Port Elizabeth of Yore: Demographics in the Workplace

Over the first 150 years of Port Elizabeth’s existence, numerous dynamics played themselves out as regards the composition of the workforce. Initially the fault line related to the occupation referred to as Beach Labourers.

The first radical change in employment practices in the 20th century was the employment of Afrikaner migrants as labourers and unskilled workers in the motor industry. Gradually they in turn were displaced by blacks in these categories of work with the Afrikaners moving into semi-skilled occupations and the English speakers rising to occupy supervisory and highly skilled artisan positions.

Over the 150-year span, females did not advance significantly in the employment hierarchy except for those occupations requiring females only such as nursing and teaching.

Main picture: The Edworks Shoe Factory in the 1950s. Note that all of the factory floor blue collar workers were white females

Historical precedents
There are manifold reasons for the status quo maintaining its hold on society. Justifications abound but the overriding factors compelling societal changes are due to technological and demographic changes. The disruption caused to the lives of the 1820 settlers ruptured the fabric of their world to the extent that historical certitudes were questioned and potentially undermined. Little research has been expended on this aspect of the Settler history yet significant change did occur in this regard.

In one respect there was a profound impact. From a classical hierarchical and hence class-based society, the norms were largely discarded without fanfare. For once people were evaluated based upon their value to society rather than their class. Class was not discarded in toto across the settler society. Rather people were judged on their utility i.e. what they offered to society. Practically ensured that class was suborned to utility. 

As most of the skilled settlers had been artisans in the UK, they continued to perform all of these jobs on arrival in the Eastern Cape. Hence their status did not vary across the board. Rather what happened was that those with greater skills in management, organisation and negotiation rose to become entrepreneurs. It is exactly that flexibility which had driven the explosive growth of the United States over the same period. Many became land barons in spite of their lowly start in life. Take John Parkin and Richard Tee as examples. On their deaths they owned significant swathes of the town yet, on their arrival were impoverished.   

Females before their arrival had been demoted to second class citizens since time immemorial under the specious argument that the females lacked the strength and skills to occupy positions of responsibility in society. The upheaval on arrival forced them to steel themselves and to rise to the challenge. Mainly they overcame yet society never recognised nor rewarded this change. During the rest of the 19th century, women obtained little recognition as an equal to the male.

Blacks and Hottentots [Khoisan] operated on the fringes of society. Not being a substantial part of the population as well as their lack of skills consigned them to the manual jobs only. Notwithstanding that, the Mfengu were the anthesis of the Khoi and hence ipso facto considered to be suitable for employment. In fact the productive level of the Mfengu vis-à-vis the Khoi enabled them to swiftly replaced the Khoi as “beach workers.”

With this came other complications. Their pay as a percentage of that of skilled workers, rose rapidly as the market forces compelled the boating companies to compensate them for their skills and productivity. Nost were almost in thrall of the Mfengu beach labourers but a complaint arose due to their penchant for working naked. When management instituted a rule that workers had to be fully clothed, a strike broke out.

Society will never relinquish class as a value human attribute. People of any class disparage people of other classes. It is not the perceived class per se which is problematic but rather the rules, both formal and informal, which impede the movement between classes. For instance, the fact that I personally was able to obtain a student loan enabled me to become a Chartered Accountant. As my father was a carpenter by training, I had been informed at a tender age that university was not on the agenda. To buttress this argument, take my family as an example. My one grandfather was a wool sorter and the other a farmer, albeit unsuccessful. My father was a carpenter and my mother a typist yet my brother has a BSc Honours and I am a CA. Our lack of “class”, never ostensibly impeded our rise in class status.   

Females in the workplace

As patriarchy in the workplace had presided in all management positions as well as roles supposedly involving “heavy” work since time immemorial, it was regarded as the norm. Being a fundamental tenant of society, the role which females played was primarily as caregivers. Men as the stronger gender were considered to be the only sex capable of fulfilling the roles of leadership.  Only rarely were dominant females able to breach this norm or ceiling, but breaching this societal construct only arose under strictly limited conditions and circumstances. Often this would be when the wife acceded to a role formerly occupied by their husband. An example of this would when a queen acceded to the crown due to their husband’s demise or due to the lack of male heir to fulfil their primogeniture principle.

Nonetheless, by the 1820s, fissures were arising albeit minusculely. This came in the form of a requirement that females should obtain some form of schooling was being articulated. Mostly this need was met by private schools or Ladies Seminaries as mixed schools were taboo in certain quarters.

It was only 20 years after the establishment of the Grey Institute in Belmont Terrace that an all-girls was propounded. What these civic-minded citizens never anticipated was the angst that the appointment of a female headmistress would ensue.

Demand articulated
Proceeding the announcement by some three months that a girls’ school would be established in Port Elizabeth, a meeting was held in June 1873 at the old Grey Institute in Belmont Crescent. This meeting was convened by ten prominent females in the town who raised a chorus of concerns that the girls’ needs as regards higher education in Port Elizabeth had to be addressed in the same manner in which the well-endowed Grey Institute catered by the needs of the boys. Amongst those present were Mrs Elizabeth Higgins (nee McCleland) and Mrs Adelaide Fleming (nee McCleland), both second great-aunts of mine.

Unlike the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, women were now demanding education as was evidenced by the rapid adoption of Ladies’ Seminaries. The two McCleland sisters were probably exposed to this alien concept by their father, the Rev. Francis McCleland, who ensured that his daughters obtained the requisite level of tuition.

A report on the operation of the Handsworth Ladies’ College [HLC] in England would be utilised as the blueprint and model for this proposed school. This report elaborated on the HLC’s method of instruction, fees, staffing et al. The positive tenor of the report impressed the assembled pioneers so much so that they unanimously elected to model the contemplated school on the same lines. Guarantee Forms were distributed for completion. If sufficient positive responses were obtained, this would set in motion a flurry of developments such as obtaining a female principal from England and other requisite teachers.

Furthermore, in their infinite wisdom, they made their point of departure compared to their sister schools as being totally unsectarian. To this end, it was suggested that a representative of each religious denominations in the town be invited to co-operate. To give effect to this decision, the committee decided to appoint the wives of three clergymen to the committee – Stokes, Hallack & Brook.

First hurdle to overcome
Bearing eloquent testimony to the fact that females were not yet empowered to organise such enterprises themselves, arose at the stage when funds had to be raised. Recognising their lack of “ability”, Mrs Greenstock approached her husband, Rev. W Greenstock to invite all the ministers of the town together with any interested members to attend a meeting, the purpose of which was to consider how to raise the necessary funds to establish the school.

Miss Isitt when she was a secretary for Darwin

Arrival of the regal woman
On the morning of Tuesday 27th January 1874, the Committee met at the school to welcome Miss Isitt and Miss Edwardes. Before them stood a tall, regal woman with advanced ideas on education. Certainly an impressive woman, at 37 years of age, she spoke with a slight Parisian accent.

As Miss Isitt stepped inside, she did not realise that this job would not be without its challenges. Labels are never tidy and do not embrace the nuances. Miss Isitt was no empty vessel and in order to leave a lasting legacy of her “progressive” ideas, she intuitively understood the challenges awaiting.

Miss Isitt was to play a pivotal role in the school from 1874 to 1886 having planned the entire curriculum and administrative structure of the school from scratch.

Above:15 Western Road. The Collegiate School started at the building with the bay window and the white pillars

Not surprisingly given the tone and content of her letter, he advised the representatives that she would prefer to be relieved entirely of her responsibilities as regards the boarders. In the immediate aftermath of this decision, the boarders had to be withdrawn from the school and alternative accommodation acquired.

In Miss Isitt, moral courage is not what was lacking.

Year-end address unbecoming of a female
In line with her conviction about the role and abilities of females in society, Miss Isitt had prepared a speech. Her address was vetoed by the Committee who, in accordance with the prevailing norms, deemed it unbecoming for a woman to address an audience in public. Notwithstanding this objection, the Committee did concede that she be permitted to say “a few well-chosen words to advertise the importance of woman’s mission and her great importance in society as mother and instructor.”

A minor yet significant victory
At the subsequent prize-giving on the 22nd October 1875, which was once again held at the Grey Institute, Mr Pearson remarked that the school had now passed through the experimental stage and had become a success.

Unlike the previous year at which Miss Isitt was only afforded the opportunity of making a short address, this time she was permitted to present her speech. In it she articulated the need for girls to be enabled through education to enter the professions on an equal footing with their male counterparts. Given the fact that this era was the dark ages as regards women’s role in society, the speech was remarkably enlightened. It would take at least another half century before females could ascend the job ladder and break the glass ceiling.

White artisans Even a cursory glance at the occupations of the newly arrived settlers reveals that most were artisans or farmers. An analysis which I performed of the 1877 census reveals a dearth of management and tertiary skills. But what becomes apparent is that this with initiative and drive would succeed beyond their wildest expectations. It was only in the early 20th century that black workers would slowly supersede the white artisan. This process would take at least another half century. My parents’ generation still fell within the artisan class and it was only the subsequent generation during which the breakthrough into the management and the professions.

Above: Workers who built The Grey. Note that all the artisans and foremen were white

The Collegiate School for Girls, Port Elizabeth by J.J. Redgrave (1974, Rustica Press, Wynberg Cape) Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

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