Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Disreputable Side in the Early Days

The sea wall from the jetty

Viewed through the sanguine eyes of nostalgia, Port Elizabeth in its formative years is naively viewed as idyllic. This is not necessarily true. Apart from the usual domestic spats, in many ways, Port Elizabeth reflected a “frontier town” with all its travails. 

This blog exposes the seamy, sleazy underbelly of that era. 

Main picture: The sea wall from the north jetty in 1885. Beyond it was the Strand Street, the den of iniquity

Note:

As no photos of the original Strand Street area of Port Elizabeth are extant, all photographs of this area are subsequent to its being rebuilt in the late 1800s.

John Fawcett’s view in 1835

This is how John Fawcett, a visitor to Port Elizabeth, described Port Elizabeth in 1835.

There is little or no profession of religion among the people. Though there are two ministers, one for the Church of England [Fawcett is presumably referring to the Rev. Francis McCleland], who is well known, and whose proceedings have not failed of bringing about the very effect which alone they were intended to produce. The other missionary, belonging to the London Society’s Mission, whose habits of study, whose disposition and taste, point him out as an individual more fitted to administer to a European, than to a poor despised Hottentot congregation.

 A faithful minister, determined to preach and protest against the abounding iniquity, as it ought to be preached and protested against, must count the cost, for he will assuredly be abused and vilified by the openly wicked, while the professed friends of religion will not only be ready to scrutinise his conduct, but to impute to him motives he altogether disclaims, and to draw conclusions distinguished only by ignorance, unkindness, injustice and acrimony.

 The town of Port Elizabeth has nothing remarkable about it, except its naked barren appearance. The houses are plain, but many of them [are] good buildings. They are white washed and roofed with the large pantile. At present the eye is struck with a want of regularity in the formation of the streets, but this arises from the intervals between the houses not yet being built upon. When this is effected, and the roads are made, Port Elizabeth will cut a very different figure.

Strand Street. This building was designed by G.W. Smith & built in 1897 for Rolfes, Nebel & Co. Later used by Tayler & Ries

Strand Street. This building was designed by G.W. Smith & built in 1897 for Rolfes, Nebel & Co. Later used by Tayler & Ries

This is a shocking indictment of the nascent town. Maybe he overstates the reality, but clearly, Fawcett was not enamoured with social conditions prevailing in Port Elizabeth at that time. Perhaps it is a timely reminder that seen through the jaundiced eyes of the times, Port Elizabeth was not quite as salubrious and congenial as one would have liked it to be.

While Port Elizabeth itself might have been in rude health, all towns have their seamy underbellies. In Port Elizabeth’s case it was exacerbated by a number of factors. Firstly, it was a port with sailors coming ashore after months at sea ready to let off steam and to “make hay while the sun shone.” The proliferation of taverns is indicative of this need. With these canteens came prostitution. Even though no reference can be found to this activity in the literature, it undoubtedly occurred, probably mainly with Hottentot women as there was a dearth of local white women.

The Caledonian Hotel on the corner of Kemp and Strand Streets

The Caledonian Hotel on the corner of Kemp and Strand Streets

Alfred Drayson’s view in 1858

By 1858, Port Elizabeth had progressed past its “hamlet-hood” phase and was now in its teenage youth. Unlike its sibling on the Swartkops River, Uitenhage, which had progressed rapidly from birth to stately genteel middle age, Port Elizabeth was still testing the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Twenty-three years after Fawcett’s visit, how would another visitor by the name of Alfred Drayson describe Port Elizabeth?

On the sixth day we landed at Port Elizabeth, Algoa Bay, whence I started without delay; sand, swindling horse-dealers, naked Fingoes, and drunken Hottentots being my principal sights at this town.  I managed to obtain a mount from a friend who had voyaged from Cape Town with me, and thus reserved my selection of a quadruped until I arrived at Graham’s Town.  We examined the surrounding country for game, but saw only a hare, a few quail, and one buck.  I was told that ostriches were within a few miles, and that elephants had been seen near the Sundays River a day or so past.

 After about eight months of frontier life, which was little better than so much banishment, I had directions to leave the colony and embark at Algoa Bay for conveyance to Natal.  I had to wait in the wretched town of Port Elizabeth for a period of three weeks, during which time I was nearly drowned in the bay, owing to swimming out too far, and forgetting the strength of the current, which set along the shore.  While waiting there, I visited the little village of Uitenhage, with its neat houses, gardens, and tree-lined streets.

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export obviously after the instruction against nakedness was imposed

Yet again, blame can be assigned for this negative perception. As regards sand sandblasting all and sundry, it had validity. Port Elizabeth had been established on a narrow strip of sea sand and whenever the wind blew – which was not infrequently – the sting of wind-swept sand could be felt. It was only with the tarring of the roads many decades later that this problem would be vanquished.

A common gripe amongst the local inhabitants was the issue of the naked Fingoes. Under duress, this situation was allowed to continue not so much because it was an Mfengu tradition but rather that they were such excellent workers. Their occupation as Beach Labourers was vital for the economy as Port Elizabeth’s major export was wool in 130kg bales. The indolent behaviour of the Hottentots did not endear them to the maritime employers. Hence, the Fingoes maintained their monopoly in this regard.

When the authorities did acquire some testicular fortitude in June 1852 and prohibited the Mfengu from being naked in public, it precipitated strike action, the second time in Port Elizabeth. Despite being easily forestalled, it was to set the pattern of Port Elizabeth claiming the title as the town with the most militant workers.

Finally, even though Drayson identifies the Hottentots as over-imbibers, this was also true of many people of other racial groups including the white males. This was an era when alcohol was never imbibed in moderation. Instead, men were compelled to drink in excess in order to prove their manhood.

Mfengu offloading imported goods

Mfengu offloading imported goods

JJ Redgrave’s view

Unlike Fawcett & Drayson, Redgrave was neither a visitor nor contemporary. Instead, he was a mid 20th century author of the history of Port Elizabeth.

With the growth of Port Elizabeth there came loose drinking and consequent loose behaviour and a goof sprinkling of undesirable characters drifted into the Bay from overseas and other centres in search of work and easy money. Added to these was a considerable number of natives and coloureds whose labour was much needed to meet the increased shipping that landed troops and stores for the Kaffir Wars on the Frontier.

 There were then no fixed laws for the control of the liquor trade and nothing beyond a normal licence was required to open up a canteen and many unscrupulous traders grew rich rapidly from this illicit traffic. Shady drinking shebeens sprang up in Strand Street, close to the landing place and in Evatt Street, the Red Lion Tavern flourished.

Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street in 1885 on the right of Thomas Kinna's house used as a general dealer. It was being run by James Maloney at the time

Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street in 1885 on the right of Thomas Kinna’s house used as a general dealer. It was being run by James Maloney at the time

Strand Street & Environs of Yore

This section of the blog is largely based upon J.J. Redgrave’s book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days.

Even today, this area has no cachet but in the early days, it was even worse. Disreputable, disagreeable, sordid and degraded come to mind. The site now occupied by the Railway Station was originally used as a dumping ground for the town refuse. Why this waste matter could not be disposed of in an area remote from the main commercial district is unfathomable. Later cottages, stores, boarding houses and offices sprang up in the vicinity and extended down to the beach.

This insalubrious part of town formed a residential area for the poorer working class of people and for a large number of Malays, mostly connected with the port.  The side streets leading off Main Street stretched almost to the beachfront and did not terminate, as they do nowadays, in Strand Street.

Building of MM Steytler & Co in 1892 in Strand Street. Designed by EJ Sherwood

Building of MM Steytler & Co in 1892 in Strand Street. Designed by EJ Sherwood

In the early 1850s, a sea wall was commenced, the contractor being Mr. Matthews, who erected a barrier of large stones. Prior to this, the surf broke where the station now stands. From the foot of Jetty Street to some distance north, the foreshore was littered with filth and refuse of every description. Due to its proximity to town, foul odours, emanating from these fetid piles, permeated the town by day and by night. Besides this, it was a paradise for dogs, cats and swarms of rats.

The foam from the breakers used to blow up Jetty Street and across the open Market Square. Later, a proper sea wall was commenced by the Council, which reclaimed a large tract of valuable land known as Victoria Quay. This was granted to the Council by the Government as freehold. Ultimately this was the land along which the railway lines were laid at a later date.

Strand Street Mosque

Strand Street Mosque

Today the reasons advanced for the extent of inebriation was the lack of a Licensing Court and the issue of licences by the Resident Magistrate without due regard for the character of the applicant as the Magistrate’s prime concern was the generation of additional revenue for the cash strapped local authority. While both of these factors may have been valid causes of concern, the underlying reason for the level of drunken and disorderly behaviour lay in the lack of other pastimes conflated with the lack of female companions who would have applied the brake on such behaviour.

During the 1850s Strand Street possessed the unenviable reputation of being the vilest and most disreputable locality in the whole town. The distance between the corner of the old Palmerston Hotel to the foot of Rodney Street was scarcely a few hundred metres, yet it contained no less than thirteen canteens, as bars were known in those days, but later styled as hotels. Furthermore, there were half a dozen suspicious looking shops used as smuggling dens.

The area was a paradise for drunken seamen and Hottentots of both sexes and was known as Irish Town for obvious reasons. Interspersed between these drinking dens, were a few low shops where super profits were earned by smuggling liquor.

One of the fine new stores built in Strand Street after the slums were cleared. Store of Hirsch, Loubser & Co in 1904. Designed by Edmund James Sherwood

One of the fine new stores built in Strand Street after the slums were cleared. Store of Hirsch, Loubser & Co in 1904. Designed by Edmund James Sherwood

Operating on a 24/7 principle, day and night this area presented a scene of drunkenness, swearing and fighting which continued uninterrupted owing to the lack of an efficient police service. At that time, the entire force varied from six to constables of inferior quality whose duties commenced at 8am and ceased at 6pm daily.

These officials were not expected to perform any night duties. As a result, the town was left to make its own devices to prevent burglaries, assaults, drunken brawls and other crimes committed under the cover of darkness. As a consequence, Irish Town as the hotbed of vice, was always given a wide berth by respectable people, including the constables. Without the requisite training and equipment, the constables were well aware that for reasons of personal safety, to wisely avoid this area. The law of the jungle and survival of the fitness reigned supreme here.

Stolen property, if portable, rapidly found its way across the counter of some of these canteens. Only those men with a vicious streak, herculean strength and pit-bull viciousness were employed as barmen and bouncers. These muscle men served as the informal police force. Their personal attributes were extremely useful whenever parties became too rough and when the property of the establishment was in danger.

Rolfes, Nebel & Co opened in Strand Street on 10 June 1893. Designed by George William Smith

Rolfes, Nebel & Co opened in Strand Street on 10 June 1893. Designed by George William Smith

Sleazy miscreants exploited the fact that there was only the faintest glimmer of light in parts of the streets for even gas was then unknown. They utilised the cover of darkness to waylay unsuspecting men and relieve them of their money and other valuables.

The reputation of the area was such that if a man died in one of these bars, his body would be surreptitiously deposited at the mortuary and no questions were asked. No investigation was launched and no inquest was performed. All parties invoked the mob’s motto of omerta.

By mutual agreement, there was a tacit contract between the smuggling houses and the bars whereby the latter would only purchase their liquor from the former. Moreover, the understanding was that the canteens would retail liquor at prohibited hours and during the whole of Sunday as both parties would derive huge benefit by the sale of booze at inflated prices.

Another manifestation of the level of alcohol consumption was the incidence of delirium tremens, known colloquially as “the rats” on account of the terrible hallucinations that tortured the brain of the victim. A not uncommon sight in those days was a man running amok down Strand Street suffering from this affliction. Neither was much account taken of the fact of a man dropping dead on the floor of the taproom or the street outside.

Premises of Stephen, Fraser & Co built in 1892-93 in Strand Street. Photo dated 1904. Demolished for Freeway

Premises of Stephen, Fraser & Co built in 1892-93 in Strand Street. Photo dated 1904. Demolished for Freeway

The refuse of all nations – deserters from the army and navy and escaped convicts – inhabited this area. Usually without means for accommodation, this riff-raff either slept in the back sheds of the bars, in sand pits along the beach or in the surfboats, which had been hauled ashore for the night.

The buildings in Strand Street were the worst rookeries reeking in filth and swarming with rats. Fistfights were a common occurrence and murderous scenes and drunken brawls arose where some of the participants were beaten to death.

A citizen at that time deplored these degrading scenes as follows:

Please come with me in imagination through Strand Street and its neighbourhood on a Saturday evening. We are at first attracted by a noise of fiddling and a very loud accompaniment of shuffling feet. We peep in and see a motley assemblage in a low, squalid room rudely adorned for the occasion men of all classes and complexion, from the spruce young clerk to the lowest dregs of the population dancing and drinking with women both white and coloured of the most depraved condition.

 We go a little further and again peep through another window and see a rowdy party engaged at card playing, liquor also being freely sold here. And thus the Sabbath Day is ushered in amidst drinking, fights and immorality.”

In due course, all these unclean dens of crime and intemperance were demolished to make room for the widening of Strand Street and for the erection of numerous stores and offices for merchants.

 

Strand Street circa 1950

Strand Street circa 1950

Cape Smoke

According to JJ Redgrave, “The chief curse in those days was Boer Brandy, or better known then as “Cape Smoke,” whose effects were so powerful that it eventually consumed its victims. Some unfortunates were known to quaff a whole pint of this poison at a time and the ultimate consequences were terrible. Once a victim became accustomed to the use of “Cape Smoke,” he seldom broke the evil habit. His thirst was only slaked for a while and ever and anon he felt the dreadful urge to imbibe. 

A Cape Copper Brandy Still

A Cape Copper Brandy Still

The senses gradually became dull, saturated by the horrible mixture and the wretched addict ultimately became a mere moving pestilence till death in the form of delirium tremens and in its charity, rescued him from his torture. Many a victim was seen to drop dead in the street or emerge from a canteen to lie in the gutter, never to rise again. In Strand, Evatt and Alice Streets, Europeans, natives and coloured of both sexes, with only the bare semblance of a degree higher than the brute beast, could be seen at all hours of the day and night wallowing in the gutters and sinks, suffering from the effects of the dreadful “Cape Smoke.”

Perspective

It goes without saying that a litany of negatives epithets such as disreputable, disagreeable, sordid and degraded can be used to describe the activities in the Strand Street area but one must not tar the whole town with the same tarnished brush. Far from it. In comparison with a town such as Uitenhage, where morality abounded, Port Elizabeth was awash with the flotsam and jetsam, the indolent and the cunning, the devious and criminally minded of society. Many of the reasons for this relate to the fact that Port Elizabeth was a port. Nothing more and nothing less. Unlike the staid Uitenhage, it attracted a large transient population of misfits.

The premises of Holt & Holt in Strand Street in 1897

The premises of Holt & Holt in Strand Street in 1897

Notwithstanding that, they did not represent the vast majority of law-abiding citizens. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, these drifters and misfits decamped to more lucrative pastures.

Strand Street witnessed a facelift in the form of brand new commercial buildings, the shebeens and canteens were regulated and the proficiency of the police improved thus driving out the undesirable elements. Maybe the Strand Street area would never have the cachet of Park Drive, but the era reminiscent of the Wild West sans the guns, was no more.

Sources

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

Account of an Eighteen Months Residence at the Cape of Good Hope in 1835-6 by John Fawcett (1836, G.J. Pike, Cape Town)

Sporting Scenes amongst the Kaffirs of South Africa by Alfred W. Drayson (1858, G. Routledge & Co, London)

 

 


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