Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Seaview Hotel

This well-known hotel has operated under numerous names over its life. Amongst its guises was a naval training base during WW2. For some unknown reason, the hotel never attracted sufficient clientele to be able to be financially viable. Nevertheless, it is an icon for many of the older generation who would attend functions there, including myself. 

Main picture: The art deco swimming pool in its heyday

Pre-car era

Prior to the era of motor vehicles, this area was probably totally uninhabited. With the only form of transport being horseback or wagon, it is unlikely that the residents of Port Elizabeth would construct weekend getaway cottages on its windswept hills.

The advent of the horseless carriage made that possible but without a road, it was improbable. This was to change on 29th August 1928, when the Seaview/ Kragga Kamma Road was opened by the Resident Magistrate, and Chairman of the Divisional Council, David Eadie.

The future for Seaview now changed from improbable to possible.

 

Family “connection”

Being destitute after her husband died in 1925 from black water fever contracted while serving with the Union Forces under Smuts in German East Africa, now Tanzania, my grandmother opened a tea room in Schoenmakerskop. After the opening of Marine Drive in 1922, this tearoom staffed by her three daughters – my aunts – became a popular destination for weekend teas with scones and home-made cakes being her speciality.

In the early 1930s, Mrs Daisy McCleland was approached by a member of the Richardson family with a proposal. He offered to purchase her property – Daisy also owned the plots in either side of the tea room – to erect a hotel and tea garden. Regardless of what the offer was, Daisy was not interested in the selling her properties. Mrs McCleland was then curtly informed that they would be soon opening at Sea View and, most likely, her business would suffer as they would also be serving “tea and cake.”

The crowds gather for tea at The Hut Tearoom in Schoenmaker’s Kop in December 1922

Needless to say, the “Hut Tea Room” as Daisy’s Tea Room was then called, continued to flourish with its home baked cakes and the Seaview tearoom with its bought out cakes fizzled out. Perhaps there was an element of schadenfreude on my grandmother’s part, but she never regretted not selling her properties.

The Early Years

Initially the Richardsons, who had acquired the land previously, did not construct an hotel. Instead they developed the site as a holiday resort under the name “Clarendon Marine Township” and in 1931 constructed a tidal swimming pool based upon the design of architects, Jones and McWilliams, with an unusual art deco structure at one end. It was located on the shore below where Seaview Hotel was later to be built. In addition there were rondawels for hire and refreshment kiosk. Twelve rondavels were erected on the cliff area behind where the hotel came to be constructed. These were later used to accommodate the Cadet-Ratings.

Gilbert Curtis Billson – the builder

It is presumably this “kiosk” which was to be the competition for my grandmother’s tearoom at Schoenies. Further extensions followed: bowling greens, tennis courts, putting greens and even a fishing jetty. In 1937 construction was commenced on the hotel itself. The hotel was designed in the streamlined International Style by local architect, Maurice Berman and finally opened on 18th June 1938 with a dance. Gilbert Curtis Billson, grandfather of Michelle Beckley, was the builder of the Seaview Hotel, as well as the pool which he built prior to the hotel. Without connection to the electricity grid, to cater for its needs, it even had its own electricity plant.

Seaview Golf Course

To extend its range of attractions, a golf course was opened on the 31st May 1939.

WW2 Naval training base

This portion of the history of the Seaview Hotel is taken verbatim from an articleSeaview and the Royal Navy” by Richard Tomlinson (see ‘Sources’ section at end of this blog); Richard too, had a “connection” with this venerable hotel, as will become clear later.

South Africa declared war on Hitler’s Germany on 6th September 1939. In March 1942, staff of HMS King Alfred, a Royal Navy training establishment on the south coast of England, started searching for a suitable site for a similar college to train temporary officers for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR or ‘Wavy Navy’) and the South African Naval Forces (SANF). They first looked at Alexandria in Egypt, but this was not suitable due to the North African campaign being in progress. Thence their attention turned to South Africa, where they checked all possible locations from East London to Cape Town.

These photos were probably taken in the late 1940’s. In the top one is the flagpole used by the British Royal Navy is still there.

On 1st August 1942 they fixed on Seaview Hotel, close to the harbour of Port Elizabeth, and “moored with all possible anchors down…” The first intake was received two weeks later. The choice was logical as it was quicker, safer and more convenient to take ratings from the Eastern Fleet here, as well as Union applicants, rather than transport them to England. U-boats were very active in the South Atlantic at that stage and three weeks or more of voyaging was saved.

Jewel of the Ocean

It is the custom in the Royal Navy to give all land establishments ship’s names. Many names were considered and finally Good Hope was suggested by the British Admiralty and approved by Field Marshall Jan Smuts. It was named after a four-funnelled Armoured Cruiser of 14 000 tons launched in 1901, a gift from the city of Cape Town to the Royal Navy. She visited Port Elizabeth some years later as Flagship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. Placed in the Reserve Fleet in 1914, she was re-commissioned later that year with reservists under Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock and proceeded to the South Atlantic. Joined there by HM Ships Monmouth, Glasgow and Otranto, she was ordered to search for the German China Squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee in the Pacific.

This squadron comprised the heavy cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the three light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were crack gunnery ships and were manned by crews who had been together for a year or more. On 1st November 1914 the older and weaker British squadron engaged the enemy off Coronel on the Chilean coast. After an epic one-hour battle, Good Hope blew up and sank with all hands after receiving 35 direct hits from 8” guns. Our Good Hope at Seaview was reported sunk several times by German radio as Admiral Doenitz did not realize she was a shore station!

Sun deck of the Seaview Hotel

Before being posted to Seaview, ratings received basic training at HMS Assegaai in Pietermaritzburg and did a spell at sea. Candidates showing leadership qualities went before an Admiralty Selection Board and, if suitable, were sent to Good Hope. Approximately 1 000 Cadet-Ratings (C/Rs) qualified as officers over the two-year life of the ‘ship’.About 70% were from Britain, 25% from South Africa and remainder from New Zealand, Australia, Rhodesia and Newfoundland. The South African ratings were partly those seconded to the Royal Navy and partly those earmarked for the SANF(South African Naval Force) and trained by the Royal Navy for the Union Government. The latter were no longer trained at Good Hope from 1943 onwards,when courses for SANF midshipmen were started at SANF Naval Training Base, HMSAS Unitie, in Cape Town.C/Rs wore caps with a white band, dined in the officers’ mess and were expected to behave as officers. Training courses lasted 12 – 14 weeks and C/Rs were allotted to various Divisions named after famous British admirals – Anson, Howe, Rodney, Grenville and Nelson – with an extra Accountants’ Division named Scott. The standard of training was equal to that at King Alfred.

Seaview Hotel in 1966

A large Drill Shed was built on the approach road to the hotel and still survives. A 12-pdr gun and an Oerlikon in an armoured turret were erected in the grounds for gun drill. The Tidal Pool was roped into service, davits being erected at the poolside for boat-drill training. A rigorous training schedule was implemented, followed by voluntary classes in all subjects until the generator was switched off at 22h30. C/Rs also undertook sea training on HMSAS Africana or other ships based in Port Elizabeth harbour. The course ended with a final examination. Cadets varied in age from 18 to 43 and had been educated at a variety of educational institutions in South Africa and overseas. Of the South African schools, Grey High School in Port Elizabeth was the most popular with 22 old boys, followed by Durban High School with 18. HMS Good Hope was finally closed in June 1944 on orders of the C-in-C, South Atlantic, as shipping could by then once more pass safely through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.

Richard explained that he had a personal interest in Seaview Hotel and its Royal Naval service as his late father-in-law, Ronald Exell, trained there from September to November 1943. He finds it particularly sad therefore to view the present deteriorated and abandoned state of the old hotel, the demolition of which was announced in the Herald on 2nd April 2014.

 

Later years

The Seaview Hotel, in all its permutations, was renowned for its weekend dances and its Oyster Bar. In the earlier years, it was known as The White Elephant in the 1950s and before that as the Jewel of the Ocean.  In my era, it was called Hotel Minhetti.

The hotel never seemed to be fully occupied and financial problems were a perennial constraint. Ultimately the decision to demolish the hotel was taken. The deed was done in 2014

The Tidal Pool at Seaview circa 1950s

 

Sources

http://samilitaryhistory.org/14/p14mayne.html

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

Seaview and the Royal Navy by Richard Tomlinson (2003, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Looking Back, Vol 42, pages 40 – 53, for the full text.)


1 Comments

  1. I only knew the tidal pool as a dilapidated structure but I loved it as a kid. The latent engineer in me recognized that it was an absolutely unique and beautiful structure. I would roam through the empty rooms in awe and imagining it gaily functional and teeming with people and fun. I always wished that someone would rescue it and return it to its former glory. Perhaps I should have set up a ‘Tears’ for abandoned and abused buildings.

    Reply

Leave a Comment.