Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Early Days

 This blog is mainly based  upon the reminiscences in the 1940s of Anthony Scallan who was born on the first floor of his father’s shop in Main Street on 12nd October 1952. Below, the sign on the shop front, it read, “James Scallan, Tailor.”  This business was run by John’s grandfather, James Scallan, an early Settler but not strictly 1820, and by his father, Patric [sic], who had been born in 1822. 

This blog vividly recounts what Main Street was like in an era when most buildings were double-storied with the upstairs area being the family’s home. 

Join me on a journey to a long-lost world of early Main Street, not only the buildings but also some of the characters that inhabited them. 

Main picture: Brister’s furniture makers in Main Street just before Donkin Street 

Phases of development

For Main Street, the journey from its dusty beginnings to the vibrant hub of a prosperous ever-expanding town, mirrors the fortunes of the town. Its current trajectory into slumlord land reflects what has occurred in most towns in South Africans where the former economic hub has been replaced by a new one. Take Joburg as a shining example. Since the 1980s, Sandton has steadily eclipsed the centre of Joburg as the epicentre for business. Perhaps this is a uniquely South African phenomenon, partially reflecting the racial dynamics in this troubled land. Nevertheless, it is a reality. In my view, Main Street has experienced a number of eras, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Loosely, these can be defined as follows:

  • Initial development (1820 -1840). This period produced basic buildings often with little architectural merit or even structural integrity in some cases.
  • Refinement & growth (1840-1940). This period was characterised by the construction of more elegant and substantial buildings, one that reflected the economic well-being of the town. Included here would be the elegant Mutual Arcade and other Art Deco buildings. This would undoubtedly be Main Street’s heyday.
  • Soulless tall buildings (1940 to 1960s). For me, as I worked at PW in this building, the SA Perm Building epitomises this type of box structure. They were merely tall, unpretentious, unadorned boxes of little architectural merit. Even though Mount Road cannot be classified as PE Central, the Mount Road Police Station exudes this soulless building syndrome.
  • Stagnation & desertion (1960s onwards). As the town stagnated, so too did its CBD. As business abandoned the centre of town, vacant buildings are vandalised and became havens for squatters.
Port Elizabeth from The Illustrated London News dated 1881. The drawings in this article epitomise the change in the architecture from phase 1 to phase 2

Port Elizabeth from The Illustrated London News dated 1881. The drawings in this article epitomise the change in the architecture from phase 1 to phase 2

Perhaps some will not concur with either my timing or characterisation of the eras, but the transition from one to another would take decades while some buildings never made the transition.

Setting the scene

This blog covers the transition from phase 1 to phase 2. Many of the initial buildings would still be in existence at the commencement of this period, but many more elegant structures were in the process of being constructed. At the inception of this period, Main Street would remind one of a typical town in the American Wild West except that the buildings would generally be constructed of brick or sometimes corrugated iron and were not wooden structures.

Main Street

Main Street

In the early morning before dawn, ox wagons loaded with all manner of goods would slowly trundle along Main Street waking the merchants and their families who slept on the first floor above their shops. These heavily loaded wagons were on their way to Market Square where a market was held every day except on Sundays. Main Street would not be paved for another 30 years while sand from the beach adjacent to Strand or beach Road would swirl along Main Street whenever it was windy, which was frequently. Unfortunately, this was a period when photography was in its infancy. Moreover, few sketches or drawings were ever made during this period and even fewer are exact.

Northern side of Market Square typifies what buildings were like in Main Street before phase 2 development occured

Northern side of Market Square typifies what buildings were like in Main Street before phase 2 development occured

Most of the merchants mentioned in this blog would represent the crème de la crème of this novice society and were often at the forefront of the incipient civil administration. Compare the names mentioned below with the list of inhabitants produced in 1848 and most of these names will appear there.

On the northern side

In those far-off days, a very different town existed. Main Street is unrecognisable from what it looks like today as it has been substantially rebuilt during the 1940s and 1950s. Facing Market Square on the site of what was to become the Union Castle offices i.e. the northwestern corner of the square, was a small greengrocer’s shop owned by a Malay named Lagerdien. On the corner facing Main Street was Hendricks & Lucas, the butchers, whilst the upstairs portion of the building was used as the office of the Deputy-Sheriff Thomas Melvil du Toit, law agent.

One of the oldest photos looking down Main Street from Market Square

Three doors from Jetty Street was the establishment of Trenley Birch who on 14th December 1860 advertised  the opening of his new eventure: West of England Clothing Establishment. This would become T. Birch & Co, perhaps the oldest outfitters in the town. This store was burned down in March 1865, rebuilt and reopened in September 1865. As luck would have it, the store was razed to the ground again on 8th December 1908. Smith, Sons & Dewar were engaged to draft the plans which specified that the building have a “Renaissance Front”. The upgraded building was opened on 27th July 1909.

Mr Trenley Birch, founder of T. Birch & Co

Mr Trenley Birch, founder of T. Birch & Co

Following Trenley’s shop was Jeremiah Edwards, a forwarding agent. Edwards lived in a spacious house “Hurst Lodge” in Western Road until 1875, when he built a new house, “Hillbrow”, one block down. Neither house has survived. The former was divided into two houses while in 1937 the latter became “Whitehall Court” when the house was demolished. Next came John Geard, the ironmonger. John took over the business of his father, Charles, in 1850. John was a member of various organisations including the Town Council, the Divisional Council, the Harbour Board, the Baptist Church, the Mechanics Institute, the Seaman’s Institute, the Good Templars, the YMCA, the Hospital Board while also being an MLC from 1872 to 1882. In 1875, he purchased land in Walmer and built a house, named “Walmer Heights.”

Hugh Keely’s grocer’s business was next; then William Jones, the clockmaker and jeweller. Circa 1854 he built a store on the corner of Jetty, Damant Street and Market Square. In 1852, he was commissioned to purchase a clock for the tower of the Congregational or “New Church”  on the corner of Main and Donkin Streets.  Later when the Presbyterian Church was built on the Hill, he would donate this clock to the town for use in the Town Hall. Next came Timothy Lee, an undertaker and then Paterson, a general dealer. On the site of the future P.E. Assurance Co, was the butcher’s shop of Alfred and Tebutt Hill, whose son Jack opened up a similar business in Russell Road. Fischer’s shop was then occupied by the jeweller Preiss in whose employment was Mr. Fischer who later would take over the business in his own name.

Main Street

Fischer's original building which Anthony Scallan would be referring to

Fischer’s original building which Anthony Scallan would be referring to

At the corner of Main & Grace Streets, was the merchanting firm of Deare and Deitz, which brought out a Mr Pearson from England. Pearson would later become Mayor of Port Elizabeth. Then came the outfitter Kemsley who had started business in Strand Street where the Navy League’s building would later be erected. In addition, he owned a general store patronised by seamen for its goods hooks and line that he stocked. John Chalmers Kemsley was initially a clerk in the Municipality and then a librarian at the public library. Later he entered business as E&J Kemsley. Apart from being Mayor in 1881, he was also a board member of the Grey Institute, the Hospital and Freemasons. Circa July 1879, he opened new stores in Main Street which were described as “quite an ornament.” He lived in Medway House at 55 Havelock Street.   Next to Kemsley’s was the tobacconist, Powell, followed by an Insurance Company. Then came Mackie & Dunn. After joining William Mackie & Co as a clerk in 1852, he was nominated as a partner to Mackie, Dunn & Co two years later. According to Wikipedia, “Dunn emigrated to South Africa in 1852, supported by a friend of his father’s, local Member of Parliament William Barbour, where he landed in Algoa Bay. He entered the firm of Mackie & Co. of Port Elizabeth. After two years, still only twenty-one years old, he was offered a partnership in the firm. Another six years later, in 1860, Dunn succeeded his deceased partner as sole proprietor of the business.

Sir William Dunn in 1909

Sir William Dunn in 1909

Over time, Dunn built up a large worldwide trading empire from his South African base. Later he returned to Great Britain and controlled his businesses from London. Dunn was created a baronet in 1895, becoming Sir William Dunn of Lakenheath, after his residence in the country.” After Mackie & Dunn was the cabinet making business of Griffiths & Co, and then the outfitters Thompson; Watson and Simpson; Poppe; Schunoff and Guttery; A.C. Stewart, and then Dunnell & Ebden that also owned a wool washery in the Baaken’s Valley; Von Ronn; Schabbel & Co. and a few others. At the end of Main Street was the old Masonic Hotel which was in Scallan’s era run by Steinman, but later it was managed by others, including Lanigan and Fugard. In those days, the Masonic Hotel was a plain two-storey building with a bottle store, dining room and billiard saloon on the ground floor, with stables at the rear adjoining the livery stables of Katzenstein. Later these ground floor premises were converted into shops and let, initially to Ritter, the jeweller but later Salter, whilst the next building was a firm of drapers, known as London House.

Masonic Hotel

Masonic Hotel

On the southern side

On the opposite side of Main Street, on the corner of Palm Street, was the chemist shop of Mr Upstall and next door was the butcher, John Theophilus. On the other corner, was a general store of Bates who was burnt to death one night when his place caught alight. It was rebuilt and became the boot and shoe store of Bisseker George. Gillman’s china & crockery store was next, followed by Savage & Hill who also had a store on the opposite side of the street. William Savage who had arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1859 was originally a paper maker and stationer. In Port Elizabeth, he started his business selling stationery and hardware. Between 1859 and 1881 Sydney Hill was his partner. William was a generous benefactor of several causes including St. Andrews College, Holy Trinity Church, the Strand Street Mission School and the Ladies Benevolent Society.

Main Street

Main Street

Next was Clayton, the barber and then Wylie’s confectionery shop. Handfield’s fancy work store was next. Handfield is remembered more as a farmer than a merchant as he owned land in Baakens Valley, now Settler’s Park, which had originally been granted to S. du Preez. It was originally known as “Spring Valley” but later as “Handfield’s Valley.” The residence was a stone house and a stone dam supplied water to the estate on which he kept cattle and horses. In 1898, when the property was put on sale, it was stated that the first colonial woolwashery had operated on this estate.

Handfield's Valley looking towards the sea

Handfield’s Valley looking towards the sea

Then came Chapel Lane. Further on was Lennon’s chemist shop. Berry Grey Lennon took over Dr Dunsterville’s business and was in partnership with him until April 1863 when the doctor went overseas to study further. On the 26th August 1871, he took Revell Anthony Fairclough as a partner and the firm became B.G. Lennon & Co. This highly successful firm built two fine buildings in Main Street and later purchased the old stores of Mosenthals in Queen Street to use as a laboratory. Adjacent to the chemist was Mr Drinkwater, the local debt collector who peculiarity was to carry an umbrella in all weathers. Next door was the jeweller, McGill, who employed Mr Meyer, who later opened up a Bottle Store and Mr H.G. Biddle, who set up a jewellery and optician business for his own account. Next came Gubb, the harness maker and in the same building was Dugmore, the tailor for whom Anthony Scallan worked for a while.

Then came James Brister, the furniture makers and importers. Amongst his numerous interests were the S.A. Milling Co, Humewood Beach Hotel, theatre, athletics, Zwartkops Boating Association et cetera. In addition, Brister was mayor from 1884 to 1890 and again in 1894. He lived in Dunlop House, the future Grand Hotel, from 1882 to 1885 and ultimately settled at Moor park, Gordon Terrace. On the corner of Donkin Street stood Armstrong’s ironmongery store where Howard Sherman worked for many years as a clerk. It was Howard Sherman, who on the 26th June 1880, would be a member of the inaugural Committee of the Port Elizabeth Amateur Athletic Club. There is a family connection to me in that Howard’s son, Stanley Meyer Sherman, married my aunt, Thelma McCleland. One of their sons was named Howard, presumably in honour of his grandfather. Tragically he died at an early age due to appendicitis. new-church-on-the-corner-of-main-donkin-streets On the site of the present Nedbank, originally stood the Congregational Church, generally known as The New Church, Robson’s Church, the Congregational Church or alternatively as the Dissenters. By the time that Anthony was in his twenties, this building had been sold to Armstrong’s Auction Rooms who revamped it by removing its clock and donating it to the town as its official clock. Subsequently, it was taken over by the Netherlands Bank, who in 1951 demolished it in order to construct a concrete monolith. Further on was the shop of Steve White, the tailor and adjoining him was the furniture shop of Loto Tipper, who like Howard Sherman, also formed part of the inauguration of the PE Amateur Athletic Club. Next door was the old P.E. Bank whose manager, Cole later joined Anthony Scallan in seeking his fortune in the diamond fields of Kimberley after two of his clerks defrauded the bank of a considerable sum of money.

Main Street southern side with Brister's hop visible

Main Street southern side with Brister’s hop visible

Then came Birt’s store on the corner of Birt’s Lane which was named after him. On the other corner of the lane was Bailey, the grocer followed by Mrs de la Mare’s Bazaar; Leslie, the chemist, Mackie Dunn, the grocers and on to Titterton Lane, named after William Titterton. Titterton who a grocer and shopkeeper whose valuable land in Main Street was sold long after his death to the SA Mutual Association which constructed the Mutual Arcade on it. On the other corner of Titterton Lane was the grocer’s shop of one-eyed Charlie Brown after whom Charlie Brown vlei in Cape Road was christened. Brown managed to wound a leopard there among the thick reeds where it had come to stalk the water fowls. The infuriated animal sprang at him and in the struggle, he lost one of his eyes. Next door to Brown’s was the harness maker, Andrew Gloag, followed by the shoe maker, Tom Pratt. After that was the new premises of Pat [Patric] Scallan, the tailor. He had to vacate his previous premises after it was destroyed by fire. When it rebuilt, it was bought by Mr Kettle, who opened a general dealer.

Main Street

Main Street

Next to Pat Scallan’s shop was the Shilling Shop approximately where the OK Bazaars are currently. This was followed by a small store owned by Ross & Theophilus. Then came the Daily Telegraph, and Peter Bailey’s livery stables where saddle horses and carriages were hired out day or night for any distance. A small lane led off Main Street up to the stables in the rear. Next door was Short’s grocery store and Patrick Anson Deeley, general merchants. Adjacent was Mr. Byerley, a pastry cook; then a tinsmith’s shop. Following that was the Standard Bank; the Guardian Company’s offices with Mosenthal’s store on the ground floor; Doyle, the general merchant; Mr G.H. Chabaud, lawyer and son of John Anthony Chabaud, one of the first two church wardens at St Mary’s Church and also a notary like his son and then John Harrison Clark, merchant. Finally came Graham’s store with its flat roof, later the premises of Dreyfus & Co before becoming the skyscraper known as the E.P. Building Society, later the UBS. Tucked away, behind these buildings, is the venerable St Mary’s Church.

St Mary's Church in 1876

St Mary’s Church in 1876 with the flat roofed Graham’s Store in front of it

Across St Mary’s Terrace, on the site of the present public library, stood the old Court House in Commercial Hall. Adjoining it was Anderson’s & later Cleghorn’s Building, demolished to widen White’s Road. On the opposite side of White’s Road, where later the Colonial Mutual Building would stand was Mr Wimble. The building was later taken over by the E.P. Herald for a time. The second store was occupied by Mr Kift, an Irishman and adjoining him was the firm of Hansen & Schrader. The fourth building, on the corner of Castle Hill, was the printing firm of Richards, who was later joined by Impey.  The front downstairs portion was converted into a bookshop whilst the printing works was in the rear. All of these four buildings were later demolished and in their stead rose shops and offices known as the City House, which in turn was razed to be replaced by the Colonial Mutual Building.

St. Mary's Church on the right of the Commercial Hall in which Francis held two shares

St. Mary’s Church on the right of the Commercial Hall in which Francis held two shares

The Future of Main Street

One can decry what is occurring in Main Street but what are the viable alternatives, if any, for the future. However much one would like the old Main Street to remain unchanged as a museum piece, doing nothing is not an option. In any case, many of the existing buildings erected in the 1940s to 1960s, in my mind, do not represent buildings that are worth saving from an architectural perspective. Perhaps the older generation will base their views for retention on nostalgic or sentimental reasons, but perforce, this will not suffice. Buildings such as the erstwhile Fischer’s Building deserve to be persevered while others do not. If nothing is done, as business deserts Min Street, the buildings will ultimately be taken over by squatters like many buildings in central Joburg. This is an ineluctable process hereby the ultimate fate of the building is often demolition. Even if the buildings are not demolished, many of their features will be cannabilised as fire wood or stripped of their wrought iron and other metal fittings.

Main Street in 2013

New new look Main Street: Main Street in 2013

That leaves only one solution, viz continued usage, but not in their previous manner as businesses. Instead, disused buildings should be converted into residential accommodation. The puritans might wail but Main Street will be saved from a graver fate.  Where possible, buildings could be converted into specialised museums such as naval museum and in other cases allocated to research organisations at nominal rentals. Perhaps Port Elizabeth could even attract overseas organisations to base their African research facilities here but offering other incentives as well. Only in this innovative manner, will Main Street’s future be secured.


http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/SOUTH-AFRICA-EASTERN-CAPE/2005-04/1114064878 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) 

Lineage of Anthony Scallan

James Scallan * Wexford, Ireland c. 1795 S.O. Patrick and Mary Scallan a. shortly after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, first tailor in Port Elizabeth + Chapel Street, Port Elizabeth 5.8.1868 x Alice NN * c. 1796 +16.5.1859

bl Mary * Ireland c. 1818 + 4.1.1872 (54.-) x 15.6.1939 Edward SLATER * c. 1812 + c. 1902

b2 Patric * Ireland c. 1822 + c. 1875 St. Mary’s Church of England, Port Elizabeth 29.1.1850. Sarah ISEMONGER * Port Elizabeth c. 1832

c1 James Patric * c. 1850 Martha Magdalina LE ROUX

c2 Anthony (Dollar) * 12.10.1852, tailor + 24.6.1947 Lucy DUNN xx Leonore BARTIE Alice Mary * 6.3.1877 + 29.7.1880 # Russell Road cemetery


  1. Hi Dean
    Don’t know what has happened but for the past week I am unable to access your blog. It opens onto an empty page with just the logo on it – don’t know if it is my computer or something has gone wrong your end.

    • Hi Liz
      That is odd, I have been receiving comments on my blogs every day, so I assume that they are able to access it
      I did have a problem early one morning this week but I think that it must have been my Service Provider which hosts the blog



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