Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Photographs & Photographers

This was another first for Port Elizabeth. By all accounts, the first photographic studio in South Africa was established in Port Elizabeth. The first publicly announced photographic process, was the Daguerreotype process. It was introduced worldwide in 1839. For the following nearly twenty years, it was the most commonly used photographic processes internationally. The first photograph using this process in Port Elizabeth was on the 17th October 1846.

Main picture: The Beach at South End in 1878

Monsieur Jules Léger of Paris, a daguerreotypist, arrived in Algoa Bay [Port Elizabeth] from India on October 14, 1846 aboard the schooner Hannah Codner after first making a sea voyage to India some time prior to 1846. Léger disembarked, intending at first to demonstrate his photographic skills while the ship lay at anchor. Legend has it that this is where he met William Ring, a local bookdealer and stationer and together they decided to set up South Africa’s first photographic studio in Port Elizabeth. Three days later, Léger was taking “photographic likenesses (a minute’s attendance)”, in Mr. William Ring’s book and stationery shop. Together they set up a studio in Ring’s premises in Jetty Street. Very soon Léger exhibited a handful of settler portraits and some colonial scenes which were described in the Grahamstown Journal in November 1846 as “beautiful, wonderful, interesting.”

Oldest photo of Port Elizabeth taken in 1846

William Ring

William Ring with his wife and three children left London on the barque, Prince Albert, on the 21st April 1841, being one of a number of families intending to emigrate to New Zealand. The ship, however, calling at Cape Town for supplies, was wrecked in Table Bay on 4th September 1841. All the passengers were saved but the emigrants lost all their possessions and most of them were compelled to stay in Port Elizabeth. How Ring made a living during the next four years is not known but in 1845 he was in business in Uitenhage as a bookseller and stationer. He moved to Port Elizabeth in May 1845 and rented premises in Jetty Street. To augment his income, he started the “P.E. News Society” loaning newspapers and periodicals for a fee and later added a few books to his stocks. The “News Society” rented a room in the Commercial Hall which was adjacent to the Herald Chambers. Ring’s innovative venture came to an abrupt end in 1848 when the Public Library was set up.

In the meantime, Ring, the ever-adaptive entrepreneur, had commenced his photographic career. A month after Leger and Ring had set up their business, they decided to relocate to Grahamstown where they set up a studio in Bathurst Street. With all due respect that was a highly irrational move as Port Elizabeth had a growth momentum whereas business in Grahamstown was sluggish at best. Moreover, there was more potential in Port Elizabeth what with the town expanding rapidly.

Very soon thereafter, Leger relocated to Cape Town but ultimately went back to Paris. These two moves by Leger begs the question of what was motivating him make such apparently irrational moves. William Ring purchased all of Leger’s equipment and continued to carry on business in Grahamstown until 1847 when he returned to Port Elizabeth. The demand for portraits must have been restricted and the prospects meagre as photography was merely a sideline to his other two businesses. Casting further doubt upon the viability of the original businesses, Ring advertised himself as a “book and music binder” It had probably been a long time coming but Ring was declared insolvent in October of that year. Surprisingly he was somehow able to continue in business as a photographer and as a stationery business.

William Ring sought greener pastures. William boarded the “Phoenix” on the 3rd July 1850 with his wife and two children and is recorded as landing at Simon’s Town on the 9th July 1850.

William Ring’s advert in the EP Herald in 1846

After that, little is known of William except for one advertisement in a Cape Town newspaper offering to make likenesses by the daguerreotype method. He may well have returned to the Eastern Cape later as a farmer, by the name of Ring, is recorded in the Uitenhage district. There is also one Abraham Ring who operated as a photographer in Cape Town in the 1880s.

It was noted that William was less successful than Leger in the photographic business. Notwithstanding this, the adoption of the wet plate process would ensure that photography in South Africa expanded.

Main Street between 1853 & 1858 as there is no Town Hall & the new Church on the right was built in 1853
Main Street between 1853 & 1858 as there is no Town Hall & the new Church on the right was built in 1853

No sources are able to identify who the first persons were to be photographed. The only reasonable assumption to be made is that they were affluent. Moreover, none of these photographs is extant.

The City Hall being constructed: 1858 - 1862
The City Hall under construction: 1858 – 1862

The only extant photographs that I have able to trace, which can be classified as early photographs, are the ones used in this blog. Unfortunately portraits of the two pioneer photographers in Port Elizabeth, Monsieur Jules Léger of Paris and William Ring of England, are not extant.

As regards photographers, according to JJ Redgrave, one of the first and best was a Mr James Bruton who commenced business as a photographer on 11th February 1859 after being a shopkeeper. In December of that year he opened a studio in Jetty Street, finally moving to Cape Town in 1874. Port Elizabeth owes him a debt of gratitude as it is probably that many of the extant photographs of that period are Bruton’s work.

Amateur photographers

Schedule of Early Photographers in Port Elizabeth

These are the periods/dates on which these photographers operated from Port Elizabeth.

 Sources

South Africa’s First Professional Photographer by Khitab (Looking Back, 1980)
Silver Images by A.D. Benususan [Cape Town, Howard Timmins, 1966]
Secure the ShadowThe Story of Cape Photography from its beginnings to the end of 1870 by Majorie Bull & Dr J. Benfield

Related blogs:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fire Damage to the P.E. Advertiser in 1913

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fire Damage to the P.E. Advertiser in 1913

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road

Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s

Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler – A Man of Many Parts

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Murders most Foul

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Crimes that Gripped the Imagination

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far off War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far-off War

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era

Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House

Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House

The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Great Flood of 1st September 1968

 

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square

The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium

The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium

Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:

Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth

The Shameful Torching of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915: 

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Shameful Torching of the German Club in 1915

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace-Luxury Living on the Hill

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Gracious Grand Hotel

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling-From Abundance to Near Extinction

Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Legacy of Henry Fancourt White

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood

Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road-Formerly Burial or Hyman’s Kloof

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial: 

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Road through Target Kloof & its Predecessors

 

The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth

The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth

 

What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?

What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?

A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth

A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth

Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth

Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth

The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour

The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour

 

The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Railway Station

 

The Friendly City – Port Elizabeth – My Home Town

Sources:

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/SOUTH-AFRICA/2003-07/1058776733

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/SOUTH-AFRICA/2003-07/1058693826

http://reference.sabinet.co.za/webx/access/journal_archive/02590190/602.pdf

http://www.ancestors.co.za/articles/research-help/photographers-of-the-19th-century-in-south-africa/

Photographers of the 19th Century in South Africa

Pioneer Port: The illustrated History of East London by Joseph Denfield

 

3 Comments

  1. Have you ever come across anything relating to Sarah Gurney in Port Elizabeth? She started life in Braintree in Essex as Sarah Hornblow married in 1810 to George Moore & had 3 children. 1816 she married again to John Cadle who took the family to Salem Hills as part of the 1820 Settlers( I believe I can show this was bigamous) By Cadle she had 6 more children then he died in 1822 and in 1823 she married James Thomas another settler with a young daughter. They had 2 children before he also died in Port Elizabeth in 1827. Later that year She married Charles Gurney previously a boat owner and smuggler and later the Market Master. She died in 1843. Probably too early for a gravestone to be found.

    Anything about her life in Port Elizabeth would be of interest. I do have a lot about the rest of her life its just the last few years.

    Reply

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