Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

For me the inscription on the granite statue, “The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or in the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion” is apt. That Port Elizabeth chose to honour our equestrian friends who were slaughtered during the Boer War epitomises that humanity.

Main picture: Horses being offloaded  at the Port Elizabeth harbour during the Anglo Boer War using the sling-hoist method.

Raison d’etre

Port Elizabeth is home to South Africa’s only Horse Memorial, an impressive life-size bronze and stone monument built to honour the thousands of horses that perished whilst on active duty during South Africa’s three-year-long Anglo Boer War. Also, unknown to the general public, was the trauma and miseries experienced by these uncomplaining animals in those vast journeys to South Africa.

Horse Depot for over 30 000 horses
Horse Depot for over 30 000 horses. It was located on the original Showground property on the corner of Mount and Harrower Roads.

Born in the crucible of war

This war was precipitated by conflicting imperial and republican ideologies, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, tension between political leaders, and the infamous Jameson Raid by the British renegade Rhodes against Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic.

1905 02 11 - The unveiling of the Horse Memorial intersection of Rink Street, Pearson Streets and Park Drive
1905 02 11 – The unveiling of the Horse Memorial intersection of Rink Street, Pearson Streets and Park Drive

Also known as the South African War, the conflict raged from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902 between British forces and those of the South African Republic – a combination of the then Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State.

During the war years, Port Elizabeth served as the main port of entry for remounts, as these incoming horses were referred to, for the British and Colonial forces. As a consequence, the townspeople were very aware of the contribution made by thousands of horses and mules during the hostilities. The reason for the continual importation of horses was necessitated by the high rate of death of these beasts.

Unveiling the Horse Memorial on 11 Feb 1905
Unveiling of the Horse Memorial on 11 02 1905

Altogether the Remount Department, in England and in South Africa, provided for the purpose of war some 520 000 horses (Lord Kitchener purchased 41 000 horses in South Africa and the Remount Department supplied horses at the rate of 10 000 per month during the campaign) and 150 000 mules including an unspecified number of cobs. Of these, some 350 000 horses and 50 000 mules perished  in the campaign. The Boers took the field with between 50 000 and 60 000 horses  which  were  renewed  several  times  in the course of the campaign. Their loss of horses most probably exceeded 100 000. At Winburg in the Orange Free State the British slaughtered 1 500 horses to prevent them falling into the possession of the Boer forces. The carcasses of these horses were left where they were slaughtered and for a considerable time afterwards, soldiers, correspondents, and the public, generally, witnessed a scene of stinking, rotting carcasses of these horses which littered the veld. These staggering, and at the same time, remarkably significant figures of horses and mules which participated and perished in the South African War greatly influenced public opinion

Hardships experienced

During hostilities, the British Army’s War Office realised that mobility  was of the utmost importance and therefore made a vigorous effort to mount its troops. Farmers at the Cape were unwilling to sell their horses and, as commandeering them could have resulted in political unrest, the Remount Department (which began its operations in October 1899) of the War Office decided to import horses and mules from Australia, Argentina , Canada, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the United States of America.

One of the principal reasons for the inhabitants of Port Elizabeth taking such an interest in the movement to erect a permanent equestrian memorial, was the fact that many of the horses and mules transported by sea to this country by the Remount Department during the campaign were landed at Port Elizabeth. The transport of horses and mules by sea during those turbulent days was by no means an easy matter. Each horse and mule transported  to this country was secured with slings in the stalls provided in the holds of the ships and during the voyage hay and other fodder was hung in nets near the horses’ and mules’ heads to avoid waste.  Some of the noxious weeds which now flourish in abundance in South Africa were originally brought to the country from the Argentine in fodder provided for these horses ( Mexican poppy, Khakiweed, “black jacks” and the onion weed being the worst offenders).

Port Elizabeth, 1943. Municipal rubbish removal cart at horse memorial

A certain amount of space was allowed for in the holds of the ships where the horses and mules, during transport, were exercised on matting when weather permitted. Over 13 000 horses, as against 2 000 odd mules, died at sea and many times that number perished because they were often ill-suited to the rigorous demands of the South African veld and climate or were taken onto the battlefield before they had properly recovered from the effects of the voyage.

Horses on North Jetty

Hardly less important in its effect upon the condition of the horses and mules arriving at the front was the railway journey, especially when, as often happened in South Africa during the campaign, it was a journey lasting several days. Arrangements for watering and feeding had to be carefully planned and precautions had to be taken to prevent the horses and mules from injuring themselves or each other on the way to the various battle fronts. The latter difficulty was aggravated , especially in the case of the large English horses, by the narrowness of the South African trucks. In the trucks the horses and mules stood parallel to the rails and in two lots, facing each other, with a space between them to allow for feeding and watering. Special fittings were fixed inside the trucks to keep the middle of the truck clear.

At the Port Elizabeth harbour the sight of horses and mules being sling-hoisted ashore was a common occurrence remembered by the inhabitants of the town long after the war had ended. The horses and mules were gathered at the bottom of Jetty Street from where they were taken to the Remount Depots situated at the north end of the town (the old showgrounds site in Mount Road, afterwards the Municipal Market), where the remounts and artillery horses were corralled and stabled, and at Kragga Kamma where the mules and cobs were kept. After landing, many horses were broken in and trained at the Remount Depot in North End.

During the campaign, to be “Stellenbosched” became a derogatory term applied by the British to their officers who had proved incompetent and were removed from the battlefield to rusticate at a similar depot established at Stellenbosch.

From the Remount Depots in Port Elizabeth, the horses and mules were transported by rail via Naauwpoort (and afterwards, Springfontein) or De Aar to the front.

The great stampede

On a Sunday evening between six and seven o’clock during the war, a tragedy occurred which may have been one of the influences leading to the erection of the monument. A large depot for remounts and artillery horses was situated at North End and on that particular evening, church-going citizens were startled by the sound and sight of stampeding animals. Nobody knows what caused the panic, but the horses had charged and broken out of the enclosure, scattering in all directions through the town. The thunder of horse hoofs, caused by a large mob of riderless horses rushing madly through the main road on the hill, together with the darkness being illuminated with sparks which flashed out as the iron shoes struck the hard ground, unnerved the residents.

An idea conceptualised

Whether this event influenced public opinion or not, a Community member, Harriet Meyer of Mavis Bank House, initiated a drive for the creation of a memorial to the horses, with the support of members of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and the Cattle Trough Association. It was this body that was responsible for the design of the Memorial but the origin of the inscription upon it was, for a long time, obscure.

It was only decades later that the origin of this profound maxim was revealed. Dr. R.M. Leith expressed the opinion that the words are based upon passages occurring in the work “A Crown of Wild Olives,” written by the Victorian writer and philosopher, John Ruskin. Not that these words appear in the succinct, crisp form as the Memorial’s inscription but in a more verbose form. The final proof that these words were indeed purloined from John Ruskin’s erudition, was the fact that Harriet Meyer’s copy of “A Crown of Wild Olives” naturally falls open at certain pages. This proves, without a doubt, that it was these words of inspiration that swirled and coalesced in Meyer’s mind to emerge succinctly stated by Meyer.

Form of the memorial

The memorial, a provincial heritage site, comprises life-size bronze figures of a horse and kneeling soldier holding a drinking bucket. The bronze statue stands on an inscribed stone plinth and its base forms a water trough. In the days when the horse traffic was frequent on the roads, the trough must have rendered good service, especially for the animals which had to toil up the steep Hill from the Town below.

Designed by Joseph Whitehead and cast in bronze by Thames Dillon Works in Surrey, the memorial was unveiled on 11 February 1905 by the then mayor of Port Elizabeth, Alexander Fettes.

Horse memorial in Rink Rink
Horse memorial in Rink Rink


The motivation for the relocation of this monument from its original position in Park Drive is unclear, but there are two plausible explanations. At its initial site, the monument also served a practical purpose as it was used as a drinking trough. With the horse being phased out as a mode of transport, this was no longer a consideration. Probably of greater import was that new location was more prominent as it was at the junction of Cape, Russell and Westbourne Roads where it could be admired by commuters heading into and out of the city.

The memorial was moved to the bottom of Cape Road in 1957. It was declared a national monument in 1983 and restored by Anton Momberg in 1993. Because of repeated vandalism, an iron railing was erected in 1994.

The Horse Memorial#3
The Horse Memorial used in a motor car ad in the 1950s before 1957
The Horse Memorial used in a motor car advert in the 1950’s but before 1957
Horse Memorial at dusk
Horse Memorial at dusk


Inscription on the horse memorial
Inscription on the horse memorial

For more than sixty years, questions swirled around the authorship of this inspiring inscription:

The greatness of a Nation
Consists not so much in the number of its people
Or the extent of its territory
As in the extent and justice of its compassion

The mystery of who composed the inscription on Port Elizabeth’s famous Horse Memorial has been solved at last. It was John Ruskin, the great popular philosopher of Victorian times.

An intensive search for the origin of those moving 29 words took about four years ago, when an enquiry about the authorship reached Port Elizabeth from Aberdeen , Scotland. It was one of many such queries which still comes periodically from scattered parts of the world. This Port Elizabeth elder citizen the wrote to the Herald saying that he believed the author was Ruskin but he could not pinpoint the quotation.

In the years since, he had searched Ruskin’s books  and had at last found that the inscription is a composite paraphrase of these three successive paragraphs in “A Crown of Wild Olives”, Chapter III in war: “…… and then observe further this true power depends neither on multitude of men nor extent of territory………”. “Neither does strength depend on extent of territory any more than on number of population. Remember, no government is ultimately strong but in proportion to its kindness and justice”. In “A Joy Forever” Ruskin wrote, “Execute true judgement and show mercy and compassion”.

Clearly the inscription on the Horse Memorial  is simply a more positive and concise statement of Ruskin’s words in “A Crown of Wild Olives”.

Horse memorial close up

Caught in the political crossfire

The final indignity to this statue was when it was made riderless by supporters of the #RhodesMustFall Campaign last year. In April 2015 the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema’s EFF, decided to vandalise the memorial because of their convoluted and distorted idea that it celebrates something linked to the Apartheid era and pushed the soldier, supplying the horse with water, over.  The focus of the monument was not about the soldier but about his showing the animal compassion, empathy that these hooligans did not show for the memory of these horses.

Horse Memorial 3
Board with history of the Horse Memorial
The Horse Memorial#2
A riderless Horse Memorial
A riderless Horse Memorial
Destruction of Horse Memorial by the EFF#01
Destruction of Horse Memorial by the EFF#02
Destruction of Horse Memorial by the EFF#03

Other equestrian casualties of war

British mounts were not the only equine casualties of the war. The South African Boers lost large numbers of their legendary boerperde (“farmer’s horses”). The heritage of these horses dates back to 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape with Berber-Arabian ponies from Java.

Not many years after Van Riebeeck, a ship carrying 14 Arabian horses to Persia ran aground near Cape Town. The horses made it to shore, only to be captured and added to Van Riebeeck’s stables.

Around 250 years later, during the South African War, the boerperde contributed to the Boer soldier’s international fame as a skilled horseman.

The last horse drawn trams in Port Elizabeth were in 1897.
The last horse drawn trams in Port Elizabeth were in 1897.
Horses actually drinking at the Horse Memorial
Horses actually drinking at the Horse Memorial
The Horse Memorial by Dorothy Moss Kay

Horses in the South African War c1899 to 1902


The Collegiate Church and Parish of St Mary Port Elizabeth” by AT Wirgman and CE Mayo Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)The Horse Memorial” by Margaret Harradine “Port Elizabeth’s most famous statue: the Horse Memorial” by Christine Marot Looking Back, Vol V No 3 (September 1965) pages 17 – 18 Narrative of the Equine War Memorial by Tennyson Smith Bodill

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