Port Elizabeth of Yore: Mill Park

Maybe this suburb does not quite have the cachet of the Park Drive area, yet it is indubitably an elegant suburb. Mill Park is known as Port Elizabeth’s garden suburb because of the leafy streets and large gardens.

Main picture: Old Mill House, Mill Park

According to the informative book, “Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days”, written in 1947 by JJ Redgrave, “the present Mill Park area derived its name from the fact that there was in the early days an old Mill on the land overlooking the Baakens River.

 

Early history

Actually, the story of Mill Park commences in approximately 1815, five years before the 1820 Settlers arrived when a certain William Slater, who was a quartermaster with the 83rd Foot Brigade, applied for a large tract of land in the Baakens Valley. In 1819, the area where the mill was situated, was granted to Hendrik Woest, an immigrant from the Netherlands, and the property surrounding the Mill was granted to a Mr Johann Schlemmer from Saxony in 1825. It is believed that he built the mill on Woest’s property. This supposition is buttressed by the fact that even though Schlemmer was a farmer, by training he was a mill builder. On this adjacent land, Schlemmer grew wheat, barley and oats and kept two horses, 10 oxen and 13 breeding cattle. There was also a mill in Welbedacht, later Walmer, on which a mill was built, probably also by Schlemmer.

By 1825, the mill property consisted of two pieces of land, a section with the mill, and a much larger area surrounding the mill. Today this area covers Mill Park, Linkside and Essexvale. Hougham Hudson acquired the property where the mill was situated in 1839 and he rented out the house and the mill to the Cape Government, which it used as the Baakens River Leper Institution. By 1846 the Government had decided to move all the lepers, the mentally ill, the chronically ill and the paupers to the leper colony on Robben Island which at the time was also used as a penal settlement.

The first areas to be developed in Port Elizabeth were Central and Richmond Hill, Central being where the settlers who arrived in 1820 began building their homes, and part of Richmond Hill near the top of what was to become Russell Road being set aside as the “Location for Native Strangers”.

Gubb’s Location

As the town grew and more labourers were required to work on the development of roads and infrastructure, as well as the thriving port, the space in Richmond Hill became too small. By 1863 the Mill Farm was owned by a Town Councillor, Thomas Witheridge Gubb, and he applied for permission to have Xhosa workers to build huts on his land. It became home to around 800 squatters and became known as “Gubb’s Location”. Despite Gubb selling the land in 1887 to a William Darlow, the name stuck. Ultimately Darlow sold the property to the Mill Park Estate and Land Company.

During October 1881, faction fights broke out between Mfengu living in Russell Road and the Xhosa in Gubb’s Location on the Mill Property with the Zulus from Stranger’s Location only partially involved. News of the fighting spread. In order to prevent reinforcements arriving from Uitenhage and Humansdorp, a small force of mounted Volunteers was called up to separate the groups. In addition, Prince Alfred’s Guard was put on standby until calm was restored.

The prestigious Port Elizabeth Golf Club was founded in 1890. It is located within Mill Park.

In November 1896, the old road through the Mill Property to Walmer was closed. This was a result of the decision on the 22nd April 1896 at a meeting by the Town Council, whereby it approved the Divisional Council’s proposal to build a road through Target Kloof to Walmer.

In the 1800s, the first Location was called Strangers Location, in what is now Richmond Hill, between Campbell and Stanley streets

Eleanor Lorimer, in her book Panorama of Port Elizabeth, describes conditions in the Location as “unsightly and verminous. There were no roads, no drains, no lights of course, and water and sanitary arrangements were primitive.” This led to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague, which were believed to have been brought in by the fleas and rats in the fodder feed after the Boer War. The location, by then owned by the Mill Park Estate and Land Company, was closed by the Plague Board in 1903, and the residents re-located to Red Location.

Development

In the early 1900s the area was subdivided. The first 85 residential plots were auctioned off in August 1904 and the second auction of residential plots took place in 1911. Thereafter the development of Mill Park as a prime residential suburb commenced. It was during this period that large houses, like the Old Mill House, were built.

Mill Park is largely a creation of the period 1914 to 1940. As such it was much influenced by the Edwardian notion of the house. According to Professor Gavin McLachlan, the tremendous influence of Sir Herbert Baker, particularly his revival of domestic Cape Dutch styled architecture is evident in much of Mill Park, and architecturally the suburb represents one of the high points of a specifically English influence in our architecture.

The Grey School

Within its boundaries, Mill Park houses the most prestigious school in Port Elizabeth, the Grey High School. Many parents relocated to this area in order that their children could attend this school. All that is, except the McCleland household.

The Grey School campus forms the architectural and spatial centrepiece of Mill Park. The suburb has developed and grown around the school and the story of the school and its eventual development on the Mill Park site is an important part of the story of the suburb.

Grey School in 1913

In his book The Dream Houses of Mill Park, Gavin McLachlan describes the Grey School as follows:

The Grey Institute was founded in Port Elizabeth as a result of the inter-vention of Sir George Grey who was appointed Governor of the Colony in 1854. On June 4th 1867, the “Act for Regulating the Port Elizabeth Public” came into being. This led to the founding of the Grey Institute which included “an elementary section and a High School section.” The new school was built at the top of the Donkin Reserve, the foundation stone being laid on January, 17th 1856. The school remained in these premises for 59 years, moving to the new building in Mill Park in 1915. The last Rector of “the Hill Grey and the first Rector of the New Grey in Mill Park …..(was)….. the much loved and brilliant William Archer Way.”

The Mill Park Grey High was designed in 1913 by Jones and McWilliams. It was erected between 1913 and 1915 by the contractor, R.G. McClelland, who was also responsible for the building of a number of the houses in Mill Park. The school buildings were of some technical significance as they were one of the earliest examples of the modern use of a reinforced concrete framed structure, no doubt the result of McWilliams’ engineering skill. The original buildings which consisted of the tower and the quadrangle, the cricket pavilion and the boarding house and rectory, have been added onto and extended on many occasions. In their design, Jones & McWilliams utilised the Arts and Crafts based Cape Dutch Revival style. This can be seen in the steep double pitched roofs, the gables with their mouldings, the shuttered, vertically proportioned sliding sash windows, the plastered painted finish and in the proportion and symmetry of the main façade. The choice of style was reflective of the association with power which the Cape Dutch revival style had achieved because if its use at Groote Schuur and at the Presidency in Pretoria. In addition, the extensive use of gables to articulate the architecture of the building was an attempt to follow the gable tradition for school designs which the region’s most prominent school architect of the late nineteenth century, William White-Cooper, had established in schools such as Muir College in Uitenhage, Kingswood College in Grahamstown, and the North End Grey and Erica School in Port Elizabeth.

Architects’ Drawings of the Grey High School

The Grey High School buildings must be regarded as one of Jones and McWilliams’ most successful undertakings, for not only in architectural terms, but in a social and cultural sense they have had a lasting influence. Part of the considerable success of the Grey School in Port Elizabeth can be ascribed to the quality and power of the architectural vision of the original school buildings which still to this day lend dignity and substance to the tradition and character of the school.

The Kay’s house, “Far End”

Amongst Mill Park’s most notable residents, must be the Kays. Dorothy Kay is rightfully regarded as one of Port Elizabeth’s most eminent artists. Their house, “Far End,” like the Old Mill House, also located in Woodville Road, was also designed by Jones and McWilliams. The house was completed on 16th September 1920. The style of the architecture can be classified as being English Vernacular.

A sketch of the Kays house, Far End, in Mill Park

Gavin McLachlan describes the house as follows: “The roof of this house is finished with wood shingles which comfortably suit the character of this house despite the fact that it originally had a corrugated iron roof. The walls are rough plaster with some facebrick and some rubble stonework details. The windows are of the timber casement type.

This evocative house was the home of the artist Dorothy Kay. It enjoys an especially fine setting with an expansive view down the Baakens Valley. It is an interesting stylistic predecessor to the four houses designed by Jones and McWilliams lower down in Woodville Road. It also exemplifies, with its rambling, steeply pitched roof, dormers and bay windows, and Tudor style interiors, the picturesque English Vernacular Style.

The Kays house, Far End, in Mill Park-Front gate with name

The Old Mill House

An excellent example of one of these impressive houses, must be the Old Mill House, located at number 9 Woodville Road, Mill Park. This house, designed by Jones and McWilliams, was built in 1924 for N.W Hazell was like “Far End” also designed in the English Vernacular Style but with Tudor Revival details.

The Old Mill House in Mill Park-Balcony with name of house

Gavin McLachlan describes the house as follows: “This house has a fine slate roof, possibly of Welsh Slate. The walls are textured plaster and the windows are timber casement, small pane windows with timber shutters. The front door is clad in copper sheet.

The Old Mill House in Mill Park-South east elevation across lawn

The Old Mill House is a really impressive Arts and Crafts suburban home, one of the gems of Mill Park, with its steeply pitched roof and carefully proportioned façade. The vertical symmetry of the front façade is unusual for the Arts and Crafts movement. The wide timber balcony and the entrance stoep with the copper clad door are carefully proportioned and detailed. The development of the garden has enhanced the character of the house as have the wrought iron railings to the garden wall.

Assessment of its architecture

In the book “The Dream Houses of Mill Park,” it is glaringly obvious that Gavin McLachlan holds a candle for the architecture of this exquisite suburb. McLachlan’s point of departure is that the architecture of the houses of Mill Park represents as he calls it “a communal cultural asset.” He claims that it is through the architecture of these buildings that the values and beliefs of a particular section of the community are reflected. Gavin self obviously maintains that “it is a true account of what they have done and of what they have believed it.” In fact, all architecture reflects these attributes together with human desires and beliefs. In the case of Mill Park “much of the significance is positive and civilised.” What it reflects for me not merely its denizens’ material wealth but “Mill Park with its architectural character and pedigree represents in a cultural sense, one of the richest suburban areas” in Port Elizabeth.

Perilous future

It would be foolish to make any apocalyptic prognostications about Mill Park’s future as nobody could envisage its wilful destruction. Rather its ruination would be the result of mindless unintentional changes not reflective of the architectural congruence with the existing structures and edifices.

Examples of renovations which symbolise this incongruity include the following:

  • The use of facebrick and precast concrete walls as their use would be wholly inappropriate as Mill Park is comprised wholly of plastered, painted houses.
  • Existing timber windows should not be replaced with steel or aluminium or even standard mass-produced timber windows as the proportions of these windows are not compatible with buildings of this era.
  • Upgrades of driveways should not include the replacement of gravel or clay bricks with the modern equivalent represented by the ubiquitous cement brick.
  • The importance of using appropriate materials cannot be overstressed. Where ever possible, the replacement must occur on a like-for-like basis. The one item which generates the most hostility and angst relates to the replacement of the roof in those cases where it is of corrugated iron construction. Where possible these should be retained.

What Gavin McLachlan proposes as a solution is not another of the usual revisionist, nostalgia-drenched assessments that pervades much historical writing but something more prosaic. Briefly what he proposes is to create an awareness of the architectural quality of the suburb by the expedient of the local community recognising “exceptional houses” by marking them as community assets by simply attaching a plaque to the property much like is done in Joburg’s historic suburbs.

Such fears are well founded. Hopefully the bleak pattern of the transform-ation of architecturally congruent structures into anodyne edifices through lack of knowledge, or often for a more mundane reason viz of cost savings. In such cases, with the community’s action, via a chorus of objections and concern, should be raised.

I hope that my optimism in this regard is not profoundly misplaced.

Sources

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

Panorama of Port Elizabeth by Eleanor K. Lorimer (1971, A.A. Balkema, Cape Town)

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

The Dream Houses of Mill Park by Gavin McLachlan (1993, Department of Architecture, University of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Herald dated 16th June 2012

https://portelizabethdailyphoto.blogspot.co.za/2009/02/mill-park.html
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