Port Elizabeth of Yore: Campbell – An Iconoclastic Magistrate and Civil Commissioner

Apart from a handful of famous residents of yore, the history of the majority of the most outstanding people of 160 years ago have been lost in the mists of time. One such person was a worthy Scotsman, John Campbell, the Resident Magistrate from 1st September 1857 and then the Civil Commissioner until July 1870. The only legacy that remains of him is a series of four semis that he built comprising Alfred Terrace.

Main picture: Campbell’s semis in Alfred Terrace

Biography

John Campbell was born in Yorkshire, England circa 1806 and died in Rondebosch on the 26th August 1888 aged 82. He married Sarah (nee West) in 1842. By occupation he was an ensign in the Provisional Colonial Infantry and then subsequently he entered the civil service when on the 1st September 1857 he was appointed the Resident Magistrate of Port Elizabeth. In 1860 he was appointed the Civil Commissioner. He left Port Elizabeth in 1870 on becoming a special magistrate to the Diamond Fields. His character can be defined as representing “integrity and endless patience.”

The building on the right with the two pillars was Commercial Exchange which was used as the Court House from1856 when the original Court House on the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street was burnt down.

Found guilty by himself

It is a rare occurrence when a sitting magistrate would agree to find himself guilty of an offence and pay a fine equivalent to the prevailing fine. But Campbell did.  

A capital story got abroad in reference to the stern and virtuous John Campbell who hailed from the north of the Tweed. When the first Public Ball was held in the early 1860s in the Town Hall to celebrate its completion and official opening, at the conclusion of the festivities the merry revellers began to wend their way homewards in the early hours. No light then illuminated the Market Place, nor were there as yet any steps leading from the Hall to the rough Square below. The darkness caused this beloved “dispenser of justice” to fall somewhat ignominiously. He promptly picked himself up, gathered up his bell-topper, brushed the dirt off his ” tails”, and endeavoured to pass off the incident by the casual remark: ” Dear, dear! How very stupid of me!” But with a sense of duty free from .my favouritism, and to show that he was not a respecter of persons when the discharge of the duties of his “high office” was in question, he asked himself whether he had infringed the ” Wine and Spirit Ordinance “, or whether his exhilaration was occasioned by the nibbling of tipsy cake, or the inhaling of the grand fresh air heralding the approach of dawn? After weighing the fact, he returned against himself the verdict of “Guilty”. “Ah, Jock!” he soliloquised, “you are fu’ ! First offence! You must pay five bob or three days.” With a dexterous move of the right hand, he produced the fine of five shillings, passed it to the left hand, and deposited it into his spacious left pocket. Thus, the fine was paid, and the majesty of the Law appeased.

Alfred Terrace in the late 1800’s

A few hours later, this little episode was discussed at the early morning market between Geordie McPherson and Sandy Melrose, the former insisting that the latter part of the story as to the passing of the ” bawbees” could not be correct, as their clansmen wore kilts. ” Weel,” said Geordie, ” I hae ma doots me sel!” ” Ah!” replied Sandy, ” man, it’s awfu’, but maybe it isna’ true!”

Source

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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