Port Elizabeth of Yore: The T. Birch & Co Story

The employees of this venerable establishment will undoubtedly be offended if their shops were referred to a clothing stores. This would lump them together with retailers such as Mr Price, Jet or Ackermans. Instead they should be referred to as outfitters which more befits their role and image in establishment circles in Port Elizabeth.

This is a succinct history of this 150-year-old establishment which still has ties back to its founder, Mr Trenley Birch. 

Main picture: Mr Trenley Birch, founder of T. Birch & Co

The exact date of Trenley Birch’s birth is unknown but given that his age at death was 76, he must have been born in approximately 1834 in England. It was shortly after his arrival in South Africa that he announced his intention of opening up a “clothing establishment” in Port Elizabeth. On the 14th December 1860, Trenley advertised the opening of the “West Country Clothing Establishment” three doors down from Jetty Street. As location in this business is crucial for business success, Trenley could not have chosen better. Being adjacent to Market Square, his shop would be at the hub of the bustling town.

Corner of Main & Jetty Street in 1876. Originally the London and SA Bank occupied this site and then it was taken over by the Post Office. Later the then Union Castle Mail Steamship Company took it over. The little building on the left of the corner building was the original building of T. Birch and Co.

In 1860, Port Elizabeth was on the cusp of growth after springing to national prominence on the back of wool exports and had already eclipsed Cape Town as the busiest port in the Cape. In line with its growing importance, the status of the town which had already surpassed that of Uitenhage and Grahamstown, was now designated as a municipality with its own Mayor and Town Councillors. T. Birch & Co was ready to capitalise upon this prosperity.

Within a year or two, Trenley Birch had altered and extended his original establishment. He also built up a flourishing wholesale business and opened a branch in Grahamstown in 1864 which dealt in haberdashery, drapery, civil and military tailoring and men’s wear.

Being renowned throughout the Eastern Province, his large and elegant premises even attracted the attention of the Governor of the Cape who is reputed to have made frequent purchases there whilst in Port Elizabeth.

John William Badcock

In 1873, Trenley Birch paid a business visit to England, returning with a 17-year-old youngster, John William Badcock whom Trenley had convinced to join him in the business. Badcock’s tenure with Birch’s would span 41 years. After Trenley Birch’s retirement to England in 1900, content in the knowledge that his understudy, John Badcock, was eminently suitable, he sanctioned Badcock to succeed him as Chairman and Managing Director. It was under his watch that Birch’s was converted into a limited liability company, titled T. Birch & Co Ltd.

After the fire in 1908, the building was redesigned and then rebuilt in 1909

Meanwhile, the Grahamstown branch prospered with Captain T.H. Copeland, one of the co-founders of Grahamstown’s First City Regiment, joining the Grahamstown business in 1867. This initiated a tradition of Copelands managing this Branch through father, son and grandson until 1947.

Birch’s in Grahamstown

The business was not without its difficulties. Over its first century, it experienced a number of conflagrations at the Port Elizabeth store, the first blaze being in March 1865, five years after its opening. A new building was hastily constructed, opening on 30th September 1865 but altered in 1872/73. The second inferno occurred on 8th December 1908. Instead of merely rebuilding it in the original style, Babcock engaged Smith, Sons and Dewar to draw up a new design which incorporated a “Renaissance Front.” This redesigned building opened for business some 8 months later on the 27th July 1909.

The Report on the blaze featured prominently in the Herald for the week ending December 12, 1908.
Outfitters’ premises in Main Street gutted by fire

A night such as yestereve, the moon shining brightly and hardly a breath of wind stirring, one hardly expected to hear of one of the most flourishing and busiest houses in town being destroyed by fire. But such was the case, and the premises to be gutted were those of Messrs T Birch and Co. Ltd. clothiers and outfitters.

Transnet Heritage Library – Main Street looking north from Birches’ to Fischer’s Buildings

It appears that at 8.17pm a dispatcher, Mr. Butchart, in the employ of the PE Electric Tramway Co. Ltd. was speaking to a friend on the opposite side of the street when the latter noticed a small flame licking the north window of the building. The alarm was immediately given, but previous to the arrival of the Fire Brigade, great volumes of dense smoke were issuing from the roof.

The Brigade appeared on the scene in eight minutes from the time of the alarm, in charge of Lieutenant Anderson. By this time a considerable crowd had gathered in front of the burning building. No flames were visible, but the smoke poured out from the doomed building in dense clouds. The roof of the verandah was mounted and a hose put through the centre window. As the water was played inside, the smoke cleared away somewhat, and great flames shot high into the air. The sight was beautiful in its awfulness. Sparks were flying in all directions and the streets and adjoining buildings were brightly illuminated by the reflection.

The crowd commenced to swell, and Main Street for a distance on either side was almost impassable, whilst Jetty Street was lined with crowds. The flames shot higher and higher, and it was evident that the building was doomed. Shortly afterwards two hoses were run through the Union-Castle Chambers, and jets from these were also played on the roof of the burning building, but even this enormous flow of water did not seem to have the necessary effect.

A sensation was caused by a cry being raised that the back of Messrs Joseph and Sons’ premises had caught fire, but happily this proved not to be the case. Nevertheless, the position was serious enough, for it was discovered that the offices of Messrs Birch and Co., which were situated at the back of the first floor, were in great danger.

Here firemen experienced great difficulty there being very little room to work and an uncertain knowledge as to the exact position of the premises handicapped them in getting to the seat of the fresh outbreak. The sight was awe-inspiring. Whilst superintending operations at this stage Lieut. Anderson received the full force of a jet of water in his eyes, which caused him considerable  pain, and he had to leave the building for a while to recover.

At about 9.15pm, it was thought that the Brigade had got the fire under control, but all of a sudden there was a fresh outbreak, the flames bursting forth with renewed vigour. The firemen and police worked manfully, making the most strenuous efforts to combat the conflagration, and to prevent the fire spreading to the adjoining premises. Fortunately, they succeeded in the latter, but Messrs Birch and Co.’s premises were completely gutted. 

 

Mr A.H. Mowbray

Mr J.H. Mowbray

Mr C.H. Mowbray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though Trenley Birch has been married to Eliza Holloway for many years, no record of offspring can be found by me. In about 1876, he built himself a house called “Doncaster Villa” on the corner of Park Drive and Doncaster Road. After retiring, Trenley settled at Cheltenham in England. He died on 5th October 1910.

It is now that another family would come to play a pivotal role in the affairs of Birch’s until the present time: the Mowbray’s. It was during Badcock’s tenure that the first of the Mowbray’s would be appointed as executives. Mr. A.H. Mowbray was appointed as an understudy to Badcock and, on the latter’s retirement in 1924, succeeded him as Managing Director. Mr A.H. Mowbray headed the firm until 1946, when his son, Mr J.H. Mowbray was appointed as Managing Director. JH held his post until his death in 1956, whereupon his father, AH Mowbray, reassumed the role that he had forsaken ten years previously. In 1958, Charles H. Mowbray, the younger son of A. H. Mowbray, took over as Managing Director, under the chairmanship of his father.

Birch’s Port Elizabeth premises at 56 Main Street in the 1970s

The firm continued to occupy the premises at Number 3 Main Street until 1962, when they relocated to more modern premises at Number 56 Main Street.

Companies in the T Birch’s & Co group

Sources

Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

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

Personal experience

As a twenty-year-old audit clerk, one of my many audits was Birch’s and the first assignment was a Debtors Verification. One of the young Debtor’s Clerks took an inordinate interest in me. Ultimately, she invited me for supper at her flat in La Rochelle Drive opposite Hotel Elizabeth. Being a week night, I had lectures at UPE in Summerstrand so I postponed the invitation until the Saturday night. Fraternising with the client’s staff was verboten but it often occurred at the junior level. My thoughts were to listen to the band at the Lizzie. It was not to be. My date entertained other ideas after the candle lit dinner so we never saw the band in action.

Additional information provided by Sheila Clarke on Trenley Birch

Trenley Birch’s grandmother was Harriett Trenley & my 5 x great grandmother Sarah were sisters. Trenley was born in 1834 in Uxbridge, Middlesex, the son of John & Mary Ann Birch. His father was a tailor and also the local ‘headborough’ or constable.


2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the very interesting article on my ancestor
    Trenley Birch. His grandmother Harriett Trenley & my 5xgreat grandmother Sarah were sisters.
    Trenley was born in 1834 in Uxbridge, Middlesex,the son of John & Mary Ann Birch. His father was a tailor and also the local ‘headborough’ or constable.
    Thanks also for the photo, which was new to me.

    Reply

Leave a Comment.