Port Elizabeth of Yore: When Developers almost Built on the Donkin Reserve

It was a grieving Sir Rufane Donkin who arrived in Port Elizabeth on the 5th June 1820. Even though he had married Elizabeth Markham in Yorkshire under a traditional organised marriage which was the custom in those times for the social upper classes, remarkably, he had truly fell in love with his beautiful young wife. En route back to Great Britain, he had been diverted to the Cape as temporary Governor.

It was during the laying of the foundation stone of a proposed hotel for Captain Moresby that Donkin proclaimed that the nascent town would be named Elizabeth, after his beloved dead wife. Port Elizabeth had been conceived.

As well as naming the town after his deceased wife, he had other plans to commemorate her: proclaiming of a reserve on which a pyramid would be built as a monument in perpetuity.

Main picture: Pyramid on the Donkin in 1920

Donkin’s wife

Elizabeth Frances Markham (28 August 1790 – 21 August 1818) was the daughter of the Very Rev-George Markham DD, Dean of York, and Elizabeth Evelyn (born Sutton). Her grandfathers were the Rt Rev Dr William Markham. Archbishop of York, and Sir Richard Sutton, Bart. On 1 May 1815 she mar­ried Maj-Gen Rufane Donkin at Stokesley, Yorkshire and went with him to India where he was posted. Their son, George David, was born on 24 December 1817. Elizabeth died of fever at Meerut in India. Her grave was restored in 1988 by the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth. Her husband’s Knighthood was proclaimed after her death, so she cannot correctly be called “Lady Donkin”. Donkin took her embalmed heart with him to London and it was buried with him in the family tomb at old St Pancreas’ Churchyard.

Mosaic of Elizabeth Donkin

A Monument in perpetuity

During August 1820, Donkin selected a prominent site for a memorial to his wife. Settler draughtsman, Thomas Willson, made drawings for a pyramid similar to that of Caius Cestius in Rome, and William Reed supplied the stone. The builders were soldiers from the Fort. Pyramids were not uncommon as memorials in England and India in the 18th Century. In June 1821 Knobel surveyed 5 morgen 535 sq. roods of land around the memorial which was to remain an open space in perpetuity.

Two plaques are affixed to this monument after it was built. On the side facing the sea is written:

To the memory / of / One of the most perfect

Of human beings / Who has given her

Name / To the Town below

On the opposite side it read:

Elizabeth Frances Lady Donkin / Eldest daughter of

Dr George Markham / Dean of York / Died at Mirat in

Upper Hindoostan / of a fever after seven days’ illness /

on the 21st of August, 1818 / Aged not quire 28 years /

She left an infant son in his seventh month, too young to know /

the irreparable loss he had sustained / and a husband whose heart

is still / wrung by undiminished grief / He erected this Pyramid /

August, 1820

Prohibition on use of Donkin Reserve

According to the Certificate of Registration dated 25th July 1821, building upon the Donkin Reserve was prohibited in perpetuity. This meant that, apart from the pyramid build in 1820, it could have no other structures built on it. A copy of the Certificate and the diagram signed by the Land Surveyor, J. Knobel, dated June 1821 is kept in the System Manager’s Office in Port Elizabeth.

The instruction contained in the Colonial Secretary’s letter addressed to the Commandant of Port Elizabeth leaves no doubt on this point.

UIT. FR. 3.10                                                                                                                                    COLONIAL OFFICE 25th JULY, 1821

Capt. F. Evatt


Port Elizabeth


              I am directed by his Excellency, the Acting Governor, to transmit to you a diagram 5 morgen and 533 Square Roods of Land surrounding the Pyramid erected last year by order of his Excellency, Sir Rufane Donkin, in the rear of Port Elizabeth – you will be pleased to file this diagram with the instructions and Documents of your office of Commandant of Port Elizabeth, in order that it may be upon authentic record that this spot is not to be alienated, encumbered or built upon at any future period – the boundaries are defined by proper beacons which it is to be the duty of the Commandant to have carefully preserved.

I have the honour to be,


Your very humble servant

(Signed) C. Bird

The Donkin Reserve with a super moon during a night in 1911

How binding are such covenants and mandates?

Nothing lasts in perpetuity. Some might have exclaimed in 1820 that naming the town Port Elizabeth would have been an eternal “monument” to Donkin’s beloved wife, yet today that name is characterized as “colonialist”. Hence there is continual pressure to rename it. The name itself is unimportant as long as it has no connotations to the white settlers or their descendants.

What about the longevity of the declaration of the Donkin as a reserve never to be “alienated, encumbered or built upon at any future period”.  In this case it is not only political sensibilities that proclaim that it is anathema to celebrate a colonial person but also the courts. In the case, the judicial system is loath to accede to the deceased wishes in perpetuity as regards the alienation or development of land. It is only the political wishes of future generations that will ensure that the status quo prevails.

Early proposal to develop the Reserve

In the case of the Donkin, it did not take a change on the political overlords or the system for developers to divine business prospects for its status as reserved or sacred ground to be challenged.

Within 29 years of the establishment of the Donkin Reserve, this transcript of a letter by Colonel J.S. Cuyler from the Cuyler Records in the History Museum, Uitenhage indicates that a Mr. Harries was already intent on building on this ground.

Jacob Glen Cuyler

Private                                                                                                Uitenhage

January 29 1849.

My dear Mr. Fleming,

I observe in the Herald an application from Mr. Harries to be permitted to dispose of the Reserved ground round the Donkin Monument for building lots. I was with Sir R. Donkin when he selected the spot to build it on. Capt. Moresby had told Sir R. that he had made the Bay by seeing the Block House at Fort Frederick. I had gone over with Sir R. to see Moresby before his departure and was invited by Sir R. to accompany him and Moresby on the Hill.

I did not know for what purpose. On coming to the ground where the monument now stands, Sir R. said “Here will I place it”. He then sent for a pick axe and had the spot marked, when I was first given to understand what was intended. Sir R. left a memo. with Capt. Evatt that he would send masons to erect a monument on that spot. He got Mr. Wilson, the head of a party then at the Bay (who had been a draftsman in the Duke of York’s office) to give him the figures and designs for the monument. The position is not good.  It should have been placed on the summit of the Hill, whereas the land immediately in the rear is much higher than the monument and it had not being plastered is the same colour as the Hill. I do not think it can be seen at sea much beyond the anchorage. I do not remember that there was ever a regular grant of land.  If so, there will be a record of it in the C.C. Office. All I can remember is that a diagram (in duplicate) was sent to me to be deposited in my office, signed by Knobel on which was written ” not to be intruded upon or Built upon” – or words to that effect. 

Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin

Whether countersigned by Col. Bird as Colonial Secretary or Sir R. I do not recollect. Sometime after I had left office after the close of 1827, I found among my papers here a copy of the Diagram of the Monument Ground, which I sent to Capt. Evatt for the purpose that he might have the ground protected.  He may be able to inform you what he did with the Diagram. If no grant, the representatives of Sir R.D. have no right to dispose of the land nor do I think the present Governor will grant it to anyone, leaving it as Sir R. had intended,  an open space round the Monument.   I have had a letter from Sir R. after his return to England requesting me to visit the Monument and let him know in what state it was. I found it quite solid wanting no repair, but the slabs on which the inscription was engraved had been injured, by casting stones on it, and I suggested an iron railing to be placed round it. To this I never received an answer. Sir R. could not have made a grant of land to himself. I remember he fancied a lot at Bathurst on which he proposed building on and that he granted it in the name of a friend in England, a Mr. Adams.  Should you or any of the Municipality officers come to the Cape to enquire of the C.C. to inspect the Records Book where the Bay erven are entered, if no grant for the monument is to be found there will never have been one made.

 (The rest of the letter is irrelevant to the matter of the Donkin Reserve).

Donkin lighthouse

It was not only property developments who would cast envious eyes on this area. While the Cape Recife lighthouse was being planned in the late 1840s, the harbour board also tried to entice the government into building a lighthouse on the hill at Port Elizabeth itself. The project was actively supported by the secretary to government, John Montagu (1843-52). However, the governor was “unable at the present moment to estimate for this work, but I hope to do so shortly”. What was not taken into consideration was the fact that there was a prohibition on the use of the reserve for any other purpose. Even the building of a lighthouse was considered to be verboten.

The Hill Lighthouse shortly after its completion in 1861.

The matter of building a lighthouse on the hill was raised again in the mid-1850s when the admiralty surveyor, Lt Joseph Dayman, pointed out that a lighthouse near the Donkin memorial would be invaluable to shipping at night. The project, however, did not get off the ground until early 1857 when the matter was discussed by the Harbour Master, H G Simpson, and assistant government engineer, Matthew Woodifield A.C.E. of the Colonial Civil Engineer’s Department.

The Harbour Master, Mr. H.G. Simpson supported the construction of lighthouse on the Hill not just because the location was ideal but also because it was adjacent to a pile of stones in the form of a crumbling pyramid which could be used to construct the lighthouse. In the ensuing uproar, a decision was taken to restore the monument instead of using it as building material. In doing so, the residents of Port Elizabeth showed that civic activism is the route to prevent the destruction of national monuments and their way of life

The future

So far, the Donkin and its founding monument have survived two attempts at neutering it. Being declared a national monument in June 1938 could assist in their preservation, but do not count on it. These attempts could merely be harbingers or frontrunners of what is to come as political motives could even override considerations of an artefact being a national monument.

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