Port Elizabeth of Yore: Dr Geoffrey McLachlan-Museum Director Extraordinaire

The Port Elizabeth Museum has taken a winding journey using temporary accommodation until it was relocated to purpose-built facility was constructed. This was Bayworld in Humewood.  Instrumental in this final relocation was one of their most noteworthy directors, Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan. Through his endeavours, Bayworld as it is now called, is a scientific repository of the local natural history – birds, mammals, fossils, shells and relics of the early inhabitants of our hinterland. As the Herald in a tribute to Dr Geoff McLachlan put it: “He was internationally renowned as an ornithologist, a respected natural scientist and an imaginative museum director.”

This blog celebrates the life of this outstanding person. This blog has largely been based upon an online obituary.

Main picture: Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan

History of the Museum

The first museum to open its doors in Port Elizabeth was in 1856, 36 years after the town’s founding, when a diminutive room in the Town Hall was allocated for its use in this manner. The fact that a Museum was established in Port Elizabeth so early in its history is indicative of a town that would spare no effort in establishing a museum in spite of the town’s diminutive size. It is a tribute to the measure of its inhabitants.


Geoff was educated at Micklefield, Rondebosch (and many years later gave the address on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary), and then at the Diocesan College (Bishops) in Rondebosch, matriculating in the First Class in 1940. At Bishops he was a Senior in Gray House and a member of the Ten Club, Democritus Society and Philharmonic Society, winning a Music Prize for Piano Playing and won the Cadet Corps competition for the best drummer in the Corps Band. He was ‘a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist’ at the School Concert in September 1940. He was also always passionate about nature and wildlife and in March 1940 he presented a paper at the Democritus Society on ‘South African Ophidia and their venoms’. From school, he went to the University of Cape Town

Above: Dr Geoffrey Roy Mclachlan at Robben Island in his younger days


Like many other youths of that era, his studies were interrupted by three years’ service in the South African Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. His abilities in this field were such that he was appointed as a flying instructor at No 25 Air School at Standerton in the then Transvaal, which he said had also given him a chance to study nature on the Highveld. After the war, he completed his studies in Zoology and Geology at the University of Cape Town and obtained the degree of MSc.

Geoff then went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1952 with a PhD in Geology. From there, he went to Oxford, where for the next two years he was Departmental Demonstrator of petrology and mineralogy in the Department of Geology and was given the right to dine at High Table at Jesus College, Oxford.

Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park

In 1954, Geoff returned to South Africa to become Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park, subsequently supervising the establishment of the new Museum, Snake Park and Oceanarium on the Port Elizabeth seafront at Humewood — it was his vision to have the existing snake park and oceanarium, which would generate finance for the museum, enabling the employment of more staff and construction of up-to-date exhibits.

Long before dinosaurs became popular, Geoff organised that a very large semi-circular room was constructed in the front of the new Museum building for the display of a Brontosaurus, the dimensions of which were calculated from a fossilised thighbone which he collected, together with many lesser bones in the Sundays River near Kirkwood. Birds, or rather their ancestors, had to feature, so a pterodactyl was constructed flying beside the Brontosaurus. This exhibit became well known and continued to attract visitors until it was dismantled in 1992


As soon as he arrived in Port Elizabeth, Geoff became active in the local bird club, and was particularly interested in the young, for whom he would organise day outings and, on occasion, camping weekends. A few people who enjoyed his tuition on these outings have said ‘we learnt about nature not from a dry book but as it is, and it was always fun’. In 1956, Dr Cecily Niven assisted in getting a short-term post for Richard Liversidge, who joined the Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park staff as ornithologist. Geoff, Dr Niven and Mr JP Niven were the Organising Committee for the First Pan African Congress held in Livingstone, Zambia, from 15–19 July 1957. Delegates came not only from Africa but from many other parts of the world, and important contacts were made. Several eminent ornithologists, including Dr James Chapin of Congo Peacock fame, Dr Reay Smithers from the then National Museum of Rhodesia, Prof Berlioz from the Natural History Museum in Paris, and Dr Charles Sibley, Director of the Peabody Museum at Yale University, visited Port Elizabeth, giving lectures and providing stimulation.

It was a busy time for ornithologists, and apart from outings and their museum duties, Geoff and Richard assisted June Stannard, who had begun recording bird calls, with her fieldwork. In the 1950s, the Trustees of the Bird Book Fund (later named the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund) realised that a revision of the book on the birds of South Africa written by Dr Austin Roberts and published in 1940 was almost essential. The Trustees accepted a proposal from Geoff and Richard Liversidge to undertake the first revision, published in 1957, after three years of work. The aim of the revised edition was to collate all the information generated by Dr Roberts’ book and also to include that obtained from other ornithologists. The book was to continue to be named ‘Birds of South Africa’ but it was Geoff who requested that it be named ‘Roberts’ Birds of South Africa’, as he described it a more ‘friendly’ title. Subsequent revisions of the book have been named ‘Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa’. It was the editors’ wish that the book would always be kept up to date and thereby perpetuate the name of Austin Roberts. In the editors’ preface to the revised edition, Geoff commented that only then had they begun to appreciate the immense value of Dr Roberts’ work. Geoff and Richard were responsible for revising the third and fourth editions, and according to Bob Brain, author of ‘Austin Roberts. A lifelong devotion to South Africa’s birds and beasts’, all the revisions were an unprecedented success. Geoff and Richard produced all their revisions on a voluntary basis and all profits accrued to the John Voelker Bird Book Fund, enabling the Trustees to commission subsequent editors on a full-time basis and to be able to subsidise specific publications. For their labours, Geoff was given a good pair of binoculars and Richard an electric typewriter.

The early years of Bird Ringing

After Dr Hugh Ashton retired his position in 1956, Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan took over the reins of SAFRING. After an initial trial period, where the treasurer, Mr Heard, and Dr McLachlan worked through correspondence, the whole scheme was relocated to Port Elizabeth. Dr McLachlan had his work cut out for him, as several of problems arose with the growing bird ringing dataset. Some of these problems included data storage, data submissions and costs of bird ringing. One of the drastic moves he made to improve data submissions, was to drive across the country visiting all bird ringing hotspots to help ringers in person. During his time as coordinator, he authored eight bird ringing reports, as well as many papers, and a ten year summary of bird ringing. He is also known for the first revisions of the well-known book, Roberts’ Birds of South Africa (2nd, 3rd and 4th editions).

Other interests intrude

By the mid-1960s, Geoff had increased his interest in other animals, particularly reptiles, and in 1966 he and his family moved to Kraaifontein near Cape Town to start the Tygerberg Zoo, with which he was involved until 1975, when he joined the South African Museum in Cape Town as Herpetologist. Collecting trips to the north-western (Northern) Cape and the Namib Desert followed, together with mentoring of young herpetologists — le Fras Mouton recalls that ‘Geoff played an important role in my early career as an herpetologist, and that is why I named Cordylus mclachlani after him’ (Mouton, 1986, South African Journal of Zoology 21: 319–324). Aaron Bauer notes that Geoff helped him during a first research trip to South Africa. Geoff kept up his interests in birds and was made an Honorary Life Member of the South African Ornithological Society in 1972.

Recreating the quagga

In 1986, Geoff became one of the founder committee members of a project to re-create the extinct quagga by selective breeding of southern African plains zebras from Etosha in Namibia. The project has made considerable progress towards its goal and has been enthusiastically taken over by South African National Parks. Geoff remained a member of the committee until his death.

His publications, other than his part in the ‘Roberts’ revision, cover a wide field, including geology, snakes, lizards and whales. In his so-called retirement, Geoff actively pursued his many interests, living on a property at Plettenberg Bay which was full of bird-attracting indigenous plants and trees. Geoff and Paula bought the Knysna Nursery, and his great interest became growing and promoting indigenous trees and fynbos. But birds were never far from his interests, and he was a founder member of the Plettenberg Bay Bird Club, and he nurtured and guided it as its Honorary Life President.

Geoff had a special interest in queleas. Due to their ability to survive drought and persecution by man, he considered them uniquely adapted to the harsh African landscape. He was delighted when a flock visited his bird table at Plettenberg Bay for a few days. He kept a list of the rare sightings for the newsletter, was involved in the Co-ordinated Waterfowl Counts (CWAC) from the beginning and always had a team known as the ‘loerie loerers’ for Big Birding Day. Geoff had a rare quality — a curiosity about nature that is seldom seen today.

He earned much respect from his colleagues, best gleaned from the many tributes, most of which speak of his immense knowledge, that he was happy to share with any who enquired. To the end, he was working on distribution maps of snakes in Southern Africa, and crusading for the preservation of our heritage and environment.

Geoff McLachlan died at Plettenberg Bay on 17 January 2005, at the age of 81


Bayworld – A Monument to Dr. Geoff McLachlan by Hugh Baakens (Eastern Province Herald, 2005)

A SMAC in the Face #38: And the Hits Keep Coming

People don’t like to admit that they are irresistibly drawn to ogle at car accidents – it’s sort of like hardcore car porn.  Of course, I am not a voyeur like those.  I only slow down and gawk for purely technical reasons.  I wish to satisfy my scientific curiosity about the cause and how humans contrive to be so stupid.  It can only be for similar reasons that people continue to devour the news although they know that its going to be relentlessly awful in South Africa.  Again, I hold myself to a higher standard – I do it as it is grist for the mill of my satire.

The past week has been no exception, probably no worse than normal, but I was attracted to an article that stated that the paramedics in the Fort Beautfort area have been on strike for two months.  There is no consequence management as they report to work and get paid but they do nothing.  Nice non-work if you can get it.  I now wear a neck brace because I shake my head so often at the shenanigans that pass for acceptable behaviour in this blighted country, and that’s being polite about it.

I have some issues with Musk but on the whole he’s a breath of fresh air in this pathetic new world and he cuts through all the bullshit that disguises itself as real issues.   For instance, he’s had enough of his staff working from home and he wants them in the office for at least 40 hours per week or take a hike.  As he communicated this via Twitter, someone tweeted him, accusing him of ‘antiquated practices’.  His succinct response took no prisoners – “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”  Game, set and match.  Wow, we could do with a bit of hard-arsed management.

The previous week set the tone for me.  The Auditor General’s report on municipal finances showed that we are a flailing state if not a failing state and on track to be a failed state.   This week the news cycle has been relentless – horrific vehicle accidents with 13 killed in one, truck blockages of major transport routes, Sowetan protests, one of Gqeberha’s dams empty and another days away, the second police Lieutenant-General to be charged with serious fraud in the last few weeks, warning of an e-coli tsunami given the parlous state of our water treatment plants and this is over and above the standard weekly fare of murder for every reason imaginable, rape, fraud, political mayhem in the ANC and the rise of the RET faction, loadshedding, ad bloody finitum.

The only bright spot was the much-delayed final Zondo report on State Capture, and it’s a page turner – it makes War and Peace look like an elementary reader.  It remains to be seen if it’ll just end up as a doorstopper in some back office of the NPA.  It’s a long road yet before we see this cast of rogues behind bars but at least they will be forever tainted by Zondo’s words – corruption and state capture writ large.

Even if the NPA can be resourced to tackle just the fallout from this in our lifetime, corruption has become so entrenched at all levels that it will be generations before we can rid ourselves of this scourge and that’s if we have the will to do it.  Even if we’re successful there, corruption is just the tip of the turd that’s floating in the cesspool that constitutes SA.  There are all the other forms of criminal behaviour that are the warp and weft of our society and then there’s all the developmental issues – housing, water, electricity, sanitation, jobs, eradication of pit toilets, also ad bloody infinitum.

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Two Buntons make their Mark

Today the deeds of these two Buntons more than a century ago are known by less than several dozen people yet in their heyday they were both well-known but for vastly different reasons. Walter Bunton converted the Grand Hotel into the Bunton’s Grand Hotel, not a mere name change but a conversion into the greatest hotel in hotel, fit the great and good of the Cape, the British Empire and beyond.

On the other hand, his sister, Harriet Meyer, nee Bunton, had divergent interests. The one for which she made her name was promoting the building of an equestrian monument to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of horses killed during the Anglo Boer War.

Then their life’s candle would gutter and be snuffed out and the light which they shone on the world would gradually fade away, eventually to be forgotten. This blog is an attempt to correct this omission.

 Main picture:  Bunton’s Grand Hotel on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Prospect Hill. It was the most important hotel of its time.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Annerley Terrace

In the 19th century Annerley Terrace was amongst the most historic roads in the emerging town of Port Elizabeth. Many of the newly minted elite resided here on what was previously the Garrison’s land. Like most streets on the Hill, as it was called, Annerley Terrace, was short, running from Gordon Terrace to Bird Street.

Main picture: Annerley Terrace in1867. In the foreground is a camp on the Military Reserve. Behind it on the left is the house built c1850 for William Henderson. but later it was the home of H. H. Solomon. Then come the homes of Sir Frederick Blaine (“Bay View House”) & Sir Edgar Walton (“Annerley House”) whch is still standing. In the centre is “Annerley Terrace”, built by 1864 for John Paterson

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: 1888 – Another Disastrous Storm

The Rocket Brigade in Action

During the age of sail vicious storms were always potentially disastrous for ships as the fierce gusting winds could drive ships onto the coast fatally wrecking them. In the case of Algoa Bay, it was renowned for treacherous south-easters during the latter half of the year. To assist in the rescue operations, the local regiment, Prince Alfred’s Guards, established a separate unit known as the Rocket Brigade.

This blog deals with the rescue operations during this unprecedented storm

Main picture:  The PAG’s Rocket Brigade in action during the 1888 gale

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Harrison Clark

Among Port Elizabeth’s early entrepreneurs was one, John Harrison Clark, whose occupation is given as merchant. According to the Port Elizabeth Directory and Almanac of 1877 he sold hardware from premises at 14, 16 & 18 Main Street. The company John H. Clark & Co was bookended between Dreyfuss & Co in front of St. Mary’s Church occupying erfs 2 to 12 and on the northern side of Clark’s premise, was Standard Bank. On the opposite side of Main Street at number 11, was John Geard’s ironmongery shop.

This is a brief blog on the life of John Harrison Clark.

Main picture: Property of John Harrison Clark in Rufane Vale which formed part of Baakens Valley. Originally part of the property owned by Jonathan Board, the first “cottage” was erected here by 1852 when he offered the lease for sale.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Bean Family of Ferndale near Hankey

What I find fascinating are the stories of the old farmhouses scattered like chafe on the parched plains of the Karroo, the water sodden Southern Cape and the rocky hillocks and outcrops of the foothills of the mountain ranges. Many of these have stories going back to the original Trek Boers of the 1770s. Equally of interest are the anecdotes of privations and struggles on obdurate lands and unfriendly tribesmen. 

This is the story of the Bean family and their family house located near Hankey. Locally Ferndale was known as “Bean se Bos”

Main picture: Leonard Orlando Bean [1809-1892]

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