Port Elizabeth of Yore: Victoria House

By all accounts, his house is probably the oldest one in Port Elizabeth. As such I would have thought that it would have been declared a National Monument ages ago. On the contrary, nothing has been done. In fact, Victoria House has been in crisis for a number of years. Apparently it was in a reasonable state up until the late 1990s before being occupied by vagrants and prostitutes. In 2005 it was sealed up by the Health and Safety department. In recent years work has been carried out but local activists are concerned that many of the house’s important features have been lost. 

How can such a valuable piece of Port Elizabeth’s heritage be allowed to be destroyed?

Main picture: Victoria House at Number 31 Constitution Hill

Being unaware of this house’s existence, I have always assumed that Number 7 Castle Hill was the oldest extant house in Port Elizabeth. This is clearly incorrect. It was only when I was reading last week’s edition of the Heritage Portal that I became aware of the critical condition that this house currently was in.

 

Location of Victoria House

 

History of the House

Victoria House is situated at Number 31 Constitution Hill. It was built by the 1820 Settler, Jonathan Board, carpenter and builder on land transferred to him in 1824. Sir Rufane Donkin wanted to encourage settlement in the new town and offered plots to those who could buy them. The Board’s first child was born in 1825 and it seems likely that the house was built about then.

Victoria House#01

As the Reverend Francis McCleland, the original owner of Number 7 Castle Hill, only arrived in Port Elizabeth in September 1825 from Clanwilliam, Francis only commenced the acquisition of land and the building of a house thereafter.

Update by David Reed on the Heritage Portal

Although very blurry, these photos give an idea of the sorry state of this house that, like many others, was in an excellent state of preservation up until the late 1990’s. In 1999 this house was sold to the present owner, and by 2005, this house had been overrun by prostitutes and was sealed up by the healthy and safety department. It was knee deep in human waste and needles. Why is it that someone who can maintain the many shopping centres he owns in Port Elizabeth is unable to maintain our national monuments? The answer this is exactly as it appears, and there is evidence that application was made a few years ago to the ECPHRA for demolition of this, and many other of the heritage properties in the present owner’s portfolio.

Victoria House#02

How could the present owner allow this to happen to our most important buildings, and national monuments? It is clear why, from the facts. Perhaps now people will understand why we, as a community, are so upset by the wilful neglect of this present owner spanning 15 years who seems above the law. This is not some petty vendetta, this is our heritage that has been utterly destroyed, and no one does a thing to hold the owner accountable, for over a decade. This is a slap in the face of the law and our acts of parliament. This is the state of these houses, BEFORE the decayed and rotten fabric is trashed and sent to the scrapheap, without so much as recording what is being removed, or even replacing it with materials that replicate the dimension of design of the original. This entire site needed a thorough and enforced HIA, AIA and EIA years ago.

Victoria House#03

By now, however, irreparable loss has taken place, for example, underground wells, brick lintels, walls etc and tons of load bearing brick, not to mention the distinctive woodwork of the Donkin Houses, has been removed over the last 3 years. This has all been removed with the larger public none the wiser and questioning what ‘the fuss is all about’.
Let the record of before and after show the lack of procedure that has been followed, and the resultant loss of our history in the layers of the past that is just being dumped in an effort to hide the neglect. PE deserves much better than this.

Victoria House#04

Frankly, all the authorities in Port Elizabeth, and Heritage Authorities provincially and nationally, who could have prevented this irreparable damage that has accelerated over the last 3 years, are to blame.

We noted in 2010 that the roof of this house was beginning to disintegrate, and look at it now! Those who had the power to act, yet did nothing, will have to answer to future generations as to why it is that our heritage, despite the laws in place, was trashed and left to rot to this level! This is Port Elizabeth’s oldest settler house, 1824. This colonial heritage is not just ‘white’ heritage, this is everyone’s heritage, and this is a source of pride and a real source of tourism revenue for our people.

 Victoria House#05

Further update by David Reed

Nothing further has happened in the last few months to a year, and Victoria House (also known as “Jonathan Board’s house” c. 1824) has been pretty much stripped of its external plaster, the roof and original settler tiles and the end gables. A roof (though corrugated and thus unsuitable for a settler house) is now thankfully on, but with certain features added and others missing. The internal woodwork remains open to the elements, and the last time I looked early in the year, yellowwood from the upper floors was disappearing. Two other Victorian houses in the street have been demolished outright in this section that constitutes the early “inferior lots” allocated to poorer settlers under Sir Rufane Donkin’s watch. This is where PE began, and it also a site that was a pre-colonial Stone Age settlement. Victoria house is the only of the houses still to remain in this section and was declared a national monument.

 Victoria House#06

Nothing further has happened, a section 34 charge was laid, among numerous others, all of which now sit with the public prosecutor, who awaits comment/interaction from ECPHRA, on the status of any permit applications from the owner.
In the meantime, however, questions were posed to the MEC of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture in February this year on issues such as the status and completion of Port Elizabeth’s asset register, long overdue (2009 being the deadline according to the NHRA), the budget issues regarding ECPHRA (intermittent permit committee operation and no heritage enforcement at all), issues around the municipality’s heritage competencies in managing its Grade 3 heritage assets, and lastly and more importantly here, the status of Victoria House at present (and how ECPHRA may be involved at present).

Victoria House#07

On the question of Victoria House, erf 1952 (and adjoining property), the MEC Pemmy Majodina , confirmed that there had been no submissions for the properties and that work carried out was illegal and therefore no heritage permit would be issued by ECPHRA. She also confirmed that “no permits were applied for and those that were submitted years ago have been inadequate to process and applicants were advised and never resubmitted more information as was requested”. She also acknowledged that a criminal case had been opened with SAPS and that ECPHRA “is co-operating” with the authorities. She ended off by saying that cease orders in terms of NHRA will be issued “shortly” for the illegal works (this was in February 2016). A similar cease work order was issued on the owner a few years ago for illegal work to the Donkin row houses, the order for which was plainly ignored after mere days.

My comment

Such an historical treasure should not be allowed to fall into wrack and ruin. Positive action needs to be taken before further irreparable damage is done. Pressure needs to be placed on the Authorities to perform their jobs.

 

Sources: 

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Council Website: http://www.nmbt.co.za/listing/victoria_house_-_number_31_constitution_hill.html

Heritage Portal: http://theheritageportal.co.za/thread/victoria-house-oldest-house-port-elizabeth

 


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