Port Elizabeth of Yore: The multi-racial Union Chapel and School

The Congregational Union Chapel in Chapel Street was never one of the foremost churches in Port Elizabeth but in two ways it was unique in that it held mixed services with khoikhoi and whites as well as mixed schooling. It might not have been a prominent church but it went into use in May 1828 which was four years ahead of St. Mary’s making it de facto the first completed church building in Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: Chapel Street. Union Chapel was enlarged in 1882 to plans by John Thornhill Cook & was demolished in 1964.

The original church building
The Union Congregational Church might have been established on the site in Chapel Street but its origins go even further back. Even before 1820, the missionaries of the London Missionary Society settlement at Bethelsdorp used to ride over to hold services for the soldiers at the Fort. After the arrival of the Settlers, services were held in a temporary building but in 1825, the Rev. James Read of Bethelsdorp purchased the site in Chapel Street for £15 in the expectation that it would be used by the khoi living in Port Elizabeth

Construction on the Union Chapel, funded by public subscription under the direction of the missionaries of Bethelsdorp, was commenced in 1825 and in May 1828, the construction of the Chapel was completed and the church opened for worship. It is presumed that on construction of the formal church, this building was ultimately relegated or downgraded for use as a Church Hall.

Union Chapel in Chapel Street. Completed in May 1828. Rev Adam Robson in charge from 1832 to August 1870. Later it would become the Church Hall and used as a class room of the school.

The structure of the building could not have been less inspiring being a plain rectangular box with no adornments or ornamentation and totally devoid of ecclesiastical endowment. Given the fact that the congregation was impoverished, what could one initially expect.

Rev Theophilus Atkinson who was appointed as the temporary minister had to rode from Bethelsdorp to take the services until he was appointed resident minister in 1830. The chapel was situated on the corner of Victoria and Chapel Streets and the congregation consisted of White and Khoi nonconformists.

Mrs. Elizabeth Williams and Rev. Adam Robson
The four great names in the story of Missionary enterprise in the Kat River Valley are Joseph Williams, James Reed Senior and Junior and William Rodger Thompson. Of the four, Joseph Williams was the earliest and most appealing of the four. Shortly before sailing from England, he married Elizabeth Rogers who was apparently a domestic servant but who proved to be as devout and courageous as her husband, and much tougher. After her husband died, she was compelled to abandon the Kat River Mission Station fearing for her life. On her way back, she met the Rev Barker and Mrs. Williams stayed with him at Theopolis until she was taken into the home of Dr. Phillip at Cape Town, where it was intended that she would be trained to conduct “a female school at one of the Society’s stations”.

She still longed to go back to the Kat River, but the disturbed state of the country forbade it, so she busied herself with rearing her two sons, undertaking church work and teaching. While she was in Cape Town, the Rev. Adam Robson arrived, proverbially sweeping her off her feet and she married Robson on the 28th December 1824. The following day she left for Bethelsdorp and so her life had come a full circle. After remaining at Bethelsdorp for seven years they left to take charge of the Union Chapel in Port Elizabeth and there she died at the age of 91 surviving two husbands and three of her four sons.

Rev. Adam Robson who had succeeded Kitchingham at Bethelsdorp in 1825, was appointed to be in charge at the Union Chapel from March 1832. He would faithfully serve at the Chapel until his death in August 1870. [The full story can be found in Joseph Williams – Pioneer Missionary [Looking Back, Vol. XIII, No. 4, December 1973]. The gravestones of her and her husband can be seen in the Settler’s Cemetery in Russell Road. Unfortunately, the headstone was laid horizontally and not vertically. But more troubling is the fact that it is cemented in, facing downwards.

Union Chapel Church is on the left hand side of the photo

Location of church and cemetery
The chapel was on the corner of Victoria and Chapel Streets, and the congregation consisted of White and Khoi nonconformists. All churches used ground allocated to them in a cemetery. In the case of the Union Chapel, it was in the Settler’s Cemetery in Russell Road when the first section was granted was to Union Chapel in 1838.

Requesting penitence
Amongst the distasteful duties of a clergyman in that era was to accompany a convicted person to the gallows. Their role whilst doing to so was to obtain a confession from the convict but more importantly to save his soul. In this process they issued passionate entreaties to accept Jesus into his life. In 1833 the burden of saving Hermanus Jager’s soul was the duty of the Rev Francis McCleland of St Mary’s Church and the Rev. Alan Robson of the Union Chapel. By the time that the wagon bearing the three of them went through the toll gate in Queen Street next to the Baptist Church, Jager was contrite in extremis with tears flowing in bucketfuls down his cheeks. As the two clergymen escorted Benjamin to the gallows swaying in the breeze, he turned to the expectant crowd and, pointing towards a nearby canteen, he accused demon drink for his woes and tribulations. No longer catatonic but accepting his fate, he strode to the gallows, forlornly mounting the podium and stoically awaited his fate.

The clergymen had performed their duty by saving another soul and in doing so, would ensure his smooth path through eternity.

David Livingstone

David Livingstone

The barque George with David Livingstone and William Ross on board, both missionaries bound for Kuruman, arrived in Simonstown on 16th March 1841. From there Livingstone went to Cape Town and stayed with Dr. John Philip, Superintendent of the London Missionary Society in South Africa while he waited for the George to sail round to Table Bay from whence it was to sail for Algoa Bay on 11th April 1841 with Ross and Livingstone on board again. By the best estimates, the George arrived in Algoa Bay on the 19th April 1841. Livingstone and Ross were en route to visit Robert Moffatt at Kuruman but would visit Union Chapel before continuing their journey.

He stayed at the Phoenix Hotel on Market Square. It is claimed that a plaque commemorating his stay there was later placed on the front of the hotel but is now missing, probably when the original hotel was demolished. His main contact in Port Elizabeth was the Rev. Adam Robson, the minister at the Union (Independent or Congregational) Church in Chapel Street. Livingston arranged with Robson to act as his agent to forward his mail er cetera when he travelled. In true Scots tradition, Livingston later grumbled about the extra 4d on each letter that this arrangement entailed. He visited and may also have preached at the Union Church, Bethelsdorp and the Rose Lane Church in Uitenhage

Union Chapel Junior School
The first school in Port Elizabeth was founded in 1824 under the aegis of the London Missionary Society by the missionaries from the Bethelsdorp missionary station. It was called the Union Chapel School since it was connected with the Union Church situated in Chapel Street and was physically located on the same premises.

A missionary record dated 1829 stated that the school in Port Elizabeth had been better attended than formerly since the erection of the church and parents began to perceive the importance of education to their children. The record further states that colonial policy did not practice segregation neither did the small playground allow for social distinction. The little school went along happily with the only rule for the admission of pupils being that they “must be decently clothed“.

This school, which formed part of the Union Church, was fathered by Captain Evatt when during a boisterous meeting in the Red Lion Hotel in 1824, requested that the Colonial government provide both a school and a church. The Governor acceded to the former but rejected the latter. During the Governor’s visit in 1841, the superintendent of the school was the Rev Robson of the Union Church. At the in loco inspection, Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape, found the conditions of the Government Free School (Union Chapel), totally unsatisfactory. Some surmise that his concerns might have arisen due to white and black pupils of the town sharing the same classrooms, whereas others blame the inadequate facilities. As a result, Grey was instrumental in having the Grey Institute established in Belmont Terrace not far from the Union Church.

Government Senior School
After a clamour for a senior school to be established in Port Elizabeth at which their children could be educated to higher grades, the colonial authorities conceded to opening a Government Free School. Due to a dearth of suitable candidates in the Cape to appoint as a head master, it was agreed that a candidate from the Home Country would be sourced. Selection would be performed in Scotland. John Paterson, with an excellent academic record, was ultimately selected. Schooling would be held in a new school house behind Union Chapel belonging to the London Missionary Society. This building was rented to the government at £40 per annum.

During July 1841, the new Government school was opened by John Paterson who had been recruited by Dr. James Rose Innes, the first Superintendent of Education in the Cape, in Aberdeen, Scotland. This was Port Elizabeth’s first senior school and classes were held in the “new school house belonging to the London Missionary Society” located behind the Union Chapel and rented to the Government at £40 per annum.

The Government schools were for boys only. Girls, if educated at all, attended private seminaries or were taught at home by a governess. The basic aim was to make boys literate and numerate and thus able to manage their daily lives. These boys were also then able to serve apprenticeships. With this further teaching to about 14 years of age, it would enable a boy to obtain a place in an office whereas boys intending to prepare themselves for the professions were usually sent overseas for further studies.

In January 1848, Joseph Reid succeeded John Patterson as head of the Government School. Reid had come to the Cape with Paterson in 1841 and had been teaching at Somerset East and George in the interim.

New” Church
On the 25th July 1852, an inauguration services was preached in connection with “New Church”. Located in Main Street between Donkin Street and Constitution Hill, this was an Independent (Congregational) Church built by members of Union Chapel who felt they could now support a minister themselves. The European members of the Union Congregational Church, relinquished the Church to the Coloured members and joined the “New” Church on the corner of Main and Donkin Streets. The tower of this impressive church contained a clock known as the “Town Clock”, which was later donated by William Jones to the Town Council for use by the Town Hall in Market Square. In due course the Presbyterian members of the New Church formed their own church, the Hill Presbyterian Church, and the New Church from then onwards became a purely Congregational one. Later in 1878 John Holland purchased the site, demolished the tower and altered the church to house his auctioneering firm.

Replacement church
Probably due to increasing attendance, the Union Chapel had to be enlarged. Even though there is no admission by the church that it was not only a space constraint which forced the issue regarding the construction of a new church but the oblong box shape of the original church and its lack of an ecclesiastical look, also forced the issue in the construction debate. This went ahead in 1882 and a design by the architect J.T. Cook was utilised. Further extensions were made a decade later when a second storey and balcony were added to the manse for Rev W. Dower in 1892.

Additional Churches
On the 11th January 1908, the foundation stone of the Bethesda Congregational Church, Prince Alfred’s Road, was laid by the Mayor, Charles Huskisson Mackay. The Minister was Rev H.C.W. Newell and the plans were drawn by Smith, Sons and Dewar. This Church was established by Rev Nicholas Goezaar, formerly of Union Chapel, in 1894 in the Bethesda Hall, Parliament Street.

Times change. So too do congregations. During the 20th century the vast majority of the members moved to new areas and many now lived a great distance from the Church. This fact coupled with the impending implementation of the Group Areas Act led to a new church being erected in Gelvandale and the sale of the present property which was being demolished to make way for a parking lot.

In 1964 Union Chapel was finally demolished. It would have been appreciated if the original portion of the church, the Church Hall, which served as a school, could have been retained as the site’s link to a vastly different past where inter racial mingling was not frowned upon nor discouraged.

Over time, this would change and by 1882 it would be diametrically opposed to this bland insipid facade. In that year the Union Chapel was enlarged based upon plans by John Thornhill Cook.

Chapel Street. Union Chapel parsonage

Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)
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).
Joseph Williams – Pioneer Missionary [Looking Back, Vol. XIII, No. 4, December 1973]
Livingstone and Port Elizabeth by A. Porter [Looking Back, Vol. XIII, No. 3, September 1973]
E.P. Herald 24 Mar 1959 – Article on the Union Church by Mrs ffolliot
Our Oldest Church in Gallimaufrey by Kaitab [Looking Back, Vol. IV, No. 2, June 1964]

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1 Comment

  1. Hey there! Where can I find a copy of Hills Covered with Cottages?
    I am based in PE.
    Thanks in advance for any information on this, I would love to purchase a copy.

    • Hi Norman

      BTW, if you look on BidOrBuy you will notice that I am selling a 2nd hand copy.
      Otherwise contact the PE Historical Society

      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446


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