Port Elizabeth of Yore: William Higgins & Elizabeth Higgins nee McCleland

Like her sisters, Anna D’Urban and Adelaide, Elizabeth Boland McCleland, the eldest daughter of the Rev. Francis McCleland, married well. Elizabeth’s “catch” was William Higgins, a successful merchant. One sister, Anna, had married Hugh Maynard Scrivenor, an attorney, whereas Adelaide had married William Fleming junior who had inherited his wealth from his father William Fleming senior.

Main picture: Painting by George Properjohn [From Ralph Properjohn]. The date on the face of the photograph at 1830 is wildly inaccurate as the dwarf jetty was constructed in 1844 and Coleman’s Steam Mill was erected in 1847.

William Higgins, born in England in 1812, married Elizabeth Boland in Port Elizabeth on the 30th November 1843 and died in Port Elizabeth on the 14th May 1860 without them having children  

Elizabeth (1821-1890) married William Higgins (1812-1860) on 30th Nov 1843, a year after her mother’s death. The Graham’s Town Journal on 7th December notes that “married on Thursday, 30th November 1843, at St Mary’s Church, Port Elizabeth, Williams Higgins Esq. to Elizabeth Boland, eldest daughter of the Revd. Francis McCleland A.B. T.C.D., Colonial Chaplain.”

By virtue of being the eldest daughter, it can be surmised that Elizabeth had borne the brunt of the additional responsibilities such as running the household and taking care of her younger siblings during the final years of her mother’s illness and eventual death. Her responsibilities would devolve to the younger sisters when Elizabeth moved into a cottage with William. Elizabeth’s mother, also called Elizabeth, died at the age of 42 from an unknown disease

William and Elizabeth lived in a cottage in Port Elizabeth. It seems almost certain that they did not have children for there are no records among the baptismal registers of St. Mary’s Church. If children had been born to them one would expect to find evidence in the registers, for William and Elizabeth were keen participants in church life. William sat for some years on the Vestry Committee with the Reverend Francis McCleland as chairman, while Elizabeth drew a small fee as organist at St. Mary’s for many years.

Castle Hill painted by HF White in 1850

William Higgins is reputed to have come to the Cape from London. About the time of his marriage he was a partner in a firm of merchant importers. In the year 1844, William entered into another venture with other businessmen. Jointly they formed the Port Elizabeth Trust Association with the purpose of administering Insolvent and Assigned Estates.

Higgin’s original original merchanting partnership partnership was dissolved in 1845 id est two years after its inception in 1843 and marriage to Elizabeth. Subsequently he built up his own flourishing business as a merchant.  The E.P. Herald of 24th January 1846 carried the following two Notices:

  1. Notice of the dissolution of the partnership of C. Maynard, H. Maynard and W. Higgins
  2. Notice that W. Higgins will continue to trade on his own

Civic affairs
William built up his own business as a merchant until his primary interest, civic affairs, took precedence. William accepted the appointment as Town Clerk for a three-year period, 1848 to 1851. To prevent any conflict of interests, this appointment meant selling his merchanting business.

Early view over the Baakens River

Problems he dealt with during his term of office reflect interesting aspects of early Port Elizabeth: the marking of footpaths in Main Street, fixing of covers for public wells, calling for tenders for a horse and cart, and issuing instructions that horses were not to be ridden or left loose while market was in progress in the Square.

William also took an active part in the two issues which then dominated Eastern Cape politics. The first issue, initiated by John Paterson and Robert Godlonton, was that of independence for the Eastern Cape. They demanded that the Eastern Cape should have its own government, for he and many others feared domination by the more developed Western Cape, and William’s role within this association, the Branch Resident Government Association, was that of Honorary Secretary. The other issue was created by the British Government’s intention to use the Cape as a penal colony. William was also honorary secretary of the Anti-Convict Association formed to protest against this.

The other vexatious issue at the time was a proposal by the British Government to establish a penal colony in the Eastern Cape. This was vigorously opposed by the residents of this area. Here too, William was appointed as Honorary Secretary. This protest action ultimately had the desired effect and the proposal was scuppered.

In December 1849 Elizabeth and William suffered their most serious financial set-back, when William was declared bankrupt. It is ironical that this should have happened to such a responsible man who was frequently trustee in the bankrupt estates of others. William and Elizabeth were forced to sell their home and furniture and went to live at Castle Hill. It seems likely that William’s bankruptcy resulted from a neglect of personal affairs which was due to his keen interest in politics and also to the small salary he received as Town Clerk. With a miserly salary as Town Clerk, and William’s passion absorbed by his job to the detriment of his personal finances. It is ironical that it should have happened to such a responsible man who was frequently trustee in the insolvent estates of others.

William and Elizabeth were forced to liquidate their home and furniture and to move into the house of the Rev Francis McCleland at No 7 Castle Hill. With his entrepreneurial talent undimmed, William sought new business opportunities, becoming a wool-presser and again building up his own business. Even though the source states that he started a woolpressing business one wonders whether in fact it was a woolwashery.

The couple lived at Castle Hill until William’s death ten years later in May 1860. He continued, however, to show the same spirit as always, becoming a wool-presser and again building up his own business. His early death at the age of forty-eight may have been precipitated by the financial strain he had been through. He was buried beside the Reverend Francis and Elizabeth McCleland in the St Mary’s Cemetery in South End.where he is commemorated on the same gravestone. Elizabeth Higgins remained a widow until she died thirty years later.

Elizabeth’s later life
In the 1850’s Elizabeth ran a small private school at Number 7 Castle Hill.  In 1861, the year after William’s death, Number 7 Castle Hill was let, for all the McCleland children had now grown up and the youngest, George, was twenty. Elizabeth went to live in a cottage at North End. During her remaining fifteen years in Port Elizabeth, she was for a time on the Ladies’ Benevolent Society. Eventually, when Anna died, she followed her other unmarried sisters to Wynberg in Cape Town where she lived until her death in 1890. At Number 7 Castle Hill there is a special memento of Elizabeth. It is the bible she presented to her sister Adelaide, on the occasion of her wedding to William Fleming and it is inscribed, “To William and Adelaide Fleming with E.B. Higgins’ Affectionate Love. January 21st, 1858.”

Both William and Elizabeth were keen participants in church life. William sat for some years on the Vestry Committee with the Rev Francis McCleland as chairman, while Elizabeth drew a small fee as organist at St. Mary’s for many years. Perhaps this is how they originally met, much like her father who probably met his future bride at St Mary’s Church in Passage West, Ireland.

Elizabeth threw herself into other ventures. During the 1850s, she ran a small private school at No .7 Castle Hill. In 1861, the year after William’s death, No 7 was let, as all the McCleland children had now grown up and the youngest, George, was twenty. This action forced Elizabeth to move into a cottage in North End.

During her remaining fifteen years in Port Elizabeth, Elizabeth was for a time a member of the Ladies Benevolent Society. Eventually when Anna, her sister, died, she followed her other sisters to Wynberg, Cape Town, where she lived until her death in 1890. Elizabeth is buried in St John’s Cemetry, Wynberg, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa


The Port Elizabeth Trust Association
William Higgins and others had formed the Port Elizabeth Trust Association in 1844 to administer Insolvent and Assigned Estates. The local Grahamstown newspaper notified the public of its establishment as follows:

Grahamstown, March 20.1845.P.E. Trust Association. The following gentlemen have formed themselves into an association, the object of which will embrace the management of Insolvent and Assigned Estates in order for their speedy settlement; the Administrators as Executors of the Estates of those who, by their will, desire their Affairs left in the hands of responsible persons; and the drawing up of awards in the case of arbitration.

The faithful discharge of such Trusts, the names of their members afford ample security and a decided advantage over the uncertainty attending individual Administrators.

Mr. John O. Smith, Chairman, Wm. Fleming, Wm. Smith, Wm. Higgins, Caesar Andrews, Alfred Jarvis, John H. Clark. John C. Chase, Wm. M. Harries.

P.E.,1st July, 1844, Joseph Graham, Secretary

Cradock Place
In his diary, John Centlivres Chase records that in 1873 the McCleland daughters, Margaret, Mrs Higgins and Mrs Fleming all paid visits to Cradock Place in December 1872 and January 1873.

The Port Elizabeth Quoits Club
Quoits is a traditional game which involves the throwing of rings made of metal, rope or rubber. A spike, sometimes called a hob, mott or pin, were planted at a set distance. The objective of the game was to attempt to throw the rings to land over or near a spike. The game of quoits encompasses several distinct variations. In their home country, quoits was deemed to be a game of the working class. However in the Cape it was adopted by the hoi polio as their recreation of choice attracting the crème de la crème and prominent members of the colonial society.   

The local quoits club was established in 1842. Amongst its prominent members were the following:

  • Charles Hugh Huntley – Civil Commissioner
  • Rev. Francis McCleland – Colonial Chaplain
  • Captain Henry Dunsterville – Harbour Master & Port Captain
  • William Higgins – Well-known merchant and later Town Clerk
  • John Heugh – Merchant
  • John Paterson – MLA, founder of the Herald and Standard Bank

Establishment of the Collegiate Girls School
Proceeding the announcement by some three months that a girls’ school would be established in Port Elizabeth, a meeting was held in June 1873 at the old Grey Institute in Belmont Crescent. This meeting was convened by ten prominent females in the town who raised a chorus of concerns that the girls’ needs as regards higher education in Port Elizabeth had to be addressed in the same manner in which the well-endowed Grey Institute catered by the needs of the boys. Amongst those present were Mrs Elizabeth Higgins (nee McCleland) and Mrs Adelaide Fleming (nee McCleland), both second great-aunts of mine.

Unlike the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, women were now demanding education as was evidenced by the rapid adoption of Ladies’ Seminaries. The two McCleland sisters were probably exposed to this alien concept by their father, the Rev. Francis McCleland, who ensured that his daughters obtained the requisite level of tuition.

Partnership with the Maynard brothers
The locus of the economy in the interior in the Midlands shifted inexorably to wool farming creating a rise in prominence of towns such as Cradock & Graaff-Reinet. From Grahamstown’s perspective this resulted in an unintended consequence. Instead of channelling the wool via Grahamstown, more direct routes to the harbour in Port Elizabeth were utilised.

With the growth of the wool-based economy, the economy of Grahamstown was negatively impacted. For example, it also affected the partnership of Maynard, Higgins & Co which then fractured into Maynard of Grahamstown and William Higgins [my second great uncle] [1812-1860] of Port Elizabeth.

Note conflict in dates
The  Graham’s Town Journal, 7 Dec. 1843. 44 E.P. Herald, 24 Jan. 1846. Notice of the dissolution of the partnership of C. Maynard, H. Maynard and W. Higgins, and notice that W. Higgins will continue to trade on his own. He sold out when he became Town Clerk.


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

Various issues of Looking Back

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