Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Schools

The first order of business when the Settlers landed in Algoa Bay was to establish some sort of permanent roof over their heads. As such, schooling was not a priority. Nonetheless the residents desire for schooling for their children could not be trifled with. To this end, a meeting of the inhabitants was arranged for Friday 20th February 1824 at the Red Lion Tavern which was by then being used as the Custom’s House and as Public Offices. 

Main picture: Algoa House serving as Mrs. Harriet Joanna Eedes’ School for Young Ladies

The First School

With Captain Francis Evatt in the chair, the meeting at the Red Lion Tavern drew up a memorandum to the Governor requesting that a church and a school be built.  In reply, the Governor promised a school but rejected their request for a church claiming lack of funds. Beyond the hackneyed verbiage of “civic responsibility” and “solidarity,” a rich well of these attributes was displayed when this minute impecunious community had by August 1826 provided what was termed, a “sufficient” school, in the turgid language of the report. In reality this amounted to no more than a prefabricated wooden building. The exact location of this building cannot be ascertained. Despite a grant of land for a future school being made on 13th September 1822 of a site on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road, this begs the question whether this temporary structure was itself located on this site, given the fact that this area was desolate and far from the homes of the children. It is more likely that this temporary accommodation was located somewhere on the foreshore. 

Unknown building in Chapel Street possibly the erstwhile Free Government School

Having met their part of the bargain, the residents requested that the Cape Government provide a schoolmaster. In the interim, a Corporal of the 55th Regiment was graciously acting as a temporary teacher to approximately forty children. Finally, on the 28th November, the appointment of a teacher was sanctioned. According to various directories, the school, known as the English Free School, had various Masters over the succeeding years: J. Stephenson in 1830, Richard Lamont in 1832, W. Dely in 1833 and J. Walker in 1834. Whilst providing the names of the successive Masters, none divulge why there was such a rapid turnover of staff. One can imagine that the large class sizes and multiple grades taught simultaneously could have been contributing factors.

McCleland’s Private School

In order to augment his income, Rev. McCleland, the clergyman at St Mary’s Church and owner of 7 Castle Hill, decided to start a small school sometime during 1831. Being an era before females were encouraged or even permitted to attend school, this school would be reserved for boys only. Presumably it was not located in one of the bedrooms of the house, but rather housed in premises close to the current St Augustine’s Church.

Reverend Francis McCleland

In order to attract pupils, Rev. McCleland placed an advertisement in The Graham’s Town Journal on Friday 13th of January 1832 stating as follows:


The undersigned is of the intention to open a Day School for a limited number of pupils whose parents may be desirous of giving them a Classical education and some knowledge of Mathematics, Composition, Geography, History etc.

 As the higher branches of learning will alone be attended to, the School will be open from 10 to 1 o’clock each Day (Saturdays excepted), so that the Pupils may have an opportunity of acquiring a knowledge of the Minor Branches of Education from other schools established in Port Elizabeth.

The want of a Classical School upon the Frontier has long been felt and acknowledged but Parents wishing to have their Children prepared for the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge or Trinity College, Dublin, can avail themselves of the facilities now afforded.

Terms: Twenty Pounds Sterling per annum to be paid quarterly and three Pounds fifteen shillings entrance.

Pupils limited to TEN but the school will be opened when it is notified that six will come.


                                                                                                    Trin. Col. Dublin

                                                                                                    Col. Chaplain, Port Elizabeth.

Jan 9, 1832


What is not known, as this advertisement does not clarify the issue, whether the school caters for Elementary pupils or whether it was a senior school. That said, implicit in the words “prepared for the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge or Trinity College” is that this must have been a senior school.

The Government Free School

In due course, the need for a Senior School had to be addressed. Twenty years after the arrival of the Settlers, the burgeoning town still did not possess such a school. During 1839 a number of teachers were “imported” from Scotland by Dr. Innes, the Superintendent of Education in the Cape. Amongst this “classroom” of teachers was a certain Mr John Paterson, a graduate of Glascow. During July 1841, a new era was ushered in for schooling with the opening of Port Elizabeth’s first senior school, the Free Government School, with John Paterson as the Master.  This school house, belonging to the London Missionary Society, was located behind the Union Chapel Church in Chapel Street. It was rented by the LMS to the government for the modest sum of £40 per annum. Paterson’s salary was fixed at £150 per annum togther with a stipend of £40 per annum as rent for his house on Chapel Hill.

John Paterson

Assisted by an “usher” who received £15 per annum, Mr Paterson taught upwards of 150 pupils single-handedly. Undaunted, Mr. Paterson attended to his duties with “great zeal and determination.” By 1845, he was granted the assistance of another master, the Rev Francis McCleland, the clergyman at St Mary’s Church. Given the fact that his remuneration was a meagre £15 per annum, one must assume that he was only employed in a part-time capacity. When he was replaced by J. Kemsley two years later, his stipend amounted to £30 per annum. Amongst Paterson’s most prominent pupils were William and Charles Fleming, Frederick Chase, Charles Lovemore, J.L. Burchell, John and George Owen Smith and J.C. Kemsley all of whom made their mark on the town.

Ironically Adelaide McCleland, the daughter of the Rev Francis McCleland, and my second great aunt, married William Fleming, an extremely successful businessman in early Port Elizabeth.

Given the milieu in which they operated, all Government Schools admitted boys only. Girls, if they were educated at all, attended private seminaries or were taught at home by a governess. The basic aim of schooling was to make boys literate and numerate thus enabling them to manage their daily lives and serve apprenticeships. Further teaching enabled a boy to find a place in an office. Without more advanced facilities, boys intending to prepare for the professions, were usually sent overseas.

Paterson’s sojourn at the school was never bound to be long. An entrepreneur at heart, Paterson soon was casting around for new adventures. Editing a newspaper initially became a sideline occupation. This situation ceased in January 1848, when an acquaintance, Joseph Reid, who had come to the Cape with Paterson in 1841 succeeded him as Master at the FGS. In the interim, Reid had been a Master in Somerset East and George.  John Paterson was now free to perform his duties as editor of the Eastern Province Herald full-time instead of surreptitiously.

Details of Government Free School from 1848 Almanac

It is difficult to state exactly what this school was officially called but the name Port Elizabeth Public School does appear in the book Port Elizabeth of Bygone Days whereas per the EP Directory & Almanac of 1848 it is referred to as the Government Free School. I have used the latter name throughout. Lastly I cannot ascertain when this school was finally closed. In all likelihood, it was replaced by the Grey Institute over time.


Eedes’ School for Young Ladies

Harriet Eedes was either passionate about the education of females or alternatively required a profession to generate income. Whatever the rationale, she rented a property, named Algoa House, located in Western Road, from Mr. Jonathan Board for use as a school for young ladies. This school is listed in the 1843 edition of the Cape Almanac as Mrs. Harriet Joanna Eedes’ School for Young Ladies. In 1845, Eedes advertised that she was re-opening her boarding school in Grahamstown, where she rented the house The Retreat. It is assumed that at this point, this school in Western Road was closed and the property reverted to residential accommodation.

The Future

Port Elizabeth was now ripe for the establishment of a proper senior school. In due course, building of the Grey Institute would commence on the 17th January 1856 when the foundation stone was laid.


‘Neath the Tower by J.J. Redgrave, A.M. Pollock & James Hattle (1956, Howard B. Timmins, Cape Town)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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


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