Everybody who has grown up in Port Elizabeth must have been to the Stage Door at some point during their misspent youth. What is fascinating is that the Phoenix Hotel has been in operation since 1837, first in Market Square, and now at 5 Chapel Street, making it the oldest operating hotel in Port Elizabeth.
Main picture: The original Phoenix Hotel located in Market Square
The Phoenix Hotel’s roots in Port Elizabeth’s illustrious past stretch all the way back to John Centlivres Chase, who preceded the 1820 Settlers to settle in Algoa Bay. His second wife, Maria Johanna Charlotta, who he married on 17th June 1831, was in fact a Korsten by birth.
Not content with a single career, Chase commenced working as a farmer and then became a civil servant from 1825 to 1835. Thereafter he occupied various senior positions in the civil service and politics.
In 1837, Chase was instrumental in building a house in Market Square which later was converted into the Phoenix Hotel. From extant records, the only inference that I can draw is that the erection of the house and its conversion into a hotel must have been almost concurrent as the records state that the house and the hotel were both built in 1837.
Chase might have been instrumental in building the house, but it was Edwin Henry Salmond who converted the house into the Phoenix Hotel. Like Chase, Salmond was also a man of many different talents. Initially a Master Mariner and ship owner, but later Salmond was a merchant, ship chandler and hotelier. Apart from starting the Phoenix, he also at some point owned the “Jim Crow”, the “Frontier” and the “Elephant and the Castle.”
The name Phoenix was derived from a paddle steamer of 240 tonnes which was a marvel in that it was able to sail between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in the unbelievable time of 47 hours.
Perhaps his personality was suited to the hospitality trade as he was described as being “a genial friend, good citizen, man of intelligence and wide experience, daring pluck and courage.” These attributes were on full display during his efforts to assist during the wrecking of the “Charlotte.” For this deed, he was awarded a gold medal by the Humane Society.
1845 must have been a wonderful year for John Bosworth. Bosworth had been a Master Mariner but now decided to settle down. After marrying Sarah South on 16th July 1845, Bosworth became an hotelier during September of that year when Salmond transferred the Phoenix Hotel to him. At this stage, the Phoenix had an unpretentious ediface with their next door neighbour being a two storeyed building housing the Post Office.
In 1849, Bosworth was to advertise the services of the Phoenix Hotel as follows:
Families, Captains and Travellers visiting Port Elizabeth will find the above hotel complete with every comfort and convenience at moderate charges. Wines, spirits and liqueurs (foreign and colonial) of the very best description, Abbott’s London Stout, Bass and Byass’s Ale and Porter, Soda Water &c constantly on hand.
A first rate billiard table
Good stabling for 20 horses
Port Elizabeth 8th March 1849
No doubt, good stabling in 1849 is as important as secure parking is in South Africa 2016.
Whilst many entertainers must have crossed the threshold over the years, the Phoenix Hotel can at least claim that one celebrity has resided in their establishment. It was none other than Major General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon of Khartoum fame who in July 1882 resided there.
He saw action in the Crimean War as an officer in the British Army. But he made his military reputation in China, where he was placed in command of the “Ever Victorious Army,” a force of Chinese soldiers led by European officers. In the early 1860s, Gordon and his men were instrumental in putting down the Taiping Rebellion, regularly defeating much larger forces. For these accomplishments, he was given the nickname “Chinese Gordon” and honours from both the Emperor of China and the British.
He entered the service of the Khedive in 1873 (with British government approval) and later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.
A serious revolt then broke out in the Sudan, led by a Muslim religious leader and self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. In early 1884 Gordon had been sent to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. However, after evacuating about 2,500 British civilians, in defiance of those instructions, he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military men. In the buildup to battle, the two leaders corresponded, each attempting to convert the other to his faith, but neither would accede. Besieged by the Mahdi’s forces, Gordon organized a city-wide defence lasting almost a year that gained him the admiration of the British public, but not of the government, which had wished him not to become entrenched. Only when public pressure to act had become irresistible did the government, with reluctance, send a relief force. It arrived two days after the city had fallen and Gordon had been killed.
On March 16th 1883, the newly formed Jockey Club of South Africa held its inaugural meeting at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square.
Not all of the guests at the Phoenix Hotel were celebrities like General Gordon of Khartoum. Some were scoundrels. A sensational case in October 1875 relates to the theft of very valuable diamonds, rubies and pearls valued at twenty-five thousand pounds in Rio de Janeiro. The three perpetrators slipped aboard the ship Ellen with their ill-gotten hoard of precious jewels, working their way as ordinary seamen.
Unluckily for them, whilst nearing Algoa Bay, the ship struck foul weather and had to wait the passing of the storm in the Bay. Meanwhile the three rogues came ashore and took up residence in comfortable apartments at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square.
As the thieves were attempting to dispose of their stolen gems, they were arrested by Inspector Bromwich. After a preliminary examination, the trio were transhipped to Cape Town and then transferred back to the location of the theft: Rio de Janeiro, where they were tried.
After Boswell, John Dreyer acquired the hotel. During this period, the Phoenix was referred to as Dreyer’s Hotel. Subsequently it has owned by Guthrie.
Apart from additions and alterations over the intervening years, the Phoenix Hotel continued to occupy in its prime location in Market Square. The winds of change driven rapid economic progress, were to change all of that. With the surging property prices in this prime commercial precinct, the owners were convinced by an excellent offer to sell the property for redevelopment. In 1942, the building was demolished to make way for the Reserve Bank. The hotel was then relocated to its current site at 5 Chapel Street.
Cheers to another 137 years.
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