Port Elizabeth of Yore: William Londt – The Man and his Company

The name Londt does not resonate with the overwhelming majority of today’s residents of Port Elizabeth yet the word “Edworks” might do so. Unlike other entrepreneurs whose names are used as the name of the business, this never happened in this case. In short order, after a chance encounter, William Edward Londt and Frank Parker , were instrumental in establishing a major footwear manufacturing facility in Port Elizabeth.

While none might have heard of William Edward Londt, at least some must have heard of his other legacy; the St John’s Stella Londt Retirement Centre, in Sunridge Park.

Main picture: Edworks factory

Early life
Londt was of Dutch descent, born in Cape Town in 1881. At the age of 13 he started work in East London with William Smaile, a shopkeeper who specialised in footwear. Londt worked long hours but made time to study bookkeeping and shorthand. When he was 17, he rejoined his parents in Cape Town and became a clerk in the Standard Bank. Within six months he was working in the office of Herbert Baker (afterwards Sir Herbert Baker), newly established as an architect in Cape Town.

William Edward Londt

After the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, Londt enlisted in the Colonial unit Robert’s Horse. The five bars of his medal show the extent of his service before he was wounded.

Discharged from the forces, Londt tried livestock speculation but lost his money and resolved to make a new start in Port Elizabeth.

A fateful encounter
It was a casual encounter between two young men on a train in the Eastern Province in 1907 that was the beginning of the great Edworks Group, footwear manufacturers with a vast sales organisation covering the whole of Southern Africa. Frank Packer mentioned to his travelling companion, William Edward Londt, that he had recently arrived from Britain to take up the post of foreman with the Port Elizabeth tannery, Bagshaw, Gibaud and Company.

Londt confided that he had just been offered control of the insolvent Algoa Boot and Shoe Company, but he could not raise the capital. Packer suggested a partnership towards which he could offer £400.  In short order they acquired the assets of Algoa Boot and Shoe Company in 1907 – and so was born one of South Africa’s great industrial enterprises.

This struggling enterprise, begun in 1890, now had a new beginning in Lower Green Street. The plant was two sewing machines and the staff not even half-a-dozen. Frank Packer’s brother, Ernest John, had now come to Port Elizabeth. Ernest had served his apprenticeship with boot and shoe manufacturers in England. He assisted Frank on the manufacturing side while Londt handled sales and accounts.

By 1910 relations between the partners had deteriorated, Londt being unwilling to reduce his half share in the earnings and make it a third with the Packer brothers who had divided the remaining half.

They agreed to part and for the £1,100 needed to pay the Packers out, Londt turned to old business associates, Bagshaw and Gibaud. So ended the three-year partnership with Frank Parker which had set the insolvent Algoa Boot and Shoe Company on the road to profitability.

Frye and the mail order business model
The business moved to bigger premises in Roberts Street and after Londt married Florence Gladys Gilbert, she took over some of the book­ keeping. The company next moved to North End where in 1913 they built their own factory.

The year 1913 saw important developments. Londt met W. A. Willoughby-Frye, a sales manager in Port Elizabeth, and put to him a scheme new to South Africa, the sale of footwear by mail. Frye’s help in drafting catalogues ensured success. Later that year he became a partner in Algoa Boot and Shoe Company.

Edworks perspective from advertisement

In September Londt went to England to engage staff and on October 17, 1913, the Edward Leather Works Ltd. was registered to “take over the Algoa Boot and Shoe Company.” Londt and Frye, as secretary, formed the original board but within weeks were joined by Frank Gibaud. The company’s name was changed from October 20, 1914, to Edworks Limited.

As World War I developed, South Africa’s imports dwindled. Soon Edworks, with a staff of 150, was making thousands of pairs of army boots as well as saddlery and harnesses. Orders also came from the Admiralty at Simonstown.

Rapid expansion
On a visit to Leicester to order machinery Londt also engaged C. J. Garton as factory manager. Emphasis was being laid on better quality goods and plans were laid for fresh expansion beginning with the purchase for £2,725 of a large plot at Sydenham, North End, in 1922.

1950 Shop floor of Edworks

The mail order catalogue continued to grow – 100,000 copies of 60 pages in the 1920s. At the 1925 Rosebank Show Edworks displayed 300 different types of footwear.

The importance of Edworks in the economy of Port Elizabeth was demonstrated in 1926 when, to handle mail order goods, the Post Office built a special branch adjoining the factory at Sydenham.

When construction of the new factory in North End began, no expense was spared to make it the most modern. Output was increased to between 8,000 and 10,000 pairs a week and the factory employed some 400 workers, mostly White.

The change-over to the new plant was completed by August 1925 and the old properties in Adderley and Roberts Streets were sold. In 1926 the company resolved to open their own retail shops, the first being in Port Elizabeth. Others followed in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein until by 1929 there were 15. In 1930 mail order customers still numbered more than 100,000 and Edworks was exporting to countries in Africa and Europe, the U.S.A., New Zealand and the Dutch East Indies.

With the return of national prosperity, it was decided to become a public company. Edworks (1936) Ltd. was registered on April 30th of that year with a capital of £275,000. The board consisted of W. E. Londt (chairman), W. A. Willoughby Frye, H. J. White (business manager in Bulawayo) and C. J. Garton.

During World War II Edworks produced hundreds of thousands of pairs of boots for South Africa and her allies. Towards the end of the war, two of the company’s directors decided it was time to retire. On March 6, 1944, Londt and Frye formally notified their colleagues on the board that they had sold their interests in Edworks to the Dodo Group. Londt had set Edworks on the way to greatness and now passed the banner to the younger generation.

Family life
The area which today includes Sunridge Park, Fern Glen and Newton Park was originally part of the Baakens Farm owned by John Parkin. Circa 1930 it was purchased by William Londt. In those days this area was far in the countryside. For William, it must have been a retreat from the stressful job of running Edworks.

Stella Londt

The family lived an idyllic life in the countryside, which it was in the late 1920’s, and as Mr Londt prospered, the house became a double storied mansion where Mrs and Mrs Londt lived with their two daughters, Stella and May and a son Gilbert. However, wealth never isolates people from distress, trauma or even death. And so, it was with the Londt family. Stella, their eldest daughter left home to get married in England, but sadly, in 1933 at the age of 22, she was killed in a motor vehicle accident.

The distraught family moved back into town and donated the land to the Ministering League for Tuberculosis and in 1948 the League donated the property to St John who continued to operate a convalescent home until 1956, when a new committee set up a ‘Home for the Aged’ under the name St. John Stella Londt Residence for the Aged and today, the complex is known as the St John’s Stella Londt Retirement Centre.

Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

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