With its wide avenues, broad pavements, a cornucopia of trees and houses set back far from the road, Walmer was rightly known as the garden town when it was a separate municipality. Divided from its larger sibling by the Baakens River, it evoked a sense of genteel suburban living.
Main picture: Target Kloof
How many people today are aware that Walmer was a town in its own right before ultimately becoming part of Port Elizabeth on the 1st October 1966. Originally a farm known as Welbedacht, it was loaned to Johannes Potgieter in 1776 and subsequently granted to Antonie Michael Muller. In 1815, the farm Welbedacht, covering an area just under 14 square miles, to the south-west of Port Elizabeth was granted to A.M. Muller. The homestead stood more or less where the library stands today. When Muller died in 1845 his farm was inherited by his eight sons who, true to form, could not decide on how to sub-divide the property. On 1st September 1853, the farm was divided in one-morgen erven by his sons into a township called ‘Walmer’. The sons got into financial difficulties and they elected to sell the farm in lots. As a result, the farm was sold and the money was distributed to the heirs.
Who named Walmer?
In 1855 the area was renamed Walmer after Walmer Castle, seat of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This is a historic series of coastal towns in Kent and Sussex which were originally formed for military and trade purposes, but is now entirely ceremonial. It lies at the eastern end of the English Channel, where the crossing to the continent is narrowest. The name is Norman French, meaning “five ports”.
Perhaps the most famous holder of this title was the Duke of Wellington who died in 1852 shortly before the erven comprising the farm “Welbedacht” were put up for sale on 1st September 1853. The area was then laid out and on 8 March 1855 it was resolved to sell 400 plots by public auction. A number of stands were also reserved for the Dutch Reformed Church and the Anglican Church. The village plan included wide streets and a plentiful supply of water. By June, 200 plots had been sold.
Whilst it is not definitely known, Mr D. MacDonald a Government surveyor, probably gave the area its name. An old cutting quotes a letter from the Rev. H. Mosel, the Vicar of St. John’s Church, Walmer, in which he quotes a letter which he received from Mr. MacDonald stating that it was he, himself, who had suggested the name.
Separate municipal status
From 1881 Walmer was run on the lines of a Village Management Board but on 22 April 1899, the Village was awarded separate municipal status while its residential character, spacious residential plots and attractive dwellings attracted both families with young children and the elderly. In 1899, it became a municipality. In adopting the aloe as the seal and crest of the town, a monumental blunder was almost committed. When a Mr. Ramsay-Denning submitted the design for adoption by the Council, some eagle-eyed Councillor noted that the aloe depicted was in fact an American aloe and not a South African one, the design was hastily amended and the new design adopted.
The foundation stone of the Walmer Town Hall was unveiled on 3rd June 1908 by the mayor Mr F W Ramsay-Denny. The War Memorial reflects rwelve names of those who fell in the Great War of 1914-1918 and 29 names of those who fell in the Second World War (1939-1945). It is interesting to note that the names of those who died in during WW1 are the same names cited in the Memorial Hall attached to St John’s. Many famous people spent their early days in this hamlet.
Mr William Alcock achieved two firsts. He was appointed mayor of Walmer and a member of the Walmer Management Board. Furthermore, he was the first person to own a motor car in Port Elizabeth; this car was a 4.5hp Benz Velo which took 15 hours to ride to Grahamstown.
During June 1903, the form of Smith and Dewar surveyed the Walmer Commonage. The object was to identify areas to be set aside for public parks, recreation grounds and burial grounds; areas which needed to be protected from the drifting sands and enclosed were also identified.
Life in a garden town
Walmer was a garden suburb where the yellow flowers and crocuses covered the open grassy land which was crossed by red gravel roads. The few lovely old architect-designed homes in large gardens were quite isolated.
The ladies were duty-bound to pay social calls. The afternoon “At Homes” saw the hatted and gloved ladies dropping their visiting cards in the tray in the hostess’ hall as they entered. The prescribed half-hour visit was the opportunity for exchanging news and gossip over the teacups and the dainty wafer-thin sandwiches and iced cakes. Then the ladies would depart home, their long skirts lifted slightly to avoid the red dust of the roads. These were mostly friendly gatherings, but occasionally sworn enemies appeared together and the hostess quailed inwardly.
In the early days, Walmer had a large dairy so milk and butter were delivered every day. The butcher was further away and his daily deliveries were brought on horseback. Folk without horses either walked or rode donkeys.
Acetylene gas was used for lighting before electricity was installed in 1925. The man of the family was responsible for seeing water was carried in to wet the carbide which produced the gas. The residual ash, or lime, was used to white-wash the buildings. Other municipality services were also not supplied until long after its sibling municipality supplied their denizens with them. For most of the time, rain was the only source of water for the gardens. More disconcerting was the lack of water-borne sewerage until the 1970s. As there was no flush sanitation, the solid waste had to be removed by what was called the “bucket brigade.”
Water was pumped from outside tanks. Poultry was kept in backyards. There was no drainage in the streets and when it rained, the streets turned into rivers. In Albert Road, “Perd” Ferreira kept his horses, where today the “Harvest Christian Centre” church is situated. There were far more trees in Walmer then than there are today.
St. John’s Anglican Church
The story of St. John’s Church commences in the 1870s when Rev Samuel Brook and after him Rev. William Greenstock held services in Walmer until the Rev. Dr. Wirgman of St Mary’s Church, at the request of some of the inhabitants, looked for a favourable place to build a church. Mr. Henry Trotter came to their assistance by offering Erven 6 and 7 for a church, a rectory and a burial ground. In addition, Mr Charles Storey presented some building plans and a contract was entered into with Messrs. Allen and Winter to erect the new building. The original St Johns Church was consecrated on 3rd September 1881 by Bishop Nathaniel Merriman on erf 6, with its simple Norman windows and doors. There was an open paddock on the corner of 8th Avenue and Church Road; here the horses that the early ministers used as transport grazed. On Erf 7 was the rectory with a large schoolroom attached and the stables and servants’ quarters. If it was the intention to see the minister, entry was in Water Road where you went through the Lychgate and to the church and graveyard.
The Rector of St. John’s Anglican Church used to ride around his parish on a big white horse. His name was Mosel and he was known as Moses. He was a character. St John’s required a hall so after WW1 he requested PE’s residents to donate money in order to erect a memorial to the fallen in Walmer. With the funds St. Johns Hall was erected. Written above the doors was something like ‘St John’s War Memorial Hall’ and from the google picture the inscription is still there. That’s how St John’s acquired a hall – through verbal sleight of hand and creativity.
Mosel’s sermons were always long and one Sunday the congregation comprised only three people. The Rector stood up in the pulpit and announced that he would not preach to so few congregants; whereupon the Verger rose from his seat and said as there was to be no sermon, there would be no collection. That changed his mind.
Walmer Methodist Church
The earliest record of what is today the Walmer Methodist Church began with meetings in the home of Mr and Mrs John Holmes in the last few years of the 1800s. By 1900 services were conducted in the “Tin Tabernacle” at 161 Main Road. In 1935 the Women’s Auxiliary was formed and the first Trust Committee meeting was held on 1 February 1938. The first Harvest Festival was held on Sunday 7 March 1938. Evening services in place of the usual afternoon gatherings were made possible when the installation of electricity was approved by the Trust Committee of 19 December 1944.
The Walmer Branch Line
The coming of the train to Walmer was hailed with enthusiasm. Saturday 15th December 1906 was earmarked as the inauguration day. Everyone was invited to take a free ride and it was claimed that 5,000 people sampled the new transport that day despite “inclement weather.” Of course, some small boys were in heaven as they rode up and down all day, from the station in Humewood along Villiers Road into Water Road to 14th Avenue.
The school children travelled to school by train. A whistle from 14th Avenue gave warning that the “Coffee Pot,” as it was known, was on its way. The menfolk also went to work on the train.
The SAR publicly announced that the service would be discontinued as from 26th November 1928 but they would not discard the service meekly. They resolved to fight fire with fire. Their weapon of choice would be five Thorneycroft buses of type XB. However first the paperwork had to be done. The uplifting of the Branch Line and the purchase of the buses required Parliamentary approval. This came in the form of the Railway Routes Adjustment Act No 1028.
In Walmer’s early days, it was renowned for its donkeys. These donkeys were charming and full of character (and a healthy child or two could vouch for the asses’ milk which they were given in times of necessity).
One donkey, Billy, was used in the laying of a cricket pitch. When all was ready, Billy was harnessed to the heavy roller and he started off. Halfway down the pitch, though, Billy decided this was too much weight and he stopped – but then the roller didn’t – and a very surprised Billy found himself sitting atop the roller as it surged majestically forward under him.
Small boys whose legs were too short to mount onto a donkey’s back, used a stool. One small 5-year-old was observed setting down and stepping up, only to see the donkey move one step forward time after time. Even a small boy knew he shouldn’t mount too near a donkey’s tail.
Until the 1940s, donkeys were still freely wandering around Walmer.
Walmer Town Hall
In 1908, a special train left the Port Elizabeth terminus at 4pm to convey townspeople, including the mayor of Port Elizabeth, C.H. MacKay, regional magistrate T.B. Miles and town clerk and treasurer Willoughby How, to witness the ceremony. Walmer personalities present included the Walmer mayor F.W. Ramsay-Denny and deputy mayor E. Davies.
The building, already under construction by builders “Turner and Fowlds”, was designed by architect Hubert Walker and situated in the centre of the Market Place, facing Main Road. The deputy mayor opened the proceedings and told the children the Town Hall would be part of their inheritance when they grew up. He told those assembled the hall was not to be a pretentious building as it was beyond the financial means of the municipality. The mayor, who was to lay the foundation stone, was responsible for a number of improvements to Walmer, including the park and recreation grounds, the narrow-gauge railway and the cemetery. To laughter, the deputy mayor admitted Walmer’s healthy climate had kept the cemetery without any tenants.
“Mr Denny, I have much pleasure in asking you, on behalf of the inhabitants of Walmer, to lay the foundation stone,” said Davies. He handed over a handsome, polished mallet and engraved silver trowel. The foundation stone was then lowered into place and, touching it with the trowel, Denny declared the stone “well and truly laid”. He recalled the first council meeting, held by six men in a little room near the church, when they adopted the aloe in their crest; it was a typical flower of Walmer. At the meeting, they adopted their motto, Festina Lente, the translation of which is “Hurry slowly”.
The idea for a new building arose when the councillors complained their previous building was unsuitable and in a leaky condition. They had an architect in their midst whose services were used. He designed the gables in a pointed Anglo-Saxon style, and rounded them off at the top in Dutch style, symbolic of the unification of the English and Dutch in South Africa. The total cost of the building was £1150.
Walmer was incorporated into the Port Elizabeth municipality on 1st September 1966.
The Family Connection
Over the years, many of my wider family resided in Walmer. The first to do so was Captain Francis William Henry McCleland, my great grandfather, who had fought in many of the Frontier Wars. He settled in Walmer during the 1860s and died there on the 1st May 1883.
Two of my aunts, Thelma & Kathleen, and my uncle Bryce resided in Walmer. One of the stories told relating to the donkeys in Walmer is recalled. Kathleen’s husband, George Wood worked in the shipping industry as an agent; he used to bring chewing gum from the ships for which he was agent for after WW2. One of his sons, Eric, was a great fan; everyone in Walmer knew Eric and that he always had chewing gun, which was not available in SA. For many reasons the donkeys used to congregate in the dip in Church road near St John’s. One day Ronald Fraser and his sister Linette saw Eric and a friend coming. Knowing that he liked donkeys and had chewing gum, they devised a devious plan. They grabbed two donkeys which all had rope around their necks, and went to meet Eric. They offered to sell the donkeys to him for some chewing gum. After the deal was done, Ronald and his sister vanished. Out of the bushes came a black guy claiming the donkeys were his and chased Eric away. So, he lost his donkeys and chewing gum.
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)
Donkey Days in Old Walmer by Marjory Ball (1988, Cue Publishers, Port Elizabeth)
Vicar in the Village by Alan Montgomery (2017, Print on Demand, Cape Town)
24 Inches Apart by Sydney Moir (1981, Janus Publishing, Kempton Park)
In the article below, mention is made of a priest who rode a horse to see members of St John’s:
Walmer, Port Elizabeth – In the Old Days by Marjory Ball (EC Genealogical Society Newsletter, Dec 1989)
WALMER IN THE OLD DAYS by Marjory Ball
(Published in the Evening Post Weekend Magazine 31st July 1965)
Walmer was first declared a township in 1899, and the question today is how long it will survive as a separate entity. It seems likely that before very long it will have been absorbed by its big sister, Port Elizabeth, no doubt in many ways to their mutual benefit, but old residents will see the change with sorrow as they have watched Walmer grow. Walmer has always been unique – a garden suburb with charm and a spirit of individuality, which it has preserved down the years.
When I remember it first, in the early nineteen hundreds, houses were few and isolated, standing in large grounds. The roads were famed for their red gravel and bordered by resinous pines and shady eucalyptus trees.
Gardens were mostly laid out with rough grass lawns, shrubs, and a few flower beds. The only water came from the sky and was too precious to be used for watering. So father, home from work, would draw water from the soapy bath sump to refresh the parched flower garden. Perhaps it was good for the plants; they did not seem to have so many diseases as they do today.
Electricity did not come to Walmer until 1925. Before that acetylene gas was the fashionable light. This was another weekly chore for father, who had to tote buckets of water to make the gas, as well as remove the used liquid. This was like white-wash and was used on outbuildings and fences.
Since houses were mostly far apart, it was a merciful dispensation that telephones were available. Gossip hungry housewives could wave their husbands off in the mornings, and after a few preliminary “Hallo’s”, settle down to a satisfying exchange of news – always supposing they were not cut off in the middle, as frequently happened.
Ladies took their social duties very seriously in those days. One such duty was paying afternoon calls, a newcomer, especially if she was a bride, was sure to be called on as soon as she let it be known she was settled in. Each lady had her own “At Home” day, such as the first Tuesday in each month. She would spend her morning preparing a special tea. The thinnest of bread and butter, rolled into cylinders, and somehow tasting quite delicious, an iced cake, and dainty scones and biscuits were set out on a lace embroidered cloth.
The callers, formally gloved and hatted, perhaps in the new smart toques, would begin arriving soon after 3 p.m., and soon the silver card tray in the hall would be satisfactorily filled with tiny pasteboard cards. Usually the guests came in governess carts, drawn by a pony or spry little donkey, but some bicycled. Others, who had no transport, walked, gloved hands daintily lifting skirts off the dusty roads.
Although it was a friendly little community, bitter feuds were not unknown, and a hostess devoutly hoped that sworn enemies would not meet in her drawing room. Luckily for her there would be more than one “At Home” day on one afternoon, and after half an hour at most, ladies would feel in duty bound to bucket their tightly corseted forms out of their comfortable chairs and go on their way.
Another centre of interest was the little Anglican Church of St John’s at Eighth Avenue. It had a tall, picturesque parson of great individuality, who rode around Walmer like Don Quixote on a big white horse. Unfortunately, he was not an inspired preacher, and sometimes his congregation reached an all-time low. On one such occasion he announced that, as the congregation was so small, there would be no sermon. His church warden jumped to his feet and retorted, “And as there is no sermon, there will be no collection!” However, even if the church attendance left something to be desired, the annual bazaar was always an outstanding success. The ladies of the parish were renowned for their “liberty” style embroideries, and purchasers came from far afield.
There was only one little shop in Walmer at that time, but Port Elizabeth grocers and butchers made it their business to deliver in Walmer. One butcher galloped out on horseback with meat orders almost every day, bread and milk came daily, and on one occasion great slabs of ice were left on our doorsteps in the small hours of Christmas morning. Father Christmas must have felt quite at home. Nevertheless, householders preferred to do their own shopping as often as possible, and those without horses often used a donkey and cart.
The Walmer donkeys were a race apart, full of charm and character, and their uses were varied. Donkey mares were sometimes called upon to fill the breach when Nature failed, asses’ milk being highly thought of for delicate babies. Children rode them bareback down to the shop to spend their Saturday penny. On one occasion boys decided to harness a donkey called Billy to a large roller, so he might roll a cricket pitch on a piece of ground where the Clarendon Park School now stands. Unfortunately, Billy took fright, and after trying to bolt, suddenly came to a halt. Not so the roller, and a very surprised donkey found himself sitting on top of it. Billy was a very clever donkey. He would pretend to be lame or lie down on the road when he was tired or bored.
He could undo almost any outhouse door and often let the other donkeys out of their stable, then returned to bury his nose in a sack of oats. The small son of the house, aged five, longed to climb on Billy’s back but his legs were too short, and Billy was too clever for him.
Vainly he stalked Billy all-round the paddock with a stool. As soon as it was in position, Billy would turn his head and take one step forward. Only one step, but it was enough; even a five-year-old knows that you do not mount a donkey by its tail.
School children raced rival teams of donkeys through the valley, the drivers shouting encouragement to their steeds as the carts swayed madly from side to side. Parents must have been relieved when the little train came to Walmer about 1907. Now businessmen and school children could travel in comfort to Port Elizabeth.
When the whistle blew at 14th Avenue, house doors flew open, and boys and girls, slices of toast in their hands and satchels banging on their backs, raced for the nearest avenue station. Luckily the train did not travel very fast, and sometimes boys jumped off and ran to catch it up again. This train continued to function until late in 1928 when buses took its place.
At present Walmer residents are watching a fine new library building being built. Strange to say, Walmer had an excellent library at one time in the old Town Hall, run by a voluntary committee. It was their practice to read the new books and decide whether they were suitable for distribution.
One member was a retired clergyman who was naturally in favour of strict censorship. However, it was a point of honour with him to read any doubtful book from cover to cover, before consigning it to the dustbin.
Walmer has kept its happy country atmosphere. Children still run barefoot, explore down the valley and build tree houses as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.
Let us hope this will always be so and also that whatever happens to Walmer in the future, it will never lose its tree-shaded avenues, the pines, golden oaks and red gums. Where there is progress, let it tread hand in hand with beauty and tradition.