Port Elizabeth of Yore: Two Buntons make their Mark

Today the deeds of these two Buntons more than a century ago are known by less than several dozen people yet in their heyday they were both well-known but for vastly different reasons. Walter Bunton converted the Grand Hotel into the Bunton’s Grand Hotel, not a mere name change but a conversion into the greatest hotel in the emerging town, fit the great and good of the Cape, the British Empire and beyond.

On the other hand, his sister, Harriet Meyer, nee Bunton, had divergent interests. The one for which she made her name was promoting the building of an equestrian monument to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of horses killed during the Anglo Boer War.

Then their life’s candle would gutter and be snuffed out and the light which they shone on the world would gradually fade away, eventually to be forgotten. This blog is an attempt to correct this omission from history.

 Main picture:  Bunton’s Grand Hotel on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Prospect Hill. It was the most important hotel of its time.

 Walter Bunton: An Hotelier at Heart

In the English census of 1851, the father of Walter and Harriet, John Bunton, was listed as being the Landlord of an East Anglian Hotel in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Harriet was born on the 6th October 1848 and Walter some four years later in 1852. Nothing is known about the Bunton family of that era except that the siblings made a journey to Port Elizabeth. In an extant letter, mention is made of the fact that Harriet came out to visit a relative. That person must surely have been her brother, Walter.

Above: Harry Bunton 18th Aug 1915 – Recruiting staff in PE.  Harry is the one at the back with the light shirt. From the right he is the second person

The reason why Walter decided to set up a hotel in Graaff Reinett is lost in the mists of time. Playing a role in that decision were probably two factors. The overriding factor was that he already possessed an understanding of the hotel business. Secondly before rejecting Port Elizabeth as a possible site for his hotel, he would soon have realised that Port Elizabeth already possessed a surfeit of hotels with the Phoenix in Market Square and the Palmerson in Jetty Street leading the pack. Perhaps after travelling there he was smitten by the old-world charm of the location. In addition to the town, Walter was also smitten with Marie Louise Pfeiffer from Germany whom he duly married while in Graaff-Reinett. Their first two children, twins Alfred and Henry – aka Harry as PE folk would get to know him – were born in 1883.

Business must not have been flourishing having to compete with the likes of the well-established Drostdy Hotel resulting in the family relocating to Port Elizabeth. Spotting the potential of the Grand Hotel away from the hustle and bustle of drunken sailors on Strand Street and its environs, Walter was probably enamoured  with the hotel overlooking the town and harbour comprising one jetty, the North Jetty. He promptly acquired it in 1889. Initially the family probably resided in the hotel but later acquired Mavis Bank further down Belmont Terrace to use both as a personal residence and as well as an overflow facility for the hotel.

The Byways to the Grand Hotel

In 1863, a strip of land above but parallel with White’s Road earmarked to be sold for the erection of houses, was sub-divided and then sold. The original building on the site was a house built in 1867 for Robert Dunlop Buchanan. Designed by Port Elizabeth architect, F M Pfeil, it became known as “Dunlop House“. Bordering the house were Prospect Hill, Belmont Terrace and White’s Road. On the opposite corner of White’s Road and Belmont Terrace was a small rectangular building with a distinctive steeply pitched A-frame roof. This building commenced life as the Diocesan Grammar School.

Above: Harry Bunton owner of the Grand Hotel in the middle after Walter’s death in 1903

It is presumed that it was Brister who built the extension to the White’s Road side of the hotel. In June 1885 Brister advertised the house to let with 24 rooms. It is presumably after he extended it to White’s Road and constructed wonderful oriel bay windows looking out onto White’s Road, that it was Brister that did so. On 15 October 1885 Arnold Lipman opened the building as the Grand Hotel. Just less than four years later in March 1889 Walter Bunton took over and renamed it eponymously Bunton’s Grand Hotel. It swiftly gained a reputation as the most impressive place in which to stay. Extant photographs reveal how impressive the interior fittings were. In order to complement these fittings, in 1893 Bunton brought out a gaggle of obsequious Indian waiters. Dressed in their smart uniforms and matching turbans, these attentive Tamil waiters were an instant success.

View of the Grand Hotel from the garden

 Distinguished visitors

Over the years and especially over the period to the turn of the century under Bunton’s able management, this hotel attracted some very influential guests. The most notable were Mark Twain out on a lecture tour in 1896, Sir Alfred Milner on an  official tour in 1897 as well as Cecil John Rhodes in 1898 and Field Marshall Lord Roberts in 1900. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his nom de plume Mark Twain, lauded as the greatest humourist that the United States had produced, would entertain the Port Elizabeth audiences with three shows. Not only was he a comedian par excellance, but he was also a gifted writer, publisher and lecturer. It was during part of his world tour that Twain would arrive at South Africa where he would hold performances at the coastal towns – Durban, East London and then Port Elizabeth. Arriving in Algoa Bay on Wednesday 17th June 1896, he would only present of the first of three shows on Monday 23rd June 1896. It was here that Twain presented his comedy, At Homes, where it was recorded that it was presented at the capacious Town Hall, and “excited a very large demand for seats.”

Grand Hotel

 

I classify this period of the hotel’s existence, as it heyday. Its main competition during this period were the venerable hotels, the Palmerston in Jetty Street and the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square. Neither had the cachet of the Grand as it attracted mainly the great unwashed, the hoi polloi and the rabble whose only purchase in venturing into a hotel was to down a beer.

Above: Harry Bunton with his wife, Grace on honeymoon

Harry takes over

After the death of Walter Bunton in 1903, his wife, Marie Louise [nee Pfeiffer], carried on with the hotel. In the period 1911 to 1913 she extended the hotel in brick on the Prospect Hill side. This extension was constructed under a reinforced concrete roof at a cost of £3 984. During this period, Walter’s son, Henry Arthur Bunton – aka Harry – assumed responsibility for running the hotel after inheriting it after his father’s death. Harry would marry Grace Isabelle Gilfillan. 

Paula McLachlan recalls that her mother told her that Harry Bunton returned from WW1 having suffered severe injuries to to being gassed. I presume that this implies that he returned prematurely due to the effects of the gassing.

I presume that Harry’s mother, Marie Louise Pfeiffer, assisted Harry with managing the hotel, but after her death in 1917, his interests in farming came to the fore. It was just four years after her death in September 1921, that Harry sold the hotel. It appears that the sale did not include the annex, Mavis Bank, across the road in Belmont Terrace as Grace and Harry initially stayed there.

The tragedies of war

Harry had the concept and foresight that his sons, Peter and John, would not grow up in a town. By imlication they had to grow up on a farm. It is against this backdrop that Harry Bunton purchased three separate farms of 10 hectacres each in the Sunday’s River valley which they named Elim Farm. The boys, Peter and John, would grow up on that farm and attend school at St. Andrews College in Grahamstown. On completion of his schooling, John continued his studies by attending Cape Town University to study mechanical engineeing. Later he was offered a job by a great friend of his at Crown Mines near central Johannesburg, which he accepted.

Tragedy of war

Peter matriculated a year later in 1939. He had always dreamed of being a veterinarian and went to Pretoria University to do his first year of veterinary science. However WW2 was to intercede. Before he had completed his studies, he joined the Union Defence Force, the UDF, as John had already joined the army. Whether by design or happenstance, both Peter and John were seconded to the 5th Field Artillery. John was killed at the first big battle of El Alamein. It was a devastating blow to the family from which it never recovered. Like countless others, John on the threshold of adult life, had his life snubbed out like a used unwanted cigarette.

In the book Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa by Greg Mills & David Williams, Peter Bunton is quoted as follows regarding the first Battle of El Alamein: “On 13 July [1942] at precisely midday shells started falling in our area and [then] we got the order, “Take Posts.” We fired and fired and then I saw the No. 2 gun had stopped firing. I was on No 1 gun [and] my brother [was] on No 2 gun. Later a 1-ton truck drove up to No. 2 gun and returned with a stretcher on the back. John was on that stretcher. The truck stopped – shells were falling. I greeted John hurriedly and the truck drove off. I never saw John again.” Peter probably never had time to contemplate his own mortality that day as he states that “We fired all day and my gun was the only gun that didn’t go out of action. Our four guns fired 2 400 25-pounder shells and my gun was given credit for 800 of these.” Peter survived the war, and after compassionate leave home, he was transferred to do various courses in Israel after which he was seconded to the Gordon Highlanders as an officer. Soon thereafter he was shot through the knee by a sniper. They operated on him up there and he was discharged from the army. Returning to Wits University, he recommenced studying his B.Sc. ab initio again. Harry Bunton, knowing the horror of warfare, would have been proud of his two sons. There is a saying “there is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for one’s country”.

 Dr Peter Henry Bunton

Peter Henry Bunton’s father, Henry Arthur Bunton and his mother, Grace Isabel Gilfillan, started farming citrus on the farm ‘Elim’ in the Selbourne district of Uitenhage in 1923. His father died in July 1927 when Peter was 5 years old, and his mother Grace continued with the citrus farming. Peter’s elder brother, John Gilfillan Bunton, was killed in 1942 during WW2, and Peter inherited the farm. Peter was born on the 2nd of March 1922, possibly in Port Elizabeth, where his parents were living at that time before they moved to ‘Elim’. Peter Bunton matriculated from Espin House, St . Andrews College in Grahamstown at the end of 1939. During his high school years, he was awarded colours for both rugby and boxing and had been a school prefect and corporal in the Cadet Corps. He was also a keen polo player and represented South Africa in this sport. St Andrews College lauded him in May 2021 as their oldest’ Old Andrean’ at the age of 99. He was accepted into the veterinary faculty in 1939, and his student number (40005420) indicates that he started his first year in 1940.

John Bunton in North Africa during WW2

John Bunton in North Africa during WW2

He interrupted his studies during WW2, and after the end of the war, he returned to Onderstepoort and completed his degree, qualifying in 1950. He returned to the family farm ‘Elim’ in the Addo area, where he practised as a veterinarian, managed the large farm and played polo. He also promoted the development of game ranching in the 1970s and put it into practice on his extensive farm, becoming one of the leaders of this new form of farming. For many years, Peter worked as a wildlife veterinary specialist and an honorary veterinarian for Addo Elephant Park. He was active in the Addo area all his working life, getting deeply involved in conservation and the development of the Addo Elephant Park. Peter is part of the Addo Park’s history. He was reluctant to have lions introduced into the Addo Park in late 2003 since the Addo Park animals had never previously had any large predators. The first year that the lions were resident in the park confirmed his fears as the whole disease-free Buffalo calf herd was wiped out. Thankfully the animals quickly learnt to live with these predators and defend their calves.

Peter is now 100 years old. Being a bachelor with no male siblings, the Bunton line age will be extinct on his death.

Mrs. Ruth Woolley, Dr. Peter Bunton, Mr. Johnny McLachlan and Mrs. Pauline McLachlan

 Harriet Mary Meyer nee Bunton

Most residents can relate to the Horse Memorial now residing in Cape Road close to Rink Street. However only several could recount who was the driving force behind its construction For this reason Harriet Mary Meyer nee Bunton should be remembered. 

Above: Harriet Mary Bunton

Ernst Gustav Meyer

Harriet Mary Bunton (born Kings Lynn, Norfolk, 6/10/1848) and Ernst Gustav Meyer (born Neustrelitz, Germany, 24/4/1841) were married in Port Elizabeth in April 1876. I do not know how either of them came to be in South Africa, but each must have come out as a young adult, and not with their parents.  Penelope Forrest came across the tantalising suggestion in a newspaper obituary, that Harriet had come out to visit relatives. Her younger brother Walter Bunton must have been the relative mentioned.  

Initially Harriet and Gustav had two stillborn children and then a daughter, Ethel Hildegard, born 31st December 1879 and a son, Ernst Gustav (later known as Ernest), born 24th June 1883.  These two were both born in Port Elizabeth and baptised in the Lutheran Church, as far as is known. The family moved to Kimberley but at this time there were not adequate schools there and the children were sent to their father’s brother and his family in Neustrelitz, Germany. Penelope has two very touching letters from Gustav to the children, which his daughter kept all her life. Harriet could not bear being parted from both children, so went to bring Ernest home, though Hildegard remained in Germany, where she received her education and musical training.  Mrs Meyer and her son returned to Port Elizabeth.  Gustav died in Kimberley on 3rd November 1896. 

Harriet Mary Bunton

 Maybe due to her sadness at her loss, Harriet got involved in other issues as a distraction. By late 1899, the Boer War had erupted. This is just what Harriet could expend her energy on. Margaret Harradine records that on the 4th December 1899, a Soldiers’ Comforts Committee, with the Mayor as Chairman, was formed. At a further meeting on 14 December, W.F. Savage was elected permanent Chairman and representatives of the churches as well as the WCTU and Ladies’Benevolent Society were involved. At a purely local level, a subsidiary, the Soldiers’ Reception Committee, under Mrs. Harriet Meyer, saw to it that soldiers were provided with refreshments before their trains left for the interior and they were given “extras” to take with them. Returning men were also catered for.

 During the war, Port Elizabeth became the de facto equestrian capital of the country. To replenish the thousands of horses killed, replacements were imported in droves. These animals were initially housed at a huge Remount Centre near the PE Show Ground. For whatever reason, Harriet took pity on their ill-treated and abused creatures and began to advocate for the erection of a monument to celebrate their contribution to the war. Her proposal was that people should donate only one penny. As most foreign troops disembarked in Port Elizabeth, donations could also be solicited from them.

Above: 1905 02 11 – The unveiling of the Horse Memorial intersection of Rink Street and Park Drive

Whatever event influenced her opinion, Harriet Meyer of Mavis Bank House, initiated a drive for the creation of a memorial to the horses, with the support of members of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and the Cattle Trough Association. It was this body that was responsible for the design of the Memorial but the origin of the inscription upon it was, for a long time, obscure. It was only decades later that the origin of this profound maxim was revealed. Dr. R.M. Leith expressed the opinion that the words are based upon passages occurring in the work “A Crown of Wild Olives,” written by the Victorian writer and philosopher, John Ruskin. Not that these words appear in the succinct, crisp form as the Memorial’s inscription but in a more verbose form. The final proof that these words were indeed purloined from John Ruskin’s erudition, was the fact that Harriet Meyer’s copy of “A Crown of Wild Olives” naturally falls open at certain pages. This proves, without a doubt, that it was these words of inspiration that swirled and coalesced in Meyer’s mind to emerge succinctly stated by Meyer:

 The greatness of a Nation Consists not so much in the number of its people Or the extent of its territory As in the extent and justice of its compassion

Harriet left PE and moved to Durban soon after the end of the Second Anglo Boer Warand died in Pietermaritzburg on the 8th March 1921.

The obituary in a newspaper cutting, marked “P. E. 23.3.1921” which reads as follows: “The passing away of Mrs Gustave Meyer a few days ago brings the many women, who knew her splendid work during the Boer War, to the salute.  She was a fine organiser, an indefatigable worker, and did her utmost best for King and Country during that strenuous period.

 What the town of Port Elizabeth has cause to remember her by is the beautiful and much admired Horse Statue in Park Drive.  It is an everlasting monument to Mrs Meyer’s thoroughness and ability, and through her to the capability of her sex, for it is the one perfect piece of town adornment which defies even a shadow of criticism.

What the general public do not know is the fight Mrs Meyer had to wage to give us that lovely statue.  Against the odds of opposition and ridicule she held on her way, gathering in the smallest subscriptions.  The correspondence alone entailed was unbelievable.  It was her ambition that each mounted soldier should contribute a minimum of a penny, and any of our collectors will know what that means. She chose the site and “because of her importunity”, got it.  It was through her artistic sense that the particular design was carried out, and in the light of her high ideals she chose the fine wording inscribed on the granite pedestal.

 All honour to the memory of Mrs Gustave Meyer; well has she earned the salute.”

Sources:

https://www.sacschool.com/2021/05/28/celebrating-our-oldest-oa/ https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/85020/hc_DrBunton_Biography.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y https://www.chrislin.co.za/memories-early-addo-elephant-park Notes by Penelope Forrest of Cape Town Information and photos provided by Paula of Plettenberg Bay & Juanita McLachlan of Elim Farm 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).

 

Dr Peter Henry Bunton, son of Harry Bunton turning 100 on 2nd of March 2022
Harry Bunton Baptism certificate
Letter from Elsenburg Agricultural Colleage in1902
Letter of Harry Bunton 1917
Letter to Harry on Bunton Grand Hotel paper 1916
Part of Letter to his sons from Harry to John and Peter
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