Port Elizabeth of Today: The Future of No. 7 Castle Hill

Perhaps I should have titled this blog “Quo Vadis” or maybe something more apocalyptic such as the End of No. 7. Whatever it should be will never encompass my dread more for its future. When I left PE on 11th February 1980 to seek my fame & (mis) fortune in the City of Gold, the future of No. 7 was sanguine. For the most part, its future now, like many other historical buildings, is precarious at best. 

Why do I anticipate such a gloomy future?

Main picture: Painting of Port Elizabeth by W.A. Harriers showing No 7 Castle Hill at the crescent [or is that the brow] of the hill

A Brief History
Like the rest of the 1820 Settlers, the Irish contingent was also assigned to be settled on the eastern frontier to serve as a bulwark against tribal incursions. Instead, Sir Rufane Donkin, the Acting Governor in Lord Charles Somerset’s absence on leave, committed a grave error in countermanding Somerset’s plan and ordered that the Irish be settled in Clanwilliam as he feared that violence would erupt between the Irish and the English.  What Donkin did not take into account were two vital pieces of information. Even though an ill wind blew between the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, no such animosity was engendered in these settlers being mainly Protestants. In fact, one of the reasons advanced by McCleland for emigrating was to escape the lack of work opportunities for Protestants in Ireland. They were given Hobson’s choice, an uninviting semi-barren Karroo-like area, Clanwilliam.

It was only in September 1825 that Rev. Francis McCleland was transferred to Port Elizabeth with the remit to establish an Anglican church in the hamlet scruffy wind-swept hamlet

Above: Castle Hill in 1851 [faint = Building number 5]. 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

On arrival in Port Elizabeth in early September 1825, what greeted the couple was a god forsaken little village. As Churchouse laconically comments, “It would have been difficult to escape the impression that the small number of little, white-washed cottages had a tenuous hold on the sandy coastline. The only street was ankle deep in sand”.

However, their more pressing concern was accommodation. Forthwith, Francis set to work imploring the colonial authorities to provide him with a residence whilst simultaneously prevailing upon them the inequity of their situation. With the church dithering, prevaricating and stalling on whether to provide a house for their first Clergyman, Francis and Elizabeth were obliged to seek an alternative. Presumably, they rented a cottage for their first two to three years. Alternatively, they could have slept like many other Settlers in tents for a whole or portion thereof. Nonetheless, their accommodation was in all probability a prefabricated building which were intended for the frontier but were not used in that manner as Captain Francis Evatt calculated that the cost of transport was prohibitive and hence the cost of the buildings would be in excess of their worth.

However, where McCleland possessed irrefutable proof of inequality was in the lack of a parsonage house as they harped on the fact that his English colleges would have been entitled to be provided with accommodation. Interestingly, Francis always insisted that the house had to have a garden, but whether they had a garden in Ireland is moot.

Erection of a Private Parsonage
Instead of acquiring a plot close to the shoreline, in November 1827 Francis purchased a stand close to the crest of the hill, some distance from the other residences. The sum paid was a princely three guineas [three pounds and three shillings] conditional on his building “a good and substantial house” within eighteen months of the date of purchase of the stand

Initially the property extended to the site of the original Collegiate Girls’ School and Annerley Terrace forming the well-known “Parson’s Garden”. The reason for the acquisition of a plot on the ridge of the hill appears to be pecuniary as he alludes to this fact in one of his numerous missives. Francis died in July 1853 after a long illness. His wife predeceased him by several years.

Later Years
In 1861 the house was advertised “To Let” but it remained the property of the unmarried McCleland daughters until it was sold to Mr James Daly in 1904.

Advert-Family Mansion to Let

As one of a number of lodging houses that Daly owned in the neighbourhood, it fell into disrepair and disrepute and was eventually condemned by the municipal authorities. Then in 1938, Mr HB Smith, the Government Land Surveyor, bought it from Daly’s estate and saved it by renovating it as a comfortable home for himself. It was a great source of pride to him and he welcomed its proclamation as a National Monument shortly before his death in 1962. He had hoped that it might eventually be turned into a museum and with this intention, the house was purchased jointly by the City Council and the Provincial Administration in 1963 and some basic repairs were carried out. On his death, the house was purchased by the then City Council for the princely sum of R6,890.00 – according to the First and Final Liquidation and Distribution account.

Dining room [From booklet on No. 7 Castle Hill]

When it became apparent that more work was entailed than had at first being envisioned, the care of the house was entrusted to the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth which raised funds, worked on the restoration and begged, borrowed and bought suitable furniture for it.

The modern asbestos roof was replaced with slate, rotten external plaster was renewed, and new internal shutters were constructed for the ground floor windows.

Above: Old needlework is displayed in the bedrooms [From booklet on No. 7 Castle hill]

In September 1965, No. 7 was officially opened to the public. The house has been decorated and furnished to present a picture of nineteenth century domestic life in Port Elizabeth. The collection of furniture and domestic objects that have been donated for display in Number 7 reflects a thriving mid-Victorian community, whose members had progressed well beyond their settler beginnings and who had put down roots, surrounded themselves with possessions, and acquired a style of permanence.

Causative issues of decline
The first stage of arresting the decline in anything, is to understand the elements driving this decline.  In essence, the causative issues affecting PE Central can be bifurcated into those relating to the structure and physical aspects whereas the second set of issues are not building related. While the seriousness of each component is debatable; but what cannot be disputed is  that cumulatively their role is devastating.

Above: Damage to the roof of No 7 Castle Hill not yet repaired [Photo by Andrew Reed]

Building / physical aspects related.
Water damage: Even though this topic could be subsumed with that of lack if maintenance, by separating it, its deleterious effect can be highlighted. Furthermore, it has risen in prominence both locally and in Gauteng. In Port Elizabeth’s case, apparently the underlying cause of the Main Library’s closure for 8 years was water damage. Why this is a salient example is that water is the enemy of paper. According to an article in the Herald recently, thousands of books were destroyed. This senior official disingenuously did not state whether these were novels or historical books but added in mitigation that books never last longer than 17 years anyway!!!

This problem is no exception to Port Elizabeth. In these fraught times, water damage can have few equals apart from destruction through fire. In equal measure, theft of lead cladding in the case of the Harbour Board building and damage to the roof at No 7 Castle Hill carry the same consequences. In conclusion it is a grave error that the roofs have not been repaired post haste. Much like the rhyme regarding the lack of a nail concluded with the king losing his kingdom, so with water damage. It is insidious and will result in the loss of these buildings unless tackled timeously.

Stripping the building: Labels are never tidy but the culprits operating in this niche market are vagrants, drug addicts and other ne’er-do-wells. Due to their need for ready cash, even objects of minimal value are targets of these criminals. A case in point is the plague outside No 7 Castle Hill. Even though these are often replaced with plastic copies, these miscreants do not possess degrees in metallurgy to understand that a plastic object has little market value.  

Above: Vagrant sleeping on the verandah which allows free access to the premises [Photo by
Andrew Reed]

Theft of contents: The calibre and ethics of museum curators / meeters and greeters has slumped and is ultimately a threat to the contents of these institutions. Often such people do not possess any connection to the institution, ethos or values and hence sell artifacts to unethical visitors who show an interest in an object. I am personally aware of two instances of this occurring and fortunately, in both instances, the visitor was ethical and refused to be party to such a transaction.

Vagrants as “lodgers” and “boarders”: This incarnation of a low-life sub-species of vagrant seeks free accommodation. While appearing innocuous, their period of residency is equally as devastating as yellowwood floors and stairs are used as firewood on chilly nights. Furthermore, spare rooms are repurposed as ablution facilities.

Above: Amongst the items disposed on the pavement outside No. 7 are syringes [Photo by
Andrew Reed]

Non-building / physical aspects related.
Degradation of the area: Conventional wisdom espouses that one should avoid such areas especially when accompanied by one’s children. Conventional wisdom doesn’t have to be necessarily true, but it must be simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting. This dictum compels most visitors to avoid such areas. Personally I adhere to that dictum in that whenever I was in PE overnight on business, the last hotels that I would chose for accommodation would be any in PE Central despite this behaviour being contrary to my desire to patronise this area in accordance with my views on the safeguarding its future.

Vagrancy has a related consequence: safety. Whether an area is truly less safe, safety is in the eye of the beholder. As such the area is regarded as unsafe and as a consequence the area is avoided.

Above: Derelict cottage [Photo by Andrew Reed]

Errant landlords: Andrew Reed propounds this concept most forthrightly in the following comment. “This is truly a sad state of affairs! The Summit and Malbador, neighbouring No.7 Castle Hill museum were demolished a few years back, the motivation for many being to rid the area of vagrancy. Clearly the point has been missed. Perhaps the fundamental problem is intentionally obfuscated under the erroneous title “Problem Buildings”? The building is not the problem, it is neglect and owners are not held to task.

Why should “old buildings” and heritage be the scapegoat? Let it be shown for that record, that demolishing buildings does not work. The fundamental root of the problem is errant landlords. Why is it that some property owners secure and lease their properties, while they are somehow “unable” to protect other properties?

Above: Note that this article by Ivor Markman is dated 2009 but in 2023 renovations er cetera are still incomplete

“But it’s Central…”, they would say. The Grey institute and the Donkin Street houses are now secure, what of the rest, Portnet et al? The “problem building” by-law is seemingly there to deal with largely health and safety concerns. 

However, there should be registration of said building and a PROCESS (and hence also a record) of the engagement between property owners, the Metro and Heritage Authorities in every situation where a building, over 60 years old, is encountered.

There is a process of engagement and there should be time frames within which to remedy the problem. As Advocate Goosen made clear more than a decade ago, the metro has the power to expropriate.

The time is over for errant property owners being allowed to follow a modus operandi of “demolition by neglect”. It is frankly unacceptable that we have so little in the way of built heritage to offer, given the development and loss of buildings since the 1950’s. It is more unacceptable that we cannot even guarantee the protection of our Grade 2 listed buildings. What will be left for tourism? Do we not care about jobs in the Eastern Cape? We cannot rely on motor-related industry alone.

The future
I have glimpsed the future and it is bleak and dire. This fate has already overtaken many such historical structures in all the former vibrant CBDs of the majority of South African towns, cities and villages. This comes in the form of neglect and its bedfellows, the scrap brigade stripping items of value however negligible.  Furthermore even if the structure is miraculously properly maintained, as the surrounding area is transformed into a ghetto for the drunk, the drug addled and the homeless squatters in adjacent buildings, it drives all respectable visitors and customers from the area in fear of their lives.

Unless these issues are addressed in the most historically sensitive area in Port Elizabeth, reduced attendance and lack of willpower to correctly maintain it will ineluctably lead No. 7 Castle Hill to its ultimate fate: demolition as a Problem House.

Photos by Andrew Reed of damages to the Harbour Board building:

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