Port Elizabeth of Yore: From the Herald Chambers to Cleghorns on Market Square

The building on the northern corner of White’s Road opposite Market Square was originally built in 1861 by Paterson, the owner of the Eastern Province Herald. In 1864, just after the construction of the grand Town Hall was completed, he named the building the Herald Chambers”, and relocated his newspaper there.

In March 1884, the department store, Cleghorn and Harris, was opened in “Herald Chambers” in the Market Square. A decade later, in January 1894, they purchased the building.

This store was located in a prime location overlooking the pivotal point in Port Elizabeth. It was not the hoi polloi and the down-at-the-heel who were attracted to the restaurant with its view of the Town Hall but the elite.

Main picture: Cleghorn’s Building burnt down on the 6th May 1896

As a result of Robert Stephen, manager in 1884, being made a partner in April 1889, the firm changed its name to Cleghorn, Harris and Stephens. Nevertheless, to the average person the store was merely known as Cleghorns. After 12 years of steadily increasing clientele, it suffered a disastrous fire on the 6th May 1896. It was totally gutted. It also resulted in loss of life when Police Constable Maxwell was killed when a stone coping fell onto him and three firemen. It was re-built to plans by G.W. Smith. In October 1904 a ladies’ tearoom was opened, and the verandah with its fine view of the Market Square was used as part of it.

Original building called the Herald Chambers as the E.P. Herald used this building from 1864

In 1960 the Council sold the building to the Provincial Administration, who pro­posed to demolish both Cleghorn’s and the Public Library and build offices, but this proposal was abandoned and Cleghorn’s was demolished in July 1972 for road widening instead. The department store moved to Westbourne Road, but closed its doors for the last time on 31 July 1972. The combined blows of the fire and the relocation had transformed a thriving business, into an unprofitable one. Garlicks subsequently took over their premises in Westbourne Road.

The Cleghorn’s building which replaced the orginal building which was destroyed by fire on the 6th May 1896

Controversy regarding stones blocks

The creation of the garden on the old Cleghorn’s Building site to the south of the Library, started a newspaper controversy about the origin of the  stone blocks which were used to build the surrounding low wall. It is known that these were acquired by the municipality when the roads were remade after the electric tram service was terminated in 1948 and the tram rails removed. These  paving stones were used for the  foundations of the  tramlines. The generally held theory was that they were brought  over in ships as ballast but no documentary evidence of this could be found.

1894 advert for Cleghorns

Two versions of their origin have been proposed. A Mrs. R. Thomas claimed that the former well-known architect, Mr. Victor Jones, used some of these blocks which he had purchased from the municipality for building garden walls and pergola pillars when erecting a house for her father-in-law, Mr. A.B. Thomas in River Road in 1925. Mr. Jones told Mr. Thomas’ late husband, Mr.  Reg Thomas, that the stones had been imported from Belgium.

Then Mr. G. Pennacchini, a memorial sculptor, stated that his father had supplied the Tramways Company with these blocks. When it was decided in 1893 to replace the old horse trams with electric trams Mr. Pennacchini obtained the contract to supply paving stones which would be needed to furnish a firmer foundation than was needed for the horse tram lines. Mr. Pennacchini, Senior, a sculptor, had emigrated from Britain to South Africa and not finding sufficient scope for his art set up in the memorial business.

First he worked a quarry near Cradock Place but later moved out to another one in the Bushman’ s River valley.  The stones were not being delivered quickly enough for the erstwhile manager of the Tramways Company, so Mr. Pennacchini engaged extra labour, a move which resulted in a dispute over his claim for extra costs. The laying of the stones started in 1896 and the work was completed when the electric trams commenced operation in June 1897. These blocks are not granite as is generally supposed; instead they are a type of local dolomite.

Memorial to Fireman John Maxwell who died attempting to extinguish the burning Cleghorns Building
Cleghorn Harris’ building circa 1906
Above: The original Cleghorn’s building, then known as the Herald Chambers, with the Commercial Hall on its left flank


Those Road Blocks  by Gallimaufry (December 1973, Looking Back, Vol XIII, No 4)

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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