Port Elizabeth of Yore: William Alcock

Apart from being the first person to own a motor car in Port Elizabeth, William Alcock was also the first Mayor of the garden town, Walmer, south of its larger sibling, Port Elizabeth. Even though he was a tinsmith by training, he had extremely eclectic interests and inbued an entrepreneurial spirit to boot. He was a member of the Photographic Society, the Athenaeum Society, the Museum and the Port Elizabeth Automobile Club. In addition, his civic duties related to the Walmer Municipality, first as a member, then Chairman in 1891 and finally first Mayor in 1899. 

This blog highlights one of Port Elizabeth’s early civic leaders who also had manifold interests in diverse fields.

Main picture: William Alcock as a child in Birkenhead, England, in the 1850s

William Alcock was not an original 1820 Settler as he was born in 1847, in Birkenhead, England. William married Emily Nimmo Warhurst in England in England in 1878. Emily Nimmo’s mother, Elizabeth Warhurst, married her stepfather Archibald Nimmo (who worked on ships as a baker) when Emily was a child so that is how Nimmo became her surname. William only emigrated to the Cape from Birkenhead in 1871 and settled in the arboreal area of Villiers Road in Walmer. Emily was to bear William three children: Arthur, Leonard and Ethel.

William, his wife Emily, and their 3 children Arthur, Leonard and Ethel

The earliest record of William Alcock is in 1884when he was a member of the E.P, Naturalist Society and gave demonstrations on bird taxidermy. This, his first enthusiasm, though not abandoned, declined in favour of a greater interest in photography. In October 1885, we find him demonstrating to the Camera Club his “dissolving views”, by means of slides and his limelight apparatus, the only one in Port Elizabeth. After that, he seems to have been ready to give such shows at the drop of a hat, for we find him called upon repeatedly at many social occasions. Incidentally his first “dissolving views” show included many slides of the Zulu War of 1879. It is fair to say that he won many awards for his photographs.

William Alcock’s limelight would receive renown during the rescue of the crew of the “C. Boschetto” when this apparatus provided the light for the rocket brigade to enable the rescue. This incident arose during August 1888, when Port Elizabeth experienced one of its notorious south-easters which drove the sailing ships at anchor in the Bay onto the North End Beach. The 30th August 1888 was one such day. On this blustery day, nine ships were driven onto the beach: “Andreas Riis”, Dorthea, Wolseley, Drei Emmas, Elizabeth Stevens, Jane Harvey, Lada, Natal and “C. Boschetto”. During the rescue operation, the Rocket Brigade, the life-boats and crews of the other ships assisted, limited the deaths to only one drowning, ironically being a member of the life-boat crew.

After the gale in 1888

By training, William was a tinsmith & sheet metal worker. During September 1890, William opened a sheet metal workshop together with E. Alcock at 160 Main Street styled as W & E Alcock. It was here that they produced thousands of cans for food manufacture.  The ‘E’ in W & E Alcock refers to Edwin Snr., Williams’s youngest brother. Edwin died shortly after his arrival in Port Elizabeth, at the age of 28. Edwin’s wife, Elizabeth Lewis, continued to live at Swartkops until she died in 1929. His genius was also displayed in another way as well. His best-known invention was an automatic gas lighter using a small induction coil powered by a battery. By means of this ingenious device, Alcock obviated the laborious process of accessing each lamp and lighting it. Instead Alcock was able to switch on his gas lights by the touch of a button.

In 1891, William Alcock displayed his penchant for photography by attending the inaugural meeting of the Port Elizabeth Amateur Photographic Society on the 27th July held in the Algoa House Hotel in Western Road. The Club replaced the old Camera Club. Alcock was appointed its first Chairman. Then in 1896 he assisted Mr. Walsh in the first demonstration of X-ray photography ever seen in South Africa, at the Athenaeum.

Emily Alcock, William’s wife

The first occasion on which William Alcock’s civic responsibility was publicly displayed was during December 1895 when Alcock together with James Brister, D.M. Brown and others established a Christmas Cheer Fund. Together they arranged various entertainment events in order to raise money. By the end of the events in 1895, an amount of £118 3s 7p was raised. This was shared between the Provincial Hospital, Ladies’ Benevolent Society, Nazareth House, St. John’s Mission, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army Rescue Home.

William Alcock at his workshop in Port Elizabeth

The need for a gentleman’s club to rival that of the PE Club was mooted as the prospective Walmer Club. In July 1896, Edwin Stephen bought the eight-acre Walmer Estate laid out by Richard Shaw Smith, and extended the house considerably. He opened the Walmer Sanatorium and Pleasure Gardens in September 1896. Further additions included the club rooms. The inaugural luncheon of the Walmer Club was held on the 8th September 1898 with William Alcock as President and G.R. Perrins as Vice-President.

Walmer Country Club by William Alcock

The formation of the Walmer Municipality finally came to fruition on the 22nd April 1899. In July of that year, a Council of six was elected with William Alcock as its first Mayor. The Councillors were J.S. Gardner, A.B. Thomas, F. Ramsay-Denny, G.R. Perrins and Edwin Stephen.

Walmer Town Hall

First motor vehicle in PE

What William Alcock is nowadays remembered for is none of his civic duties as Walmer was amalgamated into Port Elizabeth in 1966 or his other interests. Instead if he remembered at all it is for introducing the motor vehicle to Port Elizabeth. During a visit to Britain to Britain in 1900, he became infected with the motoring fever then prevalent. He purchased the town’s first car in 1900, a 4.5 hp Benz Velo and brought it back with him to Port Elizabeth. He was the first person to negotiate the then steep, rutted and stony Van Stadens Pass. Imagine attempting this feat with a vehicle equipped only with a 4.5 h.p. vehicle. Furthermore on the 20th August 1902 he also made the first trip ever by car to Grahamstown accompanied by Maurice Gilbert taking 15 and a half hrs at ‘6 mph’.

July 1902. The first motor car to successfully negotiate Van Stadens Pass – a 4.5 hp Benz owned by W. Alcock

Alcock was also instrumental in the formation of the E.P. Automobile Society, later renamed as the P.E. Automobile Club. This Club was inaugurated at a meeting held at the Phoenix Hotel opposite the Town Hall on 23rd April 1903. At this meeting, he was elected as the Club’s first Chairman. The Club got off to a flying start by holding its first rally two days later when the vehicles in Port Elizabeth – all nine of them – met at the Cape Road tram terminus at the top of Mount Road and travelled to Greenbushes. This convoy comprised four De Dietrichs, two Benzs, a Phaeton, a Stirling and a Wolseley.

The Phoenix Hotel’s left side was in line with the front of the City Hall.

Clearly, William’s interest in photography did not diminish over the years as this clipping from the Herald of the week ending March 12, 1904 indicates:

THE Port Elizabeth Amateur Photographic Society are holding their annual entertainment in the Town Hall tonight, when Mr Alcock will show the Society’s slides representing Japanese scenes. These are really beautiful productions, being hand-painted by Japanese artists. He also gave ‘magic lantern’ shows.

Mr William Alcock, Mayor of Walmer, in his Benz Velo, together with the elderly Mr Charles Lovemore  and his son on the seat next to him who became a wheat farmer in Canada. The photo was taken on Lovemore Farm.

William Alcock died on the 9th April 1911 in PE at the age of 64 having led a fruitful and engaging life.

William & Edwin Building built in 1860 in Main Street. Demolished for VSN Centre


Ralph Alcock, William Alcock’s great nephew (son of George John Alcock) taken circa 1939, outside his parents’ house in Donkin Street
Geo. Alcock & Sons Coach Builders, Blacksmith & Farriers, Korsten, PE. William’s brother George. Pictured with him is George John Alcock and on the left (wearing bashers) George’s sons, Charles and Edwin.


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

Looking Back, Vol XII No 1 (March 1972) page 27

Photographs and corrections courtesy of Karen Leigh Benkenstein

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1 Comment

  1. This is an absolutely fascinating piece. I have been researching the history of the YMCA in South Africa and W H Alcock was the PE ‘Y’ Secretary in 1896.
    I would really like to communicate with the author of this article. The narrative and images provide an extraordinary portrait of early 20th century Port Elizabeth and Cape Town which is also represented in the photographs.


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