Port Elizabeth of Yore: HB Smith – The Saviour of No 7 Castle Hill

Perched on the brow of the hill overlooking the activity on the jetty and town below and the ships bobbing in the roadstead, was Number 7 Castle Hill. Sunday 10th July 1853, like all Sundays, was a sombre day, with no shops or amenities open with the only “entertainment” being the obligatory attendance at a church service. As is usual in Port Elizabeth, the swirling clouds of sea sand were channelled down the untarred Main Street tormenting the pedestrians while chubby clouds flickered past overhead.

Being weak and unwell over the past several months, the clergyman, the Rev Francis McCleland, had been unable to perform the Sunday service at St Mary’s Church that day. Apart from Castle Hill being one of the steepest hills in the town, Francis was too frail to even attempt the climb after the service. While the congregation below prayed for his speedy recovery and good health, Francis McCleland passed from this world.

The least of anybody’s concerns that day was the future of No. 7 Castle Hill. Yet by 1938 it was uninhabitable. It was at this point that the rare exception of a man would appear. This blog will accord Harold Bayldon Smith his rightful place in the history of this remnant of a bygone age.

Main picture: No.7 Castle Hill

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Development ignited by the Saltpans

In a manner of speaking, the salt pans which span over the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, are its mineral wealth. Unlike the mines in the north, their minerals are easy to extract without expensive machinery or underground excavations. Furthermore their lifespan is measured in millennia and not decades.

It is thought that in all likelihood, these salt pans have been used for millennia but not on an organised basis by the local Khoikhoi. The saline deposits of this district have long been famous, but until the foresight of Frederick Korsten, that there had been no attempt at systematic development. It was the entrepreneurial spirits of this one man that turned this untapped resource into an asset for the area.

Main picture: Swartkops salt pans

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Reverend Francis McCleland: A Life in Port Elizabeth 1825 – 1853

At best the Irish 1820 Settlers in Clanwilliam eked out a precarious existence. The settlement could not have been called a resounding success either by the settlers generally or the McCleland household in particular. After a number of unseemly quarrels, Francis was granted a transfer to the newly created hamlet of Port Elizabeth which was meant to have been their original disembarkation point. 

It was here that Francis and Elizabeth would spend the rest of their lives. This chronicles the lives of my great-great-grandparents in Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: Castle Hill in 1851 painted by engineer Henry Fancourt White of White’s Road fame. Number 7 Castle Hill is the commodious double storey house on the right on top of the hill

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Reverend Francis McCleland per Theal’s “Records of the Cape Colony”

George McCall Theal was the most prolific and influential South African historian, archivist and genealogist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his epic compendium Records of the Cape Colony, he records all the correspondence by and to the Colonial Office in Cape Town for the period 1793 to 1827. As the last seven years coincide with the arrival of the original batch of Settlers, this series of 35 books contains a rich vein of data to be mined. 

Before even landing in Saldanha Bay, Francis McCleland had already made a name for himself as a heavy drinker and troublesome priest. As well, William Parker – the Party Leader – and Francis McCleland were a volatile mix, ever on the brink of ignition. 

For these reasons, the McCleland name is often fairly and sometimes unfairly denigrated in these pages. For ease of reference, I have extracted all references to the irascible Irish clergyman however oblique. 

Main picture: George McCall Theal

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Rev Francis McCleland: An Interlude in Clanwilliam 1820 – 1825

This, the fifth episode in the life of the Reverend Francis McCleland, deals with his arrival in Cape Town in early May 1820 and their disappointment at being redirected to settle in Clanwilliam instead of the Eastern Border. 

Not to put too fine a point on it but the five years spent at Clanwilliam were character forming with the man in the cassock not always cutting a fine figure. Casting a long shadow over this Party was the leader himself. Self-serving, megalomaniac and irascible, William Parker was to add to their woes. 

Beset by troubles from every quarter, acrimony and dissension descended on this disparate party. 

Main picture: A Settler House in Clanwilliam

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: St. Mary’s – The Mother Church

Given that there are no longer any residents who live in close proximity to the church, there are few  parking facilities in the area and there are hardly any parishioners who attend regularly, what is the future prognosis of this icon of Port Elizabeth? Naturally, I am biased because my great-great-grandfather was its first pastor but is society in general not able to appreciate that this building is integral to the history of Port Elizabeth. 

It will serve Port Elizabeth well to remember that it is not a church, probably in dire financial difficulties, that has to be saved, but a treasure of the city itself. 

This blog is the history of this institution.

Main picture: St. Mary’s after being reconstructed in 1896 but before the construction of the UBS building in Main Street

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Parsonage House at No. 7 Castle Hill

This, the oldest unaltered house in Port Elizabeth, bears a specific significance in my life. The original owner of that house – the Reverend Francis McCleland – was my great-great-grandfather. In 1962 the house was declared a National Monument. In order to restore the parsonage house from a place of ill-repute back to its former glory, all members of the McCleland clan in Port Elizabeth were requested to contribute financially to this process.

This blog chronicles how this parsonage came to be erected in Port Elizabeth, its fall from grace, and then how it achieved its current status as a treasured museum

Main picture: This must be the earliest view of Number 7 Castle Hill – a lithograph by W.J. Huggins showing whaling in Algoa Bay in 1832. The recently completed house of Francis McCleland stands alone at the top of Castle Hill, midway between Fort Frederick and the memorial pyramid to Lady Donkin, after whom the town of Port Elizabeth was named

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Rev Francis McCleland: From Birth to London – 1793 to 1819

Because the ultimate point of departure of the Irish Settlers was Cork, or more accurately a hamlet some 10 kilometres east thereof called Passage West, most of Francis’ South African descendants have assumed that the family was in fact resident in Cork or its environs when in fact this is fallacious. Frederick McCleland, Francis’s father was a merchant in Longford. As a consequence, Francis was in fact born and raised in Longford Town in Longford County which is situated in central Ireland. 

This blog which commences the life story of the Reverend Francis McCleland, the progenitor of the extensive McCleland clan in South Africa, deals with the period from his birth, through his varsity years until his voyage aboard the East Indian from Deptford London to Passage West in Ireland to pick up the Irish Settlers.

Main picture: St. John’s Church of Ireland Church, Church Street, Battery Road, Longford Town, County Longford of which Francis was appointed as a Deacon

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Correspondence regarding Rev Francis McCleland with Colonial Office in London

This correspondence provides one with an intimate look both at the concerns and the trials and tribulations of these Settlers who came from established towns and villages to a virgin country.

Pictures in this blog: They were all taken 120 years ago in Ireland when it was still impoverished and backward. Perhaps this was the impetus to emigrate to America or in the case of the Reverend Francis McCleland, to an equally improverished, far-off and backward land called the Cape of Good Hope.

Main picture: Nanny goat market

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