Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Owen Smith – Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

It is a testament to the young John Owen Smith’s tenacity and self-belief that he embarked on a ship en route to the Cape Colony without his parents at the age of 15. Yet by the age of 27, he was well-established in auctioneering, finance, bonded warehousing, construction, merchanting and later shipping in Port Elizabeth. Before returning to his homeland, his later ventures were in mining in Namaqualand and the northern Cape.

Of all the residents of Port Elizabeth during the mid-1800s, surely JO Smith should be renowned, yet little is known about him? Why has no biography been written about his life? For somebody who must have thrown caution to the wind, was it perhaps a retiring nature and lack of self-aggrandisement that left him in the shadows? Much is known about his businesses, but the nature of the man is like an eel, hard but slippery, visible yet lurking in the shadows

Main picture: The only known likeness of John Owen Smith is this bust of him at the Port Elizabeth Public Library

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