Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Potted History of Willows

I would have preferred to have written a definitive history of Willows, albeit short, but as I have been unable to uncover much information about this iconic resort, I will invoke my right to present a potted history with a several facts added as a spicing on the top. Even as regards photographs, there is a dearth of them covering the early years.

Like many Port Elizabethans, the McCleland family stayed at Willows at some point in their lives. In our case it was over the Easter holidays. Sometimes we even took our home-built canoe along but as the main pool was miniscule, it could, in all honesty, only be used when the facility was not crowded.

Main picture: Two views of Willows separated by 50 years

Before the rondawels

Above: Map of De Fontein or Willows which was only one house in the 1880s. A track led from Walmer across what to become the Driftsands Airport to Willows. It was only in 1922 that the Marine Drive was constructed

Long before the rondawels were constructed, Willows was an isolated area. For whatever reason, which has vanished in the mists of time, two families decided to build holiday homes at this spot. It was between the years 1858 and 1883 that Captain Francis William McCleland, my great grandfather, and a Mr Burchell, possibly close friends, elected to build holiday homes here. As the various maps of the period only indicate that one house was situated at De Fontein, the McCleland sea cottage could have been more of a shack that a proper house. The exact location is now unknown as both houses were subsequently demolished but what is known is that the houses were not built on the sea side of Marine Drive but on the inland side. Running past their cottages was a small tripping brook which in all likelihood now forms forms part of the freshwater shower on the main beach. 

Captain Francis William Henry McCleland

At that stage in his life, Captain Francis McCleland had served in the British army for many years and also owned large swathes of Walmer. As the current Marine Drive was only built in 1922, there would not even have been a dirt road to Willows. As his landholding were on the southern border of Walmer, there was probably a dirt track directly across the area, now occupied by the Walmer Location, to this secluded spot on the coast.

Construction of holiday cottages 

In the 19th century, the area between the towns did not fall under any local authority mainly due to the fact that these areas were unpopulated or sparsely populated. Given this reality, no interest was shown in maintaining roads which traversed these areas. The ultimate solution implemented was the creation of Divisional Councils under whose remit the maintenance would reside.

In no publication am I able to trace the genesis or the raison d’etre for the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council undertaking the construction of holiday bungaloes at Willows and the Van Stadens River mouth. My assumption is that it related to the creation of a new revenue stream as these Councils were continually passing the begging bowl around. With the continual raising of rates proving to be unpopular, new sources of revenue were sought.

The idea of having rondawels instead of rectangular cottages might have been inspired by the Xhosa huts in the Transkei but from a space utilisation point of view, they were inefficient. Perhaps this design was selected for a more prosaic reason: the ease of construction. Presumably the skill level and calibre of person required to construct these cottages more than compensated for their lack of useable space.

Camping at Willows

Without any documents or other proof of when this resort was constructed, one can assume that it must have occurred over the period from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. Nonetheless, my best guess would be the late 1950s. As the rural areas during that era fell under the jurisdiction of the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council, it must have been constructed under their auspices.

Camping at Willows in 1929
Willows probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s [From Dale Poulter]
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Willows probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s [From Dale Poulter]

In an era prior to the introduction of television, film shows formed a part of one’s entertainment bouquet albeit only once per week. To cater for this demand, the café cum restaurant, offered shows on a Saturday night using reel-to-reel projectors. These machines would whir and click as the tape was transferred from one reel to the next but did not detract from the magic of the moving images on the white screen, usually a sheet. The site’s superintendent during the 1960s and 1970s was the Munro couple.

The Willows in the 1950s
Willows in about 1963

From sunrise, the day was spent in swimming, exploring the rock pools and building huge dams out of sea sand in order to prevent the water from the showers reaching the pool. By dusk one was thoroughly exhausted, ready for a hard coir mattress bed.

Girl Guide camp at Willows

Willows in the 60s and 70s

Willows being used for an advertisment
Willows in the 1960s with coloured rondawels
Willows

Recent

Over the years, the original basic rondawels have been upgraded. In the years of my youth in the 1960s, there were only communal bathrooms with “long drop toilets” and a gas geyser for the showers. Instead of trekking in the cold back to the rondawels after a hot shower, each rondawel now has been fitted with a bathroom en suite. In addition, enclosed verandahs have been added to the rondavels.

Willows – Enclosed Verandahs have been added to the rondavels

Video of the Willows in the 1950s:

Marine Drive Ruins

This is an almost verbatim transcription for an article in the Looking Back of 1966.

Last year a bush fire destroyed vast areas of thick Fort Jackson Willow along Marine Drive. In February, Mrs. M. Diesel, who has often camped at Willows, was staying there once again and discovered the ruins of a large old brick building which had hitherto been hidden by the bush.

The ruins, as reported in the Eastern Province Herald for 23 February 1966, are “in the camping grounds not far from the Willows on the sea side of Marine Drive, towards Schoenmakers Kop“. Old maps indicate two buildings in this vicinity, Burchell’s farm, and a woolwashery, operated, according to Mr. J.J. Redgrave, by a man named Stratford.

It seemed uncertain which of these places was to be associated with the ruins until Mr Duthie’s report in the press on the following day connecting them circumstantially with Burchell’s Farm. Mr. Duthrie recalled spending a holiday at the old house between 1906 and 1910, shortly after it had been sold to the government (probably in connection with the reclamation of the driftsands) and vacated by the farmer. He decsribes this building as having had a long passage, ten or twelve rooms, and a flat roof. Their family servant used to sit on the roof to watch “to see that the children were safe when they bathed in the nearby Willow’s pool.” However a few tiles have been found on the site which suggests that only part of the roof can have been flat. Subsequently the building was stripped by fishermen seeking materials for their shacks. The repurcussion was that the walls crumbled away leaving little but the foundations, two wells, and a stone water furrow, which may still be traced.

My conclusion

I concur that certain maps indicate that there were two houses at Willows in the mid to late ninteeneth century. In front of McCleland’s shack ran a stream which probably flowed into the main Willows’ pool. In all probability this was a wooden shack much like the first houses built at Schoenmaker’s Kop. It would probably have been destroyed in one the periodic bush fires. Furthermore, I contend that the building referred to in the newspaper article was Burchell’s house and that the woolwashery was located closer to Chelsea Point as there was no natural incline or seawall impeding the movement of the greasy wool into the sea water. As use of the “sweet waters” of Uitenhage were superior to sea water, all of the local woolwasheries were rapidly closed and relocated to the Swartkops River at Uitenhage.

Sources:

Rosemary MacGeoghan: My 85 year old first cousin for information on my great grandfather

Anton Human: Family photos & videos

Looking Back – November 1966

6 Comments

  1. It must have been constructed earlier than you suggest. My family spent happy weekend afternoons at The Willows in the 1950s and we left PE in 1956.We lived in Walmer and it was not a long drive to get there in our A40. It was well established by then but I dont recall as many rondavels as I am seeing in the photos. I remember an open air shower to get rid of the salt and a rill of some kind that took water (?from the shower) to the beach and was always covered with algae, which always seemed to be irresistible to children for some reason. It was a very nice place but my memory is of a very cold and windy site.

    Reply
  2. I enjoyed your pictorial visit to Willows. I holidayed there in tents with cousins in 1950s and 60s. Aunty would be with the kids and Uncle went to work each day. All the boys (6) had a tent to themselves and the girls slept in the folding camper tent. What wonderful, carefree fun we had. Also remember building dens and climbing the Port Jackson willows around the site. Is that why it is called “Willows”?

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  3. Memories! :-) How I loved those days, those hazy days of Summer. I also had a costume & white rubber swimming cap, just like the little girl with the rubber tyre used to have fun safely in the water! I loved swimming in the safety of the rock pool with no waves or breakers to drown me, but hated the sand & heat, as I was a little white skinned red headed girl & could not tolerate the sun for long. I remember sleeping in those rondavels, the smell of the thatched roofs & the FUN we had each Summer with our Aunts, Uncles & Cousins who always took us along with their families. Thank YOU for sharing the HaPPy Memories

    Reply
  4. When my grndchildren visit Willows with us in February they will be the 6th generation of our family to do so.
    We have SO many wonderful memories.

    Reply
    • Hi Jennifer

      Do you perhaps have photos of Willows going back to before the rondawels were erected?

      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446

      Reply

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