A General Description of Port Elizabeth in 1894

This is a excerpt from a 1894 book entitled, “The Guide to Port Elizabeth”. It provides a contemporary view of Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: Post Office building in 1900

The prominent fact about Port Elizabeth is that it is, first and foremost, a seaport, and according to the chief trade returns, the port of the Colony. It has been called the “Liverpool” of the Cape and may fairly claim that title at least, for its exports more of Colonial produce than all the other ports together, and imports more merchandise than any single one of them.

In one sense it is the oldest port too, for here the Portuguese sailors of old time used to drop their anchors on their voyages to Algoa long years before Table Bay was made use of. The attractions of the port then were those which later on gave it favour in British eyes— shelter from the fierce westerly gales in winter, and an abundance of fresh water in the little stream now called Baaken’s River. That no earlier settlement was made here must be imputed to the dog-in-the-manger policy of the Batavian government at Cape Town, afraid to extend their occupation of the country but anxious to keep out other nations. Travellers had noted and reported upon the advantages of the place, but it was not until the first British occupation in the Colony that Algoa Bay ceased to be a mere harbour of refuge and developed into a trading port.

“The Bay,” as Algoa Bay is generally termed by the Eastern Province colonists, presents many facilities for the formation of a township much further northward than Port Elizabeth.  Landing in those early days was a risky undertaking, many a boat capsized in the surf and if it was fortunate enough to touch bottom without a casualty, the passengers had to be carried ashore on the shoulders of Fingoes in very primitive garb. About the end of last century Fort Frederick, which still crowns the hill above Baaken’s River, was built, and the Bay became the base of supply to the frontier posts. When it was decided to settle Albany with Europeans it was at this place that the settlers of 1820 landed, and, with their advent, the history of the port, as a port, properly commences. The military station began to grow into a commercial town and, thanks to Sir Rufane Donkin, who gave the place his dead wife’s name, Fort Frederick became merged in Port Elizabeth. It is in memory of that lady that the conspicuous landmark — the pyramid on “The Hill” was erected, and called the Donkin Monument, a large area of ground contiguous being called by the name it still bears, viz.: the Donkin Reserve. On this was subsequently erected the present lighthouse and keeper’s quarters, but no other buildings whatever are, by charter, permitted to be erected thereon.

Fort Frederick on the distant hill

Efforts have been made from time to time by speculative minds to relieve the town of this prohibition, but to the great relief of the bulk of the inhabitants who look upon the Reserve as one of the lungs of the town, all attempts to have the area laid out into streets and building sites have most signally failed.

Since 1820 the port has kept pace with the advancement of the Colony, and every movement that has brought advantage to colonists has been registered in the streets and buildings of Little Bess; while native trade and military supplies were the chief items of commerce. In the east, Grahams-town held its own as the commercial centre of the Eastern Districts, but, with the development of sheep-farming, and the consequent increased importance of the Karoo Districts, the port came rapidly to the front. The supremacy of Grahamstown may be said to have ceased with the opening of the Zuurberg Pass in the early fifties, giving Port Elizabeth a direct road to the interior. Of every new enterprise since undertaken it has enjoyed the fruits as, in many cases, it has sown the seeds.

It is the port of the Diamond Fields, the port of the wool and mohair farmers, as well as the ostrich farmers, and ,now, by the completion of railway connections with the Transvaal, it has become, by common consent, the port of the Gold Fields, the Colony’s “fighting” port, the heart and centre, commercially, of the Colony. By degrees buildings began to be erected along Main Street and the parallel thoroughfare, Strand Street. Building was in its infancy in those days and the structures then run up would not be permitted at the present day. One of the earliest buildings of any consideration was St. Mary’s Church, then a mere chaplaincy, but the only edifice belonging to the Episcopalians in the town. That body have now seven churches in Port Elizabeth. Education was at a somewhat low ebb until the Government took the matter seriously in hand and sent out to the colony some half dozen trained teachers. Among these gentlemen was one whose name is indelibly engraved in the town in numerous ways. This was Mr. John Paterson who, from the hour of his arrival appears to have bent every nerve towards the improvement socially, commercially, and educationally on the town in which he resided. In enterprise, public spirit and acute discrimination this gentleman has not been surpassed. With his name are associated such institutions as the Hospital, the Public Library, the Grey Institute and other establishments of minor importance perhaps, but all the result of foresight and far sight. In carrying out many of his ideas, and in extending his work, Mr. Henry W. Pearson has also shown himself equal to every occasion which presented itself calling for a clear head and a vigorous hand. In fact the perfection as well as the inception of the leading works of Port Elizabeth are indissolubly associated with the names of Messrs. Pearson and Paterson.

Circa 1890 Hansen & Schrader. Later converted to part of the Colonial Mutual Building. See EP Herald’s offices

We have already referred to the main thoroughfare and its peculiar condition in the early part of the history of the town. It was no uncommon sight to see a bullock-wagon stuck in Main Street while the sand in the two thoroughfares leading to the Hill— was usually up to the naves of “the wheels. But this state of things was not doomed to last. The old Municipal Commissioners had to give way to the advent of new blood and British enterprise. A Town Council was established, and the place began to go ahead. No Town Council in the whole range of British dominion has done more than that Body has done for Port Elizabeth. The Hill whereon at present the majority of the inhabitants live was simply an arid plain. Every street and thoroughfare on the Hill have had to be handmade, metal having to be ridden from long distances. This was of course a work of time but by degrees the Hill came to be regarded as an eligible suburb and buildings were rapidly erected, streets and squares were formed, something like symmetry began to be manifest in what but a few years previously was an absolute wilderness.

Phoenix Hotel in Market Square

Starting with but poor natural advantages— a barren soil, stony when not sandy, a bleak aspect, treeless and almost waterless— the town has by perseverance been made as wholesome and convenient a place to live in as any in the Colony. Some of the old inhabitants go to the length of calling other towns holes and will have it that their town is in every respect the best in all South Africa. Certainly very much has been done. The sandy beach has been replaced by warehouses, macadamized roads and broad pavements. The sea has been walled out for a matter of a mile-and-a-half along the shore. The ravines which once scarped the hill-sides have been turned into account and are now wide streets. Water has been brought, within the last dozen years, from Van Staden’s River, twenty miles off ; drains have been laid down, gas has been carried all over the town, soon, it is hoped, to be followed by electric light, and the tram traverses the whole length of the main thoroughfare.

Van Staden’s River by William Alcock

If the desert does not yet blossom like the rose, the bleak and barren hill-tops have been made to grow some good trees to shelter from sun and wind the houses and cottages that cover an area of a mile square. There are even two well-kept public gardens, ranking locally as parks. That on the hill consists of an outer enclosure, within which, space has been found for cricket grounds, athletic courses and tennis courts, while the inner enclosure contains a spacious and well-filled conservatory that cannot be beaten in the country. Much attention is given to the cultivation of local flora.

The completion of the water scheme gave an impetus to building, and villa residences with well laid out gardens became the rule, instead of as formerly the exception. The public institutions received additions by the building of a new market, additions to the railway station, improvements to the Town Hall and additional churches and chapels. The new Congregational Church at the top of Pearson Dtreet is a handsome structure. Trinity Church was added to, and another English Episcopalian Church was erected on the Cape Road— St. Cuthbert’s. The increased arrival of wool and other produce induced the necessity of a new wool market, and although the building is at present too large for present requirements beyond all doubt it is an enterprise which must sooner or later pay its way.

Post Office Building

Above this market is the museum which is one of the attractions of Port Elizabeth, comprising as it does a rare collection of stuffed animals, birds, fishes, reptiles, etc., with numerous cases for insects, moths, etc., and numerous exhibits of minerals, fossils, and other rich and rare specimens of Natural History. With the progress of events and the increase of population a new gaol was found necessary, and this was situated at the North End of the town. It is admirably kept and rigidly inspected by the Magistrate and District Surgeon. In fact the police arrangements of Port Elizabeth reflect the highest credit on the authorities. The only desideratum is a water police. This might easily be established and would be useful in case of emergency. The Fire Brigade of Port Elizabeth is composed of a very efficient body of men.

The town has doubled its population which is now about 22,000, in the last twenty years. It contains a larger proportion of whites than any other colonial town. It consists of two, or perhaps three, well-marked divisions, originally built on a narrow strip of land alongside the sea beach, with its centre under the walls of Fort Frederick, and hemmed in by low but steep hills on the landward side, it has now overrun those hills, upon which are built the best residences, whilst the lower ground is almost entirely given up to business. Here are the Public Offices, Banks, Insurance Chambers, Warehouses, Shops, Mills, Foundries and Workshops of all kinds. Above on the hill-tops are the dwelling-houses, some of the churches and a few, but only a few shops. The South End, “over the river,” is the home of the workmen, boatmen and fishermen, with some of the trading class interspersed, not a few of whom may also be found on the lower ground towards the North End. The business part contains many fine buildings. Among the principle are the Town Hall, the Market Hall, the largest in the Colony, the Standard Bank, Court House, Custom House, and Railway Station, the latter being still in the course of enlargement. When completed it will have a platform accommodation of some six hundred feet both for receiving and discharging passengers.

The first premises of Standard Bank in Port Elizabeth

Of Churches there are many of handsome appearance both externally and internally. The Roman Catholic is probably the best specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in the country, although placed in a position very little adapted to display its symmetry. St. Mary’s the oldest place of worship in the town is also badly situated. Its founders having most likely a choice of pretty well the whole town selected the possible site. Trinity, St. Paul’s, worst the Congregational, and the Presbyterian, are all fair specimens of the modern architect’s art, and a new Wesleyan Church, now being built, gives promise of a tasteful edifice.

The educational equipment of the town consists of the Grey Institute, a public institution, largely endowed and open to all classes, which gives a good middle-class education to some 400 or 500 pupils, and there are, besides, many mission and other schools of semi public or private character. There is a first-rate public library and reading room supplied with representative modern literature, and a museum in the course of erection. The Provincial Hospital, with some eighty beds, is appointed with an efficient medical and nursing staff. To turn from grave to gay a theatre and opera-house on the most improved and modern plan has just been finished. There will soon be a public swimming bath. Hotels are many and good.

Grey Institute

The affairs of the town are managed, John Bull fashion, by a mayor and town council. Many names are mentioned of those who by their foresight and energy have aided in its advancement. No one has had more to do in fashioning its institutions than the late John Paterson. Others were W. M. Harries, Wm. Smith, and John Miller. For a dozen years past Mr. H. W. Pearson, has deservedly exercised the most influence at the Municipal Board. To him the town is mainly indebted for the Van Staden’s River Waterworks and the Markets. The former has cost £180,000, but it has been money well laid out, for, without doubt, the new water supply has been the principal factor in making Port Elizabeth an agreeable place to reside in. A Harbour Board composed partly of elective and partly of nominee members, attends to the management of the piers and wharves, and directs the construction of the necessary works. The Press is well-represented by the Eastern Province Herald and the Port Elizabeth Telegraph, two journals of long standing and established position. There is also a free advertising paper, The P. E. Advertiser, very much in favour among the working people.

The first impression of Port Elizabeth is unfavourable. Approached from seaward it presents no lovely aspect. The eye sees nothing but a barren, treeless, hill-side, closely packed with glaring white buildings, and fitted into a frame of sandhills and surf. But the best part of the place is not visible from the sea, and the stranger, who lands and makes his way up the hill, will find occasion to modify his opinions. And, though the town itself is situated in a position more salubrious than beautiful, it has surroundings by no means wanting in natural attractions. Close by are the many picturesque glens that makeup the valley, the wooded ravines and grassy slopes “of Chelsea and Kragga Kamma and the deep kloofs of Van Staden’s River. Within an hour by rail is the town of Uitenhage, with its oaks, vineyards, and running streams, while a little farther off, but still within easy distance, are the Zuurberg hills 2,500 feet above sea level, the delight of invalids and newly-married folk.


Guide to Port Elizabeth (1894, Dennis Edwards & Co, 19 Long Street, Cape Town)

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