Port Elizabeth of Yore: The State of Medical Services – The First Provincial Hospital

By the 1850s, there was heightened concern about the lack of a hospital in Port Elizabeth. Discussions amongst the town’s folk increasingly revolved around this requirement. Whenever citizens congregated, it was a topic of discussion. Even though the population had risen by 1855 to about 3,500 and disease and sickness was increasing, Port Elizabeth still did not have a hospital. Plans for a hospital were discussed over several years.

It was not until Act 5 of 1856 established the Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital that planning for a hospital could commence. As an interim measure, a house in Rodney Street was hired to serve as a hospital. This was opened on the 10th September 1856 with Dunsterville and Rubidge serving as doctors.

Main picture: Entrance to the Richmond Hill provincial hospital in 1856

Striving for a hospital

Ultimately the need to address the welfare of the town led to discussions on the need for a hospital. In the forefront of this movement was John Anderson who championed the cause. The proponents established a committee of which Anderson was elected chairman. They drafted a scheme for the establishment of a charity and the Government was approached. The Governor of the Colony, Sir George Grey, promptly assigned them a grant of land for a site and endowment for the proposed Hospital adjoining the Grey Institute Lands. The extent of this grant was over eleven morgen of ground covering what is now known as Bird Street, Western Road and Pearson Street. It was promptly divided up into lots and all but the actual site was sold to the public at prices ranging from £1 to £5 pounds per lot, the quitrents remaining good.

Regardless of their initial success, at a meeting during June 1855, they struck while the iron was hot. They drafted a long report and submitted it to the Government.

“In the first place, it being probable that the Government are about to give up the establishment for Lunatics on Robben Island, and as considerable expense and trouble have, from time to time, been incurred by the Government in forwarding unfortunates of this class from various parts of the Eastern Province to the Cape, the Committee would suggest that the design of the projected Hospital should be extended so as to include the treatment of lunatic patients belonging  to this  part  of  the  country, and that  the  Institution be styled : ‘THE EASTERN PROVINCE HOSPITAL AND LUNATIC ASYLUM ‘.”

Included in this letter was the proviso that “if the Government approved of  the inclusion of an Asylum in their projected scheme, then they respectfully  requested  an extra annual grant towards defraying the expense of medical attention for the Lunatic Asylum, plus a further grant of endowment land, plus a special grant for the site of the Institution which it is desirable that it should be separated from the other buildings and have a considerable open space round it as the immediate vicinity of a Lunatic Asylum might tend to materially depreciate the value of buildings in the neighbourhood . . . the most eligible situation for the Institution having been voted at the North End of the town.”

The proposal regarding the accommodation in the Hospital, excluding the Asylum for the time being, was to consist of two wards to contain ten beds each, and two wards to contain one bed each “for cases requiring quiet and seclusion.” Besides the usual administrative accommodation, there were to be “one wash house, two water closets, and one dead house “.

Requests for plans were called for. Those of a Mr. Penketh was considered the most suitable but required certain modifications. They provided accommodation “for nine male and eight female patients in the public wards, and two private wards of one bed each “, plus the necessary administrative quarters. The total cost of “buildings and furnishings” of the place was estimated at £2,000. Finally, among other things, they recommended “that the managment of the Institution be entrusted to a committee consisting partly of Municipal Commissioners and partly of such gentlemen of influence and high standing in our community as may feel disposed to assist in carrying out this benevolent and important object “.

After the acceptance of the Report by the Government, this Committee was disbanded and a new Committee entitled “The Provisional Committee of Management” was established with its members being Messrs. J. Anderson, J. Williams, Capt. J.M. Hill, W. Fleming, J. Simpson, H. S. von Ronn, A. Ebden, A. Wares, F. D. Deare, J. W. Kemp, and J. Perkins. The resolutions of this short-lived Provisional Committee were drafted in “An Act of Incorporation for Regulating the Provincial Hospital at Port Elizabeth “, passed by the Government on the 4th day of June 1856. The Act then mandated that a Board of Managers be appointed.

Battle of the sites

The first decision to be taken related to the all-important question of choosing the correct site for the proposed new Hospital. Even though the Governor, Sir George Grey, had in 1855 granted them sufficient land both to use as the site of the hospital as well as to sell in order to generate cash to fund the construction of the buildings, insufficient land was available for the buildings after the sales of plots had been finalised. Management incompetence was clearly evident in the allocation of plots for sale.

There were still plenty of open spaces in town and after due investigation, the Building Sub-Committee reported: “After  carefully  inspecting  the  separate  pieces  of   unappropriated lands such as the Parade Ground, Cooper’s Bridge above Kay’s house, Outspan Spring, Baaken’s River, etc., they are of opinion that the open space in the neighbourhood of the Outspan Spring, situate at the north entrance to the town, possesses all points considered, and more natural advantages for the purpose contemplated than any they have been able to discover elsewhere . . 

But the question of site was not to be so easily settled as all that, and from November 1855, until January 1857, there raged a fierce debate what may be termed “the battle of the sites“!  On many occasions. the question was “definitely settled”, yet on so many occasions reopened. Sites at the top and bottom of Cooper’s Kloof [later Albany Road], at South End near the River, on to the site of the present Drill Hall and even the one originally proposed between Bird and Pearson Streets, all found supporters; but finally, the site “situate upon the Hill near the Gunpowder Magazine” to the North End of the town was selected.  Land to the extent of just over one morgen was granted to them there by the Government, and later. a further fourteen morgen surrounding it which, when divided up into lots, sold so rapidly that the unwise Managers were reduced to the sole plot upon which the hospital was to be erected, leaving no place for expansion. They were reduced at a later date to re-purchase some of the plots at a loss. Yet again, the allocation of land was unwisely handled.

The original Provincial Hospital on Hospital Hill

Temporary hospital

The sale of the plots resulted in the hospital funds being cash flush. As a stop-gap measure, the Board of Managers decided to hire a building for use as a temporary hospital. To this end they called for tenders for the hire of a building containing not less than six rooms as well as a kitchen. The winning tender was a house in Rodney Street, “just off Main Street and opposite the sand hills.” For me it is unimaginable that “sand hills” would still be in existence so close to Market Square 35 years after the 1820 Settlers landed. This is indicative of how small the town was still at that stage.

The building which had previously been occupied by Mrs Bruton, was secured at a rental of £48 per annum. With slight alterations, it would later form part of the business premises of Messrs. A. E.  Marks & Co. Auctioneers. Most of the building was constructed from timber removed from the broken wrecks that were strewn over the beaches. At a later stage, many of the original houses in the village of Schoenmakerskop would be constructed of packing cases. Mr. and Mrs. J. O’Brien were appointed as Master and Matron. As part of the equipment, it was decided to purchase the cooking stove of the Sarah Lydia, a vessel that had gone ashore during a gale.

Construction commences

Prior to the selection of the site, a new Building Subcommittee was appointed, consisting of Messrs. Ebden, Murphy, Harsant, Wares, and Slater. Having decided on a plan prepared by Mr. Archibald, they accepted a tender of £3,425 for the erection of the building with Mr. Williams being the  contractor. Work began in February 1857 and was practically completed by July 1858.

Nursing home of the old Provincial Hospital

Final occupation delayed

In the words of Redgrave, “It seems ironical that the first inmates of the new Hospital should have been a batch of strong and healthy people, but such was the case. Just as the building was habitable, the ‘Indian Queen’ dropped anchor in the roadstead, having on board a number of homeless immigrants. At the request of the Government, the Managers allowed them to be housed in the buildings where they stayed until about October. Smallpox then broke out in the town in 1858 and spread panic among the citizens. The temporary Hospital in Rodney Street became overcrowded and from October 1858 to August 1859, some two hundred sufferers were treated by Dr. Dunsterville and Dr. Rubidge. Hence the Board were compelled to give notice of their intention to take possession of the new building at once.”

At long last, the pioneering tiny Hospital in Rodney Street could be vacated and was taken over by James Somers Kirkwood, who converted it into an Auction Market.

Additional wards required

The increasing demand on the services provided by the hospital reflected the steady growth in the population of Port Elizabeth. By 1860, the need for another ward resulted in the construction of the Victoria and Albert ward, which was opened in 1862. Another of the quaint Board Resolutions was passed in 1864 “that the notices to the visitors for the week, and the clergy, he sent per penny post”.

Having served the town faithfully from before the establishment of the hospital, Dr. Rubidge passed away in August 1869. As a mark of respect, one of the wards was named after him. The Hospital did benefit from his will as he bequeathed it certain property, which was sold, and the proceeds placed in the Endowment Fund.

Richmond Hill Hospital layout in 1905

During April 1871 two senior employees since 1863 resigned: chemist James Richardson, and his wife, Superintendent and Matron of the Provincial Hospital respectively. The Board appointed Dr George Askew Hull to be the first Resident House Surgeon and Dispenser and he was succeeded in August 1872 by Dr Robert Lamb.

ln 1873, a dining-room and extra rooms for the staff were added, together with a storeroom and sundry offices. Up till now, the Hospital had been quite open and only a light fence surrounded it, but in 1875 the entire grounds were enclosed with a solid brick wall. During this year, Dr. Dunsterville retired after nineteen years of faithful service, and two years later, he passed peacefully away highly esteemed, and deeply mourned by all who knew him.

The ward then used for female patients, was named ‘Dunsterville Ward’ in memoriam. His successor was Dr. F. Ensor. With the number of patients still increasing, in 1877 it was deemed necessary to add the ‘Chronic’ and the ‘Pearson’ Wards, the latter being named after Mr H. W Pearson who had taken a most  active  and  practical interest in the work of the Institution. 

Buildings at the Old Provincial Hospital

Up to 1878 the internal administration of the Hospital had been entrusted alternately to lay and medical superintendents who acted also as dispensers, but, by the appointment of Dr. Chute. the position of House Surgeon was inaugurated, and his status as regards the treatment of, and responsibility for cases was defined, together with that of the Visiting Surgeons.

Children’s Ward

The necessity of a ward specifically for children had long been ack-nowledged and fund-raising for this purpose had been in progress for a decade with concerts, bazaars and donations.  Mother Cecile of St Peter’s Mission in Grahamstown (The Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican Order) offered to provide nursing staff free of charge for three years if a children’s ward were built. The official opening of a children’s ward at the Provincial Hospital was performed by the Mayoress, Mrs. Pearson on the 17th January 1888. The Sisters managed the ward until 1898 when it was decided that the Hospital Board should control it. Sister Fanny, a trained nurse, was placed in charge. The Sisters also nursed in the main hospital until 1898.

Further accommodation was provided in 1882 by the erection of the ‘Rubidge Ward’, followed later by the ‘Salamon and Bramson Wards. The latter were the gift of Mr. Salamon and Mr. Bramson, two worthy citizens of the Bay, who also endowed them with a sum of £600 each. In accordance with the racial sensitivities of that era, this enabled the European and Black females to be separated, who had up till then, been accommodated in the same ward. From this are we able to infer that black males were similarly treated at this hospital?

Layout and cramped conditions

Redgrave described the final demise of this hospital as follows: “But the hospital ‘situate on the Hill near the Gunpowder Magazine’ could now no longer cope with the ever-increasing population, and it had been so added on to that there was no longer space for an addition of any sort. With the rapid advance of medical science, the buildings themselves were already antiquated. The buildings were all scattered, rendering efficient and hygienic service quite impossible. For instance, the food had to be taken through the open air from the kitchen to the wards, and patients had to be conveyed in the same way to and from the Operating Theatre, as there were no covered ways. The Operating Theatre, formerly the kitchen, was in a very dilapidated condition. The idea of another storey to be added on to the present building was put forward, and plans embodying the idea were prepared by Mr. ‘White-Cooper and sent to Cape Town in 1898 where they remained until 1901, when the Government suggested an entirely new hospital “to be erected on the same site “. The plans were drawn up and were shelved for months in Cape Town.”

View of the hospital from photo taken circa 1905 with Richmond Hill (street) in front, Dagbreek Single further up and Lutman Street to the left

New site requested

The Hospital Board then approached the Council for the grant of a new site. After much discussion, five morgen of ground were allotted just off the Cape Road, in Buckingham Road near the tram terminus. The site was considered ideal, and it also allowed for any future expansion.

The foundation stone of the new Provincial Hospital was laid on the 5th June 1912 by the first Administrator of the Cape, Sir Frederic de Waal. Designed in Cape Town, the much larger hospital was keenly awaited, and was finally opened on 4th June 1915.

Future use of the old hospital

The old hospital was disinfected and then taken over by the School Board. A Hebrew School was opened in part of the old hospital premises in 1918. This was later moved to the Old Foresters’ Hall on the western corner of Edward and Campbell Streets. In 1926 The Port Elizabeth Secondary School opened in the old hospital buildings, with L.V. Deary as Principal and going up to standard 8. It was the first school here to offer Afrikaans on the higher grade, thus catering for children from the Afrikaans-medium primary schools as well as for those from English-medium, schools. The section for infectious diseases (Isolation Ward) of the old hospital can still be seen to the west of the new buildings on the property.

Opening the new provincial hospital in 1915

After the hospital’s relocation

Origin of Nelson Square

Delving into the history of the original Provincial Hospital it can be discovered that in 1855 a committee set up for the purpose of establishing a hospital applied to the governor (Sir George Grey) for a grant of land. An area adjoining the Grey Institute lands was allocated to the municipality for this purpose. The exact limits of this area have not been ascertained but according to the account it included parts of the Bird Street,­ Western Road and the Pearson Street area. The land was never used for building a hospital and it was later sold off in lots between 1859 and 1888, after the rights had been transferred to the Board of Managers of the Hospital in 1857. A further grant of land was obtained on Richmond Hill and the hospital was subsequently erected there. A map of 1874 still shows the Nelson Square area as “hospital quit-rent land” but on a map of 1905 the square is shown as “Nelson Square”. It is not certain when it acquired this name, but it may possibly have been in 1905 as in that year the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in a large-scale festival

The new Provincial hospital in Buckingham Road, Mount Croix


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

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

Nelson Square by Khitab (December 1973, Looking Back, Vol X111, No 4)

Healer and Crack Shot by Pamela Folliott (June 1965, Weekend Post)


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  1. Hi Dean, Thank you for the wonderful bits and pieces of information in your column. I was wondering whether you can assist me with my area of interest? In a magazine devoted to the Gujerati Community of Port Elizabeth, dated December 1979, it was reported that firstly, an Indian cyclist rode all the way from East Africa to Port Elizabeth [this was sometime in 1934]; and, secondly, two Indian pilots landed in Port Elizabeth sometime in 1935 and ‘entertained’ members of the Indian community to flips in the air. The cyclist was named Mr. Jethalal Somaya and the two pilots were Mr. Man Mohan Singh and Mr. Pochkannavalla. What I really need to know is whether these events were recorded in the local newspapers? Your valued assistance in this regard will be appreciated. Kind Regards, Mr Krish Ranchod, Claremont, Cape Town. Mobile: 0846529450; Email: kranchod1@gmail.com


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