Port Elizabeth of Yore: McWilliams Father & Son -Duo of Architects

Port Elizabeth seems to be blessed with famous McWilliams names. Apart from the McWilliams of Rink Street, there was the father and son duo who were both famous architects: William and Herbert McWilliams. 

Of the two, Herbert, the son, certainly led a full and varied life, worthy of a biography. 

Main picture: Sprogs on the banks of the Swartkops River in 1955 – Herbert McWilliams’ sprog is #15

The Father – William John

William John McWilliams , RIBA (1873-1950), was born in County Tyrone, Ireland and came to Port Elizabeth circa 1874 with his parents when he was a child. They lived in the Baakens River Valley. He attended school at the Grey Institute at Port Elizabeth and in 1890 was articled to a local government land surveyor, engineer and architect, George William Smith, AMICE of Smith Sons & Dewar for five years. During his apprenticeship, he studied land surveying and mathematics under Arthur M. Matthews at St. Andrews College, Grahamstown apparently under Smith’s suggestion.

William John McWilliams
William John McWilliams

In 1895, McWilliams moved to Johannesburg, where he joined the firm of Carter and McIntosh of Jeppe Arcade for further training, serving as an architectural assistant until the outbreak of the South African War. During his time in Johannesburg, he served on the executive committee of the Society of Architects.

During the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, he joined for nine months, the Second Regiment of Brabant’s Horse and was present at the siege of Wepener in 1901.

A long and successful partnership was started in 1901 when McWilliams joined up with Victor Thomas Jones, MIA (London), FRIBA (1864-1946), as Jones & McWilliams in Johannesburg where Jones had taken over G. Wilson’s practice. Jones was a specialist in Art Nouveau architecture and was a former architect and designer of interior decorations to Liberty & Co, of Regent Street, London. The engineering and architectural experience of McWilliams and creative, artistic ability of Jones formed a harmonious balance in the partnership, and several of their designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

The early work of the firm reflected the partners’ shared interest in the Arts and Crafts movement and particularly, early on, in the so-called Liberty or English Art Nouveau style and even later on their work continued to reflect interest in traditional methods and materials rather than in more modern styles. McWilliams was an artistic and capable man whose talents found other outlets. Among other things, he designed a fine dower chest and all its brass detailing, now at the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth. The chest was made from a rosewood log which had apparently beached at Algoa Bay during the time of the Jameson Raid and which remained uncut until McWilliams bought it in 1920.

The two young architects left Johannesburg soon after the partnership was formed to set up practice in Port Elizabeth circa 1903. Their first comm-ission there was to design the Victoria Memorial Home for the aged, which was built in 1902. This commission was followed by other notable projects such as the King Edward Mansions, built in 1903 and functioning today as the Edward hotel, the Port Elizabeth Club and the Harbour Board Building, both completed in 1904. These buildings are strongly infused with Art Nouveau feeling.

Description of the Art Nouveau Style
Description of the Art Nouveau Style

Early in 1913, a competition was held for architectural plans for a new Grey High School building and Boarding House in Mill Park, Port Elizabeth. The designs produced by Jones and McWilliams were chosen to be the most suitable.

The imposing Grey High School and Boarding House, which was completed in 1915, were built in the traditional Cape Dutch idiom and the composition of the buildings is aesthetically pleasing. Both buildings were designed to be in harmony with each other and are linked by a cloister. The school building is wholly dependent on the prominent volute concave gables, dignified central clock tower, shuttered windows, colonnaded porticoes and shaped parapets, for its beauty.

Grey High School Port Elizabeth
Grey High School Port Elizabeth [Photo by Tod Burns]

A competition for the design of the Campanile, open to all South Africans, was launched. All of the entries, however, including the accepted design by F.G. McIntosh, were found to be too costly. With the consent of McIntosh, the well-known Port Elizabeth architect, W.J. McWilliams then offered his services in an honorary capacity to design a simpler edifice.


In 1921 McWilliams offered his services in an honorary capacity to redesign the Settlers’ Memorial Campanile, Port Elizabeth. A competition for this monument (c1920) had been won by his former employer FG McIntosh, but had been discovered to be too expensive. McWilliam’s offer was accepted by the committee and he was appointed consulting architect to the project, an honorary commitment in his name and not in the name of the firm.

Article dated May 1912 in the African Architect on McWilliams
Article dated May 1912 in the African Architect on McWilliams

In December 1919 he was elected president of the Society of Architects (SA Branch), the first member outside the Transvaal to be appointed to this position. In 1925 he applied for Fellowship of the RIBA, his papers being witnessed by Julius Lonstein. McWilliams, who had lived in Walmer since at least 1904 when he built his house, was for many years a Town Councillor and was elected the first Mayor of Walmer in 1927; his term of office being extended to 1931. McWilliams was a keen sailor and an active member of the Zwartkops Yacht Club and also a member of the Port Elizabeth Club.

He died in Port Elizabeth in 1950.

During his architectural career, McWilliams used classical styles with great competence and adopted the shape of an Italian Renaissance Campanile for the memorial to the British Settlers.

Jones and McWilliams

Victor Thomas Jones
Victor Thomas Jones

The partnership between VT Jones and WJ McWilliams in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth which lasted half a century, from 1901 to 1946. It was among the best known practices in South Africa and executed a large number of major buildings in Port Elizabeth. In 1907 the firm was also briefly listed in Johannesburg, perhaps having opened a branch office away from Port Elizabeth owing perhaps to the depression. Several of their designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, and House Freilinghaus: Matoppos, was chosen as one of the examples of South African architecture for exhibition at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. From 1931 HJ McWILLIAMS joined the office, first as an assistant. His arrival had a significant effect on the design approach of the firm (see St Patrick’s Catholic Church) becoming enriched by McWILLIAMS’s inventive and youthful ideas which were bold and idiosyncratic.

The Son – Herbert Hastings

Herbert Hastings McWilliams [11th November 1907 to 11th February 1995] RIBA, AA Dip.

His life’s ambition has been the practice of Architecture‘ (WJ McWilliams, witness to HH McWilliam’ application for Associate member ship of the RIBA in 1931).

Herbert McWilliams in 1944
Herbert McWilliams in 1944

McWilliams practised in Port Elizabeth from about 1934. He was the son of the Port Eliza-beth architect WJ McWilliams, was born in Walmer and educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown. He entered the office of Baker & Kendall in Cape Town in July 1924 where he remained until 1926. In 1926 McWilliams left for London where he enrolled at the Arch-itectural Association in October 1926, qualifying in September 1929. His experience in London included spending eight weeks in 1928 in Goodhart Rendel’s office followed by four weeks in 1929 in A. Trystam Edward’s office. He travelled in Germany, Holland and Spain, having previously undertaken the AA tour of Italy in 1928. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1929. In 1930 his Associate papers were signed by both VT Jones, who was in London staying at the Constitutional Club, and by his father, WJ McWilliams, in Port Elizabeth (the only Fellow of the RIBA resident in that part of South Africa at the time, so he explained to the RIBA).

He returned to South Africa in 1931 and entered his father’s office (Jones & McWilliams) as chief assistant. In 1932 he joined an archaeological exped-ition to Sakkara, Egypt, organised by the Oriental Institute of Chicago Uni-versity, working for six months with the University at Sakkara in Egypt making sketches and measured drawings. Thereafter in 1932 he visited Russia with a group to participate in architectural reconstruction, comm-enting on the trip in a letter to the South African Architectural Record (Oct 1932). He undertook a sketching tour of Holland, France and Italy in 1934. He joined the Colt-Welcome expedition to Palestine, working on the reconstruction of the Biblical city of Lachish near Hebron (see Piergabriele Vangelli Gallery). He returned to England, journeying via Anatolia and the Balkans, an account of which forms the basis of his publication ‘The Diabolical’.

Herbert Hastings McWilliams among passengers - Tell ed-Duweir dig team Olga Tufnell
Herbert Hastings McWilliams among passengers – Tell ed-Duweir dig team Olga Tufnell

In 1935 he returned to Port Elizabeth to begin practice. Several of the buildings with which he was first involved in Port Elizabeth, working with Jones & McWilliams, were of distinctly North African or Middle Eastern nature, notably St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Port Elizabeth (1934). Many of his subsequent buildings are characterful and defy categorisation.

Herbert McWilliams

During the Second World War he joined the Navy as A/B RNVR in HMS Shropshire from 1940-1941. In 1941 he served with the Coastal Forces in North Sea, transferred to the SANF with which he took part in the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, South France, etc. His ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed five times in one night and was rescued by HMS Venomous off the North African coast on Armistice Day 1942. His vivid description of that night written within days of his rescue and the extraordinary ink wash drawings of Hecla sinking, now in the Imperial War Museum, London, will keep the memory of its loss alive for generations to come. He returned to Alexandria in about 1943 where he had previously spent some time and was by chance able to hold an exhibition of his depictions of the invasion of Sicily, many being bought on the spot by the War Artists’ Commission (see Imperial War Museums). In 1943 he was appointed as War Artist, Naval Correspondent and Cameraman, acting as Naval editor, artist and photographer of “Parade”, published simultaneously in Cairo and Naples and later Calcutta in which capacity he reported naval activity in the Mediterranean, Aegean eventually transferring to the East Asia Command, taking part in the occupation of Rangoon.

Painted while McWilliams was serving as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) prior to officer training at HMS King Alfred
Painted while McWilliams was serving as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) prior to officer training at HMS King Alfred

The website South African Naval Forces provides this information as to his wartime service:
1940-1941? HMS Shropshire (heavy cruiser)
1941?-1942? HMS King Alfred (RNVR officers’ training establishments, Hove & Lancing, Sussex)
1942?-1942 Executive Officer, 13th Motor Launch Flotilla [HMS Minos II (Coastal Forces base, Lowestoft)]
1942-1942 11 12 HMS Hecla (destroyer depot ship) (ship torpedoed & sunk by U-515 off Morocco)
1943?-1943? HMS Saunders (Combined Training Centre, Kabrit)
1943 09 10-(1945 07) HMS Nile (RN base, Alexandria, Egypt) (additional; for press duties in Cairo)

Oil painting of Herbert Hastings McWilliams by Dorothy Kay, 1944
Oil painting of Herbert Hastings McWilliams by Dorothy Kay, 1944

He returned to Port Elizabeth after the War and after the deaths of VT Jones (1946) and his father (1950) he took charge of the practice in Port Elizabeth. Apart from his architecture, in which area – at least later in his career – he allowed his staff a good deal of initiative, McWilliams’s skill in drawing led him to be a sought after illustrator of books and articles, among these being ‘Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa’ (1933) by GE Pearse, in which some of his sketches appear (figs 23 & 68a).

Herbert McWilliams house on the Swartkops River with his cars: a Rolls Royce and a Bentley
Herbert McWilliams house on the Swartkops River with his cars: a Rolls Royce and a Bentley

He was also well-known as a yachtsman; in collaboration with a fellow architect HWE Stauch he designed the Sprog sailing dinghy and represented South Africa in various sailing events. He was a member of the Zwartkops Yacht Club, a Commodore, 1937-38; partook in inter-club contests in Sharpie and Dinghy classes, winning the International Sharpie Trophy in 1938 and 1946, and the inter-club Sprog Trophy in 1947 and 1954. He represented South Africa in the 1948 Olympic Games in the Firefly Single Handed Class.

Herbert entertained royally at his magnificent riverside home, 'The Poop', with its figurehead of HMS Medusa, now returned to the Greenwich Museum
Herbert entertained royally at his magnificent riverside home, ‘The Poop’, with its figurehead of HMS Medusa, now returned to the Greenwich Museum

As an architect McWilliams drew up the plans for many well known Port Elizabeth landmarks, including; The Zwartkops Yacht Club (1931), Astra Theatre, Barclay’s Bank, Grand Theatre, Guardian Assurance Building, Plaza Theatre – Uitenhage, SA Reserve Bank, St Andrew’s College – Additional Buildings, St Dominic’s Priory Chapel and Refectory and St Patrick’s Church.

His life partner was Albert Milde. They were well known in Port Elizabeth and far beyond. Albert Milde was a private individual, reputedly of arist-ocratic Hungarian birth, orphaned at an early age, his inheritance overseen by Swiss trustees. He had been educated in Germany prior to WWII. Fire destroyed their house at  Amsterdamhoek near Port Elizabeth in 1986 and tragically, most of his papers and drawings were burnt. The two had been life partners for on fifty years and Milde had, in 1990, set up a trust as a charitable foundation.

During the latter stage of Herbert’s life he developed Alzheimer’s disease and Albert at first nursed him in their apartment off Park Drive, then in 1991 admitted him to the Munro Kirk Home. Albert died in 2002. Their legacy is The Milde McWilliams Trust, of which the School of Architecture, NMMU is one of the beneficiaries, and the Milde McWilliams Memorial Lecture a legacy.

Long time Port Elizabeth residents will remember the magnificent thatch roofed home that belonged to Herbert McWilliams and Albert Milde, his longtime friend and partner.

Cover of book 'Letters Home - War at Sea'
Cover of book ‘Letters Home – War at Sea’

However it appears that posthumously Herbert McWilliams will continue to contribute to society with the Spring 2013 publication of a book of his letters to his mother during his time in the war, titled War at Sea: Letters Home by Bill Foster of Hollywell House Publishing.

Bill explains the book thus; “After officer training in England and service on a Fairmile ML with Coastal Forces at Lowestoft, McWilliams was posted to the destroyer depot ship HMS Hecla two months before it was torpedoed off the coast of North Africa. A letter describing the tragedy and ink washes done on the back of naval signal forms with a throat brush from the sickbay within hours of his rescue by HMS Venomous make this one of the most compelling accounts of a naval disaster ever published.”

“He trained with Combined Operations in Scotland and Egypt for the landings in Sicily and was under constant attack by aircraft while Senior Naval Officer (SNO) on merchant ships offloading equipment on the invasion beaches. A final chapter describes his time as artist, photographer and war correspondent on the services magazine, Parade.

Herbert McWilliams was an “architect, naval officer, artist, author, wit, photographer, Springbok yachtsman, yacht designer and builder, traveller in the Victorian sense.” He was able to lead a full life only because he was rescued by HMS Venomous when his ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed off the North African coast on Armistice Day 1942.


History and Architecture of the Campanile, Port Elizabeth by T.S. Bodill (March 1990, Looking Back, Vol 29)



  1. He also designed the “new” St John the Baptist Church , 8th Ave & Church Road, Walmer, simple but beautiful in its simplicity inside, assisted my architect Mr Tanton

    • Thank you Dean for this very interesting story. Everything family wise is now fitting into place. William John McWilliams was either my Grandfather’s 1st or 2nd cousin. William John being a regular Christian name in the McWilliams family.
      PS Hello Greville Woods, nice to see your name again. We, you and I, are long ago members of St John’s Walmer and like me you would remember the old St John’s also Mr Tanton’s Punch and Judy Shows.

    • Hello Greville, Just saw your comment and thought I would say hi! Maybe you remember me, Lynette McWilliams, siter of Denise McWilliams. I now live in Queensland Australia where I have been since 1981. Denise married an Australian and I a New Zealander. My parents sold up in PE and came to live in Australia in 1980. Sadly they were on here for a bit more than a year when they were called away. My beautiful sister passed in 1996 at the age of 54. Maybe you remember us. With good and happy memories, Lynette McWilliams Troughton


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