Port Elizabeth of Yore: Disorderly Haphazard Development of Embryonic Town

“Much like a latter-day squatter camp” best describes how Port Elizabeth commenced. Without a master plan or even a local government, houses and other buildings were built willy-nilly. Without standards anything was acceptable. Moreover, embodying this spurt of development was an entrepreneurial vibrancy which engulfed the populace endeavouring to cloth, feed and house themselves. Apart from the Rev. Francis McCleland, the Colonial Chaplain, who was paid a stipend of £150 per annum by the English government, the rest had not only to build their own homes but also to earn sufficient to sustain themselves.

The blog highlights the chaotic initial development of the town.

Main picture: 1822 Sketch by S.E. Hudson showing the shambolic layout of the town

Impact of cultural encounters

The initial encounters between Boers and Brits after the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795 were in Cape Town. In his book Early 18th Century Architecture, Lewcock notes that the British adopted an attitude of condescension when they first encountered local Dutch architecture. He notes grimly that “the impact of British taste and manners was immediate and was to have enormous repercussions. The recalcitrant ‘hauteur’ of the British, while it did not hinder them from praising the town as a whole, prevented them from accepting local fashions in architecture and decoration…..”

British visitors noted the lack of fireplaces, ceilings, and frequently of floor coverings. They considered the rooms to be dark and under-ventilated and the upper floors to be hot in summer in consequence of the flat roofs. The furniture they found to be heavy and inelegant and the colour schemes dark. ……..”

Building materials utilised

Further on in the book, Lewcock describes both the building materials used and the quality of the workmanship in their construction. Lewcock opines that the houses that “existing before the arrival of the settlers were built of stone and thatched. Furthermore he adds that only “one of the original buildings, the Commandant’s House, was described as still ‘the only decent house’ by Hudson years later.”

The 1823 painting of Port Elizabeth by J.F. Comfield highlighting Captain Francis Evatt’s house with the future Baakens Street at the bottom of his garden

Amongst the settlers was Thomas Pringle who had been injured in an accident in infancy, resulting in his being lame. Notwithstanding this impediment, he volunteered to settle in South Africa. What Pringle lacked in mobility, he possessed in abundance mentally, particularly in articulating views and ideas. Pringle would later describe the embryonic town where the settlers disembarked as comprising “three thatched houses and one or two wooden houses brought out from England.” Pringle later observed that swiftly the town had spontaneously changed to “the populous and somewhat noisy parallelogram of Settler’s Town.”

The wooden houses mentioned by Pringle, had been shipped out from England by the Colonial Office. The intention was to sell them to the farmers on the frontier as farmhouses. According to Lewcock these structures were “prefabricated and demountable into small sections, but even so the cost of transferring them by ox-wagon to their final destination on a farm or even to Bathurst to serve as temporary offices and houses for the Drostdy staff was prohibitive.” According to an instruction dated 11th November 1820, Captain Francis Evatt, the commander of the local garrison company, prohibited the transporting any such houses to Bathurst or the frontier until he received further instructions or in the obsequious language of the era “until such time as Your Excellency’s pleasure is known.” The price for which two wooden houses was to be sold was £80. However, the conveyance would require 11 wagons at a cost of 96 Rixdollars i.e., £100.

1833 Painting by Huggins H118. The large building in the foreground is probably some form of barracks. Captain Evatt’s house beyond the double/triple storey Scorcey’s Hotel has a garden. Missing from this painting is the blockhouse at the drift as the untreated wood had probably rotted away.

Never tardy in ensuring that their needs were catered for, the commissaries commandeered the first units received for use as “the offices of the commissaries and other civil functionaries to transact the business of emigration (sic).” In addition, they commandeered one for use as a store and a small one as a Barrack for the men. While they might have illicitly acquired some wooden structures, they were unable to assemble their ill-gotten gains either due to lack of tools and skills or due to lacking copies of the instructions. After much cursing and not without much sweat, they conceded defeat and requested that a carpenter be sent from Cape Town. In conclusion, the attempt at providing prefabricated houses proved to be an unmitigated disaster in more ways that one.

Nowhere can the dimensions and design of these houses be ascertained. However, given the fact that two houses required eleven ox-wagons to transport them, and the fact that they were used as churches and schools, one can deduce that they were of substantial size maybe even larger than the current RDP houses in modern South Africa. The mechano style housing kits included both walls and low-pitched roofs sheathed in weatherboard. For insulation and the protection of the exposed woodwork against decay, Lewcock claims that “some of them seem to have been given thatched roofs over the boarding or canvas painted with tar.”

The remaining units were put to good use in Port Elizabeth being erected for such purposes as stores and as houses for government employees such as the boatmen. Lewcock even claims that two were utilised by Port Elizabeth’s first church. Presumably this would be the predecessor to St. Mary’s church, an oblong structure of no architectural merit, which was only commissioned in 1834. A considerable number of these units were sold during special sales between 1825 and 1829 with one of them even being used as school buildings. The records indicate that when the Rev. Francis McCleland arrived in October 1825 to accept the post as Colonial Chaplain in Port Elizabeth, his family’s accommodation was a wooden house near the future St. Augustine’s church. This wooden structure might well have been one of the surplus prefabricated units. Moreover, the records confirm that he ran a private school in a wooden structure during his first years in Port Elizabeth. As Lewcock confirms that one unit was used as a school, it takes no leap of imagination to assume that he is referring to Rev. McCleland’s school, the first in the town.

Reverend Francis McCleland

Interestingly, Lewcock even notes that Sophia Pigot refers to an ‘iron house’ in Port Elizabeth in 1820. Conjecture suggests that it could have been another prefabricated structure, probably made of flat cast-iron sheeting as corrugated sheeting had not yet been invented.

Reports on the original houses in Port Elizabeth in 1820 state that some were constructed of wattle-and-daub but this material was found to be deficient in that, as the Landdrost reported in 1823, “mud and straw houses do not answer at this Bay in consequence of the Sandyness (sic) of the Soil with which they have to be made.” Besides these, others were built using stone which were either left bare or plastered and whitewashed. The remaining structures were built using bricks which, from an early stage, were manufactured by the settlers themselves in Port Elizabeth by 1822. James Hancock, Philip Frost and his family, and John Matthews were early brickmakers. The Frosts owned land at North End whereas Matthews owned the brickfield at the top of today’s Brickmakers Kloof where the water course and open space are situated. The bricks used in the town were not of poorly fired soft Cape brick variety but rather the hard-burnt kiln bricks of the English type. In order to establish their first export industry in Port Elizabeth, Captain Francis Evatt even sent a sample to Cape Town. However strong conservatism amongst the established contractors thwarted the settlers’ efforts in favour of traditional materials for construction. As a consequence, stone walls, usually of the order of one and a half to two and a half feet thick, were the order of the day, and not the much slimmer brick was the preferred building material.

As regards roofs, the earliest roofs in Port Elizabeth reflected the type common in Western Cape since the eighteenth century, that is, built-up roofs of lime and water finished with large flat tiles or Robben Island slate slabs. With their innate conservatism for pitched roofs, at an early stage the English adopted ‘water rush’ thatch even in the town houses.

1810 Gezigt van de Afrikaansche kust bij de Algoa Baai, painted by Alberti Lodewyk

In his Journal, Samuel E. Hudson provides his two-cents worth: “Thatching is by far that most convenient mode for all the comforts attendant upon a small tenement, the room above giving ample room for throwing away the various necessaries not immediately wanted which in a flat-roofed house must have a room particularly set apart for this purpose. They are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than flat plaster roofs upon which the sun has a most powerful effect however lofty they may be built. The interiors of these thatched roofs were lined with straw mats to provide a neat ceiling”.

Town Layout

Without any central co-ordinating body, developments at the micro level were haphazard at best clustered around the landing place with Samuel E. Hudson in 1822 describing the town as “a parcel of miserable huts huddled together…. this might be obviated would the Commandant, with the sanction of the Landdrost, form some plan for regular streets and houses of a certain description – First, Second and Third Classes – and confine everyone in future to build in a line to give something like a Christian place of resort.” Lewcock duly notes that: “A main street was eventually surveyed along the coastal road to the north, which then became an impressively awkward example of ribbon development.”

1810 Plan van het etablishment aan de Algoa Baai by Alberti Lodewyk, partial view only

At the macro level the layout of the town would be impractical in perpetuity. Two natural features would forever bedevil spatial planning and the movement of vehicles and people.

1804 map

Why did this anomalous situation arise? The cause can solely be attributed to happenstance. The initial raison d’etre for Port Elizabeth’s existence was as a landing place and supply deport for British troops on the frontier. Little did these military minds suspect that instead of Uitenhage, which had been established in 1804, becoming the main town in the district that Algoa Bay, as it was then known, would exceed their expectations and develop into a town. The officers selection of the landing beach as being situated at the mouth of the Baakens lagoon instead of at North End should be held accountable for the unforeseen consequences of the cramped area inland of the landing area becoming the epicentre and heart of the commercial district. Once the town spilled over the hill and sprawled ever westward, the die was cast. Further industrial development would only be possible along a narrow coastal strip until after the North End Lake where the large expanse of flat ground allowed large scale manufacturing enterprises to be established.

The decision to locate the railway station in the centre of town had another unintended disastrous effect by in effect amputating the north end beach, one of the finest in town, from the city itself. Ultimately the freeway project along the coast would forever ensure that it would never be reattached.

The narrow coastal strip was not Port Elizabeth’s only problem. It was the deep gorge that the miniscule Baakens River cut through the town from Sunridge Park. Initially with crossing places only at the Baakens River mouth area and at the future Target Kloof, Walmer was isolated from Port Elizabeth resulting in Walmer ultimately being granted separate municipal status. Even with the construction of the extemporised crossing via 3rd avenue Newton Park, the situation was not vastly improved.

The steep hill behind the coastal strip was the nemesis to integrated development but so constricted had the Main Street area become that future expansion was throttled.

Settlement at Algoa Bay. Date unknown

Blissfully unaware of the impending apocalypse, in the 1960s the City Council attempted to alleviate the perceived symptom viz. lack of parking space and access, instead of the root cause. In a vain attempt to remedy the situation, they

  • Demolished the historic Collegiate School
  • Demolished the historic Jetty Street / Market Square precinct to create a bus depot
  • Constructed a freeway through the historic Strand Street area
  • Never made a serious attempt at restoring the elegant Customs House
  • Proposed a freeway along the course of the Baakens River which would destroy the green lung of the town. Sense prevailed before this project could be undertaken.

Due to their insensitive demolition of such historic buildings as Mosenthals, Fleming building and Castle corner the historical integrity of this area was devastated. Instead they should have replaced the SARS building with a more appropriate building or even utilised this building for their long desired parking garage and bus station. Even underground parking under the Donkin Reserve would have been preferable.

Notwithstanding the solution, it would never address the root cause viz. an inadequate space for expansion of the CBD. Maybe if the proposal raised in the early 20th century to build the harbour at the mouth of the Swartkops River, the throttling effect of the current CBD would not have arisen.

However that solution would have been intolerable to vested interests.


Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa – A Study of the Interaction of Two Cultures 1795-1837 by Ronald Lewcock (1963, A.A. Balkema)

Leave a Comment.