Port Elizabeth of Yore: William Fleming Senior & Junior

William Fleming played a vital role in Port Elizabeth from 1842 until his death in 1861 at the age of 65. Like many of his contemporaries, he deserves to be recognised not for his legal and business acumen but rather for the civic mindedness which he displayed in the latter period of his life.

One of his sons was also named William. In tracking the careers of both men, the confusion regarding whether it was the father or the son to whom an event or activity should be attributed takes time to untangle. In the McCleland family tree, William Fleming is especially relevant as he married Adelaide McCleland, daughter of the Rev. Francis McCleland, making him my second great uncle.

Main picture: William Fleming as a Captain of the Prince Alfred’s Guards    

William Senior

William Fleming was born in London in 1796 and arrived in Cape Town on the 24th April 1818. He married Frances Charlotte Andrews on the 11th February 1828 in the Dutch Reformed Church in Uitenhage where he was appointed as a Justice of the Peace in 1836. He relocated to Port Elizabeth in 1842 and became a Justice of Peace there in 1843. By training he was an attorney and was at first a partner in Heugh & Fleming, the firm later becoming Fleming and Co. HB Christian was later a partner of this firm, the forerunner of Pagden’s.

William Fleming senior

John Paterson had long advocated for the establishment of a municipality which could improve the town by levying a “light tax”. In this venture, William provided his support. While Paterson was still a colonial servant being the headmaster of the Free Government School in Chapel Street, his only method of support was means of editorials in the EP Herald under the name of John Ross Philip, the printer and also by means of the correspondence columns under various noms-de-plume.

Fleming House at 20 Bird Street

After two unsuccessful meetings in 1843 and 1845, a General Meeting of residents on the 9th January 1847 with J.O. Smith in the chair, finally decided to approve of a municipality for Port Elizabeth and elected amongst other, Fleming and Smith to draw up the Municipal regulations. The day preceding the elections Paterson had written to the Herald under a nom-de-plume “let us therefore be unanimous and acting under the influence of faith adopt at once a resolution to have a municipal institution in Port Elizabeth.” On 3rd December 1847, Fleming became a Municipal Commissioner.

Fleming House on the left in Bird Street with Cora Terrace on the right

In 1848, Paterson, freed from the fetters of being a colonial servant, was able to publicly take over the Herald and let it be known that he was the editor and proprietor. William Fleming and J.O. Smith each put in £150, and Paterson £300. John Ross Philip continued to be the printer. After Paterson formally took over the EP Herald on the 1st January 1848 as proprietor, publisher and editor, Paterson’s financial burdens were eased by guarantees received from John Owen Smith and William Fleming.

In July 1849 he chaired the first AGM of the Public Library. He was a founder of the Guardian Assurance & Trust Co and was appointed to the Legislative Council of the Cape serving as an MLC from 1854 to 1858. He was Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and of the PE Trust Bank. He was a member of St. Mary’s Church Committee, the Prison Board, the Commercial Hall Committee, the Commission for Improving the Port, the Maitland Mining Co, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the PE Wharf Co, and the PE Water Co.

In 1851 he built a grand house in Bird Street which in 1864 was valued at £4,000 far more than the value of any other house in Port Elizabeth. In 1860 during the 16-year-old Prince Alfred’s stay in Port Elizabeth, this would be his residence.

He died in Port Elizabeth on 15h June 1861. He was clearly an able man of many parts and must have been an asset as one of the early backers of the Herald. William Fleming was another pioneer who had assured left his mark on the Port Elizabeth which he had served so well in so many ways. According to Harradine, William Fleming senior could be described as “courteous, possessing a breadth and liberality of views, having a fine, manly figure, living a pure and spotless life.”   

Fleming Street being part of land owned by Heugh & Fleming from 1834, was named after him. Fleming House, the former Customs House built on the same land as the former, was also named after him.

 William Junior

The Reverend Francis McCleland would probably have found pleasure in Adelaide’s decision to marry William Fleming for he was the son of a close associate. The two men, the Reverend Francis McCleland and William Fleming (senior), shared religious interests. William was on the Vestry Committee for some time, and both men were active participants in the British and Foreign Bible Society. They were also both on the committee of the Branch Savings Bank and on the Public Library Committee.  In the 1840’s, which was the time of the closest association between William Fleming and Francis McCleland, their children Adelaide and William (junior) were still at school.

Adelaide Fleming nee McCleland

William (junior) was one of the ten children of William Fleming and his wife, Frances Charlotte Andrews. He was born at Uitenhage in August 1833. In 1842, during William’s childhood his parents moved to Port Elizabeth where he received part of his education. He exhibited, even in his schooldays, the outstanding qualities that were to be seen in his subsequent career. He attended the Government Free School at Port Elizabeth and in 1846 received the first-class prizes in Grammar and Geography. With his brother Charles he then went to Edinburgh High School in Scotland, where they both received recognition in a literary contest.

William and Adelaide were married on the 21st January 1858, in St. Mary’s Church. It was a large wedding with five groomsmen and five bridesmaids. Among the bridal party were William Fleming, Jr. (1833-1894), Adelaide Fleming, née McCleland, (1831-1917), wife of William Fleming, Jr., Adelaide’s brother, George McCleland now eighteen, and her sister Georgina, as well as William’s brother Charles, and Margy and May Fleming who were probably his sisters. Some Fleming relations such as Charles Maynard and Fanny Andrews, whose surnames are well known in Port Elizabeth, were included.

Captain William Fleming Junior of the PE Rifle Corps in 1861

While in Port Elizabeth William and Adelaide lived in Pearson Street in a house called ‘Hamilton House’ which is still standing.  Adelaide’s husband had a varied and indeed prominent career. After returning from Scotland, he had gone into his father’s merchant importing business and three years after his marriage to Adelaide he inherited the business when his father died (1861). William’s career was similar to his father’s, both men taking part in politics as well as many other spheres of public life. William (junior) was a member of the Legislative Council from 1869-70 and was well known for his generosity, as is reflected by the following article in the Eastern Province Herald: “There was another large class in Port Elizabeth in far different circumstances … he referred to those towards whom his (William Fleming’s) liberal hand had always been so open, and a class who can appreciate the friend-in-need as the friend-in-deed more fully perhaps than those who required no such friendship”.

William did not achieve the status of politician without an apprenticeship in local affairs. The extent of his interests is amazing: Justice of the Peace, a founder member of the Chamber of Commerce, member of the Harbour Board, captain in the local militia, and committee member of the Provincial Hospital and the Grey Institute. He enthusiastically supported the development of harbour facilities and chose to publicise Algoa Bay by writing a brochure in which he hoped that “… to place before the mercantile and maritime public, … all the reliable data that could be collected in connection with Port Elizabeth, the flourishing and rapidly increasing seaport of Algoa Bay.

In 1874 William and Adelaide left Port Elizabeth. They attended a farewell dinner at the Port Elizabeth Club where William was a committee member and their sentiments are recorded on that occasion, when he said that: “For the last few days he (William) had been going through no ordinary struggle in tearing himself away from a place where he had so many kind friends – which from his infancy had been his home – which was the home of his wife too, and the birthplace of all his children – and in this he dared say that he had not to tell those who knew Mrs Fleming well, her attachment to and fondness for Port Elizabeth…

William and Adelaide’s five children, a son and four daughters, were born at Port Elizabeth. The first-born they called William, but this third William Fleming, unlike his father and grandfather, was not prominent in Port Elizabeth affairs. Instead, he seems to have left the Cape as a young man and not to have returned. The second child, Elizabeth, was born two years later and died as an infant. Of the last three daughters, Frances (Fanny) and Alice did not marry and lived in England. The youngest, Mabel Katherine, married Surgeon Captain Alfred Wright and continued to live in the Cape.

Despite their sadness at leaving their home in Port Elizabeth, William and Adelaide left for Europe. Whether they intended to settle there is not known but they returned to the Cape to settle at Wynberg. William continued his outstanding career in public affairs in Cape Town as a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Legislative Council, Mayor of Cape Town (1881- 1883) and served on two commissions. He died in 1894 while on a visit to London. Adelaide, it seems, never returned to the Cape but lived in a house called ‘Deeping Bank’ in Camberley, England, with her two unmarried daughters, Frances and Alice. She died there in 1917. There is a memento of William Fleming at Number 7 Castle Hill in the form of a number of water-colours which he painted. “Though he was a businessman”, writes William and Adelaide’s grand-daughter, Mrs Lister-Wright, “he was a true lover of the seas and all his pictures are of various ships which called at the Cape. His knowledge of ships’ design and rigs, also their draughtsmanship and colour technique, make all his paintings indeed a true heritage …” Mrs Lister-Wright says it is believed that William Fleming had an acquaintance with the contemporary artist, Thomas Bowler, whose influence can be detected in his paintings.

Captain Fleming of the PE Rifle Corps in 1861

MLC = Member of the Legislative Council


History of the E.H. Walton Group: 1845 to 1995 by G.S. Walton (1995, EH Walton Packaging (Pty) Lid, 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).

The Reverend Francis McCleland: Colonial Chaplain to Port Elizabeth 1825-1853 by Gabrielle Churchouse (1976, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria)

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