Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fischer’s Jewellers

Not only does Fischer’s Jewellers embody the essence of Port Elizabeth but also for many of its citizens, especially in prior generations, Fischer’s was their preferred choice for jewellery. Also, the building is one of the remaining structure built in the Art Nouveau style.

Apart from this obvious connection, my grandmother had another, more obtuse connection, to this iconic store. 

Main picture: One of the very earliest photos of the newly opened Fischer & Co building in Main Street circa 1914

State of watchmaking technology in 1850s

The British had predominated in watch manufacture for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, but maintained a system of production that was geared towards high quality products for the elite. On this basis, each watch was individually crafted. Although there was an attempt to modernise clock manufacture with mass production techniques and the application of duplicating tools and machinery by the British Watch Company in 1843, it was in the United States that this system took off. Aaron Lufkin Dennison started a factory in 1851 in Massachusetts that used interchangeable parts, and by 1861 was running a successful enterprise incorporated as the Waltham Watch Company. The requirement of the Civil War that attacks had to be coordinated was facilitated by the introduction of these cheap watches.

Main Street 1912 showing the Fischer's Building

Main Street 1912 showing the Fischer’s Building

That put paid to the hand-crafted watch industry and probably meant that jewellers focused on selling watches rather than manufacturing them.

Fischer's Jewellery dates its history back to the year 1862 when the parent establishment was founded in Port Elizabeth

Fischer’s Jewellery dates its history back to the year 1859 when the parent establishment was founded in Port Elizabeth

Establishment of the original business

Edward Preiss, a practical watchmaker and jeweller, with many years experience in London, Paris and Switzerland, arrived from London in 1859.

Preiss set up business upon arrival and in September 1858 advertised in the Eastern Province Herald that he occupied premises next door to the newspaper’s offices in Main Street and had commenced business as watchmaker and jeweller.  In October of the following year, he announced that he had “engaged an experienced jeweller” as his assistant. In October 1861, he leased a new shop “six doors higher up where a clock hangs over the window.” This was a large clock, jutting out at right angles from the wall, and from then onwards it was easy to pick out that building. This is still the site of Fischer’s Jewellers today.

 

Fischer's Jewellers

Alwin Fischer takes over

In March 1865, Preiss advised the public that he was retiring and leaving the Colony. His former employee, Alwin Fischer took over running the business. Preiss advised that Fischer “thoroughly  understands the trade , attained by a lengthy practical service in some of the leading London establishments.”

Ultimately, Preiss returned to Port Elizabeth, living at 21 Western Road and his children married here. His daughter, Edith, married Heinrich Daldorf and lived in Hanover House in Bird Street. Preiss owned lots 118 & 119 at the bottom of Havelock Street. His home, “Hope Villa”, was built in 1874 and is now the site of Inchkeith, and the two semis next door, c1872, are still standing, though much changed.

Fischer's original building

Fischer’s original building

Edward and his wife moved to Cape Town and then to England where he died in 1902, aged 82 years, in Bristol.

Fischer was born on 22nd May 1835 in Hirschfield near Zwichau, Saxony, Germany. By trade Fischer was also a watchmaker and jeweller. In 1859 he was employed by Preiss and ultimately six years later took over the business.

Fischer proved himself to be a fine jeweller and good businessman. In 1885, when the South African Exhibition was held in the new Feather Market Hall and market buildings, he won a silver medal for metal engravings and a special gold medal for the best collection of jewellery made in the Colony of South African gold and diamonds. The firm was highly recommended for a clock which required winding once per annum. The case was made by Jakob Kohler.

Whilst living in Port Elizabeth, he built a wood and iron house circa 1880 at 46 Gordon Terrace which was covered with shingles in the German fashion. Unfortunately recently it has been altered.

After retiring in December 1891, he returned to Hirschfield where he presented a clock to the town for the church tower, and then settled in London. All his life a bachelor, he married in 1908, just nine months before his death on 9th January 1909 at the age of 74.

A new era commences

After Fischer’s retirement from the business, a Mr A Schuster took over, running the business under the same name. Nothing is known about Schuster, except that he came from Bavaria and that he seems to have left Port Elizabeth in 1893.  In 1892, Karl Louis Emil Lippstreu joined Fischer’s. He had also worked in England before coming here and had lived in Graaf-Reinet and Somerset East, before relocating to Port Elizabeth.

In 1894, Fischer’s new owner modernised the shop by having two large plate glass windows installed and in 1895 a veranda was built over the pavement. This was a great boon to customers in the age before shopping malls.

The building and its site belonged to a man known here as Jan Bardien, a Malay whose correct name was Jabaar u Din. In July 1905, after his death, Lippstreu, who had been paying £500 a month in rent, was now able to purchase the building & site for £ 10,000 when it was sold in the estate.

Being the owner of the shop, Lippstreu was able to build a fine new shop and in 1910 the old one was demolished. An advertisement offered a 25% “building reduction” on stock.

 

Fischer's building

Fischer’s building

It was designed by Orlando Middleton with all the flourishes of the Art Nouveau style. In January 1911, the Fischer and Co’s new building in Main Street was completed. The lift must be the oldest still in use apart from the one in the King Edward Hotel.

In recent times, the street level front of the shop has been changed but the wood-panelled interior is still the same. This building is now one of the very few Art Nouveau buildings remaining in Port Elizabeth after the demolition of its finest example, the Bank of Africa.

Family “connection”

My grandmother, Elizabeth McCleland, Daisy to her friends, had led a tumultuous married life. After getting married to Harry William McCleland aged 36 [Daisy was 22] on Saturday 11th June 1904 at the tiny St. Albans Church at Draaifontein, the first betrothal at this church, the difficulties mounted almost immediately.

Elizabeth Daisy Beckley as a young girl taken on the steps of the farm house Draaifontein circa 1895

Elizabeth Daisy Beckley as a young girl taken on the steps of the farm house Draaifontein circa 1895

Harry’s career choice, whether due to a lack of any other opportunities or not, or whether it was the default option at the time, was to be a farmer. He would join other members of the McCleland family on the fertile banks of the Gamtoos River farming vegetables. Similar to the Nile River, the periodic flooding of the river would cover the adjacent land with a thick layer of rich virgin soil. Two years later the negative consequence of this phenomenon would wreak havoc with the young married couple’s life. They were bankrupted when extensive flooding in the Gamtoos Valley destroyed their crops. Their first child, Thelma, born nine and a half months after their marriage and shortly another, Kathleen, would be born, added to their woes.

Harry changed tack. Instead of vegetables, he would attempt to earn a living in dairy farming. For this, they would move to De Stades. As their luck would have it, the Rinderpest struck in 1912 killing all their cattle. Left with one cow, Harry William stacked his future on Schoenmakerskop.

The next tragedy to befall the family was Harry’s decision to enlist in the Union Army. Being already 47 years old and thus under no compulsion to enlist, why would he have done so. Given their precarious financial situation, perhaps the motivating factor was the prospect of a regular income. As luck would have it, Harry was assigned to the S.A.M.C – the South African Medical Corps. From there he was posted to German East Africa where he contracted black water fever. Shipped back home invalid, he finally arrived back at Schoenmakerskop only in 1919 having been treated first at Addington Hospital in Durban & then in Wynberg, Cape Town.

Harry William McCleland during WW1

Harry William McCleland during WW1

Amongst one of the few surviving vignettes on his life is the incident when his ship transporting him back to Port Elizabeth from Cape Town passed Schoenmakerskop. This ship passed close by a fishing boat which operated from Sardinia Bay. On board were some fishermen whom he recognised as they regularly passed The Hut on their way to work. He threw his helmet into the water with the request to take it to Daisy, which they duly did. For Daisy, the helmet was confirmation of the identity of the person aboard the ship. By the time that Harry arrived on the quay in Port Elizabeth, Daisy was waiting for him. In 1919, ships were unable to berth along the quays. Instead they moored offshore. The passengers were transferred to small boats known as surf boats using a wicker basket. These surf boats were able to dock at one the quays.

Unfortunately for Daisy, Harry was not able to work. This meant that the full burden of raising what was ultimately to be six children combined with running the tea room would be devolved onto her tiny shoulders. In addition to these responsibilities, Daisy had additional duties. Being a sickly man, Harry required required constant nursing. Nonetheless, Daisy bore all these trials & tribulations with equanimity.

Harry applied for a military disability pension. This application was deliberated upon at a meeting of The Imperial Pensions Board on 14th October 1919. It was duly gazetted in the Government Gazette on the 31st October 1919. The quantum of this award is unknown but whatever it was would assist this destitute couple.

Mr Clemence

Mr Clemence

Finally with their youngest child, Bryce Beckley not yet two years, Harry lungs ultimately could no longer support life. On Saturday 13th June 1925 Harry passed away at the age of 57 leaving the 44 year old Daisy to support six children. Per the Death Certificate, the official cause of death was recorded as Phithisis Pulmonalis, a form of  pulmonary tuberculosis. One can only assume that the debilitating effects of the black water fever was the wellspring of this other ailment.

With six children, my grandmother was destitute.

Bryce with his sister Thelma and Daisy & Mr Clemence in window

Bryce with his sister Thelma and Daisy & Mr Clemence in window

Thomas Henry Clemence

Circa 1829, a tall dark handsome man stepped into my grandmother’s life: Thomas Henry Clemence. Apparently Mr Clemence worked for Fischer’s Jewellers in Main Street, his occupation being watchmaker & jeweller.  He must have led a wonderful life living in the arboreal Walmer. In fact the Clemences’ lived on the corner of 4th Avenue & Heugh Road. Being one of the few people owning a car in the 1920s, he never had to catch the tram to work in Walmer Road. The tram ride to his workplace at the Fischer’s Building in Main Street, would have wended its way through South End, turned left into North Union Road travelled across the Baakens River to Main Street. All that he would have to do would be to walk across the road.

Top L-R Thelma, Mr Clemence, Daisy Bottom L-R Kathleen, Maureen & Clifford

Top L-R Thelma, Mr Clemence, Daisy Bottom L-R Kathleen, Maureen & Clifford

Instead when using his car, Mr Clemence would have had three options. Closest for him would have been the New Walmer Road, as Target Kloof was known in those days, or for a change he could have driven down Valley Road or Walmer Road. The Clemences’ had three offspring, Edwin, Thomas & Alice. Of these, only Alice was staying at home. This idyll was to be shattered when their mother, Daisy Seymour Clemence fell ill. Their medical practitioner, Dr A.J. Patterson, diagnosed three conditions: chronic nephritis, cardiac lymope & uraemia. Based upon her condition, Daisy Seymour was admitted to the St. Joseph’s Hospital. Within less than a week she was dead, passing away on Sunday 1st April 1928.

Was this unrequited love?

Even though they were engaged, the marriage never occurred. One the ostensible reasons for them never getting married was that one party was an unrehabilitated insolvent.  However the veracity of this assertion has not been confirmed. What is equally possible is that the traumatic death of Francis, her son, during the following year had a bearing on her reluctance. Furthermore it might been something as mundane as the loss of Harry’s disability pension, contingent on her remaining unmarried, was the deciding factor. Whatever the underlying reason was, Henry never did marry Daisy.

Daisy McCleland & Mr Clemence at The Hut Tea Room c 1930

Daisy McCleland & Mr Clemence at The Hut Tea Room c 1930

Mr Clemence was to meet his maker in a most tragic way. Sometime during Thursday 6th October 1938, while Henry was motoring alone between Sidbury and Alicedale, he suffered a fatal heart attack. His death certificate records the cause of death as Angina pectoris, commonly known as angina. This is the sensation of chest pain, pressure, or squeezing, often due to not enough blood flow to the heart muscle as a result of obstruction or spasm of the coronary arteries. Apparently after experiencing the angina, Henry’s  vehicle had rolled into a ditch.

Daisy’s second chance at love was over.

In spite of living another 39 years, Daisy never did find another suitor and experience love again.

 

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

The Early History of A. Fischer & Co, Jewellers by Margaret Harradine (2011, Looking Back, Volume 50)

 


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