Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Union Chapel

The Congregational Union Chapel in Chapel Street was never one of the foremost churches in Port Elizabeth but in one way it was unique in that it held mixed services with khoikhoi and whites

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

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. James Read of the London Missionary Society had purchased the land for the chapel for the Khoi living here. Rev Theophilus Atkinson rode from Bethelsdorp to take the services until he was appointed resident minister in 1830. 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 chapel was on the corner of Victoria and Chapel Streets, and the congregation consisted of White and Khoi nonconformists.

After a clamour for a senior school to be established in Port Elizabeth at which their children could be educated, the colonial authorities conceded to opening a Government 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 beheld 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.

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 Church built by members of Union Chapel who felt they could now support a minister themselves. The tower contained a clock known as the “Town Clock”, which was later given by William Jones for the Town Hall. In due course the Presbyterians formed their own congregation and the church became a purely Congregational one.

Probably due to increasing attendence, the Union Chapel had to be enlarged. 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.

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.

In 1964 Union Chapel was demolished.

Above: This was the original Union Chapel in Chapel Street which was completed in May 1828. Rev Adam Robson in charge from 1832 to August 1870

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 impoverised, what could one initially expect.

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).


  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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