Port Elizabeth of Yore: Why 1967 was critical for No. 7’s future

Fragility defines any process of change. And so it was in the process of restoring No. 7 Castle Hill and saving it from being demolished instead of restoration. It was certain key players whose strong beliefs and convictions which determined the positive outcome of this process. Why was this change fraught with pitfalls that could have snared the process and trapped it until its lifeblood was drained?

1967 was that crucial year.

Main picture: Castle Hill painted by H Fancourt White in 1850

Recapitulation – Recap in daily parlance
No.7 Castle Hill, the oldest remaining dwelling house in Port Elizabeth, built by the first Colonial Chaplain, the Reverend Francis McCleland, in about 1828/29, was purchased in 1963 from the estate of its deceased owner, Mr Harold B Smith. The purchase was made jointly by the City Council of Port Elizabeth and the Cape Provincial Government, with the proviso that the old house should be run as a museum of Social History by the Port Elizabeth Museum. A sum of R1,200 was provided by these two bodies to cover the cost of repairs deemed to be necessary.

Upon closer inspection……
The devil is always in the details. Agreements forged without the requisite level of due diligence have a habit of turning like a viper on the parties. In this case when a rigorous inspection of the structure was undertaken, it revealed that the sum earmarked for repairs was woefully inadequate. When pressed, neither party concerned was willing to accept further financial responsibility. An impasse had been reached. Both parties with the wherewithal to fund the renovation to the desired standard disabused the other of their ability to accept additional cost.

Who would step into the breach and rescue No. 7 from the wrecking ball? Perhaps knowing the agents of the parties intimately, finally it was the Museum Trustees who approached the Chairman of the Port Elizabeth Society, Mrs E.K. Lorimer, at a specially called meeting, with a plain question: “Will you take over or shall we leave the old house to fall to pieces from neglect?

The Society Chairman Lorimer exchanged glances with the vice-Chairman and Honorary Secretary, who had accompanied her for moral support, and without a word spoken, and even although each bore in mind the slender financial resources of the Society, a unanimous consent in its name was given.  Potentially this action could have bankrupted the Historical Society. Instead, it invigorated the association to succeed.

Fund raising
A Fund Raising committee was swiftly formed by the Historical Society. Frenetic activity ensued. Members of the Society and the general public were inspired to contribute to the project’s success. To motivate donations, a scheme was initiated whereby for every R1 contributed, the donor was entitled to claim an interest in twelve square inches of the land on which the house stood.

As soon as the first funds became available, restoration work commenced under the able captaincy of Rex Garnier. Altogether a sum of nearly R5000 raised and spent.

More than just restoration

Restoration was only one side of the coin. The other was furnishing it in period style and if it was to serve as a museum, it would require staffing and running expenses.  The fact that the residence of historical importance would not sustain the project. Practical steps would have to be taken and implemented to realise this vision. Even if the Society had to spend the whole of its meagre income on No 7, it would be insufficient to cover the costs of the Museum. The prospects were dismal. Aware of the Society’s dilemma, the Provincial Government came to their rescue with an offer to take No 7 under its wing on condition that the City Council concurred. Their proposal included in meeting 100% of the salary and running costs. Furthermore, a Management Committee had to be elected for the new Museum with a majority control vested in members of the Historical Society.

Apart from the management costs, the building had to be furnished in period furnishings for which there was no budget. Through the Society’s members, items could be obtained by employing the well-known methods of charitable organisations viz begging and borrowing for long term display. Their ethical standards prevented them from employing the third of the three methods viz stealing.

In terms of this agreement, the full ownership of the building passed to the Provincial Government. Furthermore, the Historical Society was allowed the use of one room to accommodate its office.

In hindsight, today we are unaware that the fate of No. 7 hung by a thread. When faced with the very real threat of the demolition of No. 7, Lorimer accepted the responsibility of ensuring its continued existence. For this selfless decision, Lorimer should be applauded and a plaque according her this recognition should adorn the walls of No. 7


No. 7 Castle Hill and its Future by E.K. Lorimer dated 24th December 1967  

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