The torpedoing of the 32,000 ton Cunard Liner, the Lusitania, on the 7th March 1915 with the loss of 1198 lives so inflamed public opinion against the local German Community that they took the law into their own hands and torched the Liedertafel, the German Club, in Western Road.
This, together with other atrocious acts, forms a dark and an indelible stain on the history of Port Elizabeth.
Main picture: The Liedertafel after it was set ablaze by an enraged mob
The Cape Colony had always had a sprinkling of Germans but the history in Germans in South Africa only really commenced with the arrival of the British-German Legion which had participated in the Crimean War. As agreed, they would only be allowed to emigrate to South Africa if they were married. In many cases, these German soldiers were compelled to quickly acquire a wife in Britain. Shortly thereafter by 1857, they were ensconced on the Eastern Border of the Cape Colony known as British Kaffraria where they rapidly established towns with German names such as Stutterheim, Hamburg and even a Berlin.
The basis of their agreement was that they were to remain for a minimum of seven years. Unlike the previous British Settlers, they were handsomely recompensed for their agreement. This included free rations or alternatively the equivalent in cash for one year, sixpence a day for three years, an acre of ground together with a building plot in the village, right of grazing cattle on a commonage, £18 in cash towards the cost of building a cottage, their arms, equipment and the temporary use of tents.
Interestingly, the one town that was not named after an existing German town was that of Stutterheim. Instead it was named after the Commander of the German Legion, Baron von Stutterheim.
Unfortunately for the Cape Colony, these immigrants were born soldiers and not farmers. Soon most of them had ventured off to other campaigns abroad.
The Colonial Authorities set about rectifying this situation. A year later, five ships full of real German farmers and their families arrived and it was this community that has left an enduring mark on the Eastern Cape. Similar German settlements took place in what were then Natal and even the Transvaal, where a village called Kroondal still speaks predominantly German.
According the JJ Redgrave, “No settlers in any new country could have been better adapted to meet its needs than those sent from Northern Germany. Frugal, temperate, orderly and industrious in the very highest degree, they set themselves to work with the utmost diligence on their little holdings.”
Germans residents in PE
Lawrence Green in his book, Harbours of Memory, noted that “Port Elizabeth had a German colony in the 1850s and they gathered at Hirsh’s hotel, The Commercial, in Queen Street. It was not only the fountain with goldfish and lilies that attracted them. Hirsch also provided sausages and pumpernickel, Bavarian cheese and pretzels.
His cooks transmuted the plain local cabbage into legendary sauerkraut, shredded and flavoured with caraway seeds, garnished with apples and onions and frankfurters. Hirsch imported the typical German herb liqueurs as well as the Rhine brandies and Steinhaeger gin and he kept an unfailing stock of regional beers to suit the exacting palates of residents and sailors. There came a time when the German colony in Port Elizabeth formed a Deutsche Lidertafel, gathering under a huge imperial coat of arms with black, white and red ribbons. They drank and sang and ate rollmops, and when the glasses were raised, the toasts could be heard in the street – Prost! Zum Whole! Zur gesundheit! Strange to say, a favourite meeting place of the German colony last century was the Britannia Hotel.”
Destruction of German property
What was to shatter that idyll was WW1 and one incident in particular and that was the deliberate decision by the Germans to target all Allied shipping whether civilian or military. It was the provocative sinking of a civilian vessel, the 32,000 ton Cunard liner, the Lusitania, which enraged the Allied powers. Whilst en route from New York to Liverpool, it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk. Eleven hundred and ninety-eight passengers and crew were killed.
Wild scenes were witnessed in the town during Thursday and Friday nights, May 13th and 14th 1915, when a large excited crowd commenced the systematic destruction of property owned by German Residents.
At 7:30 pm, a large belligerent mob had assembled on the Market Square in response to rumours of a mass meeting whilst at the foot of the Obelisk an individual played patriotic airs on a solitary trombone. Then a Mr WF Caulfield appeared on the steps of Town Hall as it was then called. He endeavoured to pacify the crowd by pointing out the futility of the wanton destruction of property. He proposed an alternative solution: the internment of “unnaturalised” enemy subjects. Mr Morrison spoke next, but his voice being weak, the crowd lost interest.
Presently somebody shouted, “Hoist the flag on the Liedertafel”, which was followed by lusty cheers. With that the unruly mob with their passions enflamed, immediately swarmed up White’s Road, led by the individual playing patriotic songs on his blaring trombone.
Upon arrival at the German Club – the Liedertafel – they were confronted by the mayor, Mr Kemsley, who endeavoured to make a speech. By all accounts he was ignored by the belligerent angry crowd which surged through the gates and broke down the doors of the majestic building. In short order, they had destroyed the furniture, pictures, glass and everything else was reduced to a shambles.
Emerging from the buildings, the crowd removed palings and also armed themselves with sticks and stones. Using all manner of items as missiles, they smashed all the remaining windows. A posse of police arrived on the scene but they soon realised the futility of attempting to restrain the vandalism or quell the riot. Instead they docilely and impassively looked on.
Meanwhile three men clambered onto the roof and unfurled a large Union Jack. This act was greeted with cheers and the signing of “God save the King.” The signing was interrupted midway by a sheet of flame from the interior reaching up to the roof. In haste, the miscreants climbed down from the inflamed roof. Instead they secured the flag to an adjoining electricity pole.
Fanned by a slight breeze, the fire rapidly spread and soon the whole building was ablaze. The Fire Brigade in their horse drawn wagons, rushed to the scene where they were greeted by a hostile reception. Besides the unruly crowd, it was also self-evident that the fire had engulfed the whole building. Nonetheless, despite the dire circumstances, the Firemen commenced work.
With a thunderous crash the roof collapsed shooting flames and sparks high into the sky. It being impossible to subdue the fire in the Club itself, they turned their attention to preventing its extension to the Liedertafel Hall. In this they succeeded.
Meanwhile, the mob preceded by a man carrying a Union Jack hoisted on a stick, swung down Western Road towards Strand Street. As they wound their way down Main Street and then to Russell Road, they wreaked havoc on German owned property as they went.
On the following night, Friday 14th March 1914, they renewed their attack on the by now doomed Liedertafel, or at least what remained of it. Into Rose Street the leaders marched with table legs and other heavy weapons. They broke through the boarded up front door & proceeded to destroy and vandalise everything not yet damaged.
Furniture, chairs and fittings are thrown onto a pile on the roadway. Then despite all their attempts, they were unable to ignite this wooden bonfire. Just at that moment, a flicker of light in a window indicated that the place was alight. Within a few minutes, the interior was a raging furnace. The roar of the flames and the crackle of the burning wood drowned out the whine of the wind outside.
Again the Fire Brigade was summonsed but this time they were too late as the entire Club was ablaze.
Similar scenes were re-enacted elsewhere in South Africa. Ultimately General Botha was forced to address the issue as he called for an end to the destruction of properties, both private and business, thought to be connected with the German citizens.
The final measure in this ignoble saga arose on the 17th May 1915 when the interning of German citizens commenced. With the ending of the South West African campaign against German, the regulations governing internment had been relaxed. Public pressure now caused them to be once again strengthened.
The most egregious and appalling action taken was then the liquidation of all German owned businesses in South Africa. Alternatively they were sold or taken over by existing non-German partners.
Family story by Mike Oettle:
My great-grandfather Georg Oettle (known in PE as George) was a German immigrant unconnected with any other immigrant grouping. His wife, née Marie Spühler, was French-Swiss (despite her German surname). He was librarian of the Port Elizabeth Public Library (a private institution) and a leading member of the Plymouth Brethren in the town, as was the Pudney family, then headed by Mr A W Pudney who traded in town. When the mob had torched or otherwise wrecked a number of Germans’ homes, they headed down Humewood Road, intending to burn the Oettle house as well.
Mr Pudney stopped them close to Humewood Road railway station and reasoned with the crowd, eventually persuading them that Mr Oettle was a Christian gentleman. They turned around and went elsewhere, although I have no idea whether they dispersed or went on to further damage.
Later on, Mr Pudney’s daughter married my grandfather’s younger brother. When the Pudneys developed the township of Kenton-on-Sea, one of its streets was named after him as Oettle Road.
Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)
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)
Harbours of Memory by Lawrence G. Green (1969, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)