As any Realtor will attest, location is the ultimate arbiter of value. In an era when long distance travel, especially international travel, was the preserve of ships, the prime locations were always adjacent to the entrance to a harbour. In Port Elizabeth’s case, it was only when a jetty was envisioned to be erected at the end of Jetty Street, did this site become valuable.
This is the chronicle of that establishment.
Main picture: The Palmerston Hotel after 1880 when James Raymond Rumsey added a third storey and a verandah in Strand Street. The architect was George Dix-Peek
The early years
It goes without saying that other factors may influence the return of investment on property and that is luck; blind chance. Well Alexander Tennant might as well have won the Lotto Jackpot when he was granted the land on the corner of Jetty and Strand Streets on 22nd July 1836. As Tennant had no anticipation of receiving a bonanza, in keeping with his intention of constructing a modest home on the plot, “he built a simple double-storeyed house with a veranda”, according to Margaret Harradine.
Tennant was born in Cape Town, the son of a Scottish merchant, and was living in Uitenhage by 1829. At that stage, he was Assistant Guardian of Slaves, and also Agent to the Orphan Chamber. Nevertheless, by the mid 1840s, he was well established as an auctioneer in Port Elizabeth. After an insolvency in 1846, and a period of ill-health, he returned to Uitenhage with his family and died there in 1852 aged 48.
It was not Tennant who would hit the jackpot, but James Samuel Green. In January 1840, he placed an advertisement that he had taken over Tennant’s house near the proposed new jetty envisaged by the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company. In anticipation of this jetty’s construction literally on his doorstep, he had christened his inn and boarding house, “The Pier Hotel”. In fact, at that stage, even the foundation stone had not been laid yet. Even though the jetty was only finally completed in 1842, using the wreck of the ship Feejee as a base, the expected goldmine had barely commenced production when misfortune befell the jetty. Within five months after officially coming into operation, on Saturday night, 26th August 1843, Port Elizabeth experienced a violent gale, the worst south-easter since 1835. In a matter of hours, three ships broke their anchors smashing into the jetty and utterly destroying it.
James Reed arrived as an 1820 Settler on the Chapman aged seven. Over the years he was involved in numerous successful and unsuccessful business ventures and amassed a great deal of property. In 1846 Tennant was declared insolvent and at the same time Reed announced that he had returned to his earlier trade as a blacksmith.
This may be when George Brehem acquired the hotel and Johannes Dreyer managed it on his behalf. Dreyer was to become one of the town’s most popular hoteliers, having at different times managed the Phoenix and the Algoa House Hotels. Shortly afterwards in November 1848, Francis Wasley announced that he was running Dreyer’s Hotel in Jetty Street.
It soon became known as Wasley’s and enjoyed an excellent reputation. Francis Wasley received a great honour by being appointed as surveyor to Prince Alfred and his entourage during their visit in August 1860. Finally, illness and ill-health, forced Wasley to forfeit his job at the hotel. Instead, he then occupied a less stressful position by running a bottle store in Jetty Street until his death in March 1866.
In the meantime, J.C. Hitzeroth had bought the property from Brehem’s estate and the lease was taken over by Captain William Wright formerly of the brig Galatea. Inevitably, the hotel became known as Wright’s Hotel between 1863 and the beginning of 1866 when John Berry was granted the liquor licence, Wright having succumbed to financial difficulties, like so many at this time.
Renamed the Palmerston Hotel
During his political life in Britain, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC, FRS, or more informally Lord Palmerston had been a political chameleon. From 1806 to 1822 be had been a member of the Tories, then from 1822 to 1859 a member of the Whigs and finally from 1859 to 1865 he was a member of the Liberal Party. Palmerston, a consummate British statesman, who had twice served as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century, passed away on 18th October 1865.
Soon after this, Berry renamed the hotel, The Palmerston, which would win the longevity prize for the longest used name of the establishment. John and his father Matthew Berry, a well-known hotelier, also found themselves insolvent during the depression of those years and the hotel ground to a halt.
During October 1870, George Doidge, a former steward aboard RMS Natal reopened the Palmerston. An advertisement to this effect stated that the place had been “long vacant” and that a restaurant and hotel were being reopened. Definitions of long are variable but at most the hotel could not have been operational for in excess of two years.
By all accounts, Doidge did not make a success of the venture as on the 28th February 1872, less than a year and a half of recommencing operations, there was a sale of the “gear, goods and goodwill of this old-established and extensive hotel premises”. In Doidge’s stead, James A. Rumsey purchased the lease. Hitzeroth put the property up for sale in 1875, describing it as being “formerly Wright’s “ and added that Rumsey held the lease until 31st March 1877. After renewing the lease, illness forced Rumsey in 1881 to advertise for someone to take over from him.
During this time, the building had been enlarged and improved, according to plans drawn up by a well-known local architect, George Dix-Peek. A new front was built with plate glass windows, a third storey in the “New Italian Style” was added plus a verandah on the Strand Street side. Photographs indicate that the usual minor alterations had been made to the original house over the years – a new verandah for example – but Dix-Peek’s work created an entirely different building akin to a butterfly emerging from the caterpillar’s cocoon. In time to come, further extensions would be made but the Palmerston now bore the familiar shape that the denizens of Port Elizabeth was to know and love for so long.
Dugald Sinclair took over the running of the hotel and purchased it in 1884. Edward Steinmann followed him. This well-known hotelier bought the property for £6,500 and advertised its reopening in 1889. Three years later, the insolvent Steinmann sold the Palmerston to Wilhelm Wilken for £10,000 who in turn sold it to John Apthomas in June 1897 for £9,000. Apthomas had the opportunity to move to London, so in January 1898, William Henry Head purchased it for the same amount. He owned the hotel until September 1917 and it was he who had the verandah over the Jetty Street pavement added and the fourth floor built in 1902/3.
The 8 storey Art Deco Hotel
For various reasons, ownership of the Palmerston changed hands at regular intervals over the succeeding years. During the 1930s when Henry Meyer and W.L. Levey were the proprietors, the existing building was demolished and the present eight storey hotel was opened towards the end of 1936. The Herald of December of that year carried a full page advertisement describing the luxurious and modern features which awaited visitors, quite apart from the splendid views. The architects of this new Palmerston was Goodman Noick while Murray and Steward were the builders. In keeping with the stylish new building, amongst the splendid fittings was the teak panelling in the dining room and Italian marble in the entrance hall.
Finally, the venerated name of Palmerston was to be discard. In 1960, when Sid Brown took over ownership of the hotel, the name was changed to The Campanile severing all ties with its illustrious past. What purpose this name change served is uncertain but what is pertinent is that within the decade the construction of the Settlers Freeway and the concomitant destruction of Strand Street spelt the end of any hotel establishment in this area.
Despite being in the historic heart of the city, like most cities in South Africa, such areas only attract unsavoury characters, and have lost their attraction to shoppers. Perhaps even the destruction of the original Palmerston in 1936 and its replacement by a much larger hotel, was ill-conceived. The new wave of visitors would shortly no longer be arriving by sea but by air.
It is unlikely that Henry Meyer and W.L. Levey could envision a future where harbours were no longer the entrepot for visitors. The location was becoming unfavourable, nevertheless they made a major investment in this hotel. The Lotto ticket that they had selected was a dud. They had been sold a ticket for draw held in the 1870s when the first permanent jetty had been erected in Port Elizabeth.
According to the website Artefact.co.za, this building is currently in poor condition but there are plans to turn the building into student accommodation. This sites use ever again as a hotel is dubious.
The Palmerston Story by Margaret Harradine in Looking Back – September 1990