Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Commissariat Building

In military parlance, the Commissariat is the department for the supply of food and equipment. Being a resupply point during the Frontier Wars, a Commissariat had to be established in Port Elizabeth. Initially the military rented premises in the town but in 1837 they constructed their own buildings.

Main picture: In the foreground is washed wool being dried. Main buildings in the area are annotated

Over the years, the Royal Engineers performed reviews of the military facilities in Port Elizabeth. During his visit in 1830, Holloway compiled a report on the state of and the suitability of the current facilities to meet their requirements.   

In his excellent book, Forts of the Eastern Cape Colin G. Coetzee describes the original Commissariat building as follows: The Commissariat office and store was also a detached, one storey building with brick walls plastered with lime. It had a thatched roof, and the floors were partly boarded and partly paved. It measured 18.2 x 9.1 x 3.0 metres. The building was private property situated in the town and hired at the rate of nearly four pounds per month. It was in need of repair and should be discontinued when a regular building could be appropriated.”

Like his assessment of the barracks and various workshops, the Commissariat was also in need of replacement. In the final version of his report dated 29th January 1831 he lists all the repairs required which all included a boat shed for the surf boat belonging to the Commissariat,

According to Coetzee: What was more particularly necessary, in his view, was a properly equipped commissariat establishment to receive and forward military stores in transit for frontier services. A permanent and secure powder magazine was of the utmost importance. All the gunpowder transmitted by merchants for sale or barter, to the Frontier, through Port Elizabeth and must be placed in store for several days. At one time the merchants had contemplated building a magazine at their own cost, but Holloway, supported by Cole, was of opinion that all gunpowder should be placed in a government magazine, the importer paying tor the use of the magazine and a small remuneration for those employed there. The estimated cost of such a magazine and an Issuer’s Quarter would be £833. The site which he regarded most proper and convenient for the erection of these buildings was immediately in front of the old temporary English Chapel.”

English troops on parade in the courtyard of the Commissariat Building

On the 20th June 1837, the new Commissariat erected on the site later to be the Magistrate’s Court and Post Office, between Baakens Street and North Union Street, was commissioned. These buildings comprised a number of structures surrounding a courtyard. Moreover, according to Redgrave, “The whole block was enclosed by a high stone wall whilst facing the new market buildings were several dwellings for the officials and soldiers under the charge of Sergeant-Major Fowler.” In charge of this facility was a Commissary-General, who for many years was William Joe Smith, a bachelor who lived with his mother. To link the Fort with the landing place, some form of road was required. To meet this need, Military Road was built in the defile between two hillocks commencing at the Commissariat Buildings. As it was for many years maintained by the Government, it was also known as Government Road.

Interestingly John Centlivres Chase a prominent citizen in Port Elizabeth at the time, described Fort Frederick in 1843 as a “small and perfectly useless military work”. In stark contrast he raved that the Commissariat and Ordnance stores which had just been completed, were “superior to any other in the Colony.” Together with a Place d’armes or Armoury, this splendid set of buildings was completed at a cost of £14 000. The War Office property in Port Elizabeth ultimately occupied an area of twenty-six acres.

Until the end of 1878, the Police Station was run from the Court House premises which by that date was the Commercial Hall. From that date it was moved to one of the Commissariat buildings facing North Union Street. This portion of the Commissariat was later demolished to allow for the building of the new police station and barracks.

In July 1884 the building of a new Court, on the site of part of the Commissariat Yard, was commenced with the demolition of some of the old structures. The plans were prepared by the Public Works Dept in Cape Town and funds came from the sale, from April 1884, of Crown land, part of the Military Reserve, for building lots. Among the materials used in the new Court House were teak, Paarl granite, Coega stone, Italian marble and yellowwood.

The first phase of the new public buildings in Baakens Street was completed on December 1885. They would operate from this building until the 2nd July 1935 when the New Law Courts were opened in North End.

Peaking out at the right is the end of the Commissariat Building
Commissariat Building marked as 9 per 1937 Engineer’s map


Forts of the Eastern Cape – Securing the Frontier 1799-1786 by Colin G. Coetzee

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).

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