Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Diocesan Grammar School, from School to Synagogue, Then Church to Café

Not many buildings in Port Elizabeth have experienced such a varied usage over their lives. If buildings could divulge their secrets, this humble unprepossessing tiny building on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road, would have many tales to tell.

Main picture: The Diocesan Grammar School on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road

Forerunner of the Diocesan School

In her book The Cathedral of St Mary, Port Elizabeth, Margaret Harradine states that “in January 1832 Rev. Francis McCleland advertised in the “Grahamstown Journal” that he intended to open a day school, attached to St Mary’s Church, where boys would receive a classical education. The establishment of small schools like this by the clergy was normal practice, providing a service for parents and extra income for the teacher. The school was apparently successful and in February 1837 the Journal referred in an item to the “little boys issuing forth from Rev. Chaplain’s schoolroom”. McCleland died in 1853, but his school must have closed long before then.”

Diocesan Grammar School

As my great great grandfather advertised this school in his own name, it is my belief that it was a private initiative to garner additional income. Nonetheless, the Anglican Church had always been a pioneer in education. To further this mission, St. Mary’s Church began what became known as the ‘Diocesan Grammar School’ under the auspices of St. Mary’s Vestry. The actual date of its establishment cannot be ascertained, but according to W.F. Bunyan it must have been between Bishop Gray’s first visit to Port Elizabeth in 1848 and his second visit in 1850,whereas Harradine states that it was founded in 1853 and to have used temporary premises initially. It is not listed in the Cape Almanacs until 1855 and there seems to have been no mention of it in the Eastern Province Herald, but Hardwicke, who was claimed to have started it, was here at the time. Education was not compulsory, and the existing government school (boys only) provided basic literacy and numeracy with subjects such as geography, history, English grammar and copperplate handwriting.

In 1853, the diocese of Grahamstown was formed out of the vast area which had been the oversight of Bishop Gray. The first Bishop of this new diocese was the Right Reverend J. Armstrong who, in October 1855, laid the foundation stone of the Diocesan Grammar School. The site granted was that of the earlier temporary Government School on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road, and Sophy Gray was said to have designed it. The Headmaster was H. Hardwicke.

It  is likely that McCleland’s successor, Rev. W.H. Fowle, promoted the idea of the school after his arrival in 1855, and it is fact that on 3 September of that year the Bishop of Cape Town was granted 75 square roods of land on The Hill at Port Elizabeth in Western Road on condition that  the land should  forever  thereafter  be used for the purposes of a school or schools in connection with the Church of England. According to Wirgman in his history of St Mary’s Church, this land was given in exchange for another site which the Governor had granted earlier.

The land given for the school had originally been part of a large erf granted to Stephen Jefferson on 1 October 1821, but the following year half of it had reverted to the Government and half to J.B. Board. The deeds refer to the government part as “the extent of the Government School Ground“. Buildings are shown on the 1848 Essenhigh map and in April 1852 the Eastern Province News referred to a “portion of ground in Belmont Terrace on which the remains of the old house of the local government teacher stands“. Again, that month the paper spoke about the demolition of “the old schoolhouse in Belmont Terrace“. There is a letter from the authorities to William Lloyd, the Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate at the time, written .in June 1841 to notify him of the imminent arrival of the new teacher for the government school, John Paterson, and remind him that Paterson will probably require the house on the Hill, now occupied by Mr Nudd.

Post card showing top of White’s Road Dated 1907.Show’s Grand Hotel and old grammar school building.

The new school proved a success and a proper building for it became a necessity. It was said in later years that the attractive little school which was built on the grant of land had been designed by Bishop Robert Gray’s remarkable wife, Sophy, and there is no reason why she may not have done so – she certainly designed St Paul’s Church which belonged to the same period.

Wirgman, when he came to write his book, had no exact record of the laying of the foundation stone of the new school, but the Herald had published an account of the event and Bp. Armstrong’s wife recorded in her diary that this had been one of his duties while on a visit to Port Elizabeth. The date was 8 October 1855, in the presence of a large company of parents and children. A “tea-meeting” followed at which tribute was paid to Mr Hardwicke and Mr Bendelock, the teachers in charge, for their zeal and energy. The following month the Herald noted with regret that Hardwicke, who had first established the school, proposed not to renew his contract.

In March 1856 it was reported that the new building would soon be opened and in May Bishop Gray paid a visitation following the death of Bishop Armstrong. The school now had about fifty boys and the fees were able to maintain three masters (Hardwicke, Bendelock and Bluett). Bishop Gray commented that the new school was an “exceedingly nice ecclesiastical-looking building on the hill, recently erected and ready for opening as the school room“. Early photographs show a dolls’ house design of stone with a slate roof topped by a little bell turret.

Competition arises

Hardwicke was succeeded by Mr FG St Leger, but by this time plans for the Grey Institute and in 1859 it was opened in Belmont Terrace. There was tremendous enthusiasm for this new school established through the generosity of Sir George Grey and a number of those who had supported the Diocesan School now gave that support to the Grey. It was said that there was difficulty with the headmaster’s stipend and the problem of “undenominationalism” was mentioned. The headmaster “resigned in despair” with the result was that Bishop Cotterill closed the school, probably during 1859.

Diocesan school re-opens

In the middle of 1861 Rev. WA Robinson of Trinity advertised that he proposed to re-open the Grammar School. He pointed out that in a small school there were advantages for boys who required “more than ordinary attention”. Fees were ten guineas per term and the hours were 10 am to 2 pm.

Closure & sale

The school continued for a few years, but in October 1864 the buildings were put up for sale. The property was divided into three lots and the school was described as “very substantial and easily turned into a comfortable dwelling house”. The lots were all sold and the Herald reported that the school and its ground had fetched £500, but the Church was in fact not in a legal position to sell it and although the sale of the two empty lots went through, the building was withdrawn. A strip of land behind it was set aside to allow a passageway to the end lot.

Conversion into a Synagogue

At some point about this time the Grammar School was taken over by the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation as a Synagogue, but the actual date is not clear. The congregation had been formed in September 1862, with a house at the end of Queen Street, belonging to Henry Reynolds, fitted out as a Synagogue. The school building was used until the fine new Synagogue in Western Road was completed and opened on 2 September 1877. In 1872 the first Rabbi, Samuel Rappaport, arrived from England to take spiritual charge of the Jewish community.

Grammar School Re-opened

Perhaps the fact that their building was empty again prompted St Mary’s Vestry to think in terms of a Church school once more, however, in 1877 a committee was convened by Rev. AT Wirgman, Rector of St Mary’s and the local member of the Diocesan Board of Education. As a result, the Grammar School re-opened at Easter 1878 with Dr Wirgman as acting head until the arrival of Rev. Alexander Grant to take over.

Rev. TD Berry had been appointed to the post, but ill-health forced him to resign and he died on his way to England. Grant was appointed in July and also served as assistant priest at St Mary’s. The school followed the rules laid down by the Diocesan Board of Education, a body of clergy and laity elected by the Diocesan Synod and was similar to St Andrew’s in Grahamstown or the DSG in King William’s Town. Its motto was “nisi Dominus frustra“- it is vain without the Lord – and the boys wore a ribbon on their caps to show that they were pupils. The building was soon not big enough to cope with all the applicants, and in 1880 a new classroom was built, to hold thirty to forty boys.

There are copies of two prospectuses published at Christmas 1881 and 1882 giving details of the headmaster’s end-of-year speech, a list of prize winners, cricket results, a memorandum for parents and the main papers for the final exams, etc. The Committee of Management at the end of 1882 consisted of a number of well-known businessmen including CT Jones, FH Carpenter, LL Michell, C Lovemore, GC Smith, AO Horwood, and W Selwyn. Rev. Mr Grant was assisted by Rev. AT Wirgman “formerly Vice-Principal of St Andrew’s in Grahamstown“. There were said to be sixty boys in the school, the number having increased from fifteen in 1878, and if a larger building were available the number could well reach a hundred. Boys from 8 to 12 years paid £2 10s per quarter and those over 12 £3. The subjects in the senior curriculum included ancient history, Old Testament history, Latin, Greek, French, Greek Testament, chemistry and Euclid. A number of prizes were offered and there were two scholarships, the Gray and the Merriman. Grant was sent to Queenstown as priest in 1884 and was succeeded at the school by Rev. RH Ryland from the Perse Grammar School in Cambridge. He was headmaster until June 1888 and was followed by Rev. WMK Wells until December 1889.

Precarious finances

At this point the finances of the school were no longer sound and an appeal was made to the Bishop to make new arrangements for the headmaster’s salary. The Bishop offered the post to a layman, AS Marshall Hall, principal of the Diocesan Grammar School at Umtata, and the committee was relieved of financial responsibility for the school. In spite of the small enrolment the future prospects of the school seemed good at the end of 1890 and an old Diocesans’ Club had been started. A sketch of the school at this time shows the additions at the back of the original building, the walls now plastered and a picket fence around the plot. The little porch and the bell tower are still there.

A newspaper report in January 1893 stated that “new arrangements” had been made for the school. Dr Wirgman was now the Warden with Rev. T Evan Davies, assistant curate at St Mary’s as headmaster, but the time had come to give up the fight, and the Diocesan Grammar School closed its doors.

As an aside, a Diocesan School for Girls opened in the Sunday Schoolroom in St Mary’s Terrace. The principal was Miss Ablett, assisted by the misses Kathleen Edwards, Edith Newton, Alice Horton and Phoebe Forbes. The girls wore red and black bands on their hats by way of uniform. Like its brother, the girls’ school did not survive and seems to have closed around 1899.

PE Institute now a tenant

In the meantime, the building on the Hill was occupied by the Port Elizabeth Institute, an organization begun in 1891 by Dr Hewitt of Trinity as the “Trinity Young Men’s Institute”. This was changed to the “Port Elizabeth Young Men’s Institute and finally to “The Port Elizabeth Institute”. In its new home the Institute offered a library, zareba billiard table, bagatelle, chess etc., for the entertainment of its members in a pre-radio, pre-cinema, pre-television age. Lectures and concerts were arranged, and Dutch lessons could be had. Later a full-size billiard table was acquired. Men such as James Brister and MM Loubser served as President and by 1901 it could boast of Sir Alfred Milner as Hon. President. When the Athenaeum was completed in 1896 the Institute took rooms there, and the school was again vacant.

Lutheran Church

By the turn of the century Port Elizabeth had a flourishing German community and the first Lutheran minister to come out was Pastor Grussendorf who was sent in 1900. At first services were held in the handsome cultural centre, the Liedertafel, in Western Road, and later a hall was built in Park Drive as the forerunner to a proper church, but between 1902 and 1907 the Lutherans used the Grammar School.

From Grey Institute to Art School

After they left, the Grey Institute used the building as a preparatory school and around 1912 a “Lady Principal” advertised a prep. School there for kindergarten and standards 1 and 2. In 1915, the School of Art, finding its quarters in the Athenaeum cramped, took the old school as extra accommodation and retained it until the new Technical College, with which the Art School was now united, was opened in 1928. The principal, Frank Pickford Marriott, had his office in the school and the etching and lithographic equipment was set up in it.

Commercial purposes

The Church then leased the property to HJ Samuel, who created the Belmont Cafe out of it, the understanding being that the income would still be used by the Church for educational purposes. The lease was later transferred to Mrs Samuel who continued to rent it, though subletting, until the beginning of 1968.

Over more than forty years the Belmont Cafe became a landmark. From December 1978 the cafe was leased to Mr. AF Farrell as a curry restaurant known as “Up the Khyber”. For a time, there was speculation that White’s Road might be widened and the old school have to be demolished, but since then changes in the area meant that the restaurant had to move and finding a suitable tenant became impossible. The building developed a very unsavoury reputation and there were regular complaints about it. More recently it has been rented to the owners of the Grand Hotel opposite, who have taken charge of it.


The Story of the Collegiate Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth. Short History and Pictorial Record by The Venerable W.F. Bunyan, Vice-Provost and Rector

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 Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth: Its windows and furnishing, a pictorial record and some aspects of its history by Margaret Harradine (2018, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)

“The Collegiate Church of Parish of St. Mary, Port Elizabeth” by Archdeacon Wirgman & Canon Cuthbert Edward Mayo (1925, Longman Green & Co, London)

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