Port Elizabeth of Yore: Mount Pleasant & its First School

With few exceptions, most whites at the turn of the 20th century received a minimal education especially if they lived in outlying areas such as Draaifontein / De Stades area which both of my grandparents did. Most residents of Port Elizabeth assume that as both the Grey Institute and Collegiate Girls’ School had been operational for at least 25 years that most children would have attended them or alternatively that other schools of similar ability were readily available.

I would hate to disabuse you but taking the McCleland family as an exemplar, that idyll is far from  reality. This is the story of one family, one school and one village.

Main picture: The Mount Pleasant Primary School in 1904

History of the township

The farm Buffelsfontein was granted to Theunis Botha, one of the insurgents involved in the Van Jaarsveld Rebellion, in 1776. In 1816, the property was inherited by his son, Jacobus Theodorus Botha who died in 1854. He was the husband of Hermina Botha who was the brother of Berry who at some stage owned Baakens River Farm, which today comprises the suburbs of Sunridge Park, Glen Hurd, Fern Glen, and Newton Park. If one takes into account that the original Buffelsfontein Farm stretched from Maitland Mines to Mount Pleasant, between the Bothas and Berrys they owned a substantial portion of the land to the west of Port Elizabeth.    

By 1854, George Wood was the owner of Buffelsfontein. In 1858 he subdivided it and sold them. Amongst these subdivisions were Mount Pleasant and Emerald Hill.  Charles Lovemore purchased two one of which became Heatherbank. Amongst the purchasers was John Glen who named this portion Mount Pleasant. As can be imagined, Mount Pleasant was in the centre of a farming community but this was to change. In 1904 the movie magnet, J.W. Schlesinger, bought the ground for £300 from one George Harrison with the intention of developing property on it. With swaths of undeveloped land  such as Newton Park and Fairview closer to town, one wonders what Schlesinger’s rationale was.  

History of the eponymous school

While the world was preparing for the First World War, a few parents had more immediate concerns on their minds. Foremost amongst them was the plan to establish a school in Mount Pleasant. Records indicate that the first batch of pupils comprised 13 children who enrolled with a teacher, Miss I Short. It must be remembered that when the school was established, Mount Pleasant was a small village with Walmer being the nearest “town”.

The school building was of the Wood & Iron type and consisted of one room situated on the corner of High and Gladys Streets. This method of construction was cheap, but it did represent one significant drawback due to its corrugated iron roof; in summer one sweltered and in winter one froze. My brother informs me that to cool the temperature, the low tech solution was to place mud on the corrugated one. This building was last used in 1956 when it was demolished and presumably replaced by a more appropriate building.

Link to the McCleland family

Uncertainties abounded in the McCleland household in the early 1900s. On two occasions my grandfather’s attempts at farming had been thwarted by disaster. First he had lost his crops in the 1905 flood in the Gamtoos valley and then it was the turn of the Rinderpest to destroy his dairy herd at De Stades in 1913/1914.

In all probability my grandparents had been humbled by the experience but fortunately Harry William McCleland had married a feisty woman. Elizabeth Daisy Beckley might have been short in stature but as they say, dynamite comes in small packages. What she did not know yet was that she had drawn the short straw in life and, as such, she would have to marshal all her energy and wit to survive. But that is another story for another day.

Normally the birth of children is regarded as a welcome addition to the family but by the time of the rinderpest, the latest “welcome” addition had arrived, my father, the fourth such welcome arrival.

Attendance Register for Kathleen Wood [nee McCleland] in Sub B

Circa 1914 the family packed their scanty baggage and set off to seek fame & fortune in Mount Pleasant. With none to minimal education, my grandfather would have to pull the metaphorical cat out of the bag, to feed and clothe the family. In Mount Pleasant they found accommodation close to the Priory probably in a wood and iron house.

What I am definitely aware of is that of the children of school going, only Kathleen did attend Sub B at the Mount Pleasant Primary School. Thelma, her elder sister did do so but as there is no record to confirm confirm her attaenndance, one must assume that she did not. The only reason why I am certain of Kathleen’s attendance is that her attendance record has survived. Kathleen only received one years’ education at this school as the family subsequently relocated to Schoenmakerskop. At this time, Schoenmakerskop had not yet been declared a village. Consequential there were no substantial houses but what can be termed holiday shacks and shanties. Having resolved the accomodation problem, it was now that the issue of schooling was raise its ugly head. This aspect of life was even more problematical and due to lack of money, more intractible.. The solution was to ship Kathleen and my father off to school at Alexandra. But that solution posed its own problems; some life long.


Sylvia Rosemary MacGeoghegan (nee Wood) -daughter of Kathleen Wood and granddaughter of Elizabeth Daisy McCleland

Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony compiled by Bartle Logie & Margaret Harradine [2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth]

The Algoa Gazetteer 1993 by CJ Skead [1993, Algoa Regional Services Council]

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