Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Criminal Justice System

Any criminal justice system, apart from the Wild West, comprises several independent components: the constabulary, the magistracy and the prisons. This chapter deals with all three elements during the early years of the town’s development.

Main picture: Commercial Hall which housed both the Magistrate’s Court and the Police Offices before their relocation. Ultimately this site became the public library.

Paltry beginnings

In the first few years that followed the landing of the British Settlers in 1820, there was still apparently little need for any police on account of how few residents there were. In fact the number of inhabitants did not total more than two hundred. Instead peace and order was maintained by field-cornet Stephanus Hartman, whose miserable little farm was located just beyond Hyman’s Kloof (present day Russell Road) along Govan Mbeki Drive (formerly Main Street). Hartman reported to Colonel Cuyler, the Landdrost of Uitenhage, the district of which Port Elizabeth was then only a division.

In February 1825 Thomas Sterley was appointed acting gaoler and policeman, with his appointment as constable only becoming official on the 1st April 1828. There is some confusion in people’s minds as to whether he was the owner of the so-called “Sterley Cottages” on Castle Hill. This was indeed not so. The lower cottage belonged to Thomas’s brother, William, who was a bootmaker. This land was only granted to him in 1838. The upper cottage was built by teacher Henry Jones, who sold it in 1840 when he moved to Uitenhage.

Sterley Cottages in Castle Hill

One of the rwo Sterley Cottages in Castle Hill across the road from the more famous No 7

A separate Magistracy

Only on the 8th April 1825 did Port Elizabeth become a Magistracy with Captain Evatt being appointed as Government Resident and Montague Augustine Armstrong as secretary. Evatt still maintained his position as commandant of Fort Frederick. A census during 1825 confirmed that Port Elizabeth was now a hamlet as it comprised 103 men, 52 women and 147 children.

Evatt’s position came with a salary of £60 per annum but limited power. In civil cases fines were limited to £7 10s while in criminal cases it was limited to six months’ imprisonment or a fine of £7 10s and a maximum of seventy-five strokes of the lash.

The Residency of Captain Evatt, next to the Markham Hotel, later Scorey’s Place, became the first Court House. Adjoining it was a small cottage with a few outer sheds which were converted into a gaol. This was situated at the foot of Castle Hill on the site now occupied by the City Treasurer’s office.

Markham House on the left in Baakens Valley

Markham House on the left in Baakens Valley

Thomas Sterley

As stated above, Thomas Sterley was the first constable in the annals of Port Elizabeth. He became attached to the Court House of Captain Evatt in that capacity and also supervised the goal. He was seventeen years of age when he landed in 1820 with the British Settlers, accompanied by his parents and six siblings.

He probably commenced his career as constable in 1822 when the old Block House at the Baaken’s River was repaired and part of it was set aside as a prison. His official appointment as constable, however, was only gazetted on 1st April 1828 at a salary of £48 per annum. Although he devoted some twenty-six years of his life to service with the police, the government never granted him a further pay increase.

For several years Thomas Sterley was the sole representative of the police in the village and besides his daily beat and rounding up of delinquents, he attended the small court at the sitting of the magistrate, ushered the prisoners in and out of the dock, placed them in gaol and then acted as keeper and superintendent. All of these duties were performed for a meagre salary of £3 15s per month plus rations.

For four years, Thomas executed these duties singlehandedly. This might have sufficed in the early years but due ro the rapid growth, with buildings springing up everywhere and a burgeoning population, the constabulary was clearly under-resourced. In 1823 Thomas Sterley complained for the first time that he could no longer fulfil all of the duties expected of him alone. In recognition of his valid grievance, the Government decided to grant him the assistance of one white constable at £30 per annum and two Fingoes (Mfengu) at £20 per annum each. As the population in that year was estimated at just over three hundred and disease among the prisoners was prevalent owing to the unhealthy state and unsanitary conditions at the prison, the government reluctantly agreed to appoint a medical attendant.

In 1839 Thomas Sterley was promoted to the rank of Acting Gaoler at the same salary, whilst the Government sanctioned the appointment of three constables – George Turner, John Knight and George Payne – at a salary of £45 each per annum to be assisted by two Fingoe constables.

Algoa Bay in 1885

Algoa Bay in 1885

Law and Order, Probity and Decorum

With the growth of Port Elizabeth combined with an influx of unsavoury and undesirable characters in search of work and easy money, excessive drinking and loose behaviour became the order of the day in the area along Strand Street. Given to indiscretions and excesses of various kinds, this area could justifiably claim to be the red-light district of Port Elizabeth.

Conspicuously absent from this area was law enforcement in the form of feet on the ground or laws to control issues such as hours of business et al. Instead it was a veritable free-for-all where anything was permissible with no questions asked.

With only normal trading licences required to open up a canteen, many unscrupulous traders rapidly grew rich from this illicit traffic. Shady drinking shebeens sprang up in Strand Street close to the landing place while in Evatt Street, the Red Lion Tavern flourished.

Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street in 1885 on the right of Thomas Kinna's house used as a general dealer. It was being run by James Maloney at the time

The Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street in 1885 on the right of Thomas Kinna’s house used as a general dealer. It was being run by James Maloney at the time

The expansion of the constabulary

For the next eleven years, the Port Elizabeth police force remained at three non-uniformed men, two Mfengu, or Fingoes and the gaoler Sterley. It was only in 1850 when the town numbered some four thousand people that the number rose to six constables at £40 per annum and one scavenger at £18 5s.

At that time complaints through the press regarding the appalling conditions of the Colony’s prisons were loud. They were accompanied by painful descriptions of the wretched treatment of the prisoners. They were herded together in rooms regardless of sex or degree of offence committed. Moreover corporal punishment was meted out to them for the most trivial offence.

The Commissariat Building at the centre right built in 1837

The Commissariat Building at the centre right built in 1837

Every morning the “triangles”, three stout poles driven into the ground, were erected in the prison yard. To them were tied prisoners deemed requiring the lash. At night, untried prisoners slept with their hands tied behind their back. Investigations into prison conditions were held in every centre of the Colony and it was then decided to institute a Prison Board in each centre. The members for Port Elizabeth were William Fleming, Caesar Andrews and W.M. Harries. During this period another small lock-up was established in Queen Street next to the Toll Bar adjoining the Baptist Church and a Constable took up his quarters there in a small thatched cottage.

Baakens Street#03

On the 1st July, 1854, William Deacon became Jailer in place of Thomas Sterley, who had recently died. Deacon only remained in office for three years when his place was taken by J. Fellingham at a salary of £90 per annum. He was assisted by eight constables whose pay was reduced to £40 per annum.

The duties of the police force were lessened over the years by the appointment of additional personnel. By 1862, it had merely risen to one sergeant, seven constables and two Fingoes. How effective this ill-equipped and inefficient force was incapable of exercising their onerous duty of maintaining peace and order is anyone’s guess. Interestingly, up till 1862, no policemen were on duty at night leaving the citizenry at the mercy of unruly elements.

Baakens Police Station

The Baakens Street Police Station in a state of dilapidation around the year 2000

These constables did not inspire confidence. In the early days, the more delinquents they booked, the better their pay. The reason for this anomalous situation was that they shared the fines imposed by the magistrate.  The unintended consequence of this inappropriate bonus scheme was that whenever real trouble was brewing, no constables could be traced.  Moreover, thefts were seldom followed up and night burglaries invariably remained uninvestigated and hence unsolved.

The constables were rightly and constantly the object of much criticism and ridicule on the part of local editors and residents. Even though they deserved a fair share of the blame, there were many reasons to justify their inefficiency. In the first place their pay ranged from £30 to a maximum of £50 per year with free quarters and rations. This absurdly low salary did nothing to attract the right type of man to the constabulary. Those with initiative and enterprise rather pursued other interests. Two favourite alternatives were to open a shop or canteen as property was cheap. Alternatively, they could ply a trade, as these commanded high wages in a burgeoning town.

Monitoring of these constables’ performance was rudimentary. This was further exacerbated by the lack of a superior officer or a depot where recruits could receive initial training in the duties of a constable vis-à-vis delinquents and the general public. Apparently they were left to their own devices and applied the law as they deemed fit. A successful applicant donned a cheap uniform, if one was available, and the following morning the newly-minted untrained official would be let loose on the streets in search of drunks and disorderly citizens who would prompted be incarcerated.

Baakens Street

Imagine entering into a life career with no prospects of promotion or of an increase in remuneration and no chance of a pension at the culmination of their career. Would such public servants be motivated to apply themselves diligently to their duties? Apparently not. Human nature prevailed and standards were shoddy at best.

As regards the prospects of promotion, at best they were minimal. Over a period of 45 years the number of constables had risen to eight but unless the sergeant died or resigned, the chance of career advancement was non-existent.

A new police force is formed

The first stage in a process of reform was the institution of a night patrol in 1862. Furthermore, the force’s strength was increased to ten. However, these changes did not address the fundamental problem of a lack of professionalism and manpower.

This dismal state of affairs was about to change. In May 1866 from this rag-tag bunch a new police force was formed with the Government agreeing to pay half of the costs involved. This revamped force would now comprise a Superintendent, two Sergeants and twenty-four privates. William Brown who had been appointed as Chief Constable and Messenger of the Court in September 1852, continued in his position.

The Government provided sufficient police to conduct the criminal business of the Courts, but made no allowance for men to patrol the streets and keep order. Act 15 of 1857 made provision for Municipalities to request extra police if their ratepayers were prepared to contribute to the expense. In terms of Act 8 of 1873, this right was extended to Divisional Councils.

Thunderstorm in PE in 1916

Thunderstorm in PE in 1916

New Court House and Jail

By this time, it was deemed necessary to seek a site for a new prison as the old one at the foot of Castle Hill had become an utter disgrace. Later in the same year, presumably 1857, the Court House was shifted into the Commercial Exchange which stood on the site of the present Public Library and the Police Station moved into the same building. After lengthy discussions, it was decided to build a new jail at the North End of the town.

North End Prison

North End Prison

Nevertheless it was not until 1860 that the premises were ready for occupation and the old Jail at the foot of Castle Hill moved into the new prison under the supervision of Mr. Fellingham, whose wife was the first Matron of the Gaol Hospital on the premises. For the convenience of the public, two constables took up their quarters in the old Gaol, part of which was converted into a lock-up.

The new Jail, considered then as a work of art and ornament in North End, was enclosed by a high wooden palisade which was later replaced by a solid stone wall. A visitor to Port Elizabeth in 1861 described it in the following uncomplimentary but accurate terms:

The building is nothing more than a high square of wall of rough stone with something like an attempt at a castellated park-lodge in the centre of the wall facing the town and four Dutch churns, called turrets, which cost a mint of money, stuck in the corners. The old Tronk in Cape  Town is the only building to which I can compare this much bespoken piece of architectural deformity, for like that, it is to all appearance – all wall and nothing else.”

In Port Elizabeth, the Police Station was run from the Court House premises in the Commercial Building until the end of 1879 when it was moved to one of the Commissariat buildings facing North Union Street. This was later demolished for the building of the new police station and barracks.

In October 1897, two horses were provided for two mounted policemen.

Horses actually drinking at the Horse Memorial

Horses of mounted policemen drinking at the Horse Memorial

In 1901, the force consisted of a Chief Constable, two Sub-Inspectors, eight Sergeants, forty six policemen, two Mounted Constables and two permanent detectives.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the Magistate’s Court and the Police Offices took over the beautiful New Law Courts in the North End and the police built their own barracks amidst spacious grounds at the top of Mount Road overlooking Algoa Bay.


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

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

Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, EXPRESS Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)

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