Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Red Lion Tavern

In all likelihood, this is the oldest hotel / bar/ drinking hole bearing the name The Red Lion in Port Elizabeth, yet none of them has any connection to the others apart from the name. Of the three, the first has the most interesting history but even then, it almost disappeared under the swirling sea of history to be forever lost to the predator called progress.

It an attempt to revive that history, I have written this blog

Main picture: Cornfield’s 1823 sketch of Port Elizabeth with the Red Lion Tavern in the distance next to High Street as Main Street was known in the early days.

The First Red Lion

This building is memorable for all the right reasons and not for the wrong reasons such as drunkenness, brawling and general mayhem. With the town’s reputation in its formative years as being claimed to be a rough-and-ready place, it was probably remembered for the wrong reasons initially, but history cast aside the chaff and the wheat has remained.

Cornfield’s drawing of PE in 1923 with High Street marked in yellow & the Red Lion Tavern [shebeen] marked in red

Recorded in official government records, is a meeting held in the Red Lion during 1824 in which the Commandant of Fort Frederick, Captain Francis Evatt, was the chairman. What better place and setting for a meeting which would decide the fate of the town in which the inebriated men would in an uninhibited manner make demands about the direction of the town. Between gulps of refreshments, Captain Evatt thanked the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Lord Charles Somerset, for responding positively to a previous petition which entreated him to provide Port Elizabeth with a school. “But”, he exclaimed between yet another thirst quencher, “the town has yet another urgent request to forward to the Governor for which the town’s people will be eternally grateful. If the Governor could see his way clear to indulge the residents with a church which has become such a necessity what with the likes of inebriation and the curse of alcohol.” Loud cheers arose and glasses were raised as some drunken sod offered free drinks all around.[The words used are my interpretation of what occurred and do not represent the actual words spoken.]

1932 painting by William John Huggins showing the Red Lion Tavern building no longer used as an Inn

For posterity, it should be recorded that the Governor declined to assist directly with the construction of a church, but did arrange that the Irish clergyman and 1820 settler, the Rev. Francis McCleland, residing in Clanwilliam with the other Irish settlers, would be appointed the Colonial Chaplain, in Port Elizabeth during 1825.

Margaret Harradine records that “By strange good fortune, the plans for the original Red Lion have survived and are held in the Archives in Cape Town. The land on which it stood was part of erf 2 which extended from Main Street towards the sea and which was granted to Piet Retief on 3 January 1815, probably for the building of warehouses. Nothing came of this plan and on 1 October 1821 the subdivided erf was transferred to new owners, Nicolaus Hitge receiving the largest piece. Hitge’s land faced onto Main Street and is described as being ” in the front of the street contiguous to the landing place and to the market”. The recipient of the grant was to “build an Inn which might prove a decoration to the town.”

Magnified 1923 view of Cornfield’s painting of early Port Elizabeth with the outline of the Red Lion Tavern marked in red and the two single storey buildings marked in blue

Hitge arrived in South Africa in 1808 from Alt-Leining, Germany. Whether he was seeking greener pastures, an adventurer at heart and or escaping from a loveless marriage or some heinous crime cannot be ascertained but what puzzled the local inhabitants was the spelling of his name, often corrupting it to a phonetic Hidge. On the 14th May 1820, he married a Scots girl, Mary Hunt at Uitenhage. They settled in Port Elizabeth and Hitge appears on the 1822 list of inhabitants. There were 5 Hitge children, including twin boys who were baptised at St. Mary’s. Soon after the arrival of the 1820 settlers, he erected the Red Lion Tavern on erf 2 Main Street.

Floor plan and elevation of the Red Lion

According to Harradine, “At the end of 1823 Hitge put the Red Lion up for sale. The notice in the Government Gazette describes it as being100′ by 24′, having the advantage of a store 50′ by 24′. The premises contain 16 apartments, independent of servants’ rooms and outhouses.” There were also a “convenient bakehouse with 2 fine ovens” and a good stable. Ronald Lewcock in “Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa” reproduces the plans for the inn, which are to be found in the Cape Archives Depot. The building is typical of its period, double-storeyed, with plain gables and pitched roof and a single storeyed wing on each side. The design of this building was replicated throughout the eastern Cape, from Grahamstown to the whole Albany district.

Red Lion Tavern in 1929 marked in blue from a painting by Slater

The Hitge family went to live in Uitenhage. Nicolaus (whose first name also appears in a variety of spellings) died aged 63 in 1848 owning property in that town and the farm Sandfontein in the district. According to Lewcock, information in the Archives suggests that it was the Government who took over the Red Lion from Hitge, renting it for Custom House and Public Office accommodation. If that is indeed correct, then that would in effect be the last possible on which this property was used as a tavern but in fact it might well have ceased to operate as a tavern prior to this date.

Harradine states that the “Deeds Office records show the transfer of the land to Thomas Williamson and then to William Matthew Harries on the same day, 6 June 1837. Harries, a well-known local personality, offered several items of property for sale in 1838, including a new house and store in High (Main) Street, and another house and store and cottages.  The next owner was the merchant William Pattinson, to whom the land was transferred on 4 March 1841. The assessment registers of 1864 and 1866 give his property as a shop and house, 4 cottages and a store. By this time, Hitge’s piece of land had been subdivided into 4 parts and maps show several buildings side by side facing Main Street as well as buildings behind. One building in the middle is set back from the road – the only one in the street so placed. This could be the Red Lion, and a sketch by Piers in the early 1840’s also shows a Red Lion-type house, in the right position, a little back from the line of the road, but by the time the photographic era arrived there was a modern store in its place with an elaborate Victorian facade.

Portion of Harries ‘Southern View of Port Elizabeth’ showing No 7 Castle Hill on the crest of the hill

Pattinson died in 1878, but his second wife, Elizabeth, lived until 1891 and it was only then that his property, given as 19 Main Street, was sold again. The buyer was Herbert H. Parker.

Description of the Red Lion per Lewcock

A fortunate chance has preserved full details of one of the earliest substantial houses to be erected in Port Elizabeth after the arrival of the settlers. This was a building erected by Nicholas Hitge on the site “in the front of the street contiguous to the landing place and to the market, which was especially donated by Sir Rufane Donkin, it being stipulated that the recipient “was to build an Inn which might prove a decoration to the town.” The Inn, which has for its sign a Red Lion, comprised a stone double-storeyed thatched block flanked by two flat-roofed side wings of single-storey height. There were eight sleeping rooms’ upstairs, separated from one another by light yellowwood partitions, and ‘six large rooms’ at the entrance level. The roof space was said to be suitable for sleeping rooms or dry store. An open, staircase connecting the floors rose up from the back parlour.

The main building was flanked on one side by a range of small sheds enclosing a yard “which is accessible to wagons” and containing an “entrance to the store which is under the principal part of the house”. This building was unique in having a Mansard roof which shows in many early sketches and photographs. This may be the reason for the representation of the hotel in the early Cornfield print with Cape Dutch end gables which it does not appear ever to have had – in fact the end gables were straight-sided, with that peculiar bend in the middle of the sides associated with Mansard roofing. (Four dormers on each side of the roof which do not show in either Hitge’s elevation or Cornfield’s sketch, appear in subsequent drawings / photographs.)

The Second Red Lion Tavern

In the case of the first Red Lion Tavern, it was Alf Porter who misidentified the location of the building. Porter claimed that it was situated in Damant Street, whereas Harradine, after copious sleuthing, obtained conclusive proof that it was in fact operating from erf 2 High [Main] Street.

Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street in 1885 on the right of Thomas Kinna’s house used as a general dealer. It was being run by James Maloney at the time

In the case of the second tavern to operate under the Red Lion Tavern, it was JJ Redgrave who was the culprit, it that in his book, “Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days”, Redgrave states that the first Red Lion was in Evatt Street. This obviously was not so, and he had in mind the second Red Lion which was started in about 1863 by Thomas Kinna. Kinna’s building was also a typical English/Settler house, but smaller than Hitge’s. Kinna died in 1899 aged 80 but the Red Lion continued under other owners for some years.

Subsequent Red Lion Tavern / Hotel

In its current iteration, the Red Lion Hotel is located on Govan Mbeki Street [Main Street], North End.  

The Red Lion in North End


The Red Lion and Phoenix Hotels by Margaret Harradine [Looking Back, July 1985]


  1. I may have some interesting memorabilia of the Red Lion. Inherited some collectables from grand parents. If there are collectors interested, please contact me.


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