Port Elizabeth of Yore: Two Generations of Master Builders

Like many of the settlers to the Eastern Cape, the Allen family thrived. Maybe it is an indomitable adventurous spirit which would produce three generations whose contribution to the development of this area was inestimable. The endowments of the first two generations, both named John William, were as master builders whereas the subsequent generation forsook this business to enter the world of shipping. Then sadly, like many other South Africans, the subsequent generations are spread across the globe.  

This blog is the tale of two men, both confusingly named John William Allen as well as their Settler roots. The third Allen member will be covered in a separate blog.

Main picture: Standard Bank Building in 1882 after the second half – a mirror image of the first half – was built in 1879 by the Builders, Allen and Winter. It was demolished in 1962 

To distinguish the two master builder John Williams, I have used the sobriquet JW Senior to identify the eldest of the JWs and in the case of his son, I have used his nickname Bill.

Family tree

Settler roots

The first of the Allen clan to settle in South Africa was William Thomas Allen. Having been born at Saint Mary Magdalen (sic), Bermondsey, UK on the 7th April 1803, that would have meant that William was slightly older than 17 years old when he set foot in Algoa Bay. His name does not appear on any of the official Settler Lists, but his name does appear on the official 1820 website. By settling at Bathurst with the other settlers indicates that he must have been a replacement or unrecorded settler or in a later batch. On the 7th February 1832, William married the 19-year-old Eliza Timms [born on 2nd May 1813] at the St John the Evangelist Church in Bathhurst.

William Allen, a churchwarden in Bathurst per the Eastern Province Directory and Almanac for 1848

Nothing is known of the life of William except that he died in Bathhurst on the 3rd April 1858 which the Grahamstown Journal records as follows: “DIED on the 26th inst, Mr. William Thomas ALLEN of Bathurst. The deceased, who had nearly completed the 55th year of his age, arrived in this Colony with the British Settlers in 1820.

John William Allen Senior [ 1837 – 1909 ]


By training JW Allen Senior was a master carpenter and for many years he was a partner in the firm Allen and Winter, with Mr. Josephus Winter (photo) being the junior partner

By training JW Allen Senior was a master carpenter and for many years he was a partner in the firm Allen and Winter, with Mr. Josephus Winter being the junior partner. Amongst the landmarks underscoring their skill are the Lombard Chambers, Standard Bank in 1875, St Patrick’s Hall, Armstrong’s Buildings, the Convent including the original Marist Brothers School in Bird Street. As my great-great grandfather, on the distaff side of the family, was the architect, George Dix-Peek,  who  designed both the Standard Bank and the Lombard Chambers buildings, he must have been acquainted with JW Allen Senior and even perhaps shared a cup of coffee or even something stronger with them.

It is interesting to note that the firm Allen and Winter operated from Russell Road and that a number of other family members were employees. One wonders where in Russell Road they were located. As 1877 was still the pre-motorised transport era, the transportation of building material up the steep roads must have been problematic. There was a ready solution for the disposal of the rock excavated to construct the buildings between Main and Chapel Street. It was used to fill in the Baakens lagoon, then called Markham’s Cove.

George Dix-Peek

It is interesting to note that JW Allen Senior constructed the lion which surmounted the Lombard Chambers building, and also one of the artistic figures on the Standard Bank, to replace one which was broken in transit from England. The lion referred to above now stands in the front of late Herbert McWilliams’ cottage on the banks of the Swartkops River.

Shooting competition

JW Senior was a member of the Prince Alfred’s Guards, and during the 1860s was the best shot in town, winning nine silver trophies outright, amongst them being the Prince Alfred’s Cup, at fifty guineas, and two Government Cups, valued at twenty guineas each.

In the 1906 book entitled Prince Alfred’s Guard: Its History 1856 to 1906, Graham Hall recalls how JW Senior won the Governor’s Cup in 1864. “In  honour of Prince Alfred’s birthday in 1864, the rifles [of Prince Alfred’s Guards] assisted  at  the first meeting of the Eastern Province Rifle Association, and a big gathering of volunteers  contended in honourable emulation for the prizes which were to fall to the lot of the best marksman.

Lombard Chambers

The formation of a rifle association at this end of the colony was quite a new idea, but the volunteers of Port Elizabeth were determined to make it a success in order to enter into friendly rivalry with the Western Province Rifle Club, which had only been established a short  time previously in Cape Town. At the outset the efforts of the Eastern Province Association  were small, but it was satisfactory to note that the Society numbered 60 members, and that they had prizes to present to the value of  £70 thanks  to the  merchants of Port Elizabeth. At the first rifle tournament held in this Province prizes were presented by His Excellency, the Governor and Lady Wodehouse. Sergeant J.W. Allen, a noted shot in those days, won the Governor’s Cup with a total of 51 points out of a possible 75 at 200, 500 and 600 yards, and Private Haigh in another competition carried off the cup presented by Lady Wodehouse with 32 points. In praising the work of the volunteers, one of the local newspapers had the following reference to the Rifles “We have on more than one occasion said that the town would be nothing without our volunteers; and this assertion is as true now as it ever was.”

This competition was held on Saturday 6th August 1864. For his skill and marksmanship, John William senior won the Governor’s Cup and awarded 20 guineas and a certificate signed by the President and the Honorary Treasurer. The Cup is inscribed with the words “Government prize cup won by Sgt. J.W. Allen P.E. Volunteer Rifles on 6th August 1864”.

New challenges

The discovery of The Star of South Africa, an 83.5 carat rough diamond, by a Griqua herdsman in Hopetown, triggered the first diamond rush in South Africa. It could have been this discovery which was the magnet attracting the youth of Port Elizabeth to seek their fortune at the diamond fields. Alternatively, it could have been the discovery of alluvial diamonds at Klip Drift-now Barkly West-which pulled the trigger of the loaded pistol of the second gold rush.       

JW Senior joined the veritable stampede of prospectors on the dusty road to the Diamond Fields. JW Senior is reputed to have built the first pont across the Orange River on the Main road to Kimberley as well as building the first  boat on the Orange river.

Apart from an unsuccessful stint as a diamond prospector, at one time JW Senior tried his hand as a member of the Town Council for which he was apparently responsible for many improvements during his tenure.

During the final years of his life, JW Senior resided at Caithness Villa, Burgess Street, Richmond Hill. He was married twice and sired nine children. On Tuesday 2nd February 1909, JW Senior passed away at the age of 72 years. He was buried at the South End Cemetery.

Obituary per the local newspaper

Headstone of J.W. Allen Senior

A newspaper report at the time of his death included the following details: Born in Port Elizabeth, died aged 72. A member of the Prince Alfred Guards Regiment. At age 26 onwards, he was the best shot ,winning 9 silver trophies outright, the Prince Alfred’s Cup and two Government Cups. The largest, now valued at several thousand Rands, is inscribed “Government prize cup won by Sgt. J.W. Allen P.E. Volunteer Rifles on 6th August 1864”.  He went to the  Diamond Fields as a prospector and built the first pont across the Orange River to Kimberley and the first boat. He was a Master Carpenter and a partner in the firm Allen and Winter which built several landmarks in Port Elizabeth such as  the Lombard Chambers, the Standard Bank in Main Street in 1875, St. Patrick’s Hall, Armstrong’s Building and the Convent on the Hill. He was a member of the Town Council  of Port Elizabeth responsible for many improvements. He was married twice and had 9 children by his first wife.

John William “Bill” Allen [1873 -1956 ]

John Williams “Bill” Allen was born on 9th June 1873 in Port Elizabeth whereas his wife was born at “Goedgenoegt” in the Uitenhage district. At one stage the family moved to Addo about 32 miles from P.E.

Like his father, Bill was a master carpenter and builder by trade. Once he built a large convalescent house in Addo for a Doctor Rogers who came from Johannesburg. He had a farm there on which he resided,  and he also had three brothers farming close by.  

Bill Allen during the Boer War

Bill was one of 9 children – four boys and five girls. The brothers were Joseph, George and Alfred. He was a master carpenter and  a leading hand on South African Railways, a store man at John Wynne & Co, wine merchants and a grocer, who owned his own shop near the top of Russell Road (opposite the Technical College.) Joseph’s eldest son was LEONARD who served in the Motor Transport Section with his uncle Gordon Allen in the Western Desert (His son Bruce was a Spitfire pilot in S.A. Airforce towards the latter part of World War Two ). Leonard was later the head of the S.A.R. & H. travel office. Bruce joined the Railway Accounts office.

Bill Allen was a member of the Elephant Quoit Club and participated in the Eastern Province Club Championship in 1904.

Quoit Club medals

Bill served with  distinction in the Boer War from December 1899 to November 1901 as part of Nesbitt’s Horse Regiment. For his contribution, he was awarded the Kimberley Siege Medal. He did not serve in WW1. Bill died on the 11th July 1956.

Bill’s nephew, Percival (Percy) Joseph Allen was killed in action at Delville Wood in First World War on 19/7/1916. Age 23 years. 1st South African Infantry, B Company. Lance Corporal. Battle action before his death:

15th July: Battalion occupied the South-East of Longueval. Attack of Delville Wood.

16th July: Attack of the northern part of Longueval and North-West corner of Delville Wood.

17th July: In line in front of the North-West corner of Delville Wood.

18th-20th July: In action against German attacks in Delville Wood.

Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France (Pier and face 4C). Percy’s father was Joseph William Allen.

JW “Bill” Allen
Photo of Bill Allen and his Boer War medals

The Rowes and the Allens

Like the Allen family, the Rowe family from Fressingfield, Suffolk, were also 1820 settlers, arriving aboard the ship, La Belle Alliance. Both families settled on the Eastern Frontier, the Allens in Bathurst and the Rowes in the vicinity of Addo Drift. Here Samuel and Sarah built a farmhouse with walls three feet thick. This thickness could only have served as a security measure and was not built for decorative purposes.

By training, Samuel  Rowe was a baker. It was probably this predisposition or inclination that  propelled him to abandon farming and the allocated Settler farm and to enter the hospitality industry. Situated at one of the drifts across the Sundays River was an Inn known by various names over the years, but the most well-known of the numerous designations was as the Addo Drift Inn. Due to the paucity of extant records, details of the landlords, the names of the proprietors and the dates when changes were made, many assumptions have to be made. Confounding the issue is that there was more than one Inn at the Drift.

The first reference to the Rowes being involved in the innkeeping business was in the 1820s when Samuel Rowe was the innkeeper at the Rautenbach Drift on the Bushman’s River during the 1820s and up to 1832. From what can be ascertained, this must have been Samuel Rowe’s entree into the hospitality business. This was to change in 1837 when Joseph Hubbard sold the Drift Inn to Samuel Webber. The actual innkeeper is recorded as being Samuel Rowe, although  there is no record of his ever having owned this inn. Interestingly, Arrowsmith’s map of 1838 identifies two inns as being operational viz Webber’s Inn and Rowe’s Inn i.e. the old Drift Inn. During this era, many hotels and bars were known by the name of the proprietor and not by their formal registered name.

The inner courtyard of the Drift Inn in 1920

Amongst the various families on the eastern frontier, friendships and intermarriage would cement the bond between the families and in the case of the Rowes and the Allens, it certainly did. More on this later.

The frontier was a dangerous place. In effect the settlers formed the bulwark against the Xhosa warriors. Mr. Charles Rowe’s father, Henry, was wounded during the attack in the 1834-35 Frontier War and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. More serious from a business point of view was the fact that the Drift Inn was burnt down during the War and had to be rebuilt

Many  of the younger generations of Rowes seem to have left the Sunday’s River Valley. Samuel’s son settled in Port Elizabeth and Mr Charles Rowe became connected with the ostrich feathers during the boom. He could recall the excitement when the first coaches came through Addo Drift. The horns could be heard blowing a long way away and everyone came running to collect the mail.

By all accounts it was a most unusual event in 1842 which drove Samuel Rowe to abandon the Drift Inn. Apparently they were inundated by a plague of “thousand leg” insects. [He must have been referring to millipedes]. All their attempts to destroy them using boiling water were futile. They made no difference. So, in sheer disgust and despair, Samuel Rowe eventually sold out.

While Samuel Rowe was landlord, the Drift Inn changed hands on more than one occasion according to the title deeds, Thomas Wait was compelled by order of the Master of the Supreme Court to sell the inn to William Staines,  who advertised it for sale in turn in the Grahamstown Journal of 1847 as follows: “Elephant and Castle Inn, Addo Drift, for sale”. This is the first time that the Drift Inn is thus named.  The following possible explanation of how it got this name was provided by Mr. Charles Rowe.

It was not unusual to see elephants drinking on the far side of the Drift. On one occasion an elephant had slithered down an embankment and got stuck in the mud. Having an injured trunk, he was unable to lever himself up again, so in exasperation all that he could do was to cross to the other side where he stood on the bank. At that moment Samuel Rowe, the innkeeper, returning from some farm festivity, which probably included good English ale, came face to face with the large and angry beast.   

Samuel ran to warn the others. Armed with guns and lead bullets, they sallied forth for some good sport. The elephant remained indifferent to the rain of bullets and only objected to the yapping of Samuel’s dog, Sixpence. Some steel bullets were then made, but by then the elephant had disappeared into  the bush. Samuel started for home once more through the bush. Looking back, he suddenly saw the elephant within a few feet of him. He fled across the bush and never stopped running until he reached the inn, with the elephant at his heels.  On the other hand, of course,  the Rowes came from England where the name “Elephant and Castle” was a very common one for a public house and could just as readily have been the origin of the inn’s name.

When William Staines completed the sale of the “Elephant and Castle” to Edward Tunbridge in 1848, the story of the Inn becomes the story of the Tunbridge family and their wagon business from 1848 until 1905.

One of the future well-known members of the Rowe clan was Jack Rowe. Jack was a horse trainer who had a winner in the Durban Cup, as it was then known.

Jack Rowe, the horse trainer
Samuel Rowe

To celebrate the friendship between the two families and to celebrate Jack’s achievements, a family reunion of the Allens and the Rowes was held in 1932.

Meeting of the Allen and the Rowe clans in 1932
Identification of the attendees at the family get-together


Prince Alfred’s Guards: Its History 1856 to 1906 by Richard T. Hall  (1906, Port Elizabeth, Printer not listed) Quote from page 40 to page 41

David Allen provided 99% of the information and pictures


The Old Coach Inn Complete with Ghosts by Pamela FFolliot (Evening Post, 30th August 1958)

Former crack shot dies at home by Ivor Markman (6th February 2009, Eastern Province Herald)

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