Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Museum and Snake Park

The precursor to the establishment of the museum, was the founding in April 1856 of the Athenaeum Society whose purpose was “to promote the interests of science and literature.” The journey from this humble beginning to its present home at Bayworld, Humewood, is indicative of a society’s striving for knowledge and a sense of wonderment. 

Main picture: Museum in the Wool Market

Humble beginnings
Even though the Athenaeum Society was formally established in April 1856, it did not possess a permanent home. Instead it probably met at various venues. As such it was incapable of erecting displays or, indeed, even collecting specimens. This situation was to change in 1859 when a grant of land was made for the erection of a Town Hall. In this grant it was stipulated that the building should include a library and athenaeum as well. In turn, the Athenaeum set aside a small room for the collection of unusual natural history specimens.

It was this nondescript tiny room which was the forerunner of the prestigious Port Elizabeth Museum.

The Athenaeum came to an end in 1886 and the Council took over its assets, including the museum. All of the displays and other items were relocated across the road to the Wool Market with Alexander Marshall, a taxidermist, being appointed as curator. On 22nd June 1887, the Acting-Mayor, James Brister, officially opened the new Museum. This was a short term expedient solution to the Museum housing problem. In order to address these needs, in 1894 Mr. G.W. Smith was tasked with designed with designing an attractive small building to be situated in front of the wool market in order to house the Museum in a more suitable fashion. In this regard, the Government agreed to assist in paying for it.

The first meeting of the newly-formed Museum Committee was held on the 15th May 1906. This Committee had recently been reorganised on instructions from the Government. On the 4th May of the same year, Mr. Frederick William Fitzsimons was appointed as Secretary and Curator.

Fire on the 23 December 1903

A serious conflagration was narrowly averted early yesterday morning when a small wood and iron building on the roof of the wool market behind the Museum, used as a workshop, was gutted. The origin of the fire is mystery. The place was locked up as usual at 5 o’clock the previous afternoon, and everything then appeared to be perfectly safe. Unfortunately some valuable skins and horns, which will be difficult to replace, were in the room, and these have been destroyed. The Town Engineer reports that the Brigade were called by the police at 5.35 a.m. and were at the fire within five minutes. The flames were soon extinguished, and fortunately the damage to the main building is very slight. Had it not been for the prompt action of the Brigade, however, it is only too probable that the whole block might have been destroyed, as the skylight of the wool market and also the wall of the main building of the Museum were alight. The police under Sergeant Kelly rendered prompt assistance.

Relocation to Bird Street
Almost from the outset, the Museum had been extremely short of space and, even though the building fronting it had been built to address this limitation, the authorities were equally unimpressed as the wool market operated from very cramped quarters and required the space utilised by the Museum.

Bird Street-once the house of Henry Rutherford-later the museum
View of the Port Elizabeth Snake Park when it was still situated in Bird Street.

To address the space issue, plans had been drawn up to construct a new Museum in the Park but WW1 had put paid to these plans. Then the legatees of the estate of the Late Adam Guthrie offered his home in Bird Street as a museum. This offer was gratefully accepted. This house was one of Port Elizabeth’s grand mansions, built in 1861 for merchant Henry Rutherford. In 1864, it was second in value only to William Fleming’s home lower down Bird Street.

Johannes at Snake Park

At the end of October 1918, the Museum moved from the Wool Market to these new premises and there was an unofficial opening on the 9th December 1918. F.W. Fitzsimon’s dream of a snake park could also be realised in Bird Street too. This facility would prove to be the City’s main attraction for many years world-wide. It was designed by Hendrik Siemerink, who was also responsible for the improvements and alterations completed in March 1926. The familiar red tiles and red glazed bricks from Grahamstown were part of this change. In addition, there was a heated python house, open-air aviary and a new café. A marine hall was built in 1931.

Snake handler Johannes Molikoe

FW Fitzsimons

FW FitzSimons

FitzSimons was appointed curator of the Pietermaritzburg Museum in 1897 from where he transferred to the Natal Government Museum. In 1906 he moved once more to the Port Elizabeth Museum as director. In 1918 he founded Africa’s first snake-park there, which was also the world’s second. FitzSimons’ interest in snakes is probably what he is best remembered for, and when he established a snake park at the museum for visitors, it was also to study snakes and snakebites. From this he became a published authority on South African snakes and their venoms, and he patented a (now outdated) first aid and serum treatment kit.

Snakes stolen

Johannes Molikoe, the snake handler for 30 years

A Port Elizabeth Snake Park attendant was initially suspected of stealing snakes from the collection in 1925 before it was learned that a thief was sneaking in at night to steal animals from the park’s open pits. A park attendant was suspected of having stolen the missing specimens, but this changed when a group of puffadders (Bitis arietans) and boomslangs (Dispholidus typus) were delivered to the park by some local collectors shortly after FitzSimons’ return. Park attendants noticed upon releasing the specimens into the park’s large snake pits that they did not behave in the same manner that freshly wild-caught specimens usually did when released. According to FitzSimons, instead of lunging and striking at the keeper or fleeing to the moat or other refuge, these animals remained sedentary or moved about the pit with apparent familiarity of their surroundings.

Visitors and upgrades

On the 9th April 1921, General Smuts visited the Snake Park. In March 1931, the Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum reported that the new Marine Hall had been completed. Furthermore he also reported that the valuable whale skeletons, which were still located in the Baaken Street premises, had been moved with the rest of the marine exhibits. As the Council urgently required the space in the market, they elected to expedite the construction by loaning the Museum £2500 to build the hall. It was also designed by H. Siemerink. This Hall was formerly opened on the 8th June 1931 by the Mayor, James Scott. The whale skeleton, being the last whale harpooned in Algoa Bay, was donated by Messina Bros, Coles and Searle.

Last Southern Right Whale to be harpooned in Algoa Bay

The debut and swansong of the Seal Pond
Just in time for the 1933 Christmas Season, the new Seal Pond was opened on the 21st December by the Mayor, W.F. Caulfield. To stock this pool, the lighthouse keeper on Bird Island had been ordered to capture five seals, which they duly did. Irvin and Johnson, a local fishing company, offered to transport them across from Bird Island to their new abode in Bird Street. The seals were an immediate success as far as the public was concerned.  Attendance at the Museum improved dramatically. But this was to change dramatically and shortly.

Royal family visiting the Snake Park in 1947

Even though the Museum authorities had considered all possible angles and foreseen no problems, it was the Museum’s neighbour, Dr Robert Leith, living in “Ellerslie” who took umbrage. The basis of his complaint was based upon the fact that his sleep was disturbed by the nocturnal noises of the seals. As a consequence, he took legal action against the Museum in May 1934. The Museum had no other option but to release the seals back into the sea. As an alternative, there was a proposal to construct another pool and aquarium at Humewood, but this was ultimately abandoned.

Final home
The foundation stone of the present Port Elizabeth Museum Complex was laid on 11 November 1958 with the new Snake Park being constructed and opened a year later during Dr Geoff McLachlan’s tenure as Director. The transfer of all museum specimens from Bird Street to the new buildings on the beachfront included the large whale skeleton presently on display in the Marine Hall was a monumental task.

The Museum in Humewood

The new museum in Humewood was formally opened in July 1961.

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth, the Beautiful City by Kin Bentley Disk 18

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  1. WoW! I remember the PE Museum with fondness often. I spent many many hours there after school, which was Holy Rosary Convent, across the road. Much of what I experienced there & then remained with me & influenced me to seek knowledge in all matters relating to Nature. I remember the dark room with the exhibits of various stones held in black velvet lined shelves in glass boxes with pertinent lighting. This really had a lasting effect & influenced me in lighting design on my Interior Design practice. Everything was of great importance to me & had a lasting effect on me. Thanks for sharing these precious & lasting memories Dean.


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