Until fairly recently the concept of a gentlemen’s club was in vogue and all the rage. Businessmen felt the need for pleasant relaxation playing snooker and billiards after a day at the office. Only the finest whiskeys would slake their thirst. So as not to be distracted, the admission policies usually excluded females, blacks, Jews and the chattering classes. Even Bohemian types were probably excluded.
In 1866, Port Elizabeth joined the ranks of towns which catered for the needs of this select group of individuals.
Main picture: The original Port Elizabeth Club building circa 1880s
The initial Club was started in a room at the back of the Algoa House Hotel in Western Road opposite Trinder Vlei. The first Chairman and committee were Alfred Ebden, John Campbell, H. Schabbel, J.W. Salamon, L. Bramson, William Fleming, F.D. Deare, William Hume and C.T. Jones. Soon the increased membership forced the need for larger premises. An advertisement was placed in the E.P. Herald for suitable premises to rent. The Club obtained suitable premises in Bird Street which had been built by D.P. Blaine and ultimately purchased it in 1874. In 1876, a double-storeyed wing was added and the surrounding properties were also acquired.
The club was said to have become the best club in the Eastern Province. The entrance fee was five pounds. In order to keep the Club select, the rule read “No ballot shall take place unless ten members are present and vote”. If the applicant received a black ball they were refused membership.
Not only did the Club provide facilities for eating and entertainment, but it also provided accommodation. Amongst its numerous distinguished guests over the years was the novelist, Anthony Trollope, who stayed there during his sojourn in August 1877.
Even the plot on which the Club now stands in Bird Street is steeped in its own history for the original erven was granted to a Mr Alexander Nelson by Lord Charles Somerset in November 1822. The plot and original building changed hands from time to time until the Club built the first clubhouse. This clubhouse served the members until 1900-1903 when the present building was erected. Opposite the Club one finds what we know today as Trinder Square but at that time it was a lake.
Club life in those days was nothing like it is today and would be considered “rather primitive” by modern standards. Gas lamps, oil lamps and candles lit the rooms; iron bedsteads and straw mattresses with matting on the floor was part of the furnishings for the accommodation rooms; water jugs and basins stood in a corner on a washstand and a tub of hot water could be ordered on request if one desired a bath, for there were no bathrooms. The “privies” were in the back garden and a lantern hanging outside the door indicated its whereabouts at night. The guests in the dining room sat at long tables, “boarding house school” fashion. They were served with food prepared “on the wood and coal range in the kitchen”. Dances and balls were held at the club where the ladies in their sweeping gowns mingled with the red-coated military officers and the naval officers in full uniform. The music was provided by the Prince Alfred Guard brass military band. Apparently at the time brandy, port, claret, sherry and burgundy were the main drinks for whisky and beer only appeared much later.
A new club house, designed by Jones and McWilliams, was opened on 31st March 1905. Amongst its first illustrious guests was that of the Governor, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, who opened the Agricultural Show, one of the highlights of the year. Not only did the Governor dine at the new Port Elizabeth Club, but he also opened it as well.
It was, however, in 1892 that a second club, the St George’s Club was founded and this was essentially for the younger generation of rising businessmen. The two clubs ran successfully for many years, but eventually, due to economic circumstances, it was decided that the two clubs should amalgamate. In 1998 the St George’s Club joined the Port Elizabeth Club in the premises of the latter and the new name for the club became the Port Elizabeth St George’s Club, generally known as “The Club”.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)