Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Commercial Hall Building

The building of the Commercial Hall was indicative of the emerging maturity of the town. One of the purposes to which this building was to be put, namely as a library, was emblematic of this transition.  Unfortunately, intruding on these intentions was the old court house burning down. As a consequence, from 1856 until the new library was opened in 1902, this prime function was put in abeyance for 46 years.

Main picture: Commercial Hall building on the site of the current Main Public Library

During July 1843, the foundation stone of the Commercial Hall was laid on the site of the present library in the Market Square. Land for a “library and commercial hall” was granted by Sir George Napier in 1839. The build­ing, designed by C.C. Michell, was completed in 1845 and served for all public occasions until 1856, when the old court house burned down and the Hall was expropriated to “serve the purpose. This hall was financed by public share subscription of which the Rev. Francis McCleland held one share.

One of the uses for which this building was designed was that of a hall. The first time that it served in that role was on the 12th May 1847 when the first public concert held in Port Elizabeth took place in the Commercial Hall to raise money for those suffering as a result of famine in Ireland and Scotland. Fifty pounds was raised. Later that year on the 22nd September 1847 the first performance of the P.E. Amateur Theatrical Society was held in the Commercial Hall. This consisted of “Ion” by S. Talford and a farce called “The Queer Subject”. After the Royal Theatre was built next to the Commercial Hall, this building no longer served that purpose.

Market Square in 1870 taken by J.E. Bruton with the Commercial Hall situated where the modern Public Library is situated

It was only on the 2nd October 1848 that the Port Elizabeth Public Library and Reading Room opened in a room in the Commercial Hall. It began with about 154 members, the secretary was William Passmore, and the librarian was John Freeman, with hours from 5-9 pm. The Port Elizabeth News Society had earlier (1846) provided newspapers, books and periodicals, and William Ring had had a commercial circulating library for a time. The Library was highly regarded by the citizens. The “Herald” in October 1848 said: “The Library rises indeed like a Great Blessing among us and over us, a holy radiance across our community.” Furthermore in July 1853, it noted that “The Public Library, henceforward, will stand forth the proudest monument of the wisdom, intelligence and liberality of the first inhabitants of Port Elizabeth, on which posterity will be caused to gaze.

Commercial Hall

In its initial years, the hall was also used for some influential meetings. Most noteworthy was one held on the 19th May 1849. The proposal of Earl Grey that convicts be sent to the Cape instead of to Australia met with resistance. There was fierce anti-convict agitation and a protest meeting held in the Commercial Hall was described as “the biggest and most influential meeting” yet held.

The use of portion of the Commercial Hall as a library came to an abrupt end in August 1854 when the oldest building in Port Elizabeth, originally the quarters of the Commandant of the Fort and at this point the Magistrate’s Court, was burned down. The Commercial Hall was expropriated for use as the Court House and was used as such until 1885 when the new building in Baakens Street was opened.

Commercial Hall and Cleghorns, 1860s

On the 4th June 1856 the Commercial Hall would also serve a new role as the meeting place of the newly established Port Elizabeth Divisional Council. On that date an Act of Parliament was passed creating the Council. The first Divisional Councils Bill was introduced into Parliament by John Paterson as Chairman. Among the roles of these Councils was the upkeep of roads within their areas.

Market Square. The Obelisk after the addition in June 1878 of the granite water trough and drinking fountains designed by James Bisset

By now the Commercial Hall had outlived its original purpose. The role as a hall, a Court House and as a Theatre had been superseded by purpose-built buildings. Only a purpose-built library was now required. The site on which the Commercial Hall was located would serve as the ideal location for a library. As the Commercial Hall had in all probability been underutilised over the preceding 15 years, there was no dissent at the decision to demolish the existing structure. Secondly from a perspective of elegance, the design of the building lacked both proportionality and coherence. As such it was unlikely to be sorely missed.

On the 29th July 1902 the new Public Library in the Market Square was officially opened. Designed by Henry A. Cheers of Twickenham, England, it is faced with imported terra-cotta blocks. In 1950 the ground floor offices were converted into shops and plate-glass windows installed, but the facade was restored in 1989.

Veterans of the Umzintzani pose for an historic picture outside the Commercial Hall


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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