Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel

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 the early 1840s, first in Market Square, and since 1941 at 5 Chapel Street, making it the oldest operating hotel in Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: The original Phoenix Hotel located in Market Square

The land on which the original Phoenix Hotel stood was part of a large grant on the seafront made to W.D. Jennings on 7 June 1816.  William Jennings came to the Cape in 1809 and was Procurator General of the Vice-Admiralty Court. He bought a good deal of land during his time in the· Colony and sold the Market Square piece to Frederick Korsten in 1818 before returning to England. The big house with the mansard roof was built by Korsten’s son-in-law, John Centlivres Chase, in 1837 when he first came to live here and became a partner in his father-in-law’s business. It seems most probable that the large building consisted of warehouse and living quarters.

John Centlivres Chase was amongst the first 1820 Settlers to arrive in Algoa Bay as he was aboard the first ship, the Chapman. His second wife, Maria Johanna Charlotta, whom he married on 17th June 1831, was the only daughter of Frederick Korsten of Cradock Place. Like many Settlers, Chase failed as a farmer. He then became a civil servant from 1825 to 1835. Thereafter he occupied various senior positions in the civil service and politics.

When was the hotel actually built?

Unlike the other well-known hotels in the early Port Elizabeth such as Scorey’s, the Palmerston and the Grand, the exact date of its construction is subject to conjecture. In those days, the hotel was located adjacent to the beach or what in those days was known as the landing beaches on which the Mfengu beach labourers would beach their surf boats packed to the gunnels with goods transshipped from vessels at anchor in the roadstead.

There are conflicting stories about when the first house was built on this site as William James Reed claimed that it was the father of William Smith – the first mayor of Port Elizabeth – who built a house on the sandhill where the Phoenix was ultimately built.

This is problematic as the date of hotel’s construction is assumed to be 1837 which is the date whenChase built his house on the site of the future Phoenix Hotel in 1837. Why is the date when William Smith’s father did indeed build a house on this stand as is alleged by William James Reed, is so critical for this understanding is that it probably occurred in the very early years of the town when many of the dwellings were of rudimentary construction with the favoured method being wattle and daub. The more recent meaning of the word wattle implies wood of Australian origin, the bane of many non-Australian countries. Instead in this context per Google it means “a material for making fences, walls, etc., consisting of rods or stakes interlaced with twigs or branches.” Even if this supposition is incorrect, it could have been built with more permanent material but very crudely as many of the early houses were. Whether the original house still stood when Chase built his house in 1837 is unknown but, in all likelihood, it would have been of superior construction given Chase’s superior means and it was Chase’s house which became the Phoenix Hotel and not an older house build by William Smith’s father.

Conversion from house to hotel

John Centlivres Chase
John Centlivres Chase

In 1837, Chase was instrumental in building a house in Market Square which one can safely assume was later converted into the Phoenix Hotel. This then begs the question: When was it converted into a hotel? Most of the initial hotels commenced their life as a house but, once converted into a hotel, they underwent periodic extensions to cater for the influx of customers as their service became more widely known. The Phoenix Hotel would not have been an exception if it had done so.

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, Salmond later worked as 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.”

In 1842 E.H. Salmond leased the house and created the Phoenix Hotel. With its excel­lent situation onto the Market Square it was a popular and successful hotel for more than a century. Edwin Henry Salmond, master mariner, captain of the Africaine which had in 1841 gone ashore after leaving the Kowie River, would have known the town well before he chose to leave the sea and settle down. He was later to become a prominent merchant and citizen who was awarded the gold medal of the Humane Society for his part in the drama of the wreck of the Charlotte.

John Centlivres Chase in later life

The Phoenix Hotel could have followed the route of the Palmerston Hotel when it initially was converted into a canteen or a bar of some description. This watering hole would in all likelihood have borne the name of the proprietor, in this case initially Salmond. By all accounts Salmond’s personality was more 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.

Map of the location of the original Phoenix Hotel with Hotel circled
Map of the location of the original Phoenix Hotel with Hotel circled

In September 1843, another Captain-turned-Innkeeper, John Bosworth of the schooner Trekboer and the Conch, took over the young Phoenix and later bought the property from Korsten’s estate. Bosworth married Sarah South on 16th July 1845 and who, after his death in 1854 at the age of 49,, was to run the hotel herself for a while and later marry Henry Fancourt White, who constructed the eponymous White’s Road. At this stage, the Phoenix was an unpretentious edifice with their next-door neighbour being a two storeyed building housing the Post Office.

The Bosworth’s were succeeded by Johannes Augustus Dryer, very well-known indeed as a popular hotelier, first of all where the Campanile Hotel is today, and later in Western Road at Algoa House. He was followed at the Phoenix in 1861 by Matthew Berry, son of that early settler, John Berry, who owned Baakens River Farm (site of several of our suburbs) as far back as 1818. Matthew was involved in several business ventures of varying degrees of success and at the time of his death owned a “sea-bathing establishment ” at Deal Party. This became the New Brighton Hotel and ended its day as a T.B. hospital.

Location of the original Phoenix Hotel
Location of the original Phoenix Hotel

Derivation of the name Phoenix

What is undisputed by all the sources in the literature is that the name Phoenix was derived from a paddle steamer of 240 tons of that name which sailed between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth between 1842 and 1852. It goes without saying that if it was named after the ship then the hotel was only renamed as the Phoenix after 1842 even though many references are made to the Phoenix Hotel prior to that date. The reason for naming the hotel Phoenix could have related to their incredulity in that the ship was able to sail between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in the unbelievable time of 47 hours. More likely however is the fact that Salmond was a director of The Cape of Good Hope Steam Navigation Company which owned the Phoenix which had replaced the paddle-steamer Hope which had been wrecked 10 miles west of Cape St Francis in heavy fog on the 14th March 1840. By naming the Hope’s replacement as the Phoenix implied, as it did in Greek mythology, that the company would emerge from this catastrophe stronger, smarter and more powerful.  

Phoenix Hotel in 1842

old-phoenix-hotel

In 1849 Bosworth was to advertise the services of the Phoenix Hotel as follows:

PHOENIX HOTEL
Port Elizabeth
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
J. BOSWORTH
Port Elizabeth 8th March 1849

No doubt, good stabling in 1849 was as important as secure parking is in 21st century South Africa.

Adverts for the Phoenix ship and the Phoenix Hotel in the EP Herald on 7th May 1845

Stephen Johnson came next at the Phoenix, then in 1876, Adam White Guthrie. Guthrie left the hotel in 1879 and joined the firm of Cobb and Co. and was later, after its collapse, to form his own company. He turned the Empress skating rink in Rink Street into stables for his business and in June 1896 he bought from O.R. Dunell the fine old house in Bird Street built originally by Henry Rutherfoord. After Guthrie’s death in 1915 the house was given to the Trustees of the Port Elizabeth Museum, thereby giving the Museum its own premises for the first time.

Wallace and Co. were the next owners of the Phoenix, and in September 1881 they were succeeded by Arnold Lipman of Cape Town, followed by Mrs George, and Louis Fell, which brings us to the turn of the century. The Phoenix was to continue to occupy its corner of the Market Square with its garden in front until 1941 when it was demolished to make way for the Reserve Bank. In its hundred years the building had not altered all that much.

Alterations

By the 1860’s the original house had acquired a double verandah with the sign of the Phoenix on top. By 1880 it still looked the same, mansard roof, dormer windows and all (there was a bathroom in the garden, right on the Square, tucked behind the fence and shrubbery), though the carriage drive had been closed off and had become a garden. Between then and about 1890 the third storey was altered, presumably to give more and better accommodation, another verandah topped the other two and the Phoenix flew to the new roof.

Early visitors

One of the earliest “celebrity” visitors was David Livingstone who stayed there on the 19th April 1841 before it was known as the Phoenix. The fact that such a distinguished visitor was staying there was used in their advertising by proclaiming this fact in a brass plaque attached to the front of the building. This memorial plate was never transferred to the hotel’s new premises in Chapel Street and is presumed to have been “mislaid” in the process of relocation.

The discovery of diamonds in the Diamond Fields during the early 1870s, led to a flood of people leaving Port Elizabeth seeking their dreams and their fortunes. Being the closest port to Kimberley – East London did not yet possess a harbour – a steady stream of fortune seekers made their way off the ships and onto the beckoning wealth. To satisfy this demand, an American entrepreneur, Cobb, set up a coaching service from PE to Kimberley. A test run was performed on the 22nd September 1871 but as it took time to get it operational, the first run only left PE on the 4th March 1872 at 5 o’clock in the morning from the terminus being the front door of the Phoenix Hotel.

Whilst many entertainers must have crossed the threshold over the years, the Phoenix Hotel can at least claim that more than one celebrity stayed in their establishment. It was none other than Major General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon of Khartoum fame who in July 1882 resided there.

charles-george-gordon

Major General Charles George Gordon CB (28 January 1833 – 26 January 1885), also known as Chinese GordonGordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, was a British Army officer and administrator.

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 was 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 build-up to battle, the two leaders corresponded, each attempting to convert the other to his faith, but neither would concede. Besieged by the Mahdi’s forces, Gordon organised 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.

The death of General Gordon at Khartoum by J.L.G Ferris
The death of General Gordon at Khartoum by J.L.G Ferris

On March 16th 1883 the newly formed Jockey Club of South Africa held its inaugural meeting at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square.

The Phoenix Hotel's left side was in line with the front of the City Hall.
The Phoenix Hotel’s left side was in line with the front of the City Hall.

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.

phoenix-hotel04

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.

Ships at anchor in the Bay
Ships at anchor in the Bay

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 Bosworth, John Dreyer acquired the hotel. During this period, the Phoenix was referred to as Dreyer’s Hotel. Subsequently it was owned by Guthrie.

Much like all such establishments, the hotel did experience its fair share of mishaps. In the case of the Phoenix, it was the Port Elizabeth scourge: Flooding. On the 5th May 1897, a cloudburst poured some 5 inches of rain over P.E. between noon and 1:30 pm. As usual the old water-courses – Donkin Street, White’s Road, Constitution Hill and Russell Road – bore the brunt and the roads were torn up and the rubble deposited in Main and Strand Streets. Damage was also caused in North End and South End and in the vicinity of the Baakens River, which came down in flood. The Phoenix Hotel experienced the collateral damage of now canalised Baakens River when it burst its banks. Sweeping along North Union Street, it flooded the first floor of the hotel. Unfazed by the waters taking a short cut through the hotel, diners were said to have continued their meal with their feet on adjacent chairs while the waiters had no such extemporised solution. Instead they were compelled to splash through the ankle-deep waters.

Apart from additions and alterations over the intervening years, the Phoenix Hotel continued to occupy its prime location in Market Square. The winds of change driving rapid economic progress, were to change all of that. With 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.

phoenix-hotel03

Footnotes:

  1. The year during which Bosworth took over the Phoenix Hotel is stated either as 1843 or 1845. I have assumed the year 1845
  2. Subsequent to writing this blog, the advent of Covid-19 has cast a pall over its future with the owner announcing its closure.

Sources:

The Red Lion and Phoenix Hotels by Margaret Harradine {Looking Back, July 1985] Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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