Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ushering in Electricity and Lighting

The lack of street lighting in the pre-electricity era must have made walking outdoors at night particularly dangerous. If nothing else, this factor must have induced the Town Council to expedite the installation of street lighting as the technology enabled this feature. Furthermore commerce and industry required electricity to operate all manner of equipment, apparatuses and appliances which the use of electrical power enabled.

To do so, Port Elizabeth would ultimately require its own generating equipment which in turn would require it to import coal.

To say that the introduction of electricity would fundamentally change society was a gross understatement. It would transform society in ways which were unthinkable previously. Apart from facilitating nocturnal social intercourse, it would also facilitate the introduction of shift work in industry.

Main picture: Installing overhead electricity cables

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Tarred Roads

The renowned economist John Maynard Keynes once famously exclaimed that “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”. Whilst that might have been true in most instances, it is doubtful whether anybody except the most curmudgeonly would have objected to this innovation. But who knows? Progress always has its naysayers. Perhaps others ignored it as being fatuous!

Main picture: Steam roller on the opening of Albany Road. The prominent building on the hill is the Erica School for Girls, designed by architect William White Cooper and opened on 4 November 1903.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Disaster on Christmas Eve

The morning of the Thursday 24th December 1931 was not unlike any other Christmas Eve. Whether those passengers crammed into buses and trams had already completed their Christmas shopping, this was a day when many residents of Port Elizabeth would make that trip to Main Street to experience the thrill and excitement of this special day.

Instead many would witness a tragedy which would blunt their enthusiasm and joy over the festive season.

Main picture: St Mary’s Church in 1931 showing the business on Main Street being demolished

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Lawn Tennis

Sporting-wise, Port Elizabeth has achieved a number of firsts as many of the sporting codes have their roots in St George’s Park. Amongst the firsts were the first international cricket test between South Africa and England, South Africa’s first rugby test and South Africa’s first cricket tournament.

Of all the firsts that Port Elizabeth failed to achieve was being the first tennis club to be formed in South Africa but it only missed this honour narrowly.

Main picture: SA Lawn Tennis Championships, 1893. Court No. 1 – Port Elizabeth Lawn Tennis Club.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: When Developers almost Built on the Donkin Reserve

It was a grieving Sir Rufane Donkin who arrived in Port Elizabeth on the 5th June 1820. Even though he had married Elizabeth Markham in Yorkshire under a traditional organised marriage which was the custom in those times for the social upper classes, remarkably, he had truly fell in love with his beautiful young wife. En route back to Great Britain, he had been diverted to the Cape as temporary Governor.

It was during the laying of the foundation stone of a proposed hotel for Captain Moresby that Donkin proclaimed that the nascent town would be named Elizabeth, after his beloved dead wife. Port Elizabeth had been conceived.

As well as naming the town after his deceased wife, he had other plans to commemorate her: proclaiming of a reserve on which a pyramid would be built as a monument in perpetuity.

Main picture: Pyramid on the Donkin in 1920

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Motor Launch Joe Vanishes in Algoa Bay

The motor launch Joe was carrying ten fishermen when on the night of the 22nd May 1906 it failed to return to port. Anxious families spent a fearful night hoping beyond hope that their loved ones would return unharmed. As days passed into weeks, then months and finally years, would these grief-stricken families ever receive closure, or would this remain an open wound never quite healing.

What had happened to this vessel and its ten occupants?

Main picture: Messina Bros tug Talana, skippered by Spero Messina, recovered pieces of the wrecked launch, The Joe, in Algoa Bay 15 months after it went missing in May 1906

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Saving lives using the Manby Apparatus

Before the age of helicopters, shipwrecks usually resulted in severe loss of life. Without a method of rescuing passengers and crew from a stricken ship, they were either drowned in the attempt to reach shore in an era when swimming ability was the exception rather than the rule, or they clung to the rapidly disintegrating ship only to die once it no longer offered protection.

The development of the Manby Apparatus was the first attempt at offering stranded passengers and crew. In Port Elizabeth, this equipment was operated by the detachment of the Prince Alfred’s Guards known as the Rocket Brigade.

Main picture:Prince Alfred’s Guards Rocket Brigade with the Manby Apparatus

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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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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Reminiscences of the early Harbour and Town

These excerpts are the 1939 recollections of Mr. C.G.H. Skead about the early days in Port Elizabeth, its harbour and miscellaneous maritime activities. They were originally printed in 1964 over three editions of Looking Back, the Quarterly Bulletin of the PE Historical Society.

Main picture: View of Port Elizabeth from the harbour dated 1867

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: St George’s Park, its Creator and its Facilities

With the imminent arrival of spring, the whole of St. George’s Park will be blossoming. Perhaps we should spare a thought for the man who was originally employed to create a park out of a stretch of veld in the face of winds, drought and, for a long time, no reliable water supply. Established in 1860, St George’s Park is spread over 73 ha. Today it comprises pristine wooded parkland and extensive plant collections and specimen trees as well as various other amenities.

The creator of this splendid park was a Scot by the name of John Wilson.

Main picture: Pathways in St George’s Park in 1910

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