As a young child I had an aversion to trees. Most trees but not the Wild Fig tree. There was something enchanting even mystical about their giant protruding roots. Perhaps this affinity arose due to playing in Trinder Square with its veritable forest of wild fig trees. This arose due to my cousins staying in Pearson Avenue which is no more than a block away.
Main picture: Trinder Square in 1867
Originally what was to become Trinder Square was a wide open vlei. Even the earliest maps of Port Elizabeth indicate that there was a large pool on this site.
In the early days of Fort Frederick, the Garrison Company’s garden lay on the western side of it. Later as it was a natural drainage point, the vlei provided water for animals during the early and mid 1800’s when many of the farmers coming to do business at Market Square brought their animals here to drink. They would arrive on the previously evening, outspan and then set up camp in the open space where Nelson Square now stands. Then the attendants would take the cattle down to the vlei to drink. In the morning, the farmers inspanned and took their wagons down Military Road, then the only road up the hill, to the Market Square.
In addition the local black population used the water for domestic purposes as well as builders drawing their supplies from it.
There were no houses in the vicinity of the vlei for many years. However in 1847, the newly formed Board of Commissioners recognised the value of the vlei, and decided to enlarge and deepen it. This was done in 1848 by using short-term prisoners from the local jail as labour. Thus it became quite a feature in the area. As such, when houses began to arise nearby, the vlei was used for recreation as well as for utilitarian purposes. By the 1860s, photographs of the vlei show rowing boats drawn up on the banks.
With all the uses to which the marsh was put, it could ultimately not have been a salubrious spot, and no doubt, provided a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects. During February 1883, the vlei between Western Road and Bird Street was drained and in June a wall with iron railings made by Joseph Lewis, was built around it. Periodically by removing clay from it to construct roads in the vicinity, it was deepened.
On the 24th January, 1900, the Town Council passed a resolution that “Trinder Reservoir” should be filled in and it would appear that the task was completed during that year at which time the present wild fig trees were planted.
“Trinder” Smith family history and connections
The name “Trinder” was derived from the name of two semi-detached houses on the corner of Alfred Street and Western Road called the “Trinder Villas.” These had been constructed by the “Trinder” Smith family. The members of this particular Smith family were descended from William Smith and Mary Sussanah Trinder who were married in England, probably at the turn of the 18th century. The Trinders were an important Oxfordshire family entitled to bear arms and the Smiths were proud of the connection.
Three of their sons settled in or near Port Elizabeth, probably in the 1830s. The eldest son, William, was born in 1803, married Mary Ann Mallors in St Mary’s Church, Port Elizabeth, in 1836, and died in 1853. Mary bore William four children of whom the names of only two are known. William Trinder Smith, referred to as their fourth child, was born in 1944. His brother, Herbert Mallors Smith, was probably older than him, but no record of his date of birth can be found.
In 1868, William Trinder Smith is recorded as occupying one of the Trinder Villas, obviously as a bachelor as his marriage to Mary Sisson Falconer did not take place until 14th October 1875. He died in 1912. The widow of the eldest of the three brothers, William, married Henry William Pearson in 1864. They occupied the houses at the corner of Trinder Square and Western Road. Henry Pearson died there in 1899.
The second of the three brothers, Joseph Smith, was born in 1806 and died in the same year as his eldest brother, 1853. He married Eliza Ann Henderson – nee Mahoney – , widow of Henry Watson Henderson, who built Cora Terrace, then known as Military Row and who was the first man to be killed in the Xhosa uprising of 1834-35. Joseph Smith had three children, William, Ellen and Cora. Born in 1845, Cora died at sea in 1861 when returning from a visit to England and Cora Terrace must have been named in her honour some time after her birth. The earliest record of this name, however, is 1858.
Henry William Pearson of Trinder Square
The most eminent inhabitant of Trinder Square was undoubtedly Henry William Pearson who outdid Dick Wittington’s record by being elected Mayor on fifteen occasions between 1871 and his death in 1899. He was born in London in 1821 and as a youth was subjected to two profound influences – the great social questions of the day [The Corn Law, Free Trade and Chartism] and a strong attraction to the theatre. He even wrote two plays, neither of which have survived. However extracts quoted in a short biography of Pearson by Charles Cowan (1885), show them to have been of considerable literary merit. He might almost be said to be a forerunner of Bernard Shaw as he used the plays for the expression of ideas. The first, published in London in 1847, was called “The League’s Convert” and dealt with the rising consciousness of the working classes and the governing classes’ duties towards them. The second published in South Africa in 1855 was “Boadicea’s History” which drew a parallel between the Roman conquest of Britain and British rule in South Africa, stressing the responsibility of the conquerors towards subjugated peoples. He found time in a very busy life to become one of the town’s leading actors, and when he went into Parliament, he was known as “Tony Lumpkin” after his favourite part in “She stoops to Conquer”
However, the youthful Henry William Pearson had a living to make and went into commerce. Two facts turned his thoughts towards emigrating to the Cape. He suffered from various reverses, and also the health of his sister, for whom he was responsible, demanded that she seek a more congenial climate. So in 1852, he entered the employ of the Port Elizabeth firm of Deare and Dietz as confidential clerk. later he took up a similar position with the firm of Dunell, Ebden & Co, finally becoming the manager of an investment company.
He had not long been in the town, before he became prominent in public affairs. He was elected Wardmaster in 1855, a member of the Board of Commissioners in 1859 and a Town Councillor in 1860 when the town became a municipal borough. He was elected Mayor for the first time in 1871 and for the last time in 1895. He was a member of the legislative assembly for 23 years in all and was Treasurer-General in 1880-1 and Colonial Secretary in 1889-90. He served on the Library Committee for 43 years, seventeen of them as Chairman. He was also a member of the Hospital and Harbour Boards and the Grey High School Committee. It was at his suggestion that St George’s Park was created to commemorate the visit of Prince Alfred and he was responsible for setting up the Pearson Conservatory for the cultivation of exotic plants. The Van Staden’s Dam water scheme was started during his mayoralty and he also administered the Town Improvement Fund for the paving and draining of the town’s roads. He was really a glutton for work.
It would have been surprising if all this power had not gone to his head. It is said that at times he could be arbitrary and autocratic. However it is acknowledged that his financial skill, his ability to assess people, and his administrative talents were invaluable in the development of the city.
Other prominent inhabitants
Many of Port Elizabeth’s prominent citizens owned houses overlooking the vlei. D.P. Blaine owned a house where the P.E. Club now stands, George Kemp owned “Frances Place” just behind; James Somers Kirkwood lived in “Hillside House”; H.B. Christian’s double storey house stood next to that while next to Cora Terrace stood William Fleming verandahed house where Prince Alfred stayed and which still survives as a show place.
As an aside, William Fleming’s son, also William Fleming, married my second great aunt, Adelaide McCleland on 21st January 1858
The solidly built Pembroke House at the corner was built in 1892 for William Mosenthal of the well-known firm of Mosenthal Bros & Co.
Even though the unsightly pond was eventually filled in, the original name was retained.
In its new iteration, Trinder Square was grassed with green lawns and the impressive Wild Fig trees were planted. In a further enhancement of the park, the official inauguration of the Bandstand occurred on the 29th May 1902 with the playing of the PAG Band under its Bandmaster Signor R. Tardugno. In 1906 he composed the Regimental March. Twenty nine years later in August 1931, the Bandstand was removed.
In its most recent phase, Trinder Square has recently been upgraded making it part of Route 67. Mosaic covered benches has been built to represent the exposed roots of the old Wild Fig trees that still grow around the park while play equipment has been installed in the south-east corner of the park. It is a popular spot where youngsters from the surrounding flats come to play soccer.
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave
Hills covered with Cottages by Margaret Harradine
Port Elizabeth – a Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
Port Elizabeth – A Visual History by Kin Bentley