Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Opening of St. George’s Park

Many of the visitors to Port Elizabeth in its formative years paint a deeply unflattering picture of the hamlet as being dull and dreary or more depressingly as “a parcel of miserable huts huddled together on the seashore”. By the 1860s that situation was being cast aside by numerous events amongst which was the opening of St. George’s Park and the erection of the majestic Town Hall.  

This blog is based almost exclusively upon an unpublished article by Tennyson S. Bodill on this event entitled Narrative of the Park on the Hill.

Main picture: The Pearson Conservatory in 1888

Setting the scene

The town of Port Elizabeth can rightfully claim that it was the first town in the Cape Colony to enjoy the dignity of a municipal corporations, Grahamstown being the second and Cape Town, even though the seat of Government, was only third to have a mayor and Town Council of its own. By 1860, Port Elizabeth had long outgrown the early description “a parcel of miserable huts huddled together on the seashore”.

Arriving at Algoa Bay, in that year, by any of the mail steamers, a visitor would have found all the evidence of an enterprising, energetic and prosperous town. For two or three miles along the waterfront, up the sloping hill and on the brow of the heights above, there rose in succession warehouses, stores, manufacturing, concerns, shops, offices, dwelling houses, churches, a new hospital, and other buildings of every description and architectural variety.

The original Court House is on the right

Immediately above the principal landing places, namely Jetty Street, was the central and business part of the town, forming what is known as Main Street, comprising the major banking and mercantile establishments, shops, stores and other places of business, extending from the Market Square to the new Prison, with its enclosing massive stone walls, at the northern end of the town.

It is said that convicts, under the supervision of Inspector White, were used to clear Main Street of its deep pot-holes, boulders and loose soil, giving it something of a hard surface with declivities as gutters and deep holes to act as drains close to the footpaths in front of the line of shops and stores.

Despite the efforts of Inspector White to stabilise the road, and with no water being available to dampen the surface, sandy Main Street gave off clouds of dust from the south-easters and the passing traffic of horses and ox-wagons or became a mud bog after a downpour of rain.

Main Street was lined on both sides with large shops and wholesale stores, some of the buildings being two or three storeys high, with plate glass windows, massive masonry, and chaste architecture. Business customarily began early in these mercantile palaces, even when the stars were still faint in the sky. It was usual to see a great number of ox-wagons trekking in the directions of the Market Square, loaded with produce and livestock for sale by auction. Each wagon was drawn by a span of between twelve and eighteen oxen urged on by the crack of the driver’s long whip. At all hours of the day, the farmers’ wagons were lined up on the Square and along the streets, while their owners traded in the numerous “boerewinkels” in Main Street, or visited one of the many busy canteens to quench their thirst and hear the news, before returning to their homes.

The independent Chapel was situated in the most bustling part of Main Street. In this building was fixed the town clock, a mechanism showing enough in its way, but possessing no feature so remarkable as its inaccuracy.

On the Market Square stood the rising embryo of the somewhat commodious Town Hall with its stately portico of Corinthian columns, and across the square stood the Commercial Exchange Building, then used as a Court House.

The Commercial Exchange Building

In the immediate vicinity of the Market Square was the episcopal church of St. Mary, the principal place of worship in the town, and the very model of some English Church. St. Paul’s, another episcopal church at the northern part of the town, was a good example of ecclesiastical architecture. The Reverend Samuel Brook was the incumbent. Like every other place of Divine Worship in Port Elizabeth, on the sabbath it was filled with people, who were mostly resident in the neighbourhood, or else persons  who resided in the heart of the town, but preferred the more moderate views held by the incumbent to those of the officiating minister, the Reverend E. Pickering, at St. Mary’s Church.

Original St Mary’s Church before the fire in 1895

Further unmistakable evidence of progress in Port Elizabeth was the establishment, and occupation in 1860, of the important “tronk” or prison, a building which was said to have cost the Colonial Government £6,500 to construct. Its style represented half baronial castle, half alms-house, and it certainly could not fail to attract the attention of any up-country visitor entering the town from the north.

Donkin Reserve -L-R White’s Road, Grand Hotel, Diocesan Grammar School, Western Road, site of the future King Edward Hotel, Belmont Terrace

Naturally, the “Hill” in contradistinction to the “town below” was the fashionable quarter of town. The aspect and surroundings of this area, a flat table on the terraced ground above Main Street, comprised many superior and truly elegant villa-type residences, and although horticulture was sadly at a discount there, one or two private gardens might have been found to be well worthy of inspection. The Hill was certainly enhanced by the new Grey Institute, a squat ecclesiastic type of structure with a pinnacle central tower, which crowned the Pyramid Reserve.

Silhouetted against the skyline on the heights above the Baakens River valley was the stone structure of Fort Frederick, once garrisoned under the command of the late Captain Francis Evatt, late of the 21st Light Dragoons. The Baakens was more of a river then and the valley was the usual venue of picnics.

Access to this prestigious residential area on the Hill was by way of Whites Road, which Inspector White and a gang of convicts had cut and stamped out of the steep kloof in whose cascading stream part of the town’s washing was done.

A short distance beyond Hyman’s Kloof, on the hill overlooking the northern end of the town, stood the new Public Hospital. This hospital was a vast, spacious and well-regulated  establishment  for the sick , and one which in every way redounded to the credit of the Bayonians.

The Hill Lighthouse shortly after its completion in 1861

Water was a very scarce commodity, particularly in 1860. People depended on the rainfall, when water was collected from the roofs of houses and stored in tanks on the landowners’ premises or obtained from the many creeks and streams located in the town area. There were a number of public wells in towns from which water was obtained for domestic purposes.

The description of Port Elizabeth would indeed, be very incomplete if the matter concerning sobriety among seamen were omitted. Before 1860, the back-slums and the by-streets along the beach were notorious for drunkenness, profanity, and dissipation of every kind. Nearly every fifth house in Strand Street, then a narrow thoroughfare, which ran parallel to Main Street, and separating the latter from the beach was a canteen of the lowest description, the interiors of which were  often filled to capacity with the lowest class of blackguards of all nations, in every stage of inebriation.

British Troops gather on Donkin

In 1860, this state of affairs along the beachfront was definitely something of the past, the antics of any notorious drunkard was certainly not tolerated amongst the numerous and respectable class of surf boatmen and beach-workers connected with the area. Many of these boatmen and beach-workers were members of the local Abstinence Society which was established to control the sale and distribution of intoxicating beverages, the foremost being the popular “Cape Smoke”,  and to eradicate drunkenness in the streets.

The predominating spirit among the industrious inhabitants of the town, was the search for wealth, the all-absorbing desire to get rich, to make money. This spirit was evinced in the streets, in the houses, on the markets, at the sales, in the shops, in the dwellings, and in the persons of the inhabitants.

The Donkin Reserve with the Grey Institute in the background

The character of Port Elizabeth may have been summed up at the time as essentially “fast”. People lived at a terrific pace. Everything was sacrificed, everything succumbed to the ruling principle. The physical and mental wear and tear of the Bay merchants, shopkeepers, and traders was almost incredible. “From early morn to dewy eve”, the cry was money.

With the exception of the Public Library, which had moved into the Town Hall, although it was not finally completed until 1862, there was not a single place of public relaxation in the town. No gardens, no park, no club, no theatre, no mechanics’ institute, no nothing as one may have said then. The only departure from daily routine was on rare occasions some amateur dramatic performance or literary lecture was presented. These rare occasions of entertainment were seized upon with great enthusiasm and were always well patronised by the inhabitants of the town.

Prince Alfred (1844-1900) later the Duke of Edinburgh

His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, later created Duke of Edinburgh, on his voyage on board H.M.S. Euryalus, visited Port Elizabeth, where he landed on 6th August 1860, that being his sixteenth birthday. Prince Alfred, in the company of Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Governor of the Cape Colony, was on that memorable occasion welcomed enthusiastically by the inhabitants, and it is claimed that the young Prince was taken to an open flat beyond the Hill where he planned “with his own hand” the first oak tree on the land which later, on the first anniversary of his visit, was to become known as the “Park on the Hill” and afterwards, St. George’s Park.

Euryalus leading the line of battle during the Bombardment of Kagoshima, 1863.

However, no evidence can be found in the records pertaining to Prince Alfred’s visit to substantiate this claim. Instead to commemorate the first anniversary of the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred to Port Elizabeth, the worthy Town Councillors in August 1861 decided on appropriating a portion of the town commonage, on the flat, on the Hill as a public recreation ground, for up till then the people on weekends and public holidays were confined to Rufane  Vale or the Baakens River Valley, whilst others strolled over the Hill or along the beach front.

At the suggestion of Mr. H.W. Pearson, the Town Council resolved, “that the playground grant be called ‘St. George’s Park’, and that it be opened on 6th August 1861, by the mayor and Council, who shall then commence a plantation around it, to be called the “Prince’s Grove’, with the view of inaugurating an annual custom of celebrating that day by adding to the plantation”.

Prince Alfred’s Grove

Tuesday 6th August 1861

Tuesday 6th August 1861 was declared a public holiday in Port Elizabeth, and everybody gave himself up to enjoy the day in his own particular fashion. In the town, it was evident that there was to be a general holiday. Flags and streamers were waving in every direction in the gentle breeze, and all the banking and mercantile establishments, shops, stores and other places of business were closed for the day.

The day began with a Royal Hunt for which the public were indebted to the indefatigable Mr. George Read under whose leadership the hunt was arranged. Before daylight men and dogs were off, and the huntsmen were rewarded for their early rising by their splendid runs. Two bucks were killed in the course of a couple of hours, and the huntsmen were back in time to be present at the inauguration of St. Georges Park.

The Beaters during the Easter Hunt at Wycombe Vale in 1884

People in holiday attire stood on the Market Square which, by a sort of instinct, seemed to be the centre of attraction. Here the naval brigade all dressed in blue and white was mustered in front of the Town Hall under the command of Captain Chapman and Lieutenant Wheatland. The Mayor, Mr William Smith, and Councillors, all very grave and dignified in “tails and gloves” were also assembled at the Town Hall.

Presently the Band, or rather a small portion of it, struck up and with drums and fifes marched down Main Street past the Independent Chapel, then known as the New Church, to the site of the new park. Meanwhile the Councillors proceeded to the flat beyond the Hill, and by the time the Brigade arrived, a crowd had assembled to witness the ceremony of planting the first tree in St. George’s Park.

Market Square and Castle Hill circa 1860 painted by Mrs J Clark

A fellow townsman, Mr. W. Birt, had presented the Mayor with a young oak, and this was to be the tree. All preparations had been made beforehand to have everything ready for the ceremony. The Mayor in a brief but appropriate address, explained to the assembled crowd the purpose for which  they had gathered, and then called upon Mr. Pearson, the originator of the idea, to address those present. In  his address Mr. Pearson, said, “Before he moved in this matter, it had often occurred to himself and several others, that a public playground and park were greatly needed in Port Elizabeth, a place where the citizens could meet together and enjoy the beautiful sunshine of Heaven, and breathe the free and fresh air which God had given them.

Pearson Conservatory

Port Elizabeth was gradually growing into a large commercial city and the Town Council thought they could bestow no greater boon upon their fellow citizens – one which would be worthy of the occasion which had that day called them together – than setting apart a public playground and park, where, upon every return of that and other holidays, the merchant, the shopkeeper, the tradesman, and the labourer could meet for recreation and innocent amusement, and spend a day now and then in happy intercourse with each other.

Plaque on tree planted by Prince Alfred

The Mayor was about to plant the first tree in what it had been decided to name “Prince Alfred’s Grove“, in honour of England’s Sailor Prince. Under the shelter of the proud old oak, England had risen to a position of distinction and eminence, and he hoped under the shade of the oak now about to be planted, the citizens of Port Elizabeth would often meet and enjoy the advantages the promoters of “St. George’s Park” intended they should.  And in later years, when South Africa had achieved an eminence for herself worthy of that great country from which her sons and daughters had sprung, he trusted the citizens of Port Elizabeth would frequently assemble in “St. George’s Park”, and pointing to the Prince’s Grove say, “For that, and for this spacious public playground, we are indebted to the foresight and kindness of a former Municipal body, who commemorated the first anniversary of a Royal Prince’s visit in inaugurating for the comfort, health and recreation of their fellow-townsmen for all time, these shady walks and extensive grounds”.

After this address by Mr. Pearson, champagne was produced, and amid a volley of corks and smart repartee, health’s innumerable were drunk, and success to Port Elizabeth and the Prince’s Grove pledged over and over again.

Mr. Nathaniel Adler made a neat speech, drinking to the success of the undertaking in a bumper of champagne. “Port Elizabeth”, he said, “Was a dry and arid spot, but he hoped the day would come when visitors from the fatherland would be able to gladden their eyes by the sight of green foliage in that grove, and, under the shade of that oak, would be able to stretch their limbs, and enjoy themselves while thinking over the past”.

Port Elizabeth had that day”, he said, “done something of which it might be proud, and he hoped that the tree, now planted, would soon grow into a wide spreading grove, and that our children and children’s children would live to see the result of that day’s work so well begun”. All the Councillors present, and several of the inhabitants then planted trees or seeds.

Following the ceremony, foot races were organised for the men of the Naval Brigade, and a good deal of fun ensued, an impromptu subscription list was opened, and a sufficient sum collected on the spot to furnish prizes for four races.    In the afternoon picnics and pleasure parties were the order of the day. Then came the Temperance Banquet in the Court House in the evening, and the Public Ball in the large Town Hall closed the festivities in an appropriate manner.

Gardens in St George’s Park

The same holiday was celebrated again by the Port Elizabethans in 1862 and 1863, when more trees were planted in the Park. A few years later, on the afternoon of 12 September 1882, in the presence of the Mayor, Mr. H.W. Pearson, the Town Councillors, leading merchants and several ladies, the new Conservatory at St. George’s Park was opened by the Commissioner of Public Works, the Honourable John X. Merriman.

Pearson Conservatory

In front of the gathering stood erected a building which certainly complemented this attractive park with its very agreeable walks through avenues of trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and grassy plots. No better account of the official opening of the Pearson Conservatory at St. George’s Park exists than that of the Eastern Province Herald of Wednesday, 13 September 1882. It is a long report, but the following interesting description is well worth recording, as it illustrates the journalism of the day: “The structure consists of a central building and two wings.        The centre building measures twenty-five feet by fifty feet by twenty-nine feet high to the centre of the skylight. The roof is supported on eight lofty columns with marbled shafts and ornamental heads picked out in gold and dark green. The wing buildings each measure twenty-one by forty-four feet by seventeen feet high to centre of skylights. The roofs of these buildings are also supported on ornamental columns, and over these as also the centre building the iron ribs of the roofs are strengthened by means of ornamental wrought iron scroll work.

A crowd listen to the band of the Prince Alfred’s Band outside the Pearson Conservatory in St George’s Park in 1939

The entire building with the exception of the plinth is constructed of glass and moulded teakwood framing, the roof ribs being of light iron. The interior is decorated as follows: a warm grey ground picked out with pale blue and light chocolate lining, and the scroll iron work with light flesh colour lining columns all marbled and mouldings gilded and the glass on the sides exposed to the sun is frosted with ornamental lines and corners. The roofs have also been frosted in light blue to subdue the vertical rays of the sun and keeps the place beautifully cool.

Fountain at St George’s Park

The exterior is decorated as follows: light stone colour ground with chocolate and white lining. The gutters have a small chocolate stencil pattern, and the sashes are all white, the ornamental iron cresting and terminals are painted dark blue, picked out with white and  old.  The ventilation of the building is complete, being arranged as follows: Every alternate sash at the bottom opens, being hung on pivots, and the skylight throughout are opened simultaneously by a lever apparatus, operated by a hand-wheel

The arrangements of the interior are as follows: Round the whole building a raised bed is built with a retaining wall for plants, and in the centre of the two wings a double tier of shelves of perforated iron, supported on miniature columns for the reception of plants. The centre building has a very handsome centre fountain with a large basin, and on either side are enclosed spaces for plants. There are also four very handsome bronzed seats for visitors.

The glazing, painting and decorating has been executed by Mr. Johnstone, of Port Elizabeth, under the instruction and superintendence of Mr. W.H. Miles, Consulting Architect to the Municipality.”

The statue ‘The Water Catcher’ originally stood in the fountain in the Mayor’s Garden & later placed outside the Conservatory

The large number of ladies and gentlemen having gathered in front of the Conservatory, the Mayor, Mr. Pearson, and the Honourable John X. Merriman ascended the steps of the main entrance, and the key of the building was handed to the Mayor by the architect, Mr. W.H. Miles. The Mayor, in his address, said that they had met there that day for the purpose of opening the Conservatory and he felt thankful •••• he was sure the whole community felt thankful ••• to the Honourable, the Commissioner of Public Works, who was on a short visit to Port Elizabeth, on arriving in town to take part in the ceremony of opening this little addition to the Public Gardens.

The Gardens, he did not need to inform them, and doubtless it was within the recollection of the Honourable Commissioner, were formed from ground that was a few years ago a barren desolate place, but, by dint of the perseverance of the community of this town, in addition to the untiring

industry of Mr. Wilson, they have arrived at their present perfection. For Mr. Wilson’s constant attention to his duties they were indebted for what they saw around them, and Mr. Wilson, too, has enjoyed the reward of his long labours in seeing the result of his works.

The Mayor thanked Mr. Wilson personally, on behalf of the Town Council and the people of Port Elizabeth for his labours. The  Mayor said that he  would  ask  the Commissioner of Public Works, to perform the ceremony  of opening the Conservatory. With regard to the Conservatory itself, it has been going on for some years, but it was necessary  to  get the money together to carry  on the   labour.

The following was the financial statement:-

The Conservatory was designed and material supplied by Messrs. J. Boyd and Son, of Paisley; The glass was supplied by Messrs. Chance Bro(ther)s; The foundations were laid by Mr. J. Marshall, of Port Elizabeth; The Conservatory was erected under the superintendence of Mr. Fraser, one of the employees of Messrs. J. Boyd and Son, who was sent out to Port Elizabeth for this purpose; The fountains were obtained through Messrs. J. Boyd and Son at a cost of £71 (both are supplied with Van Staaden’s River water): The vases were imported from Messrs. J. Rosher and Company, of London; The eight iron seats were obtained by Messrs. Birt and Nephew from the Colebrook-dale Company, England.

The late Mr. Wicksteed (Hydraulic Engineer to the town of Port Elizabeth. John Hamilton Wicksteed died on 23 August 1881) was the architect until the time of his death, and since then the works were under the supervision of Mr. W.H. Miles, architect, of this town. Mr. Bullen has acted as Clerk of Works throughout the erection of the Conservatory.

Cost of the structure built in England   £1 560
Freight and Duty   £   336
Foundation and erection in the park   £1 904                
Total cost   £3 800

Whereof the Parliament in 1876 voted a sum of £1 000 but owing to the omission of the annual vote for Parks, only £750 was available for the Conservatory. The interests thereon and votes of the Town Council provided for £1 050, leaving £2 000 which was borrowed from the Town Improvement Fund on an engagement to repay £250 per annum with interest during the ensuing eight years.

The Mayor believed that he could assure them all that they would have £250 worth of amusement out of the Conservatory and concluded by again thanking the Commissioner of Public Works for his attendance there that day. The Honourable John X. Merriman, who was very warmly received, said he felt deeply grateful for the kindness done, and the honour conferred on him, by asking him to take part in the ceremony there that day, and to be connected with the opening of so useful and ornamental a work.

John X Merriman sketched by P Lewsen
John X Merriman sketched by P Lewsen.jpg

The work was ornamental, everyone could see that, and that it was useful no one could doubt who considers the refining effect the higher class of gardening has upon any community, from the mere artisan who cultivates a few flowers, to the Duke of Devonshire who cultivated acres.

We had no Dukes of Devonshire in this country, but there was what was even better, a public spirit, and Port Elizabeth had set a grand example to the whole of the Colony. It was a pleasure to have come to Port Elizabeth to see what the public spirit of the community could do, and not asking the Government to do what people ought to do for themselves.

In this respect he thought Port Elizabeth afforded an admirable example to many other places in this Colony. As their worthy Mayor had said, the place where they then stood was, a few years ago, a howling wilderness, and no one – thought they would ever have gardens there like the present, and anyone who said so, would be laughed at. But all these difficulties were overcome by the public spirit of Port Elizabeth, without appeals to that much burdened entity, the Government, that was called upon to do all things. He hoped they would continue to act in the same way, and when-ever they asked the Government for assistance the Government would feel inclined to listen to them. He liked to see people helping themselves.

In retrospect

It has been said by Faith all things were accomplished and he was sure by Faith Port Elizabeth had set an example to other communities. Referring to the water supply, he said Port Elizabeth was one of the best supplied towns with water in South Africa. It would be a credit to any town of even six times the size of Port Elizabeth. In the present Mayor they had the right man in the right place.

The Pearson Conservatory, with its well-arranged beds and containers of flowering tropical plants, has changed little over the past century. In the park itself, the oak tree planted by Nathaniel Adler in 1861, although not large by any extent, still stands proudly among the many Australian gums, Port Jackson willows, cypresses, the beautiful Hakeia Adoratas, and varieties of palm trees.

You can take a leisurely stroll up the main pathway, once known as “Prince Alfred’s Grove“, in very much the same manner our forebearers did, and in so doing, appreciate the labours of the many gardeners who were connected with the establishment of this beautiful and historical park.

In a world where the accepted foundations of life are crumbling, the people of Port Elizabeth, and likewise the Republic of South Africa, naturally seek to strengthen their bonds with more permanent values and become interested in some of the more outward and visible manifestations of them. Among the numerous relics and buildings comprising our cultural heritage, St. George’s Park with its ornamental Conservatory provides a valuable contribution.


Narrative of the Park on the Hill by Tennyson Smith Bodill.

Redgrave, J.J. Port Elizabeth In Bygone Days.

Official Handbook of the Cape of Good Hope, October 1868

Illustrated London News, dated 10 October 1868

Eastern Province Herald dated 6 August 1861.

Eastern Province Herald dated 9 August 1861.

Eastern Province Herald dated 16 August 1861.

Eastern Province Herald dated 13 September 1882.

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