Port Elizabeth of Yore: William Roe and Thomas Bowler

During a visit to the town in 1861 – 1862, Thomas Bowler painted the Town Hall which was in the process of being erected with scaffolding surrounding the building. An insignificant yet unplanned feature was included in that painting; a small cupola supported by pillars. As it was never included in the design and never existed, why was this appendage depicted? The reason why was it included in the painting was only uncovered by Dr. Joseph Denfeld some hundred years later. The answer lay with a non-Port Elizabeth photographer by the name of William Roe.

If Denfield is correct, what did William Roe do that compelled Bowler to inaccurately amend his painting?

Main picture: Painting by Thomas Bowler entitled Main Street Port Elizabeth

Thomas Bowler
Thomas William Bowler (9 December 1812 Hertfordshire – 24 October 1869 London), was a self-taught British landscape painter who lived for many years at the Cape of Good Hope, and published a series of views of Cape Town and its neighbourhood. He is notable for having depicted some 35 years of the Cape’s history in landscapes and seascapes.

During his time in South Africa, Bowler travelled widely in the Cape Colony, and visited Knysna and Port Elizabeth along the Garden Route. His journeys produced a large number of paintings and sketches such as The Kaffir Wars and the British Settlers in South Africa (1865), and the Pictorial album of Cape Town, with views of Simonstown, Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown (1866).

Bowler played a leading role in the founding and legalising of Art Unions at the Cape. Being of a quarrelsome nature, his frequent disagreements were regularly aired in the local press.

Port Elizabeth in 1862 by Thomas W Bowler depicting the tramway from the quarry in South End

In August 1868 he travelled to England via Mauritius and Egypt to arrange the production of his portfolio Twenty Views of Mauritius but died soon after arrival. Bowler produced some 540 watercolours, oil paintings and sketches of which 64 were published as lithographs.

Bowler painted a number of pictures of Port Elizabeth but personally I do not rate them highly as the buildings appear to be out of shape and are not dimensionally accurate.

William Roe [1827 – 1916]
Following the invention of photography during 1827, Jules Léger is recorded as the first photographer active in South Africa, initially based in Port Elizabeth during 1846 and later Grahamstown and Cape Town.

William Roe

Like Bowler, William Roe was not a resident of Port Elizabeth but was based in Graaff Reinet However unlike Roe he was not a painter but rather used the medium of photography to express his artist proclivities. Sometime during the period 1881 to 1889 he spent some time in Port Elizabeth during which he photographed a number of excellent pictures.

Roe settled in Graaff-Reinet at the age of 32, some 73 years after the establishment of the town and 32 years after the invention of photography. Photography was invented the same year he was born.

Photo by William Roe: Dunlop’s house became The Grand Hotel, seen here, in 1885  and later Bunton’s Grand Hotel in 1887.

Many photographers were active in Graaff-Reinet in the period 1852 to 1916, but William Roe’s diligence and sense of duty resulted in our being left with an immensely rich and valuable visual history. As one of the most respected residents of Graaff-Reinet, his photographs certainly contributed to the historical heritage of this Eastern Cape town.

William Roe’s house

Many photographers were active in Graaff-Reinet in the period 1852 to 1916, but William Roe’s diligence and sense of duty resulted in us being left with an immensely rich and valuable visual history. As one of the most respected residents of Graaff-Reinet, his photographs certainly contributed to the historical heritage of this Eastern Cape town.

Photo by William Roe: View of the North Jetty from South End over the landing beaches

It has been suggested that Roe was the first photographer who saw the photographic opportunities at the Kimberley diamond fields. He travelled to Kimberley in 1869, some 480 kilometres away, and took some of the first photographs of the diamond digging activities. These panoramic scenes were highly praised for precision and clarity. Etchings were made of some of these images and published in the Illustrated London News in March 1872. Roe returned to Kimberley in 1870 and 1872. It has been suggested that he remained there for two years following the 1872 trip. During this time, he more than likely focused on producing landscape photographs. No studio produced photographs have been identified originating from his activity whilst based in Kimberley. He may however have assisted other photographers with their studio work whilst based there.

Photograph of North Jetty by William Roe

Roe received various awards for his outstanding work in Paris in 1878 and at the Colonial and Indian exhibition held in London during 1886. In South Africa (Port Elizabeth), he was also awarded for his outstanding work in 1885.

Although the cost of producing a dozen Carte-de-Visite or Cabinet Cards was relatively inexpensive at the time, hand-coloured versions would have been more expensive. This explains why there are not all that many hand-coloured photographs of that era found today. To date the authors have not been able to determine what the typical cost would have been of having a photograph hand-coloured.

Financial constraints
Constant financial challenges in Roe’s life confirms that the profession of photographer was a tough one. On 8 November 1864 William surrendered his estate due to insolvency brought on by “falling off in business caused by the late depression in this town and district”. His photographic equipment was then valued at £7.10.

Photograph by William Roe: South Jetty from the Donkin Reserve

Several other instances of financial challenges also show up in archival records. During 1907, Roe for example, borrows £200 from a John Luscombe repayable over an 8-year term. Roe senior also did not own the properties at Somerset Street (used as the studio) and Parliament Street (residence). Both these properties were registered in the name of Roe junior at the time of Roe junior’s death. An assessor thereafter recommended that a fair rental for Roe senior to pay would be £72 per annum for the two properties.

Roe senior passed away at his residence at Parliament Street on 12 April 1916 – aged 89. Roe’s death notice indicates that all his children were deceased at the time of his death. Mary Ann, who was partly disabled during the latter part of her life, passed away during 1921 aged 92.

Mystery solved
During his visit to Port Elizabeth in 1861-62, Thomas Bowler painted a number of pictures of the town. The one which attracted the most attention for the wrong reason was entitled Main Street, Port Elizabeth.  According the Looking Back, the controversy arose due the inclusion of a small cupola or clock tower supported on pillars on the top of the Town Hall. Such a structure never existed and could not have been seen by Bowler  and one wonders how he came to put it in the picture.

In an article entitled An Analysis of Three Pictures by T.W Bowler, Dr Joseph Denfield, a prominent  photographer from East London, explained how the amendment arose During the time of Bowler’s visit, the Town Hall was still under construction, albeit almost complete. As such the building was still surrounded by scaffolding. Also, on a visit to the town at that time was a prominent photographer, based at Graaff Reinet, William Roe. Probably in desperation, Roe reproduced the architects “original drawings”  in a volume of views. This drawing shows the super structure as Bowler depicts it. According to Denfield, “It is evident that Bowler must have been influenced by the original plans or the photographic copy” Dr Denfield also suspects that the Main Street buildings depicted in the print were sketched from a photograph by James Bruton which appeared in the Eastern Province Magazine and Port Elizabeth Miscellany of September 1861.  

Mystery Solved in Gallimaufry by Khitab [Looking Back, Volume VII, No. 2, June 1967

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