Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Venerable Chelsea Cottage

Most visitors to this tea garden / B&B / function venue do not appreciate that fact that portion of the buildings could represent the oldest building in the Port Elizabeth district. This is the untold story of its origin and its future owners.

Main picture: Chelsea Cottage painted by Waldon Arbouin Harries in 1855

Origin

The Chelsea Estate with its cottage located on what is now known as the Old Seaview Road, was surveyed in 1815 by Johann Knobel and granted for the use of the officers of the Royal Garrison Company formed in 1813 and stationed at Fort Frederick. Some claim that this land was granted to the military for use as a vegetable garden. I am skeptical of this justification as they were simultaneously granted land around Trinder Square for use as a vegetable garden. However what I can concur with is the suggestion that it was used as a hunting lodge as well as weekend retreat.  

Chelsea in 2022. Photo by Kin Bentley
Captain Francis Evatt

The only extant vignette about this estate during this era is provided by Sophie Pigot who was an 1820 Settler. She recounts that while the Settlers were awaiting ox wagons to ferry them to their new homes in the Albany district, Evatt arranged two-day trips to his country cottage at Chelsea. Their hostess was Mrs Evatt. Sophie Pigot reported that Mrs Evatt possessed “two pet bluebucks – a now extinct species of antelope – scarcely taller than a hare, with small horns, that leapt onto the sofa, and lay there, perfectly tame, and each had a coloured ribbon around its neck.”

Location of the Chelsea Cottage

Disposal

After the dissolution of the Royal Garrison Company, Evatt had sole use of it, but it remained Government property. In July 1821, the Estate was sold by auction to J.D. Ward. To recompense Evatt, Donkin raised Evatt’s salary and the proceeds were used for administration and development in Uitenhage and Bathurst. Ward would only own the property for 11 years due to the fact that the property was sold in the insolvent estate of TE (sic) Ward. in 1846, Chelsea again appeared as part of an insolvent estate, that of Gerhardus Lourens van Niekerk, when it was again put up for sale.

The current house, double-storeyed and octagonal, is still the original one built before 1820.

Subsequent developments

George Whitehead [Africana Library NMBML]

In 1903, D. Johnson is listed as farming the property but is presumably not the owner. According to Harradine’s Gazetteer dated 2014, the first record of George Whitehead owned the farm from 1921 but she notes that various other Whiteheads were involved with the property but possibly only as farmers. They were Mr IB, JB, WR and Ivan Whitehead.

From George’s biographical info-rmation, one ascertains that he was a talented entrepreneur involved in various business often in conjunction with his brother Tebbutt. One of their first business ventures was in 1891 when the Whitehead brothers, who were “provision” merchants, opened their new building at the corner of Russell Road and Main Street on the 8th August. Earlier this site had housed Rishworth’s livery stables, then Kolnick’s store and finally it was demolished to make way for the construction of the Russell Road interchange in the 1960s.

 

Above: Whitehead’s building on the corner of Russell Road and Main Street

In 1895 George Whitehead was involved in yet another construction project when Whitehead Chambers on the corner of Titterton Lane – long since defunct – and Main Street was built.

During 1910-1911, George Whitehead was appointed Mayor of Port Elizabeth. During August of that year the touring All Britain Rugby Team paid a visit to Port Elizabeth. The visitors were entertained and given a luncheon at the Humewood Hotel by the Mayor, George Whitehead, a grand ball in the Feather Market Hall on the 25th, and a highly successful picnic at Redhouse. The team played Eastern Province and South Africa at the Crusader Ground. At the latter game there were some 6000 spectators.

Above: Feathermarket Hall before the front section was added in Baakens Street

After a distinguished career as a prominent citizen in Port Elizabeth, George Stephen Whitehead passed away on 19th September 1945.

The era of the Johnsons

Hilary Johnson and Claude Hamilton Johnson

Extensions were made to the building. Claude and Hilary Johnson, together with their children, Peter Maxwell Johnson, Gail Butcher (nee Johnson), Val Hansen (nee Johnson) Claude Mzamo Johnson and William ‘Billy’ Johnson also lived there. Apparently the reason for the property being converted from a dairy farm to a tea garden was that on Claude’s death, Hilary found the delivery of milk Walmer exhausting. Her solution was to build an added-on hall which became the Chelsea Tea Garden where Hilary served her delicious scones and chocolate cake. They offered pony rides to the children and catered for weddings one of which was my sister’s 46 years ago.

Above: Claude Hamilton Johnson with the Chelsea staff on Christmas Day
Hilary Johnson

Chelsea Tea Garden is now known as the Estate Deo Volente and is visible from the Old Seaview Road. Bill Johnson still owns Chelsea Farm which borders Kragga Kamma Game Park and Hamilton’s next door to Deo Volente. The original hexagonal central house is structurally largely unchanged.

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