Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Athenaeum

The 1850s can be categorised as a defining period in the early history of Port Elizabeth. Now that the focus of the inhabitants was no longer survival whether eking out a living or building their homes, Port Elizabeth was in the throes of stirrings of civic pride, and the desire and need for cultural and sporting activities. Foremost amongst cultural activities, was the need for a society to promote science and literature. To this end, the Athenaeum Society was founded. 

Main picture: Athenaeum Institute shortly after its erection in 1896 

The original concept of an Athenaeum arose during Roman times under the emperor Hadrian. For this purpose, an Athenaeum was built to be frequented by poets and scholars. Later this concept represented any institution for the promotion of literary or  literary or scientific learning and often took the form of a library or reading room.

Members of the Camera Club in front of the Athenaeum in 1896

The Athenaeum was initially founded during April 1856 with its primary objective being to “promote the interests of science and literature” amongst its members and society. Where it met initially is unknown but good news awaited the Society. In 1859, a grant of land was made for the erection of a Town Hall conditional upon the building of a library and an Athenaeum as well.

Exactly thirty years later, in 1886, probably due to lack of interest, the Society was dissolved. The Council agreed to be take over its assets including the museum, which was then housed in the Town Hall. The Council relocated these items to the Wool Market with Alexander Marshall, a taxidermist, being appointed as its Curator.

The new wing of the Atheneaum, the Loubser Hall, opened on 17 Apr 1901

This disbanding was short lived for in 1894, the Society was revived. In the same year, G.W. Smith designed an attractive small building for the front of the Wool Market in order to house the museum. Fortunately, a grant from the government assisted in paying for this building.

In 1893 the Young Men’s Institute, the School of Art, the Naturalist Society and the Camera Club combined to re-assert the right of the Athenaeum to occupy a part of the City Hall.

The Town Council offered to bear most of the cost of the present building [at the corner of Castle Hill and Belmont Terrace] which was opened on the 26th July 1896.  A new wing of the Athenaeum, the Loubser Hall, was opened on 17th April 1901. It was named after Matthew Michael Loubser, for many years President of the Port Elizabeth Institute.  As such, the Athenaeum now comprises two buildings, the original built in 1896 and the Loubser Hall built in 1901.

From 1919, the Athenaeum became mainly a social club and changed its name. However, it has since again become a centre for cultural as well as social activities.

The Little Theatre

After the Second World War, the Port Elizabeth Musical and Dramatic Society rented and enlarged the Loubser Hall extension which is now the Little Theatre

The Little Theatre is now home to the Port Elizabeth Music and Drama Society [PEMADS] which occasionally stages small productions and modern musicals. The colourful Little Theatre includes a very modern, pop art foyer with its 250 multi-coloured seats (hence the nickname, “Smartie Theatre”) and its unique raked stage is a vibrant, but intimate space for just about any theatre performance. It is the gem of the building and is quickly becoming an icon for functional inner-city revitalization.

The Little Theatre

The Little Theatre is one of the most sought-after spaces for hire in the Athenaeum and is a stage for almost any conceivable creative industry pursuit: theatre productions, shows, live concerts, film screenings and now conferences, debates and book launches. This charming Little Theatre has been around since 1946 when PEMADS enlarged the Loubser Hall in the Athenaeum.

The building is one of the few examples of the classical style of architecture in the city and was designed by George William Smith. It was declared a national monument in 1980.

The McCleland household got to know the Little Company in the sixties. Not because we ever attended a performance, but because of our neighbours: The Stirks. They were involved in PEMADS. A sure sign that a new play was imminent, was Mr Stirk busily constructing sets out of hardboard. What role Mrs Stirk played in the production, I never found out.


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

Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)




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