Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Brief History of Roller Skating

Surprisingly roller skating was introduced to Port Elizabeth in 1878, the first venue of this novel pastime in South Africa. Popular for a while, it then faded into obscurity before making a resurgence and briefly blooming once again.

This is the story of that roller coaster ride.

Main picture: Roller skating at the Humewood Beach Hotel

A brief history

Roller-skating was invented in 1735 by John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian who famously introduced his new wheeled shoes at a party in London and promptly crashed into a mirror. Monsieur Petitbled patented the roller-skate in 1819. His skates were inline, with only three wheels and no way to turn! Until James Leonard Plimpton came along. He reinvented the wheel, patenting a four-wheeled roller-skate that let wearers pivot as needed. Skating fell out of favour in the 1900’s until the waitresses at drive-ins started wheeling meals to customers. Roller-skating quickly rose in popularity, hitting its peak in the roller-disco era of the 70’s and 80’s. Inline skates took over in the 90’s, but quad skating has once again hit its stride.

The first public skating rink was opened in 1866. So began the popular pastime known as rinking.

Roller skates in 1910

Era of popularity

It was only 12 years after the first rink was established overseas that on the 15th May 1878, the first roller skating rink, the Empress, was opened in Port Elizabeth by Bernhard Kromm. This rink was accommodated in a purpose-built building erected in present day Rink Street. It was designed by J.T. Cook and had a floor constructed from asphalt.   To add to the atmosphere and enjoyment, a band played whenever possible.

This venue was to only last for three years. In September 1881, A.W. Guthrie purchased the property and converted it into livery stables. Notwithstanding this blow, skating remained popular in the town and was not the death knell of this sport as various other venues would spring up to replace this one in due course.  

Another nine years would elapse before Port Elizabeth would again experience the thrill of racing around a roller-skating ring. This drought was broken on the 3rd June 1890 with the opening of the Elite Roller Skating Rink in the new market building by Benson and McDermott. Very popular at first, once the initial surge had swept past, the venture came to an end eleven months after its opening.

Shortly before its closure in 1891, the Prince Alfred’s Guard opened a roller-skating rink in the Drill Hall on Valentine’s Day 1891. The hall was been given a new floor, skates were imported and the PAG Band provided music.

Debuting in the Age of Resurgence

After languishing in the doldrums for a number of years, an unknown spark would re-ignite interest in roller skating. Within the space of a year, a number of new roller-skating rinks were to open

Oval Skating Rink18 Aug 1909Unknown
Excelsior Rink18 Sept. 1909North End
Humewood Rink13 Nov 1909In the old tea gardens adjoining the Humewood Beach Hotel *1
Olympic RinkUnknownUnknown
Eureka RinkMarch 1910St Patrick’s Hall
Beach RinkApril 1910Humewood, near the Shark river*2

*1 Not to be confused with either the Humewood or the Beach Hotel. This wood and iron structure was burnt down on 1st December 1915. In due course, the Municipality purchased the land and built   

the Hotel Elizabeth [the original one] which was opened on 29th July 1927.

*2 This rink must have been within a short distance from the Humewood Rink, but no trace can be found of it on old maps

Doldrums followed resurgence and extinction

Nothing can be found of these rinks, but it is safe to assume that none survived into the 1920s. Notwithstanding that, several new venues were opened in the subsequent years.

Crown Rink1 Aug. 1915Was previously the Crown Theatre
Unknown24 Sept. 1930Produce market
Unknown4 Oct. 1930Theale Street
Unknown1 Nov. 1937Basement of the Feather Market Hall

The reopening of the roller skating rink in the Feather Market Hall represented the final spasm of the pastime in its death throes from which it never recovered.



Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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