Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Geard – Ironmonger with a Social Conscience

Two members of the Geard family gained prominence in Port Elizabeth – Charles Geard and his son John Geard.  Despite the blog’s title, it will encompass the lives of both Geards. The death of John Geard was an “inconvenient” loss because at the time of his death he was compiling a biography of their lives. Such a loss inevitably reduces the depth of the resulting end product. So it is in this case.

This blog encompasses the two segments of John’s life; first the autobiographical section and then the rest of his life recreated by the author of the biography A Memoir of the Late John Geard from “scraps of paper, correspondence and newspaper clippings“.  

Main picture: John Geard

Charles Geard
Charles Geard inhaled his first breath at Hitchin in England on the 8th August 1795. In the biography written by Rev. Hanesworth, John Geard’s son-in-law, he commences with the obituary of Charles from the Port Elizabeth Mercury dated 7th December 1850. Aged only 55 at the time of his death by hydro-cephalus, his passing was a tragic loss for the town. Being the very antithesis of a malignant narcissist, in all of his endeavours in life he sought to assist his less fortunate fellow men. To this end, he directed his energies, being heavily involved in three ventures: the Saving’s Bank, the Mechanics Institute and the Infant School. Apart from this, he was a zealous supporter of the Resident Government Association.  To highlight his commitment to these three institutions, it should be realised that Charles erected the Mechanics’ Institute at his own expense. This desire to assist mankind was passed onto his son, John Geard, and on his death to his eldest son, Charles Geard.   

These philanthropic endeavours will not be covered in this blog due to space constraints. Instead they will be covered in greater detail in separate blogs.

Charles’ decision to emigrate
The decision to emigrate occurred via a circuitous route. It was John’s uncle, Ebenezer, who was largely instrumental in bringing John’s father, Charles to South Africa. At that stage in his life, Charles had long been cogitating about emigration. In order to make up his mind, he had already been reading books and making enquiries about where he should emigrate. In other words, Ebenezer had already fertilised Charles mind with the possibility and benefits of emigration. As part of his job, Ebenezer had to make frequent business trips to London and on one occasion he met a Mr. Randall who was on a visit to England from Port Elizabeth. Ebenezer then contacted Charles and advised him to come to London if he wanted further first hand information about Port Elizabeth. Charles accepted the invitation with alacrity and all three – Charles, Ebenezer and Randall – met at the hotel. The result of the interview was that Charles decided to sail for Port Elizabeth and there to commence business as an ironmonger. This decision was never regretted by the family.

Mr Randall had very useful advice for Charles as he advised what stock items were in demand in South Africa. These recommendations would save Charles from purchasing inappropriate stock which would have to be scrapped or disposed of at a loss.

Family matters
Charles Geard, the youngest son of the Rev. John Geard of Hitchin must have had a good education. The family lived at a large brewery at Cambridge belonging to the Fosters, who, at that time, were also large bankers there and also distantly related to the Geard family. Four of the family, including John, were born at the brewery. Charles had married a Miss Garrett, belonging to a highly respectable family of millers and farmers.

John’s mother was a very quiet, kind-hearted, lovable woman whereas his father was a strictly honest and upright man in all his relationships, an active member of the Baptist Church at St. Albans and a very acceptable local preacher whose services were very much in demand among the Baptists in the neighbourhood.

In compiling his biography, John surmises that his father Charles was unhappy in his job at the Cambridge brewery. In making up his mind to go into business for his own account, he decided to take over an existing ironmongery business at Cambridge. Despite not possessing the vaguest clue about the business as he had initially been apprenticed in the printing and bookbinding trade, Charles grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Great North Railway

Charles slowly entered the business, never overinvesting or overextending himself. In this manner, he reduced his risks and also managed to do very well for several years during which time the rest of the family was born; all eight of them. At that time, St. Albans was a very busy place being located on the Great North Road. A hundred coaches changed horses at various inns and livery stables there every day. On the opening of the Great Northern Railway, this business came to an end.

The Abbotsford [1799-1859]

Now was the time to strike while the iron was hot. He took advantage of a line of emigrant ships then sailing to Algoa Bay. Finally on the 1st August 1843, Charles and his family of eight set sail from Greenwich on the Abbotsford, a fine strong ship, captained by Captain Pigou. The ship had been previously been quite an East Indiaman, and her captain also. He was a gentlemanly-looking man. His first mate was a good sailor but a terrible drunkard and the captain’s younger brother. He suffered from cramps and when he experienced an attack, his language was despicable and profane. During the voyage, John Geard became very close to three of the passengers who had come out under his father’s guardianship:

  • Russel Hallack, who was John’s constant companion during the trip. After landing in Port Elizabeth, he moved to live in Fort Beaufort, ultimately marrying John’s sister, Sarah, relocating to Port Elizabeth and becoming a successful and well-known businessman
  • A young man by the man of Freeman from St. Neots who agreed to serve them for twelve months.
  • A Miss Sarah South, who afterwards married Mr. White, the engineer of White’s Road, the first civilian access to the hill.

Sarah South’s saga
Sarah met John Bosworth, a master mariner, from North Shields England and married him on 16 July 1845, less than two years after her arrival in Port Elizabeth aboard the Abbotsford. Bosworth was settling down probably at Sarah’s insistence by becoming a hotelier. E.H. Salmond, the proprietor of the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square transferred ownership of the hotel to Bosworth in September 1845. Amongst the vessels of which Bosworth had been captain were the Mary, Conch, Fenella, and Trekboer. Nine years later on 22 August 1854, Bosworth would die at the age of 49 leaving Sarah a widow. But only for two years as she would marry Henry Fancourt White two years later

John leaves the nest
John assisted his father in the business for another year until on the 1st of October 1844, he felt sufficiently confident that his brother Jesse, having learnt the ropes, was capable of assisting his father in the business in Strand Street. John discussed his future with his father Charles and confirmed to him that he was resolute in his desire to leave Port Elizabeth in order to tour the country.  In terms of his plan, he arranged to commence their journey on Tuesday 1st October 1844 with the Rev. Adam Robson, the pastor at the Union Church in Chapel Street. The mode of transport would be by horseback and the destination was Grahamstown. Alternatively, they could go by ox-wagon but that would take at least a week, but inclement weather scuppered their plan. After a heavy downpour of rain and with rivers in spate, they were compelled to postpone their departure by exactly one week. On the following Tuesday, the 8th of October 1844, they finally departed. Mr. Robson was only travelling as far as some branch Congregational Churches in connection with his missionary work. Notwithstanding that John was not in the least concerned to find his way alone to the City of the Settlers as every road across the veld led straight to his destination.

Meeting Mr. Stanger and John Ford
John’s father, Charles Geard, was an acquaintance of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Stanger who used to live in St. Albans, a cathedral city in Hertfordshire, England. Stanger graciously accepted the letter of introduction written by Charles. As John arrived very late in Grahamstown after a hard day’s ride over 80-kilometres, he immediately made his way directly to Stanger’s house to enquire where he could find a livery stable and where he might find himself accommodation for the night. Not totally unexpectedly, Stanger made him an offer that he could not in good grace reject. Stanger graciously requested that he “remain in his service and become one of the members of the family.” Apparently, Stanger was then the managing partner of the firm Stanger & Co, the monied partner being John Ford, a large trader in the black areas. Ford was universally respected in Grahamstown and would ultimately become John’s father-in-law.    

Nuptials to be cancelled?
John remained with Stanger & Co. until the business was destroyed in 1846 by the War of the Axe, the Seventh Frontier War. John and his fiancée had already arranged to be married and had fixed the date before the war broke out and it became a matter of serious consideration whether under the circumstances it was wise to get married at that time or to postpone. After due consideration, they elected to proceed with the nuptuals and were married in the Baptist Church in Grahamstown on Wednesday the 25th of March 1846. From Mr. Ford’s residence, John and his wife, Mary Ann went down to the house which they would occupy for several years close to the bridge in Bathurst Street.

Corner of Bathurst and High Streets in Grahamstown

Take over of business
Some time previous to his marriage to Mary Ann, John had taken over the business of Stanger & Co and carried on business for several years until the death of his father, Charles Geard. After due consideration, John decided to relocate to Port Elizabeth and take over his late father’s business. At the same time, he entered into a partnership with his brother-in-law, William Hockey who would conduct the business in Grahamstown under the style of Geard & Hockey.

Main Street R-L West of England Clothing aka T.Birch & Co, Unknown, Provident Chambers, J. Geard & Son, ironmonger

The following children were born to John and Mary Ann whilst living in Grahamstown: John Ford, Charles Edward and Ebenezer Jesse. Tragedy struck the family when John Ford died in Port Elizabeth at the age of six.

As his mother was living in the old house at the corner of Strand and Kemp Street, where the business was located, he chose a house on the Hill, near the Mission Chapel [Union Chapel], over which Rev. Adam Robson presided and after his mother had erected a dwelling house for herself and moved there, John and Mary Ann moved into the house on the corner of Kemp and Strand Street which his mother had previously occupied.

Family life
After moving to Port Elizabeth, John and Mary Ann had the following additions to their family: Naomi Anna, Emily Fanny, Ada Margaret, Albert John and Sydney Langford.

Store in Queen’s Street
Subsequently, John’s mother built a dwelling house and store on Queen’s Street on the same plot of ground that her own house was built upon and immediately below. They occupied this dwelling house and underneath it carried on a general business for many years. Eventually, he took into the partnership his brother Charles, who managed the Strand Street business until they relocated to Main Street and some years thereafter. His brothers, Jesse and William assisted him with the Queen Street business.

At this point, John Geard passed away or alternatively was unable to proceed due to ill health. The author of the biography on the life of John Geard was now dependent on stray letters and fragmentary recollections of friends and relatives.  

The Frontier in turmoil

The Eighth Frontier War was a war between the British Empire and the Xhosa as well as the Khoikhoi forces, between 1850 and 1853. It was the eighth of nine Frontier Wars. After the deposition of the Xhosa paramount, Sandile, in 1851, this territory was reserved, apart from the British military outposts, for occupation by Africans. Resentments in British Kaffraria, however, resulted in the eighth and most costly of the war.

Mary Ann Geard, John’s wife, was residing in Grahamstown at the time when this war broke out. The reason for her stay is unknown but in all probability it might have comprised a twofold reason: reviewing the family’s business interests or visiting the family or both. In a letter to his wife dated Saturday 28th December 1850, John expressed his heartfelt concerns for her safety sternly admonishing her for not writing more frequently and reminding her of the days when mail was collected and shipped: “The post closes at three o’clock on Tuesdays and Saturdays and five o’clock on Fridays”.

The defence of the Eastern Province was in the capable hands of General Sir Harry Smith, whose British forces, splendidly assisted by the Colonial Farmers, in short order, restored peace and order.

In a letter to his wife dated Grahamstown dated Sunday 29th November 1857, Geard illustrates the dangers even attendant upon travelling by road in those days between Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth: “We arrived here safely this morning at half-past. We had two or three sources of unhappiness on the road. About six miles from Sunday’s River, owing to the front horse or the driver not understanding his work, we had an upset, in which we were all mercifully preserved from any serious injury, sustain[ing] only bruises and grazings of the skin; but I was very ill all afternoon in consequence of the shock….We were detained [for] nearly two hours at Sunday’s River by great carelessness on the part of the people who were most inattentive. The horses were allowed to go down to the river and three of them [got] stuck in the mud, and we were nearly an hour” in extricating them. One or two of them were so tired from the exertion that they were of little use for the rest of the journey. Geard continued, “I felt thankful at the time of the upset that the horses all stood still, so that we got out of the cart easily”.

Depths of religious fervour
Geard’s religious interest, originating from when he was a youngster, was fervent and habitual and his sympathies wide and generous. Out of numerous examples in his correspondence, this letter to his wife dated Grahamstown January 6th 1860, encapsulates his views cogently; “I have made this a day of communion with Christian friends as well as of worship and fellowship with our God and Father. I went in the morning to [the] Bathurst Street School  and then to Mr. Hay’s Chapel, where I joined in commemorating the [un?]dying love of Christ”.

These words are indicative of a deep unrequited spirituality and belief in the literal veracity of the Bible and its teachings.

Walmer Heights
At the end of his letter of which the content is of a deep spiritual nature, at the conclusion he makes the following incongruous comment: “Lo, I am with you always. I am just now in imagination, taking a run down to Port Elizabeth to see Charles, and on to the farm to say ‘good night’”. For the first time he makes mention of a farm and secondly he makes an inane comment about seeing Charles. One presumes that he is referring to Charles Geard, his father, who died on 1st December 1850 and this letter must have been written after 1875 because that is when he acquired the land on which the house was built.

Geard purchased Walmer Heights to be his country residence. This hundred acre estate would fulfil his recreational need in later life viz to plant and to beautify. He rebuilt the house and in the following years made a very delightful retreat of this rustic home, overlooking the sea, with its gardens, avenues and woodlands. It was an easy eight kilometre drive from Port Elizabeth. This area was on the edge of the driftsand sea stretching from the Gulchways at Sardinia Bay to the present airport. When Geard acquired the land, it must have comprised sandhills covered with scrub and bush. By dint of hard work, it was converted into a show place replete with scenic and sylvan attractions.   

Dr Ensor’s praise
Some time after Walmer Heights had reached its zenith in beauty, Dr. Ensor wrote an article which was published in the Eastern Province Herald entitled On Walmer Heights as follows:

Weary with the routine of professional work, physically unstrung by the lingering weakness of an attack of the prevailing epidemic, dissatisfied with the inert weapons which an empirical treatment suggests against one of the most protean of diseases, a lull in the attack allowed one to lay aside one’s armour, and reply to a kind note of [an] invitation from the owner of Walmer Heights to spend an hour at his homestead and refresh one’s senses with the colours and scents of his beautiful colour garden; the blossoms of the sweet peas, your favourites, are to be seen at their best, to quote the words of his letter, and remembering

            How small a part of time they share
           Who are so wonderous sweet and fair

The complete description of these enchanted gardens is available below under Addendum 1.

Look-out point
Before returning home, we must climb the well-built look-out stage and survey the wide expanse of veldt and sea. It was well worth the climb. The eye takes in one glance a grand sweep of sea from Cape St. Francis, round the deep curve of Algoa Bay, to Point Parone. It happened to be quite calm, but when the old ‘Earth Shaker’ as Home calls him, ‘gets on the spray’, I can imagine [that] he can make his sea-horses go in a way to astonish even the Currie and Union Leviathans of the deep. Turning landward, the view is bounded by the ever-pleasing outline of the Winterhoek mountains, the pointed of the tops of the Cockscomb standing out in lofty solitude.

In the near foreground lies Walmer, and little white farm houses scattered here and there, the whole veldt of refreshing green under the influence of approaching summer and late autumn rains.

Mercy mission
We have drunk deep draughts of beauty from Nature’s chalice and felt stimulated and refreshed. But this cup of pleasure is also to be marred. Just on leaving and bidding good-bye, a coloured man approached, and, with anxious expression, told us [that] his wife was lying very ill in a little house close by. ’Would the baas ask the doctor to see her?’ Duty calls, and following a little bush path, I came upon a very rustic edifice, and in a stuffy little room, off the voorhuis, there lay a Coloured woman, prostrated by the demon with which I had been fighting for the last few weeks She seemed grateful for my attention, and I suggested to her master means which I hope will relieve her of the tearing explosions of the influenza cough.

Dr Ensor was not aware of whether the only bacteriologist in South Africa had yet succeeded in identifying the South African variety of the bacteria.

It then required a swift drive back to Port Elizabeth in order to avoid an approaching dust and rain storm.

Behind the residence John Geard erected a tall wooden structure called the ” Look-Out” from which was obtained a lovely panorama of the surrounding land and sea. Great excitement prevailed in April, 1869, when from the “Look-Out” the famous steamer Great Eastern was easily recognized whilst making her maiden voyage to Natal. This quaint ship with its five funnels and six masts was then the world’s largest merchant vessel, but as her engine was not powerful enough for her size, she earned the name of “the white elephant of the ocean” and was a long series of misfortunes.    


Brief biography

Full name: John Geard
Birth details: 7 August 1823 at Hitchin
Death details: 26 May 1903 at Walmer Heights
Marriage details: Mary Ann (Ford) 25 March 1846
Occupation: Ironmonger. Took over the business of his father, Charles, in 1850
Interests: Town Council, Divisional Council, Harbour Board, Baptist Church, Mechanics’ Institute,
Seamans’ Mission, Good Templars, YMCA, Hospital Board, MLC 1872-1892
Other comments: In 1875, he bought land in Walmer and built a house for himself called Walmer Heights

Dr Ensor’s complete description of the garden at Walmer Heights
Accompanied by my daughter and her lady friend, ……….. a few days ago, on a pleasant cool afternoon, I drove out to Walmer Heights. The road, a smooth well-kept one, branches off to the left of the village of Walmer, and a short drive brought us to the avenue of trees and wild bush, which leads up to the house, which stands at a comfortable elevation and commands and very fine and extensive view over land and sea. Welcomed in his usual gracious manner by Mr. Geard and his daughter, we strolled about the grounds , and after a cup of delicious tea  made our way to the flower garden. To the left of the house, sheltered on all sides by trees of different kinds of pines and other ornamental growths, the beauty of the spot seemed to me to be enhanced by  by the absence of any attempt at design. It looked as if Flora had scattered with a lavish hand  all her treasures of colour and scent. About the centre, on a double row of trellis work some eight feet high were the chief object of my visit – as you enter they catch the eye at once – The Aristocratic Ladies of the Garden, adorned with every variety of colour’, from pure pale white to rose-tint and rich purple, their beautiful butterfly forms swaying in the gentle breeze and filling the air with incense distilled by the dew and the sunshine. Separated by a narrow path on either side, were  beds of poppies in full bloom, more glowing in colour, if less graceful in form. It was a scene to forget all the pain and ugliness if disease. A very land of drowsihead it was.  The scent of the sweet-peas and the rich, heavy aroma of the poppies, had we lingered longer, I think would have laid us asleep in this enchanted garden. Leaving this, our host took us to another terraced slope facing the sea. A charming little fountain played by the entrance gate, and again we strolled by the entrance gate, and again we strolled midst parterres of Flora’s gifts – pansies, daisies, geraniums, fragrant garden herbs, beds of mignonette, here busy bees in their usual fussy way, are having a good time in nectar gathering.

John McDonagh’s rules
Despite having a multitude of interests, Geard enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. To guide his life, he adopted the following rules of life by the distinguished American, John McDonagh:

  • Remember that labour is one of the conditions of your existence
  • Time is gold. Throw not a minute away. Place each one to account
  • Do unto others as you would be done by
  • Never put off till tomorrow that which you can do today.
  • Never bid another do what you can do yourself
  • Never covet what is not your own
  • Never think any matter so trivial s not to deserve notice
  • Never give out that which does not first come in
  • Never spend but to produce
  • Let the greatest order regulate the transactions of your life
  • Study in the course of your life to do the greatest amount of good
  • Deprive yourself of nothing necessary for your comfort, but live in honourable simplicity and frugality
  • Labour then to the last moment of your existence

Succession of the Eastern Province

In 1872, Geard publicly entered the debate whether if the Eastern Province was separated from the Western Province by writing a letter to the E.P. Herald. This missive was in response to a letter to the editor by a Mr Septimus Jones who posed the question “Shall we be better off for competent men by separation from the Westerns?”

Geard’s reply commenced with the statement that he knew little of the private character of any of the Western Legislators. As such he concluded they might well be “paragons of intelligence, integrity and benevolence. I can only judge them by their public acts.”  This is both a most apt and appropriate method of judging the worth and value of these legislators. “I have had an opportunity of doing so for some years”,  he added. Nonetheless, he continued, “I have not seen any proof in their public acts and speeches of such knowledge of our special wants, sympathy with our special grievances or practical legislation in our favour.” Foremost amongst the grievances related to the lack of a harbour. Moreover they took umbrage that issue such as irrigation and passable roads and passes had not been provided.

Geard decried the Westerners “shameful ignorance, indifference and neglect”  of the Eastern areas and provided numerous examples of how out of touch with the reality in the east was noting that immediately prior to the latest outbreak of war that a Mr Porter declared that there were “comfortable relations with the natives”.

Next Geard raised the issue of whether they would be better off for competent men by separation from the Westerns. Notwithstanding the difficulty in sourcing such men who would leave their families for three months of the year, Geard while accepting the challenge, was adamant that they could so. Unlike the Western members of Parliament who mainly resided in Cape Town and hence their stint in Parliament where for three months of the year, the Easterners had to be away from their families, their businesses and their farms. Due to these constraints, Geard identified two “classes” of men could became Members of Parliament: “Those to whom twenty shillings a day and a change of scene and employment…….and who can make their election a source of pecuniary profit to themselves”.  On the other hand, Geard proclaimed, “Those who make enormous sacrifices…. But what “has been their reward for their patriotism? Waste of their valuable time and talent and loss of business”.        

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