Port Elizabeth of Yore: Visit by Sir George Grey in October 1858

Visits by dignitaries to Port Elizabeth were always an occasion for celebration and revelry. So, it was with the whistle-stop visit to Port Elizabeth on the 21st October 1858 when the whole town was invited to attend a welcoming parade.

Many of the issues raised during this visit are still of interest today either due their being topical or their casting a light on distant practices. But at the risk of overstatement, the original verbatim reports are somewhat jarring for the reader today, as the level of sycophancy displayed when the residents address the Governor, is cringeworthy.

Main picture: Painting of Sir George Grey by Daniel Louis Mundy in the 1860s


The visit to Port Elizabeth by His Excellency, the Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, took place on Monday 21st October 1858. He was expected to arrive as early as 10 o’clock, but he did not reach here until about 12 o’clock. He was met at the Zwartkops river by the Rifle Corps, the Commandant, Captain Rocke, the Civil Commissioner, John Campbell, Mr. Tee, the Field-cornet, Mr. Rivers, his Excellency’s private secretary and other notables. He was escorted by them to Wasley’s Hotel, the predecessor to the Palmerston Hotel in Jetty Street where letters from various bodies desirous of communicating with him, were awaiting him.

Name of the town on the Hill

Mr. Paterson had been instructed to bring to the attention of His Excellency the fact that the “town upon the hill was without a name”. On behalf of the Municipal Commissioners, Paterson requested that the Governor should award it a name. Even though Paterson could not understand why the town on the Hill should not have the name of the town below, as the two forming integral parts of one whole, there was obviously some local political pressure for it to bear a separate name. Unsurprisingly what Paterson proposed was the name Lady Grey, after Sir George Grey’s wife. Fortunately, the notion of two separate names for the greater Port Elizabeth never gained traction. Perhaps the absurdity of such a notion was too self-evident to everybody. 

The Grey Institute named in honour of the Governor of the Cape Colony: Sir George Grey

Sailors’ Home

A deputation from the Sailors Home Committee, which included Reverends Fowle, Robinson, and Harsant; Messrs. Fleming, Simpson and Kemsley requested a meeting with Governor in order to solicit his patronage for a sailors’ home soon to be established in Port Elizabeth.

Mr Harries was unable to produce a statement of account to present to Grey but estimated that the balance collected would amount to between three and four hundred pounds. Having broached the financial aspects of the project, Harries went for the jugular and “expressed a hope that he would place some sum in aid of the Institution”. While supporting the need for a “good sailors’ home”, Grey deflected the granting of any pecuniary aid but rather proposed that the Committee request a grant of land from the Municipal Commissioners which he would sanction with immediate effect. Furthermore he proclaimed his support for the need of such a permanent institution in all port towns. Inasmuch as the use of “his name would aid them in their work, they could use it in any way they thought proper, but he should like to see a working resident patron”.

Foundation stone of the Town Hall

During Grey’s brief visit to Port Elizabeth, the most important ceremony for him to officiate at was the laying of the foundation stone of the town hall. What is little realised today, is that this building was designed to serve three functions simultaneously – town hall, library and athenaeum. As the town grew, the latter two functions would require their own buildings and would in time be relocated.

Construction of the Port Elizabeth Town Hall

Imagine being a member of this organising committee. Unlike today, travel arrangements could not be made with certainty to the minute. Before the introduction of railways, only the mail boat offered a reliable service and Sir George Grey was booked on that ship, the Hermes, for that night, Monday 21st October. As Sir George Grey was arriving from Bloemfontein, after participating in peace talks between the Basutos and the Boer republic of the Orange Free State under Esaias Reynier Snijman, who had only been President since the 5th of the previous month, any delay en route could affect his ETA.,

Imagine the organising committee’s conundrum. Never knowing whether the dignitary would arrive on the specified date let alone the hour agreed to, the organisers were reluctant to call out the whole town in advance to welcome the arrivee. It is fair to say that even when the person arrived at the time agreed to, they first had to accord the visitor time to freshen up in the hotel before posing the question about availability. Only then could placards be hung up around town notifying the residents that a welcoming parade would commence within the next hour or two.

Harries on Lovemore’s Farm

The reception committee’s solution was simple and elegant. Once “refreshed”, the committee would obtain Grey’s permission that the foundation stone laying ceremony would proceed, after first meeting with various other committees and supplicants. Amongst them were the Sailors’ Home Deputation, the Town Hall Building Committee and various municipal committees. During this three-hour window, the townspeople and other dignitaries would be assembled for the parade.

Placards were at once posted throughout the town, announcing the fact that the ceremony would take place. It then listed the details of the procession including the order of the march. In this case, the participants in the event, which comprised virtually the whole town, were invited to be in readiness at the Governor’s Hotel at 1 o’ clock. Owing to the Governor not arriving in town at the expected time, the ceremony was postponed by an hour. A little after two o’clock, the procession formed in front of Wasley’s Hotel. The following was the order observed on the occasion: –

The procession proceeded directly to the place of ceremony, the Town Hall, literally several hundred metres away unless they took the “scenic route” north along Strand Street

Presumably the Governor walked directly from Wasley’s Hotel [now the Campanile] to the building site in Market Square, awaiting the arrival of the procession and mounted the temporary platform in front of what would soon be the Town Hall.

One can imagine that even patriotic business owners along Main Street, having been compelled to close their shops for such an august event, muttering under their breaths.

After a prayer had been said, His Excellency descended from the platform, attended by the Gentlemen around him and proceeded to lay the Foundation Stone with masonic honours.   

A silver trowel was handed to his Excellency by the Architect, Robert Archibald, and he proceeded to spread the mortar onto the stone which was then lowered into place. In so doing, Grey ensured that he applied several tools, the square and level, handed to him by the respective officer of the masons, in doing so.

His Excellency then pronounced in a loud voice to overwhelm the chattering of the guests: “I pronounce this stone to be well and truly laid, to be plumb, square, and level according to the Rules of Masonry.”

The PE Telegraph proclaims that the National Anthem was then played. One presumes that in this context that the song “God save the Queen” was played. The whole ceremony occupied about an hour and a half, large numbers of all classes of inhabitants were present to witness it, and all went out with éclat. With proceedings over, the procession returned midst the huzzas of the crowd to the hotel.

Beneath the stone was placed a bottle, embodied in cement, in which was enclosed three local papers of the latest date, several coins, and the following inscription beautifully inscribed on vellum; “In the year of our Lord 1858, and in the twenty-second year of the reign of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, this foundation stone of a building to be erected for the threefold object of a Town Hall, Library and Athenaeum, is now laid, with all honours, this 18th day of October, 1858, by His Excellency Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Governor of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope in the presence of [long list].

Per the PE Telegraph “The silver trowel used on the occasion was a very handsome specimen of the work of our townsmen, Mr. J. Lund. The blade is of solid silver; the handle of ivory with a gold ferrule, and beautiful topaz stone set in the end. The blade of the trowel is to have a suitable inscription, together with masonic devices, engraved upon it previous to it being presented to His Excellency, the shortness of the notice of his Excellency’s arrival not permitting time to have done it previously.


His Excellency was only in the Town for five hours before he was on his way to Cape Town, with a view of catching the homeward mail ship to England. But first he had to visit the school on the hill which was named after him, the Grey Institute. Mindful of his disembarkation time, Grey scurried off to inspect the new Provincial Hospital on Richmond Hill, with which he was best pleased.

Old Provincial Hospital on Hospital Hill

After he had visited and inspected these public buildings, as well as the harbour works – the building of a breakwater south of the Baakens River – Sir George Grey lost no time in embarking for Cape Town. A large concourse of people had already assembled on the beach to see him sail off. Their hearty cheers were indicative of how popular Sir George Grey was as a governor, and how entirely he had won the hearts of the people of Port Elizabeth. A little before six o’clock the surf boat was pulled through the surf on warps by its Mfengu crew, out to the Hermes lying at anchor in the roadstead.

The paddle steamer Hermes was lying in readiness to receive his Excellency, with her steam up, and by six o’clock sharp, the white spray of the water revealed that her paddle wheels were in motion and that the Governor was off.

A Hermes-class paddle sloop

Port Elizabeth did supply Grey with a present. During his “stay” at the hotel, Grey was vaccinated by Mr. Davies, as were a number of the sons of Xhosa Chiefs also.


Various cuttings from the newspaper The Port Elizabeth Telegraph, as transcribed by Tim Bodill.

Date of visit

The date of laying the Foundation Stone of the Town Hall. Per the Social Chronicle, Margaret Harradine states that it is 18th October 1958 whereas per the PE Telegraph it is on the 21st October 1858. . I would believe Margaret Harradine – newspapers are not noted for their factual accuracy!

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