubs, an ardent member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of which he was at one time President, and keenly interested in all other cultural activities in Port Elizabeth. Among Hutchinson’s varied interests was his insatiable love for church music, and he was acting organist of the Holy Trinity Church.

Genial and kindly and a vivacious talker from a great fund of experience and knowledge, he was a man with hosts of friends and popular with all his pupils.

Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson diligently served the school he founded until his death at “Knockfierna” on 16 October 1950. His eldest son, Raymond Hutchinson, B.A., Canterbury, succeeded him as headmaster of the school.

St George’s Preparatory School

“Knockfierna”, now St. George’s Preparatory School, with its eclectic mixture of styles, then as now, certainly is a statement of the architect and craftsman’s skill. The masonry work of the Holloway Brothers is still much admired by visitors to the premises and Jacob Kohler’s German craftsmanship can be appreciated throughout the house. This Victorian building is a splendid contribution to the architectural heritage of Port Elizabeth and is, in all respects, worthy of preservation.

Story per the St. George’s Preparatory School

The School

St George’s Preparatory School was founded in 1936 by Raymond Hutchinson to provide a private school education for boys aged 7-14 and prepare them for Public Schools in South Africa and overseas. The first enrolment numbered about 50 boys with approximately 25% being boarders. In 1987 the Prep became co-ed.

In 2000 our Pre-Preparatory school opened its doors, followed by the College in 2001.

The House (Knockfierna)

Knockfierna (Hill of Fairies or Truth) was originally built in 1899 as a beautiful grand Victorian Mansion by John Daverin, from Ireland, who was a successful Wool Merchant. John and his wife, Clothilda, brought up their 7 children in the grand style befitting this era.

The Victorian era, with its wealth, opulence and distinctive architecture, left its mark on the city of Port Elizabeth in no uncertain terms.  It was the time of horse-trams and hansom cabs, elaborate carriages, silk hats, beards, curled moustaches, elegant dresses with choker collars and leg-of-mutton sleeves, feathered hats flowing veils and bonnets.  In keeping with the rich hinterland large brokerage firms had come into being that bought and sold the produce brought to Port Elizabeth from the surrounding farming areas.  A group of veritable “Merchant Princes” owned these firms and prospered beyond their wildest dreams.  One such Merchant Prince was John Daverin, owner of his own firm of brokers at a relatively early age, who was destined to become a business genius and a leading political figure in the Government of John X Merriman.  Early in his career, Daverin had built a magnificent dwelling on his farm, Springmount, in the District of Alexandria, taking great pride in the layout of both farm buildings and truly magnificent gardens.  He undertook extensive journeys and it was on one of his trips to Ireland that he met Clotilde D’Alton of Ballygriffen, who was destined to become his bride.

At that time, the elite residential area of Port Elizabeth was “The Hill”, situated on the flat piece of land above the town in the vicinity of the acreage that became the lush and beautiful St George’s Park.  It was on a large tract of land adjacent to the Park that the gracious dwelling Knockfierna was built.  This was the dream house of John Daverin, built for his beloved wife and the family that they dreamed of raising in this place, as magical as its name.

No expense was spared in the erection of this fine house.  On their journeys overseas, the Daverins had bought mirrors, ornaments, glass from Venice, bronze from Florence and Beleek china.  Only the best tiles, mahogany, handsome fireplaces and light fittings were used.  This was to be a fitting home for a wealthy family!  Charming romantic touches such as the gables on the roof, arched veranda and upper balcony and the velvety heart-shaped lawn must have caught Clotilde’s eye each time she returned from a trip with her daughters to take tea with some distinguished friends.  All the accoutrements of this fine lifestyle had to be housed in equal style, so extensions to the house in the form of quarters for the staff, stables and a hayloft were also built.

Knockfierna was truly a place of fairies, with merry voices, running feet, excited whispers and fluting laughter, all the ingredients of a true fairytale. What a wonderful place for children to spend their growing years!

Today Knockfierna has lost none of its charm, Enter the cool, tiled hallway on a hot summer’s day and the house welcomes you.  Gaze upwards at the impossibly beautiful mirror on the first landing and see the patterns cast by the stained glass insets on either side.  Picture the owner in his study, (which is now the secretary’s office) and wonder at the murals in the panelled study of the present Headmaster.  On a wintry evening it is easy to imagine the family gathered round a cosy fireplace and perhaps a group of menfolk deeply involved in a game of billiards.  And early one morning… is that the sound of chanted prayers and singing?  There in the small chapel under the gable is the heart of this Catholic family’s life, where prayers for loved ones, songs of celebration on Saints’ Feast Days and the days of Advent were always heard.

Years have passed, and the Daverin family no longer grace the rooms of Knockfierna with their presence, except perhaps in quiet midnight visits.  Yet, the voices of children and music still echo around the building, now much changed with necessary additions made over the years.

Motorised traffic roars around the park, buses, taxis and ambulances rush by and the skyline of the city has changed drastically.  How did all these changes come about, and who are the present inhabitants of this still magical place, where the gardens promise shady walks and many surprises?

With the passage of time and the demise of first John Daverin and later his wife Clotilde, Knockfierna passed into other hands.  The second owner, Harry Harraway, a large force in the firm of Mosenthal’s, lived in the house until 1935 and then moved to Aloes across the park from Knockfierna.  It was then that, as in the days of the Daverin family, Knockfierna once again lent its ambience to the nurturing of the young.

Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson, originally of Yorkshire, had settled in Cape Town in 1913 where he and a partner had, very successfully, founded and run the Western Province Preparatory School for boys in Claremont.  “Hutch” moved on to the Eastern Cape, where he purchased Knockfierna in 1935 with the express purpose of founding another school, also for boys.  The school, named St George’s Preparatory School, came into being in 1936.

The house has undergone few changes over the years and many of the original features are still present. Our children enjoy their lunches in Daverin’s original billiard room where the blocks of marble that used to support the weight of the large mahogany billiard table, still exist.

Leaving the dining room you walk down the passage towards the headmaster’s study and looking up you will see a trap-door where a tray was pulled up and down with the children’s meals prepared in the kitchen. They never ate with their parents.

Our secretary has the pleasure of working from Daverin’s study where he devoted a lot of time to reading and studying the history of Ireland.

The headmaster, Mr A. Hall, has his office in the old dining room with its wood panelled and decorative mouldings as well as a beautiful tiled fireplace.

The tiles on the stoep and entrance hall were shipped from Bath in England while the large elaborate mirror was bought in Vienna to grace the teak staircase.

The large forage loft was built later and is today used as the Caretaker’s workshop.

The stables were situated just below the forage loft and today these have been converted into the Grade 1 and 2 classrooms. The rings on which to tether the horses are still to be seen on the wall.

Sources

John Deverin 1851-1922 A Memoir by Rev Fr. Anthony Scott-Parkin (1999, Marine Litho, Port Elizabeth)

Article entitled Knockfierna by Tennyson Smith Bodill


1 Comments

  1. Thank you Dean, for your meticulously researched and fascinating articles. Thoroughly enjoy them all. Love Park Drive.

    Reply

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