Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Volunteer Military Units – The Initial Iterations

The initial impetus to establish some form of volunteer military force in Port Elizabeth arose due to the perpetual threat posed by the warring Xhosa tribes.

To augment the British forces stationed in the Cape, especially in times of crisis, the British established volunteer military units throughout the Cape Colony. In the beginning they were typically of short duration to meet a specific threat posed to the colonists but later these temporary units would be replaced with units of a more permanent nature.

This blog will cover all such volunteer forces and units until the first disbandment of Prince Alfred Guards in 1860.

Main picture: February 1835 – Arrival of Harries’ Troop from Palos Kraal with WM Harries in the centre

The Port Elizabeth Yeomanry

The first such mission specific temporary military unit to be established was the Port Elizabeth Yeomanry during the Sixth Frontier War. It would be the forerunner of the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps. With the imminent threat to the town becoming ever graver during January 1835, the Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban instructed Major Charles Collier Michell, the Surveyor-General and Civil Engineer of the Cape, to proceed post haste to Port Elizabeth in order to prepare defences against a possible Xhosa attack. Like all settler towns they were totally Ill-prepared to mount a defence against marauding tribesmen. Port Elizabeth might have Fort Frederick but, not to put too fine a point on it, it was probably less than useless to repulse an attack from the landward side. Even as a naval fort, it would be futile to protect the town as the short range of its guns would preclude any intervention against a landing on the beaches at North End.

St. Mary’s Church had to be fortified during the Sixth Frontier War

With the assistance of Capt. Evatt, commandant of the Fort, and J.O. Smith, a Town Guard was formed, and St Mary’s was fortified as a garrison. With a keen appreciation of the impossibility of protecting all the houses and farms in the magistery, at best they could protect the inner town area. In light of this, Michell envisaged solution was to create a semi-circle of canons around the Fort Frederick on its western side. This comprised an outer wagon line for defence and an inner one to allow women and children to reach ships in the Bay.

At that time, Port Elizabeth did not possess more than 100 houses. Even so, in effect this outer defence line meant that all dwellings further west than Donkin Street would not be afforded any protection. It was envisaged that upon the arrival of the Xhosa vanguard, that those residents would have to abandon their homesteads and retreat behind the inner defence line from which they would be evacuated by sea. Whether the residents were bluntly informed that immediate abandonment of their property under this circumstance was the S.O.P. or whether it was an unstated assumption, cannot be determined. In any event, the residents were probably not given an option. To maintain strict control of the situation and probably also with disaffected civilians aggrieved that no protection could be afforded to their properties, Martial Law was implemented. It remained in force from 3rd January 1835 to 9th July 1836.

William Matthew Harries-Painted by James Michell in Feb 1835

Amongst the other measures taken by Michell was to establish the Port Elizabeth Yeomanry under Captain Harries to provide military service for the duration of the war. Sir James Edward Alexander, army officer and explorer, then a Captain, served as Aide-de-Camp to D’Urban during the war and describes the Port Elizabeth defences in his account of the campaign.

According to Neil Orpen, the plan of action as devised by Michell was as follows: “All males were enrolled as one Corps and divided into eight sections, each with a Captain in charge. The Baakens River was regarded as the main natural obstacle. One gun was placed on the elevated plateau at Scorey’s Hotel and the 8th Section had their stand near the Toll at North End with wagons used as a barricade. The other sections were given strategic points to guard and thus volunteers were extended along the whole front of the town. Upon a given alarm, all guns would be immediately manned. The second fortification, should the Baakens be crossed by the marauders, was located near the Market Square to protect the beach and point of embarkation where the women and children would be assembled.”    

Harries and his company of Yeomanry were involved in fighting in the frontier regions but as the raiding Xhosa never advanced as far south as Port Elizabeth, the defences of the town were never activated and put to the test.

Port Elizabeth Mounted Burghers

During July 1852, a company of 36 men under Commandant Reed, to be called The Port Elizabeth Mounted Burghers, was formed after a call by Governor Sir George Cathcart. Shortly thereafter they left to participate in the Eighth Frontier War. Another party of volunteers joined Hartman’s Horse.

The Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps

The idea of organising the families on the Border into mutually supporting units to defend their own properties and lives was germinated in the fertile imagination of Thomas Bowker of Queenstown. This was a feature of what would be termed The Cathcart System, named after the Governor, Sir George Cathcart but distilled and perfected by the Bowker brothers over many wars. It was Cathcart’s successor in the Cape, Sir George Grey who would instigate for the establishment of volunteer regiments. As the demands of the war in the Crimea had resulted in the withdrawal of British soldiers for service there, this sorely depleted the troop levels in the border regions. In response to Sir George Grey’s request for volunteer regiments to be established, the Cape Town Rifles were formed in 1855, and Port Elizabeth followed suit on the 19th September 1856, founding The Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps in September 1856. Capt. Hill was commissioned with the rank of Colonel, though the unit had only 50 men initially. By acclamation they selected dark green as their uniforms colour.

In terms of the Cathcart System, the men of these voluntary units were required to assemble with their arms for church parade every Sunday and were obliged to attend drill 12 days a year without pay. It was on Friday 22nd August 1856, in response to Grey’s request to establish such a unit, that a meeting was held in the Commercial Exchange Building in Market Square in order to consider founding one in the town. At that time the town could claim a population of 3,000 white residents.

Like all volunteer units of this era, all officers were elected by the unit’s members. The mandated structure was one Colonel, a Captain, a Lieutenant and an Adjutant which were duly elected. Early officers were William Smith, Alfred Ogilvie, Bernard Lee, A.C. Wylde and William Fleming jr. Operating on the basis of a sports club, all members paid an entrance fee and an annual subscription. In the case of the PE Volunteer Rifle Corps, these amounted to five shillings and half-a-crown respectively whilst volunteers were also expected to pay for their uniform and equipment and a sum – not exceeding £5 – for the rifle which was an Enfield smoothbore flintlock “Brown Bess”. These antiquated weapons would “soldier” onfor several years until such time as they were replaced by breech loaded rifles.

At that same meeting the uniform was decided upon would be modelled upon that of the 60th Rifles with its dark Lincoln green cloth which in turn was an imitation of the Austrian Jaegers. Whether this colour was selected for a more mundane reason being its camouflage property as opposed to the conspicuous bright scarlet of the British soldiers, will never be ascertained. But it is not improbable that it was by design. Like basic training world-wide, it was strenuous and demanding. The fresh young recruits in 1856 had the forbearance to ignore the derision and being the butt of ridicule when they initially marched through the town. Notwithstanding this derision, the force swiftly grew to 150 within months.

By 1858, the Port Elizabeth Rifle Corps was parading in Market Square each month. There they were issued with five rounds of ball cartridges per man before marching off to the Fishery Butts at South End for target practice. At holiday time they extended their training session by camping in the vicinity. Their progress must have reassured the Governor as he released regular soldiers in 1858 for service in India after the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

Ad hoc renaming

Further expansion of the volunteer forces was occasioned on the 17th November 1859 when a Volunteer Artillery Corps was also formed in Port Elizabeth. This unit proved to be popular. By the time of Prince Alfred’s arrival on the 6th August 1860, his 16th birthday”, the volunteer gunners fired a Royal Salute with four guns and the Port Elizabeth Rifle Corps Band provided the music whilst the guard of honour was composed of the 10th Regiment, Cape Mounted Rifles and the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifles. As his arrival coincided with the construction of the breakwater in South End, a platform was constructed to allow the Prince and his party to clamber onto it instead of having to wade into shore. The stair up to the deck would forever be known as “The Prince’s Stairs.”

Prince Alfred

 Sir George Grey had by this time returned to Cape Town. At his express wish a guard of honour drawn from the ranks of the Port Elizabeth Rifle Corps was formed to accompany the Prince at all times while in Port Elizabeth. With his consent, they took the name “Prince Alfred’s Guard.” During the Prince’s stay, he was hosted by William Fleming and stayed in his plush home in Bird Street. According to Orpen, “’Prince Alfred’s Guard’ was a title of which the Prince himself approved…..commemorating an historic link with a Royal individual which is quite distinct from that associated with the granting of “royal” titles to any other units in South Africa.” During 1863 Captain Wylde decided to petition Sir Philip Wodehouse, who had been appointed Governor in January 1862, for the grant of some land for a Drill Hall and unit headquarters.   

When a German company, consisting mainly of ex-servicemen, was formed in January 1864 under Captain T.M. du Toit, it had a complement of about 70 men. At their own expense they hired a building at North End as their headquarters where they established a reading room, a benefit society, a choral society and a drum, fife and bugle band. An attendant was specially employed to look after the reading room from 7am to 9pm. Racks in the cupboards within the same room served as a rifle store.

By this time, Prince Alfred’s Guard, as it was now unofficially known, boasted a total strength of 135. On the morning of Sunday 14th February 1864, they paraded with the Volunteer Artillery to welcome the Governor. After an inspection of the troops, the gunners fired a salute.

In response to restlessness by the Xhosa people, during July 1864, a test alarm was activated to gauge the preparedness of the PE Volunteer Rifle Corps, as it was still officially known, to report for duty. Surprisingly all members reported within half-an-hour. This demonstrated the members continued keenness and commitment. A significant event in the unit’s existence was the granting to the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps on the 27th October 1864 of a piece of land on the Hill bounded by Prospect Hill, Daly and Castle Hill. This site was designated as a site “for a Drill House and Gymnasium for the use of the aforesaid Volunteers, and for no other use or purpose whatsoever” and was to be held in trust by the Port Elizabeth Town Council.

Dissatisfaction within the Corps became rife. As a direct consequence membership declined and within the Club-like atmosphere of such units, grievances were volubly aired. One such perceived “insult” was a lack of arms and they felt that a more liberal provision should be made. The meeting even deteriorated into threats that the officers would relinquish their commissions in disgust. Eventually it was decided to reform as only two companies. As if by way of encouragement, 100 new rifles were issued at the meeting to replace the old Enfield flintlocks.

During 1867, Wodehouse, the Cape Governor, announced that the Imperial Government would be applying the Newcastle-Cardwell scheme to the Cape. In terms of this Scheme, all imperial regiments “would be concentrated in Great Britain and the Colonies would have to pay for the troops they needed to fight battles started by their own local governments. The withdrawal of the troops from the Cape was due to begin in 1868.” Wodehouse took up the cudgels on behalf of the Cape by stating that the threat from the border tribes put the Cape in a different position compared to that of other colonies. His representations had the desired effect as the Imperial Government concurred with Wodehouse and so discarded the proposal, at least in the interim.

The drought in 1867 precipitated a reduction in wool exports which reduced economic activity culminating in a depression. This portended trouble. The town faced another dose of reality when many of its most productive residents were lured to the El Dorado of the diamond fields at Kimberley. Unemployment, business closures would be adequate descriptors of the situation in Port Elizabeth. Needless to say, the PE Volunteer Rifles was also negatively impacted. Towards the end of 1868, the Commander of the Forces at the Cape, Lieut.-General Charles Hay visited Port Elizabeth and was received by a guard of honour drawn from the regiment. With potential recruits being lured with the prospect of making a fortune in the diamond mines, the Corps was unable to hold a battalion parade for months on end.

After an absence of ten years, Captain Wylde returned, commencing strenuous efforts to revive the Corps. To Wylde, the motivation to resuscitate was probably personal as he had done so much to establish and maintain the Corps before his departure. Wylde’s return was like an elixir. At a meeting on the 26th May 1874 in the Court House, then based at the Commercial Exchange due its previous offices being destroyed by fire, more that 100 names had been submitted for membership of the Port Elizbeth Volunteer Rifles, a far cry from recent responses. The first parade of the revived Corps was held on 10th June 1874 under Drill Instructor Towler. With Captain Wylde once more in the position as Commanding Officer, at the end of that month four strong companies had been raised and more than 160 men had been enrolled. Within another month, the Corps could muster 121 rank and file on parade plus 20 in the band.

Formal change of name   

On Saturday morning 11 July 1874, the Corps was drawn up on parade to be inspected by Lieut.-General Sir Arthur Cunynghame. At this historic occasion, Cunynghame conferred the distinguished title of Prince Alfred’s Guards to the regiment. Not to be outdone, at the end of the same month the Scots of the town held a meeting at the Phoenix Hotel and formed a new Corps with William Somers Kirkwood as Commanding Officer. At their very first drill parade 52 men were present. In due course, reality dawned, and the Scottish Corps was soon absorbed by PAG as No. 5 Company. A Notice in the Government Gazette announcing the formation of Prince Alfred’s Guard listed Alfred Carrington Wylde as Captain-Commandant with the local rank of Colonel.

After several years of comity, courtesy and considerate behaviour, trouble brewed first under the surface and then openly. Acrimony mounted with a schism being imminent. The discontent in the ranks came to a head due to bitterness between Colonel Wylde and several of the junior officers. At a general meeting held at the Court House on Friday 24th November 1876, the Colonel rose to explain the reasons for his unhappiness.

Having succinctly detailed the reasons, he then abruptly announced, “Gentlemen, Prince Alfred’s Guard is disbanded.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


Prince Alfred’s Guard 1856-1966 by Neil Orpen (1967, Cape and Transvaal Printers, Cape Town)

Prince Alfred’s Guard: Its History 1856-1906 by Richard T. Hall (1906, Port Elizabeth)

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