Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Victorian School in Park Drive

Today the elegant Victorian mansion ‘Knockfierna’ in Park Drive now masquerades as a school. It ushered in the 20th century as the home of a wealthy wool merchant and farmer, John Daverin. Much more than that he was also a Member of Parliament and philanthropist. Now largely forgotten, his legacy endures in the form of the St Georges Preparatory School.

Detailed information on the house and the three occupants who resided there prior to its conversion into a school are covered in a separate blog. This blog is merely a copy of the school’s history from its website.

Main picture: St George’s Preparatory School in Park Drive

St George’s Preparatory School was founded in 1936 by Raymond Hutchinson to provide a private school education for boys aged 7-14 and prepare them for Public Schools in South Africa and overseas. The first enrolment numbered about 50 boys with approximately 25% being boarders. In 1987 the Prep became co-ed.

In 2000 the Pre-Preparatory school opened its doors, followed by the College in 2001.

Knockfierna (Hill of Fairies or Truth) was originally built in 1899 as a beautiful grand Victorian Mansion by John Daverin, from Ireland, who was a successful Wool Merchant. John and his wife, Clothilda, brought up their 7 children in the grand style befitting this era.

The Victorian era, with its wealth, opulence and distinctive architecture, left its mark on the city of Port Elizabeth in no uncertain terms.  It was the time of horse-trams and hansom cabs, elaborate carriages, silk hats, beards, curled moustaches, elegant dresses with choker collars and leg-of-mutton sleeves, feathered hats flowing veils and bonnets.  In keeping with the rich hinterland large brokerage firms had come into being that bought and sold the produce brought to Port Elizabeth from the surrounding farming areas.  A group of veritable “Merchant Princes” owned these firms and prospered beyond their wildest dreams.  One such Merchant Prince was John Daverin, owner of his own firm of brokers at a relatively early age, who was destined to become a business genius and a leading political figure in the Government of John X Merriman.  Early in his career, Daverin had built a magnificent dwelling on his farm, Springmount, in the District of Alexandria, taking great pride in the layout of both farm buildings and truly magnificent gardens.  He undertook extensive journeys and it was on one of his trips to Ireland that he met Clotilde D’Alton of Ballygriffen, who was destined to become his bride.

At that time, the elite residential area of Port Elizabeth was “The Hill”, situated on the flat piece of land above the town in the vicinity of the acreage that became the lush and beautiful St  George’s Park.  It was on a large tract of land adjacent to the Park that the gracious dwelling Knockfierna was built.  This was the dream house of John Daverin, built for his beloved wife and the family that they dreamed of raising in this place, as magical as its name. 

No expense was spared in the erection of this fine house.  On their journeys overseas, the Daverins had bought mirrors, ornaments, glass from Venice, bronze from Florence and Beleek china.  Only the best tiles, mahogany, handsome fireplaces and light fittings were used.  This was to be a fitting home for a wealthy family!  Charming romantic touches such as the gables on the roof, arched veranda and upper balcony and the velvety heart-shaped lawn must have caught Clotilde’s eye each time she returned from a trip with her daughters to take tea with some distinguished friends.  All the accoutrements of this fine lifestyle had to be housed in equal style, so extensions to the house in the form of quarters for the staff, stables and a hayloft were also built.

Knockfierna was truly a place of fairies, with merry voices, running feet, excited whispers and fluting laughter, all the ingredients of a true fairy-tale. What a wonderful place for children to spend their growing years!

Today Knockfierna has lost none of its charm, Enter the cool, tiled hallway on a hot summer’s day and the house welcomes you.  Gaze upwards at the impossibly beautiful mirror on the first landing and see the patterns cast by the stained-glass insets on either side.  Picture the owner in his study, (which is now the secretary’s office) and wonder at the murals in the panelled study of the present Headmaster.  On a wintry evening it is easy to imagine the family gathered round a cosy fireplace and perhaps a group of menfolk deeply involved in a game of billiards.  And early one morning… is that the sound of chanted prayers and singing?  There in the small chapel under the gable is the heart of this Catholic family’s life, where prayers for loved ones, songs of celebration on Saints’ Feast Days and the days of Advent were always heard.

Years have passed, and the Daverin family no longer grace the rooms of Knockfierna with their presence, except perhaps in quiet midnight visits.  Yet, the voices of children and music still echo around the building, now much changed with necessary additions made over the years.

Motorised traffic roars around the park, buses, taxis and ambulances rush by and the skyline of the city has changed drastically.  How did all these changes come about, and who are the present inhabitants of this still magical place, where the gardens promise shady walks and many surprises?

With the passage of time and the demise of first John Daverin and later his wife Clotilde, Knockfierna passed into other hands.  The second owner, Harry Harraway, a large force in the firm of Mosenthal’s, lived in the house until 1935 and then moved to Aloes across the park from Knockfierna.  It was then that, as in the days of the Daverin family, Knockfierna once again lent its ambience to the nurturing of the young.

Raymond Whitworth Hutchinson, originally of Yorkshire, had settled in Cape Town in 1913 where he and a partner had, very successfully, founded and run the Western Province Preparatory School for boys in Claremont.  “Hutch” moved on to the Eastern Cape, where he purchased Knockfierna in 1935 with the express purpose of founding another school, also for boys.  The school, named St George’s Preparatory School, came into being in 1936.

The house has undergone few changes over the years and many of the original features are still present. Our children enjoy their lunches in Daverin’s original billiard room where the blocks of marble that used to support the weight of the large mahogany billiard table, still exist.

Leaving the dining room you walk down the passage towards the headmaster’s study and looking up you will see a trapdoor where a tray was pulled up and down with the children’s meals prepared in the kitchen. They never ate with their parents.

Knockfierna circa1900

Our secretary has the pleasure of working from Daverin’s study where he devoted a lot of time to reading and studying the history of Ireland.

The headmaster, Mr A. Hall, has his office in the old dining room with its wood panelled and decorative mouldings as well as a beautiful tiled fireplace.

The tiles on the stoep and entrance hall were shipped from Bath in England while the large elaborate mirror was bought in Vienna to grace the teak staircase.

The large forage loft was built later and is today used as the Caretaker’s workshop.

The stables were situated just below the forage loft and today these have been converted into the Grade 1 and 2 classrooms. The rings on which to tether the horses are still to be seen on the wall.

Sources: http://www.stgeorges.co.za/history/

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