Port Elizabeth of Yore: From Commandant’s Quarters to Wool Market

Like many other sites in Central Port Elizabeth, this site has undergone a veritable melange of uses and buildings over the years. Originally it was the quarters of the Commandant of the Fort, Captain Francis Evatt. It was then used as the Court House, Jail and Police Station until August 1854 when it was burnt down. Subsequently it was used by a breakaway faction of St Mary’s Church to build their own church. That building was replaced by the Wool Market and in its final iteration, it became part of the market building.

Main picture: 1850 Castle Hill by H.F. White, better known for his construction of Whites Road, with the Commandant’s Quarters on the extreme left. The stand-alone building is the lock-up or jail.

Commandant’s Quarters

Over the 61 years that Fort Frederick was an operational military facility, it had 9 Commandants of which Captain Francis Evatt occupied that position for half of that time. Evatt’s arrival predated the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. Exactly when this building was constructed cannot be ascertained. It can simply be assumed that it was constructed shortly after the erection of Fort Frederick; maybe not in 1800 but certainly shortly afterwards. In all probability the erection of barracks was a more pressing requirement but in 1804 Lichtenstein that apart from barracks and a “strong powder magazine”, “some small houses had been run up in the neighbourhood for the officers, among which the house of the Commandant is the most distinguished. It contains four convenient rooms, and stands in the midst of a pretty garden, which the garrison has put into exceedingly good order.” This description lends credence to my assumption that in S.E. Hudson’s sketch, the Commandant’s House is the one with the extensive gardens below it.

The Commandants Quarters on the far left from the 1850 painting by HF White of Castle Hill
1822 Sketch by S.E. Hudson with possible location of Evatt’s house circled. This presumption is based upon the fact that the building is located at the foot of the kloof which would become Military Road and also that Evatt had a huge garden on his premises
1823 Painting of PE by JF Comfield highlighting Evatt’s house

Court House

By means of a proclamation dated the 8th April 1825, Port Elizabeth became a magistracy and Captain Evatt was appointed to preside over the court with the title of “Government Resident at Port Elizabeth”. The magistrate could try civil cases under the value of £7 10s and in criminal cases could sentence to six months’ imprisonment or £7 10s but this jurisdiction was limited to townships.

The 1849 map of Port Elizabeth by R. Essenhigh depicts where the Court House / Evatt’s residence was located. Note that the rectangular Commissariat is located opposite the Court House

Once again I am unable to ascertain when the Commandant’s House began to be used as a Court House but given the fact that the hamlet had a negligible population, a separate building was not required. Whether extensions were made to the existing building or whether part of the existing structure was utilised as an extemporised Court House, cannot be ascertained. What is certain is that a separate lock-up facility was constructed on these premises. Even though the blockhouse situated on Baakens lagoon was also used as a lock-up, the number of miscreants being mainly drunken and disorderly sailors must have overwhelmed the lock-up on Evatt’s property.

Even after Evatt’s death on the 21st March 1850, portion of the Residency continued to be used as the Court House. During August 1854 this was to come to an abrupt end when a conflagration razed the building to the ground.

Temporary Trinity Church built

On the death of my great great grandfather, the Rev. Francis McCleland, on the 10th July 1853, Archdeacon Merriman, who had the temporary charge of the Parish during the interval between the death of Mr. McCleland and the arrival of the replacement chaplain, Mr. Fowle, introduced in accordance with the rubrics [i.e. a set of instructions or rules], the following new requirements:

  • the offertory collection throughout the congregation and
  • the prayer for the Church Militant. [Psalm 28:9: Save your people, and bless your inheritance: feed them also, and lift them up for ever.
  • He also used the surplice in preaching, but this was speedily discontinued as a matter of no real moment.

These changes were much resented by several of the congregation, including the Churchwardens and some members of the Vestry, who on one particular Sunday rose up in a body during the service and walked out of the church. The dissidents amounted to about sixty persons, who met every Sunday in the old Savings Bank and Library building in Kemp Street, where laymen conducted a service and read printed sermons. They appealed to the Bishop of Cape Town against the Archdeacon’s practices and doctrines, which they charged with being “Popish,” but declined to specify any particular errors. They obtained from Sir George Cathcart, then Governor of the Colony, a grant of land (the site of the future Feather Market & previously the house of Captain Francis Evatt), and began subscriptions for a church, to which they claimed the right to appoint their own minister.

The Trinity Church congregation in 1857 erected a temporary church in Baakens Street, on part of the site granted to them by Sir George Cathcart. This building, of which they took possession in January 1858, cost £450, of which £372 remained as a debt upon the building. Ironically to defray this debt they were obliged to resort to the once-objectionable weekly collection. Notwithstanding their prodigious efforts, this was in all likelihood merely a temporary arrangement. What lends credence to this assumption is that shortly afterwards yet another church was constructed. This elegant church was erected on the Hill in Havelock Street. This temporary building, together with the ground upon which it stood, was afterwards sold to the Town Council for £1500 as a site for the market.

Wool market constructed

In November 1863 the Municipality bought the land at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street on which the temporary Trinity Church stood. A wool market, designed by Pinchin and Smith, was built on the site and opened in April 1866. In 1885 this was connected to the new market buildings next door. An ornate facade was added in 1894 to better house the museum which was in the building from 1887. After the museum was moved in 1919, a produce exchange was created in the vacated space. The market itself was demolished in 1933 for the building of the Wool Exchange.

Section to the left is the Museum in front, wool market at back – Harradine, page 85


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).

Leave a Comment.