Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Paterson – His Earlier Years

Of all the business colossuses that Port Elizabeth has produced, John Paterson might outrank them all except perhaps the Mosenthal Brothers.  Pamela Ffolliott correctly labels Paterson a Titan. To successfully establish two enterprises of the stature and calibre of Standard Bank and the E.P. Herald which have endured for more than a century and a half is testament to his foresight. Paterson encapsulates the vision, energy, restless spirit and other attributes of a successful businessman.

As his two most notable business accomplishments viz the establishment of the Eastern Province Herald and Standard Bank have been examined in detail elsewhere, this blog will only investigate the earlier life of this remarkable, indefatigable man as well as his civic-mindedness which drove his desire to establish a municipality in this forsaken town.

Main picture: John Paterson

Entry into a cold, cruel world

It was March 1822 and in the little stone cottage at Rubislaw, Aberdeen, Scotland that there was rejoicing and excitement. To John and Barbara Paterson had been born twins. The boy had been born with a caul which to the superstitious Scots was regarded as a lucky omen. John Paterson Snr was a stone-carter in a nearby quarry while, at the same time, farming a fair-sized piece of land on which their cottage stood. His wife ran a small shop next door to supplement their meagre income. After such an inauspicious start in life in which class as opposed to merit determined one’s trajectory in life, young John Paterson would astonish all nay-sayers with his future achievements..



John Paterson attended the Aberdeen Grammar School from 1831 to 1833 and from 1834 to 1836 missing out the middle year. Here he came under the influence of the Rector, Dr James Melvin M.A., an outstanding educator.

The Aberdeen Grammar School, 1832

Paterson won a scholarship to Marischal College, Aberdeen University where he graduated with an M.A. in 1840. If these dates are correct, then Paterson was only eighteen or nineteen at the time of completing his degree. Here he was recruited by James Rose Innes, the first Superintendent General of Education of the Cape Colony, also a graduate of Aberdeen University, who had come over to Scotland to track down teachers capable of instructing senior school pupils, there being no such teachers available in the Colony.

James Rose Innes

The new recruits sailed with Innes from London on the small barque, Greyhound, on the 6th January 1841, with passengers and crew probably totalling about twenty.  They sailed into Table Bay on the 11th March after a “quick” voyage of under ten weeks. The new teachers remained in Cape Town while the Colonial Office decided where to send them. In May they sat an exam set by Innes so that he could decide their destinations in order of merit. Paterson came first. On 22nd May 1841, Innes reported that Paterson had been allocated Port Elizabeth.

Marischal College 1840

Paterson arrived in Port Elizabeth on the 22nd June after a voyage of six days aboard the Louisa which made calls at Mossel Bay and Knysna on the way. He opened the Senior Free Senior Government School in the Union Chapel in Chapel Street on the 15th July 1841 with a class of 48 pupils. At the opening he asked for the co-operation of the parents and teacher and stated that “his aim was to teach the youth intellectual and moral values and to make the pupils appreciate virtue on its own account. He proposed to build his education policy upon a solid religious foundation and to teach truth and justice.” He was only nineteen years old at the time and it must have been an awesome task opening the first senior government school in the fledgling town.

A scruffy town in the 1840s

Of all the landmarks which pieced Port Elizabeth’s skyline in the 1840s, only Fort Frederick and the Pyramid survive today. Algoa Bay had no harbour in 1845 apart from a privately owned jetty which stretched only a short way from the shore, just clearing the surf. Visits were limited to non-steam vessels such as brigs, schooners and barques. A typical cargo discharged at the ‘port’ consisted of ironware, tools, farming implements, timber, cloth and haberdashery, soap, casks of ale, bottled beer and coal. Experts were wool, barley, oats and tanned sheep skins. The Baakens River in those days was a wide lagoon. The perimeter of the town encompassed the Baakens River in the south to Russell Road in the north. The width of the town ran from Strand Street to Chapel Street with a few residents housed on Castle and Constitution Hills.

The only reason why Port Elizabeth existed at all is that it was the only safe landing beach along the entire littoral. It was far from an ideal settling place. There was no water, and all the town’s rivers were perennial trickles and were only full when and if it rained. The vegetation comprised low scrub, there was little shade and no shelter from the wind or the sand.

In 1845 people lived on the flats and the hill area had not been granted for development yet. There were some houses on Castle Hill, Constitution Hill and Belmont Terrace but these were the exception. There were no roads running up the hills and there was no water on the Hill, meaning that people had to build underground tanks.

It is difficult for the modern generation to visualise how small Port Elizabeth was. The limiting factor was transport. Consequently most people walked everywhere. Some rode horses or used ox-wagons. Everything happened in Main Street. The shop owners and other residents lived above their places of work. It was a compact town where everything was closely situated.

In 1845 there was no hospital, only a apothecary and no police station. The most important person in the town was the Magistrate who was housed in the magistrate’s building located where the Feathermarket Hall is situated today. Next to his offices there was a jail. Law and order were maintained by street keepers and a several court officials.

A primary school for boys only was in operation in Belmont Terrace in which a curry restaurant was later situated while the Senior Government School was housed in what was later the Congregational Church in Chapel Street. Schooling was not compulsory, and boys usually attended school until the age of twelve after which they were apprenticed to their fathers or employed as apprentices. If parents wanted their sons to extend their education they were sent to learning institutes in England. Girls were not catered for in education until much later in the century even though there were private girls’ schools which concentrated on lady-like accomplishments such as sewing

The population comprised white settlers with a smattering of Malays, Mfengus and Khoi. The occupations of the majority of the settlers were as merchants, artisans or labourers and the only professional people were one or two lawyers and a doctor permanently in the town. Forms of entertainment were strictly limited to the Debating Society and lectures by private individuals. The opinion of the residents as portrayed by the correspondence columns in the E.P. Herald reflected a large measure of ‘shame’ as opposed to pride. The picture depicted was of a township which although twenty-five years old was still without a local government affording citizens a voice in its management. The letters indicate maladministered by colonial officials. Consequently they suffered from a lack of public services. This manifested itself in neglected roads, poor harbour facilities, poor sanitation and poor to inadequate policing.

Setting up the school

This was no small task as the school was due to open only three weeks after Paterson’s arrival in the town. The subjects to be taught included science, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy, physical and mathematical geography and geology. Apart from setting up the school, Paterson had to establish the school library and order apparatus and reference books. And his duties did not end with teaching fifteen subjects to fifty odd students, every month he had to send progress reports of every pupil to the Superintendent-General in Cape Town. These were augmented by quarterly reports of examinations to the same authority.

Unknown building in Chapel Street possibly formerly the Free Government School

Paterson was the senior master in Port Elizabeth for six and a half years. His work had obviously earned him respect and appreciation as his friends and the parents of his ex-pupils gathered in the Commercial Hall to present him with a gold watch and chain “as a mark of their esteem and gratitude for his valuable services as a public teacher during a period of upwards of six years.” During this period, though, he had been looking to increase his scope, hence his establishment of the E.P. Herald.

The Eastern Province Herald

The saga of the surreptitious establishment of this newspaper is told in a separate chapter entitled John Paterson and the E.P. Herald. To integrate it into this chapter, some events have been repeated.

During these first years, before John Paterson could be acknowledged as editor of the Herald, he would, as we have seen above, be very busy all week at school. He would then spend his weekends writing editorials for the paper that appeared every Wednesday.  His mission was to educate the people of Port Elizabeth into realising that a municipality was essential before the amenities of the town could be improved upon. Week after week he sent out the newspaper full of his ideas. The Letters to the Editor were a special feature of the early issues and many of them were written by Paterson himself under various noms-de-plume. One of these letters, appealing for better police protection, described the situation in Grahamstown when a convict walked out of his cell, robbed the office of the Resident Magistrate, and then calmly returned to the tronk.              

Local government

After two unsuccessful meetings in 1843 and 1845, a General Meeting of residents on the 9th January 1847 with J.O. Smith in the chair, finally decided to approve the establishment of a municipality for Port Elizabeth and elected amongst other, Fleming and Smith to draw up the Municipal regulations. The day preceding the elections Paterson had written to the Herald “let us therefore be unanimous and acting under the influence of faith adopt at once a resolution to have a municipal institution in Port Elizabeth.”

He had declared in an earlier editorial that some movement ought to be made to impress upon the attention of the government to provide a proper and convenient Post Office, to draw attention to the present neglected state of the harbour, to introduce some sort of revenue, to bring water to Port Elizabeth and to clear the streets of their obstructions. Moreover, the Police force was disgracefully inadequate, ill-equipped and ill-disciplined. Furthermore he suggested that a visit to Port Elizabeth in its present state would forcefully remind the Lieutenant-Governor of the municipality and very strongly impress upon him the necessity of our being forthwith furnished with such a form of government.

Personal life

John Paterson married Frances Mary, daughter of Joshua and Susannah Kemp on the 7th November 1849.

The wedding was held at Kemp’s home above their store at the corner of Main and Kemp Streets. The first home of the young Patersons was in Bird Street where the PE Woman’s Club had its premises for many years, now the offices of a firm of attorneys. They family grew, Frances Mary being born in 1851, Alexina in 1852 and Bruce Albyn in 1853. Paterson sat for and passed the examination for Notary Public in Cape Town in 1850.

Circa 1833, ” Francis Place” was built in Bird Street for David Polley Francis. Later it was purchased by John Paterson

Local government

He was elected to the Board of Town Commissioners in 1851 and became its chairman when he received the greatest number of votes in the election on 27th December 1853. He was involved in many undertakings in and around Port Elizabeth. He and Kemp were the first directors of Guardian Assurance and Trust Company and they also formed the Port Elizabeth Mining Co. The latter had nothing of the great success of the former as the copper ore at Clanwilliam was found to be in unworkable quantities. He was also a director of the Algoa Bay Watering Co and formed the Port Elizabeth Wharf Co.

Frances Mary Kemp

Cape Colonial Government

In 1854 Paterson was elected to the first Cape Parliament which met in July. He had been one of the first to bring home to the public the exigency of some sort of hospital. Title to land in Richmond Hill was given for the purposes of establishing a Provincial Hospital in the same year. Also at that time, Paterson began to work on setting up a Grammar School and by January 1856 the foundation stone of the Grey Institute had been laid on a site overlooking the Donkin Reserve towards the sea. He may truly be regarded as the founder of the Divisional Council of PE, since superseded by the Algoa Regional Services Council which came into being on the 4th June 1856 and then the Nelson Bay Metropolitan Council.         

Doing justice to the Herald as editor had become an increasingly onerous duty for Paterson and in 1857 he sold the newspaper, lock, stock and barrel, to Robert Godlonton, editor and proprietor of the Grahamstown Journal for £1,000. Paterson’s swansong appeared in the Herald on 6th October 1857. The health of his wife had been failing gradually and in spite of his thousand and one activities, Paterson left all and took his wife upcountry in 1857 in a last endeavour to restore her health. This indisposition however grew worse and she died on the 10th May 1858.

Joshua Williamson Kemp

Joshua Kemp had handed over control of his family businesses to his two sons, George Townsend and Matthew Ebenezer in 1857. On the 15th May1858 the Kemp’s premises were destroyed by fire. Much of the goods were saved but all the family effects were lost. Six weeks afterwards however, George Townsend Kemp had entered into a partnership with Paterson to form Paterson, Kemp & Co, general and commission merchants. Kemp contributed £25,000 and Paterson £30,000 to the partnership. It was not long before they were advertising for sale anything from school stationery, iron bedsteads and rocking chairs to silverware, spiders and buggies with harness to match.

In 1859 Paterson visited England where he had opened a branch of his business in London. At about this time he also visited America to further business connections for Paterson, Kemp & Co. He remained in London until 1863. On 15th October 1862, George Kemp died, possibly from overwork from having to carry the firm on his own. Paterson cabled his chief clerk, Mr Vardy, to take control until he could return. This sudden death of his partner led to his sudden involvement with the saga of the obelisk. See the chapter entitled The Saga of the Obelisk in which it is detailed.

On the 21st January 1863, John Paterson married Marizza, eldest daughter of William Bowie, a young lady of some nineteen years. Between 1863 and 1880, Marizza presented her husband with eight children and she had, of necessity, to spend most of her time in London but came out to Port Elizabeth with the older children when circumstances permitted.

Finance and banking

Paterson had been a shareholder in the PE Bank since its founding in 1846, as he was in the Commercial Bank of Port Elizabeth since its founding in 1853. He was a prime mover in the attempted establishment of the Standard Bank of Port Elizabeth in 1857, but the plan, despite a good response in applications in shares, was abandoned, possibly because events overseas such as the mutiny of the Sepoy troops in India, which necessitated the sending of men and horses from the Eastern Province. His enthusiasm for financial matters was, however, undimmed. Between 1859 and 1862, he helped to found the Alliance Bank of London and Liverpool, of which he was a director, and in October 1862, he launched the Standard Bank of British South Africa. In 1863, the Standard Bank started in Port Elizabeth through its agents, A. Croll & Co. and it absorbed the Commercial Bank of Port Elizabeth.

Paterson maintained his connection with the Standard Bank until 1865 when he resigned as Chairman in the face of criticism of his handling of reports on the bank’s progress during the commercial crisis of that year. The rift was further widened at the end of the year when Paterson was dismayed to find that the Bank refused to allow his firm extended facilities and he and his partner were forced into liquidation.

Paterson continued to commute between England and South Africa looking after his various business interests. He was persuaded to return to politics in the 1870s. He was a keen supporter of the concept of a South African federation proposed by Lord Carnarvon in May of 1875. He was mainly instrumental in having passed the Act in 1877 enabling the Port Elizabeth municipality to obtain water from the Van Stadens River.

Trip to Port Elizabeth

In April 1880, John Paterson was due to travel to Port Elizabeth. He was booked on the SS German but he cancelled his passage and made reservations on the Durban Castle sailing a week later. He cancelled this passage too. He eventually sailed on the American.  This ship foundered on 23rd April after leaving Madeira, but all the crew and passengers were saved.  Paterson was picked up with others by the Coanza, and taken to Grand Bassa on the Ivory Coast to await a vessel bound for England.  They were picked up by the Senegal which put into Sierra Leone before going to Madeira.   Paterson wrote a detailed account of all this ready for posting in Madeira. The night before reaching Madeira, the Senegal ran aground on a sunken reef.

The Captain knew the coast well and it must have been an uncharted rock near Grand Point. He decided that as they were so near land, actually Melerino Bay, Grand canary Island and as the weather was fine, he would send all passengers ashore in lifeboats.

According to one passenger, who had been on both the American and Senegal, the behaviour on board the Senegal was lacking in all the calmness and discipline as the American was sinking. The passengers pushed and panicked the crew who, unused to lifeboat drill, had no idea how to handle the situation.

Finally the lifeboats were lowered, all except the last in which was John Paterson. Someone aboard the Senegal lowered the bow tackle without orders while the lifeboat was being swung out, with the result that the lifeboat was cut in two. Lifebuoys were thrown overboard and a fishing boat, which was near, picked up all the survivors except Paterson, who was never seen again. The chief engineer of the Senegal said that as Paterson fell in the water, he was caught by the blade of the propeller and killed outright. However, the chief engineer of the American, a survivor of the Senegal said that Paterson was not cut in two by the blade of the propeller but was struck and seemed to be partially paralysed by the stroke. He swam about wildly for a few minutes and then sank.

It was indeed an appalling tragedy. A death, any death is a loss but the loss of a man so talented who had so much to give to society, was a disaster.

The Senegal was subsequently refloated and towed into harbour where she was repaired. Had the Captain acted with a little less haste, all might have stayed quietly in board to await the refloating of the ship and John Paterson might have lived for many years to serve the Colony he loved so much from a probable seat in the House of Commons at Westminster.

Happenstance vis-à-vis pure luck

Luck represents an unearned gift in the form of largesse or a donation and definitely not in the form of flair or aptitude. Happenstance, on the other hand, takes the form of events outside one’s control that occur but from which one takes advantage instead of the event conferring the advantage as in the case of luck. In Paterson’s case, it was happenstance that James Rose Innes visited Paterson’s university and also happenstance that he was selected to teach in Port Elizabeth. Given the shameful state of the town in the 1840s, instead of the genteel elegance of Cape Town, more befitting his talents, he was cast to the wolves in a town without endearing features nor intellectual stimulus.  Yet out of this tasteless gruel he would produce a gourmet meal. His goading for a municipality also conferred the desired effect and set the town on a different trajectory.


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).

Port Elizabeth: City of Industrial and Commercial Opportunity (1938, Issued by the Port Elizabeth Publicity Association)

History of the E.H. Walton Group: 1845 to 1995 by G.S. Walton (1995, EH Walton Packaging (Pty) Lid, Port Elizabeth)

One Titan at a Time by Pamela Ffolliott & E.L.H. Croft (1960, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)

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