Port Elizabeth of Yore: Early Black Settlements Part 2

It was only subsequent to the establishment of the first Location in Port Elizabeth – Strangers’ Location – that the pattern of future residential developments in Port Elizabeth would become apparent.

This blog deals with the trials and tribulations of the African population in their quest for accommodation in the rapidly expanding town of Port Elizabeth as their needs were increasingly subordinated to those of the larger white community. Both were settlers in a new land, yet the Africans were allocated tiny pockets of land at the extremities of the white residential area, required for their labour but otherwise to be hidden from view.

Main picture: In the 1800s, the first Location was called Strangers Location, in what is now Richmond Hill, between Campbell and Stanley streets 

Dynamics at play

During the nineteenth century, there were two competing dynamics at play with regard to accommodation for the black residents in Port Elizabeth. From the ratepayers’ perspective, their overriding demand was the removal of these so-called Locations and squatters from the vicinity of white residential areas. This was offset by the demands of the merchants and commercial enterprises which required their labour close at hand. With the merchant class playing such a pivotal role in municipal affairs combined with the resistance of the Africans to removal to locations further out of town such as New Brighton, the Reservoir Location or the Race Course Location, it was only the intervention of central government at key inflection points that enabled these removals. This conflict of interest, like the false equivalence of having one’s cake and eating it, would persist in multifaceted form even today.

Map of Cooper’s Kloof & Reservoir Locations

After the Xhosa cattle-killing episode over 1856 and 1857, there was a large influx of Xhosa refugees with the mantra, “Siyam fenguza,” “We seek service. We are hungry.” Resulting from the 198% increase in black population in Port Elizabeth over the period 1855 to 1865, the town faced the daunting prospect of housing them. Failure in the rapid provision of legal Municipal locations, other solutions would have to be found: Squatting and private Locations.

Squatters – an eternal conundrum

Like the proverbial canary in a coalmine, squatting was indicative of an underlying malaise which had not been addressed. It was akin to the rapid urbanisation currently been experienced in South Africa where formal and informal solutions proceed in tandem. Strangers’ Location was quickly overwhelmed. Squatting became the norm in the Baakens River Valley, Walmer and South End. Another location on private property was the largest of them all: Gubb’s Location. This was situated on the “Mill Property” owned by Thomas Gubb on what was to become Mill Park.

Gary Baines chronicles the authorities’ vain attempts to staunch this inflow, to regulate it and outlaw squatting. Baines notes that “A series of municipal notices sought to enforce the regulations by which the council could act against squatters. Amended regulations promulgated in 1865 provided for the expulsion of illegal residents and the destruction of their shelters after three days’ written notice. This would sound familiar to 21st century denizens, but a further problem arose when they were evicted from the land. The expellees would never voluntarily relocate to the land designated by the municipality but would rather squatter illegally on another piece of land close to town. Baines provides an instance in 1881 when “the location inspector, acting on instructions from the town council ejected “native outcasts” from private property in South End to adjacent municipal ground [in order] to exercise control over them.”

An avalanche of complaints and criticism were again raised by white residents in 1884 over the “alarming extent” to which Africans had “haphazardly erected squatter shelters in the vicinity of the town.” The problem was akin to pressing a marshmallow. Press in on one side and another side bulged. By the 1890s, the squatter problem was insoluble and intractable with at least a third of the black population living outside the Municipal or private Locations.

Much of the municipal regulations and actions had proved to be wishful thinking. Much like water flowing over land, the liquid would determine its own course and direction of flow. Instead of defining the problem as dealing with a surplus of Africans within Port Elizabeth, if they had been serious about the overcrowding problem, the preferable solution would have been to cutoff the supply of Africans by engaging with the Colonial authorities. Failing that, they should have accepted the inevitability of a black settlements close to town.

New Locations established

The stark acknowledgement of the problem of overcrowding in the Strangers’ Location and the need to relocate the various squatter settlements, a new Municipal Location was authorised to be created at Cooper’s Kloof, off Albany Road. This was established in 1877 to provide, “further accommodation for native strangers and avoid inconvenient and unwholesome overcrowding now existing at the present location.” Baines further notes that “Cooper’s Kloof came to be regarded as a “model” location on account of the fact that its appearance was more orderly and less squalid than others. Wood and iron structures were erected instead of the bee-hive huts which were common in Strangers’ Location. The demand for family housing and the pride that most residents of Cooper’s Kloof took in their homes, provided an indicator of the increasing degree of permanency amongst African residents in Port Elizabeth.”

Instead of the melange of order and disorder, dystopia and utopia present in Strangers’ Location, a whole gamut of new municipal regulations was enacted, not with some Kafkaesque intent, but rather to create a more ordered community. Accompanying these regulations was a more concerted effort to enforce them.

Despite the erection of a more permanent type of structure in Cooper’s Kloof, which was indicative of the residents’ permanence within the town, the Town Council baulked at granting permanent freehold rights to Black residents. Buttressing this viewpoint, were the white inhabitants of Port Elizabeth who generally regarded Africans in locations as squatters with no rights whatsoever. One can safely assume that the white residents ignored the delicious irony of their recent arrival whilst still judging the Africans to be impermanent.

On the 4th February 1863, Thomas Witheridge Gubb, owner at the time of the Mill Property, was granted permission to allow Xhosas to build huts on his land. Ultimately it would become the largest privately owned location in Port Elizabeth. It was known by its predominately “blanket” population by the far more descriptive name of KwaMpundu, literally “place of nakedness.” Though Gubb sold the land in 1867, the appellation, “Gubb’s Location” stuck. The land was later owned by the Mill Park Estate and Loan Company.

It was cold comfort to the owners of Gubb’s Location who claimed that the location was sited on private property. To bypass this objection, the Municipality claimed the right to supervise it as it lay within the municipal boundary. To this end, the Municipality promulgated regulations in 1885 to permit them to supervise private locations. Amongst the regulations, they imposed an annual hut tax of 10s on the proprietor of the property as well as the right to evict persons having no right to be on the property.

A faction fight on the 2nd October 1881 reinvigorated the campaign to relocate the inhabitants of Strangers’ Location. These faction fights had erupted between the Mfengu residing in Stranger’s Location and the Xhosas living on the Mill Property owned by Gubb with the Zulus [amaMfengu] from Stranger’s partially involved. As news of the fighting spread through the surrounding towns, reinforcements for the various antagonists was expected from Uitenhage and Humansdorp. A small force of mounted Volunteers was called up to separate the groups while the Prince Alfred’s Guard was put on standby. Calm was restored without the need to involve the troops.

Adding fuel to the removal fire, was the violent death of the Superintendent of Locations and the concomitant white fears of the dangers posed by the Location’s close proximity to white residential areas. Apart from defusing white fears, relocation would also provide additional land for the westward expansion of white residential areas.

Congregationalist chapel erected in Stranger’s Location

To mute the chorus of concern, a new location was proposed in the vicinity of the present Mount Road to be known as the Reservoir Location. This would be established on the understanding that the Strangers’ Location would be removed. Previously stressful white inhabitants heaved a sigh of relief. A small group of so-called “school natives” led by Enoch Hlangoboza petitioned the government against the removal but to no avail. According to Joyce Kirk, in her Ph.D dissertation entitled, “The African Middle Class, Cape Liberalism and Residential Segregation in Port Elizabeth,” an alliance between white liberals and the emergent African middle-class prevented its implementation. The Reservoir Location was established by the municipality in 1883 with its vernacular name being KwaNtamobomvu, literally “Place of the Rooinek”, possibly denoting that an Englishman may have previously owned the land.

In the best of circumstances, it would have been costly to relocate the residents of Strangers’ Location to the Reservoir Location as they would have to compensate church and school site holders for buildings as well as their removal costs. Apart from the costs which the white ratepayers would have borne, inertia set in as the memories of the crisis faded. It was probably with a sense of profound relief that no relocations from Strangers to Reservoir Locations ever occurred, but those resident in the Reservoir Locations for at least three years were awarded freehold title. In fact only very few residents of Strangers’ Location ever accepted the offer to move to Reservoir Location but this Location never went to waste as it was utilised to provide accommodation for the continual influx of Xhosas to Port Elizabeth.

Renewed attempts at relocation

Instead of viewing these Locations as a necessary evil and a concomitant of development, renewed vigour was displayed in the white ratepayers’ attempts to disband them. Part of the motivation was the substantial growth in the African population.

Their fears were not well-founded as regards the threats posed by the African population. Pressure on the Town Council was applied from another source as well. The property developers and ratepayers foresaw the need to develop additional suburbs westward. To do so would mean removing the Africans from the established Locations and opening up a new Location further west. During June 1896, the Town Council agreed to relocate the residents of Stranger’s Location and Cooper’s Kloof to the planned Race Course Location near Fairview. The conditions under which this would occur were included as stipulations in Section 205 of the 1897 Port Elizabeth Municipality Act.

Once again these developments would come at a cost to be borne by the ratepayers. Some 300 site holders in the affected Locations were promised plots 18m x 12m with title as a quid pro quo for the land that they surrendered and well as compensation for the buildings on the existing plot. This flurry of developments was derailed when the military authorities took possession of portion of the site at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899.

Union Chapel in Chapel Street. Completed in May 1828. Rev Adam Robson in charge from 1832 to August 1870

The conclusion of the war brought other considerations to the fore. Despite having laid out the site, provision having been made for a water supply and the extension of the tramline to the proposed Location, it was deemed to be too small to accommodate the African population of 12 709 on the 300 sites. Furthermore the ever encroaching white suburbs would, within several years, require this land. Another severe drawback from the white residents perspective, was the fact that the route from the Location would pass through the white suburbs and per Baines it “was likely to cause disruption.” The form of these “disruptions” was not specified but bears eloquent testimony to overactive white fears and imagination.

Ecclesiastical affairs

At Stranger’s Location, the LMS – the London Missionary Society – established a church for the residents. Prior to this, the spiritual needs of the Congregationalists were met by the Union Chapel in town. This was to change. First it was the Congregationalists who would create a church in Stranger’s Location. On 13th February 1875, the foundation stone of the Edwards Memorial Church was laid. Situated on the corner of Edwards and Campbell Streets, the church was designed by George Dix-Peek and built by the Congregationalists as a mission church for Xhosas, Mfengus and Basutos.

The initial chaplain was Roger Edwards who arrived in 1823 but died a year after the church opened. He was replaced by Henry Kaiser. With the relocation of the inhabitants of Stranger’s Location to New Brighton in 1903, this church was largely unused. In order to accommodate the former congregants of this church, a new church, the Edwards Memorial Church, was constructed in New Brighton. In 1921, the Dutch Reformed Church purchased the building and in 1948 a new tower was built, and extensive alterations were carried out to plans by Jones and McWilliams.

To accommodate the spiritual needs of the other denominations, on the 9th April 1881, the foundation stone of a new Wesleyan Chapel for Black residents was laid in Edward Street. It was opened on 19 February 1882.

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