Port Elizabeth of Yore: PE in the Age of John Geard

In the book “Memoir of the Hon John Geard of Port Elizabeth,” published in 1904, Hanesworth provides one with a vivid picture of the state of Port Elizabeth. Without a local council, the hamlet had grown for the most part without “let or hindrance” and furthermore without a vision. But this would soon change.

This blog is a verbatim quote from that book.

Main picture:  Port Elizabeth in 1840. The non-descript building on the right is the original iteration of St. Mary’s church

“It may be well at this point to give a glimpse of Port Elizabeth as it was when Mr John Geard became a townsman of it and began – as he did from the first – to take an active interest in its affairs. His recollections, often stated in conversations and speeches, perfectly agree with the description given a few years ago in an interesting lecture by the Rev. Canon Hewitt, a few paragraphs from which we quote: “Port Elizabeth had been a warehousing port in 1836, and in 1837 a magisterial district, though the circuit courts were still held at Uitenhage, where all taxes were payable. All this time no building was to be seen below the monument except Fort Frederic. There was no jetty for landing cargo, while the sea came up nearly to where Main Street now stands, and was separated then as now by sand, beyond which are traces of ugly rocks and old ships timbers, telling of wrecks that had been. A footpath through scrubby bush and rocky ground was the only ascent of the Hill, and away towards Grahamstown could be seen a solitary wagon or so. Port Elizabeth in the early forties was a dirty, ill-scented, ill-built hamlet, with about 100 houses, exclusive of huts. The Main Street extended from the Commissariat buildings [located where the old Court House was located] in an irregular line of houses and stores, with frequent gaps, past Hyman’s Kloof (now Russell Road), as far as the Toll House, an octagonal building on the site of the present Baptist Church in Queen Street. Beyond this was “outside the Bay”, with only two or three properties, the Tees, lately demolished (now St. Patrick’s Hall), Cooper’s low, red-tiled house, at the foot of Cooper’s Kloof, Reid’s large house, where the Chinaman’s garden now stands, afterwards the property of Mr. Pullens, and then you were out on the Frontier, or Uitenhage Road. On the town side of the toll, standing back from the Main Street, was Hartman’s house, of which part of the building is still visible at the foot of Hartman’s Road; Evatt and Alice Streets, with a few low disreputable houses and shanties, chiefly inhabited by the lower class of Irish and Malay, and known as Irish town. Russell Road, then Hyman’s Kloof, with grassy sides and a stream of water flowing through. A footpath led to a Hottentot location, and about a mile further was a Fingo kraal [known as Stranger’s Location]. Returning along Main Street, on the south side was another small ravine, with a trickling stream, just beyond where the post cart pulled up at the post office, on the site now occupied by Lennon’s fine building. The Union Chapel was the only place of worship, with the exception of the unfinished St. Mary’s. There was no bank until about 1850, no newspaper until about 1845, no library. The only inn was Hope Inn, now Hope Stoep, and at the foot of Military Road was one of the oldest houses in Port Elizabeth, Markham House. Living in those days was cheaper than now. People were not so fastidious as to habitations; beef was 2 3/4d per pound and butter 9d per pound, though against this was the postage of 11d to Cape Town.

1835 Febr. Port Elizabeth painted by Charles Michell

Another writer says, speaking of Port Elizabeth in 1850: “The police establishment was limited to four old decrepit men by day and none at all by night. Between 1850 and 1860, within three or four hundred yards in and near Jetty Street, were fifteen canteens of the most disreputable type. There were no licensing courts in those days, and the Resident Magistrate, anxious to increase the revenue, never refused an applicant who had the money for a license in his hands. Character was not considered. Gas was unknown, and the oil lamps so few and far between as to be worse than useless. The Main Street, which was ankle-deep in sand up to 1851, was made something of a hard road by convicts in that year”.

1850 Port Elizabeth in 1850

Port Elizabeth benefited greatly by the wars, as the only port of landing of military stores, and generally, through a large war expenditure of £154,000 a year over the ordinary military outlay. The town was also enriched by the growing native trade and the steady increase in wool and other products.

Extract from Familia
Confirming that description is this extract from Familia:
“Port Elizabeth in 1846 was a dirty, ill-scented, ill-built hamlet, and it is said that sensible residents, especially Mr. Charles Geard, began to complain bitterly about the filth and stench of the place, resulting in a meeting being called in the old Commercial Hall [subsequently replaced by the current Public Library] to discuss the advisability of a municipality to clean up the town, lay down proper streets, etc.”

Memoir of the Hon. John Geard Rev A. Hanesworth (190, Fort Beaufort Printing and Publishing Company, 1904)
Familia year xxviii/1981 No. 4: (A historical cemetery in Port Elizabeth (II)):

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.