Port Elizabeth of Yore: Thomas Handfield – Farmer in the Baakens

Thomas Handfield arrived at Port Elizabeth as a 22-year-old settler from Ulcomb, Kent as part of Richard Daniell’s party. He later acquired land in the Baaken’s Valley on what is today Settler’s Park. In 1898 when the property was for sale, it was stated that the first colonial woolwashery had been located on this estate.

Main picture:   Handfield’s Valley looking towards the sea

Trying his luck
It was a retired officer of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, Lieut.-Commander Richard Daniell, an “upper class gentleman settler” who decided to try his luck in the colonies. He had been born in the village of Sidbury in Devon and had joined the navy in 1806. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he had taken retirement on half-pay offered by the Admiralty which had been anxious to reduce its wartime ranks. It was with this income and some capital that he decided to try his luck as a settler.

He paid a call on the Colonial Secretary, Lord Bathhurst, at Downing Street. This was not an opportunity afforded to many settlers and he was promised a land grant in proportion to his means. It was Daniell who assembled the private party consisting of his brother James and his family, another family called the Handfields, as well as fourteen artisans and servants.  The party sailed from Portsmouth in the Duke of Marlborough in March 1820.

Bridge at the foot of Bridge Street in the Baakens Valley circa 1890 [Hills covered with Cottages]

Long ocean voyages, then as now, are often conducive to romances on board and Richard fell in love with the young Ann Handfield, probably Thomas’s sister. Upon arrival in Cape Town in July 1820, the couple took out the necessary license and were married by the colonial chaplain. Having called on the Acting-Governor, Sir Rufane Donkin at Government House, the party proceeded to Algoa Bay and then on to their destination south-west of Grahamstown.

Thomas Handfield in Baakens Valley
Before 1820 the Valley had been divided into a number of grants as it provided springs and shelter from the wind. Part of today’s Settlers’ Park on the Walmer side was originally Handfield’s land “Spring Valley” or “Handfield’s Valley” which was originally granted to Salmon du Preez in 1817. Handfield’s Valley ran down from the Walmer Commonage to the Baaken’s Valley. It is not known when Handfield acquired this property, but Harradine concludes that Handfield was farming there by 1836.

Map of the Lots in the Baakens Valley [The Social Chronical]
[From The Social Chronical]

During his years there, he built a substantial stone house and a dam. He also kept a dairy herd and horses and developed a beautiful garden with orange, lemon and fig trees. He started a woolwashery as well, described in 1898 as the first colonial woolwashery.

Map showing land allocated in Baakens Valley before 1820 by HB Smith [Supplied by Carol Victor]

Redgrave in his book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days describes this idyll prior to the establishment of factories in the Valley as follows:

The Valley in days of yore was very picturesque and was a favourite spot for the residents to take an evening stroll or to spend Sunday afternoons, especially Rufane Vale and Handfield’s Valley before they were encroached upon by dwellings. The river here was wide and deep, forming magnificent scenery, especially at Markham Cove where now stands the Mangold Brothers’ buildings. Little brigs owned by John Owen Smith and later by H. B. Christian used to sail right up the river just below Fort Frederick and anchor there during strong south-easters. At high tide a very large volume of water swelled the river and penetrated up beyond the present Tramway sheds. Here the river was deep, especially after the rains, and extended in width from the narrow valley road to the back of the old Markham Hotel, covering the entire area occupied later by the Power House, the Market buildings, and the old Municipal sheds and stables. When the tide was up, the river teemed with springers and mullet, and men in those days had great fun catching them at nighttime by means of a lantern placed in the bow of a boat hired from old McPhail, a carpenter and builder residing nearby.

Interestingly Thomas only resided there for a little over 10 years because in March 1847, Thomas Handfield offered his house and premises in the Baakens Valley for sale. What Handfield did thereafter is unknown, but we do know that he married Hester nee Marshall on the 12th June 1832 in Port Elizabeth and he died on the 17 July 1875 at the age of 77.

Other grants which were farmed and on which houses were built, were those of Fortuin Weys (later William Staines’s property) and Robert Campbell (later owned by William French and William van der Kijl or Kuil).


Advert in the Graham’s Town Journal dated 6 December 1838
Thomas Handfield offers for sale his house and erf on the Baakens River includes horses,mules, donkeys, cows, heifers, steers,wagons and four oxen. Port Elizabeth, December 14th 1838

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).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Talk on Sidbury Park given to the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth on Sunday 2 October 1988 by Roy Berrington, [Looking Back, Volume 28, March, 1989]

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