Port Elizabeth of Yore: Depictions of a Struggling Town in 1830

One can safely assume that prior to the establishment of the first newspaper, the E.P. Herald, in Port Elizabeth in 1845, and before the establishment of Port Elizabeth as a borough in July 1860, very little historical information was formally recorded. In their endeavours to earn a living in a town without facilities, recording history took a low priority in their lives. Until that time, it was visitors and travellers who recorded their observations of the town. Most of them were not complimentary about it but that is the only source of information of this nascent town.

In this blog, it is the journal maintained by the Assistant Surgeon on the ship, the Falcon, which forms the basis of William Dunn’s observations of the town. They are trenchant and incisive, unflattering in their candour but were no different from those of many an observer from that period.

Main picture: Port Elizabeth in February 1835 painted by Charles Michell. The Inn at which Gunn and his fellow mariners shared breakfast is the large building on the hill

Biographical detail  

Dunn’s journal provides little in the way of information about himself except at one point he does mention that he was turning twenty-five. This must mean that he was born in 1804. William Gunn, who was appointed     to the Falcon in June 1828 and to the Pelorus in October 1831, was the Assistant Surgeon on both ships.

On arrival in the Cape Colony, much of his· time was spent at Wynberg in the company of ” Indian Officers” i.e., members of the East India Company’s service on furlough at the Cape. He was also befriended by Mackay, the collector of customs, at whose home he met Dr. (later Sir) Andrew Smith, the naturalist and explorer and founder of the South African Museum.

His activities whilst in Cape Town have been ignored as it is his description of Port Elizabeth which is of principal interest.

Voyage to the East

The Falcon sailed for Port Elizabeth on Wednesday 20th January 1830, arriving there four days later. According to Professor F.G. Richings who was introduced to this diary by the curator of the Killie Campbell Africana Collection in Berea Durban, “The purpose of the voyage appears to have been to convey ”treasure” destined for Grahamstown – probably as payment of the garrison’s wages and other expenses connected with the Frontier Administration. In his journal, Gunn mentions ”the treasure” of £ 10,000 being taken on board a few hours before the ship sailed.

Sunday 24th January

Gunn notes in his diary: “Since we sailed from Simon’s Bay, we have had the most pleasant weather, so mild that we carried Royals all the time with the wind from the southward and westward. Saw Cape Recife ahead this morning at day light. Ran along in sight of the shore all the time. The coast in some parts is bold and mountainous, in others low, especially as we approached Cape Recife, which forms the western extremity of Algoa Bay. The breeze, which was light in the morning, freshened as we approached Recife, and when we entered the Bay, we had a beautiful stiff breeze. We anchored at 2 p.m.

Port Elizabeth is a very poor little place, surrounded partly by sand and partly by brush wood and barren waste, interspersed here and there with small spots which bear marks of cultivation.  The houses, which are not numerous, are built without regularity and separated from each other. Many of the houses are built after the Dutch custom, whitewashed outside with thatched roofs, but others are built with bricks and covered with tiles which are both made here and exactly similar to those of English make.

By all accounts Port Elizabeth was a miserable place with the southeaster sprinkling the hamlet with sand. Even though the Deputy Governor had in June 1820 authorised surveyor James Swan to prepare a plan of the lots available to those wishing to set­tle here, many houses no better than shacks had already been erected. Exacerbating this was the fact that the houses were scattered higgledy-piggledy over these plots. The survivors of the wreck of the Zeepaard were also to be struck by this disorderly layout.

The Diary on the 24th continues: “An officer with a detachment of the 55th Regt. is stationed here which is, I suppose, rather dull work for him.  Saw a vessel on shore wrecked and was told that it was the Francis Watson, store ship, which sailed from Simons Bay lately. She went on shore on Wednesday night 13th January in a gale from the South East.  This is a very unsafe place to lay with a strong wind from the S.E., for you are very much exposed.”

Monday 25th January.

Went on shore early this morning with Hope, Williams and young Harris of the Maidstone. Met the Captain on landing.

Got some mess things. Purchased a quantity of butter which is found very cheap and good here (at 9d per lb.) for our own Mess and that of “Maidstone’s” larboard berth.  Breakfasted at the Inn which appears a comfortable house, a very large house for the size of the place.  It is very cheap, for our breakfast which was very substantial (consisting of cold fowl, lamb, mutton, mutton chops, eggs, tea etc.) only cost us one shilling each. This Inn is kept by an Englishman.

This Inn could not have been the Red Lion in High [Main] Street as in 1823 Hitge had sold it to the colonial authorities for use as a Customs Office. In all probability it was the Markham Hotel which was originally built as accommodation for Captain Moresby. Being in the Royal Navy, he was never to take occupation. It subsequently became the Markham Hotel and later Scorey’s Hotel.

The English language is spoken more generally here than in any other part of the colony. There are a great many English settlers about this place and, I believe, all along the frontier of this colony.  There is an obelisk erected above the town on the hill by Sir Rufane Donkin to the memory (of) his wife who died at sea in (sic) her way from India to this colony.  The following is part of the inscription on this column:

” In the memory of one of the most amiable of her sex and that most perfect of human beings who gave her name to the town below. She died leaving – children and a husband behind who will ever deplore the irreparable loss he has sustained.”

Lady Donkin’s name was Elizabeth, and this place was named Port Elizabeth after her.

Gunn’s account of the inscription on the Donkin Memorial is, of course, erroneous: it was probably written from memory once he was back on board. What Gunn fails to mention is on the 28th May 1825, English was declared the official language for judicial transactions.

The surf was running high on the beach so that we were obliged to get from the shore in a surf boat which are much required here, for it is seldom that any other boat is enabled to land with safety at Port Elizabeth. There is a warp fixed to the shore and also to an anchor which is a considerable way outside the surf where other boats lay until they receive or discharge their cargoes into the Surf boats which are built with flat bottoms which are continued flat towards each end forming angles so

This place is about 120 miles from Graham’s Town.  Mr. Hunt Rl.  Marines starts (for) that place tomorrow in the wagon which carries the treasure there. The oxen which I saw in their wagons are much larger and finer than those about Cape Town.  I cannot judge of the goodness of their horses as I only saw a few ponies.

Came on board this forenoon. Dined with the Captain as also did the Master and young Harris.  Got under way about five o’ clock and stood out of Algoa Bay with a light, but foul breeze . . .

According to Richings. “By all accounts, Gunn was not overly impressed by what he saw but then, few visitors of the period were. When he arrived in Algoa Bay for the second time in August the same year, he noted laconically ‘Port Elizabeth looking as miserable as ever!’ Clearly, the years of growth were still far ahead.

Like all such accounts of visitors of this period, Gunn’s description of the town is brief. Nonetheless it is extremely valuable as being one of the few eyewitness accounts of Port Elizabeth during its formative years and moreover it contains interesting information on disparate aspects such as layout, prices, the construction of its houses and the lingua franca.


A Naval Officer’s View of Port Elizabeth, 1830 by Professor F.G. Richings (Looking Back, December 1978, Volume 18, Number 4)

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