Port Elizabeth of Yore: Customs Houses – A Visible Expression of Growth and Decline

Customs House in Jetty Street

In the era prior to the introduction of income tax, the major source of revenue for the fledgling town and colony, apart from the levying of tolls, was derived from the collection of customs duties which were levied on all incoming sea freight.

Probably in an effort to thwart corruption, but also to reflect their status, customs officials eventually earned the highest emoluments of all civil servants during the early colonial era.

Main picture: The Customs House on reclaimed land in Jetty Street

Operating on a shoe-string

On October 1st 1821, the first Customs Officer, William Dunn, was appointed. As the extant records are silent as to the location of his office, one can assume that as there was no formal civic structure in place, Dunn had to employ his own devices and ingenuity to set up an office. With a paucity of buildings of all description prevailing, the initial “office” must have been some temporary structure possibly even a shack, probably even constructed by Dunn himself somewhere on the landing beach. Without facilities and oversight of any kind, one can imagine that record keeping was atrocious, back-handers were common and money “fell off the carts” en route to the Mother City. All aspects of the operation reflected scarcity, shortage and deficiency.

During the same month as Dunn’s appointment, a grant of land in Main Street was made to Nicolaas Hitge “to build an inn which might prove a deco­ration to the town.” Hitge built the Red Lion Hotel on the site which had formerly been granted to Piet Retief. This site is currently the Woolworths building. Hitge also ran a bakery and butchery on the premises. At the end of 1823 Hitge gave notice of his intention to sell the property. This timeous sale enabled the Government to take over this building for use as a Custom House as well as Public Offices. William Dunn must have been best pleased with his new offices, the first formal Customs House in Port Elizabeth. The move to a formal building certainly represented progress. Later the Red Lion Inn was resuscitated in Evatt Street but Hitge had nothing to do with it.

On January 19th 1822, three months after his appointment as Customs Officer, Dunn was also appointed as the town’s first Postmaster. Presumably Dunn easily performed both jobs simultaneously as the work volume could not have been onerous. On the 26th July 1826, Port Elizabeth was proclaimed a free port. It was now open to foreign trade and the required dues were paid to the local Customs Officer. Dunn held both of these posts simultaneously for six years until January 1828 when he was dismissed as Postmaster on the nebulous grounds of “malpractice”. This charge could run the gamut of misapplying the rules table to receiving bribes. History is also silent on whether Dunn’s employment as Customs Officer ceased on the same day but presumably it did as on the 31st January David Francis was appointed Collector of Customs and Port Captain. During January George Ubsdell was appointed Postmaster as William Dunn’s replacement. Ubsdell would serve in this post as Postmaster until 1840.

Lateral move to the Landing Beach

The exact location of the Customs Office of the proceeding 37 years is uncertain. According to Harradine, it was in two locations – Customs Street and Market Square – but no indication is provided of the exact position nor the duration of the occupation. Nevertheless, a clue is provided by Jon Inggs in his thesis on the harbour development as he states that “by 1831 it was decided to create the separate post of harbour master. Edward Wallace duly arrived in November and took over the port office from Francis. But it was found that the customs office was too small for both of them. Thus Francis suggested that Wallace operate from the two buildings used to house the port boatmen which was conveniently near the landing beach.  At best this Customs Office was little more than a well-used shed oozing the smells of surf boats and sweaty Mfengu labourers. But beggars cannot be choosers.

According to a map of 1849, there were two sets of buildings on the seashore which could be their likely abode. Option 1 is circled in red and option 2 in yellow. One building would have been utilised by the Port Captain, Wallace and the other by the Customs Officer, Francis.

Map of the second Customs House

In all probability, this explains why the road in front of these buildings was ultimately named Customs Street in this 1885 map.

1885 map showing the name of street in front of the second Customs House

Posher premises

The Customs House on the beach whilst possessing an excellent sea view probably lacked for all manner of conveniences such as a plush office befitting the highest paid civil servant in the town and the major money generator for the colony. Such an organisation required a building with style, panache and cachet. To this end, the relevant authorities acquired land from William Fleming, my second great uncle. On the 22nd March 1865, the foundation stone of the new custom-house was laid. Designed by Alfred Warren in the “Italian style”, the two-storeyed building was built by Inggs and Ablett. The exact location of the building cannot be established. A third storey was added to the Fleming Street building in 1922.


The crème de la crème or je ne sais quoi

As the volume of sea traffic steadily incremented, so did the demand for larger office accommodation. The need for larger offices was self-evident. From this ultimately arose one of the most magnificent buildings in Port Elizabeth. Its positioning at the harbour entrance would radiate wealth, prosperity and je ne sais quoi.

Customs House with its impressive tower

It was on the 2nd October 1889 at a Town Council meeting that the process was set in motion. At this meeting, after a letter from H.S. Greaves, the Colonial Architect working for the Public Works Department in Cape Town, was read. It was agreed that the Government could have reclaimed land at the bottom of Jetty Street on which to build a permanent Customs House. The excavation of the foundations was begun on 20 November 1889 and Capt. Young moved into his office in March 1891. The Harbour Board advertised its move into the new building in 1893. The customs house created a most imposing entrance to Port Elizabeth.

Laying the foundation stone of the Campanile

In what can be termed the emasculation of the imposing building occurred after the flood in 1908 when the majestic tower was thought to be unstable and it was demolished. This evisceration of the building was to become the first of a litany of such events. The final travesty occurred when the Customs House, badly damaged by fire in 1978, in spite of failed attempts to save the building, was demolished in 1982. The Coat of Arms, which had been brought from the Fleming Street Custom House, was removed in 1961 and destroyed.

Destruction of history

The final nail in the coffin of this stretch of historical Port Elizabeth would be the construction of the Settlers’ Highway through this part of the town. Abetting it would be the destruction of historic buildings for use as parking facilities in Fleming Street. From my perspective, the destruction of the most historic portion of the town was bookended by the demolition of the majestic Customs House and construction of the freeway.

Lateral thinking might have saved this historic quarter. As an alternative such as building a vast parking garage under the Donkin Reserve and building the freeway over the railway lines, more than valuable artefacts would have been conserved; the settler ethos itself would have been saved. Instead the Collegiate School in Bird Street, the buildings in Jetty and Fleming Street were sacrificed on the alter of expediency never to be used or underused in the proposed role. The City Hall almost endured the same fate except that the residents rose to support this most intimate symbol of colonial Port Elizabeth. The Town Council was compelled to change tack and rebuild the façade of the building.

Now Port Elizabeth is bereft of a portion of its majestic history. The sequence of Customs Houses is symbolic of the progress of Port Elizabeth from an insignificant hamlet to a progressive town. The Custom House’s demolition instead of reconstruction was emblematic of the turn of the tide of industrial progress in the town. It was at this stage that I saw no future in Port Elizabeth and would leave forever to greener pastures in the north.

Customs House decorated for the visit of the Prince of Wales 1925. The dome has been removed in 1908


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).

The Red Lion and Phoenix Hotels by Margaret Harradine [Looking Back, July 1985]

Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

Blaine McCleland

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