Port Elizabeth of Yore: Union Castle Corner

In the early days, the area was simply known as the Corner of Main and Jetty Streets, descriptive but unimaginative and boring. The name Union Castle Corner only arose once the Union Castle Steamship Company occupied these premises in 1901. From 1820 until it was demolished in 1978 to become a bus terminus, it had effectively only had two buildings on this site but with multiple tenants over the years and one major upgrade. With the harbour being the centre of the town’s focus, this area was prime real estate.

This blog covers the buildings and their major tenants which occupied this site over the years.

Main picture: The original multi-storey building before the extension of the building down Jetty Street

Two storey building [1820 – 1872]

While I cannot prove conclusively that there was a double storey building on this site by the end of 1820, it certainly was shortly afterwards that a structure was built on this site. Like many of the initial buildings, the quality of the workmanship probably left a lot to be desired as one visitor noted that everybody who had constructed a pig sty in England now claimed to be an expert artisan in Port Elizabeth.

In his book entitled Early 19th Century Architecture in South Africa, Lewcock describes this structure as follows:  Another prominent building dating from the earliest phase of Port Elizabeth’s development was one which stood on the corner of Market Square and Main Street. This house was quite similar in design to the Red Lion and the two may be taken to constitute a type, for this too seems to have had a double- storeyed central block flanked on at least one side by a low wing. On the other side a railed balcony was accessible from the first-floor rooms by French windows with shutters. The balcony may perhaps be a substitute after the original wing on that side was removed when a formal street line was fixed.

A curious anomaly of this house is that the earliest drawings of Port Elizabeth seem to adopt several roofing expressions. It is shown without gables but with a hipped roof and dormers in Hudson’s panorama and with straight-sided English gables in Slater’s sketch of c. 1830 and the earliest photographs.

 As we have no reason to distrust the basic accuracy of Hudson’s drawings, we must assume that, for some reason, possibly because the building was built by an immigrant from England or because a gable was felt to be unsound, the building was originally roofed with a hipped thatched roof broken by dormer windows. Two other houses in Hudson’s incomplete panorama are shown with dormer windows, so that this was apparently an early fashion in the town. Few of the dormers were left by the time that Piers made his sketches of the town in 1842., and not many show in early photographs. We may conclude that dormer windows especially those in thatch, performed no better at Port Elizabeth than they had at Cape Town, Simonstown and Wynberg (see page 79). By the time of Slaters’ drawing the house at the corner of the main street had been reroofed, this time with straight-sided English gables and an unbroken pitched roof. Before 1829 clay pantiles had become the most generally accepted roofing material in the town. Many buildings were reroofed with them, and this among them. This one building was thus roofed twice in less than 10 years. And lest one should think that this example was far-fetched, there are many others to testify to the highly charged rebuilding mania of the nascent years of the eastern frontier towns, when commerce boomed and towns doubled their population every year, while the capriciousness of the climate and the limitations of the building materials were often only inadequately appreciated.

London and South African Bank [1872-1877]

By the 1860s, Port Elizabeth witnessed the replacement of the predominantly double-storey buildings in Main Street, with a shop on the ground floor and the living quarters on the first floor, with more substantial buildings of greater architectural merit vide the original Standard Bank building designed by my 2nd great grandfather, George Dix-Peek. The construction of the London & South Africa Bank ushered in the golden years of architectural beauty in the ornate classical style.  This period was to span 30 years to be replaced with the Art Deco style combined with a striving for utility with the box-like buildings which detracted from the elegance of the earlier classical style buildings.  During this later period, a veritable ogre of destruction was witnessed with buildings such as the original twin blocks of the Standard Bank being replaced with lifeless edifices. The new SARS building in St. Mary’s Terrace epitomizes this trend.

During 1872, a new building designed by John Thornhill Cook, was constructed for the London and South Africa Bank on the corner of Market Square and Jetty Street. This bank had been established in I860 but was later absorbed into the Standard Bank in 1877, at which point the building was taken over by the Post Office.

Post Office [1878 to 1901]

Initially telephone wires were strung across roofs of buildings from a simple insulator structure on PO roof

As part of the rationalisation of the businesses, Standard Bank disposed of its corner property. The new occupant was to be the Post Office. Probably more by good luck than design, the Post Office had a property at the epicentre of the town. It was handily placed to provide the forthcoming technological marvel; the telephone. Four years after moving here, this new service was offered. To cater for this service, required telephone lines to be erected across town. This relocation was to be temporary as demand for this service exploded within 20 years larger offices were required. In 1901, the Post Office once again relocated, this time to new premises behind the Town Office in North Union Street.

The original building with the telephone insulator structure on the roof

Union Castle Lines [1901 to 1978]

Union Castle probably leapt at the opportunity to take occupancy of these offices. In an age before air travel, sea travel was sine qua non for international travel.

At some point, before 1910, the building was extended by an additional 3 bays along the Market Square (Jetty Street) Elevation, in the same style as the original.

Union Castel building after expansion by adding an additional 3 bays

The 1970s was the pinnacle of the era of expansion for Port Elizabeth. Swift progress was being forged on the freeway system along the waters of the Bay. The council also proposed a freeway along the Baakens River. While the freeway along the littoral would destroy the historical heart of the city, the provision of additional parking space in town by demolishing many historic buildings in Jetty Street and elsewhere would forever change the historical heart of Port Elizabeth. The Union Castle building was to be a victim of this unthinkable destruction to be replaced by a bus station.

Union Castle Corner in the 1930s

Sources

Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa – A Study of the Interaction of Two Cultures 1795-1837 by Ronald Lewcock (1963, A.A. Balkema)

http://www.artefacts.co.za/

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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